I stared gleefully at the Karakoram range in Pakistan. I shielded my eyes from the intense morning sun. At an altitude of 20,100 feet, the 8 AM sun looked brighter than ever! The combination of cold winds and blinding sunlight created unforgiving environment. I was exhausted, lacked sleep and hungry. But, I was ecstatic to have successfully completed the Stok kangri expedition. My mind tried to lure me back to the warmth of my tent but, my heart wanted to spend a few more minutes at the Stok kangri peak.
I surrendered to my heart and inhaled slowly. I didn’t get much oxygen but, I felt peaceful. I felt unburdened from all the atrocities nature endowed upon me during the past 5 hours. I wrapped my forearms around my knees and assumed a comfortable position. Keeping my stick from rolling off the slope, I held it between my shoes. I looked around and enjoyed the surrounding views. The cruel glacier looked beautiful as the sunrays bounced off its surface. This beautiful looking glacier was a reason for many of my trek mates to discontinue their trek to Stok Kangri peak.
As the cheers of trekkers filled the mountains, I tuned all the noise out and closed my eyes. The last 5 days played in front of my vision like an action movie. I loved that screenplay!
We had arrived in Leh 3 days before the trek started. Ideally, it is recommended for trekkers to arrive two days in advance, so that they can acclimatize well to the changing saturation of oxygen. We did some local sightseeing and relaxed while allowing our body to adapt to the new conditions.
Finally, our trek started.
Day 1 – Let the adventure begin – Stok Village to Chang Ma (13,100)
On the 1st day of trek we were taken to Stok village from Leh town. Located around 15 KMs, Stok village lays peacefully in the shadow of the mighty Stok Kangri peak. We were provided refreshments by the trek leaders and we started our trek with hope in heart.
After 3 hours of trekking in rustic but, alluring terrain of Leh, we reached Chang Ma. Our 1st camp had an altitude of 13,100 feet and was tucked in between mighty hillocks. We stayed protected from the unforgiving cold winds due to the hillocks. Nature was protecting us from its own harshness!
The Stok River flowed gently nearby, creating an alluring melody of water splashing with rocks, polishing them in process.
The delicious lunch was prepared for us as we admired the landscapes. After savouring lunch, we walked around to acclimatize well to the changed climate. The purpose of this walk was to acclimatize well to the new found level of oxygen. There is a belief among mountaineers – “Climb high, sleep low”. It represents the fact that when you walk to an altitude higher than camp, your body acclimatizes well to the climate when you sleep.
I slept peacefully that night, with dreams of conquering the Stok Kangri peak. But, little did I know, peak would conquer me!
Day 2 – Discovering greater heights: Chang Ma to Manokarma (14,200 ft)
The 2nd day of our Stok Kangri trek was almost similar in difficulty as 1st. The rock strewn path had negligible gradient of inclination except a few times. We covered the trek in less than 3 hours. We had gained 1100 feet in height and the sky now looked more beautiful, like a clean canvass, painted by faint shades of white clouds. The Manokarma camp was poised in a valley, similar to Chang Ma, but wider. Stok river also flowed closer to our tents and dominated all the other nature sounds. The sky was adorned by a brighter shade of blue and Sun brighter than earlier.
We pitched our tent, had lunch and straightened our back in the tent’s shade. As we awaited a whistle call from our trek leader for acclimatization walk, I slid the tent flap aside and glanced at the view. The afternoon sun rays bounced off from the mountain tops, leaving the layer of snow shiny in process.
Around 4 pm, we were summoned for tea and subsequently, acclimatization walk followed. Today’s acclimatization walk would prove to be tougher than the day’s trek.
The climb for acclimatization walk was steep and descent even steeper. The loose sand strewn over the path made our descent tough. Rocks flew freely along the path as the trekkers behind us tried to balance their descent and accidentally kept knocking down some rocks.
The acclimatization walk was a wakeup call for us. We realized what we were up against. As I looked back while moving towards our tents, the grandeur of Stok Kangri peak loomed over the glacier valley. We couldn’t help but imagine how difficult would the peak summit be! That evening, I took extra precaution to ensure that my body was sufficiently hydrated. Being victim to AMS now would shatter the dreamy manifestations culminated in my fragments of imagination.
Day 3 – Au Revoir Manokarma! – Manokarma to Stok Kangri trek base camp (16,300 ft)
I woke up to the sounds of thunder and was welcomed out of the tent by a grey sky & light drizzle. Stok Kangri peak appeared to have vanished in thin air as dark clouds surrounded the mighty mountain. Our Stok Kangri trek till now was accompanied by a pleasant weather and clear sky. But, today, the weather looked slightly bad. Fortunately, by the time we started our trek, the sky had pretty much cleared up.
Today was Day 3 of our Stok Kangri trek and we were going to gain around 2100 feet. From 14,200 at Maokarma camp, we were scheduled to reach Stok Kangri trek base camp at 16,300 feet. With a cheer and a clap, we started the trek with Stok river flowing along us. We were now seeing patches of snow covering the rocks of Stok river bed. We were supposed to cover around 4 KMs today before we had our lunch at Stok Kangri base camp. The day’s trek didn’t throw a major challenge towards us until the last stretch. The last 300 meters had slightly steep slopes. The incline gradient might not be much but at around 16,000 feet, we gasped more frequently for oxygen. The last leg seemed a bit tougher and it took us long to regain strength after we reached Stok Kangri base camp. The final countdown for the peak summit had started.
The base camp of Stok kangri trek had around 15 tents already pitched in when we reached. Many trekkers were returning from their summit attempt today. The clouds we had observed from Manokarma camp had hampered the summit attempt for many. The daunting task had become herculean today.
At a height of 16,300 feet, it is important to acclimatize well. Walking around leisurely with ears open would help a great deal in acclimatization. There was a walk planned later that evening which would cover 5% of the summit day trek. During the acclimatization walk, we reached a point from where Stok kangri peak appeared closer, reflecting the evening sun beams brilliantly. A slim view of Leh city also laid in front of us, glowing in its glory! It looked at peace, an infant sleeping peacefully in arms of mother.
We returned to base camp and discovered strong evening wings. The tent covers flapped furiously as the cold waft of wind enveloped around, creating a high tempo symphony. We searched for heavier stones as the wind currents became stronger with the sky turning darker, as if persuading the Sun not to set.
As the light around us started fading away, we were summoned for dinner and subsequently a briefing session was held. We were informed that the summit trek would start around 9:30 pm next day and catching day sleep would be helpful.
Tomorrow was a day to eat well, drink adequate and acclimatize well for the impending eventful night.
Day 4 – Rest Day
Despite having slept well, I felt drained today. The oxygen levels were normal yesterday and physically, I felt good. But, the mind had started doing tricks on me. Do you feel nauseated? Are you struggling for breath? Do you want to cancel tonight’s summit trek? Endless stream of questions started a scathing tornado in my mind. I felt anxious.
They say, hormones responsible for both, anxiety and excitement, are same. But, our mind will interpret them according to your belief. If you are pessimist, you will feel anxious. But a positive soul would be excited! As the day withered away slowly into a dust laden frame from a dewdrop strewn canvas, I tried to gain control on my emotions to convert my anxiety into excitement. The magnificent views around and cheerful trek mates made the task plausible. By dinner time, I was all set to challenge myself and dive into the ultimate thrill of standing at 20,100 feet!
Day 4 (Night) & 5 – Defeating inner demons – Base Camp to Stok Kangri (20,100 ft) and back
Our refreshments were ready in a basket, waiting to be slipped into our pockets. It was 9:30 pm and our team had started lining up for the final summit trek. Today, we would gain almost 4,000 feet to revel in the sheer magnitude of adventure which awaited us at 20,100 feet. However, not all would successfully accomplish the summit feat.
Out of our batch of 28, 23 people stood in queue to attempt the peak. Rest were sent back to Leh or didn’t join us due to various reasons, mostly because of AMS. We waited for our trek leader to whistle. We checked our crampons and adjusted our headlamps to embark upon a 14 KM trek which would leave us overwhelmed by the might of nature, precarious terrain, unforgiving cold and nerve-wrecking altitude!
Under dark sky, the sound of whistle shrieked through silence. We were now enroute Stok kangri peak!
The first stretch of the summit day trek was same as our acclimatization walk. The winds were stronger thereafter, slowing us down. The clear night sky sparkled with stars and we kept walking with our heads bowed. As we gained substantial altitude with every step, the ice cold wind thrashed our face. But, our job was to remain unperturbed by all the challenges thrown at us today! We had to gain 4,000 ft and losing to any of the challenges would not make it possible.
We crossed a couple of small glaciers, indicators of altitude gain. We were seeing more patches of snow now and glacier infused wind was getting more and more intense with every step.
Stok Kangri trek was now showing its true colors. Till today, my previous trek, Rupin pass, was scoring higher on the scale of difficulty. But, the initial couple of hours of summit day today had given a slam dunk, home run to Stok Kangri trek. Eventually, we reached the main glacier that would emerge as the chief villain of Stok Kangri trek. A 3 KM stretch of glacier lay straight up ahead of us. Drenched in the night’s darkness, Stok Kangri peak was out of our sight. All that we saw was a dimly lit stretch of steep glacier, bathed in our headlamp’s light. At a distance, I observed silhouette of fellow trekkers who hiked ahead of us.
Every step pushed my mind in oscillations. I was struck with a major dilemma. Should I continue the trek by facing the adverse conditions and unfavourable landscape or return to the warmth of sleeping bag which stayed unfolded in our base camp tent? The subzero temperature, sheer altitude, insatiable hunger, lack of proper sleep and strong currents of wind inclined my mind more towards giving up.
