I first found climbing when I was 13 years old. It was a life changing revelation for someone never really stimulated by traditional team sports and I embraced it with open arms. From day one I relished the inclusivity, the physical and psychological challenge and the chance to see new places. For several years those ‘new places’ didn’t extend any further than the Peak District. As I got a bit older I travelled with friends to the Lake District, Snowdonia and, eventually, Scotland. Each new destination opened my eyes a little wider.
When I was 17 I spent my hard earned savings on a coach ticket to the French Alps. This was a huge turning point for my climbing friends and I. I’ve become very familiar with France over the intervening years but at the time it had everything. Of course in the Alps there are bigger, more committing mountains – but the real difference was that this was the first time I’d really mixed a different culture with a trip to the mountains. It was a complete package of adventure that’s directed my travels ever since. Europe led to America, to Australia and gradually on to South America, Nepal, Africa and others. Everywhere I’ve been has great mountaineering, a beautiful culture and wonderful people. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all.
But the one place that seems to draw me back more than any of the others is India. Sometimes chaotic, frequently challenging and always thought provoking – India is a truly unique place to travel and climb that should be high on every adventurers list. For novice mountaineers who also want to find some big mountains India has an ace up its sleeve. In the north of the country the Himalayas weave their way through the beautiful region named Ladakh. From here there’s a lifetime of peaks to explore but there’s also a great option for those new to Himalayan mountaineering. A mountain set in stunning surroundings, with a technically straight forward but interesting ascent route, easily accessible and with a reliable expedition infrastructure. This is a gem of a peak called Stok Kangri.
The jumping off point for most UK visitors heading for Ladakh is Delhi. India’s capital city is a fantastic experience. Walk through the air conditioned luxury of Delhi airport and you won’t realise what’s heading your way – but you’ll soon find out! As soon as you step outside the heat and humidity mingles with the noise and bustle in a complete assault of the senses. Your taxi ride into the centre will be a ride worthy of a stock car race. The streets you travel through are lined with everything from Armani clad business people to homeless families crouching under trees. There are luxury hotels and plywood hovels, stunning monuments and buildings that have seen much better days. Delhi is a great place to explore but personally I have learnt most about life there from just sitting in simple street cafés watching the world go by.
From Delhi it’s a long journey north to Ladakh’s capital, Leh. This journey can be made via a rollercoaster road trip but for those on a shorter timescale flying makes more sense. It’s worth factoring some delay time into your itinerary as poor weather in the mountains can scupper the schedules. On my first flight there, after a long wait in Delhi, we boarded the plane and sat expectantly. Then the pilot announced “Ladies and Gentleman. We are going to attempt a safe flight”! For someone anxious about flying this wasn’t a great start but I soon forgot the nerves as the plane swooped spectacularly between the peaks into Leh’s curved valley.
Leh’s airport is small, basic and friendly. It’s obvious straight away that this is a very different place. Hop in a taxi, head into town, find accommodation and then…. relax. After flying to 3500 metres your body needs time to adjust. Plenty of rest, plenty of fluids and maybe a stroll around town is the order of the day.
By the next morning it’s time to do a bit more. Leh’s position means there are plenty of hills on all sides and the Buddhist stupas that sit on them are perfect targets for a stroll. Even better, they give stunning views back into Leh and further afield to the mountains (Stok Kangri is clearly visible) you’ll be heading for soon. Leh’s position is truly breathtaking. The lush irrigated vegetation marks out Leh’s valley footprint with the surrounding arid hillsides seeming to frame the city and highlight its remoteness.
For acclimatisation it’s best to spend a few days in Leh. Fortunately it’s such a great place that really isn’t a hardship. Leh is by far the friendliest capital city I’ve visited. Heavily influenced by the many Tibetan people that have moved there and the Buddhist culture, visitors are assured of a very warm welcome. It’s on the old silk route and, although political issues have closed many of these supply lines, Ladakh still has a strong trading tradition. Cashmere, silk, a wide range of jewellery and all manner of Buddhist artefacts are available in the shops and on the market stalls around the centre.
You can also get kitted out for the mountains here. Plastic boots can be hired or purchased and gas, clothing and any other equipment are all readily available. You might also use one of the many trekking agencies to provide logistical support or guides if that’s the way you want to go.
To the hills
Soon enough you’ll be raring to explore the mountains. Anyone heading straight to Stok Kangri base camp could easily be there in a couple of days but that’s a risky strategy. Bodies needs longer to acclimatise and it’s far better to choose one of the longer trekking options to get there. There are several approach options and the best one will depend on how much time is available for the trip. The route detailed below is a personal favourite as it takes in a couple of high passes as well as sampling part of the magnificent Markha Valley.
