This is the Fifth Chapter of a series of posts about ‘how I got Leh’d’. In this series, I have covered everything related to my Stok Kangri Trek Expedition. Just to let you know that Stok Kangri is the highest trek-able peak in India. In a series of articles, I have covered EVERY SINGLE ASPECT from planning to mapping to packing your rucksack and obviously the entire trekking experience.
In this chapter, I have narrated the most defining moment of my life as of yet – Scaling the highest trekkable peak in India – Stok Kangri Summit.
Stok Kangri Expedition: A quick recap
if you have been reading my Stok Kangri trekking stories, by now you know the struggles that I have faced to reach the base camp. In a series of travelogues, I started with how I had planned to reach Leh (episode 1) and how I actually ended up reaching Leh (episode 2). On one hand, I was suffering from AMS and on the other, I was super excited about the Stok Kangri Trek. After 2 days of acclimatization in Leh (we effectively got only one), we started the trek (episode 3) on the 3rd day and trekked from Stok Village (3497 m) to Mankarmo via Chang Ma (3988 m). Due to AMS, my body was severely low in oxygen content, but my spirits were always high! And it was this mental strength that empowered me to overcome all adversities, and my oxygen content magically shot up after the acclimatization trek at the Stok Kangri base camp (episode 4). Then, suddenly, nature started to play a spoilsport. But, I was determined to scale the Stok Kangri Summit..!
A Tryst with Destiny
The closer we got to the summit the farther it seemed to be slipping from our hands. I was questioning all the miracles and magic again. We were all pretty much helpless as we were at the mercy of the mountain and the rain which was just not dying out. Disappointed from the briefing we headed back to our tents and I could tell everyone wanted to make the summit attempt that very day. And I guess magic just wanted a collective belief so we all found it eventually.
Around an hour later the skies cleared out completely and after discussing the situation with the other group leader, Preet showed us a thumbs-up. “Suddenly” we were all too happy and excited again (even nervous maybe). In another hour we met at the dinning for Preet’s inspiring pep talk. Then we joined the large group and waited for our cue to start walking. And when we did, it was like a procession and as I was the penultimate trekker (with Preet behind me) I could see the entire chain of flashlights glowing in the dark like a garland on the mountain which only made it look more like a ceremony.
I would say night treks offer a very different experience. The cold and the dark along with the wind and the slanting trail on a relatively inclined mountain slope was making it unbearably awesome. We had decided to only halt and rest once we reached the Advanced Base Camp (ABC). Apparently experienced trekkers don’t rest too much which was okay but the not so experienced trekkers were paying the price.
Day 6: 10th July – Stok Kangri Summit
Stok Kangri Base Camp (4968 m) to Stok Kangri Peak (6153 m)
Around 1:30 A.M. we touched base at the ABC. One of the helpers had accompanied us to be the guide for the first person/people who decide(s) to return to base camp and Amit’s Stok Kangri summit attempt came to an end here. Not completely fatigued (though getting there), he was actually slowing our group down. It was getting difficult for him and as a result, the flashlight garland broke off and we found ourselves behind by quite a bit (the very reason I thought why Preet’s guidelines made more sense than letting them lead). It is a difficult job to convince someone to give up. Especially someone like an inspiration and as determined as Amit. Eventually, he lost to satisfactory self-condolence which came at the expense of Ishaan, his son, completing the trek for him and this made the atmosphere weirdly emotional. As we parted ways with him Nawang urged us to speed up and push so as to catch up with the rest of the
garland group. Which we did but it took a toll on us, in a way.
Once we reunited with the others, Nawang and Ishaan went ahead joining the head of the procession and Swiner followed them (I had strictly suggested Swiner to stay with Nawang because in a way I was responsible for him even if he didn’t like it). I was still at the back with Ashutosh and Vivek in front of me and Preet behind. The gap between Vivek and the last member of the other group was widening and by sunrise the other group was way ahead of Ashutosh (with Swiner, Ishaan and Nawang with them); Vivek was somewhere in the middle, between the two groups, and I (with Preet behind me) was still behind Ashutosh trying to follow the guidelines and to motivate him all throughout the way. However, it didn’t seem to work when later on Ashutosh had to give up because he was too sleepy (from the fatigue and the habit of sleeping at night). Maybe they knew not to push the body and test it to its limits. For me, the summit was the limit.
Physically drained, somewhat sleepy and tired I did not want to give up. Giving up would mean that all the struggle, if not for nothing, would still remain unjustified; unaccomplished. But the stunning views kept me going.
Never give up!
By that time a lot of trekkers from the big group (and Amit from ours) had already given up and had either returned or on their way back to the Base Camp. The trekkers still continuing ahead of us were nowhere to be seen. Then after crossing a small glacier (compared to other Himalayan glaciers) we found ourselves at the bottom of a very steep climb and at the top of it we could see a thin line of few small human-like spots on the bright shining snow. Finally “spotted” the other group. We did not rest there and took on the climb. However, it was so steep that we had to take it just after climbing up by about 10 meters. We all sat down and that is when Ashutosh said he is calling it off for himself and closing his eyes he pretty much fell asleep. I saw Vivek drifting past hypnagogia and a while after that I heard a faint voice calling my name. Turns out I was drifting towards it too and Preet was confirming if I wished to continue. Without thinking about my condition I promptly affirmed that and somehow convinced Vivek to not give up but Ashutosh was all drained out and someone had to return with him, Preet being the obvious candidate. He was a little concerned to leave us but I assured him that we would simply follow the imprints on the snow and make our way to Nawang. I wanted to try until my last living cells could process the very last of the oxygen molecules. A little dramatic but that’s how it felt.
As Vivek and I parted ways with Preet and Ashutosh, I could see Vivek was forcing himself to continue. Climbing on all our fours I kept encouraging him from behind. We took a few halts but covered that stretch of the steep slope in about forty minutes. Throughout the climb, we saw no one except Preet and Ashutosh getting smaller in the distance. Then while we were resting on the top we witnessed two decently massive avalanches on a mountain not so far away from our trail. And then we saw three trekkers near the foot of the slope making the summit attempt.
Solo Trek to Stok Kangri Summit begins
The bird’s-eye view from there was too amazing and the shoulder of the peak almost felt like the summit. No wonder we spent some time there. The summit felt achievable. But then Vivek told me it was near to impossible for him to continue and that is when I had a decision to make. I could either head down to the base camp with him or leave him there and go ahead. I did not want to go back so I secured him in a place from where he won’t fall even if he slept off and affirming him that I will send Nawang for him, I embarked on my solo trek to the summit. Although physically I was probably more drained than him but somehow my mental strength kept me going.
What was supposed to be India’s highest trekkable summit, was not trekkable anymore (not for a lot of people). Not even crawlable (for me). It had nothing to do with words related to physical aspects of reality. To execute a trek like that one needs immense will power and mental fitness (not just high levels of physical fitness and OXYGEN, of course). Everytime my body wanted to give up, my mind pushed me one step further. While the body saw it as one more step farther from the base camp the mind saw it as one step closer to the summit. However, what laid in front of me required both body and mind to function in sync. Even shivering could lead to a brutal fall into a deep gorge.
Snow starts melting…
It was already 8:40 in the morning and as predicted the snow was getting softer every minute. Walking on soft snow not only slows you down but also takes a lot more effort out of you. Trekking in waterproof shoes was saving me from frostbites but its weight was making me drag my feet along the snow. However, I couldn’t have just dragged my feet for the upcoming challenge.
A narrow curving traverse through a very steep slope (looked dangerous because on the left was a deep fall) and I could see a trail of footsteps and trekking pole marks leading that way. So I knew which way to go and it looked like people have done it and survived. So I came up with this strategy where all I had to do was place my foot right on the footmarks (so as to not crack the snow which would result in a slip and fall), hold the trekking pole in my right hand and place it exactly in the grooves made by the other trekking poles (every time I took a step), take the rucksack on my right shoulder, keep maximum weight on the right, take one step at a time, follow my instincts and try not to fall and die. Easy :P.
Plan… Execute… Repeat…
The strategy was simple (I do it the way others did it and survived) and seemed foolproof. But even a slight deviation from it during the execution would have serious consequences (which I honestly did not consider at that point). Consequences like me falling and no one knowing where; me falling and dying instantly; both of which meant no one would know where Vivek was; I would not make a single summit and the waiver form I signed would get utilized somewhere. At that point, all that went through my head was the Summit, informing Nawang about Vivek, checking if Swiner was doing fine and executing the said strategy perfectly (was not thinking about the fall probably because I had confidence and trust in my strategy and instincts).
As I followed every guideline of my strategy, I kept moving forward and upward (while diagonally facing the mountain slope) only to find the trail curling along the mountain. The curve gave me an idea of how steep the slope actually was which made me look down properly. [One should not try it if they have a fear of heights/dying]. Once I banked on the curvy trail I couldn’t see Vivek over the shoulder anymore.
So near, yet so Far…
For one moment it felt like I was the only human in the Himalayas (could see no other human and it was actually an awesome feeling because India has a population of nearly 1.3 billion :P). Then I crossed that traverse, climbed atop that shoulder crest following the trail of footmarks and just as my line of sight crossed to crown/top, I saw it! The Stok Kangri summit. And to my surprise, the other trekkers were still about 80-100 meters away from it (but pretty much of a straight and slightly inclined climb). Very few in number, they were tied to each other with harnesses which made me wonder if they experienced any set back (if someone fell/slipped/injured themselves). I called out to Swiner and Nawang on the top of my voice (which I was losing to the extreme cold) but not a single soul could hear me. I was just going to ask them to wait for me. But at least now I knew the summit and the group was just a few struggles away. I wondered if I made good time or if they rested too much. Maybe it had something to do with the ropes. And there was only one way to find out.
Living on the edge… Literally!
The view from that shoulder crest was breathtaking (and I did not have many breaths to give away but it was worth it!). Shades of brown covered with milky white sheets on a background of blue with patches of gray. Just the gist sounds so serene, imagine how the detailed experience would be. Especially in freezing cold yet somewhat basking in the sun (and hanging from a mountain). I took some pictures with whatever charge I had left on the batteries and set foot on the trail on another steep traverse. This time I was more confident than the first and covered good grounds in a short period of time. Even stopped to take a few pictures of “life on the edge”.
After crossing that, the trail led into another but relatively less steep and shorter traverse and by 9:15 A.M., following the devised strategy, I was able to reach the location where I had spotted the trekkers earlier. I kept climbing and as I looked up to the summit I found them returning from it. Swiner was very happy to see me (as was Ishaan) and told me that he knew I would not give up and make it to the summit. Nawang, on the other hand, looked very concerned. I told him about Vivek and then the only objective I was left with was the Stok Kangri summit. He asked me to rest there for some time and gave me his water bottle as I had left mine with Vivek. Swiner told me about the ropes (they wore all along) and how people were slipping and hanging from them on the slopes (traverses). I figured what took them time and also that my strategy somehow kept me alive (but I took a huge risk by not doing it their way; with proper harness).
The three tiny trekkers that Vivek and I had spotted earlier in the distance also caught up with me by then and they didn’t seem tiny anymore. They were very experienced and even they had ropes tied around each other. Nawang told me he had to take the group down and also get Vivek so those experienced trekkers would help me on my return journey from the summit. All of a sudden a truth bomb fell on me. I was so consumed by getting to the summit that I did not consider saving any energy for the return trip. I just forgot I had to return. However, satisfactory self-condolence – it was never really about the physical aspects (not completely at least).
Twenty Thousand feet above!
STOK KANGRI SUMMIT
As requested by Nawang, the trekkers accompanied me as I
trekked crawled my way up to the summit. But by the time we reached there, it had gotten all cloudy and the place looked like a monastery with a rock monument (covered in prayer flags) in the center surrounded by walls of cloud on a carpet of ice and snow. And freezing cold temperatures.
Though the panoramic view was a little blocked, I had finally MADE IT to the summit. I was at a point 6153 meters above the mean sea level. After all the struggles and miracles I had fulfilled one of the greatest reasons that got me Leh’d. The feeling was surreal. As I rested my back on the rock structure and closed my eyes, I could hear my heart thump against my ribs. I could even hear my vibrating pulse. I tried breathing slowly and clenched to any oxygen molecule I could find while immersing myself in the feeling of accomplishment. Then after getting out of my rucksack I had an energy bar and stood up for a more immersive experience. The other trekkers were taking pictures with an Indian flag and happily took pictures of me after I borrowed it and posed.
Summiting – Swiner and I reaching ☝ the same destination but at different times…
As per trekking rules, one should not stay put at one particular altitude (high) especially at summits like Stok Kangri. So we prepared to head down. This time I had a rope tied around my waist and the same rope went through all the knots around each trekker with enough space and loose rope around (one long rope since only 4 trekkers). I was second in the procession. The guide showed me some basic stepping rules so as to not slip on the snow. I just did my best to feel my legs