Stok Kangri: A Different Kind of Success
Friday, 18 Sept – Sunday, 20 Sept
I made it out alive and with all 20 digits intact, which is something of a success, I suppose.
Every now and then, during our two-day trek up the mountain to Stok Kangri Base Camp, we encountered someone descending, having made an attempt on the summit a day or two earlier. It was always a welcomed meeting, a moment of reprieve in which to catch your breath and gain some insight into the mountain and its conditions.
Everyone had a tale to tell and I was eager to listen. There was a fit-looking American guy who described the view from the summit, so clear that you could see all the way to K2 in Pakistan. He told me this while seated on a donkey, not able to walk, having smashed his knees in the descent from the peak. Then there was the european guy who made it to the top about an hour before sunrise. Not satisfied with the engulfing, pre-dawn blackness, he decided to wait on the summit for the sunrise. The sunrise did not disappoint, apparently, the surrounding peaks and ridges, all aflame with morning light. However, he had developed badly frostbitten toes during the climb and so continued his hobble back to the road-end. In fact, the only people who seem to have made it to the top unscathed were a group of gargantuan, bearish Polish climbers, replete with leather-trimmed glacier glasses, zinc noses, and that eastern-european air of we-know-the-cold.
Surprisingly, these summiteers were the exception: the majority of people we encountered were those who didn’t quite make it. Some didn’t make it past Base Camp because of altitude, some managed to get about three-quarters of the way up but had to turn back because of sickness or the cold, others realised they did not have the physical stamina required to reach the top and didn’t try.
Stok Kangri, at 6,153 metres, is classified as a trekking peak (ie. a non-expedition peak), which causes people to underestimate the seriousness and difficulty of the climb. We met a guide who had recently taken part in the rescue of a tourist who had fallen 400m, near the summit, badly injuring himself. Another guide told me that two people had died on Stok Kangri this season (although, I am not entirely sure of the veracity of this claim). All this had surprised me, as I had certainly assumed that Stok Kangri was a simple climb — an assumption that had been steadily eroded both by the view of the mountain, intimidating as it rises above the Indus Valley, and then by this litany of injured and would-be summiteers.
Walking into the gully
Friday – September 18
“Ah! On time! You must not be Ladakhi!”. My guide’s boss, named Karma, seemed pleased to see me, laughing, and explained, “I like people who are on time — means it will be a good trip”. Karma has a great laugh and keen sense of humour, something I appreciated, putting me at ease.
Arriving at Karma’s office, I was feeling quite apprehensive about the trip. Since the previous evening, I had been plagued by this niggling fear of not being able to summit due to my own inability. I felt that my inability would signal some failure or inadequacy on my part, or that it might let others down, prospects which I find deeply disquieting. But Karma was great, laughing and joking as we sat in the warm morning sun, enjoyed a pre-trip chai, waiting for my guide, Tashi.
Setting out from the guiding office, we arrived at the road-end (alt. 3,800m), just above the town of Stok, ready to hit the trail by 10:30am. Tashi and I talked as we walked along the old, walled country paths beside a small stream under the poplar trees. The walking was easy, time passed quickly, and I felt strong and confident.
The track, having taken us past the last of the farms in the uppermost reaches of the Stok valley, became increasingly rough, following the river into a wide rocky gully, the entrance to the heart of the Stok Range.
The Stok Range is made up of sedimentary rock, expressed in thousands of layers, once horizontal but now vertical, or near-vertical. The harder layers of rock thrust upward to create dramatic, multicoloured gilled ridges, the sharpness of which is accentuated by the more easily eroded, softer layers of shale. These ridges would be spectacularly impossible to traverse, functioning as natural palisades protecting the Stok heartland and its magnificent views. Ancient kings took advantage of this natural hostility to travellers and used the rock formations to create unassailable forts from which to fight the invading Mongol war-parties. These crumbling forts, and the ruined farms that once supported them, spoke of the harsh inhospitality of the place. The valley got progressively narrower, becoming an echoless gully.
The sharp ridges above the gully
Marking the half-way point between the road-end and our first camp, Mankarmo, was a small teahouse, sandwiched between the cliffs and the river. We sat there for an hour, in the cool of the stone hut and under the shade of an old parachute, enjoy tea and chatting to a couple of trekkers who were heading up the valley at the same time. It was a great spot, but it was here that I made a mistake. We reached the teahouse around lunchtime and, not realising we were going to spend so long there, I did not eat my lunch, choosing to wait until we got to Mankarmo. This was a mistake as I found the next few hours of trekking to be very difficult.
