Saturday, August 23, 2014

Stoking the desire to conquer the mighty Stok Kangri

It all had started as an accident in 2004. YHAI organized Dalhousie trek kindled the love affair with Himalayas. It’s been 10 years since then that I have been doing the treks in Himalayas but there was a deep desire inside me and my friends to climb any peak in Himalayas. Stok Kangri – the name was doing rounds in our discussions on treks but never materialized. But as we were growing older, the desire became strong as we felt that before retiring from trekking, we have to climb and stand on a peak. We tried Kalanaag but failed. So, after going through all the blogs and posts in internet, we decided that 2014 is for climbing the “relatively easy” Stok Kangri. Relatively easy proved very much wrong after we reached there.
As usual, the core group members of the trek team – Deepak (I), Charan and Madhu met in around Oct/Nov 2013 timeframe and decided on doing an expedition to Stok Kangri in August. We roped in Vishwanath from Summiters to organize the trek for us. Dates were finalized to be from 7th Aug 2014 to 17th Aug 2014 that included a road trip from Jammu to Leh to gain the height and acclimatize to the altitude. The itinerary looked like the below for the trek

Aug 7th: Bangalore to Jammu (Flight). Take taxi to Katra. Stay in Katra
Aug 8th: 7:30AM -> Katra to Vaishnodevi by Helicopter
Aug 8th: 11 AM -> Viashnodevi to Katra by Helicopter
Aug 8th: 12PM -> Katra to Sonmarg
Aug 9th: Sonmarg to Khalsi
Aug 10th: Khalsi to Leh
Aug 11th: Day 1 :- Leh to Chang Ma via Stok Village.
Aug 12th: Day 2 :- Chang Ma (13087 ft.) to Mankorma (14200 ft.).
Aug 13th: Day 3 :- Mankorma (14200 ft.) to Base camp (16300 ft.).
Aug 14th: Day 4 :- Rest day
Aug 15th: Day 5 :- Base camp to Stok Kangri back to base camp.
Aug 16th: Day 6 :- Base Camp to Leh through Stok Village
Aug 17th: Leh to Bangalore

Our idea was to first go to Jammu by flight and stay in Katra. Visit Ma Vaishno Devi and then proceed towards Leh through Srinagar, Sonamarg, Kargil, Dras, Lamayuru, Khalsi and Leh. The last year road trip by Bikes from Manali to Leh had made us to explore the other way of reaching Leh through Srinagar and explore the beauty of the valley.
We got in Vijay and Navin to our team. Vijay had accompanied us when we did Pin Parvati pass trek. Navin, Vijay’s friend and neighbor in Chennai, had done some high altitude treks in US. So, we didn’t have any issues. Manoj from my office wanted to join us for the trek. Vishwa had Manish join our team for the trek along with him. So totally we were now 8 people.
By March/April 2014, we started booking the rooms and flight tickets. The initial plan was to stay in Jammu but later we changed it to Katra, owing to Ma Vaishnodevi temple visit. We booked the helicopter ride from Katra to Vaishnodevi for 5 of us (I, Charan, Madhu, Vijay and Navin). Manish, Manoj and Vishwa were supposed to stay back until we return from Vaishnodevi.
Second day stay was supposed to be in Sonamarg, after Srinagar and third day stay was supposed to be in Khalsi after Kargil/Dras, very much near to Leh.
As we eagerly awaited for the D day, Manoj dropped out of the trip and trek due to leave issues. Vishwa also dropped out due to personal commitments. Finally we were left with only 6 people.

7th Aug 2014:

First day of our trip. I and Charan, set out in the early morning to catch the flight at 8:50am. Having a good breakfast at Airport’s Maiyya’s café, we were then joined by Madhu after a good one hour wait for him to join us. We had not seen Manish till today but we had talked only through email. He was also supposed to start with us in the same flight. We got into luggage check in and security check and then boarded the flight as Madhu arrived late. So we couldn’t meet Manish in Bangalore Airport. After a well 2 and half hour flight, we landed in Delhi for a connecting flight to Jammu.
We met Manish in T1D terminal at Delhi. Exchanged greetings and then proceeded towards the security check. Since it was already afternoon, as per the plan, we had to have lunch in T1D terminal itself. We were also supposed to meet Vijay and Navin that were traveling from Chennai. We met both of them at the airport and after having good Idli and Vada for the lunch, we all set out for Jammu in the same flight.

It was little over one hour journey from Delhi to Jammu. We all landed in Jammu airport at around 3:05PM. Felt something strange. We had to walk from the runway to the terminal. No buses or no taxis. Anyways, we had the parchi (letter) for Vaishnodevi darshan, yet we took one more parchi with our photos recorded by the temple trust. We booked a pre paid taxi to Katra and loaded our luggages on to the taxi and sat in side for one hour drive. The road was awesome as it took turns after turns in the green mountains. By 5PM we were in Katra. We had already booked the rooms in Hotel Maharaja in Katra. We threw ourselves to the bed and had some refreshing moments.

By evening we decided to explore Katra as we didn’t have any work to do in Katra. The weather looked awesome with setting sun beaming its yellow rays on the streets of Katra and the adjacent mountains. The sun sets very late in the evening in this region during summer. No one ever imagined that the morning weather would go wrong. 

