There I was – hiking up Stok Kangri in Ladakh, thrilled about my first ever solo trip and worried about frostbite at the same time.
It might have been different. I had been preparing for EBC (Everest base camp) and Island Peak (Imja Tse) in Nepal. After reaching Delhi with my bulging backpacks, I heard the heart breaking news of the massive earthquake in Nepal.
It shook me up – I was to leave for Kathmandu the next day. There was no way I could make that trip now. Helplessly, I watched events unfold on television and prayed for the affected people.
Meanwhile, the trekker in me began getting restless.
So after mulling a few options, I decided to go to Leh and summit Stok Kangri, the highest altitude mountain in the Stok range of the Himalayas. At around 70 pct of the height of the Mt. Everest, it makes a good starting point for Everest summiteers.
Even though I knew the right season for summiting Stok Kangri is July-September, I decided to try it in May as I was anyway fully prepared for high altitude mountaineering. My agent told me the timing meant I could end up doing it solo.
I don’t mind, I said to myself.
Leh is an easy and breathtaking one hour forty minute flight away from Delhi. Get a window seat and you can feast your eyes on the beauty of the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges…
As I got out of the airport, I spotted my agent, Chimba Yangjor. His “Juley “(salutation in Ladakhi) eased my mind a little.
Truth be told, I was scared. I had never travelled alone – my treks so far had been in a group or with family. This was also going to be my first backpacking experience.
Having picked up a few names of hotels and guest houses from the internet, I told my agent to take me there. To my disappointment, a few of them were not entertaining guests as it was off-season. The hotels were taking guests in but I wasn’t comfortable staying alone in a big place.
Finally, I reached a simple looking guest house where the lady owner was busy gardening – with her grandson tied on her back. This is what I need, I thought. My mind at ease with the company, the lady’s lodging was my house for the next two days.
The first day I spent a lot of time chatting with the family and playing with the cute kid.
The next day, I went on long treks to Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa. Perched on hills, both places help you acclimatize. Chimba accompanied me on the treks and we bonded well. By now all my apprehensions had melted away.
Though I had been to Leh with family in 2007, I was discovering an altogether different Leh this time. I realised solo travel gives you time to chat with locals and mind space to observe their culture and lifestyle – to really absorb the essence of a place.
After two days, I left the relative comfort of Leh. The mud buildings soon disappeared into the distance and Stok Kangri stood tall with all the other mountains, calling out to me…
At Stok village, I met Sai, a trekker from Hyderabad. It felt good to know someone else was also crazy enough to attempt the journey at this time of the year. Sai was accompanied by his agent Nurbur.
The six of us began the trek – I, Chimba, Sai, Nurbur, a cook named Vook Phunsuk and an old man who tended to our mules, who was Nurbur’s father.
Their company gave me comfort when I could see that summiting Stok was definitely not going to be an easy task. Chanting ‘Stok,Stok’ silently, I tried to tell myself that I would get there.
The beautiful walk began with rocky terrain.. as we gained height, it started getting colder and the air thinner. Soon we reached our first halt ‘Chang ma’. I was told that during peak season, there are numerous tents and the whole area is bustling with activity.
After a short break here, we slowly started heading towards ‘Mankarmo’ in the valley. This is among the most picturesque parts of the journey as mountains change color depending on the angle of sunlight. Flat parts of the land beautifully contrast with the slopes of Chang Ma.
The rest of my first day journey involved crossing a few streams so I started walking on the snow. Though difficult initially, I gradually got the hang of it.
Ahead I could only see snow clad mountains – they make you feel so insignificant, but at the same time contented and peaceful.
I began going slow as the oxygen levels went down – I had to catch my breath after every twenty steps. Drawing encouragement from the energetic agility of Himalayan blue sheep, I carried on..
Reaching Mankarmo by noon, I helped pitch up my independent tent -being the only lady has its privileges! I felt like a queen – as if I owned all the beauty that I saw…..in that moment, I was thrilled that I had the courage to come down here in April.
Soon steaming hot Maggi followed by tea was served. During peak season you can buy everything – from bottled water to beer, pasta to meat…but right now we had to survive on whatever supplies we had.
After chatting for a while with my companions, I zipped up for the night as a slight headache told me that the lack of oxygen was beginning to affect my body.
I woke up to a great morning. Though cold, the sky was clear and yellow beaked Ravens (Himalayan crows) were munching away on leftovers from our meal.
I just sat in the open for a long time, enjoying the beauty all around me.
Then I got to know that Sai was down with acute mountain sickness and was planning to go back. I waited for two hours, practiced wearing crampons in the meanwhile.