For this approach the first step is to get transport from Leh to Chilling. This small village is a pleasant starting point and marks the entrance to the Markha Valley. It adds a spectacular beginning because the route necessitates crossing the Indus River by a box and cable bridge. Starting on one side of the river and finishing on the other requires some logistical jiggery pokery because pack ponies should be prearranged to meet on the far side. Of course, if you are using the services of a trekking agency this will all be sorted out for you.
Once across the river the route leads along the Markha Valley to the village of Skiu. The views in the valley are stunning and this route allows you to get into the heart of the mountains surprisingly quickly. The day’s walk is only about 4 hours so it’s a perfect first day leg stretch. In Skiu there’s a nice campsite and the impressive remains of a royal residence. There are also a few cafes. Often these cafes are simple structures made from old army parachutes suspended in the middle and strapped down on to low stone walls. They provide welcome shade from the sun and offer a range of simple snacks and bottled soft drinks. As with most of the habitation in the Markha Valley, the main attraction is how these tiny villages sit so serenely, surrounded as they are by immense vertical rock walls and sitting at one of these cafes is the perfect place to enjoy the tranquillity of the place.
From Skiu a path leads north east to the village of Shingo. It’s a steady climb and, with the day ending at nearly 4200 metres, a high point on the trip so far. Look carefully along this route and you are likely to see a wolf trap. Typically these are circular stone walls surrounding a deep pit. Bait is placed in the pit and any wolves that jump in are trapped because they can’t jump the higher walls back to freedom. This leaves them victim to the locals who will stone the animals to death. This walk should take about 4 to 5 hours leaving plenty of time to rest in the afternoon. Shingo has few facilities but there’s a nice campsite and the usual beautiful location.
The next day is certainly more of a challenge. The track from Shingo continues up towards the Ganda La Pass. At 4900 metres the top of this pass is higher than anything in the Western Alps but hopefully fatigue will be tempered by the amazing views. The Zanskar range stretches out to the west and the Stok mountains reach out into the east. From the top of the pass a steady descent past the hamlet of Yuruntse leads on to Rumbak at 3800 metres. This is a long day and will take about 8 or 9 hours. Rumbak has a small campsite and good water source and, most significantly, it marks the turning point towards Stok Kangri.
The track from Rumbak now leads south east towards the final high pass of your walk in, the Stock La. It’s a steady, long and tiring climb with the top of the Stock La again sitting at a breathless 4850 metres. You’ll want to linger here and savour the views and the achievement in equal measure before dropping down to join the main path that links Stok village and base camp. If time allows it’s worth camping in the valley then finishing the climb up to base camp in the morning (better for acclimatisation), but if pushed for time maybe the day will have to finish with a further climb. Either way, after another full days trekking you’ve successfully made it to your staging post for the ascent of Stok Kangri.
The base camp for Stok Kangri isn’t the best one I’ve visited but it isn’t the worst either. It’s an arid place set in an impressive bowl among beautiful peaks and with a small river nearby. There are a couple of very basic toilets made from holes in the ground surrounded by metal cubicles and there’s a guardian’s tent that has a few basic supplies. Lots of ponies are used for transport in Ladakh so inevitably the animals create some mess but hopefully you’ll be able to find a place that isn’t too close. As a base camp it has all you need - but nothing more.
Surrounding the camp there are several ways to continue the acclimatisation process. The long diagonal path to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) runs straight out of the back of the camp. It’s worth heading up here to familiarise yourself with the ascent route and it also offers the chance to look around the corner towards the glacier and upper parts of the mountain. It may seem tempting to use ABC as a way to cut down the length of summit day but camping here is no longer permitted. If you’d rather save the walk up here summit day there are several alternative walks near base camp. Wherever you go on this day it’s important to do something to gain height and raise your heart rate before dropping back to the camp to sleep.
The amount of time you’ll be able to leave between arriving at base camp and your ascent will, of course, depend on the time available. It is definitely preferable to leave at least a full day of rest so bodies can adjust to the altitude. This will also leave plenty of time to sort kit out. The truth is that no matter how long is available; I guarantee you’ll still be thinking of things to organise right up to the start of your summit bid. But, when the sack is packed, the headtorch batteries replaced and the clothing selected, bed down and grab a few hours sleep before it’s time for action.
I like to start my ascent at around midnight. This means you won’t have slept for very long and the early morning preparations will be made in the fog of sleepiness. On the plus side it means there’s plenty of time for the climb and descent as well as hopefully getting you to the top around sunrise. Leave plenty of time to have some breakfast and hydrate before leaving.
