31 August 2008

Stok Kangri, Ladakh

I travelled with Exodus in August 2008.



Day 1


Delhi, a full-on assault on the senses. A pretty woman in colourful sari, babe in arms, sitting side-saddle on scooters in the maelstrom of Delhi’s traffic jams. Cows crossing major roads, oblivious to the tide of humanity rushing towards them, a kid’s latrine on the pavement, clothes hung out to dry on the central reservation of a dual carriageway.
Then, the quiet sanctity of Raj Ghat, the cremation site for Mahatma Gandhi, the majesty of Delhi’s Red Fort, the narrow, purposeful streets of the Old Delhi bazaars, and the pride of the Jama Masjid mosque before the sudden order of India Gate and the magnificence of the parliamentary buildings nearby. Overwhelming, overpowering, wonderful India.
Arrival day, a quick tour, dinner at the City Place Hotel in the north west of the city. An early start to the airport beckons...


Day 2


Delhi’s night lasts from 0045 to 0130, the only time the sound of a vehicle horn is seldom heard. We were at the domestic airport for 0300 and in the air with Deccan Airways by 0500. Dark at first, but as the dawn broke we were treated to the spectacle of the snow capped peaks and glaciers of the Great Himalayan Range, before reaching the barren and deeply riven slopes of the Zanskar Range. Then, finally, in the full glory of the early morning light, the proud stand of the Stok and Ladakh Ranges, our objective, Stok Kangri, in clear view and capped with snow.
Overflying the airport, the second highest commercial airport in the world at 3500m, we banked steeply over the town of Leh to access the runway from the west, followed by a strong powered landing in our A320.


Final approach into Leh, Stok Kangri 6141m centre
A tiny airport, shared with the military, and we were quickly through the sleepy town of Leh to our well situated hotel, the Royal Heritage Resort on Fort Road. Unpack, breakfast and a steady walk into town, where your eyes are immediately drawn to Leh Palace, an imposing nine storey building on the slopes of Tsemo Hill, built in the 17th century by king Taski Namgyal (at about the same time as the Potala Palace in Lhasa). Mid afternoon, we took a group walk around Leh, led by Exodus leader Valerie Parkinson, visiting the main bazaar, old Leh, and a good rooftop restaurant offering 360 degree views. I had a final, indulgent, stop at the Cottage Emporium on Fort Road to purchase two fine Tibetan thangkas, very intricate and very expensive! Originally from Lhasa and between 60-70 years old, they would have each taken a monk up to two years to produce.


Leh Palace
Day 3


Visits to Shey, Hemis and Thikse monasteries today. Shey, about 10 miles south east of Leh in the verdant Indus valley, is reached by a good road which passes one of the Dalai Lama’s residences, beautifully situated with views to Stok Kangri. Shey was Ladakh’s capital back in the 10th century and has a ruined castle and gompa enshrining a giant sitting Buddha which occupies most of the large square temple. Paintings on the surrounding walls are blackened by the soot of the many butter lamps, but there are many old paintings of the White Tara, and Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), the Indian missionary who helped establish Buddhism in Tibet. Fine views across the Indus valley to the mountains of the Stok Range and south east towards Changtang.


View from Shey Gompa
Onwards to visit Hemis, remotely located up in the fold mountains to the west of the Indus, a further 17 miles out on mainly good roads. This is a popular tourist spot, famed for its two day mask dance festival each summer, a spectacle that celebrates a number of miraculous events said to have occurred in Padmasambhava’s life.
Built in the 1630s under King Sengge Namgyal, Ladakh’s best known monarch, Hemis is the chief monastery of the Drukpa order of the Kagyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is without an abbot, still held by the Chinese in Tibet, and it is he who holds the key to a secure strong room, said to include the Jesus Scrolls, a Tibetan manuscript translated into Pali and said to tell the story of Jesus Christ’s hypothesised sojourn into India.
The monastery has a large dukhang (assembly hall) with many old murals and the large thangka, unrolled only every twelve years at the festival. A good museum also exhibits many fine Buddhists iconographs.


