I squinted my eyes to see the farthest peak in Karakoram range. With my palm facing downwards, I placed my hand on forehead, to shed the bright sunlight away. The intense sun and cold winds created an unforgiving combination. At a height of 20,187 feet, cold breeze created a swooshing sound under my skullcap. The sub-zero temperature made me shiver with cold but the early morning sun disbursed warmth at the same time. Laden under the burden of exhaustion, sleep and hunger, my body was in the most hostile environment ever. My mind contemplated running down to be endowed by the warmth of barren lands. But, my heart was overwhelmed, excited by this physical and mental feat of conquering the Stok Kangri peak. I listened to my heart and took a deep breath. Though I didn’t get as much oxygen as sea-level, it felt good. I felt at peace. After a year of planning and anticipation, I was finally sitting peacefully on Stok Kangri peak with my arms wrapped tightly around knees and the trekking pole resting on my shoes. I allowed the feeling of exuberance seep in. I rested my eyes on the illuminated glacier below, reflecting the bright sun-rays in magnificent fashion. I couldn’t fathom how a glacier, this beautiful in day, can be so nerve-wrecking at night while climbing!
I shifted my focus and observed the sun. 8 AM Sun never looked so bright! I couldn’t stare at the sun for long and my heavy eyelids gave in. I tuned out the excited cheers in background and a quick flashback ran across my vision.
I reached Leh 3 days before the 6 day Stok Kangri trek started. Generally trekkers arrive one day in advance to acclimatize well to the reduced level of oxygen in Leh. But, we arrived earlier with an intention to explore the beauty of Leh before we embarked upon Stok Kangri trek. We spent one day in local sightseeing and the next day visiting Tso Moriri lake.
Day 1 – Let the adventure begin – Stok Village to Chang Ma (13,100)
On Day 1 of our Stok Kangri trek, we were taken to the Stok village which lays around 15 KMs away from Leh town. Stok is a quaint little village resting peacefully under the shade of the mighty Stok Kangri peak. After distributing refreshments, our trek leaders initiated the trek. We strolled amidst vast landscapes and on rocky terrain with a lot of hope in heart.
We trekked for 3 hours alongside the beautiful Stok river, rumbling through boulders and polishing pebbles. We reached our 1st camp, Chang Ma, around 2:30 pm. Set up in a valley surrounded by mighty hillocks, the campsite looked like a lovely habitat protected by nature against it’s own harshness. The surrounding hillocks disrupted the flow of cold wind through the valley and made the climate bearable. We pitched our own tents and slid under covers to rest for a while before lunch.
At 13,100 feet, our first camp itself called for precautions against AMS. For the uninitiated, AMS is an abbreviation for Acute Mountain Sickness which tends to inflict upon trekkers in high altitude. Any gain in altitude more than 2,000 feet can cause AMS. However, it depends on person to person. Some might get AMS symptoms even after gaining 500 feet and some might not even after 5,000 feet.
After lunch, we walked around to acclimatize. We relaxed for an hour near Stok river, staring at the mighty mountains and tranquil river. Rocks under the river looked shiny and the ambiance peaceful.
Stok river flowing beautifully near Camp 1 : Chang Ma (Stok Kangri Trek)
We were summoned by our trek leader for an acclimatization walk. The purpose of this walk was to acclimatize well to the new found level of oxygen. There is a belief among mountaineers – “Climb high, sleep low”. It represents the fact that when you walk to an altitude higher than camp, your body acclimatizes well to the climate when you sleep.
When we returned back to our camp at Chang Ma, I started to have a headache. I got worried about AMS symptoms kicking in and started panicking. However, the headache waned in a while and I was relieved to have survived another elevation gain. Later that night, I took out my camera gear and experimented with lens, trying to capture the mysterious but gorgeous Milky Way.
Experimenting with the lens (Stok Kangri Trek)
Day 2 – Discovering greater heights: Chang Ma to Manokarma (14,200 ft)
The 2nd day of our Stok Kangri trek was almost similar in difficulty. In fact, the slopes of Leh mountains didn’t add up to our expectations of difficulty. In less than 3 hours, we had covered our rock strewn path to the next camp, Manokarma. At a height of 14,200 feet, Manokarma camp was somewhat similar to Chang Ma. The camp was poised in a valley, similar to Chang Ma, but wider. Stok river also flowed closer to our tents and dominated all the other nature sounds. The sky was adorned by a brighter shade of blue and Sun brighter than earlier.
