Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 11 – Summit Day (6,153m)

“Man discovers himself when he measures himself against an obstacle.”- Antoine de St. Exupery

The tent shook and the Sherpas woke me from a fitful slumber. It was time to go! Mr James, Mr James wake up! We go, we go!

The inside of the tent was covered in a thin film of frost and I could hear the light pitter patter of water drops cascading off the canvas, it was raining! That meant only one thing, further up the mountain it was snowing!

I was already fully clothed wrapped in my base layers while I’d been snoozing in my sleeping bag. I now put on my outer layers and checked my rucksack once again which I’d pre packed the night before. Nick my tent companion was going about his business in the same manner, we did not speak as we were both focused on getting kitted up. I tentatively started to unzip the tent to reveal a cold dark and wet night outside.

Sunrise on the slopes of Stok Kangri

We were attempting an ‘alpine start’ for our ascent this meant the first few hours of the climb up the steep slopes onto the snout of the glacier and then through the boulder fields would all need to be climbed in complete darkness. This thought both invigorated me and scared me in equal portions.

We gathered in the mess tent all huddled together out of the freezing rain. The Sherpas had prepared some tea, coffee and biscuits. We sat in anxious anticipation looking at Rigzin the mountain leader to see when he would make the gesture to move out. But the signal never came, his poker face gave nothing away.

Finally he announced what none of us wanted to hear, he was delaying the start of the climb until the storm blew out. He knew this mountain better than any of us and anticipated that within an hour the rains would dissipate and more stable weather would materialise giving us a better window to start the climb in, better that than risking getting wet and cold with a further 12-14 hours ahead of us outdoors on the mountainside.

The wait seemed like an eternity. The atmosphere could be cut with a knife until finally the rain stopped and we kitted up again eagerly wanting to confront the challenge. Once outside we all naturally drifted into a running order within the lineup which stayed that way for most of the climb.

I was placed behind Nannang a three times Everest summiter who would help break trail for me. As soon as we moved out of camp we hit the snows that had settled on the cold barren ground. The night sky was clear and fresh with flakes still falling as we trudged up the dreaded scree slope and over the first col and out of sight of base camp.

The mountain begins to reveal itself as darkness turns to light

The path undulated in the dark, our head torches and the moon being the only sources of light. We moved slowly like a stretched out caterpillar along the trail but I felt good, strong and rather toasty wrapped inside my big down jacket.

Complacency though soon set in after a couple of hours. We passed other teams in the dark always gaining more altitude, weaving amongst the snow covered mounds of moraine all around us. As the night drew on the temperature plummeted and what had fallen as snow earlier now started to freeze creating a slippery treacherous path. With freezing of course comes expansion and that expansion caused an incident that would halt our complacency in its tracks.

I first realised something was up when I heard a distant rumbling far above us. The rumbling became louder, then louder still! Next thing I knew Nannang was shouting instructions out to us “headlights up! Up!”. We all pointed our heads and torches up the dark rocky slope to our left. The rumbling increased and then what looked like footballs in the dark started tumbling down out of the void towards us, only these footballs were rocks (the size of footballs) and they were falling en masse from above us. “Run. run!” shouted Nannang.

I ran like never before! Sheer panic set in and we all legged it for our lives. The rocks came hurtling down and around us leaving a trail of dust and debris behind them. I dodged maybe two, possibly three rocks, one in front and two behind me as I scarpered along the path out of harms way. It was a timely wake up call that we were on a vey real and very dangerous mountain.

A Sherpa cutting an ice step into the glacier beside a small crevasse

It took a time to compose ourselves and conversation dried up completely. We trudged on discontentedly until we hit the start of the glacier. To safely cross the glacier we needed to follow our guides leads to the letter. With a bit of guile we should navigate the hazard successfully. Surprisingly we didn’t bother to crampon up although most other groups seemed to, instead we struck out over the glacier straight away.

One of our team unceremoniously slipped while crossing a small crevasse and ended up being man hauled out in the darkness but we all just carried on as if nothing had happened, blocking out any negativity was by far the best way to proceed.

Starting up the Zig-Zags having passed the glacier

After the glacier came the dreaded Zig-Zags! These switchbacks would take us up to the col from where we would strike out along the summit ridge. The Zig-Zags were dreaded by all because it marked the start of the really steep elevation a mass of boulders and scree to be negotiated. Any resemblance of a path had been submerged in several centimetres of fresh snow and so route finding became difficult.

