Beaten By A Mountain (Kind of)
Stok Kangri is a six-thousander located south of the town of Leh, in the Indian state of Ladakh. It is officially considered a trekking mountain, but that definition depends on the amount of accumulated snow and resulting rock climbing. I determined to summit Stok because it would give me my first six-thousander and because there appeared to be no permit restrictions (even though various trekking sources indicated otherwise).
I started my inquiries at the Trance Terra outfitter. They put together summit groups of 2-4 persons for a fee ranging $40-$45 a day (four day trips). The fee included guide, donkeys, cook, food, tent, and gear (gloves, down jacket, boots, crampons, ice axe, etc). This is a remarkably reasonable price for a climbing package, especially when compared to Nepal. Unfortunately no groups were forming due to the late date (the season effectively ends September 1), plus I was informed that it was snowing in the mountains. I resolved to wait up to three days for a group to form or I would simply rent the equipment and attempt to summit solo.
As the days passed and the snows continued to fall it became apparent that a group wouldn’t form so committed to do it solo. I rented the gear I needed, purchased four sandwiches and eight hard-boiled eggs to go at my favorite restaurant, stocked up on chocolate bars, and orange flavored Tang for good measure. On Tuesday, September 11 (day 1) I caught the local bus to Stok village at 8:30am. Stok village is the same trailhead for both the Stok Kangri and Markha Valley trails. It was an overcast morning and I could see that it was still snowing in the mountains as I boarded the bus.
By 9:30 I was at the trailhead teahouse (across from the washed out bridge). It was noticeably colder here so I stepped inside for a warm chi to warm my insides before starting what I knew would be a long wet day. My goal was to reach base camp 1 before day’s end. I pushed off resolutely after chi and made it to the circus tent tea stall trail split around noon just as it started to rain. Here the side trail crosses the slow running stream to the east, winds up a hill to a small pass and then heads southeast following the river valley to the base of Stok Kangri. The alternate route takes you up to the Stok La Pass and into the Markha Valley. I stepped into the tent for chi and to put on my windbreaker.
Cold and damp, but in high spirits, I stepped out into the drizzle to start the next leg. By 2:30pm I reached another circus tent tea stall. Once again I stepped in for a chi and to dry out a little. The old proprietor suggested (via hand signs) that I setup my tent in his camp area rather than go on since the rain was turning into sleet and snow. I politely declined and set out once again.
Very quickly I began to doubt the wisdom of my choice as the rain turned to heavy sleet, and then to wet snow. Soon all signs of a trail disappeared, and my running shoes grew wetter and heavier. In spite of the snow I was not cold because my constant upstream direction caused moderate but steady exertion, which kept me warm. Stopping at this point was out of the question due to my wet feet and, one way or another I was going to have to set up my tent in the snow. So it might as well be at base camp. As the shadows lengthened I began to grow tired and concerned. It was getting dark quickly in the narrow valley and the snow was getting deeper. Finally around 5:30pm I rounded a bend and spotted a group of tents and a string of donkeys in an open snowfield.
I trudged about the camp, as it grew darker, in search of a suitable spot for my summer tent. I cleared as much snow from the selected spot, but still had to setup the tent on snow, rather than dry ground. I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable night because of the cold, my wet state, and the extremely thin sponge mattress I had brought. As soon as the tent was up I tossed my gear inside, peeled off the wet clothes, running shoes, and my damp socks. I put on all the dry clothes that I had available, crawled into my sleeping bag, fully dressed, and stayed there until I stopped shivering.
Eventually I got up and ate my “day 1” sandwich and then turned in for the night too tired to get the tent squared. Even though I was tired, I was still hoping it would stop snowing and the skies would clear by early morning so that I could attempt to summit the following day.
At 3:20am I awoke to the call of nature (an extremely demanding issue when it is really cold outside of one’s sleeping bag). Eventually I coaxed myself outside to do my business and then noticed that the sky was clear. It was also pitch black since there was no moon that night. The following night the new moon would start to grow, but on that bitterly cold night it was as dark as a coalmine. I quickly crawled back into my sleeping bag to consider my options. After shivering for a while I decided to get up and prepare to set out at 4am.