Gompa at Hemis
On to Thikse, a quick lunch, then up to the magnificent building sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Indus valley. Of the three visited today, this was the most calming of them all. Belonging to the dominant Buddhist order in Ladakh, the Gelugpa Order (the ‘yellow hats’ of which the Dalai Lama is their head), the monastery was built in the 1480s and hosts a 40’ high statue of the Future Buddha (Maitreya) completed only in 1980 when the Dalai Lama consecrated the temple. The main temple area, across a sunken courtyard, is an attractive pillared chamber behind which an ante room hosts five beautiful Buddhist images.
Fine views to the mountains all around. Dinner back in Leh at a Tibetan restaurant.


Gompa at Thikse
Day 4


Three jeeps set off for a trip to Kardung La, ostensibly the highest motorable road pass in the world at 5602m (18,380’). Two jeeps made it, one having broken down en route. More recently, accurate GPS surveys have placed it at 5359m (17,581’), with two passes in Tibet higher.
It was a spectacular drive, some 39km (24m) from Leh on a road that saw numerous tourist jeeps, bikers, and huge convoys of Indian Army trucks moving over to the Nubra Valley to the north. A few wrecked buses and trucks littered the slopes.


View to Leh and the Indus Valley from the Kardung La road
There were fine views to either side of the pass, and to the north we could clearly see the high mountains of the eastern Karakorum of Pakistan and, to the south, the Ladakh, Stok and Zanskar ranges. We scrambled up a small ridge to the east of the pass, any sudden moves bringing on an instant attack of hypoxia as the brain dragged for more oxygen. Some good tea was enjoyed at the pass, then the long descent back to Leh, the weather brightening by the minute.
Lunch at the German Bakery in Leh, then a small group of us enjoyed the short climb to Leh Palace (open, but derelict: currently under restoration by the Archaeological Society of India), then up a steeper trail to Tsemo Gompa, a red Maitraya temple, and the 16th century fort of King Taski Namgyal, dominating over the town and the surrounding countryside.


Tsemo Gompa and fort above Leh
View over Leh to Stok Kangri from Tsemo Gompa
We continued northwards, circumnavigating the fort, taking us into the more barren brown earth landscape so typical of Ladakh, passing through a cremation area before turning back down an attractive valley, with barley and vegetable crops growing amidst an abundance of poplars in the area of Chubi. Passing by Sankar gompa, Leh’s principal monastery, with two fine chortens in the garden compound, we returned to town for a rest and dinner at another Tibetan restaurant.


Day 5


A late start with jeeps packed for the trek. Off at 1100 and westwards on the road to Srinagar (about 430kms away). Enormous military bases and training facilities were seen as we left Leh, but we were quickly into the vast expanse of the Indus valley, with a desert like landscape, surrounded by fold mountains to both sides.
We eventually reached the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, the latter entering the Indus in a milky flow, laden with grey silt. A short walk here, as a bus ahead of us had punctured a tyre and blocked the progress of our three jeeps, then onwards into the impressive gorge landscape of the Zanskar valley. In less than 15 minutes we decamped from the jeeps to begin our trek proper.


Confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers
Most of our gear was to be loaded on to waiting ponies and donkeys, so we proceeded uphill on a fine path until we reached the small settlement of Choksi where our first camp had already been set up by the support crew. Walking up through the barley fields, apricot trees and vegetable patches, we quickly reached our camp, nestled in a copse of apricot trees giving much welcome shade. 


First day on trek, along the Zanskar valley to Choksi
A lazy lunch was followed by a two hour acclimatisation walk, up a steep valley to 3700m, with great views back to the Zanskar river far below. Back in camp, tea and cakes, followed by a wash in the local river, led us towards dinner, to the accompaniment of prayers and drums from a monk visiting the settlement nearby.


Day 6


Not a bad night’s sleep, lulled by the sound of running water. We started off at a steady plod, the altimeter reading 3250m at the start and 4300m at the finish. Basically, it was a long valley climb, with some steep sections here and there, but leading to a superb camp site at Choksi Drok, with extensive views to the Ladakh and Karakorum ranges. We took about 5 hours to reach the camp, miraculously set up by the porters who had overtaken us en route.


Ascent to Choksi Drok, 4300m
Lunch, then a two hour walk further up the valley by another 250m, attaining 4700m on a recalibration of the altimeter. A little yoga before dinner, although a somewhat challenging task for the breath at this altitude! A totally clear sky, with the Milky Way right over our heads, as we turned in for the night.


Day 7


A disturbed night with a stomach upset (suspect locally dried apricots). On the hill by 0800, a slightly dull plod for 2.5 hours, but this was fine given the knowledge that the next camp offered a fine vista of all the surrounding mountain ranges. Reaching camp at 4905m, in a wide grassy hollow grazed by dzo (a cross between a male yak and female cow), we were not disappointed with the views before us. 


Exodus group at Kang La Base Camp, 4847m
A short walk to the nearby skyline brought many more mountains into sight, plus enormous bands of rain, which hit us just before lunch. This is the Kang La Base Camp, and our base for climbing Palam Peak tomorrow, and a nearby 5000m peak, unnamed officially so christened ‘Exodus Peak’, for our afternoon acclimatisation walk.
The rain quickly passed and one hour later we were standing on the rocky summit of the ‘little top’, which at 5046m presented us with superb views of all the surrounding ranges. Everybody made it, a good omen for the next few days.


'Exodus Peak' 5046m
Back in camp, tucked into a big down bag, it was very snug with more rain and temperatures plummeting outside. Brrrrh...


Day 8


A cloudy start but some brightness around. A long slog up to the head of the valley we’d been climbing for the last two days, and we reached the Kang La with relative ease, followed by a wide ridge walk up on to Palam Peak at 5380m (~16,700’). Stupendous views in all directions. We lingered on the summit for about 30 minutes, with yesterday’s peak now seeming like a long way below.


View back to 'Exodus Peak'
Summit of Palam Peak, 5380m
An easy descent took us down to a col for lunch, followed by a stiff climb and then a long traversing path at around 5200m, which gave the opportunity for some solitary walking (except for the odd marmot) amidst a desolate landscape. This led us to the second pass of the day, the Ganda La at 4900m, from which a steep one hour descent led us to a well prepared camp and a local ‘tea house’ (actually a tent), where some of the group enjoyed local beer and whisky. The camp tonight was a little lower, at around 4600m, thankfully with pitches on flat ground this time!


View towards the Ganda La
Camp below the Ganda La
Day 9


In bright sunshine we departed downhill from the camp (this is reverse of Day 2 of the renowned Markha Valley Trek). It was a beautiful walk, with more colour and vegetation than we had seen in days, mainly barley fields ready for harvest, as we descended to the Zinchen valley. We stopped for photos at the one house settlement of Yurutse, with the golden barley contrasting against the dark surrounding rockscapes. 


Descent to the Zinchen Valley 
Zinchen Valley (part of the Markha Valley trek)
River crossing, Zinchen Valley
Further down at 3960m, we reached a small bridge at the confluence of two glacial melt streams and enjoyed the spectacle before heading back uphill on a fabulous contouring path to the six house village of Rumbak.


Leaving the Zinchen Valley for Rumbak village
Approach to Rumbak
Here we spent an hour in one of the houses owned by one of our ponymen, served, variously, with black tea, salt tea, butter tea and chang, a crude barley beer, all with the accompaniment (to taste!) of the roasted barley powder called tsampa, a staple of the local diet. 


Ponyman's home in Rumbak
Leaving Rumbak village
Then back up the hill, speeding up a bit to test fitness for the bigger climb a few days ahead, before reaching camp at the head of the valley below tomorrow’s objective, the Stok La pass at 4900m. Tonight’s camp, next to a fast flowing stream, gave good washing opportunities and fine views all around, albeit tonight we’re sleeping at a relatively low 4312m. A lot of height to regain! Afternoon rain and hail showers cleared to a fine and not too-chilly evening, with a good yoga session before dinner.


Stok La Base Camp, 4312m
Rock strata above Stok La Base Camp
Day 10


Spent the night sliding down the tent on sloping ground, but the compensation was a brilliantly clear day, with blue skies and big views everywhere. Everybody was keen to start today, with a very steep two hour ascent of Stok La ahead of us, 600m to climb straight after breakfast. Narrow zig zags and some steep, loose ground right near the top got us there quickly. The effort was worth it – huge views back to the west, with our route over the last three days visible. But the view eastwards took our breath away – the vertical tilting of the rock strata gave some dramatic views. 


Ascent to Stok La
Stumpy on Stok La, 4900m 
View from Stok La
Looking back to Stok La
Eager not to hold up twenty or so pack animals on such exposed and narrow mountain paths, we moved on, descending a contouring path to another view point with more truly spectacular views. And, on to the next, where we were treated to a rare sighting of a blue sheep (actually not a sheep, but a cliff-climbing goat called a bharal), along with other massive vistas in this unique rock landscape.
Eventually, a steep descent brought us to a point 600m below our high point for the day. In these few hours I had witnessed some of the finest mountain scenery I have ever seen.
We took lunch in a sunny spot next to the river, then more descent to a wide valley which eventually linked into a huge valley that drains the glaciers above Stok. Once again, dramatic sandstone walls towered above us, contrasting the wide river valley filled with boulders and rubble carried down in the massive glacial melt that occurs each spring.




Descent from Stok La
A steady ascent up the valley brought us to our next camp site at Mankarmo, a popular spot with some other groups already pitched there. At an altitude of 4380m, we were at our lowest point since Choksi Drok on day 2. Whilst relaxing mid afternoon a full herd of bharal climbed down the cliff opposite the camp site and jumped the river to graze just above us. Fantastic climbers!


Dramatic sandstone canyons below Mankarmo
Camp at Mankarmo, 4380m
It was a superb day all round. The camp was somewhat eclectically occupied: locals from the village of Stok, on who’s grazing land we were now camped, both in Ladakhi and Muslim garb, ponies, tethered in the middle of the camp, our group, and an assorted mix of independent trekkers and mountaineers, some organised by Leh tour operators.
Our objective, Stok Kangri, is now in sight. Way above us, at 6141m, it looks formidable from here, although our route, a line up the left hand ridge, does not look particularly technical. Little snow is left on the mountain this late in the season, but we’ll need to carry ice axes and crampons just in case.


Day 11


Another disturbed night....my head seemed below my feet whichever end of the tent I laid it. Plus the river noise and jangling of bells on the pack animals. Ho hum.
Off at 0815 for a four hour ascent to Stok Kangri Base Camp – a slog up the valley side, crossing glacial moraine, and eventually, breathlessly, climbing to the glacier’s terminal moraine to reach a fantastic spot for a base camp at 5200m. Directly in front of us was the north face of Stok Kangri itself, rising a vertical kilometre above our heads. Awesome.


Climb to Stok Kangri Base Camp
Views in the opposite direction were extensive, with views across the entire Ladakh range and further into the eastern Karakorum, with additional views eastwards into Changtang and Tibet. Some group crampon fitting and rudimentary ice axe instruction, but mainly an afternoon of rest before dinner, then bed by 1930 ready for the 0030 wake up call to enable a pre-dawn start for our climb tomorrow.


Base Camp - Stok Kangri just one vertical kilometre above us!
Stok Kangri Base Camp, 5200m
Day 12


A breakfast of porridge, a bit difficult to stomach at 0100, but essential fuel for the rigours ahead. Off by 0115, led by a Nepali climbing leader, up across the terminal moraine, crossing a boulder field before connecting to the path leading from the main base camp a little lower down. We quickly reached frozen ground as we approached the glacier, so care was required, then a right turn on to the main glacier, not heavily crevassed and with a weathered surface which provided traction without the need for crampons. 


Breakfast before the Stok Kangri ascent
On the climb, at about 03:30
There followed a steep climb on boulders, before a more established path was reached: unfortunately, one of our number retreated at this point, succumbing to altitude sickness. The climb above the glacier was interminable, and all the more taxing for the steepening gradient on loose ground as we neared the ridge that would unlock the summit for us. Breathing became progressively more difficult as we reached the 5800m + territory, but we were distracted by an excellent sunrise in the clear skies we’d enjoyed over the last 4 hours and the ‘big reveal’ of the newly illuminated landscape falling far below us.