2nd day trek trail (Stok Kangri Trek)
We pitched our tent and straightened our back in the shade, awaiting a whistle call from our trek leader. Today’s acclimatization walk would be tougher than the day’s trek.
Our campsite in Manokarma campsite (Stok Kangri trek)
Around 4 pm, we were summoned for tea and subsequently our acclimatization walk followed. We were now serious about the walk as we desired to keep the AMS symptoms at bay, given our current altitude.
The climb for acclimatization walk was steep and descent even steeper. The loose sand strewn over the path made our descent even tougher. Rocks flew freely along the path as the trekkers behind us tried to balance their descent and accidentally kept knocking down some rocks. Unfortunately, one pointed rock slung in action towards a fellow trek mate and left a deep cut on his forehead. Poor chap had to be sent back to Stok village later that evening. He, however, successfully climbed Stok kangri later that fortnight.
The steep climb of acclimatization walk (Stok Kangri Trek)
The acclimatization walk was a wake up call for us. We realized what we were up against. The grandeur of Stok Kangri peak loomed over the glacier valley and we couldn’t help but imagine how would the peak summit be! That evening, I took extra precaution to ensure that my body was sufficiently hydrated. Being victim to AMS now would shatter the dreamy manifestations culminated in fragments of imagination.
That night, we got magnificent shots of the milky way. We experimented some more with the lens before calling it a night and later surrendered to sleep amidst the alluring sounds of Stok river, miraculously working as a sweet lullaby in lap of mother Nature.
Day 3 – Au Revoir Manokarma! – Manokarma to Stok Kangri trek base camp (16,300 ft)
Next day, I woke up to the sounds of thunder. I was welcomed out of the tent by grey sky and a light drizzle. Stok Kangri peak appeared to have vanished in thin air as dark clouds surrounded the mighty mountain. Our Stok Kangri trek till now was accompanied by a pleasant weather and clear sky. But, today, the weather looked slightly bad. However, by the time we started our trek, the sky had pretty much cleared up.
Today was Day 3 of our Stok Kangri trek and we were going to gain around 2100 feet. From 14,200 at Maokarma camp, we were scheduled to reach Stok Kangri trek base camp at 16,300 feet. With a cheer and a clap, we started the trek which was accompanied by the Stok river. We were now seeing patches of snow covering the rocks of Stok river bed. We were supposed to cover around 4 KMs today before we had our lunch at Stok Kangri base camp. The day’s trek didn’t throw a major challenge towards us until the last stretch. The last 300 meters had slightly steep slopes. The incline gradient might not be much but at around 16,000 feet, we gasped more frequently for oxygen. The last leg seemed a bit tougher and it took us longer to regain strength after we reached Stok Kangri base camp.
The base camp of Stok kangri trek had around 15 tents already pitched in when we reached. Many trekkers were returning from their summit attempt today. The clouds we had observed from Manokarma camp had hampered the summit attempt for many. The daunting task had become herculean today.
“So, what do you plan to do now” I asked a disappointed trekker.
“Wait for the sun to set again” he said with a wide grin.
Cheers to the spirit of mountaineering! A mere mortal can’t do much but wait for nature to be welcoming again, so that an endearing spectacle of beauty may be admired.
At a height of 16,300 feet, it is important to acclimatize well. Walking around leisurely with ears open would help a great deal in acclimatization. There was a walk planned later that evening which would cover 5% of the summit day trek. We reached a point from where Stok kangri peak appeared closer reflecting the evening sun beams brilliantly. A slim view of Leh city also laid in front of us, glowing in it’s glory! It looked at peace, an infant sleeping in arms of mother.
We returned to base camp and discovered strong evening wings. The tent covers flapped furiously in the cold waft of wind, creating a high tempo symphony. We searched for heavier stones as the wind currents became stronger with the sky turning darker, as if persuading the Sun not to set.