We roamed around the streets of Katra, eating all kinds of chats, pakoras, snacks by the road side, satisfying our taste buds. At last we ended up in a restaurant serving “satvik food” called "Madhuban". After having the dinner, we went back to our rooms, thinking about next morning’s helicopter ride.

8th August 2014

Never imagined that there would be heavy rain in the region. Yesterday’s evening was so awesome. No clues of weather changing in a matter of 8 hours. We got up at 5AM only to discover that it rained heavily in the night and it was still raining in the morning. Nevertheless, we had hopes that we would be able to make it to the top of the mountain for Ma Vaishnodevi’s darshan. We all got prepared except Manish that didn’t book the yatra with us. We had the ride at 8AM and we were waiting for our taxi that we had booked from Katra to Leh. By 7:15AM, Robinder, the driver of our taxi Mahindra Xylo came to the hotel. We hurriedly got into the Xylo in the rain and went towards the helipad. It was still raining and by now we had very little hopes of having any helicopter ride.
It was just around 4kms from the hotel to the helipad. We reached the helipad at around 7:30AM. There were already many people in waiting in the rain. We went inside only to discover that since past 15 days, there was not even one helicopter that left the helipad to the mountains due to bad weather. It seemed as if Ma Vaishnodevi didn’t want us to visit her and she didn’t want to give her blessings. We waited for almost an hour there and decided that we cancel the helicopter ride as the rain didn’t seem to stop. We cancelled the ride and got back to the Xylo and headed towards our room. Everybody was unhappy. We were at the foot steps of Ma Vaishnodevi, yet we were not able to visit the temple.
We reached the hotel with sad faces. Asked Manish to get ready to leave, so that we can reach Sonamarg before its too late in the night. After having a hot cup of tea, we loaded our luggage on to the Xylo and set out for our road trip towards Leh
The road from Jammu to Srinagar is somewhat monotonous. Not much interesting stuff or sceneries to look for. We passed through various villages. We did a mistake of skipping the Breakfast at Katra. Robinder advised us that he would take us to a nice dhaba on the way for the breakfast but ended up in eating in a dhaba that was like a joke on hygiene.

 We all had breakfast in the dhaba (few makki di rotis, alu/onion parathas, rajma-chawal) and then set out further towards Srinagar. We had a late lunch in one of the Vaishno dhabas on the way (Vaishno dhabas are pure vegetarian dhabas and they serve only vegetarian food). By this time we were very close to one of the longest tunnels in the country, the tunnel that leads to the Kashmir Valley.
The Jawahar tunnel or Banihal Tunnel is one of the longest road tunnels in the country running 2.85kms in length and with one way road in each directions. This tunnel was designed by two Germans (Alfred Kunz and C. Barsel) and its operational since 1956. The tunnel was built to provide the connectivity between Jammu and Srinagar round the clock. It was renovated in 1960 by BRO (Borders Roads Organization) and since then its maintained by BRO. It connects Banihal and Qazigund on NH1 which is now NH44. (Reference Wikipedia)
It was very cool feeling once we entered the tunnel. I tried to shoot video inside the tunnel, later only to discover that the video was so bad due to no light. We came out of the tunnel to enter the beautiful Srinagar valley. We were greeted by armed personnel at the tunnel entrance/exit and all along the road at least two armed soldiers at one kilometers distance. We took a turn to a beautiful spot called “Titanic View Point” that overlooked the green valley. It was a refreshing moment for all of us. We took lot of pictures and spent some time. Then headed towards Srinagar.

 We had clear instructions from wives and parents that we don’t stay in Srinagar. There are reasons to be concerned about staying in Srinagar due to the ongoing terror activities and you don’t know when you are in danger. By the time we entered Srinagar, it was around 7PM and the sun was just setting in. We all wanted to see Dal lake (considering its popularity and the beauty). Beautiful evening. We drove past the Dal lake. Our Mr.Robinder was in no mood to stop the vehicle but at one point we forced him to stop for taking the pictures. The place where we stopped was no so beautiful but for the sake of taking the pictures of Dal lake, we still took pictures and posed for the pictures.
Dal lake is a huge inland lake and it seemed as if there was no end as we drove past the lake. Its also called “Jewel in the crown of Kashmir”. The shore of the lake runs for about 15.5 kms and houses many boats, house boats etc. There are beautiful gardens such as Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh opposite to the lake that were built during the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. During the winter, the lake freezes. The lake gets its water from Jhelum River through inflow gate Telbal and the outflow is regulated through two channels Dal Gate and Nalla Aamir. The lake is at a height of 1583m (5194ft) above mid sea level. Going back to history, Dal lake is mentioned as Mahasarit (Sanskrti-महासरित्) in ancient Sanskrit texts. Ancient history records mention that a village named Isabar to the east of Dal Lake was the residence of goddess Durga. This place was known as Sureshwari on the bank of the lake, which was sourced by a spring called the Satadhara. (Reference Wikipedia)
After a brief stint of photography, we further proceeded towards Sonamarg. We already had booked the Glacier Heights hotel. We have covered almost 350kms today from Katra to Sonamarg. By the time we reached Sonamarg, it was 10PM. All were very hungry and we stopped first at a Punjabi hotel for dinner. After having dinner, we then proceeded to our hotels. Out of the three rooms booked, one room was a honeymoon room. It was an awkward situation for us. Boys refused to take the room and the hotel management arranged a different room for us. We all checked into the room and it was already 11PM and we slowly slid to deep sleep.

