High Hopes

On my first day in Leh, I fancied I detected a strain of worry in Pankaj Lagwal, our guide for the trip. Taxed with it, he smiled but admitted it: “I’ve been here for two weeks now, and look at the mountain constantly. Only on two days have I been able to see the peak.” We raced up to the terrace of the hotel Kang-Lha-Chen, and brought out the binoculars. As he’d said, the peak yonder was veiled, shrouded in cloud and rain. We could see why he was worried—what was a pretty sight here was probably a fairly vicious storm up there. Stok Kangri was having a right royal snit.

I and five others were in Leh to make an attempt to summit Stok Kangri, the trip organised by adventure operators Aquaterra. The highest of the Stok range, the mountain is an imposing six-thousander; what makes it even more special is that it is a non-technical climb—accessible even to fit trekkers without mountaineering skills. The word on Stok Kangri has gone around. Come August and climbers from all over the world descend on Ladakh, making their way to the mountain in what is part pilgrimage, part ego-trip.

On day two, we were still being acclimatised and the itinerary included Khardung La and a leisurely tour of a couple of Leh’s fine monasteries. The long mountain road back was a thin dark imprint in a land of white dust. We looked, as we tended to do, at our particular pile. There was a shout—we pulled up and brought out the big lens. The weather on Stok Kangri was clearing, and only a few wisps of dark cloud still clung to the peak. For the first time since we arrived we could see it fully—the object of our current desire. It is a beautiful mountain.

The next day, from admiring the scenery we went into it. Our group of six: Aman Nugyal, Amit Sharma, Takako ‘Coco’ Inamori, Aaron Wolff, Rajesh Huddar and I. Assisting Pankaj with guide-work were Chain Singh and local boy, Rigzin Tamchos. The route took us past Spituk and over the mighty Indus; the bridge so heavily adorned with prayer flags I was only able to see the river through the chinks. Then from a point in Zingchen, we started to walk, making our way through rain to stop at Rumbak (3,870m). This was the first time I was trekking at elevations so high. The two days spent getting used to the thin air helped but not enough. The trek was arduous enough but the challenges piled up with the weather. Ladakh’s summer, July to September, is known for its congenial temperatures—climate change, however, knocks all assumptions out of reckoning. Like it did in 2006, it has been raining incessantly here: the streams are swelling, and we were obliged to trek and camp in the rain—never one of my favourite things to do.

I puzzled the first couple of days at my fatigue—not all your reading of how altitude affects the human body prepares you for the fact of it. Terrain I thought I should be traversing with reasonable ease became formidable; my feet seemed dipped in treacle, my breath dragged in far less than I needed. It was lowering.

If the first foray was gruelling, the second day was tougher still. We headed to Moun Karmo (4,250m) via a cruelly-placed pass called Stok La (4,890m). Footsteps became small and great effort seemed to be needed to make even minuscule advances. Once over the hump though, we skied down mud paths, and made quick work of the descent. When we finally tramped into camp, I sat down to watch lammergeirs in the cliffs surrounding us.

So far, we had been circling Stok Kangri like wary boxers. It was time to make a move. Day Three saw us make a bold stroke—we moved to Stok Kangri Base Camp (4,975m). This, I must say, is something like an international camping festival. A widish meadow with a stream running by, it is a necessary pit stop for trekkers on their way up and those on their way down. A shack here provides the essentials—instant noodles, energy bars, chocolate, beer and rum. Tents of every hue are pegged here, and the scene has campers walking about, kitchen fires going with wholesome aromas, and mules and horses tethered here and there, nibbling at grass and at each other. I fell asleep to the hum of voices and the jangle of mule-bells.

We were now to see the whites of the eyes of our target. Advanced Base Camp (5,315m). A flattering name, for all it is really is a pile of rocks, with barely enough room for four tents. Our cook Ravinder conjured up some divine khichdi and soup, and we all huddled into the kitchen tent to tuck in. The air was nippy—Stok Kangri (6,153m) was sending out tendrils of biting cold to run their fingers down our spines.

Our bid for the summit started, as these often do, in the middle of the night. The plan was to climb up to a ridge on the mountain and then crawl along the ridge to the summit. The weather seemed fine and would hold out, God willing. Layers of clothing were donned, miner headlamps were fastened, a preparatory cup of tea was imbibed with biscuits. We set off over rocks at first and then over the glacier, stamping to keep the ice off our shoes, digging in the pick axes as we scrambled for purchase. We began to climb now in earnest. A trail of sorts there was, but difficult to pick out in the dark. All I was sure of was the direction: up. In the distance behind and before me, I saw headlamps bobbing in the dark—about 20 trekkers were trying to summit that day.

A few hours into the foray and it started to get light over the east. The sun crept up from behind snow-rimmed peaks, lighting them an eerie and utte en raining incessantly here: the streams are swelling, and we were obliged to trek and camp in the rain—never one of my favourite things to do.

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