As the light around us started fading away, we were summoned for dinner and subsequently a briefing session was help. We were informed that the summit trek would start around 9:30 pm next day and catching some day sleep would be helpful. Tomorrow was a day to eat well, drink adequate and acclimatize well for the impending eventful night.
At night, I again tried to capture the shiny milky way! I snapped a shooting start by accident!
Day 4 – Rest Day
Despite having slept well, I felt drained today. The oxygen levels were normal yesterday and physically, I felt good. But, the mind had started doing tricks on me. Do you feel nauseated? Are you struggling for breath? Do you want to cancel tonight’s summit trek? An endless stream of questions started a scathing tornado in my mind. I felt anxious.
They say, hormones responsible for both, anxiety and excitement, are same. But, our mind will interpret them according to your belief. If you are a pessimist, you will feel anxious. But a positive soul would be excited! As the day withered away slowly into a dust laden frame from a dewdrop strewn canvas, I tried to gain control over my emotions to convert my anxiety into excitement. The magnificent views around and cheerful trek mates made the task plausible. By dinner time, I was all set to challenge myself and dive into the ultimate thrill of standing at 20,100 feet!
Day 4 (Night) & 5 – Defeating inner demons – Base Camp to Stok Kangri (20,100 ft) and back
Our refreshments were ready in a basket, waiting to be slipped into our pockets. It was 9:30 pm and our team had started lining up for the final summit trek. Today, we would gain almost 4,000 feet, take a good glance, deep into the Karakoram range in Pakistan and revel into the sheer magnitude of adventure which awaited us at 20,100 feet. However, not all would successfully accomplish the summit feat.
Out of our batch of 28, 23 people stood in the queue to attempt the peak. Rest were sent back to Leh or didn’t join us due to various reasons, mostly because of AMS. We waited for our trek leader to whistle. We checked our crampons and adjusted our headlamps to embark upon a 14 KM trek which would leave us overwhelmed by the might of nature, precarious terrain, unforgiving cold and nerve-wracking altitude!
Under a dark sky, the sound of whistle shrieked through silence. We were now en route Stok kangri peak!
The first stretch of the summit day trek was same as our acclimatization walk. The winds were stronger thereafter, slowing us down. The clear night sky sparkles with stars and we kept walking with our heads bowed. As we gained substantial altitude with every step, the ice cold wind thrashed our face. But, our job was to remain unperturbed by all the challenges thrown at us today! We had to gain 4,000 ft and losing to any of the challenges would not make it possible.
We crossed a couple of small glaciers, indicators of altitude gain. We were seeing more patches of snow now and glacier infused wind was getting more and more intense with every step.
Stok Kangri trek was now showing its true colors. Till today, my previous trek, Rupin pass, was scoring higher on the scale of difficulty. But, the initial couple of hours of summit day today had given a slam dunk, home run to Stok Kangri trek. Eventually, we reached the main glacier that would be the chief villain of Stok Kangri trek. A 3 KM stretch of glacier laid straight up ahead of us. Drenched in the night’s darkness, Stok Kangri peak was out of our sight. All that we saw was a dimly lit stretch of steep glacier, bathed in our headlamp’s light and distant silhouette of fellow trekkers who hiked ahead of us.
Every step threw my mind in oscillations. I was struck with a major dilemma. Should I continue the trek by facing the adverse conditions and unfavorable landscape or return to the warmth of sleeping bag which laid unfolded in our base camp tent. The subzero temperature, sheer altitude, insatiable hunger, lack of proper sleep and strong currents of wind inclined my mind more towards giving up.
As I tried to keep my mind motivated, a fellow trek mate choose to return. After a few more steps, I discovered that as many as 5 people had already returned! We now were 16 folks trudging slowly but firmly towards the peak. It was getting difficult to stay motivated when I knew that there is a way to stop this madness! Go back to the base camp!
I started leaning more towards the option of quitting. But, I saw a shred of dim light in the sky. In distant horizon, a symphony of light had began, setting up the stage for the Sun. Very mild shades of light were spreading gradually in the dark sky above us. It was still very dark and our headlamps were still on. But, those subtle shades gave me hope, hope to complete the mission. A hope which would allow me to witness sunrise from the highest point ever!
