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 . You are reading.
Two – Kang Yatse II
As my left leg started to lose complete control, my right one, which till now was resting a little, sprung into action and thrust the toes into the snow slope and the ice axe, on my right hand, still in slow-motion, came right in front of my chest and punched in three rapid self arresting swings into the snow till it latched on to harder ice below it to stop my slide. Pure adrenalin rush and a total love affair with my crampons and ice axe began at that moment. Love at first fright.
Such.A.Tease. And an elusive one at that.
You can see the entire Stok range from the minute you land in Leh but its not the face of the mountain that a climber is used to or the one that is climbed, so for almost the entirety of the first day Aritra, JD and I argued with Arnab(Boro) at Rockyfeet that the “seemingly tallest and steepest” mountain in the range is not Stok Kangri but instead a shorter mountain. We made ourselves believe that this particular peak was aerially closer to Leh which made it seem taller than the peak to its left which we believed to be Stok and so it goes.
Having arrived in Leh from near sea level it was very important for our bodies to acclimatize so we spent most of the day walking around in Leh. I spent a good part of the day wondering why I could never catch up with Boro even within city limits. Eventually I decided to let him disappear into the horizon of city limits and accepted the effects of altitude. What was a walk in the park for Boro, who had already spent a month there, required good effort in these first few hours after I landed in Leh. We took a walk up to the palace and from the palace 30 minute hike to the monastery. This was still day 1 so the minute we reached the top of the monastery, a slight headache kicked in which is normal though. We rested up at the top, took a trip around the monastery enjoyed the wonderful views of Leh from there and came back down for a quiet night.
Day two was bit more relaxing as we took a trip around Leh to take a look at some of the monasteries at Hemis, Thiksey and Shey and then got some solid rest and prep for the hike that would start the next day.
The mules were loaded with ration, pre-trek photos were taken and we loaded our packs, tightened our laces for the next 3-4 hours at the scenic Stok Village. The trail starts off a bit flat till we get to the first 50-60m pass and then the gradient picks up. The trail breaks into two at Changma, where we grabbed our delicious chicken and lettuce sandwich and some tea an hour into our hike.One trail leads to the Changma Pass and the other goes towards Rumbak and Stok La. After negotiating the Changma pass and thereafter following the riverbed for some good 2 hours I think we finally got to the camping ground at Monkorma. Stok Kangri loses all its subtlety from Monkorma – it stares right down at your faces asking questions of your abilities.
Since I was feeling right up to it at Monkorma, I thought it would be nice to go up on one of the smaller hills on the sides turns out it wasn’t the best idea. While I was just perfect by the time I was back, a crazy bang of fatigue hit me the minute it was dinner time. I could barely move myself normally and while I did manage to finish my dinner somehow, I could only function in slow motion. I hadn’t taken my backpack inside my tent yet and had not lay down my sleeping bag either. Ouch. Both those activites were going to blast the daylight out of me and it was getting darker and colder.
But you gotta do what you gotta do so thats what I did, somehow packed myself into my sleeping bag and off I went for a good nights rest, carefully monitoring my breathing and heart rate – all in slow motion of course.
Stok Kangri Base Camp, 4900m
So we would be spending 3 nights here and it better be comfortable. Its not. Boro had warned us about this though.
The base-camp is in a strange kind of valley thriving in wind that invariably haunts your tent as the night begins to crawl and breathing easy becomes a bit of a daunting task if you start exerting yourself. I remember running out of breath at base camp just while I was out to take a leak the after the summit as well.
On the day we arrived at SKBC, we decided to take a gentle stroll up towards Gulep Kangri’s base camp and get some altitude gain rotation before we called it a day. The walk was gentle and went over a field of yellow, purple and white blossoming flowers. We were greeted with light snow as we got to something around 5200m and before we knew it, dark clouds crept in above us. I was in my down jacket and was not really up for rain so I made a mad dash from that point to the base camp suddenly forgetting that we’re above 5000m. Stupidity doesn’t go unpunished at that altitude. I spent a good hour controlling shivers and bouts of extraordinary breathlessness – while I simply was sitting in my tent sipping on hot tea. I could barely move that hour.