By 4am I was reluctantly ready. I stuck my head out and noticed very little activity in the camp. Regardless, I put on my plastic climbing boots (my running shoes were frozen solid), collected some snacks and my frozen 500ml bottle of Pepsi. I walked through camp with difficulty due to the cold, the deep snow, and the weight of the climbing boots. I notice activity in one of the cook tents so stuck my head in and asked if anyone was going to attempt to summit. The cook told me (in broken English) that they would be setting out after breakfast. I continued through the camp until I found a crazy but enthusiastic German that had introduced himself to me the previous evening while I was setting up my tent. He was just getting ready to leave and said he had a fair idea of the route, but that the depth of the snow would make it challenging. I asked if I could follow along in his tracks. He agreed happily.
We set out (day 2) by 4:15 in the wrong direction (up the sheer west valley wall, but too far along). Eventually we spotted the outline of a trail and corrected our track. Very quickly I fell behind. I found his pace much to quick and my stamina very low. It is difficult to explain the feeling of complete exhaustion that overwhelms the trekker at altitude. It is like trying to explain sea-sickens. No matter how articulate you are it is still impossible to fully explain the feelings of altitude exhaustion to a novice. Very quickly my German friend left me behind. In time I saw the steady stream of two sets of headlamps moving up the slope in snake fashion. These were the other two small groups in the camp (two guides and three clients in each group). By the time I reached the small pass at the top of the rise both groups had already caught up and passed me. One of the issues I was facing was a complete lack of knowledge of my terrain. I had arrived late in the day in a snowstorm, so had no idea of how high the rises were. It is intimidating to simply trudge along, by the light of your headlamp, following upwards in the footsteps of others.
Once I reached the small pass at the ridgeline I turned to the south for a long winding and steady ascent along the east valley wall. By 8am and after many rest stops I finally made the prayer flags that mark Advance Base Camp. It had taken me four hours to cover what should have taken two. Things were not looking promising, but at least the sky had grown light, even though I was still in the shade of the valley wall. I could now clearly see the glacier and the snow bowl up ahead. Unfortunately, the clear air made distances deceptive. I continued to trudge through the ever-deepening snow to the large crevasse where the trail then turned west across the glacier and to the foot of the mountain’s east face.
I was still very cold, even though I was moving and generating lots of body heat. I jumped across a few fishers to the sound of running water below the ice and then at 10am I finally emerged into sunshine. The thin air at that altitude and the reflective qualities of the snow made me begin sweating almost immediately. The snow was now so deep that any sign of the trekking zigzag trail was obliterated. As a result the first climber (the enthusiastic German) had kicked a trail pretty much directly up the snow bowl of the east face. I followed in the steps as best as I could but by the time I made it to the first level area I was panting and steaming. I sat on a rock and stripped off my layers of outer clothing and laid them there for later collection. Now the going was even harder, steeper and the day hotter. I had started to drink from my half liter of Pepsi and was very aware that it was insufficient. The going got so hard at this stage that I had to adopt a four-count step. This consists of taking a single step and then four deep breaths. Then another step and four more breathes. This slow approach acts as a trance to distract the mind from the numbing and exhausting work, but I still had to stop and pant like a dog at short intervals. I tried not to look up or back because it was so disheartening to see how little progress I was making. Yet every now and then I had to look and each time it pained me to see how much more there was to go and how little had been covered.
