This post is a part of a three chapter series on my experience summiting Stok Kangri,6153m and Kang Yatse 6200m in two fortunate weeks of July in 2016. I’ve never been laconic with my blog posts but unless you’re hooked on to Pokemon Go, you should be alright.
Zero – Training for a 6000er
One – Stok Kangri
Two – Kang Yatse 2
“We are approaching 6000m”, announces Sharki Sherpa, as we make a steep 60 degree, but shorter detour to the summit ridge that starts at about 6100m. The detour took us up a 100m in a short, exhausting push. Both Jan and I were feeling alright and very excited about the prospect of being on top on Kang Yatse 2 on the day. All seemed to be going well when our sherpa stopped sharp. We followed closer and came to a halt at an icy blue and endless crack of the bergschrund staring at us right in the face and it spanned the entire width of the north east face we were climbing.The summit was the least of my concerns at that point, it was more like,
” F— this. How do we get out of this mess?”
Kang Yatse 2
Solitude is over-rated. Personally, I don’t “want” to be left alone by myself but I don’t really have a problem if I am by myself. Some people might tell you there’s a thin line between those two phrases, philosophically, but for me its as obvious as the the presidential choice the united states had to make. They chose Bernie right? What? No? Crap! I’m clearly a few months behind in writing this blog in that case. So let me cut to the chase, by the time I came back to the base camp after the Stok Kangri summit, Aritra and Abhijit had packed their bags and departed for Leh to recover and the rest of the camp-site had a bit of a gloom over it with dark grey skies adding to the drama. I couldn’t wait to be back to leh, grab that cold pint of beer that I promised Eric along with Boro, Aritra and Abhijeet. That is all that I could think of as I raced myself the 30 odd kms the next day from the base camp to the village of Stok where we started our hike from 5 days back, as fast as I could.
A warm shower, hugs , cold pints and kebabs followed as I spent the next 3 days recovering, nursing a nasty gum infection and loading up on all the energy I could gather. As luck would have it, I caught a slight fever from my gum infection on the 7th of July, just a night before we were set to leave. I popped a combiflam and set myself to sleep hoping to get rid of the pain and catch a good night’s rest – it worked, atleast that’s what I thought.
Climb, Rest, Eat Repeat. That’s the mountain mantra I guess and I put my money where my mouth was when I dived right in to do back to back summits. The only reason I thought that I had a chance was , lets be honest, because I was naive. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had a better shot at Kang Yatse 2 than Stok Kangri as I would be better acclimatised but that is not entirely a fact. In truth, I was hoping for that outcome and added so much weight to hope that I started believing that it was a fact.
Jan, Abhijit and I started pretty late due to some logistical complications and by the time we were in Shang Sumdo, the last motorable point, the sun was already high around noon so we wasted no time at Shang Sumdo and started our walk towards Chuskirmo via Chokdo at good pace. We made it to Chokdo in about 45 minutes and made a long 30 minute halt there, waiting for the mules to come in. Something went off there for me and a bit of lethargy started creeping in. Not paying much heed to it, we made way to Chuskirmo, which is a proper camp site at 4100m. We had been hiking steady for a couple of hours now and took another break to have some mid day meal. The minute I sat down, I felt something that I hadn’t ever felt before during a hike – I was extremely low on energy, legs were heavy and the 18kg backpack didn’t help either. My acclimatization was just fine from the summit last week, so that just couldn’t be the reason. It was a simple case of over exhaustion probably triggered by last night’s combiflam that. I was pretty sure that I could at best do another hour of hiking and was running very low.
