Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 8 – Trek across the Matho La Pass (4,965m) to Smankarmo (4,380m)

Today would involve another steady climb, this time up to and over the Matho La Pass  at 4,965m where we would gain our first views of Stok Kangri since leaving Leh. On a clear day just before the pass and if you are lucky you can see the 8,000m Gasherbrum peaks 210 kilometres away in Pakistan!

Today was colder than previous days and the landscape became more barren and dusty as we gradually ascended through the hinterland of the Hemis National Park.

The Matho La Pass looked like so many of the other passes as they all began to merge into one. We trudged breathlessly up the rocky path to the col. Stok Kangri loomed ominously in the far background as promised with a smattering of new snow on it’s peak. In the distance beyond the snow capped mountains of Pakistan could indeed be glimpsed.

After a short stay at the top of the pass to take the obligatory photos with the prayer flags that straddle all the passes in Ladakh we set off down the other side looking for a suitable stop for some rest and sustenance.

As we stopped for lunch a chill wind blew up the valley and conversation became pretty minimal amongst my fellow hikers. As we neared the end of our lunch rest a hail storm blew up the valley and we all scrambled to put our waterproofs on in a comical mad hurry. The Sherpas just looked on in understated bemusement knowing full well the maelstrom would blow itself out as it progressed up the valley.

With the storm over in a little under five minutes we all began to disrobe again to the understated bemusement of the Sherpas.

We were now descending into the upper reaches of the Stok Valley. The valley was a high and wild area the reserve of climbers and local shepherds who spent the summer months up there in ramshackle stone huts.

As we descended for the last time of the day we still had one more stream to cross before we could reach Camp 4 at Smankarmo. I use the description stream loosely as a raging torrent of a river would be a more apt description. Glacial melt water cascaded down the valley at great speed passing the camp on the far side of the bank. To make camp we would have to cross the river.

There was no easy navigable route across. Boulders were submerged under gallons of icy cold gushing water and no discernible path could be made out. Nannang the lead Sherpa knew what to do, take your boots and socks off and plunge straight through it while offering up a prayer to the Gods.

So I did, and I almost froze to death as my feet turned a none too subtle shade of purple! I stumbled my way across the river bed drenched up to my thighs. Collapsing on the far bank I watched as the mules following behind me got swept downstream in the strong current flailing in desperate attempts to right themselves. The muleteers sprung into action grabbing at ropes on the sides of the banks pulling hard to retrieve their precious live cargo.

Eventually without all trekkers and mules made it across to the far bank and we trudged into Camp 4. Smankarmo Camp was by far the most desolate and god-forsaken looking place we had encountered at so far.

Privy holes littered the ground and you had to be mindful of where you stepped or face the prospect of being submerged up to your knee in human excrement. Grit was a constant companion and the air blew down from the upper valley in violent dust storms. With the beasts of burden also camped practically next door to my tent I wouldn’t be sorry to leave this place in the morning.

But the one positive to take from all this was that Stok could now be seen clearly at the top of the valley, for we had turned the corner into the final valley on the trek and base camp beckoned us from somewhere up in the further reaches of the landscape. Tomorrow we would move up and into base camp ready for the climb! It was almost Game-on!

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums

Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 7 – Trek across the Shang La Pass (4,960m) to Mathophu (4,400m)

After yesterday’s pleasant stroll that eased us all into the swing of things today’s proposition was much more of a challenge. Some 800 metres of ascent had to be accomplished at altitude over the course of the day. We would be crossing many spurs and minor passes, with occasional spectacular views northwards towards the Indus Valley and the snowy peaks beyond.

Heading up to the Shang La PassThe highest pass of the day would be the famous Shang La at a staggering 4,960m. All thoughts centred on getting across this pass. Ladakh is known as ‘The Land of the High Passes’ and today we were going to find out exactly why!

The trail up to the pass was fairly nondescript but some pleasant early morning sunshine made for a pleasant enough walk. I passed countless Yak like beasts, well I assumed they were Yaks although a lack of horns had me questioning myself on the matter (can Yaks be hornless?).

Horned YakThe profile of the ground steepened and all thoughts of Yak breeds disappeared as the push for the pass began to concentrate all my thoughts. If I could not get over this pass then there would be little hope of me making it up Stok Kangri, a good 1,000 plus meters higher! I steeled myself to the task in hand.

