Stok Kangri Expedition Day 4 – The Wari La Pass

Our trio of acclimatisation days would come to a close with a much vaunted trip to the ‘Kardung La Pass’ nestled at a staggering 5,359m above sea-level and reputedly the highest road pass in the world, although often times this seems to be open to dispute. However, the day did not go well!

The pass is only about one hours journey out of Leh but it transpired that the week we had chosen to climb one of India most famous peaks was also the same week that Indian Independence was being celebrated and was therefore a national holiday which equaled traffic jams!

Yes, even a third world country it appears suffers from Bank Holiday hold-ups. The pass had been a road block for several days, and we would not be getting there easily. So ‘LT’ our guide had other plans.

He suggested another high pass known as ‘The Wari-La’ from where he claimed we could do an equally good acclimatisation climb from the roadside. So off we set through the arid countryside headed for this new mythical pass.

The main roads in Ladakh are pretty bad, but the minor roads are even worse! Remembering that we were here for an adventure we steeled ourselves for the derrière bashing pseudo off-road journey that was sure to ensue up to the pass.

Thoughts of death or injury on a 6,000m mountain quickly paled into insignificance compared with the constant near death experiences found on a minor road in India. These experiences come in the shape of other cars, hairpin bends with vertical drop offs, burning rubber tyres (courtesy of our driver), and the Indian obsession with wearing flip-flops – even when driving up a mountain.

After several close shaves we finally ground to a halt along a dusty mountain road halfway up the valley where some very official looking men were gesticulating that we needed to turn around.

Muddy landslide across the valley roadApparently the road had been hit by a landslide the night before during the heavy rains and was now impassable. Much arguing and even more gesticulating and a Plan B swung into action as our driver attempted to get up to the blocked pass by using an even smaller road running along the western side of the valley.

Good idea in theory, but after only ten minutes of driving we found that this road had also been hit by a mudslide during the previous nights rains and was also now totally impassable.

We appeared doomed and properly stuck. Plan C was a little more basic. Drive back to the scene of the first landslide and wait it out while the army moved in to clear the way. So it was that we dug in for a good couple of hours wait.

I sat, at first sweltering in the minibus and then after much fidgeting I removed myself and sat on a boulder beside the roadside until I felt myself beginning to burn up under what was now the midday sun. Being a mainly British contingent on the expedition most of the other chaps on the minibus had by now decided to strip off to the waist and roast in the sun beside the road as is our nation’s custom, I quietly declined.

I’m convinced I have a mild case of attention deficit disorder and after ten minutes of doing nothing my fears were reaffirmed as I began to climb up the walls in our sweltering minibus. I needed to make use of this down time. So I began to hatch a plan.

I knew that we were roughly at 3,850m, so I wondered if I attempted to scramble up the rocky slopes beside the road whether or not I could make the magic 4,000m mark and achieve some great acclimatisation from an an otherwise useless situation.

Having convinced myself this was a good idea I started off up the slope hopping from boulder to boulder up and over a dilapidated drystone wall and then up some steep loose scree. I gained height rapidly enough and soon stopped to take a reading from my GPS, it read 4,005m.

As I paused to take in the view along the valley and suck in the rarefied air the lads below realised my plan. Not wanting to miss out on some acclimation they too had decided to trudge up after me figuring out that I must have stopped at around the magical 4,000m mark.

the Wari-LaJust then the minibus below sounded its horn. The road had been cleared. Hooray! So we all quickly scree ran back down to the roadside. Finally we drove off towards the Wari-La. A few dozen scary hairpins later, and we arrived just shy of the col at 5,312m.

The air outside the bus was cold, and we layered up. ‘LT’ had dropped us off beneath a boulder strewn slope. An undistinguished rocky knoll somewhere at the top was our target to aim for and so up we all trudged with no obvious path to follow. As we had yet to form any climbing partnerships it became every man and woman for himself or herself.

I forged a relatively steep line up the boulders attempting to push myself as far as I was comfortable with, but also mindful not to over exert myself as we were still acclimatising. I topped out on what was universally agreed to be the highest point of this unnamed pile of rubble above the pass.

Feeling the strain at around 5,000mThe climb while very uninspiring on the way up eventually at the top delivered a sublime view over the mountains towards Pakistan and The Karakoram Range. Snowy peaks dotted the vista in all directions. Mission accomplished! As we headed back down my head began to throb and I knew the effects of the high altitude were beginning to kick in.

After an ankle turning descent over the boulders and scree back to the pass we all piled back into the minibus for what was an even scarier drive back down the hairpins than it had been coming up! Smouldering brake discs, screeching turns and the general lack of concern coming from the driver’s seat were all a bit unsettling. But we all agreed we had finally completed an acclimatisation day of note and our combined banging headaches were testament to the punishment we had put ourselves through.

Later that day and back at the hotel in Leh although completely knackered from the days exertions we all needed to embark on packing our travel holdalls because tomorrow we were due to set off up the Indus Valley to finally start the real part of the expedition, the real climb! Stok was getting closer!

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

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Misadventures in Slovenia – The Julian Alps

“An adventure is a situation where the outcome is not entirely within your control. It is up to fate, in other words” – Henry Youngman

TriglavTriglav, at 2864m, is the highest mountain in Slovenia and the highest peak in the Julian Alps. The mountain is the Slovene National symbol and is the centrepiece of the Triglav National Park, Slovenia’s only national park.

With a resume like that and the fact it looked just so inviting in so many photos a plan had to be hatched to go and climb it!

While in India in 2018 I’d met two fellow mountain enthusiasts (enter Ben and Matt), we’d all climbed to the top of Stok Kangri together in Ladakh that year and had all shown an interest in having another adventure together. Fast forward to September 2019 and here we all were in Slovenia!

Plan A
The plan on paper was pretty simple, we had selected a medium difficulty Via Ferrata route on the northern side of Triglav named the Tominskova Pot which ascended to a mountain hut (the Triglavski dom na Kredarici). The next morning we would leave the hut early for a summit attempt before an afternoon descent all the way back down to the valley floor. Not overly ambitious if the weather played ball, which having strategically picked the most stable time of year (September), all looked infinitely achievable.

Tominskova Pot

We left on the morning of Friday the 6th September flying out to Ljubljana where we picked up a hire car and then drove on up to Bled where we had picked a working farm stay in Kupljenik as our base to stay while in the foothills of the Triglavski national park.

However, from the moment we had touched down in Slovenia the weather had taken a turn for the worse. We knew the weather was looking a trifle bad from the weather reports but this rain was almost biblical in its ferocity and only Noah would have felt comfortable venturing out into it.

As we arrived at our lodgings conditions had not improved. The usually beautiful and picturesque farmstead The Dolinar Kraener was shrouded in thick mist, so much so that we almost missed it completely while driving up the steep and winding country lane out of Bled.

Dolinar KraenerFinally having spotted the farm we knocked on the wooden door of the chalet type building where the owner greeted us with incredulous surprise that we had made it this far while then proceeding to tell us with great foreboding that we must be mad to want to still try and climb Triglav in these conditions which were now due to set in for the weekend.

In true British fashion we dismissed the warnings. A chorus of derision and disbelief ensued from the owner and her husband who had now made an appearance ending in something along the line of the British were all completely mad! We resolved to press on as before with our plan.

Dolinar Kraener FarmAfter a meal, a beer and much conversation around plans down in Bled we hankered down for the night back back at the farm. We packed our gear into our rucksacks and tried to get some sleep before tomorrows big adventure.

We awoke on Saturday to thick clag and mist accompanied by the constant drizzle of incessant rain! Visibility was down to a few metres and all thoughts of climbing a 2-3B graded VF route seemed dashed. I concede I’m a slightly mad Brit, but I’m not suicidal and neither were my colleagues, a plan B clearly had be thought up and quickly!