I had another 3.5 hours of hike and 600m of climb left. I didn’t know it at that time but in retrospect, those numbers would’ve never added up. Jan was about an hour ahead of me with his fresh legs and Abhijit was about 30 minutes ahead of me. I dragged my feet across the narrow path that ran by the steep valley walls that narrowed into a gorge about an hour from Chuskirmo. At about 3 I came close to where the gorges start, beaten drained and yes, half contemplating turning around. Had this been the first trek and had I been even a little unsure about my accimatisation I would’ve turned back instantly. I checked my Oximeter and my pulse, they were within their parameters so I continued. At this point, the sun had started to set and there was no-one behind me while Abhijit was at a teasing distance. I could only see bits of him disappearing behind the bends of the trail into the folds of the gorge’s walls. I desperately needed some company to push myself through and that came in a little later when he waited for me at a point where we had to get off the trail and down some 40 metres to the river, cross it and then climb back up on the opp wall of the gorge and continue on the trail. He saw me and figured how broken I was, little did I know that he wasn’t having a very good time either but we moved on, pushing each other simulaneously. We were racing against the sun as the gorge grew darker, the water colder and our morale bleaker. Trust me, you do not want to be in a tight gorge in the dark when you’re exhausted, it’ll pull the life out of you. We marched on, for our own sakes and then at about 5 in the evening, just after the gorges ended, I spotted Jan’s bright orange shorts shining off the sun’s rays on the look-out for us from the camp. Euphoria ensued.
Lartsa isn’t much of a camp-site, it is just some level ground and is the last point for fresh water en-route to Kongmaru La. Our camps were set by the time we made it to Lartsa. Warm Tea and biscuits awaited us as all the mental exhaustion went flying away. Both Abhijit and I were physical drained , sure, but half the pain your body usually feels can be easily overcome mentally and we were in the right state of mind at that point. That’s all that mattered. As we sipped on the tea, We could see the monster that Kongmaru La was and what lay ahead of us.
One day at a time ol’ friend.
Woke up feeling just as I would wanted to on the 9th of July at Lartsa. Some fatigue on the legs was just as expected but I felt fine and so did Abhijit. A quick breakfast under the morning sun followed by a really nice dump(which is definitely something you look out for on the mountins) we were off once again hauling ourselves to the top of Kongmaru La 5200m, almost about a steep 700m climb that zig-zags across the face of the ridge. Slow and Steady was the strategy and it worked fine till Abhijit and I were just 15 minutes from the top of the pass. Abhijit was totally drained with the cumulative exhaustion and the howling wind and he decided to turn back towards Shang-Sumdo. Sometimes, logic evades even the smartest people in the mountains. Abhijit chose to walk back 5 hours instead of a 15 minute climb. As unbelievable as it sounds to someone who hasn’t been in the situation, that is exactly how things went down. I went ahead to the top of Kongmaru La to find Jan sitting there waiting for us patiently and broke the news to him. In the flurry of events that occurred, I completely missed the first sighting of Markha Valley, Nimaling and Kang Yatse from the top of Kongmaru La. I had been waiting for this view ever since a friend of mine, Sid, had shown me a photograph from the exact spot. Oh! what a view indeed!
Not wanting to waste too much time, we headed down towards Nimaling, looking for a Sat-phone so that we could send the news about Abhijit coming back so that logistics could be arranged. As luck would have it, Nimaling didn’t have a sat-phone, we’d have to simply live with the hope that Abhijit caught up with other groups that were returning from Markha Valley – our approach and Markha Valley’s retreat overlapped starting Nimaling.
Nimaling, in my opinion, is the world’s happiest campsite. It is this lush meadow teeming with happy souls. Nine out of ten people here are on their penultimate day of the Markha Valley trek. The Dzos/Yaks, Donkeys and Sheep are relishing the fresh grass by the banks of the Markha River and the birds are chirping away to glory. Its a happy chaos at Nimaling and we were soaking it all, in anticipation of the days to come!
Kang Yatse Base Camp, 4900m
How do you not sleep well at Nimaling? Jan and I slept for some 10 hours that day and woke up to the sight of donkeys and mules all around us. We hand to fend off their interest in our food during breakfast which didn’t yield good results so instead we shared our breakfast with the four-legged beauties. Every now and then the marmots would pop their heads out from the grass, run across the grassland and then disappear into their burrows. The dzos would run wild and into the ground for a good scratch, roll over and around sending their own selves into a dizzy.
The base camp was a very pleasant 1.5 hour walk away over a vast grazing land with Kang Yatse peeking at edge of your sight. The breeze swept the tiny blades of grass and the alpine flowers while the sun lay partly covered under the clouds. It was a walk in the park really.