At 12:30pm I finished the snow bowl ascent and started on the rock and scree slope that lead to the ridgeline. By this time I had drank most of my Pepsi and had started to put snow in the bottle and then tucked it in my shirt so that my body heat would melt the snow within. It was a slow way to gain a mouthful of water every 15-30 minutes. Each step was an effort and I kept telling myself that the ridgeline would be easy so all I had to do was make it that far and then I could cool down and my constant thirst would diminish. However, half way through the slippery scree area I met one of the groups descending. I didn’t ask them how much further I had to go because I was afraid the answer would be too discouraging. Even so, one of them volunteered to say that I had just finished the easy part of the climb in comparison to what I faced when I reached the ridgeline. That statement was enormously disheartening and affected me like a kick in the gut. I tried to dismiss it, but within a short time I was buckled over panting and realized that I simply couldn’t go on without more to drink and more reserves of energy. So at 1pm, nine hours after starting and still 400m below the summit, I gave up. The mountain had beaten me. I simply sat on a rock too tired to even turn around and look directly at my nemesis. I drank down the last of my snow water and then started the sliding, tumbling, falling, slipping, and labored descent.
When I reached the glacier I stopped, dizzy from dehydration, at the first fisher and dug violently with the ice axe until I had a small hole that exposed cold, clear running water. I sat at that spot for a long time refilling my small Pepsi bottle and drinking the teeth numbing cold water. Eventually my senses cleared and my mouth contained saliva again. I still felt weak and was easily tired, but I attributed that feeling to the altitude since I was at 5600m and sitting in the sun. I thought about my day and realized that this was not an easy 4 hr summit trek as I had been lead to believe by one of the trekkers I had met on the Markha Valley trek the week before. This was a much harder trek that required better planning and a full-scale effort. Slowly it dawned on me that the battle was not over yet. The mountain had won the battle, but would it win the war?
By 3:30pm I was safely back at Base Camp asking the guides questions and planning my strategy for the following days. I found out that the average trek time is 8-10hrs and that only three people had made the summit that day. Everyone else had either turned back at Advance Base Camp or on the ridge. Rather than tucking my tail between my legs and returning to Leh, I resolved to move my tent the next day to Advance Base Camp. This would put me two hours and 300m closer to the summit. I now had a plan of action and felt stoked as I ate my second sandwich and then turned in early.
I slept late the following morning (day 3), knowing that I had all day to break camp and move to Advance Base Camp. At noon I got up and visited the tea tent for a chi and a hot noodle soup breakfast. At 1pm I started to pack my gear and break camp. By 2pm I set off from Base Camp 1 in high spirits and with all my gear. This time I could see the west slope trail (the snow had been steadily melting all day) and reached the pass at the ridgeline without stopping. This was a positive start since I had stopped at least five times to reach this same spot on that first ascent morning (and without gear in that instance). I kept my pace slow, but steady, as I followed the now almost clear trail to Advance Base Camp. I reached it at 4:15 pm and had my tent up by 5 pm.
My previous issues with dehydration still concerned me. I had enough water for the night but what about the next day? I had filled my 1.5-liter Pepsi bottle with river water the previous evening but would be low by morning. I needed more water the day when I planned to make my second ascent attempt. There was no water at this camp so I was counting on re-filling my bottles at the snowmelt fishers on the glaciers, but that depended on the skies being clear and the sun melted the snow. As I ate my third sandwich I changed my next morning’s departure time to 6am. This would ensure that I reached the fishers shortly after they became exposed to sunshine. Resolved to the new plan I turned in early hoping to fall asleep before the sunset and the cold of the glacier started me shivering. I fell asleep quickly.
I awoke a few minutes before 6am (day 4) in high spirits and a little cold. I stripped off much of my clothing as I ate my fourth and final sandwich for breakfast. I was going to travel light so would only wear a few layers and my windbreaker. I would wear the rented plastic climbing boots again (even though they were heavy) and take the ice axe, but I would leave the crampons behind. It was a risk, but I simply didn’t want to carry anything that I might not need. So the crampons were jettisoned. I set off to clear cold skies at 6:30am. I reached the crevasse without stopping for a break (another good sign in comparison to my previous attempt). I crossed the first two fishers without detecting the sound of running water and grew a little apprehensive. I only had a third of a liter of water at this stage. Fortunately I could hear running water under the ice at the third and final fisher, so spent a short time hacking an opening with my ice axe and then refilling the large Pepsi bottle. With my thirst quenched and ample water, I then cleared the steep snow bowl ascent using a two-count step (rather than four) and with only two breaks. I was slowed down at the scree and boulder fields due to the slippery state of the trail that late in the day, but did not stress. I patiently worked the trail or made up alternatives when the trail looked doubtful. I used the ice axe on many occasions for support or to arrest my sliding. It was tiring and slow going, but I kept remembering that painful statement, the other day, about the ridge. I was determined to go slow and save my reserves for the ridge.