As I tried to keep my mind motivated, a fellow trek mate chooses to return. After a few more steps, I discovered that as many as 5 people had already returned! We now were 16 folks trudging slowly but firmly towards the peak. It was getting difficult to stay motivated when I knew that there is a way to stop this madness! Go back to the base camp!
I started leaning more towards the option of quitting. But, I saw a shred of dim light in the sky. In distant horizon, a symphony of light had began, setting up the stage for the Sun. Very mild shades of light were spreading gradually in the dark sky above us. It was still very dark and our headlamps were still on. But, those subtle shades gave me hope, hope to complete the mission. A hope which would allow me to witness sunrise from the highest point ever!
“It’s going to be beautiful” I murmured. That was enough motivation for me! I glued my eyes to my shoes and starting trekking slowly, gasping for air frequently. Oxygen was acting pricey at this crazy altitude.
I lifted my crampon ridden shoes and trekked continuously for almost an hour. I didn’t look up. “You can’t scare me if I don’t look at you” I addressed Stok kangri peak.
When I took a break, it was 4 am. We were almost at the shoulder of Stok kangri peak. I realized that we were close to the peak and other trek mates waited for us to join them. All of us would be roped up and we would trek the ridge to reach Stok kangri peak.
While trekking towards the shoulder, I looked back and saw a lovely valley bathing in the mild orange and yellow streaks of sunlight. The sky had turned diamond blue and I had got my price! What a spectacular view! I reached the shoulder quicker so that I can sit back, relax and just observe the nature’s miracle. I felt live again!
It was 5:40 am and we were roped up for the final peak summit. A 200 meter ridge still stood between us and Stok kangri peak. Owing to the steep drops on either sides of ridge, we were roped up so that accidents can be prevented.
We were now 15 trekkers trudging with exhaustion towards the 20,100 feet peak. Every step was a daunting task. Stopping midway was not recommended as whenever I rested our chin on my trekking pole, I wave of sleep hypnotized my brain! I had to wake myself up forcefully to avoid losing balance and tumbling in the valley below. But, we had to take short breaks to be able to gasp for oxygen and relax the exhausted muscles for a bit.
The ridge climb took longer than expected but finally, we reached the peak after 2 almost dreadful hours! I had finally defeated the odds and accomplished a mission. For the last 10 months, Stok Kangri trek was on my mind and I had finally realized my dream! It was undoubtedly a great personal feat.
The view from Stok Kangri peak was mesmerizing. We could the Karakoram range in Pakistan and a wide, wide stretch of Leh Ladakh valley adorned the other side of our view. The 3 KM long glacier which made people quit and asked the best of us looked beautiful from top. How can a glacier so stunning be dreadful! But, that’s nature for you.
The sun rays were too strong and we were recommended to start the return trek within 10 minutes.
We clicked some pictures and lack of oxygen didn’t help in bringing out our photography skills. In fact, one trek mate held the Indian flag upside down and we had to tell him to hold it right! Low oxygen can really affect judgement!
The strong sun was not the only problem at the peak. The winds were also colder now. The temperature would have been around -3 degrees. But, we were not realizing it due to the intense sun.
After snapping some group and individual pics, we started our return journey back to base camp. It had taken us almost 12 hours to reach Stok Kangri peak! To reach Stok kangri base camp, it would take not more than 3 hours for us.
We returned to the base camp at around 1 pm. I skipped lunch and straight away crashed in my tent. I hadn’t slept for 24 hours now! With a smirk on my face, I congratulated myself and awarded an uninterrupted sleep! I woke up around 8 pm at dinner time and shared experiences with fellow trek mates.
Folks who returned had made the best decision given their situation. There is a very thin line between bravery and foolhardiness. You need to decide for yourself, by going ahead with the trek, are you being brave or foolish? If you ask your heart, you will know!
Day 6 – See you again, Mountains! : Stok Kangri base camp to Stok Village
After the successful summit of Stok Kangri peak, this last leg of our Stok Kangri trek didn’t seem daunting at all. We descended 14 KMs in less than 4 hours. We must have taken just 4 breaks in between. The euphoria of completing Stok kangri trek loomed heavily over the pain of crushing toes and jerking shins. We eventually reached Stok village where two buses waited for us.
I looked back at the massive mountains dominating the landscape. You don’t conquer the mountains, the mountains conquer you!
Stok Kangri trek will be my best adventure experience till date. It’s more than just an adventure. It’s about defeating your inner demons, taking up a challenge and putting your best foot in front. It’s about staying motivated despite all odds.
It’s about life!
“Umang is a travel blogger and writes his travel stories at Travelmax. You can find stories revolving around adventure, offbeat travel and experiences on his blog. He also compiles travel tips and itineraries for his readers to plan a trip better.”