The track was now a rocky riverbed that ascended rather sharply up to the Mankarmo campsite, which sits at 4,350m. Having missed my lunch, I really struggled, lacking in energy under the weight of my pack. Walking was hard, time seemed to slow and drag, and I felt like the landscape around me served only to impede my progress. I was struggling to enjoy the trek and, reminded of the importance of prioritising food, particularly at times of high-energy output, purposed not to make this mistake again.
We reached Mankarmo around 3:30pm, I set up my tent, sat chatting to the camp staff, and watched horsemen remove the tack from the trains of horses coming down off the mountain for the night. The horses wear bells around their necks, the different pitches forming a chiming symphony, soft and beautiful to listen to.
Saturday – September 19
After nearly 12hrs of sleep and a particularly good breakfast — one that I had prepared in NZ — I was raring to go. We departed Mankarmo at 9:45am and began the 550m ascent to Base Camp.
Once gouged by ancient glaciers, the valley began to widen again, old moraine littering the wild mint-covered floor. We were getting higher, closer to the heartlands. With the widening valley came increasingly open views across to the main Ladakh Range and its soaring granite peaks. The increasingly expansive views were stunning. The stream that ran down the valley also began showing signs of the altitude, partially frozen solid, even in the direct sunlight.
Despite the steepness of the path up the valley, I felt strong and we made great progress. Normally, the trek from Mankarmo to Base Camp (alt. 4,900m) takes 3hrs, but we were able to complete it in 2hrs. Time went fast and I was enjoying myself. Eating properly pays off.
Tashi and I had a quick lunch and I set up my tent, ready to spend the afternoon resting. I did not feel particularly tired, but was able to snooze for an hour or so. Around mid-afternoon, a group of 60 mountaineering students began filing into the camp. The students, evidently elated to reach camp, where whooping and shouting upon arrival, the hubbub of the place steadily increasing. Naturally, this made it difficult to sleep, so I set about preparing my gear for the next day. Tashi came over to my tent a bit after 4pm, to check all my gear, giving me the thumbs up.
The vibe at Base Camp was energising and I felt confident. Preparing and eating dinner, I met other climbers, all of whom are eager for information: “What time are you leaving in the morning?”, “Do you know what the temperatures are going to be like?”. There is a fantastic sense of camaraderie in these questions, everyone interested in the success of the other.
By 7pm, the temperatures were dropping in the absence of sunlight and I climbed into my beautifully warm Minaret tent (thanks Macpac!), hoping to sleep a good 6hrs. However, sleep did not come as easily as I had hoped. Despite being fairly removed from the camp, the noise from the mountaineering students was considerable and that, combined with an alertness resulting from my afternoon rest, and an increasing frustration at my inability to sleep, resulted in a few fitful, sleepless hours.
Sunday – September 20
That dreaded descending triad of my watch’s alarm, “da-de-do, da-de-do”, woke me up at 12:45am, just 3hrs after I had fallen asleep. I did not feel ready to wake, but having been startled by the alarm, adrenaline was flowing, coercing me into action.
It was cold outside as I fired up my stove, preparing coffee and breakfast. I had chosen my breakfast carefully, picking the one that had the greatest caloric content, determined not to repeat the empty-stomach fatigue that had made Friday afternoon so unpleasant. Enjoying my hot coffee (thanks Avalanche Coffee for supplying this!), I cooked up my high energy gluten-free porridge, complete with raisins, a good serving of cacao, and a big dollop of coconut oil (I know it sounds gross, but it is actually pretty good). Tashi cooked up a similarly full meal of curried noodles in a soupy sauce, and we both ate our fill.
We set out at 1:30am, climbing out of the camp and around the ridge that stood between us and Stok Kangri. In the first hour, we made solid progress, traversing the scree slopes beneath the ridge as we made our way to the Stok Glacier. I was feeling strong and confident, although my stomach was slightly bothered by the richness of my breakfast. Tashi began to slow, feeling terribly nauseated. He too was feeling the richness of his breakfast and was on the verge of throwing up. “We should rest, so food can digest”, he suggested in an accidental rhyme. Sound advise, I thought. We sat for a while, until Tashi felt slightly less nauseated and was ready to go.
We got to the glacier around 3am. The glacier, topped with a heavy layer of glassy-smooth ice, forms somewhat of a highway up and down the mountain. I was eager to get onto it, despite feeling increasingly nauseated myself. I was beginning to question my choice of such a calorie-rich breakfast, my stomach churning with its unexpected load.