We were at KYBC by lunch time and were soon joined by a couple of other teams. This is pretty crowded by KY standards usually it is 1-2 teams at most per day! We set up the camp and the toilet tents by lunch time and headed out for a rotation to the advanced base camp, scouring for the summit camp site and returned by sunset. The prayer flags at the base-camp had fallen off so I put it up again and set myself up to watch the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. As it neared dusk, the whole of Markha was painted orange by the sun as if someone poured honey all over the valley and then it turned violet to blue as the cold wind settled in for the rest of the day.
Kang Yatse ABC, 5300m
There are a lot of questions and doubts about this from fellow climbers and hikers so i’ll keep this section technical.
Yes, Kang Yatse 2 has an advanced base camp which is about a 1.5 to 2 hours hike from KYBC and about 400m higher. There is no water source here so you’d have to walk up to the ice patch – seen in the photo below and melt ice for use. Also you will have to ferry all the load you might need for the day of the summit on your own backs because the trail is not suitable for mules. There is ample space for pitching your tent but its all scree at the end of the day, so just don’t expect a comfortable night.
We started from the Base camp towards ABC after brunch to reduce the number of meals we’d have to cook at that altitude and were there by about 3:30. There were the four of us, Sharki Sherpa – our guide, his cousin – our cook, Jan and I and we had the big kitchen tent seen in the photo below in purple as our humble accommodation. We would spend the day here and had planned to leave camp around 2:30 AM for the summit attempt. We remained indoors, all four of us, in the 4 x 2 tent while it got unbearably colder outside as Sharki Sherpa treated us to a fabulous sherpa stew for dinner.
We packed out summit gear, crampons, ice axes and jackets in our bags and lined ourselves in sleeping bags to get some shut-eye while our cook prepped some water and pre-summit oats for us. I decided to go with 1L of Gatorade only based on the fact that I was well hydrated throughout the day and that I was expecting to be back to ABC in about 9 hours compared to Stok’s 12 hour assault. This also meant that I had to carefully monitor and calculate my effort with little margin for error and I’d soon find out that I made a bad call.
Kang Yatse 2 summit, 6200m
I woke up before the alarm at 2 AM went off. Solid sleep above 5000m is a luxury that most don’t get to have and it took me another 15 minutes from waking up to actually physically sitting upright. Oh the butterflies in your stomach when you see the face of Kang Yatse all lit up under the moonlight. I call total bullsh-t on anyone who see’s a humble giant like the Kang and thinks he can stand on its shoulders. In total contrast to Stok Kangri’s glamour, Kang Yatse 2 simply smiles down at you. It invites you with its simplicity but its a devious trick at that. You can’t break down the Kang Yatse problem into sections and try solving it. Its more like a solid piece of pyramid that has just one long winding way to the top. The winds are calm and the oxygen is as scant as it should be at that altitude, not more, not less and you don’t get to see the big deal with KY II till you get to the crampon point, a 45 minute hike straight up from the ABC. I avoided looking at the climb that we were getting ourselves into while I was getting my harness and my crampons on in the dead of the night and then when I was done with my prep, there it was, a 60 degree wall of ice started right from where I was standing and I thought to myself, “Surely this isn’t the way we have to go right?”. We were joined by an Austrian lad who had come directly from the Base Camp, couple of Italians and the team from White Magic with seven clients. For the benefit of everyone, we decided to form a single file up towards the summit, so help us god.
The good thing about this being my second summit was that I was pretty cozy with my crampons and my ice axe so without further ado, we marched right into it. Ice Axe – left foot – right foot. Slunk-crunch- crunch and so it goes.
After two hours of cutting across the 60 degree face, we were leading the line with 7 clients from a large expedition and a Italian couple who were on their own – they were trained mountaineers and skiers. A couple of clients had backed out by now but the sun was coming up behind us and things were looking up for us till we hit this fork in the trail. One continued on the same track we were on – across the North East face and around towards the west face but we spotted another set of tracks that looked like it went straight to the top, a lot steeper but shorter by an hour or two atleast. This fork was around the 5800m mark and we decided to take the shorter, seemingly innocent route.