The next day was one that we were looking forward to, crampons, ice-axes in tow we set out for the glacier at 5300m for a tete-a-tete with the climbing face of Stok Kangri. The first hour or so was a semi-steep diagonal train that cut across the face of the 200m prominence of the hill on the west and the entire group aced it which was great news till JD’s fever relapsed a little after and he had to go back and rest for summit day while we made a move towards the glacier.Ram, our guide showed us the basics of mountaneering – Ropes, Crampons and life saving Ice-Axe skills.
He was excellent with it and I used all of the skills on both the mountains extensively. Eric was more concerned as to why unlike Europe there are no steps to a “Trekking Peak”. It baffled him for a minute that we have to negotiate 60 degree slopes at 6000m. Oh the lies they spread about Stok Kangri, we were about to learn.
Stok Kangri Summit, 6153m
My trusty watch beeped at 11:45 PM, Just like the night before, I had barely got proper sleep again. But such is sleep at 5000m. When you do wake up you remember waking up more often than you remember actually sleeping. I slowly put on my lovely down jacket- thank you Avi and Shreya- for some instant warmth, one sleeve at a time, tucked my nose into my headwrap, put on my damp socks one by one and picked up my backpack-thank you Sayantan Da- that I had trusted for the last few days. Made a 50% solution of Gatorade for my watersack and a 100% gatorade solution for re-hydration on the way down.
We could see quite a few lights in the distance on the diagonal trail above basecamp – the british team from Shearwater Adventures had made a headstart. Eric being as french as he can be, wasn’t too happy about “following” the British especially after their EU referendum 😉
The lack of oxygen in the cold and windy night hit all of us like a hammer on the forehead. It took us by surprise especially because we had done this route just 14 hours back and knew what to expect but such is the nature of summit days. Aritra and JD had to turn back from before we made it atop the hill as Eric and I pushed on. I was struggling heavily and couldn’t make sense of it – there simply wasn’t enough oxygen for me. I had no altitude trouble but I was frequently exhausted and out of breath. Ram saw my condition and made an excellent choice of having me in the middle since Eric was feeling better than I was and moved him to the back of the pack. This way I could drive the pace of the team much better and having someone behind you when you’re struggling makes things a lot better psychologically. We had just gone past the British team at the hill top and were about an hour from “crampon point”. I knew that crampon point meant we would have at least 15 minutes of rest and the only thing that I noticed positive about my condition was that I was able to recover very fast with even a 20 second rest so I decided to push on to the crampon point on the glacier and re-evaluate my options.
It worked. The 15 minute break worked like a charm and by this time it was about a little past 3 AM so it was only a matter of time before the sun made things warmer and of course – brought in more oxygen.
There are 3 passes to get to Stok Kangri –
- The first pass goes a bit left from the glacier and approaches the shoulder from the left – this is the steepest and slightly tougher than the second pass also a bit longer than the second.
- The second pass goes straight to the shoulder and is the shortest route to the summit but involves steep sections with mixed climbing and some lateral traverses.
- The third pass is the one that takes a right from the glacier and curves around the rocky patches of the first and the second pass , while longer it is much more gradual that either of the first or second pass.
I was desperately hoping for the 3rd but Ram had other ideas.
So we were not only climbing up a steep slope with snow flutings but also hooking our ice-axes to groves in rock and ice to haul our weight upward. I usually sing stupid/awesome songs in my head while hiking but this time three words echoed – Next.Level.Shit- all through the ordeal. The thing with most climbing routes is that it is not well defined and you study the ground as you go and make a route. So right after climbing one such short-steep-technical rock patch Ram figured that we need to make a lateral traverse towards the left and then continue upward.
