Follow a mountaineer on a 6000 metre climb as he battles the pull of gravity at his 30-kg back-pack, sub-zero temperatures and a shortage of supplies.
By Karn Kowshik
“It’s an easy mountain.” This is a line you’re certain to hear when you ask somebody in Leh about climbing Mt Stok Kangri. At 6130 metres, it’s one of the few trekking peaks above 6000 metres, and doesn’t need any technical expertise to climb it.Having attempted it four times in one year myself, I might have said the same thing. But, in April a few years ago, before the start of the mountain season in Ladakh, when streams were still frozen and the snowline starts at around 4000 metres, I attempted it again. And was reminded of something many experienced mountaineers have told me: There is no such thing as an easy mountain.
Our team was small, just me and my climbing partner, Kunal. We decided to climb alpine style, without ponies or support, so all of our gear and food for five days of climbing would be on our backs.
For food we carried carb and protein-rich food – noodles, egg powder, soya, packets of ready-to-eat rice, peanut butter, Maggi, Nutella, tuna and bread. We would also have a small rope and some basic snow anchors.
Since this was a pre-season bid, we would find almost no help once we left the road-head at Stok village. It would also be the first attempt of the year, and a summit would open the season.
Mountaineering gear is expensive and one of my most extravagant purchases has been a backpack. This particular one is made for my torso length, and weighs less than half as much as most packs available in India.
Yet, as the manufacturer’s website points out, while some packs can be more comfortable than others, no pack can make a 30 kilo load any lighter. Every minute you carry a heavy pack, you think about what you could have left behind. Do I really need that spare T-shirt? And why the heck am I carrying a boxing glove anyway?
The first day of the trek takes you from 3300 to about 4000 metres. Even though both Kunal and I had been on the route often enough, we’d never seen it as it was that day. The river that the route follows was frozen. It was cold and windy, and a constant breeze made my nose numb.
The trek starts from Stok village, and goes up to the campsite Mankarmo. A couple of hours into the trek, it began snowing softly. Thrown off track, we took a wrong turn and entered the wrong valley. By the time we realised our mistake, the sun had begun to set. So we made camp, boiled up some snow for water, heated up packets of ready-to-eat biryani, and hit the sack.
The wrong turn meant we’d lengthened our trek by a couple of hours, but no biggie. The next day, we came back to the correct trail, walked to Mankarmo, and then moved ahead to base camp. We were faced with a mountain completely different from what we’d seen the previous summer.
Because it was all snow-covered, we had to make camp a few hundred metres lower than normal. Surprisingly, we saw a huge expedition tent there, surrounded by smaller ones. A Swiss ski-mountaineering team was there, and they had summited just that morning. The first summit of the season was theirs. At base camp, we pitched our tent close to a stream, so we didn’t have to melt snow. Maggi for dinner, though.
The next morning, we were on the (non-existent) trail by six. The trudge to advance base camp was exactly that – a trudge. We were to walk through a valley, over a ridge and towards the summit slope. The snow was soft, and we kept sinking in. Tiring!
ABC at Stok Kangri isn’t a fixed place; it’s wherever you can pitch your tent. We pitched ours at about 5200 metres. After about six hours of walking, we didn’t want to walk any further. We dug a small hole in the snow beside a boulder for a kitchen. That evening we feasted on Maggi, rice, dehydrated eggs and juice. Tired, yet content.
The next morning, I woke up at midnight. Kunal was still asleep, so I went outside to make coffee. Disaster number 1: The stove refused to work. The cold had jammed up the lines, and the kerosene wouldn’t flow. I sat there in the sub-zero temperature, priming it endlessly.
My hands began to get numb. No coffee. And much worse, no water. We had many hours of walking ahead of us, and had just about a sip or two of water in a bottle. And no food. Grim as the prospect of going hungry and thirsty was, we had no other option, so we packed our summit gear, put on all our jackets and set out.