Enter Plan B
We really did not have a proper plan b so we hatched one quickly. Instead of our now overly ambitious plan to summit via the North Face of Triglav from the Vrata valley using the Tominšek Route we set our sights somewhat lower and arrived upon the Pokljuka High Plateau route. This is the easy option on the mountain but given the adverse weather, the next to zero visibility and a forecast of thunderstorms and possibly even snow we thought it a prudent decision

Plan B Route MapWe’d prebooked into the Kredarici Mountain hut based on a northern ascent but now getting to it would just add extra mileage to the venture so we blew that idea out of the water and decided to make for the nearer Dom Planika hut instead. We had no reservation but banked on so few people being mad enough to be out in these conditions that there would be space a plenty.  If when we arrived and we felt conditions had improved then we would make a summit bid there and then.

Most people trek to the hut, stay overnight then summit on day two. We did not have this luxury given that the weather forecast was due to worsen still further on the Sunday wiping out any possibility of a summit. It was just a whisper but it was rumoured that there could possibly be a two hour weather window around midday on the Saturday and we were aiming for that, not ideal, but our only real chance of-gleaning any success from the trip.

So with a new plan and hastily rearranged trail head co-ordinates tapped into the car SatNav at 6am in the morning we set off into the dark to find Rudno Polje the 1347m starting point of our new route.

The torrential rain continued and after several attempts at finding a way to the start point along a road that was not blocked or flooded we eventually rolled up at the Slovenian Army Barracks at Rudno Polje. We parked, kitted up and left immediately starting up a forest trail in the misty first light of dawn.

En route to the Dom Planiska HutThe route was an easy follow through dense forest followed by low alpine meadows. We could hear cow bells jangling in the distance and the noise of water tumbling over rocky beds but we could never sight the beasts nor see the streams due to the all enveloping mountain mists.

Along the trail we inched past many precipitous edges with drop offs into the depths below but could never gauge the real danger due to the appalling conditions. After four or more rain soaked hours of trekking and misery we finally sighted the elusive Dom Planika Hut as it emerged from the swirling mist and fog.

The Dom Planiska HutWe entered the warm and dry hut asking the warden if we could (a) stay the night, evidently 160 other people had cancelled their bookings due to the weather and (b) if we could dump our heavy gear in the boot room in case we thought we could make a summit bid. With a yes to both we hastily dumped all unnecessary gear out of our heavy rucksacks and harnessed up for a summit push.

The route from the Planika hut is considered the easier summit ridge route but in these wet conditions and with impending thunderstorms due we were looking for a quick smash and grab up and down. We were desperate to avoid being harnessed onto the metal cabling and pins enroute when the storms arrived.

So with harnesses on and more or less everything else dumped we emerged from the mountain hut to take a serious look at the route ahead of us and to see if realistically we thought we could get up and down in time before the afternoon storm.

Ascent from The Dom Planiska HutMiraculously the skies began to clear! It was unbelievable! We did not need a second invite. We started to ascend the rock face. The route to the ridge was fairly easy as we followed the red and white path symbols upwards. A few protected areas at the harder pitches of the route added interest.

Start of the ridge from Mali TriglavWe arrived at the famous Ridgeline leading first to Mali (little) Triglav and further beyond to Triglav herself. The wind buffeted us for the first time, the rocks were polished and slippery and we gingerly made our way along the ridge. The rain abated and for the first time I thought to myself that possibly just possibly the summit might be within grasp!

The ridge seemed to go on forever in a series of ascents and descents always getting gradually narrower. We passed only four other lunatics along the ridge. I had one eye on my foot placement and one eye on the weather the whole way.

The famous Triglav Ridgelinesnapseed-13I confess I did not clip into the fixed cables at any point. A dangerous decision in the conditions but I was more concerned on timings with the weather window than my ability to climb. Both Ben and Matt felt the same way and we all made the decision to ditch using the lanyards. This gained us valuable speed but at the risk of a slip or at worse a possible fall.

Then the clouds burst open and the elusive yet familiar sight of the Alujez Shelter on the summit came into view. A few more careful strides and we would all be on the summit of the highest mountain in Slovenia.

Summit success at the Alujez ShelterWe’d made it! Elated we rested for 5-10 minutes before hitching the rucksacks up onto our backs and beating a hasty retreat down. But the weather Gods had not finished with us yet!

Within minutes of starting our descent sleet began to fall. The wind picked up and the rocks became super slippery. It was now a battle to get safely down. The balance of expediency and safety had to be just right. Conditions worsened and we had a couple of slips and slides which alerted our senses.

Dangerous descentWe emerged from the gloom of the encircling storm clouds to pop out just above the Dom Planika Hut, a very welcome sight. I let out a shriek that echoed around the mountainsides. Ben and Matt felt the same kind of relief I’m sure. We waddled, limped and dragged ourselves back over the scree path to the hut. It had been an 8 hour marathon of a day and a herculean push for the summit then back down to the hut all in one day.

Ben and Matt back down and out of the cloudsWe sat knackered in the hut ordered some cold beers and felt lucky to have had a chance against the odds to get a summit in before collapsing onto exhausted slumber.

During the night the wind howled, thunder echoed outside and lightening lit up the windows. We knew we had been lucky. When morning came we started to descend in the gloop and rain the same route we had trekked up the previous day. Later upon our return to civilisation we learnt that the snows had swept in a day after we had been up there and the mountain was now smothered in the white stuff.

We had just made it in the nick of time. Not as originally planned but we had still returned home from the adventure having summited the highest mountain in The Julian Alps and Slovenia and that was a great way to sign off the season of 2019.

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Climbing Gran Paradiso 4061m – Graian Alps Italy

Gran ParadisoAt 13,323 ft (4,061 m) in height, Gran Paradiso is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful but also one of the “easiest” 4000ers of the Alps. The peak lies within the beautiful National Park of Gran Paradiso. It was first climbed in September of 1860 by an Englishman named John Cowell. The mountain is regarded as the highest mountain wholly within Italy and it had been on my personal radar for several years.

I’d first heard about the mountain through others while hiking in the Austrian Alps a few years earlier. At the time I had pretensions to go and climb Mont Blanc but I’d been gradually persuaded through conversations to try this less busy yet equally beautiful mountain a few miles across the French border near the Aosta Valley in Italy. So here I was a few years later ready to give it my best try.

Aosta ValleyThe main route up the mountain is graded F+, so if you’re looking for a big peak that is technically and relatively straightforward then Gran Paradiso ticks all the boxes and that was exactly what I was looking for.

There are two main routes to the summit for the average Joe: you either ascend via the Rifugio Vitttorio Emmanuel from the north east side or the Rifugio Chabod from the north west. We had chosen to attempt a full traverse ascending via Vittorio and then descending via Chabod to see the most of what this beautiful mountain had to offer. At least that was the original plan!

Both routes are glacial treks that end in a 20-minute technical scramble. By UK standards the final ridge is around a Grade 2 scramble, but it’s all also protected with pigtails to safely rope yourself into.

The Gran Paradiso National Park has very limited accommodation due to its safely guarded building restraints so my adventure began in Argentiere, at the wonderfully named Yeti Lodge, a traditional Alpine chalet just up the valley from Chamonix. I’d be based here before transferring through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy in the morning. That night I met my fellow mountaineers and IFMGA guide followed by a lovely 3-course chalet meal.

Aosta ValleyUp and awake early we left for Italy. After about a two hour drive we arrived at the commune of Valsavarenche in the Aosta Valley, our starting point. From here we started to hike up to the Rifugio Vittorio Emmanuel Hut.

A beautiful 2-3 hour walk through alpine forests and over some moorland saw us make it to the Rifugio at (2775m). With 120 beds in total, the facilities are basic, but the location is simply perfect. We spent the afternoon with our guide Stefano practising technical skills with crampons, ropes and harnesses etc before retiring early to bed in preparation for the day ahead.

Rifugio Vittorio Emmanuel HutA true alpine start awaited us the following morning as we left well before daybreak to embark on our climb. The weather was already looking pretty grim from the moment we awoke and steadily deteriorated yet further as the morning progressed. Two big problems were occurring. Waves of fresh wet snow were falling on the top of layers of unhardened snowpack underneath. We were getting unseasonal snowfall for this late in June. Coupled with a relatively high and humid accompanying temperature the snow was not freezing to any real hardness creating a foot of fresh soft snow to break trail in atop unconsolidated cruddy old snow underneath.

