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.

Lunchtime and some R&RAfter 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.

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.