“It’s going to be beautiful” I murmured. That was enough motivation for me! I glued my eyes to my shoes and starting trekking slowly, gasping for air frequently. Oxygen was acting pricey at this crazy altitude.
I lifted my crampon ridden shoes and trekked continuously for almost an hour. I didn’t look up. “You can’t scare me if I don’t look at you” I addressed Stok kangri peak.
When I took a break, it was 4 am. We were almost at the shoulder of Stok kangri peak. I realized that we were close to the peak and other trek mates waited for us to join them. All of us would be roped up and we would trek the ridge to reach Stok kangri peak.
While trekking towards the shoulder, I looked back and saw a lovely valley bathing in the mild orange and yellow streaks of sunlight. The sky had turned diamond blue and I had got my price! What a spectacular view! I reached the shoulder quicker so that I can sit back, relax and just observe the nature’s miracle. I felt alive again!
It was 5:40 am and we were roped up for the final peak summit. A 200-meter ridge still stood between us and Stok kangri peak. Owing to the steep drops on either side of the ridge, we were roped up so that accidents can be prevented.
We were now 15 trekkers trudging with exhaustion towards the 20,100 feet peak. Every step was a daunting task. Stopping midway was not recommended as whenever I rested my chin on the trekking pole, a wave of sleep hypnotized my brain! I had to wake myself up forcefully to avoid losing balance and tumbling in the valley below. But, we had to take short breaks to be able to gasp for oxygen and relax the exhausted muscles for a bit.
The ridge climb took longer than expected and finally, we reached the peak after 2 almost dreadful hours! I had finally defeated the odds and accomplished a mission. For the last 10 months, Stok Kangri trek was on my mind and I had finally realized my dream! It was undoubtedly a great personal feat.
The view from Stok Kangri peak was mesmerizing. We could see the Karakoram range in Pakistan and a wide, wide stretch of Leh Ladakh valley adorned the other side of our view. The 3 KM long glacier which made people quit and asked the best of us looked beautiful from top. How can a glacier so stunning be dreadful! But, that’s nature for you.
The sun rays were too strong and we were recommended to start the return trek within 10 minutes.
We clicked some pictures and lack of oxygen didn’t help in bringing out our photography skills. In fact, one trek mate held the Indian flag upside down and we had to tell him to hold it right! Low oxygen can really affect judgment!
The strong sun was not the only problem at the peak. The winds were also colder now. The temperature would have been around -3 degrees. But, we were not realizing it due to the intense sun.
After snapping some group and individual pics, we started our return journey back to base camp. It had taken us almost 12 hours to reach Stok Kangri peak! To reach Stok kangri base camp, it would take not more than 3 hours for us.
A trek mate, Himanshu holding the flag upside down. In the 2nd pic, he is correcting it. The mind does trick on you at 20,150 feet!
We returned to the base camp at around 1 pm. I skipped lunch and straight away crashed in my tent. I hadn’t slept for 24 hours now! With a smirk on my face, I congratulated myself and awarded an uninterrupted sleep! I woke up around 8 pm at dinner time and shared experiences with fellow trek mates.
Folks who returned had made the best decision given their situation. There is a very thin line between bravery and foolhardiness. You need to decide for yourself, by going ahead with the trek, are you being brave or foolish? If you ask your heart, you will know!
Day 6 – See you again, Mountains! : Stok Kangri base camp to Stok Village
After the successful summit of Stok Kangri peak, this last leg of our Stok Kangri trek didn’t seem daunting at all. We descended 14 KMs in less than 4 hours. We must have taken just 4 breaks in between. The euphoria of completing Stok kangri trek loomed heavily over the pain of crushing toes and jerking shins. We eventually reached Stok village where two buses waited for us.
I looked back at the massive mountains dominating the landscape. You don’t conquer the mountains, the mountains conquer you!
Stok Kangri trek will be my best experience till date. It’s more than just an adventure. It’s about defeating your inner demons, taking up a challenge and putting your best foot in front. It’s about staying motivated despite all odds.
It’s about life!