The Expedition Team at Shang La Pass
The Expedition Team at Shang La Pass

We wove in ant like procession up the trail, I passed other hikers and other hikers passed me, all of us striving to reach the top. After a while I could hear the unmistakable sound of fluttering prayer flags in the wind. Prayer flags adorn the tops of most of the passes in Ladakh and it was at that moment I realised I had finally made it.

Shang La PassCollapsing in a heap next to my jettisoned rucksack I sat still and soaked up the expansive views afforded by the height. The mountains now stretched for miles into the distance Stok Kangri still looked a long way off.

Lunchtime and some R&RAfter a few minutes of rest and relaxation we set off again descending towards the Tokpo River for lunch. The valley was wide and the river increasingly distanced itself from our trail. We stopped on a green plateaux for lunch and enjoyed the gentle breeze emanating up the valley.

On the trail to MathophuAnother team on the trail to MathophuThe afternoon was spent generally trekking downhill carefully watching my steps ensuring no twisted ankles or injuries occurred. We contoured around various dusty spurs until a final climb up to and over a 4,550m pass, then down to Mathophu at 4,400m.

The final pass of the dayThis was the site of Camp 3, a forlorn windswept grassy spit of land used for grazing horses and cattle and completely covered in dung. A solitary stone hut with dung walls surrounding it to protect it from the never ending winds was the only suggestion of any kind of civilisation.

Camp 3Camp 3I braved the elements to strip and bathe in the glacial waters of the nearby stream running close to the camp and settled in for yet another night under canvas. The landscape was getting more and more remote and the temperature was steadily dropping with each subsequent night, I could feel that we were edging nearer and nearer to our final goal and the anticipation buoyed my mood as I hit the sleeping bag for the night.

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums

Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 6 – Shang Sumdo (3,800m) to Shang Phu (4,350m)

Today’s trek would involve a gradual ascent up the valley from our camp at Shang Sumdo to Camp 2 at Shang Phu (4,350m).

We broke camp fairly early in the morning at Sumdo and started up the valley following the rough jeep road. The walking was easy and on a metalled surface for several kilometres. The surrounding landscape was still fairly green at this altitude as we passed by arable fields of vegetables and a small monastery clinging to the mountainside of the steep valley.

31505275107_e93b69b166_cEventually the road surface petered out just before the settlement of Shang and we carried on up the valley amid boulders strewn across the landscape by the ever present river. There then followed some easy river crossings back and forth as we weaved our way along the gently meandering valley floor gradually working our way upwards in altitude.

As the midday sun started to roast our heads our lead guide Rigzin decided to call a halt for lunch. We all settled in an ancient grove of trees sheltering under their dappled shade. The trees were encircled by a crumbling stone wall which ring-fenced an area held sacred for centuries to the Ladakh people.

In it’s centre a small stone altar stood with adjourning ledges for candles and offerings, all situated beneath a horned animal skull and bedecked with prayer flags fluttering in the small breeze drifting down the quiet valley.

It was a bizarre and mysterious place to stop for a bite to eat but a welcome respite from the heat of the day. Watched over by the spooky animal skull I tucked into my well needed lunch served up by the Sherpas.

Lunch in the shaded groveThe food on these expeditions never ceases to amaze me and this trip was no different. The porters handed out the plates and cutlery before offering us a series of ridiculous meal options to have to had to carry on their backs for hours along a trail. Omelette, fried potatoes, salad and bread followed by various fruit offerings. My usual grub while out hiking in the UK consists of a flattened cheese sandwich wrapped in silver foil. But then again I am not usually being supported by a team of experienced porters, chef and guide up ‘int’ Lakes.

After recuperating for an hour or so we set off again along the hot valley path towards Shang Phu where we we’d camp for the night. Shang Phu campsite sits at the confluence of two rivers in an elevated shepherds field and is on the route of the Markha Valley Trek a popular week long trek in this part of Ladakh.

We were now deep into The Hemis National Park. The national park is globally famous for its snow leopards, it is believed to have the highest density of them in any protected area in the world but our chances of seeing one while trekking were pretty slim, nevertheless to be in leopard territory keeps one very alert.

