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.

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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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Piz Da Lech (Via Ferrata VF3B) – The Dolomites

Later in the year I want to attempt to climb the mighty Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia. To summit the mountain in style a series of Via Ferrata (VF) routes can be taken all the way to the summit. However, before attempting such a trip I thought it would be a good idea to get some practice in and where better to do that than in the home of VF itself the Italian Dolomites!

snapseedLuckily for me I had a week booked in July to go to Italy where I’d be doing some hiking and mountain walking based in Corvara in the Sud Tyrol, so while I was out there I booked myself onto a VF day on a one-to-one basis with a local Mountain Guide.

The Alta Badia Guides Office suggested a route called the ‘Piz Da Lech’ rated at a VF3B. VF grading is easy to understand. Difficulty is rated on a 5 point scale (1 being easy and 5 being the most difficult). Exposure (as in how steep the drop offs are, or how catastrophic a tumble might be) is rated as an A, B or C, with C being the most exposed. So the route seemed pitched pretty perfectly for me, moderately hard but with a few serious moves and some exposure to get used to.

Some technical details of the route:
Via ferrata, completely secured with steel cables
Type of path: 95% steel cables, 5% steps.
Complete gradient of the climb: 380 m, 2-2:30 hours
Complete gradient until the beginning of the via ferrata: 30 m, 20 mins.
Gradient of the ferrata: 190 m, 1:00-1:30 hours.
Gradient to the summit: 160 m, 30 mins.
Descent: from the Piz da Lech summit, 2,910 m, descend along the normal route (with red signs). The last short steep stretch of the descent is secured with metal cables and fixed with steel; 1:30 hours.
Facing: South.

So I set off with my guide Michel up the Piz Boè Gondola from Covara in the early morning bound for the rocky slopes of the Sella Range above. I was ready for a bit of adventure and the day did not fail to deliver.

There was some excellent climbing to be had on the rock itself whilst the wire, ladders and stemples were all well-positioned for when it became too impractical to climb unaided. There were also the two famous ladders towards the end of the climb to negotiate, these ladders themselves were airy and fun but required a bit of force to pull through, especially on the top one.

The route finished with a nice mountain walk across a lunar landscape to the summit which had the ubiquitous cross upon it and far reaching views across the Dolomites.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first real taste of Via Ferrata and the surroundings couldn’t have been better for a climb with stunning mountain scenery. Hopefully my little adventure will have put me in good stead for the sterner test to come in September out in Slovenia.

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Guides Website: