Saturday, 3 October 2009

Not just a peak in sight – a peak to climb!

So – by now we are in the heart of the Himalayas, in Leh, Ladakh and the pulse of the mountains is all around us. What else do people come here for but to be with Mother Nature and feel the grandeur of the highest peaks on planet Earth? Well – they don’t just come to look. Trekking is one of the main events in Ladakh but since this part of the world is so truly remote it’s not something that one can do easily without equipment and guides. Unlike the Himalayas of Nepal, there aren’t ‘teahouses’ every few miles to stop at for the night and it is necessary to be completely self-sufficient. The easiest way to do this is to take an organized trek with a guide and porters – but since this is generally a little more costly than our proposed daily budget for our stay in India we had pretty much ruled out the prospect of a long distance trek and decided that day hikes would have to do. Nevertheless it didn’t hurt to take a look at a brochure or 2 and make inquiries at one of the many trekking agencies in town. One of our Spanish travel buddies, Berta was also keen to take a trek so we figured we’d give her a hand in weighing up the options. Now to set the scene of our trip to the trekking agency I should also explain that only the day before our arrival in Leh we had discussed some of the many trekking possibilities and agreed that if it was at all possible to pull it off, only a short trek was a viable option based on funds and time and climbing a peak was out of the question – none of us were trained or prepared for that! As we sat in ‘Dreamland’ trekking agency with their photo album of previous treks in hand, considering the views in store and the options available, we realized that none of us were even remotely interesting in a regular A-B trek. Again the ‘-‘ between A and B, or in this case A and A was going to be the most important part. We all looked at each other and instantly knew what the other 2 were thinking. Of course we’d said we weren’t prepared for a summit attempt, but clearly those resolutions had gone straight out the window the minute the proposition was right under our noses. In 4 days we could make it to the top of Stok Kangri at the dizzying height of 6153M and back down – and the price was not much more than any other, far less impressive trek available to do in that short amount of time. Without much discussion at all we were talking logistics and dates, times and cost and it seemed clear that the summit was the only way to go. Apparently none of us could resist the challenge!
Before we made any definite arrangements we decided to think it over during lunch and found the ‘Leh View Restaurant’ to order up some cheese/veg momo’s (a local Tibetan specialty) and chew it over. As we sat munching our lunch and simmering over the prospect of a peak we enquired of our waiter: ‘Stok Kangri, which one?’ and pointed to the horizon (clearly visible from our spectacular location on the rooftop terrace of our restaurant, aptly named the ‘Leh view’). He immediately, proudly pointed to the highest peak in sight (the one with a decidedly pointy and unfriendly looking peak) and told us ‘that one’. We were daunted, but excited – the decision had been made – we were off to climb a mountain.

We were due to leave for our trek in 2 days as we’d already made plans for the following day, (an outing to Pangong Lake – one of the most incredibly serene, scenic and surreal bodies of water I have ever stood beside – in fact worth every minute of the excruciatingly, bone-shaking, 5hr drive over the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world to get there), however when my stomach decided to violently eject the contents of it’s last meal in the middle of the night and remind me of some of the less savory moments of travel in India we decided to push it back one more day to give me time to recover and regain my strength for the mammoth task ahead.
During the time we spent in the city itself we managed to explore the ruined palace of Leh, and wander the narrow alleyways of the old town finding all kinds of hidden corners and crevices of fascination. This place is a photographers dream, as long as your camera has a high ISO capability, since all the alleyways are so narrow and sun starved that lighting at most times of day is scarce. One of our favourite things to watch was the Roti makers working their magic. They would take a small ball of dough and roll it into a flat, round patty, then literally stick it to the wall of their cauldron-like fire pit. In just a few minutes the bread would be baked and ready to sample, fresh and warm for only 3 rupees. An absolute bargain and tasty as hell (especially with the locally made Apricot Jam, or, if you can find it, Nutella - believe it or not we managed to track down 2 ‘supermarkets’ in town with supplies of this hazelnut chocolate flavoured gold dust.)
Anyway, finally the morning of our departure arrived. With nerves and excitement we packed up our kits for the next four days, stashed the rest of our belongings in the blanket room of our guesthouse (that would hopefully be waiting safely on our return) and headed off to the hills. Fortunately for us, since we were going with an organized trekking agency we only had the burden of our day packs for the hike – the main body of our gear was carried by the horses and donkeys that would follow us up the trail. Our first day, a projected 5-6 hr hike into the foothills was an easy 3 hr stroll for us – barely noticing the altitude or gain in elevation (having been in Leh for several days at an altitude of 3500M we were already quite well acclimatized). The only problem with arriving to camp so early was that the horses were quite a way behind and with only our day packs, containing our packed lunches and cameras, once the sun disappeared behind a cloud it was a little brisk to say the least.

