Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 11 – Summit Day (6,153m)

“Man discovers himself when he measures himself against an obstacle.”- Antoine de St. Exupery

The tent shook and the Sherpas woke me from a fitful slumber. It was time to go! Mr James, Mr James wake up! We go, we go!

The inside of the tent was covered in a thin film of frost and I could hear the light pitter patter of water drops cascading off the canvas, it was raining! That meant only one thing, further up the mountain it was snowing!

I was already fully clothed wrapped in my base layers while I’d been snoozing in my sleeping bag. I now put on my outer layers and checked my rucksack once again which I’d pre packed the night before. Nick my tent companion was going about his business in the same manner, we did not speak as we were both focused on getting kitted up. I tentatively started to unzip the tent to reveal a cold dark and wet night outside.

Sunrise on the slopes of Stok Kangri

We were attempting an ‘alpine start’ for our ascent this meant the first few hours of the climb up the steep slopes onto the snout of the glacier and then through the boulder fields would all need to be climbed in complete darkness. This thought both invigorated me and scared me in equal portions.

We gathered in the mess tent all huddled together out of the freezing rain. The Sherpas had prepared some tea, coffee and biscuits. We sat in anxious anticipation looking at Rigzin the mountain leader to see when he would make the gesture to move out. But the signal never came, his poker face gave nothing away.

Finally he announced what none of us wanted to hear, he was delaying the start of the climb until the storm blew out. He knew this mountain better than any of us and anticipated that within an hour the rains would dissipate and more stable weather would materialise giving us a better window to start the climb in, better that than risking getting wet and cold with a further 12-14 hours ahead of us outdoors on the mountainside.

The wait seemed like an eternity. The atmosphere could be cut with a knife until finally the rain stopped and we kitted up again eagerly wanting to confront the challenge. Once outside we all naturally drifted into a running order within the lineup which stayed that way for most of the climb.

I was placed behind Nannang a three times Everest summiter who would help break trail for me. As soon as we moved out of camp we hit the snows that had settled on the cold barren ground. The night sky was clear and fresh with flakes still falling as we trudged up the dreaded scree slope and over the first col and out of sight of base camp.

The mountain begins to reveal itself as darkness turns to light

The path undulated in the dark, our head torches and the moon being the only sources of light. We moved slowly like a stretched out caterpillar along the trail but I felt good, strong and rather toasty wrapped inside my big down jacket.

Complacency though soon set in after a couple of hours. We passed other teams in the dark always gaining more altitude, weaving amongst the snow covered mounds of moraine all around us. As the night drew on the temperature plummeted and what had fallen as snow earlier now started to freeze creating a slippery treacherous path. With freezing of course comes expansion and that expansion caused an incident that would halt our complacency in its tracks.

I first realised something was up when I heard a distant rumbling far above us. The rumbling became louder, then louder still! Next thing I knew Nannang was shouting instructions out to us “headlights up! Up!”. We all pointed our heads and torches up the dark rocky slope to our left. The rumbling increased and then what looked like footballs in the dark started tumbling down out of the void towards us, only these footballs were rocks (the size of footballs) and they were falling en masse from above us. “Run. run!” shouted Nannang.

I ran like never before! Sheer panic set in and we all legged it for our lives. The rocks came hurtling down and around us leaving a trail of dust and debris behind them. I dodged maybe two, possibly three rocks, one in front and two behind me as I scarpered along the path out of harms way. It was a timely wake up call that we were on a vey real and very dangerous mountain.

A Sherpa cutting an ice step into the glacier beside a small crevasse

It took a time to compose ourselves and conversation dried up completely. We trudged on discontentedly until we hit the start of the glacier. To safely cross the glacier we needed to follow our guides leads to the letter. With a bit of guile we should navigate the hazard successfully. Surprisingly we didn’t bother to crampon up although most other groups seemed to, instead we struck out over the glacier straight away.

One of our team unceremoniously slipped while crossing a small crevasse and ended up being man hauled out in the darkness but we all just carried on as if nothing had happened, blocking out any negativity was by far the best way to proceed.

Starting up the Zig-Zags having passed the glacier

After the glacier came the dreaded Zig-Zags! These switchbacks would take us up to the col from where we would strike out along the summit ridge. The Zig-Zags were dreaded by all because it marked the start of the really steep elevation a mass of boulders and scree to be negotiated. Any resemblance of a path had been submerged in several centimetres of fresh snow and so route finding became difficult.

Nannang valiantly broke trail for what felt like several hours as we huffed and puffed our way up the boulders. Rockfall we had been told was once again the biggest danger on this part of the route, usually caused by heavy footed climbers above on a switchback running parallel to yours below.

Sunlight illuminates the glacial cirque below on Stok Kangri

Rather miraculously and unscathed we emerged just below the col as daybreak lit up the dark sky. The whole mountain lit up in a pinkish red glow as the sunbeams pierced the battlements of the surrounding peaks. The snowy mountains and the natural amphitheatre they created were suddenly illuminated as if by spotlights.

Once we hit the col the wind whipped up around us and we hankered down in the snow trying to get some quick sustenance down while struggling to put on our harnesses and rope up ready for the summit ridge.

The top of Stok Kangri looked tantalisingly close now. I harnessed up and found myself on a safety rope behind Nannang the Sherpa and Owen another of the paying clients on the trip. We started off up the icy ridge.

Roped up along the summit ridge at almost 6,000m

There were more people than I had imagined on the narrow ridge. With other climbing parties scattered all over the mountain making our progress hard going. Most we past seemed to be out of their depth struggling in crampons and straddling the rocks to get over them. We pressed on!

The rope jolted me up and down, my harness cut into my crutch but the summit was insight. A few more careful steps along the exposed scree paths and then a final push up the snowy dome at the top and I would have made it.

Above the clouds and on the summit

I turned the final corner and onto the last stretch to the summit. The snow was deep and I was puffing with exhaustion. I could now see the prayer flags fluttering in the summit wind from the highest point and then suddenly as if in a dream I was there!

I touched the summit flags said a heartfelt thank you to the Gods and then collapsed exhausted in the snow. I shook Nannang’s hand and we all congratulated each other as we trudged onto the summit one after the other.

Team photo on the snow capped summit

In an area of virgin snow we all congregated to take in the panorama from the highest point in The Zanskar Mountain Range while Rod a member of the team popped open a small bottle of Whiskey. He gave a drop to the mountain and then passed the bottle around and I indulged in my first sip of alcohol in over three months.

We had made it to the top of Stok Kangri at 6,153m.

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Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 10 – Base Camp (4,980m)

Today was spent resting and acclimatising around base camp prior to our ascent. We took the opportunity to take a hike up to a nearby col to the south west which overlooked the camp and would be on the ascent route later that night.

A cold and wet Expedition Team photo at the col

We clambered up to the col with all the same gear on that we would be using for our summit attempt affording us the opportunity to tweak and check that everything was comfortable and working correctly. It was the first outing for my B3 insulated boots so making sure they felt comfortable and that they would not cause me any blisters was important. I checked my insulated hydration bladder was working which it was and made sure my layering set up was warm enough.

Trekkers taking the dreaded slog up to the first col

We were treated to some sleet and rain as we reached the top of the col a foretaste perhaps of what we might expect on the summit night! As we all posed for some very cold photos I’m sure most of us were thinking along the same lines …. what the hell am I doing here?

After we had all nearly frozen to death on our trip up to the col safely back at base camp we set about having some instructions in the use of crampons, ice-axe and being roped up together at high-altitude.

The Mess Tent at a pretty desolate looking Base Camp – Stok Kangri

Bizarrely with no snow actually down in base camp we had to make do with imitating ice-axe arrests while hiking around in our crampons amongst the boulder fields on the camps perimeter. Still we covered the basics, but by the end of it I was still regrettably struggling with which knot to use when tying into my own harness! Not a comforting feeling.

The remainder of the day was spent resting, eating and chatting in our tents. The main topic was of course what to expect during the summit bid that night and how it might go plus how long it could take, and whether we thought we could pull it off successfully.

I felt confident that given good weather and if I avoided any altitude sickness (which I had up until now) then I had a fair chance. I felt fit and strong and had been waiting nearly two years for this opportunity to climb a 6,000’er in the Himalayas, I was determined to give it my all when the time came.

Base Camp – Stok Kangri 4,980 metres

Back in my tent at around 6.00pm I tried to get some sleep but I knew it was going to be a fitful nights sleep at best, I also knew that at 10.30pm my tent would be shaken by the Sherpas and I’d have to wake up ready to pit myself against the mountain. The end game was about to begin!

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Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 9 – Trek to Base Camp (4,980m)

It was just a short trek this morning to reach the base camp for Stok Kangri which sits at an altitude of 4,980m. The route was straight up the valley following everyone else.

Breaking Camp
Breaking camp in the early morning, Stok Kangri looms at the end of the valley

We had now joined paths with the trekkers that came straight up from Stok Village which follows the direct route up the valley. The cheaper and less reputable adventure outfitters, (mainly Indian ones based in Leh it must be said) use this route as it is quicker and cheaper to get up to the base of the mountain.

Of course you are playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with your health because the acclimatisation is far too quick and subsequently many clients fall victim to mountain sickness by the time they reach base camp with no hope of ever summiting.

Curious Marmots looked on as we trekked past up to Base Camp

However, for us the acclimatisation process had been spot on as we had now trekked in over a series of high passes all increasing with altitude and we’d then camped at slightly lower altitudes along the way. We were now finely tuned for the task ahead.

Many other hikers on the route to base camp though appeared to be suffering. Stumbling around almost incoherent with their guides not appearing to be worried in the slightest. I was glad I’d joined a more reputable UK outfitter.

Final push to Base Camp
Feeling good and strong on the final push to Base Camp

Base camp was a rocky site beside a number of meltwater streams. We pitched the tents for the last time slightly higher than the main camp to avoid undue noise, smells and the litter, plus all the usual detritus regrettably found at base camps around the world.

We settled in for the next couple of days. The topic of conversation was all about the mountain now. I sat down for tea in the mess tent and the chatter amongst the team was all about altitude, times, distances, equipment etc, etc. It was suddenly real and the reality was dawning upon everybody. The next few days were going to be critical and make or break after all the months of preparation and thousands of pounds spent it all came down to the next 48 hours!

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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!

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