After the slog back up the path to the site of Advanced Base Camp a descending path leads to the glacier. All glaciers require extreme care but this one is about as user friendly as they come. It always seems a long way across but eventually you start ascending the eastern slopes that form the most popular route on the mountain. Depending on conditions you may be on snow very soon, the mountain might be stripped back to rock until the final upper section, or, more likely, it will be somewhere between the two.
After climbing for several hundred metres the usual line of attack will lead you back across the face towards the southern ridge that then heads straight to the summit. The rock can be quite loose and particular care is needed when gaining the ridge, but if you are confident and sure footed you’ll find this section passes fairly quickly. The broad backed upper ridge is a joy. Although it’s very exposed the ascent line is obvious and you’ll gain height quickly. Infact soon enough you’ll be making the final footsteps to the summit.
Hopefully you’ve timed this just right and picked a clear day. If so you can spin around to soak in 360 degrees of magnificent views as the sun rises on a beautiful morning. The mountains of the Karakoram range stretching deep into Pakistan, the summit pyramid of K2 and the surrounding mountains of the Zanskar range. The summit of Stok Kangri is a very special place.
When it’s time to leave the line of descent follows the way you came up so it’s all familiar ground. Take particular care on the steeper sections of the ridge line, cross the eastern slopes confidently and soon you’ll be crossing the glacier and descending to base camp for some well earned breakfast and, most likely, some very well earned sleep.
Back to Leh
You probably won’t want to linger at base camp too much longer. After a night’s rest the quickest route out is a gentle 5 hour stroll down the valley. This offers the most direct route to and from Stok Village to Stok Kangri. I always love the walk out from a mountain after the tension and exertion of a climb – this is one of the best. Keep cameras handy as this is a beautiful valley teeming with wildlife. You’ll almost certainly see the playful Marmot’s hopping between the boulders and maybe the renowned Bharal, or blue sheep, which will typically be perched contently on some precipitous slope! The walk out will also give you the final stunning views of the mountain you’ve just climbed.
There are a few obvious twists and turns on the path but soon enough Stok Village will be in sight. From here it’s time to give those legs a rest and jump aboard a four wheel drive for the final ride back to Leh. Of all the great restaurant’s in Leh my traditional celebration meal venue has become the Tibetan Kitchen. Great food, brilliant service and, most importantly, chilled Leh beer to celebrate a brilliant achievement.
Ladakh Fact File
When to go?
Ladakh’s trekking season starts around the middle of June and reaches its height from the start of July until the end of August. Personally, I love the time around the end of August into mid September. The weather is still good and things start to quieten down a little both in the mountains and in Leh. This also coincides with Ladakh’s annual festival. This runs in the first few weeks of September when the city comes alive with events celebrating Ladakhi culture.
Getting there and away
For UK travellers the transfer point for visiting Ladakh will usually be Delhi. There are lots of international flights heading there but this is a busy route so booking early is essential. Typically, direct flights are costing about £500-600 for this summer and autumn. From Delhi to Leh the quickest route is another flight. Although there are several carriers running this 1 hr 20 minute route the seats book up very quickly in the summer months. We’ve paid about £170 per person return for our 2012 expeditions. The flights usually leave in the morning to catch the best weather window.
Where to stay
Delhi has stacks of hotels and hostels of all standards. It’s well worth finding one with air conditioning and, in terms of location, my preference is always the hustle and bustle of the old part of the city.
Leh also has plenty of accommodation options. My all time favourite is the Oriental Guesthouse in the Changspa area. This oasis of calm is run by Dawa Tsering and his family and offers a range of room options along with brilliant meals and really helpful staff. Full details are available on their website at http://www.orientalguesthouse.com.
A guided trip or going it alone?
Lots of trekkers just pack a rucksack and head to the mountains independently. Alternatively, some want a fully catered and supported expedition. Every level of support is available in Ladakh and it’s simply a case of finding the best fit for your needs. My top choice for arranging trekking support is, again, Dawa Tsering at the Oriental Guesthouse (http://www.orientalguesthouse.com). He has many years of experience organising treks of all types.
For those new to this type of trip it is well worth the extra cost of using a guiding company. The experience of dealing with altitude, managing trekking agencies and leading a safe ascent of the mountain comes with experience – money that will seem well spent in the long run.
Which trekking company to use?
Peak Mountaineering runs annual trips to the mountain with this year’s open expedition leaving at the start of September. Full details can be found on our website www.peakmountaineering.com or call 01433620283 to discuss your requirements.