9th Aug 2014

Morning was refreshing site from the room. We could see the huge mountains through our room windows. We got refreshed and vacated the room by 7:30AM. We had the breakfast in the same Punjabi hotel and we then set out towards our next destination Khalsi. Its around 250kms from Sonamarg and today we were going through disturbed areas of Kashmir i.e, Kargil and Dras sectors that were once in news for Kargil war with Pakistan.

We entered the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. Its very sad that though Ladakh forms 1/3 of Jammu and Kashmir, there is no recognition in the State’s name. We reached Kargil, Dras at around 11:30AM. It was hot afternoon. The road NH1 was good. This NH1 connects the Sringar to Leh and then to Siachen Glacier. No wonder then Pakistanis wanted to capture this part of the land so that they can cut off the supplies to Siachen Glacier, the highest war field in the world. Indian Army has built a war memorial here in Dras town remembering the heroic sacrifices of our beloved Army people.
The emotions were running high in everybody as we visited the War memorial. The memorial has everybody’s name that participated in the Kargil war engraved in copper sheet. The Amar Jawan jyoti always burns and there is a soldier that guards 24x7. As we entered the Vijay path in the memorial, we heard huge voice explaining the Kargil war. We went and listened patiently for around 10 minutes the entire story on the Kargil war, the heroes, how the enemies captured and how they were driven away etc. Everybody was speechless and listened carefully to the speech given by the Jawan. We could see the Tiger hill, Rhino horns (these are the peaks in Tololing range) right next to us that were captured by the Pakistanis during the war.
We then went to the museum that housed the Shradh Kalash and various arms and ammunitions captured by the Indian Army from the Pakistani army. Army has kept a Mig21 fighter jet in the memorial that participated in the Operation Safed Sagar. There were bunkers and posts that were captured from Pakistanis during the war. The Veer Bhumi houses the Names of the soldiers died during the war engraved on the stone, overlooking the Tiger hill and Rhino horms. We had spent good amount of time in the memorial and took a lot of pictures to carry back our memories and emotions.

 Army also runs a canteen that provides light meals and snacks to the visitors on nominal charges. Army also runs a canteen that sells clothing materials with Indian Army written on it. Some of our folks bought caps and other things in the canteen. We were hungry also as the time was nearing 1PM. Unfortunately the food served there was not in the interests of our folks and we ended up taking Samosa for all and Rajma-Chawal (only for Navin and Robinder). We never had any idea that we are going to be hungry for another 3 hours without lunch until we reached a place just before Lamayuru
We were all hungry and exhausted after Dras. The road was monotonous with dry mountains on either side. There was not even a single hotel on the way. We had luckily bought some Apples and guys used to eat the apples to satisfy the hungry stomach. At last around 4PM, we reached a place where we could get something for our hungry and angry stomach. We asked Robinder to stop the vehicle where it seemed like a tourist spot. There was huge Buddha statue carved out of a single standing rock. Opposite to that there were couple of hotels. We went to Paradise Hotel run by a guy called Sharma as we thought we would not be able to digest the Ladakhi food. Everybody ordered the food of his choice (roti, dhal, sabzi, maggi etc). Bought lot of candies in the same hotel and we relaxed for some time there before we headed towards Khalsi. 

But when we enquired the people there, they suggested to stay in Lamayuru instead of Khalsi as Lamayuru is quite a tourist spot and Khalsi is just a town and not many hotels around to stay. So, we proceeded towards Lamayuru which is on the way. We passed through one of the highest passes between Srinagar and Leh highway. Another photo session. Wind was blowing heavily and it was quite cold outside. I somewhat dared to go without heavy clothing on me and probably that affected me in coming days.

We reached Lamayuru at around 6PM and started searching for hotels for night stay. After a good search for around half an hour, we decided to settle down in Lion’s Den hotel cum home. People were friendly and we had dinner at Lion’s Den’s home instead of hotel. Already I started getting the feeling of high altitude sickness in the form of light head ache. Somehow, I had dinner and went to bed.
Morning 4:30AM when I got up to the call of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). My head was heavy and seemed like the last night’s food was just in my throat. Immediately I ran to the bathroom only to take out everything out of me (vomiting). It was painful experience. I always hate vomiting but cant help when I am in high altitude. Quite relieved after vomiting, I came back to bed and slept again for some time. People got ready by 6:30AM and I was still not in a mood to get ready due to my head ache and vomiting. Breakfast was ready by 7AM and by the time everyone was ready, I was ready to puke once again without any food. By this time, I started feeling like I was not ready for the trek. I went for the breakfast but couldn’t eat anything. A piece of bread went down the throat after much difficulty. So I had a cup of black tea and then we vacated the Lion’s Den.

10th Aug 2014

By 8AM, we left Lamayuru. It was less than 100km to Leh. But my condition was worst. As we reached the checkpost before Leh, I get vomiting sensation again. When Robinder went to sign in the checkpost, I puked again. My condition was deteriorating as time passed. I had already vomited thrice and I didn’t have anything in my stomach. I was tired.
We reached the Sangam (confluence) of rivers Sindhu (Indus) and Zhanskar at around 10AM. Third visit to the Sangam in 4 years for me. I had a cup of tea with difficulty. Another photo session at Sangam. I was not in a position to open a my camera bag and take pictures. I just sat and watched other people taking photos. After the photo session there, at around 11:15AM, we set out. The plan was to visit Pattar Sahib Gurudwara on the way to Leh.