The move was simple for most, I had to take two wide side steps on to the next rock patch but lo-and-behold my first foot, instead of getting a side step(only the edge of the crampon goes into the ground) grip on the snow just sank in up to my knee and pulled me into a slow motion max payne-esque cut scene –
As my left leg started to lose complete control, my right one, which till now was resting a little, sprung into action and thrust the toe into the snow slope and the ice axe, on my right hand, still in slow – motion, came right in front of my chest and punched in three rapid self arresting swings into the snow till it latched on to harder ice below it to stop my slide. Pure adrenaline rush and a total love affair with my crampons and ice axe began at that moment. Love at first fright.
Some huffing and puffing later we finally intersected with the route that came from the third pass which Eric lovingly referred to as the “highway”. We could see the flags at the shoulders from here and Eric had had enough of adventure for the moment. Since I had already traveled light years beyond the point of having an opinion followed his lead as Ram had a lighter moment with himself looking at us in our f***-this-shit mode.
We didn’t bother resting at the shoulder as we had really good rhythm to that point. The route from the shoulder to the Summit is honestly your reward for climbing up that slope. The view through the 1-2 hour section is what most people on the mountain would kill for. The ridge is good enough for one and a half people to stand side by side at its widest and to the right you have a gorgeous glacier and the North face of the mountain all dressed in milky whites while on the other side you have a barren rocky and rugged south face. If you had to slip and fall- if you absolutely had to, you would have better chances on the north face by a good country mile. So we marched on, negotiating exposed rock patches which exhausted us and walking over the snow patches which thankfully came just in time to help us recover.
Then I heard a flutter, of a strong wind cutting through some loose cloth and making it flap rapidly. The sun was still extremely bright but I knew that sound to be all too familiar – The Tibetan prayer flags in my room back home have the same flutter – so I looked up towards the summit and there it was. Eric charged with a rush of endorphin in his blood stream asked to be unroped and charged the last few steps towards the summit – with his point and shoot camera in tow. “I go to the top and make a movie out of this”, he yelled.
And just like that we had scaled a 6153m peak in close to 7 hours from 4900m. Not a bad day at all.
After tying a prayer flag to the mast and a godsent piece of Hide and Seek’s chocolate filled cookie that our guide offered we headed the long way down. In the next two hours, Eric declared that he is dead and just sat down tight in one of those rock patches we had mixed climbed earlier that day . He also almost had a slip and somehow stopped as I held on to his weight to stop him from an uncontrolled slide. At this point I should mention that Eric is 6’2″ and weights atleast 80 kilos – all muscle while I barely weigh 66Kg – all bones. He’s also is twice my age and has twice my badassery quotient. Life goals as Aritra, JD and I decided later that week! Not only that, he also lay down and nearly slept off at crampon point ON the hard ice after taking the ropes and crampons off for a good 15 minutes and then again on the hill next to basecamp for a good 1 hour along with our guide. Headaches followed for both of them and especially Ram who had one going till the next day morning as well.
Apart from having my leg get stuck again in snow down to my hip which Ram had to dig out by making a crater around my heel with the ice axe, I had a pretty uneventful way down, thankfully. I caught some freak Airtel 2G network from the basecamp hill at 5200m and called my mother – who didn’t pick up, Boro – who didn’t pick and finally Gargi who promptly picked up the call after the first ring and gave her the good news and asked her to pass it around.
Back at base camp our staff somehow baked us amazing cake for celebrating the summit and also some real good pizza to go along with that and so for the first time in 3 nights, I slept like a baby in my tent.
Took us some good 3-4 restless hours to get back to Stok village from base camp where Rockyfeet’s pickup vehicle waited for us and drove us back to Leh. For once I was happy to see people and faces, some happier, some bored and some just plain curious faces on the way back from Stok Village. School kids waved back at us and I greeted them with what I’m sure is the most contorted face they have seen. Anything for a good laugh after a hard trek eh?!
After a short 30 minute ride we reached our hotel, put our bags down and I went straight up to our affable host there…
“One Ginger Honey Lemon Tea, por favor!”
Next – Chapter Two: Kang Yatse II