By 11am I crawled, exhausted and sweating, onto the ridge. At this stage I felt great relief because I had at least cleared my last turn-around point. It was a psychological boost. I rested and snacked on a chocolate bar while looking over the ridge at the sheer valley walls on each side and the panoramic views of the surrounding valleys. After the break I began the slow and treacherous ascent, climb, scramble, and balancing act along the ridgeline. In many places the width of the ridge was less than a meter, with sheer drops on both side, and tormenting wind gusts from both valley. Many times my footing would slip and my heart would pound as I secured myself with the ice axe. At other times forward progress seemed blocked by walls of rock that required scaling or tricky bypasses out and along the scree and snow slopes. Each step had to be considered and the alternatives calculated. All this mental and physical activity was taking place in scorching and blinding sunlight at an altitude above 5,900m. Even so I felt mentally strong and focused on each short phase and ignored the summit (which I had lost view of anyway). Finally just before noon I stepped into a cavity between a high rock wall and snow drift at least two meters high. Kicking careful snow steps in the hollow I made my way up a steep slope and emerged on a ledge. I sat there panting and surprised. I could now clearly see the summit prayer flags. It was the actual summit. I had assumed the snow dome visible from the east face was the summit, but it was actually a false summit. It turned out that the real summit was not visible from the east face of the mountain. Only now could I tell that there was a second domed rising to its west and at the top of this dome sat the prayer flags that marked the summit. I rested on that ledge and enjoyed simply looking at my objective a mere 50 meters away.
Slowly I rose and even more cautiously worked my way to the flags. The summit was narrow and heaped with snowdrifts. I used my ice axe to probe the snow so that I didn’t foolishly step through a cornice and tumble down the west face in record time. Once I had scoped out the edges of the summit I sat and let the accomplishment sink in. I had made it to the summit of a 6240m (20,473ft) mountain. I had beaten the mountain and yet I also felt that the mountain had let me have my way with it. I was respectful of the prayer flags and the nature of summit, (both the Buddhists and the Christians consider summits sacred because they are places closest to God). I took photos, filmed a little and then sat and enjoyed the moment. I had reached the summit by 1pm (six hours after leaving Advance Base Camp). Time now slowed down and moments, like the clouds, seemed to stretch out slowly before me. Eventually I realized that it was time to move on and re-join the world. Reluctantly I left the summit at 1:30pm and began to long cautious and slippery descent. Once I reached the bottom of the snow bowl the anxiety and caution left me. My pace and me picked up and by 3:15pm I was back at Advance Base Camp, at 4:30 I cleared the Base Camp ridge, at 6:50pm I reached the trail split tea tent, at 9:30pm I crossed the washed out Stok village bridge, and finally at 10:30pm reached the valley floor where the road leads to Leh and I hitched a ride on the first (and only) vehicle on the road. The driver dropped me a short distance from Leh so I walked the final two kilometers to the main bazaar and reached my Guest House by 11pm.
The day had begun at 6am on the edge of a glacier and ended that same evening at 11pm in a comfortable bed. In between a great deal of effort had been expended and much accomplished emotionally. I was tired beyond words, much skinnier, sun burned, and yet emotionally I had reached new heights. I had cleared a six-thousander and could now rest and feel at peace until the next mountain got in my way.
For a slew of photos visit my web site at www.dirttreks.com
Dirttreks Story and Photos