The writing was already on the wall and after several hours of laboured ascent our guide stopped us dead in our tracks. The weather had closed in and we were now in a white-out. The snow was falling, we were behind schedule and the conditions worsening. We might have made the summit but the views would have been non-existent and the climb would have been a real sufferfest. Stefano pulled the plug and nobody felt like arguing!

We dejectedly tracked back down passing first a French Team and then an Albanian Team both still blindly (and possibly foolishly) forging a path heads down straight for the summit. But we had the advantage of a day in hand with an option of using our second day from the Chabod Hut side still to play, so all was not lost.

Our Plan B appeared to be a tactical retreat all the way back to the valley, a quick nip along the foot of the valley to the Chabod trailhead and then a second plod back up the hill to the Refugio Chabod situated at the foot of the north-west face at 2710m . We were a weary band that eventually shuffled into the mountain hut at around 2.30pm that afternoon.

Refugio ChabodWe ate as much pasta as we could stomach then hit the dormitory bunks and slept solidly until 7pm that evening. We were spent forces mentally and physically and needed to recuperate to try again for the peak.

I slept like a new born baby that night but with one failure behind us we were leaving nothing to chance this time around. The weather forecast was looking much better with a clear moonlit night ahead meaning dropping temperatures and no chance of precipitation forecast for the morning, which all hopefully meant good snow conditions under foot.

We were up at 3.30am and the first team to leave the hut that morning. We tip-toed out across the moraine fields in the darkness our way lit only by the head-torches on our helmets, eventually we made it up onto the Glacier de Laveciau.

Crampon PointWe roped up. The glacier is an intricate maze of crevasses which we now carefully wound our way through, all the time ascending slowly. The moon shone down on the cold ice which glistened under the crunch of our crampons. As daybreak finally arrived we had made it to the windy col the Schiena d’Asinoand (Donkey’s Back) finally at last the summit was insight!

Gearing up on the colMountains around the Gran ParadisoThe final 100 metres of climbing were indeed an exciting and exposed scramble and eventually after a few tricky moves with crampons scratching across rock we found that we had arrived at the exposed tiny summit, we had it all to ourselves (learning later that we had been the first team from the north-west side to reach the the top that day). The views were sublime particularly of the Mont Blanc Massif and the Matterhorn far away in the distance. Just visible Verona flickered in the morning sun many miles away.

On the summit of Gran ParadisoAlas, and all too soon we had to start our descent. Happily I was allowed to lead the team back down as I’d been last on the rope during our ascent. Now in glorious sunshine we yomped back down the glacier following our own footsteps that we had left on the way up only a few hours earlier.

Descending the glaciers on the north west side of the mountainSatisfied and fulfilled I finally flopped down outside the Chabod Hut back at a staggeringly early time of 10.30am. Collapsed on a wooden bench drenched in the morning sunshine and looking back up the glacier to the picture perfect summit of Gran Paradiso I promptly ordered myself a beer each and some yummy cake with whipped cream on for good measure.

Now I know it is bad form to have a drink before the sun is even over the yard arm but to hell with tradition I’d thoroughly earned that pint and it was a fitting way to sign off on what had been a terrific little adventure!

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Stok Kangri Expedition Day 3 – Exploring Ancient Leh

To climb a 6000m peak you need to acclimatise and to do this you need to spend a substantial amount of time at high altitude so another acclimatisation day was required to firstly get used to already being at 3,524m above sea-level and secondly to prepare us for the much harder task ahead. Today it had been scheduled that we were going to take a walking tour around the ancient city of Leh in which we were staying to help with this ongoing process.

Leh is the main town in the North West Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and sits at a high altitude along the Indus Valley. In years gone by it had been the old capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh and we were here for the next three days. Continue reading “Stok Kangri Expedition Day 3 – Exploring Ancient Leh”