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 PassĀ  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 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.