I hoped Sai would recover, but his condition just deteriorated. Sai left, along with Chimba and Nurbur.
It suddenly struck me that I was now the lone trekker tourist in Mankarmo.
I had with me Chaman (Sherpa and guide), Phunsuk and the mule tending uncle. Without wasting more time, we began the day’s beautiful and short trek – the mountains kept getting closer and the prospect of getting to Stok made my heart beat faster.
We camped again at high base camp. It was 3 pm and my stomach was growling with hunger. Phunsuk quickly rustled up a simple khichdi (rice and pulses cooked together).
As we ate, we discussed plans for the next day.
It was decided that at 12 midnight, in the thick of darkness when temperatures are sub-zero, we would start our fourteen hour trek.
I went to my tent at 6 pm, hoping to catch some sleep. It was futile – I was just too excited. Nevertheless, I rested till 11:30 pm. Then I got ready and packed my bag with 2 litres of water, chocolates, dry fruits, apples and a camera.
Chaman was all set – we switched on our head lamps and started walking.
Soon my measured steps started faltering. My feet felt very heavy. The rocky path narrowed, giving way to a snow laden trail. It started getting colder and making our way in snow started getting more difficult.
The fear of frostbite was very real in this sub-zero setting and my limbs slowly began feeling numb. From 20 steps without pause, my count came to 10 and then to 5. I had to stop every minute to catch my breath.
We had crossed advance base camp and were slowly moving towards the glacier. I wanted to sit down on the soft, inviting snow and catch my breath. But the thought of frostbite made me carry on.
Chaman was walking at a fair clip, urging me to walk faster as we were running behind schedule. Our goal was to reach the summit by 8 am but the way we were going, we wouldn’t reach before 11 am.
Now, that is very risky. After 10 am, the snow starts melting and there is a very real danger of slipping, despite the crampons and ice axes. I gathered all my strength and tried stepping up my speed.
A little while later, Chaman began looking unwell. My heart missed a beat.
Before we began the trek, Chaman had told me that there would be no other Sherpa/trekker apart from us on the entire mountain and that we two shouldn’t hide any physical problem from each other as it could backfire.
I kept asking Chaman about his health but he quietly kept walking. By now, there was enough light for us to switch off our head lamps.
I was amazed when I saw the distance we had covered in the dark. Seeing the crisp blue sky in contrast with all the white gold everywhere refreshed my spirits.
Chaman, though being seriously unwell, also resolved to carry on. I would find myself hunched over the ice axe every five yards, my thumping heart scrambling hard for oxygen. But the mesmerizing beauty and the fact that the summit was so close kept me going.
At 8 am, when we were about to reach the shoulder of Stok, Chaman gave up.
He said that he couldn’t risk his or my life in this condition. Taking a step forward, I saw he was truly sick – I knew that there was no other person on the entire mountain. There wasn’t a soul ahead of us or behind us.
The disadvantage of the solitude I had been reveling in so far quickly became apparent.
Had there been any other trekker or a group of people, I would have been able to continue.
I looked back – the path made by our crampons and ice axes in the snow had disappeared. Quickly taking stock of the situation, we decided to turn back. I could not have made my way to the summit and back alone and anyway, I couldn’t have left Chaman to his own devices.
Initially, I was disappointed at having come this far and yet not having been able to reach the peak.
Taking the first step back, I realised what I had achieved was far more than touching the summit. The whole walk had been a spiritual journey in itself and suddenly I wanted to jump with happiness!
We walked slowly as I tried to capture all the beauty in my eyes (couldn’t use the camera much as it was too cold to remove my gloves).
Chaman was feeling very bad for me – he asked me to return during peak season and said he would not charge me for the trek then.
I explained that I would never be able to relive this experience if I came back when there were thousands of trekkers around. I had a deep sense of satisfaction with what I had achieved, a sense of nirvana..
We continued walking, taking short breaks in between to let Chaman rest. The water and apples I was carrying were completely frozen. So we ate chocolates to reenergise ourselves.
By 12 noon, exactly after twelve hours since we began our trek, we reached base camp.
To be continued…
ABOUT THE GUEST AUTHOR
Ritu Chawla is a commercial artist by profession. She is an avid trekker (Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet being her all-time favourite) and budding photographer. With this post, she has stepped into the world of blogging too.
Note from Vibha Ravi (blog owner and editor) – Thanks Ritu for taking us along on this truly enjoyable adventure. I wish you all the best in your endeavors.
ABOUT LEH AND LADAKH
Ladakh is a mountainous region in the northernmost state of India, Jammu & Kashmir. Blessed with abundant natural beauty, it attracts several thousand tourists every year. Leh is the largest town in Ladakh.
To know more, click here