I put on my crampons and stepped onto the glacier. Placing my feet on the ice, there was a loud crack, sharp like the crack of a rifle-shot, startling me as the glassy layer of morning freeze strained, popped, and shifted under my weight. This happened every few steps and the words of TS Eliot circled in my mind:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”
I think you can say the same about glaciers.
Tashi was being a bit cavalier about walking on the glacier, I thought. At this point, the glacier had only a mild gradient, but was very icy. Tashi had older crampons that were difficult to put on and he was happy to cross the glacier without them. At least, he was happy until he slipped. Tashi was about 10m ahead of me, ascending a steeper section of ice, when he lost traction and slipped. He tried to self-arrest but fumbled and lost his ice axe, which was not leashed to his wrist. Gaining speed on the smooth ice and he slid towards me on his back, headfirst. I stomped my crampons into the ice and prepared to grab him. I made contact with his shoulder, which spun him around, but I could not get a firm hold. He continued past me and I only just managed to reach out and grab his ankle. Holding him, I helped him up and waited while he quickly put his crampons on.
Climbing in a bubble of light, my world no larger than the reach of my headlamp, I fell into a good rhythm and we were making good progress. Time passed quickly, although I was increasingly nauseated. Around 4am, I asked Tashi if we could take a break — my breakfast sitting in my throat. I vomited on the ice, the splashes instantly freezing on my boots. It was all over pretty quickly and I felt good afterwards, the nausea gone. I was encouraged by this and so we pressed on, up the mountain. From this point, I found it slightly more difficult to breathe deeply as we ascended, my diaphragm sore and fatigued from the trauma of throwing up. This slowed my pace slightly, but I was ok.
I noticed I was needing more breaks. It was now after 5am and I was beginning to flag. Without food in my stomach, I was quickly running out of energy — not helped by the intense cold that came with a slowed pace, and the odd dry-heave as the nausea returned. By 5:30am, we had reached 5,769m, around 350m below the summit. Above us, two headlamps were slowly floating up the ridge to the summit, their progress painfully slow, the clouds racing above them. It was about -20*C as we sat there, reasonably sheltered from the wind. My hands, numb, were buried in my armpits, beneath the warmth of my massive Equinox down jacket (thanks again for the jacket, Macpac!). I couldn’t feel my toes. I felt exhausted.
Looking at the two climbers ahead of us, I could see that the last few hundred metres to the peak were going to be difficult, both because of the altitude and the cold. I also realised that, given the small amount of energy remaining, if I were to press on, I would leave nothing in reserve; I might reach the top, but not have the energy to descend. At that moment, the decision was obvious: I had to go down.
Sunrise on the Stok Glacier
Descending is often just as much work as ascending and I really struggled. While I did not seem to be experiencing any effects of altitude sickness — no headaches or dizziness — but I was utterly exhausted and totally spent. I kept trying to eat, to regain some energy, but each mouthful left me feeling more nauseated and more uncomfortable.
Coming down off the mountain and trying to be happy
We got back to Base Camp around 8:30am, just as it began snowing. I went straight for my tent, feeling disappointed and despondent. I fell sleep still dressed, but was woken by Tashi at 10am. “They are closing camp — it is too cold and there is not enough water because everything has frozen. The weather is turning bad too: we need to get down the mountain today”. Tashi asked me if I could descend the 1,100m to the road-end. “No”, I answered, still feeling significantly nauseated and incredibly weak. “Ok, well there is a horseman who can put you and your pack on a horse all the way to Stok, but we have to leave now”. Tashi’s suggestion was a Godsend and he helped me pack my gear.
The trip out was uncomfortable. The saddle, made of wood with a thin blanket over the top, was painful and the motion of the horse did nothing to help my already churning stomach. I kept replaying the morning’s events in my head, disappointed at not being able to summit. I know I did the right thing, coming down when I did, there is no doubt about it. Nevertheless, I was frustrated that my plans should be thwarted a poor dietary choice.
Getting led down the mountain by my horseman
Returning to Leh, I rested for a day and felt a lot better. It retrospect, it was a great trip and I learnt a lot from it, particularly in terms of diet and climbing at altitude. I am pleased to have made it as far as I did and I am certainly thankful that my knees and toes are intact, ready for an attempt on Island Peak in Nepal.
Please check out this video summary of my trip: