August 27, 2010 George Foster

The India Diaries: Stok Kangri

As i was saying, before being rudely interrupted by an internet disruption caused by an interruption in the power supply to this house…….hold on, i’ve lost where i was. Sorry for the unnecessary interruptions. Stok Kangri, all 6,137m of it – or 6,121m, or 6,153m depending on who you ask – is a big bitch by European, African, South American and, pretty much, North American standards. In fact it’d be fair to say it’s none to shabby by Himalayan standards either. So why was it that we’re trying to climb a mountain which sits higher than any other point of land on pretty much every other continent on Earth?? Good question. Neither of us are exactly seasoned men of the mountains and between us we’ve amassed a total altitude gain of 5,893m (that was Jim by the way on Kilimanjaro – 6 years ago!!). Well i’m just gonna blame it on Jim and leave it at that. It was his idea after all.

As you may remember this was meant to be a “trekking peak” (there’s those ironic speech marks again!) and, as you may have guessed already – especially given said ironic speech marks and now the bold casing for ‘meant’ – a “trekking peak” it was not. Thus the “trekking peak” moniker became one of “adventurous plodding”. The main reason for the change in status was predominantly due to the unseasonably late snowfall which, while dramatic and impressive from Leh-level, was a right slap in the balls for aspiring trekkers cum adventurous plodders, such as ourselves. Given such conditions, and after consultation with more experienced locals, we came to the conclusion that it would probably cost the same to hire guides and all equipment as it would to cover the cost of sending people up to recover our bodies and fly them home. With this choice we perhaps understandably went for the guide option. I’ll let the diary take over………

Friday 25th June –
Pricing for exped. to Stok Kangri – 2 choices: Tenzing = HERO Rs10,000 or Anis = PRO Rs10,000 – went with the ‘pro’.

Sunday 27th June –
Rs500 deposit to Anis @ Western Tibet Expeditions – PAID. Seems like an honest, professional fella (he was).

Monday 28th June –
S.K. Acclimatisation Test 11am up to 4,000m = v.easy. GOOD!! 

All good so far. Leh being where it is at around 3,500m coupled with our having been there for about a week made us well acclimatised and in good stead for the acclimatisation test (the sign of a professional company in a town where trekking companies outnumber the ‘Tibetan markets’ – no mean feat). I should probably mention at this point that i’d forgotten to pack my sleeping bag – at all – and as such i was glad of the chance to use one as provided in the ‘all equipment’ inclusion clause in the price of the expedition. Another reason not to ‘go it alone’. 

Tuesday 29th June –
Met our guides – Ghompal (see below in usual pose), Raj and …… (i forgot the cook’s name sorry!!). Stok Kangri – pre basecamp night 4,500m (see the view to the summit above). Game of cricket with the guides and campground people (also above). Raj bowls at 145kph (80-90mph).

Wednesday 30th June –
Stok Kangri – basecamp 5,000m. Left for summit 11.30pm.

Thursday 1st July –
Had to go direct (harder) up S.E. face due to avalanches on other approaches – 400m took over 5 hours due to deep snow and poor vis. First to summit S.K. in July – all other teams turned back. Topped out 7.49am, back by 11am. Hardest thing i’ve ever done in my life!!! Next time James suggests taking a big rucksack with spare clothes etc either make him carry the fucker up and YOU carry it down. Doing it the other way round will kill you next time. It may be big but it’s not clever!

There’s not a huge amount to say about the days leading up to and immediately after the summit day, but i am gonna dwell a bit on the happenings of July 1st (Canada Day) as it had a quite profound effect on how i see myself. Firstly i don’t think i’ve sold the event short when i’ve said that it was the hardest thing i’ve ever done in my life so far. Physically it undoubtedly was, but it also showed me the strength you can get from your mental outlook. Physically i could have been in much better shape but mentally, as it showed, i was in a very poor state as i feel sure i would have given up if i’d had the presence of mind to think about the absurdity of what we were doing! 

We spent the day of the 30th at basecamp, catching up on some sleep, wandering up to the nearby col for a bit of last minute acclimatisation and generally fannying about. We had the ominous ‘last meal’ (their words not ours) at around 10pm and got tooled up for the walk – making sure that this bit of metal wasn’t going to stab into this bit of flesh etc. Inevitably though it was time to move off. The first little inkling that this may not be the proverbial ‘walk in the park’ was when we left the col, the summit obscured by a combination of the dark (it being 11.30pm of course) and thick, heavy fog. Luckily we found the path as it traversed round, bisecting the ridgeline, as we were the ones making it! This would be the trend for the next 12 hours. Trail breaking through thigh deep snow, as any snowsports enthusiasts will know, is a proper ball ache. Ascending for over 1000m whilst doing it is akin to having a Parker ‘Esparto Gold’ fountain pen pushed up your jap’s eye – nib first. Not even remotely arousing. 

We’d made it to, and across, the glacier (passing what one guide book describes as the ominous ‘huge crevasse hole’) after a couple of hours stumbling about and now sat resting at the foot of the S.E. face in the ever lightening gloom, putting on our crampons, roping up and chogging down some biscuits and chai. It’s this next section that i refer to in my diary as taking 5 hours to ascend just 400m. The steep and unrelenting nature of the ground combined with the fact that we were constantly breaking trail made it a particularly memorable (with the want of it being forgettable) few hours. Every. Single. Step. Was a nightmare battle of willpower, being especially taxing given my distinct lack of calf muscles and the front pointing style of climbing that it was imperative to adopt. It was shortly after we’d begun on the face that dawn broke and with it the clearing of the lingering cloud. The cause for this soon becoming apparent with the ‘coming of the sun’!!! A phenomenon that lifted our spirits immensely – until it’s effects (when harsh UV rays, unfiltered by air so thin that you have 52% less than at sea level, combine with white, reflective snow ) begin to show a couple of days later in the form of the dreaded ‘expressionless’ face caused by skin burnt so tight you could deflect bullets.    

With the clearing of the clouds and the coming of the sun came the chance to actually see what it was we were on and actually see where we were. I’ll leave the photos to explain a bit better than i can…….with little footnotes, naturally (for example – you can see the avalanche steps in the bottom right of the picture below making safe access to the ridge line, rising up from the rocky ground centre and bottom left leading from the top of the glacier, difficult).

                     
The above picture shows our steps as we’re peeling away from the S.E. face to join the summit ridge that i talked about in the photo previously – the steepness is not exaggerated! All the while i was stood, oblivious, whilst my face was getting horrendously burnt by a combination of the factors we discussed earlier – remember that far back??

By this stage 6 and a half hours in we were a mess but we still had around 50m to go from our position on the summit ridge to the summit itself. It was here, while gathering our breath that i somehow managed to trick myself into thinking that the carton of mango juice that i was pouring out into the snow was in fact going into my mouth, providing me with much needed energy….make of that what you will! That final 50m of ascent along the ridge “along airy aretes and sections of loose rock” took us over an hour and the physical wall that i’d met some few hundred metres back became a mental pressure cooker of the likes i’ve never experienced. Physically i was ready to give up even 5m from the summit but we somehow found the desire to push on through and the sheer magnitude of what we’d managed to do when we got there was obvious not by the back slapping and Yankee ‘yee-haws’ that we’d been building up, but by an overwhelming sense of relief manifesting itself in simple tears and smiles.

      
Yup i cried. I’m not proud of it but it happened so let’s all move on shall we. We’re not 12 anymore. James cried too i’m sure. Ghompal didn’t. He just sat about, smoked a tab and got ready to do it all again after a short 2-day break. As the photo shows there wasn’t a great deal to see on the summit, our sun quota having been filled for the day, so after a little round of handshakes (at last) and a ceremonial bag swap between me and Jim – which i was most relieved about – we started to head down. The walk back along the summit ridge was…err….’interesting’, downclimbing loose shale with crampons not being our forte but pretty soon we were back to the relative firmness of the S.E. face, where bum sliding was the order of the day.

One hour later and we were sat where we had stopped on the way up, at the foot of the face above the glacier fresh skid marks in the snow, some white, some not-so-white (it was steep and scary okay!?!). The relatively flat walk back, unhindered by ropes, harnesses and crampons – and in my case the bag – was longer than i’d remembered and the fatigue of the last 11 hours had caught up with us, particularly Jim who was struggling with the bag and waist deep snow. Eventually we stammered back into basecamp to be greeted by urns full of hot, sweet tea and the smiling face of Raj – the happiest man on the planet. 

Friday 2nd July –
Feeling like shit all night previously – sunstroke?? Garlic and ginger tea – tastes like shit but works. Sunburn, bloody sunburn – i have been cursed with an expressionless face. Brazil 1 – Holland 2. Uruguay 4 – Ghana 3 (pens).

The walk down on the Friday was uneventful. We set off with Ghompal, Raj, the cook and ‘Moomin’ man (the donkeyherder) around mid-morning and met up with the driver about 2pm back in the village of Stok. I really admire the the skill and attitude of the two guides and the cook. They worked very hard to give us as easy a time as possible and i’m certain that if we’d have tried to do this by ourselves, hauling all that gear and food up to basecamp and then trying to summit, then without a doubt we’d never have made it. Ghompal, a Tibetan exile, and Raj, as Ladakhi as they come, had to do this all over again with another team of ignorant foreigners after just a 2 day break and it is a testament to how good they are at their jobs that, with equipment that would make Chris Bonnington laugh, they managed to get us to the top and back safely when no other team, of the 5 up there, got further than the start of the S.E. face.

Comments (3)

  1. dom

    After seeing you storm up the druid stones approach, I’ll take your word for it that it was pretty hard. Good effort!

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