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.
The 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?).
The 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.
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.
Collapsing 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.
After 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.
The 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.
This 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.
I 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.
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.
Eventually 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.
The 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.
Once 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).
From 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.
Thiksey 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.
The 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).
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.
Once 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.
Back 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.
After 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.
At 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.
Wet 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.
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.
Apparently 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.
Just 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.
The 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!