Having finally recovered from the atrocious stomach virus I have been battling, I decided I was feeling strong enough to set off with an American friend named Rick to climb a nearby peak, Stok Kangri. Stok Kangri is a beautiful site to see from the town of Leh. Amongst the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas, it's steep snow covered summit protrudes up higher than all the others visible in the area, all the way up to 6,130 meters or over 20,000 feet! Rick had been doing some trekking in the area and I had spent a few afternoons doing some short treks up to about 4300 meters so I thought the task at hand would be difficult but surely not impossible.
After spending a day in Leh organizing permits, renting crampons and ice axes along with figuring out what kind of food we could take along for the journey, Rick and I boarded an early morning bus across the valley to the village of Stok where the mountain ascent would begin. The bus ride in itself was a cultural experience filled with local minority culture farmers, traditionally dressed, turban bearing Indians, children on their way to school and a few Buddhist monks heading to the monastery that stands guard over the small village of Stok. At the end of the line on the bus stop, Rick and I climbed up onto the roof of the bus to retrieve our backpacks which would provide us with all our food, shelter and clothing for the journey up the mountain. No porters or mules for us, we were going to be self sufficient!
Now, I should mention that this trek is typically done in four to five days. We were accounting for this same time period for our trek when we rented some of the gear we would be taking as well as when we purchased all our food for the trip. Rick had even made the comment to someone who asked what all we were taking, “We aren't going to go hungry, that is for sure!” For now, let's just say that Rick and I decided to do things a bit differently than you typically would.
The first half of our first days trek up the mountain went quite well. The path followed a small river through steep and jagged canyon lands. At times, the trail crossed the river so we had to gently hop across small stones to follow along. The weather was beautiful and the altitude hadn't started to affect either of us. Our only breaks were for food and to take the strain of the heavy packs we were carrying off of our shoulders. We were making great progress and began to discuss our options where to camp that night.
Typically, you would camp about half way up to base camp on the first day at an altitude of around 4300 meters. We had already passed that point and feeling that we were both pretty acclimatized, we decided to go ahead and make the trek all the way up to base camp (4900 meters) on that first day. After a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, we headed on up the hill towards base camp. The trail became steeper and the altitude began to affect us both. It was slow going with lots of stops for rest but we pressed on and eventually we could see the snowy summit, the tip of the glacier we would need to cross and the prayer flags flying in the wind at base camp. Step by step, base camp became closer and after a hard day of trekking, we finally arrived.
While you are supposed to spend a night at base camp acclimatizing, followed by a day of rest before departing for the summit at 1:00 in the morning, Rick and I decided that we should just eat a big dinner, get some sleep and press on to the summit that night. I wasn't feeling 100% but I thought it sounded like a good idea. We ate a big dinner and realized that throughout the day we had eaten nearly all the food we brought along and decided our decision to climb that night made plenty of sense.
At 8:00 we wrapped up in our little tent wearing plenty of warm clothing and kept the zippers tight on our sleeping bags. I don't think either of us slept much as I only recall the sound of Rick trying to breathe in the thin air and rolling around all night. One o' clock a.m. finally rolled around and we gathered up a few things in the dark freezing cold night, put on our headlamps and set off for the final push up up to the summit.
The first part of this leg of our trip led us straight up to a ridge. In the first half hour of our slow paced trudging up the mountain we ascended 300 meters putting us just 900 meters from the top! Rick said he felt like he was going to throw up but other than feeling a bit short of breath, I was feeling pretty good. We continued on our way and as Rick began to feel better, I started to feel worse. The higher we climbed, it was like someone was putting rocks in my boots, my pockets and my backpack. Our pace became slower but we expected this delay and we pressed on. With just a crescent moon and the light of our headlamps lighting up the landscape before us, the reflections of the snow stood out from the rocky landscape guiding us to where we needed to be. We had made it to the glacier that we would eventually need to cross and the sounds that it made were quite eerie to hear in the middle of the night. Knowing the dangers of crevasses and wash outs I have to admit that the sounds being emitted from the glacier in the darkness began to intimidate me and made me second guess what the hell I was doing here in the middle of the night trying to climb a mountain.
As we followed alongside the glacier, the creaking and popping became louder and sometimes was loud enough to make you jump. We put our first footsteps on the crunchy snow that covered the glacier and slowly made our way across. Along the way we came across several large crevasses and small streams that were slowly eating their way through the glacier. We walked up and down the obstacles that were blocking our path and managed to find places where we could leap across. It took about an hour but we finally made it safely across the glacier to the scree covered slope up to the final mountain ridge.
At this point, I was definitely feeling short of breath and trying everything I could to control my heart rate when I walked but it seemed that with every few steps, my heart would accelerate to the speed of a heart attack! This is pretty typical for extreme physical activity but the idea is that you simply slow down and keep the pace just under the red zone. No matter what I did, I couldn't go slow enough. Every step made my heart pound continuously and I would have to rest for a minute or two until things slowed down. Rick was cold and didn't want to stop moving so he pressed on ahead as he was now feeling much better than I was. I continued up the mountain towards the final ridge at my slow pace, resting continuously and starting to feel like I was going to eventually have to turn back.
Rick was now a good ways ahead of me and rightfully so having a good bit of mountaineering experience and being much more acclimated from his treks in Leh while I was trying to recover from my stomach virus. I knew I would not see him again until we either crossed paths on his way down and my way up or back at base camp.
I went to take a sip of my water that I had been carrying and found it to be frozen. Just a half hour before however, I had filled up an extra water bottle on the glacier but I quickly discovered that it too had frozen. The lack of water stressed me out a bit but looking up towards the ridge I needed to get to that was now so close at hand, I knew that I had to try to keep moving. I continued the steep climb resting continuously with my heart still racing and I knew there was going to be no way I could make it to the top. I should have spent that day at base camp to acclimatize and not made the assumption that I could make it to the top without that stop! At about 5700 meters, just 400 meters from the summit, I sat down for a break to control my heart rate and decided it was time to turn back. I was cold, I had no water and I felt as if I would throw up the snickers bar I had recently eaten.
It took me a half hour of resting before I felt good enough to descend to base camp. I slowly made my way down the mountain, back across the glacier and down the final hill to our tent. By now, I felt horrible. My head hurt, I was nauseated, dehydrated and tired. Inside my tent, I found a bottle of water that wasn't completely frozen and took a big gulp before lying down in the early morning sunlight for a rest.
Rick returned around ten o' clock in the morning having made it to the summit but not feeling so great himself. He followed in my footsteps and climbed into the tent for some much needed rest. A few hours later, we both awoke, not feeling anywhere near 100% but we knew we did not want to spend another night sleeping at 4900 meters. We packed up our gear and ate a small bit of food as we had now consumed almost all of the food we brought along for the journey. As we made our way down, the headaches began to disappear and though neither of us really felt like eating much, we forced the last of our food down for lunch. The food made all the difference in the world and at that point we were feeling up to making the journey all the way back to town.
The rest of our trip down the mountain turned into a hell of an adventure on it's own. The river had risen and crossing became difficult including a solid hour where Rick and I managed to get ourselves stranded high up on a cliff side trying to find a way around the river. We were at the point where we were going to pitch our packs down in order to allow us to make the climb down when we managed to figure out a reasonable way to down climb the steep cliff we had ascended carrying all of our gear.
Less than 36 hours after we began our four or five day journey, we were back in town. We both felt better and after a hot shower, we headed out for a much needed recovery dinner. Though I didn't make it to the summit, I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure both up and down and saw some of the most striking scenery imaginable along with a sunrise that lit up the mountains like fire. Even though I was too weak to even take a photo of it, the memory of that sunrise will last me a lifetime. 5700 meters was the highest point I had ever made it to in my life and considering how sick I had been before hand, I felt pretty good about making it that far. I am going to be in the Himalayas for at least another two and a half months and with plenty of 6000 meter peaks in the area, I should have the opportunity to climb yet another!