Stok Kangri (Expedition 1)

21st Sep 2012

In 2012 Peak Mountaineering has run 2 expeditions to climb Stok Kangri (6150 metres) in the Indian Himalayas.  This account of the first expedition was written in Delhi while I waited for the second team to arrive…….

There’s nothing like arriving in Delhi.  Thanks to the Commonwealth Games the airport is modern and stylish but come into the heat and bustle of an Indian August and you have no illusions you are somewhere very different.  The team jumped into taxis and loved the journey into the heart of Old Delhi.  Anything goes on Delhi’s roads and the only thing to expect is the unexpected!

A night in Old Delhi is always a treat.  The place comes alive as the stalls and shops are thronged with both locals and tourists.  Throw in some rickshaws, hundreds of motorbikes and even a few cows and you’ve got the vibrant picture.  The team had their first meal on the rooftop terrace before returning to the hotel and preparing for a very early morning departure to the airport.

The flight to Leh went smoothly but the landing didn’t.  Low cloud over the airport forced the pilot to head back to Delhi.  If you know how precariously the Leh runway is nestled between the mountains then you’ll know why he hesitated.  On arrival back at Delhi we were told to wait in our seats.  The plane was refuelled and the pilots were swopped.  It appeared we had the low cloud specialist on board and luckily we flew back and landed with no further delay!

The tranquillity of Ladakh is apparent as soon as you land.  The airport is tiny and surrounded by stunning mountains.  The people are relaxed and friendly and the roads into town are quiet and open.  It’s a very special place.  The group were, as always, staying with my friend Dawa Tsering at the beautiful Oriental Guest House (my top recommendation for anyone staying in Leh).  They were there in time for brunch on the lawn in the Ladakhi sunshine.

A few days to aid acclimatisation are essential for everyone arriving in Leh.  Fortunately, it’s a very easy going place to spend a few days.  A wander around the markets or a chance to relax in one of the many cafes can be combined with some walks up to the hilltop gompas that surround the capital.  Leh also has plenty to offer souvenir hunters and there are all kinds of equipment shops if some last minute preparation is required.

Soon enough it was time for the team to hit the trails.  A four wheel drive ride to the trailhead and we spent our first night nestled among the trees at Chilling.  It felt great to be finally out in the mountains and starting our journey.  All our Ladakh expeditions are supported with a cook team and horses to carry the equipment so the team had their first taste of dinner in the mess tent.

Day 2 started with a crossing of the Chilling trolley cable bridge.  It’s a brilliant start to any trek and is a typical taste of Indian ingenuity.  2 people at a time can sit in the trolley and be hoisted across the bubbling waters.  But time even marches on in the ancient lands of Ladakh and a steel bridge is currently being constructed - the trolley bridge will soon be redundant.  Get there soon if you fancy the ride of your life!

The Chilling bridge accesses the famous Markha Valley.  A stunning geological cleft that weaves its way alongside the beautiful Markha river.  Our first stopping place was the village of Skiu and that, unfortunately, was also the end of our time in the Markha Valley.  The following day we cut off up a side valley leading to the small settlement at Shingo.  Our trekking days were deliberately short so the team had plenty of time to relax in the afternoons.  A bathe in the river, a game of cards or just time catching up on writing journals or reading a novel – the days soon fall into an easy rhythm.

From Shingo we had a big day.  The Ganda La Pass reaches 4850 metres – a huge height that matches anything in the Western Alps.  It’s a big challenge but the rewards for perseverance are great views and the first glimpses across to Stok Kangri.  From the top the team headed down past the small settlement at Yuruntse and on to the campsite at Rumbak. This is a great spot at the meeting point of 2 valleys and one of my favourite parts of the range.

The traverse of the Ganda La had been tough so a shorter day up to the upper Rumbak site (Stok La Base Camp) gave the team a chance to relax for the afternoon and recharge their batteries.  They needed it – the following day involved another steep pass called the Stok La. 
The team did a great job of climbing up to the 4900 metre Stok La col.  It’s a beautiful spot with stunning views on either side.  It’s also a pass that allows access into the Stok Valley and soon we were in the river base on a small campsite below Monkarmo.   This only left the climb up to base camp for the final approach day.

Stok base camp sits in a bowl with the sweep of mountains stretched out below.  At 5000 metres it is certainly high.  It is also basic and quite busy but fortunately it has everything needed for the time spent there.  We spent some time climbing the slopes above camp to practice roping together and using ice axes and crampons then rested and prepared for the ascent of Stok Kangri.

Summit day starts with an early breakfast at 12.00 midnight and departure at 12.30 am.  We started by climbing the slopes to advanced base camp then traversed around to the edge of the glacier.  The glacier was stripped of snow and, barring some tricky stream crossings, offered easy access to the slopes beyond.

Climbing a mountain like Stok Kangri is a tough challenge.  Good fitness and acclimatisation are important but with the best will in the world it can sometimes be too much.  At around 5800 metres a group peeled off to descend.  They had fought hard but knew the time had come to call it a day.

A group continued.  Another 100 metres higher and a tough call had to be made.  I didn’t like the signs of dizziness and headache one team member started to display and knew the only safe way was down.  The others in the group graciously accepted my decision after it was made clear that their help may be needed to help their team mate descend.  Fortunately Stok allows a relatively quick descent and after some anxious sections the team were all safely back at base camp.

A good rest and the team reflected on the events of summit day.  Safety is always the main priority and tough choices had been needed.  It is the reality of climbing high mountains. The descent to Stok Village is a lovely walk down a stunning valley but our team mate was still struggling so arrival at the village was followed by an immediate visit to Leh hospital.  The hospital doctors have a good understanding of altitude issues and I was pleased to hear I had done the right things.  A few meds before our drop down to Delhi and all was well.  The team now knew Leh like old hands and a final day cruising the markets, a great celebration meal and the flight to Delhi brought us to our final phase – a visit to the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is magnificent.  I’ve visited a number of amazing natural and man-made structures that are incredible but the Taj, in my opinion, stands above them all. Architecturally stunning and with a love story to match its beauty - it really is breath taking and should be on everyone’s must see list.

We returned late from Agra for our final night in Delhi and it was time for a farewell meal in Connaught Place.  Delhi’s happening venue has a host of restaurants and, for a change from curry, the team chose Italian!  It was a great night with an amazing group.  They boarded their plane and I returned to my hotel.

This had been a unique and brilliant expedition.  The ascent hadn’t gone to plan and yet they accepted the need to prioritise safety and stayed bonded and fulfilled by their adventure.  An expedition of this type is more than simply the ascent and I know they learnt a lot about both themselves and other cultures on the trip.  I’d told them to ‘never regret a retreat’ and I hope they followed that advice.  I also secretly home some of them will return to climb to the summit one day too.

Posted by Paul