Sunrise during our ascent of Stok Kangri
Final ridge section before the summit


On to the ridge, narrow in places with huge drops either side, some loose rock in places and some sections of scrambling. Hard work, but afforded quick height gain. As we neared the top of the ridge, the paths narrowed and steepened, with the last 150m requiring a supreme effort from all.
But, emerging at the summit, huge views revealed themselves, with the snow cornice at the top providing that extra dimension which is uniquely high altitude mountaineering. The lead group of three had already been on the summit for some time and were keen to depart given the rarefied air, the cold and the knowledge of the big descent ahead. Summit photography followed, with views to the mighty K2 in Pakistan, and then our group of four started the descent.


Exodus group summits Stok Kangri
Stumpy on the summit of Stok Kangri, 6141m





Views from the summit of Stok Kangri
The steep ground at first was very tricky indeed and certainly got the adrenalin pumping with the huge run outs below us, but we steadily made progress down the ridge again, although we were all clumsy with fatigue.
One of our number took a fall on the steep unstable slopes below the ridge, fortunately without injury, but it seemed to take forever to get back to the glacier far below. Some rest stops helped before retracing our steps across the glacier to the icy ground on the other side: caution was still very important. We took a long rest stop before crossing the boulder field again, and descending the final steep slope back to base camp.


Descending the Stok Glacier 
Looking back to our route to the summit of Stok Kangri 
Final descent on the lateral moraine
Elated, yes, but completely subdued by exhaustion...the celebrations can wait! Clean up, re-hydrate, sleep the rest of the day away.
Our ascent had taken 5.5 hours, a good time by all accounts, and our descent 3.5 hours. We were back in base camp by 1100, a good day’s work! It was a beautiful day with clear skies, only sullied by a strengthening, gusty wind that threatened to blow our tents away at times. And, once the sun had sunk below Stok Kangri, the temperature fell rapidly...down jackets required again!
Dreaming now of hot water and a cold beer...


Day 13


Breaking base camp under Stok Kangri
A windy and cold night ensued, but an early start, with bed tea at 0500, and off on our descent by 0700 after the tipping ceremony for the local support crew. We quickly warmed up as we descended back to Mankarmo Camp again. Then, retracing our steps, we headed back into the gorge containing the river that flows all the way to Stok, with fantastic rock formations to both sides. 


River crossings on the final trekking day
Descent route to Stok
Canyons above Stok
A few river crossings, but generally straightforward walking, losing altitude from 5200m to about 3600m at Stok village, the site of the summer palace for the Ladakhi royalty. A 45 minute jeep ride brought us back to Leh, with satisfying views back to Stok Kangri, now looming in the far distance beyond the barley fields and white chortens of the village.
Back to the hotel....hot water, pack, ready for the long haul home.


Final steps into Stok
Ladakhi Royal Palace at Stok 
End of the trek! Stok Kangri from Stok village
Days 14/15


Back to Delhi on Jet Airways and on to London.


Summary


One of my favourite treks to date. Ladakh is vast, still relatively unspoilt, and quite beautiful. Go there before it really gets discovered!
The trek itself was not a hard one, and was brilliantly led by Val Parkinson from Exodus, who has spent over 25 years in the Himalaya and is a great authority on the mountains, the people and the culture of these remote places.
The climb itself was hard work, but this trip did acclimatise most of us really well. Anything above 5000m is going to be a challenge, but we were in good shape to reach the summit without risk. The terrain at the higher levels was tricky, mainly because of the absence of snow...it was Val’s first time to the summit without having to surmount a summit snow slope. Climatic warming perhaps, but horribly narrow and loose paths right near the top added a certain ‘excitement’ to the peak, particularly on descent.
Ladakh is a gem, the stark mountain environment, punctuated by gompas and chortens, colourful barley fields and river valleys, populated by friendly, open people who take great pride in their unique and remote way of life.
Highly recommended.