By 11:30AM we were in Gurudwara. We prayed in Gurudwara and had the rose juice given there. Since it was Sunday, Gurudwara was full and full by Army people. We spent around 30 minutes in Gurudwara and then started our journey again. It was third time for me, Charan and Madhu but first time for Navin, Vijay and Manish. So, they wanted to see most of the things. On the way, we have to cross the Magnetic Hill.
An unnatural phenomenon at a particular spot on the way to Leh. As per the eye witnesses, if you park your vehicle in neutral gear and no brake, the vehicle will start moving uphill, defying the gravity. But this seems to be an optical illusion created at that spot due to the very nature of the hills and surrounding areas (Reference Wikipedia). We couldn’t do or spot anything. I couldn’t go out of the vehicle also. So, we didn’t spend much time in Magnetic hill. We then set out to Leh.
I called up the guide Ved by this time and asked him to come near the police station in Leh to guide to the hotel we were going to stay. Ved promptly came near police station and from there it was hardly 300mts to the hotel.
As soon as we reached the hotel, we got our luggages down and settled in a room. I was not feeling well still. I vomited once again. By this time I was feeling very tired and not able to speak or sit or walk. I just laid back on the bed for some time. Meanwhile, other folks were having discussion with Ved and his porters on the trek next day. I still had my doubts on myself whether I could do the trek or not.
After sometime, we ordered for lunch in the same hotel, Hotel Ree York. I just had some curd rice. I was still feeling headache and was like someone is hitting with hammer. Instead of sitting inside the room, just to make sure that I get some fresh air, I started walking within the hotel premises. Yet, I was not feeling well. We all set out to purchase the missing items for trek. I accompanied them but was very tired. While other folks were doing the purchasing, I just sat outside the shop in the market, waiting for them to complete. Seeing my condition, Charan took me back to the hotel while others continued shopping. After couple of hours, I vomited again.
By this time, I had already vomited 6 times today and forget doing trek in this condition, I didn’t have any strength in me to walk also. I told my friends that I may not be able to do the trek in this condition and that the PinParvati episode is repeating here with only difference of the person involved. Charan sensed the danger and advised that I go for treatment in the hospital.
Hired a taxi and went to Leh Government hospital. Luckily, there was no crowd. Charan and Vijay took care of paper work and other formalities. My BP, Oxygen level in the blood all seemed perfectly fine. Yet as expected, the Doctor told it was due to altitude and that I need to take at least another 24 hours rest before I proceed for trekking. I was in dilemma now. She also referred me to take Oxygen for half an hour immediately to relieve me of head ache and vomiting. Since it was government hospital, all these were free of cost. I took Oxygen for half an hour and meanwhile Charan and Vijay bought the medicines for injection. With half an hour Oxygen and injection, it seemed I got new life. I no longer had any vomiting sensation or head ache. I was feeling refreshed. So we left the hospital after the treatment. I was now with fresh energy.
But the doctor’s advice of 24 hours rest was still ringing in our head. She had advised this for the whole group, not just me. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to take rest for 24 hours. I proposed two solutions: we start our trek late tomorrow, probably after lunch. OR rest of the people to start the trek tomorrow and I join them day after tomorrow, but I had to walk double the distance which could be disastrous also as that would amount to uphill walk and an altitude gain of 1000mts in one day. So, unanimously rejected the second option. A permit issue for Stok Kangri expedition also delayed our departure plans. So, at the end it was in our favor.
I had good dinner today as I no longer had any vomiting sensation or head ache. I also slept peacefully today thinking about tomorrow’s trek.

11th Aug 2014

With fresh energy, I was ready for the trek today. I had a good breakfast. Today we had to walk for about 6 kms uphill towards Changma camp. By 8AM we were getting ready but we still didn’t have any clarity on Stok Kangri expedition permit.
New rules have been laid out for Stok Kangri expedition. As per the new rules, the expedition has to be carried out by an agency located in Ladakh. Any agency outside of Ladakh was not allowed to carry out the expedition. After couple of phone calls to Vishwa and conversation between Vishwa and Ved, it seemed the matter was resolved and Ved came back to Hotel at around 10AM. We started loading our backpacks to the vehicles. Today we had to go to Stok village by road and start our trek from Stok village to Chang Ma.

We all set out towards Stok Village at around 11AM. After 10 minutes, Navin realized that he had left his wallet in the room. We asked Ved to go back and collect the wallet and waited for almost 15 minutes. Once confirmed that the wallet was secured, we proceeded further and reached Stok Village at around 12PM. We unloaded all our backpacks and sat there for our Guide and porters to arrive. It was already mid noon and there was no chance for our guides to set up tent and prepare food. As soon as these guys arrived, we ordered for Maggi, the only available lunch in the village’s hotel. Charan was furious as he doesn’t eat maggi and there was no other option. He was cursing the guide for not arranging the lunch other than maggi. He had couple of packs of biscuits and then tea. After maggi lunch, at around 1PM, we all set out for trek towards Chagma.

6kms seemed to be never ending in that terrain. We walked and walked. The first major hurdle came when we had to climb an almost 70 degrees to cross a pass in the path. Mitra that monopolizes the Stok Kangri treks has written on one of the rocks that read “If and only if you can cross the river, you can avoid crossing the pass”. We didn’t have much energy to cross the river. So we crossed the pass with utmost difficulty. It almost took half an hour to one hour for us to get to the other side of this pass. 

Once we crossed the pass, the trail was almost gradually ascending one. With each single step, it seemed as if some heavy material is tied to our leg and we were not able to pull. At last around 5PM, we reached the camp site at Chang Ma. Though our guide and porters started late, they reached the site faster and they pitched the tents for us. We were taking rest outside the tent till the sun set. For night we had roti and dhal which we ate with difficulty. At that altitude, it seemed nothing was tastier. But somehow we had to fill our stomach so that we can walk tomorrow. The night was awesome. It was full moon day too and the moon rays lit up the mountains that glowed even in the dark. My attempts to capture some of these beautiful moments failed due to no tripod. By 10PM we went to sleep as the plan was to start early tomorrow to reach to the base camp.

12th Aug 2014

 It was bad morning for me. Just yesterday I had recovered from vomiting and head ache and defying doctor’s advice, I had come to trek. Because of vomiting, my internal system was screwed and since yesterday I was having maggi, roti, dhal etc, it took a toll on my digestive system. Diarrhea – all mountaineers are afraid of, was causing new worry for me. Add to this, the morning breakfast was aloo paratha almost dipped in oil. Due to diarrhea, I now had rejection feeling on the food. I couldn’t eat the aloo paratha and asked the cook to cook one paratha for me without oil. Cook obliged me but yet I was not in a position to eat anything and my system was not accepting any food. I asked the porter to give me half of the paratha and in that half paratha, I was able to eat only half. In effect I had eaten 1/4th of the paratha and infront of me, stands the majestic Himalayan mountains and the trail to Stok Kangri base camp.
I took an eldoper as a precaution to control the diarrhea and we started our trek by 8:30AM. The initial walk from the camp itself was challenging. We somehow managed to climb up and came to the top of the small pass. Today we have to trek for almost 7kms, passing Mankorma camp site.
Our earlier plan was to camp at Mankorma but guide had suggested that we skip the camping at Mankorma and directly go to base camp. Probably we shouldn’t have done this as the altitude gain was almost 700mts to 800mts from Chagma to Base camp.
We descended the small pass and continued our walk through the moraines and rocks. The guide and porters were supposed to start late. So we didn’t have any guide or porter with us to guide through the trail. We trekked for almost 2 hours and reached the Mankorma camp site at around 10:30AM. Mitra has a huge camping site here and has also established a café that serves food and drinks to the trekkers. We all threw ourselves inside the Mitra café and ordered couple of soft drinks and juices.

 Vijay and Manish preferred to have Maza, mango juice which proved wrong for Vijay. After drinking maza, he was not feeling well and he laid down in one of the tents that other group had. We spent time in talking and drinking (there was no food unfortunately except maggi) waiting for the guide and porters. It was almost 11:45AM and we didn’t have any clues on whereabouts of the guide and porters. We had been given packed lunch for today. So we decided to have the lunch and start towards the base camp. The roti and bhindi sabzi (Okra/Ladies finger) seemed very tasteless at that altitude. I could barely eat one roti. I didn’t even open my packed lunch. I took one roti from Charan’s packed lunch and took almost 10 minutes to eat one roti with Mountain Dew drink alongside to push the roti down my throat. Somehow we finished our food and it was already 12:15PM. The sun was strong and scorching even at that altitude. So, we decided that instead of waiting for the guide and porters, we would set out for base camp. We informed the café guy to inform the guide that we had departed from Mankorma towards the base camp and then left Mankorma.
12:30PM, we started walking towards base camp from Mankorma. We came across a big boulder region and the trail was almost invisible. We didn’t have any idea of the trail going towards the base camp. There was another trail that was going over the ridge to the other side. Luckily there was sign mark on one of the big rocks for base camp. But some of our guys were skeptical of following the boulder path. So we decided to take rest there until we find someone that could guide us to the correct trail. After 5 minutes, we saw a small group of people coming towards us crossing the boulders. We stopped them and asked for the base camp trail. It was indeed the same trail that the sign was showing. So, we started walking on the boulders crossing some small streams in between.

All along the way, we were completely exhausted. It was gradual ascent and each step seemed heavy for us. For each 10 or 15 steps, we started to take breaks to take breath. Remember none of us had good food since morning, particularly me. I had only 1/4th of a paratha in the morning and one roti in the afternoon and here I was trying to trek. Only Manish and Madhu were consistent in their food intake and walking.
We dragged our feet somehow and now we were just a kilometer away from the base camp. It was already 4PM. We had to climb another small almost 45 degrees pass to reach to the base camp. Manish was leading us and he somehow climbed. The rest of the folks, including me were not in a condition to climb this pass. So we decided to take an alternate path that was not so much difficult compared to the climb. So we started to circumvent the pass and started walking on the big boulders and gradual ascent. Manish was already there waiting for us. We reached the top with much difficulty and then we spotted many tents. We were all happy that we almost reached the base camp but we had to climb another small bulging to reach to the camp site. So we proceeded slowly towards the tents and started climbing that’s when we saw our guide and porters behind us, almost a kilometer away from us. They waved towards us and asked to come down as they were going to pitch the tents on the flat surface, instead of going to the camp site where many tents were pitched in. Manish had almost reached the other side of the ridge and now he had to walk down. We all came back and threw ourselves on the grass to take rest. It was already 5PM and we were completely exhausted today. By now everyone had the doubt in mind that if it were so difficult to reach the base camp, then how difficult would be the Stok Kangri climb itself. And everybody started to curse some of the blogs that had mentioned that Stok Kangri can be done by even an inexperienced trekker. It was completely opposite of what was written. It seemed it would be difficult for even the experienced trekker.
Porters pitched in the tents quickly. We threw our bags in side and laid down. The next day was complete rest day to acclimatize to the height and also a small acclimatize walk was arranged. The plan was to go for acclimatize walk after the lunch and come back by evening. Dinner by 9PM and start getting ready for the summit attempt. By 11:30PM, a round of tea and leave the camps by 12AM and reach the summit by 7AM and come back to the camp by 12PM. This was the plan and we hoped that we all can do the summit.
We had dinner at around 9PM. The night was again awesome. We saw the moon rise over the ridge of the nearby mountain. It looked spectacular. The moon light had lit all the space and there was no need for any torch. We went to sleep at around 10PM and thought we can get up late tomorrow as there was no trek tomorrow.

13th Aug 2014

Rest Day as it was supposed to be. We got up at around 7AM. Mornings are very early in these mountains with sun light falling on the earth as early as 5AM. We got refreshed and today’s breakfast was cornflakes with milk. Again, we couldn’t take much of the breakfast. We ate cornflakes and started warming up. But the condition of Navin was worsening. He developed AMS and was having head ache. He told that he will not come for acclimatize walk as well as summit. Probably a right decision considering that he had come to this altitude for the first time.
We somehow passed time till noon and had lunch as roti and sabzi. As usual, it was difficult to eat for everyone. We then set out for acclimatize walk at around 3PM. A small climb to the nearby mountain without any luggage or back pack on our back. Guide Ved was accompanied by Hemraj and Sanju, the porters. Hemraj was very active and within 10 minutes, he was on top of the mountain. He climbed directly without any problem. We (Deepak, Charan, Manish, Madhu and Vijay) were struggling to climb, walking zig zag, stopping every now and then. Vijay left far behind along with Sanju. We some how reached the top of the mountain from where we could see the first glimpses of Stok Kangri peak.

Ved showed the trail to Stok Kangri and the plan on how we were going to climb the peak. By this time he also had decided that couple of people had to stay back in the base camp due to the physical fitness. After spending some time on top of the mountain, we started descending from other side. Vijay was running now followed by Manish. Both wanted to go to the Mitra camp site and to the Mitra café to have some nice soft drinks and other things. I, Charan and Madhu decided to go back to our camps along with Ved. Hemraj and Sanju were like Bharals (Mountain Blue sheep) that ran down the hill with ease and they were in the camp within 5 minutes. We walked down slowly and reached the camps in almost 45 minutes.
Now its almost evening and the clock was ticking at around 6PM. Navin was in the camp site alone. We joined him and we had good time pass in the evening with the snacks that we had brought along with a cup of tea. Vijay and Manish joined us after a visit from Mitra camp. Vijay was completely exhausted and he decided to stay back in the base camp along with Navin.
Now we were staring and waiting for the mid night to start our maiden expedition to Stok Kangri. By 9PM we had dinner. We had asked the cook to prepare Kichdi for us so that we can at least eat something before we could start the climb. We slept for some time after the dinner. By 11:30PM, we got up to the call for tea. By this team, we were almost prepared for the climb. We had very minimum items in the back pack. I just had my camera with kit lens (leaving all other lenses), go pro camera and water bottle. I even left the ice axe in the tent as Ved told that we don’t require either ice axe or crampon. Most of the ice had already melted and iceaxe and crampons were not required this time. 

14th Aug 2014

D-Day for all of us. Its 12AM in the mid night. The moon was brighter and we could see the trail clearly in moon light. The headlamp was merely there for name sake and there was no requirement of headlamp as the moon light was enough for the trail walk.
We started off at 12:15AM and now we see another group of around 15 people leaving the Mitra camp site. Vijay had decided to stay back after the acclimatization walk. So, I , Charan, Madhu and Manish along with Ved, Hemraj, Sanju and Nitu started slowly walking toward the Stok Kangri. Its not even half a kilometer into the walk, Ved started yelling at the team and told Manish to go back as he was falling behind. We were shocked to hear that as Manish was the one that was almost consistent with his climb and had never shown the give up attitude. He confronted with Ved and told that he would pick up the pace. Ved agreed and we all started walking. By the time we reached the ridge of the small mountain, we were exhausted as the climb was quite sharp. We rested for some time here, while the other big group continued walking slowly.
From now onwards till the base of the Stok Kangri, it was gradual ascent. So, walking was not that treacherous and demanding as it was before. We all started walking slowly. By now, Manish picked up the pace and he raced towards the Stok Kangri base. But Charan had developed AMS by now. He started feeling dizziness and sleep. It was quite very cold also. We were doing the mid night trek for the first time. Charan stopped for some time to recover from his dizziness and sleep. On the other hand, Ved was getting restless with our pace. He suggested Charan to go back. His only intentions were to go early to the summit. It was a kind of irritating for me as he quite often said that the other group was way ahead of us and we can’t reach the summit in time etc. I once told him that we were not in a race to reach the summit and that we needed our own time and pace to reach the summit without any casualties.
The other porters were very cooperative. Sanju took the back pack of Charan and now Charan is relieved of some weight and that he could walk slowly. We reached the vast glacier base at around 4AM. It was still somewhat dark though visible under the moon light. The other big group stopped at the glacier to wear the crampon. We just continued our walk holding the hands of the guide and porter. I held the hand of Ved who guided and maneuvered me through the slippery glacier and the crevices. It took almost 20 minutes to cross the glaciers and we were now on the base of the Stok Kangri Mountain. It looked majestic infront of us and seemed almost impossible to climb.
Compared to the 2012 or 2013, Stok Kangri this time didn’t have any ice at its base or at the top. Here and there, there were some icy and glacier patches on the mountain but otherwise, it was all boulders and moraines. The climb was very treacherous. It was almost 60 to 70 degrees angle climb till the ridge. It really took our breath out of us as we had to climb almost 700 to 800 mts in that cold night and high altitude. We were progressing slowly and taking many breaks. Ved was again getting restless with our pace. He used to push us literally to walk pretty fast but we were already breathless with the climb and with those puhses and irritating orders, I really got pissed off. By the time we were half of the climb, the sun gradually rose over the far off mountains. The sun rise looked spectacular.