“We are approaching 6000m”, announces Sharki Sherpa, as we climb on the shorter detour to the summit ridge that starts at about 6100m. The detour took us up a 100m in a short, exhausting push. Both Jan and I were feeling alright and very excited about the prospect of being on top on Kang Yatse 2 on the day. All seemed to be going well when our sherpa stopped sharp. We followed closer and came to a halt at an icy blue and endless crack of the bergschrund, 10 feet wide, staring at us right in the face and it spanned the entire width of the north east face we were climbing.The summit was the least of my concern at that point, it was more like,
” F— this. How do we get out of this mess?”
We had to turn around and get back to the fork instructed our Sherpa. Now this seems easy theoretically but picture this – you’re on a very steep slope and standing inches close to the gaping crevass with the rising sun gleaming on your face and off the ice. The only reason you’re not sliding right off at that inclination is because you’re anchored to the ice with the crampons. There is no way you can just stand there arms akimbo, and to make matters worse you now have to learn the trick of turning around using crampons on high inclinations on the job itself as we make our way back to the fork. Jan led the retracing(He bossed it), I don’t know how he did it but truth be told, my legs were shaking with what I was staring down at. You’d assume that its this adrenaline rush that people climb mountains for but its not entirely true, the minute you have adrenaline rushing in, anxiety steps in and takes over your decision making and that, folks, is not a situation you want to be in, not with 4% O2 in the air already numbing your grey matter one cell at a time.
So back we were, an hour’s worth of precious energy down the drain, at about 5800m, another 400 to go. We took the route the other two teams were on, towards the west face and rested for a bit. I didn’t really have much hopes of summiting at this point. I was low on energy, was carrying less water and I couldn’t even see the summit! I looked up and put my head back as far as I could and all I perceived was a white wall that rose to infinity and blended in with the hovering clouds like a stairway to heaven. The West face is so featureless, its very hard to make a guess as to how big the final climb really was. We zig-zagged forever on the face when we finally hit the ridge and saw the summit for the first time.
The ridge was a thing of perfection but getting there needed every bit of our souls to be squeezed. Jan was completely spent and I never saw him not bent over his ice axe for support in the last two hours leading to the summit. We broke our approach into segments of 10 steps. Yep you probably read that right we were breathless after just 10 steps and its absolutely normal 😉 We continued the 10 step march 30 second pause pattern for about 45 minutes all the way to the summit, testing our patience and endurance to the limit, and just like that we were there. Kang Yatse II, 6200m above mean sea level and not another soul around us. We were so elated we stayed there for about 30 minutes, finish our snack, tie new prayer flags on the summit, hell if we had beers we would’ve popped some there as well we were so carried away! The italians arrived some 15 minutes after us and by the time we were walking back on the ridge, they had already skied down the west face! UGH!
As far as we could see, all around, we just saw snow capped peaks of the Karakorams and the Ladakhi Himalayas. In the far distance Stok Kangri played hide and seek under the clouds; nice to meet you too. Below us, we could see the glacier turn into a tiny stream and slither itself towards Markha Valley and our tents visible just as a tiny blue specks of dust on the terrain. Walking slowly on the ridge we noticed that an unlucky tibetan mouse that had somehow made it up, acting all dizzy. Not sure what the right thing was at that point so we let nature take its course. I hope it followed us back into our inconsequence, off this humble giant that we were just visitors on. Just passing by, like the cloud over the peaks and the rivers through the plains.
We did make it back dehydrated, drained and over exhausted. Jan later told me how he just let gravity do its work on its way down. I wouldn’t say anything different about my strategy either. I dragged my sleeping mat out of the tent at ABC, took my shoes off, let the socks out to dry and munched on some watermelons and sipped on warm Sherpa tea.
Every inch of me wanted to get back to Leh and then home that instant and it begs the question, would I do this again? I’ll quote Steve House on this one-
“We don’t go to the mountains to summit, we go there to come back reborn. So I go gladly; fearing only the loose stone and my own ego”