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!
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