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Stok Kangri, Ladakh : A Solo Trip – Part 1 (Guest post by Ritu Chawla)


Blue Mountain Sheep make their way through the snow in Stok

Blue Mountain Sheep make their way through the snow in Stok

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…

Himalayan and Karakoram ranges in Ladakh

Himalayan and Karakoram ranges in Ladakh

 

Aerial view of Himalayan and Karakoram ranges in Ladakh

Aerial view of Himalayan and Karakoram ranges in Ladakh

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.

Family at Leh guest house where I stayed

Family at Leh guest house where I stayed

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.

Leh Palace in Ladakh

Leh Palace in Ladakh

A doorway at the Leh Palace in Ladakh

A doorway at the Leh Palace in Ladakh

 

Shanti Stupa in Leh

Shanti Stupa in Leh

 

View from Shanti Stupa in Leh

View from Shanti Stupa in Leh

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…

Stok Kangri seen from Stok village

Stok Kangri seen from Stok village

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.

Trekking group at Stok in Ladakh

Trekking group at Stok in Ladakh

 

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.

These prayer stones are testimony to the Ladakhi's faith in God

These prayer stones are testimony to the Ladakhi’s faith in God

 

Unique land formation before Mankarmo

Unique land formation before Mankarmo

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..

Crossing over a frozen riverbed at Mankarmo

Crossing over a frozen riverbed at Mankarmo

 

Himalayan blue mountain sheep

Himalayan blue mountain sheep

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.

View of the mountains at Mankarmo

View of the mountains at Mankarmo

 

A look inside the tent

A look inside the tent

 

Feeling like royalty

Feeling like royalty

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.

Himalayan Yellow Billed Chough

Himalayan Yellow Billed Chough

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.

Practising walking with crampons

Practicing walking with crampons

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).

The cook, Phunsuk, prepares a meal on the Stok range

The cook, Phunsuk, prepares a meal on the Stok range

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.

Snow all around on the Stok mountain range

Snow all around on the Stok mountain range

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.

Golden snow at Stok

Golden snow at Stok ( a little grime doesn’t count)

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.

23 Before Stok shoulder

Solitude at Stok didn’t help my cause

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).

On the Stok Mountain Range in the Himalayas

On the Stok Mountain Range in the Himalayas

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.

Climbing down to Stok high base camp - tiny tents visible below

Climbing down to Stok high base camp – tiny tents visible below

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

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27 Comments

  1. Here are some real stories: In 2008, a close friend of mine had to return half way from the trek, hit by AMS, despite spending two days at Leh acclimatizing. Only one member from her team of 15 made it to the Stok summit. In 2009, a team of 6 trekkers made it 70% of the way to the summit in July and had to return, hit by a snow storm. The same team attempted Stok once again last year and all of them had to turn back, some with bleeding noses, hit by acclimatization issues – few of them were only meters away from the summit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry to know that, specially since such expeditions involve so much training and planning.
      The author of this blog post is an intrepid mountaineer. She recently scaled Mount Mera which is over 21,000 feet.

      Like

  2. Dr. Pramod Kuchekar

    You have described very nicely. I did Stok kangri summit in last August. After reading your blog I felt as if I am revisiting. I would be happy to join any trek with you in future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. i read this article lat year and this year in May, i got a chance to meet this lovely lady. what a passionate woman she is, what a daring damsel – an inspiration to the world. loads of love your way Ritu.
    and Vibha, thanks to you for sharing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Ritu,

    Very well written. Many of my friends came back from Delhi who were to trek EBC. You took a bold step. Fantastic! Congrats.

    Did you trek EBC? We are group of 6 people going to EBC from 5th to 21st Oct. Any advice, please share.

    Regards,
    Abhay Kanjikar
    Gulliver Adventures and Travels
    Bangalore, India.

    Like

  5. Varsha Shetty

    Awesome!!!!!Had goose bumps reading ur blog!!!I totally wish I cud also pack my bags with grit ,determination and guts ….and set off….

    Like

  6. Sangeeta Singh

    Arduous journey, simply defined and captured. Bravo Ritu teasing us to get into shape and follow her footsteps.

    Like

  7. Anonymous

    You are truly brave. Lovely pictures and I should say, reading the blog made me go through your experience…. Keep posting more

    Like

  8. pushpinder

    Hats off to you, young lady! Wonderfully penned down and great pictures to complement the write up. Needs guts and you are not wanting in that department. Don’t worry, the world has many more peaks that are beckoning.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What more I can say or comment. You are an inspiration to so may people. Hats off to your determination, courage and never say die attitude. The pictures are mind blowing. Just loved each one of them. And yes while I reading ur experience it reminds me of my olden days when we were young and you use to recite these ghost stories. Beautifully written, which gives me a feeling as if I have been part of this trip along with you.
    Great going Ritu di…. and keep going strong….
    Our best are always with you…. Keep smiling …..

    Liked by 1 person

    • deepu

      Rajani Malik so true…her story recites are always like living those stories… Been part of it and cherish it.. Wish we really get inspired and pack our bags and guts (more importantly) and take that voyage…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. lifemastgm

    If there is something known as living the life to the fullest and breaking the unknown then Ritu Chawla u r true example for that.. u r an inspiration…Very well written indeed i got feel of being with u and felt like i was part of the whole journey…Beautifully caputred pics with amazing captions… i am sure u have reached Nirvana and may be just by reading and seeing the pics we can get a piece of that… i got Blogged by ur blog..loved it.Keep writting and keep trekking…All the best and thanks for sharing…

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Mini singh

    So good. .. very well written. .. so proud of you. .. u prove that. .. totly amazing. ..

    Like

  12. Ritu, hats off to your courage and confidence. very well written article which literally kept me on the edge of my seat. And, very well taken pictures. thanks for sharing experience with us. Vibha, also thanks to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Suchindra

    Super story and congrats ! Great pictures too. Thank you for reminding me to energise myself to do the overdue Everest Base Camp.

    Like

  14. k. ganesh

    Thanks to your lovely pix and neat copy we can participate in your experience. Your returning satisfied with the experience though the summit wasn’t reached, in the circumstances u have explained, says a lot about you. Your attitude reminds one of Robert Browning’s line:’ What I aspired to be and was not, comforts me’.. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What an Amazing journey and so well written!
    So proud of you Ritu!!! You have achieved a feat which is so difficult to do. Most of people cannot even dream about it. Kudos & More strength and power to you! God bless you!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Anonymous

    Great courage….. Very well written with magnificent photographs. Waiting anxiously to read the next part..

    Like

  17. OMG. You are one gutsy lady. I hate the cold though I’ve know -40 degree F winters as a child. Maybe I’ve become too comfortable. This trek of yours is scary. Glad you made it back. No frostbite I hope. ❤ ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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