 We all stopped to take some pictures of the sun rise. I took out my GoPro camera and fixed it on my head instead of head lamp. I wanted to record the whole climb but due to battery life and darkness, I couldn’t open when it was dark and when we crossed the glacier. I fixed the GoPro and started recording our breathtaking climb.
We dragged our leg slowly towards the ridge of the Stok Kangri. The last 100 meters climb to the ridge was almost 90 degrees climb and it was not possible to climb without the help of our porters. I took the help of Hemraj. I held his hand and he pulled me in every step. It took almost 15 to 20 minutes to reach the 100 mts. At last we all except Charan were on the ridge where other group members were sitting or taking photos. Charan later came and joined us. It was almost 7:30AM at the ridge.

The view from this ridge was awesome. It looked like we were in heaven with snowcapped mountains on all sides. The sun was already shining in the sky and the rays reflected from the glacier and the ice. The other side of the ridge was completely sharp fall. If by mistake one falls, there is no possibility of him/her surviving that fall in that cliff. We carefully sat on the ridge and took some pictures. We could see the Stok Kangri top barely 200mts from the place where we were sitting. We wanted to do the summit climb but none had the energy to climb another 200mts except Manish. Manish was as enthusiastic as ever. He even went 50 mts ahead and wanted to climb alone. But Ved discouraged him to come back instead of attempting the summit. It seemed as if we or he could have done the summit but it was a wise decision taken not to attempt the summit as our conditions were worst. It may be called Summit Fever for Manish, where one ignores the physical conditions of the self in order to complete the summit. This is very common in mountaineers and at the high altitude, the mind doesn’t function properly, giving wrong signals which may prove fatal ultimately.
Fortunately, Manish came down and sat with us on the ridge. There was another person named Joshi from Mumbai who attempted along with a guide. He was completely exhausted and seemed as if he would die on the mountain. Fortunately he was taken care by his guide and after a good amount of rest, he was able to walk down. We took rest for almost an hour on the ridge. We didn’t eat anything. We were just busy in taking pictures holding the Indian Tricolor that I had brought along with me hoping for summit. I had also carried my company flag which I took out for posing. Though we were disappointed that we couldn’t make it to the summit, at least there was some satisfaction that we made to 5900mts.
It was around 9AM that we decided to head back from the ridge. With heavy heart that we couldn’t make it to the summit, we started descending. It was not an easy descend. It was loose boulders and moraines. You put one step, there is 99% chance that you would fall down straight to the base. We had to descend the already climbed 90 degree mountain. We again held the hands of our guide and porters that guided us through the boulders and moraines. It was very easy for these guys but it was as equally exhausting as it was climbing. We gave good amount of stops to catch our breath while descending and took almost an hour to come down to the base of the Stok Kangri.
Now its around 10AM and we had to cross the glacier. The glacier had already started melting under the sun. I held the hand of Ved and started walking on the glacier. It took a well over 9 minutes to cross the glacier. We came to the other side of the glacier and already Madhu and Charan were waiting on the other side. They had crossed the glacier much ahead of us and behind me, was Manish. While descending, I hurt myself in my toe and it swelled. Same was the case with Manish. It was now very difficult to walk. Somehow we reached the other side and sat on boulders to look back at the Stok Kangri. We now realized the climb that we did in the night. It looked almost 90 degrees climb up to the ridge. We were satisfied with our attempt to climb yet somewhere were dissatisfied also as we couldn’t go to the summit.
We asked the guide and porters to leave us and we would be coming back on our own taking as much time as possible. We were completely exhausted by the climb. We didn’t have any food since morning. We were hungry. Our legs were almost collapsing to the ground. I literally dragged my feet as I had my toe wounded. After much rest, we four started towards our camp. We walked and walked and seemed there was no end to the trail. A well over two hours walk, we came to the ridge that yesterday we had come from where we could get the mobile signals. We switched on the mobile and talked to the family about our summit attempt and took some rest before proceeding towards the camp. We decided that we would go to Mitra camp and café and would have some refreshments in terms of soft drinks. We reached at around 12PM and collapsed in the Mitra café. We had Mountain Dew to satisfy our thirsty throats and hungry stomach. We spent around an hour inside the Mitra café and then started descending towards our camp.
We reached the camp where Navin and Vijay were waiting for the return. Mahinder, the cook had prepared Kheer (Rice, Milk, dry fruit and sugar) for us. We got refreshed and had Kheer but couldn’t have the lunch. I opened my shoes only to discover that my left foot toe had swollen and gone bad. I was in bad shape and had doubts whether I will be able to walk tomorrow or not.
We didn’t have sleep since yesterday and so we went inside the tent to take rest. But the sun didn’t show any mercy on us. It was too hot to be inside the tent and couldn’t sleep. So we sat outside and passed time. We had the snacks still left that we had brought from Bangalore. We ate that and somehow passed time till evening. Since today was the last day that we were going to stay in tents, we asked the cook to prepare Onion pakoras and had good amount of pakoras satisfying our taste buds after a long time. Today for night, we told we would prepare the lemon rice. We asked the cook to prepare the rice and cut the onion and chillies and keep them ready. We prepared the lemon rice and ate which really tasted very good after eating tasteless food for weeks.
Next day, we had to cover almost 14 kms at a stretch from base camp to Stok village. Since it was descending, we were confident of making it possible before noon. Also, we were happy that we were reaching Leh early by a day. With those good feelings, we went to bed.