Nannang valiantly broke trail for what felt like several hours as we huffed and puffed our way up the boulders. Rockfall we had been told was once again the biggest danger on this part of the route, usually caused by heavy footed climbers above on a switchback running parallel to yours below.

Sunlight illuminates the glacial cirque below on Stok Kangri

Rather miraculously and unscathed we emerged just below the col as daybreak lit up the dark sky. The whole mountain lit up in a pinkish red glow as the sunbeams pierced the battlements of the surrounding peaks. The snowy mountains and the natural amphitheatre they created were suddenly illuminated as if by spotlights.

Once we hit the col the wind whipped up around us and we hankered down in the snow trying to get some quick sustenance down while struggling to put on our harnesses and rope up ready for the summit ridge.

The top of Stok Kangri looked tantalisingly close now. I harnessed up and found myself on a safety rope behind Nannang the Sherpa and Owen another of the paying clients on the trip. We started off up the icy ridge.

Roped up along the summit ridge at almost 6,000m

There were more people than I had imagined on the narrow ridge. With other climbing parties scattered all over the mountain making our progress hard going. Most we past seemed to be out of their depth struggling in crampons and straddling the rocks to get over them. We pressed on!

The rope jolted me up and down, my harness cut into my crutch but the summit was insight. A few more careful steps along the exposed scree paths and then a final push up the snowy dome at the top and I would have made it.

Above the clouds and on the summit

I turned the final corner and onto the last stretch to the summit. The snow was deep and I was puffing with exhaustion. I could now see the prayer flags fluttering in the summit wind from the highest point and then suddenly as if in a dream I was there!

I touched the summit flags said a heartfelt thank you to the Gods and then collapsed exhausted in the snow. I shook Nannang’s hand and we all congratulated each other as we trudged onto the summit one after the other.

Team photo on the snow capped summit

In an area of virgin snow we all congregated to take in the panorama from the highest point in The Zanskar Mountain Range while Rod a member of the team popped open a small bottle of Whiskey. He gave a drop to the mountain and then passed the bottle around and I indulged in my first sip of alcohol in over three months.

We had made it to the top of Stok Kangri at 6,153m.

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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 9 – Trek to Base Camp (4,980m)

It was just a short trek this morning to reach the base camp for Stok Kangri which sits at an altitude of 4,980m. The route was straight up the valley following everyone else.

Breaking Camp
Breaking camp in the early morning, Stok Kangri looms at the end of the valley

We had now joined paths with the trekkers that came straight up from Stok Village which follows the direct route up the valley. The cheaper and less reputable adventure outfitters, (mainly Indian ones based in Leh it must be said) use this route as it is quicker and cheaper to get up to the base of the mountain.

Of course you are playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with your health because the acclimatisation is far too quick and subsequently many clients fall victim to mountain sickness by the time they reach base camp with no hope of ever summiting.

Curious Marmots looked on as we trekked past up to Base Camp

However, for us the acclimatisation process had been spot on as we had now trekked in over a series of high passes all increasing with altitude and we’d then camped at slightly lower altitudes along the way. We were now finely tuned for the task ahead.

Many other hikers on the route to base camp though appeared to be suffering. Stumbling around almost incoherent with their guides not appearing to be worried in the slightest. I was glad I’d joined a more reputable UK outfitter.

Final push to Base Camp
Feeling good and strong on the final push to Base Camp

Base camp was a rocky site beside a number of meltwater streams. We pitched the tents for the last time slightly higher than the main camp to avoid undue noise, smells and the litter, plus all the usual detritus regrettably found at base camps around the world.

We settled in for the next couple of days. The topic of conversation was all about the mountain now. I sat down for tea in the mess tent and the chatter amongst the team was all about altitude, times, distances, equipment etc, etc. It was suddenly real and the reality was dawning upon everybody. The next few days were going to be critical and make or break after all the months of preparation and thousands of pounds spent it all came down to the next 48 hours!

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Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 4 – The Wari La Pass

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 Wari-La Pass – 5,359m

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.

Putting a brave face on thoughts of death

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.

Muddy landslide across the valley road
Tracks left by the bulldozers clearing the mudslide off the road

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.

the Wari-La
The arid and barren mountains of Ladakh stretch far into the distance

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.

Forging a route up the rocks on the acclimatisation climb

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.

Feeling the strain at around 5,000m
Feeling the altitude after scrambling up untold scree

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.

A perch with a view out over the Zanskar Mountains of Ladakh

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.

Lying on the baking tarmac road at The Wari-La Pass

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!

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