But eventually the gear arrived, the tents were up and we were able to take the chill off our icy fingers with a hot cup of tea. After a pleasant stroll above our first camp and back (to assist further with our acclimatization) it was time for noodles. As we sat outside our guide’s tent listening to the sounds of pots and pans clunking around we wondered whether noodles was the main event or whether there was more to come. After quite some time we were invited to step inside and literally could not believe what was in stall. Inside the tent was a ‘table’ set up with tablecloth, napkins, candles and all. Apparently our noodles were merely an afternoon snack. First course served was soup and popcorn, followed by several freshly cooked curry options with rice and naan. There was even fresh fruit for dessert, and wow did it taste good! This was no crappy, boil in a bag, dehydrated camping fodder, this was a freshly made dinner, fit for a king.
Day 2 followed in much the same fashion – a proposed 3 hr hike to base camp that we polished off in 1 and a half. But now at an altitude of just below 5000M we were starting to feel the thinning of the air. On day two I also became acutely aware (and not for the first time since arriving in Ladakh) of the eerie, quiet calm around us. One of the things most notable about walking through a Ladakhi Himalayan canyon is the silence. As soon as the path steers you away from the tumbling cascade of glacial water flowing over it’s rocky path and the rumble that it makes, you hear nothing. Quite literally nothing! There are so few places on the planet where life has such a hard time sustaining itself that the sound of silence is literally deafening. Here in this mountainous desert there is barely a bird or insect to break that silence.

The occasional rustle of a dried out, freezer burned nettle plant that has made an attempt at growing, only to be freeze dried or burned by the sun is all that you hear, as a gentle gust of wind passes by, beside the sound of your own feet kicking up the rocks beneath your feet. A rare bird cry can be heard in the distance but since this is not a land of abundance and plenty most of our avian friends stay close to the small ‘oasis’ provided by the villages that sprout up around the more fertile, river-fed ground, further down the valley.

Our afternoon stroll on day two took us well above the 5000M mark and my head was starting to feel the effects. Mix that with the fact that as soon as the sun made her descent behind the sharp peaks around us, shielding us from her warming rays the inhospitable nature of the environment we were in hit home. In only a few hours we would attempt to go even higher, in the cold dark night. Our evening meal was taken earlier that night since our scheduled departure from base camp was to be at 1am, to reach the summit soon after dawn. This was to be a 10-11 hr day according to the schedule. Now – since we had halved the schedule on our previous 2 days we were sure our time would be faster than this, however there was no way to predict how that extra 1000M of altitude would affect our speed and since we were all starting to feel the effects we were preparing for the day ahead with caution.

At 5000M above sea level all kinds of strange things start to happen to the unacclimatized human body and insomnia is one of them. Knowing that every minute of sleep would certainly make the task ahead easier only made it harder to fall asleep, not to mention the sounds of the guides merrily chatting away in their tent next door and the sound of the horses jingling bells as they roamed the arid base camp area snuffling the ground for a patch of dried up grass to mow.
At some point though I must have drifted off because I remember the feeling of being aroused by our guide, informing us that it was time for ‘breakfast’ – the time in fact was 1.30am (how nice – he let us sleep an extra hr). We pulled on our icy layers, donned our wooly hats and gloves and exited the tent to take a quick cup of black tea and a bowl of warm porridge before we departed for the summit. The time: 2.10am.
Slowly, we retraced our steps from our afternoon stroll the day before in the dark with only our head torches to light the way, to reach the plateau from which we would make our final push for the summit. At this altitude the feeling of exertion is multiplied exponentially for the effort expended. Although I wouldn’t call it fatigue, you just somehow know that you simply cannot go any faster. If you attempt an increase in speed, the sound of your own heart pounding in your head becomes deafening and the will to continue fades beneath your feet – the only way to proceed is with slow, dogged determination and an iron will. From advanced base camp we crossed a rocky boulder field to join the lower end of a glacier mouth. Our ascent now continued gradually over crusty and slippery snow and ice, until we reached the final rocky south-east face of Stok Kangri – the gaping mouth of the beast, one might say. By this point, the sky was beginning to show the first signs of a rising sun, the silhouette of the mountain was taking shape above us, looming overhead and although we kept on going, she seemed to rise further and further above us. It was about this time, when the sky was taking on that flickering baby blue tinge (as opposed to the black black night with it’s magical array of mystical stars) that my head began to spin. Perhaps I had attacked that last small section of ascent with just a little too much aggression – but my brain was definitely mounting a protest on the pay cut it had received in oxygen currency in the last 48 hours and I started to doubt my chances of making it to the top. We took a break (one of many on our way up) and our guide suggested a snack. Although the edges of nausea were creeping up on my senses and I was hesitant to fill my buccal cavity with anything but my own tongue at the current time I decided to take his advice and pull out that emergency chocolate chip granola bar I had been saving for a moment of need. It did the trick – within minutes I was feeling revived and ready for the final assault. By now the sun was well and truly clamoring into our world and as the first rays poked over the horizon at 6.12am we were within reach of the peak. From here it took almost 2 more hours to reach the top – but by the time your body is struggling to climb that last 200 metres it takes all your might just to take 5 steps in a row. For the final ridge of snow covered rocky buttresses and exposed crags our guide roped us together so that, should one of us slip and fall, the others would hopefully take the strain and keep each other safe.
At 7.55am we made our final steps to take our place on the top of Stok Kangri at 6153M (well according to Wikipedia it’s actually 6137M – but what’s 16M between friends) and with tears in our eyes, had just a little glimpse of what it may have felt like for Sherpa Tensing and Sir Edmond Hilary to be on top of the world at the summit of Mount Everest. Now sure there may be another 2700M or so to reach that particular Himalayan peak – but for us mere mortals, with little to no mountaineering experience that peak may has well have been Everest, at least it was our Everest!
What made it even more special was that we were also celebrating Berta’s birthday that day and our guide had actually baked and brought a cake and candles to the summit. With quite some effort in the cold and wind the candles were lit and we all sung happy birthday with what little air we had left in our lungs to the smiling proud birthday girl feeling, quite literally, on top of the world.
From up there the views were magnificent. We could look to the East and imagine the Annapurna range and beyond that mighty Mount Everest herself and to the West and the North the Karakoram Range of Pakistan and K2. As far as the eye could see we were spying the icy peaks of a giant Christmas cake spread out before us; only this view, for sure, tasted sweeter than any festive fodder ever sampled at yuletide. We had made it! Now I’ll admit, that being a bit of a self-professed mountain goat and avid hiker, I secretly thought that this peak would be a breeze. And while it’s true that no one said it would be easy, no one actually mentioned that it would damn near kill me. The only adjective that seems fitting in my mind for what I experienced that day is ‘Gruelling’. On my travels I have reached an altitude of over 5000M on many occasion and I never imagined that that extra 500M would make so much difference but let me tell you – it did!
And then, after all that effort and emotion you realize you still have to bloody well get back down. It took us almost as long to return to base camp as it had to reach the summit and while my summit buddies crashed into an exhausted slumber (the sun kindly avoided the clouds for the majority of the afternoon and warmed their aching limbs), I lay, wide eyed, staring at the blue, blue sky in a euphoric state with far too much adrenalin still pumping through my capillaries to even think of sleep.
Our final dinner on the mountain was possibly the finest. Maybe it was the fact that our bodies were so desperately in need of re-fuelling from our ‘gruelling’ ordeal or maybe it was just that Motub, our guide liked to save the best till last, but if you can believe it we actually enjoyed, amongst other culinary delights that night, a freshly made pizza of the cheese, tomato and mushroom variety and it tasted oh so good. When we finally arrived back to Leh the next day we sat on the terrace of our cute little guest house ‘The Glacier View’ as the sun went down and marveled at the fact that only 32 hours before we had been sitting on the top of that peak directly in sight, feeling, quite literally, invincible.
If you ever get the chance to climb a Himalayan mountain, I whole-heartedly recommend it because very few things in life come even close to the emotion you will feel as you take those final steps to reach the summit, but a word of warning: Do Not expect it to be easy! It’s not!

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