15th Aug 2014

Last day of our trek. The backpacks looked heavy for us as we hadn’t carried our full back since two days. For me, a back pack that was around 10 kgs and camera and lenses that came around 4 kgs, a total 14 kgs to carry back. We set out at around 8:30AM from base camp having only one poori as breakfast. I somehow managed to put my shoes and walked with the wounded toe. Manish’s condition was even worst. He couldn’t even wear the shoes. His both toes had swollen and pus coming out of one his toes. He had put turmeric powder as a first aid and started walking wearing only chappals. Really need to be appreciated.
We took almost 2 hours to reach the first camp site i.e Mankorma. It was around 10:30AM. We all had been given packed lunch of roti and sabzi. Nobody was in a mood to eat the packed lunch. We saw a Yak grazing nearby the camp site. All of us gave our packed lunch to Yak and were satisfied seeing the Yak eating the rotis. We just had some juice and cold drink and left the Mankorma campsite by 11:30AM.
We kept on dragging and gave many stops while returning. After another 2 hours, we reached the camp site of Chang Ma. By this time people were hungry. At Mitra café, we could find only some cold drinks and maggi. Vijay and Manish ordered the maggi and others didn’t take except cold drinks and biscuits. We spent quite a good amount of time in the camp site and started again around 2PM, when we saw a herd of Bharals (Blue sheep) coming towards the camp site.

 Bharals are naturally shy animals. Its very rare to see them from very near. But today, these bharals were a stone throw away distance. I was not in a position to take any pictures. I was exhausted. I hadn’t eaten any lunch and breakfast was only one poori. But seeing that those bharals were not going any far, I took out my camera with kit lens and took some pictures. We then set out again towards Stok village.
The fun started now. Though it’s the same trail that we had come, I and Charan got confused at one place where we had to climb the pass and get down on the other side which is like 60 to 70 degrees angle that we had climbed while going to base camp. We both thought that there would be another way to go to the other side and started walking in the trail that was abandoned due to the sheer cliff negotiations and river crossings. The remaining four guys climbed and we told Vijay that we were coming in another trail, only to realize later that we cant do that. The descent at one place was very sharp and we didn’t dare to do that descend. More over my legs and the toe were awfully paining. So we finally decided that we had to climb the pass and there was no other way. On the other side of the river, a local person was riding the horse. We called him to enquire whether we could cross the river and reach Stok but that guy advised us to go over the mountain and cross the pass. With no other alternatives, we both returned to the original place to climb the mountain and pass. By this time we had already wasted more than 30 minutes. We somehow managed to climb and got down to the other side of the mountain to join the same trail. All of the remaining four people were waiting for us. Obviously they were furious on us for wasting the time and for having them to wait for so long.
My toe pain was getting severe and decided to remove the shoe and walk wearing the chappals. The Stok village was barely one kilometer from the place. So I removed the shoes and tied to the backpack and wore the chappals. It was huge relief for me. Now I could walk freely and my toe was not paining that much though it had swollen. As we near the Stok village, the water had entered the trail from the streams. We had to take bypass or walk on the water trail. Since I and Manish were wearing the chappals, we just went walking in the water while others tried to avoid water so that their shoes wouldn’t get wet. Finally by 5PM, we reached Stok village and by that time, our guide Ved and the porters Mahinder, Hemraj, Nitu and Sanju were waiting since a long time. We had finally done Stok Kangri expedition with not much success but to our satisfaction, we had reached up to 5900 meters, short of around 200 meters from the summit. Lot of “if and but” questions regarding the summit attempt but  if we look back on what we had done, I am happy for what we had done, right in the spirit of mountaineering and right in the spirit of our survival. 


Archana Acharya said...

Damn good blow by blow account!!! Great going Deepak, all the making of a fantastic writer :)

sudhir singh said...

Great stuff Deepak!!

Manish said...

Hey Deepak,

Super detailed account of the whole journey . Relives all memories :-)

Deepak Nagarajachary said...

Just saw your comments. Thank you Archana, Sudhir and Manish..