Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 10 – Base Camp (4,980m)

Today was spent resting and acclimatising around base camp prior to our ascent. We took the opportunity to take a hike up to a nearby col to the south west which overlooked the camp and would be on the ascent route later that night.

A cold and wet Expedition Team photo at the col

We clambered up to the col with all the same gear on that we would be using for our summit attempt affording us the opportunity to tweak and check that everything was comfortable and working correctly. It was the first outing for my B3 insulated boots so making sure they felt comfortable and that they would not cause me any blisters was important. I checked my insulated hydration bladder was working which it was and made sure my layering set up was warm enough.

Trekkers taking the dreaded slog up to the first col

We were treated to some sleet and rain as we reached the top of the col a foretaste perhaps of what we might expect on the summit night! As we all posed for some very cold photos I’m sure most of us were thinking along the same lines …. what the hell am I doing here?

After we had all nearly frozen to death on our trip up to the col safely back at base camp we set about having some instructions in the use of crampons, ice-axe and being roped up together at high-altitude.

The Mess Tent at a pretty desolate looking Base Camp – Stok Kangri

Bizarrely with no snow actually down in base camp we had to make do with imitating ice-axe arrests while hiking around in our crampons amongst the boulder fields on the camps perimeter. Still we covered the basics, but by the end of it I was still regrettably struggling with which knot to use when tying into my own harness! Not a comforting feeling.

The remainder of the day was spent resting, eating and chatting in our tents. The main topic was of course what to expect during the summit bid that night and how it might go plus how long it could take, and whether we thought we could pull it off successfully.

I felt confident that given good weather and if I avoided any altitude sickness (which I had up until now) then I had a fair chance. I felt fit and strong and had been waiting nearly two years for this opportunity to climb a 6,000’er in the Himalayas, I was determined to give it my all when the time came.

Base Camp – Stok Kangri 4,980 metres

Back in my tent at around 6.00pm I tried to get some sleep but I knew it was going to be a fitful nights sleep at best, I also knew that at 10.30pm my tent would be shaken by the Sherpas and I’d have to wake up ready to pit myself against the mountain. The end game was about to begin!

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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 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!

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Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 7 – Trek across the Shang La Pass (4,960m) to Mathophu (4,400m)

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.

Heading up to the Shang La PassThe 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?).

Horned YakThe 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.

The Expedition Team at Shang La Pass
The Expedition Team at Shang La Pass

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.

Shang La PassCollapsing 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.

On the trail to MathophuAnother team on the trail to MathophuThe 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.

The final pass of the dayThis 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.

Camp 3Camp 3I 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.

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Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 2 – Alchi Monastery

We drove for hours across a dusty and barren landscape which made up the Indus Valley. Our minibus was headed for Alchi Monastery a few hours up river and deeper into the Ladakh countryside. The Monastery consists of a small collection of monastic temples dating from between A.D.958 and 1055.

alchi monastery prayer wheelsAccording to local tradition the complex was founded by the revered guru Rinchen Zangpo famous for translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. It is therefore both a very old and a very important monastery and we were headed there as part of our acclimatisation and cultural discovery programme in Ladakh.

According to ancient texts the tree outside the monastery is of a species not native to the land thereabouts and folklore dictates that it grew as a result of Rinchen Zangpo having an epiphany that he’d found the right spot to build a monastery and so he proceeded to plant his walking stick firmly and permanently in the ground to mark the spot from which the tree we see today grew.

A great story, highly improbable of course but I’d have bought into it in all probability had I been around in the early 11th century and it still pulls in the punters a thousand years later.

Maitreya-SculptureThe monastery today has three major shrines: the Dukhang (Assembly hall), the Sumtsek and the Temple of Manjushri, all dating from between the early 12th and early 13th centuries. Several small Chortens litter the complex that all appear to have seen much better days. 

Manjushri-SculptureDisappointingly the monastery itself was rather underwhelming. Although interesting it was very easily seen within an hour and all too soon thoughts turned to the rather uninteresting two hour dusty and bumpy drive back to Leh.

The resident monks seemed jaded by pilgrims and tourists and the whole visit was rather hasty. But the old carved deities to the Gods were undoubtedly impressive and once inside the dark confines of the sacred halls it was not hard to imagine that little had changed in a thousand years.


Interior Monastery shots used in this blog post are all sourced online and not my own due to cultural sensibilities and to preserve the interiors of the ancient buildings.

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