Kunal and I disagreed about the route (as usual!). He wanted to go straight up the ridge, and then follow the ridge to the summit slope. I wanted to skirt around the ridge and then hit the summit slope. In season, the mountain is climbed from a slightly different route, and there’s always a trail leading up. There was no trail to speak of. We followed Kunal’s route, and as we got to the top of the ridge, a couple of hundred metres above camp, we found ski tracks.
Happy, I started following the tracks, but Kunal stopped me. He sat down on a rock and began coughing… then started to retch. I gave him a sip of water (half our supply). “Let’s go,” I said. He retched again. He looked at me and said, “Karn, I’m done.”
Mountain sickness can afflict anybody (even Edmund Hillary has had it!), and it takes a wise man to hear the mountain’s warnings. He turned back alone, as I could go further. As he started down the slope, I could see him stumble. Mountain sickness often makes one unsteady. I couldn’t let him go back like this, so I walked him back to the tent.
At about 1.30 am, I started towards the summit again. This time, I was alone, and I followed the route I wanted. I took Kunal’s ice axe too, and continued towards the summit slowly. In the dark, I could barely make out the summit. I had to skirt around it and approach it from another face. I was doing well, and felt strong, so I tried taking a shorter, but much steeper route up. I put on my crampons and climbed a short slope that was about 80 degrees. Encountering a rock band that I couldn’t climb, I came back down.
At 4.30 am, I was a little lost, so I decided to sit down and wait for the sunlight. But the wind was blowing, and it was many degrees below zero. When I wasn’t walking, I was cold. Incredibly cold! So I began walking again. “If I find the route, good. Or else, screw it.” Not a bright idea, but that’s what altitude, cold and fatigue do to you. Soon enough the sun began to rise, and I was, fortunately, on the right track.
But as the sun came up, I saw I was walking through an avalanche zone. The summit slope is just a few hundred metres. At 6 am, I was just about 300 metres from the summit. But as I walked up, I could see slabs of snow break away under my foot, with hard snow underneath. Perfect avalanche conditions! I kept trudging on, using both axes to drag myself up.
Suddenly, I realised I was alone. Kunal was back at camp and ill. The Swiss team had probably left. Other than Kunal, there was nobody within a two-day walk, at the very least. Being alone on a mountain is an intense experience. At that altitude, it becomes hard to think of anything other than your breath, and you are completely in the moment.
You have to rely on yourself, and you can’t afford to make any mistakes. You have to be more aware than ever, of the implications of all your actions. And up there by myself, without a soul around, I felt somehow, much, much closer to the mountain than ever before.
At some point, about 150 metres from the summit, I realised that the snow conditions were getting worse with the rising sun. It was 7 am, and I had plenty of time to get to the summit. But as the snow got softer, I remembered the legendary mountaineer Ed Viestur’s words: “Going up is optional, coming down is mandatory.”
I weighed my options and realised that the descent would be difficult and avalanche prone. Also, I had consumed no water or food (save a Snickers bar) since I left, and was dehydrated. I decided to turn back. This time, the ‘easy mountain’ had decided that it wasn’t going to be easy after all, and I had to pay heed.
There are many lessons to be learned from failure, of course. Most of them cannot be put into words. For instance, I knew I had it in me physically to get to the top, yet I turned around. Did I make the right decision? Was I listening to the mountain? Or was my mind just making up excuses for me to turn back? I’ll never really know, and I sometimes regret it.
But every time I step out of my house in Leh, I’m greeted by Stok Kangri in the background. I feel so much closer to her now, closer than the times when I had climbed her successfully. And every time I look at her, I’m also reminded that she isn’t going anywhere for a while. She will give me another chance.
Karn Kowshik is an aspiring writer, mountain biker and mountaineer, and runs a small adventure outfit. He doesn’t aspire to scale the biggest mountains in the world, but wants to climb in the purest style possible.
Mt Stok Kangri
Height: 6123 metres
Approach: From road head at Stok or Zinchen Villages.
Grade: Trekking peak, but physically challenging.
Best time: July to September
Many local agencies arrange climbs. Or email email@example.com to climb with the writer.