Having thankfully not seen any leopards we finally reached camp in the early afternoon. The setting was as spectacular as I’d read about in the trip notes and the tents were pitched to take full advantage of the far reaching views back down the valley.

46394197912_f8a1fac5f9_cOnce the tents were up I stripped off and bathed with my tent mates (au natural) in the glacial stream tumbling down from the Shang La Pass, happy to clean the dust and sweat of the day from my sweaty body.

As evening drew in we settled into expedition camp life which would be our staple routine for the foreseeable future, time spent looking upon the mountains as the sun set followed by an early evening tea, a spot of star gazing and then bed. It was good to relax because tomorrow would be our toughest day yet since arriving in Ladakh. Tomorrow we would attempt to cross over the first high pass on the trek the infamous Shang La (4,960m).

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.

Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 5 – Thiskey Monastery to Shang Sumdo (3,800m)

Thiskey MonasteryFrom Leh, we drove along the Indus Valley to the ancient monastery at Thiksey. After that the plan was to continue our journey, turning off the highway to follow a rough road up into the mountains as far as Shang Sumdo (3,800m) where we’d spend our first night under canvas.

Thiskey MonasteryThiksey monastery is a Tibetan-style monastery affiliated with the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located on top of a small hill in Thiksey around 12 miles east of Leh. It is the largest gompa in central Ladakh and resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Prayer Wheels - Thiskey MonasteryThe monastery was a fascinating place to visit. Monks walking around in yellow renunciation robes with their New Balance trainers on using the latest iPhones while incense quietly smouldered away in the background. Horns bellowed and drums were banged all played out to the cacophony of prayer mantras echoing off the ancient walls.

We slowly climbed the steep stone steps in the ever increasing heat of the day. Finally we’d ascended to the main Assembly Hall. This hall is also the prayer hall with murals on the entrance wall depicting the Tibetan calendar via the Bhavacakra (Wheel of Life).

Bhavacakra (Wheel of Life)We took off our boots to enter the inner sanctum where we sat and listened to the chanting monks. Their chanting was interspersed with manic blowing through long horns and crazy beating upon ramshackle drums.

Thiskey Monastery interiorOnce the crescendo became too much I crept out into daylight and up onto the flat rooftop of the monastery for what must be one of the best views of the Indus Valley and surrounding mountains.

Stok Kangri could now be clearly seen in the distance, its white dome shimmering in the hazy sunlight. I took a few brief moments to contemplate what might lay ahead of me on this adventure before joining the other expedition team members in making our way back down to the minibus.

Indus Valley ViewBack on the road we headed still further down the dusty Indus Valley until we eventually turned off the main road and rattled across a small iron bridge spanning the gushing Indus River below. The bridge was bedecked with prayer flags all tattered and fluttering in the wind.

The rough unmetalled road led deep into the mountains following the sides of a tight valley. After twenty minutes of dirt track the valley suddenly opened up and we arrived at Shang Sumdo.

Shang Sumdo sits at the confluence of two rivers. It’s just a small village with a few houses and a tea tent. Our tents had already been pitched by our team of hard working porters who we were now introduced to. Their Nepalese names where almost impossible to remember at first but as the week drew on we gradually came to get to know them. Our names to them must have been just as much a mystery in return.

The campsite was pleasant enough with some greenery and a small river running through the field. Our tents were pitched strategically to give just enough privacy from one another.

Shang Sumdo CampAfter settling in we were invited to take another acclimatisation walk up to a rocky outcrop above the campsite. The slope was a mass of shaley red scree flake like in appearance. As we trudged up the steep slope the weather gods decreed that we should be given a jolly good soaking and so the rain clouds closed in on us and we all got drenched.

Ladakh MountainsAt around the 4,500m mark we halted suddenly on a flat plateaux and then turned around to come back down. Inspiring the climb wasn’t, but it was an exercise in getting us match fit and so needed to be performed.

Acclimatisation Climb KernWet and a bit chilled we piled back into out tents and changed into some dry clothes before tea was served in the mess tent. We ate the first of what would be a series of amazing meals by the expedition chef and settled in for what was going to be our new routine for the next week. The adventure really felt like it was now getting underway.

Follow along with the expedition updates being posted over the coming weeks.

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums