There I was cribbing about the hot and humid March afternoon we were trying to slave through (although, I must admit, I would take on Mumbai humidity any day to that in Kolkata where we spent our last few years), when Girish (my besthalf) remind deem of the Goechala Trek we did in Sikkim in April 2016 to escape the heat, sweat and urban madness. Little did I know, that we would experiencing the same high again. That evening I got a registration confirmation email from Trek The Himalayas (TTH) for Stok Kangri Trek.
As April came, I realised I have to work on my fitness if I wanted to summit. I had three months in hand. I had chalked out my workout plan and sweated it out. April flew by as did May and June was here. We were just a month away and the excitement started to soar. Although we had all the trek essentials, a mandatory visit to Decathlon was a must. Now if you’ve met me, you would know that Decathlon is basically what an ice-creams to a small child, a very small child. No prizes for guessing, I was now super-excited!
By end of June we were all set.Finally, it was 3rd July, 4:00 am and the Flight took off on time; time for the adventure to begin.
Day 1 in Leh
We landed in Leh at 7:00 am. From Mumbai which is at sea level to Leh at 12,000 ft. First few hours were very crucial. We had to get acclimatized to 50% less oxygen.We checked into a nice and cozy hotel and as soon as I opened the window of our room, the first thing we noticed was “STOK” highest peak of Ladhak region. It stood tall, strong and unmoved. We were staring at the peak wondering if we would be able to reach the top. After first few hours of resting, we explored the city on foot. Since this was our 5th visit to Leh, we knew the acclimatization process without having to pop any pills. We hired a bike on rent and started to go around.
Day 2 in Leh
Hired a Bike and went on a monastery darshan.
Day 3 in Leh
Hired two bikes this time as I wanted to self-ride a bike to Khardung La, which is the highest motorable road in the world. It was a lifetime experience. We had to report at the TTH’s guest house by 4:00 pm. It was nostalgic to be in the same guest house that we were put up in during the Chadar Trek back in 2015. The trek leader had asked everyone from the 5th July batch to assemble on the terrace of the guest house with the necessary documents. At 4:30 pm the entire team was up on the terrace with documents. After giving the documents, we heard a soft but assertive voice . “Good evening everyone, I am Nitesh your trek leader from Uttarakhand”. He was firm and really strict about discipline in the mountains. Honestly, at first I thought he was a “not very friendly and easy to talk to type” person. He sounded very military-like to me. He gave us a gist of how the trek is gonna be like day wise, briefed us with the do’s and don’ts.
Day 4 Leh to Stok Village and then Changma.
The big had arrived. It was 7th July. We were asked to be ready by 9:00am. By now we had started interacting with the co-trekkers of our batch. Most of the team was either Marathi or Kannada speaking people and me being a Maharashtrian born and brought up in Hubli, I was the only one who could understand and speak both the languages(wicked grin). We drove to Stok village which was about 30 mins drive from Leh. At Stok our Mules were being loaded with our tents, sleeping bags, and food supplies etc. Most of the trekkers chose to carry their own bags. But I chose the mule; weak shoulders, that’s what happens when age does some catching up on its own. After the mules were loaded, we got a go ahead from the trek leader to start walking. The route was beautiful with ups and downs. There were little river crossings. We had to cover a distance of about 3.5 kms. And reach Changma which was at 13,087 ft. We reached Changma at about 1:00pm. Nitesh Sir asked us to pitch out own tents. Since it was the first time, the guides helped us. Changma was a bed of rocky surface. We had to clear off the big stones and get used to the small ones. Once the tents were pitched, we heard the army voice announce “Nobody will get into their tents to take a nap”. Now we had to kill time. While some seniors chose to play cards in the dining tent; the others gathered and formed two teams to play dumb sharaads. So engrossed were we that we didn’t even realize that it was tea time already. After tea we had to go for a acclimatization walk. “Climb High and Sleep Low” was Nitesh Sir’s mantra to tackle Acute Mountain sickness (AMS). We walked 800 mts up and spent about 45 mins there. The view from the top was spectacular; our blue tents looked like tiny dots. We clicked lots of pictures. The breeze was so soothing. Nitesh Sir was enjoying his solidarity; I’m sure there must be so many unfinished conversations between him and the mountains. So, while Nitesh Sir was lost in his thoughts – we invaded. We wanted to click pictures at that exact spot. He got up and chose another place to be alone. But not for long. We followed him there too and attacked him with questions like what distance is the next day’s walk, what will be the elevation gain etc.By now he was so fed up he just refused to answer us and said let’s take each day as it comes. It was the time to get back to our tents. But wait a minute, there was a different route to go down. They called it a short cut. More like short cut to hell, if you ask me. It was a steep descend almost 80 degrees with lose mud and rolling stones. Yes I have a phobia getting down. Girish just mentioned to Nitesh sir about my phobia and if he could help me. He had a peculiar way of helping. First, he took away my walking pole. And asked me to walk down without any support.. I FROZE. Like literally.And as if this was not enough, he held my hand and started running down the slope. I was scared to death; with every step I thought now I am gone. Finally, when I stopped I was at the bottom of the mountain, safe and sound in one piece. But my heart was still beating fast. I was still in a shock. I walked back to the tent quietly; I was so furious with Nitesh Sir. But as I calmed down and regained my sanity, I realised how thankful I was. He was actually helping me get rid of the phobia. I owe this to him. He was amazing. We had our dinner and retired to our respective tents to sleep.
Day 5 – Changma to Mankorma.
It was 8thJuly. We woke up at 6:30am. Nitesh Sir had this “7 8 9 formula”- tea at 7:00am, breakfast at 8:00am and all set to start at 9:00am. We also had to pack our own tents. After everything we were ready to leave at 9:00am. The mules were loaded and the second day of the trek kicked off. The route was more or less similar to the first day. Alongside the stream, just that the stream kept getting broader and more difficult for me to cross. I could never cross them on my own. I waited for Girish to cross first and then he would guide me. I was the slowest trekker of the team. We reached Mankorma which was at 14,200 ft after walking a distance of about 4 odd kms. We had reached around lunch time and the weather turned bad. We saw a hail storm. And we all hoped that it stopped soon. We sought shelter into a cute little café. It was nice and warm in there. We decided to play Mafia to entertain ourselves. A stupid game, but still the best way to kill time. We were so engrossed in the game didn’t realise the rain had stopped and it was tea time already. After tea, it was now time for the acclimatization walk. It was a steep mountain. Being the slowest trekker, I was the last one reach. Nitesh Sir got a little stern with me and said if I walk this slow I may have to stay back at the base camp. That made me nervous. But, what he did next was amazing. He made us all sit in 3 rows like a class room and gave us some basic knowledge about mountains and mountaineering. That’s when I understood that if he is stern then it’s for a reason. This was certainly the best classroom I ever sat in. How I wishall the classrooms were this way.It was again my time of dread: the time to descend. Same type. Steep, lose mud and rolling stones. What I dreaded more was running down on it. My fears were coming true. My walking pole was taken away. I was trying my best. Then Nitesh sir walked to me held my hand and I was ready to run down the mountain. But he threw a googly at me yet again. He said today we will run across the mountain. My jaws dropped. But after the mountaineering lessons, I completely trusted him. I ran with him across the mountain and then we ran to the bottom. I was in shock. Again. Just more. I had tears in my eyes. I wasn’t crying but tears were rolling down. I can’t explain that feeling. Girish was waiting for me. He gave me a much needed hug and calmed me down. After the emotional downpour, I was a little embarrassed to face the others. I went to the camping site quietly. But the team was really good. Naitesh broke the ice and asked me which my top 5 Amitabh Bachchan movies. Big B was his favourite too; all thanks to him I was back to my cheerful self. We sang songs. Had dinner and retired for the day.
Day 6 – Mankorma to the Base camp.
9th July. We woke up and as per the “7 8 9 formula” we freshened up, had breakfast, packed our tents and were ready at 9. The mules were loaded and the walk started. This route was tougher as compared to the previous two days. We had gained altitude. The stream was frozen at some places. There were a lot of steep ups and very few downs and to add to it the wind was cold and strong. My walking speed was a little better this day. I was feeling confident. We reached the base camp which is at 16,300 ft at around lunch time. We pitched our tents. The base camp was full of trekkers from all around the world. I felt proud when I saw so many foreigners who had come to summit Stok which belonged to India. After lunch, some of us sat in the dining tent to play Mafia again. After 2 hours, we went to our tents for rest, we were allowed to nap because the following day we weren’t going anywhere till 7:00pm at least. After some rest, it was tea time and then acclimatization walk. The last one before the summit. We went up 300 to 400 meters on a mountain ridge. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. It was cold. It was windy and we were just a little closer to the summit. It was the same route we were to take the next day for the summit. We all were thrilled and determined. We spent about 45 mins up there. Now it was the time to get down. I was slow, still the last one but not so scared this time. Slowly and steadily I came down half way when I saw Nitesh sir walking towards me. I saw him and started running down because I know he was gonna do the same. I owe this to him for life: I had overcome my phobia. We had dinner and then retired for the day.
Day 7& 8 – Base camp to Base camp Via Mt. Stok Kangri
10th and 11th July. The “7 8 9 formula” was on rest this day. We woke up, had tea, and breakfast. We didn’t have to pack our tents. We were just walking around the base camp. We had a“Khabri” in our team who would walk up to the trekkers from other groups including the foreigners and talk to them about their experience and whether they could summit and then come back to us and give us all info he had collected, that’s how we spent morning time till lunch. After lunch, we went to our respective tents to take a good nap as we were to start at 9:30pm for the summit. After our tea session, the technical team handed over our equipment and briefed us about the micro spikes, harness and carabineer. We wore all of it just to get a feel of things and clear any doubts if we had any. They, along with Nitesh Sir were outstanding. God bless them. We had an early dinner at 6:00pm and were ready to leave by 9:00pm. I started getting anxious. We did a small prayer. Naitesh did a small motivational mimicry of Sunny Deol from the movie Border. We chanted “Ganapati Bappa Morya, HarHar Mahadev” loudly as we began our mission: Stok Kangri. We walked and reached the ridge. We rested and started to move ahead. It was dark and we could barely see anything except for the people. We kept walking unaware of how the surroundings looked like. Later we realised that we were actually walking on a glacier which was pretty thin at certain places. Raag went half inside. Pratha managed to put in one of her legs. I was really nervous. There was a small stream-like thing which we had to jump and cross and it was pretty wide for me. I jumped just managed to reach the other side. But my right toe got wet. Carrying on, we walked on snow. There was snow everywhere, it seemed endless. And then suddenly we were going up a steep wall. Almost 80% incline. The snow was thigh deep. It lowered our speed. After every 50 steps, I felt like I could not go on. But continued. My feet were numb completely, I was tired; but I kept moving ahead. We were probably moving up that wall for 4 to 5 hours, clueless as to when it would end. Finally, we saw the sky getting brighter. It was 11th July. The sun was coming out and I could see the wall ending at the shoulder of the summit. I was still around 100 steps away. I could see most of my team resting there, waiting for me. I was determined to make it to the shoulder at the very least. It took me almost 12 to 15 mins to go those 100 steps. At last, I reached the shoulder. I sat down. It was 6:00 AM. I was contemplating if I should just stop here, but thanks to Girish, I continued and was back on my feet again. We all were tied by a rope through the carabineers, led by Nitesh Sir. The next part of the route was rather tricky. Narrow ridges and snow everywhere. We finally could see top of the mountain. Yessss!!! That was the summit. We walked faster as we saw our final destination. It was 7:15am on 11th July and we had made it. It was ecstatic. It felt like we were on top of everything. The entire world. We hugged and congratulated each other. All of a sudden, we didn’t know what it was be tired. The only feeling we had was that of exuberance. We clicked pictures and then had to start the return journey. The return Journey wasn’t as easy as I was expecting it to be. By now the sun was out and shining bright and the snow was getting soft. Every third step we took, we were slipping. Nitesh Sir asked us to just sit and slide down. He was in a much happier and lighter mood now that 15 out of 19 in his group had successfully summitted under his guidance. He taught us the technique and we were now sliding down. It was super fun. The snow was soft, the ride got bumpy sometimes and it felt like an acupressure treatment. We reached the bottom of the wall. I turned back to have a look at the wall, because when we started climbing it was dark. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe that I went all the way up last night. I folded my hands in a gesture of thanking the mountain for letting us see its beauty. We rested for some time. We still had a long way to go. The weather has started to get a little cloudy and since the snow was in melting it was getting slippery. Most important of all we still had to cross that deadly glacier. We continued after the rest. Walking with Nitesh Sir was fun. He was humming songs but when we asked him to do it loudly he would shy away. It was 12:40pm I had reached my favourite ridge from where I could see the base camp. After seeing the base camp, I suddenly realised I was hungry. And hunger is one of the best motivators. I did my fastest descend. Major Ram was waiting at the bottom to welcome all the summiteers with a hug. I rushed to my tent sat there for 5 mins. And then came out. We sat in the dining tent had lunch and since everyone wanted to catch up with some sleep including me, we retired to our tents. But I could not sleep. I was laying down in the tent. I still could not believe I had made it. Later in the evening we gathered in the dining tent and celebrated. The TTH team surprised us with a cake at 16,300 ft. Nitesh Sir also said that we were one of the best team in terms of discipline. By now it had started raining heavy. And we were so thankful to God for giving us perfect weather the previous evening. With happiness and gratitude we retired for the day.
Day 9 – Base camp to Stok Village.
It was 12th July. The “7 8 9 formula” applied today because we had to head back and that too quickly because the weather had really started to get windy and cloudy. We were ready by 9:00am. Nitesh Sir presented each one of us with summiteer certificate. And then we set off to return. The return journey was relaxed. We encountered rain on and off and we crossed all our previous camping sites, Mankorma and Changma. We had lunch at Changma. We reached Stok Village at 4:30pm and the Leh guest house at 5:00pm. The thrilling journey had come to an end. We had flight back to Mumbai the very next day morning at 7:00am. With a very heavy heart and memories for life we returned to Mumbai to the urban madness.
PS: Very Special Thanks to the TTH team. All the porters, the mules, the cooks, the trek guides , The technical team and Most of all Nitesh Ramola our trek leader. We wouldn’t summit without your help, support and Guidance.