This is a longish post, and covers our trek from Leh to the Stok Kangri Base Camp. For our pre-trekking days in Leh, please read the Stok Kangri – Part 1 post here.
We had our bags neatly packed, the day pack (the one we will be carrying with ourselves) was loaded up with water and some food, and some extra clothes. Loaded up the van with our bags, walking sticks, and some cartons for water, and off we went towards to the road head in Zinchen village. The road to the village was, by most standards, good. We paid the entries to the Hemis national park at the border, and the bridge right afterwards was beautiful with Indus river with strong currents flowing underneath, and the prayer flags fluttering incessantly in the breeze.
The road takes you on winding mountain roads, gradually gaining altitude, and providing different views of the Indus river – the river we study about the most in our school days! It’s hard not to let your eyes well up at the first sight of the mighty Indus – an ancient river that crosses multiple countries, and is the cradle of human civilization. The toughness of the terrain and the extremely harsh weather that would have molded our ancestors (and thus, us), the enormity of the mountains around, and our own insignificance in those mountains makes you quietly anxious.
Zinchen as a village is nothing to speak about, barring a couple of houses, and hardy folks that inhabit it. They seem to be mostly mule handlers, and they helped pack our mule-bags in waterproofing sheets and load them onto mules.
We took our back packs, had a bite and started on the road, which turned into a trail in less than a km of walking. We followed the trail, crossing some streams, and generally slowly gaining altitude. The walk was a pleasure with the views of the mighty mountains changing with every bend in the road!
Walking and joyfully talking, we approached a small settlement on a mountain slope. The trail was narrow…with some mustard fields and cattle-shed on the right side and stone houses on the left. The guide told us this is the Rumbak village. On some houses, there were boards indicating they provide home-stays. Apparently, Rumbak is a base for many folks who come looking for snow leopards in peak winter. While there is no way to pre-book your stay in Rumbak homestays, the villagers accommodate all visitors on best effort basis. In case of dearth of visitors, the houses are allocated on round-robin basis thus ensuring equal livelihood opportunities!
We did spend some time at a small concrete tank, that stood in the middle of a flowing stream, and was being used by the villagers for fetching water for their daily chores. A lady with her baby in a home-made baby carrier made for a great photo op! There were kids around, playing, and some washing clothes further downstream from the tank.
We went further, leaving the Rumbak village behind and found a camp site by a stream. We could see the Buddha statue of the Rumbak in the distance, and another campsite further upstream.
Some of us went for a short hike on an adjoining hillock, while others stayed back cooling their heels, literally, in the stream, just a bit further down from our camp site. There was an Israeli group too with lots of middle-aged men and ladies in the adjoining camp site. One of us remembers them singing an old Raj Kapoor song!
Nice soup, some fried rice and gravy made for a comfortable dinner, and we retired to our tents. As was to be a ritual from now on, Persang Sherpa, our guide, gave a briefing post dinner, checking on everybody’s health and comfort, and briefing on what’s in store for the next day. As it turns out, the next day was to be a long one, with Stok La pass to be crossed en route our next camp site at Mankormo.
We got up early, had breakfast, and packed our bags, while the staff wound up the tents and kitchen stuff. It had drizzled that night, and the tents, and some of the sleeping bags were wet and had to be left in the sun to dry out.
We started on our trail, generally following the stream, and there were some groups ahead of us, which gave us something to look forward to. En route one of us, I think it was Radhika, commented that the air smelled fragrant, a mixture of floral and mild eucalyptus smells. The guide pointed us to the bushy shrub, plucked tiny flowers and pinched them between his thumb and fingers to show us the source of the smell. Apparently, the dried wood from these shrubs is also used as fuel for cooking by the villagers.
This was about the only vegetation on the terrain, which is another shocker for most of us who have trekked in Sahyadris, or in Uttaranchal. There are hardly any bushes for you to hide behind even if you want to relieve yourself!
It had started drizzling by this time, and it kept on drizzling on and off throughout the day, and the weather slowly turned cold. We steadily gained altitude, heading towards the Stok La, and it kept on getting steeper, until we were just about 100 meters from the pass. This is when I noticed something piercing and tingling the back of my hands holding the trekking poles. It was the hail – the weather was so cold that the rain had turned into hail by now! The incline we were walking on was nearly 60 degrees, and wet! We had to climb on all fours, to ensure we don’t lose the grip. Stok La happens to be a one-way pass – you can go from Rumbak to Mankorma (or Chang Ma, if Stok Kangri is not on your agenda!) but not the other way around. There were mules and horses too crossing the pass with us, and it was stupefying to see how hard it was for these beasts of burden too to cross this pass. At some points they would just halt, and move only when the owner would shout or hit them to continue.
The top point of the pass is a narrow place, hardly enough for all us (and the animals!), no shelter, and highly exposed to the elements. Being quite windy and wet, we chose to click a few snaps, and continue on to the other side. The sandy slope on the decent was lovely, and quite a relief to the feet. The black soft sand just made way while we kept walking down the slope, fast, followed by a stretch of plain walking only to climb a smaller mountain on the other side. However, the views past Stok La was the stuff of tales – reminds you of the pre-historic days of earth, and the various geological events which would have given birth to a terrain and rock structures that we were seeing. Remember the “Hallelujah Mountains” of Pandora in the movie Avatar, and the awe it inspires when you first see them on the big screen? This was way massive, way more awe-inspiring, and way too real! It’s hard to resist staying there for a while, just admiring the strange beauty of what lies bare in front of your eyes. I commented to Rajeev at this stage, “Even if the trek does not have anything else to offer, this for me is enough. I consider this adventure a success already”.
Climbing down the next mountain, we noticed another type of shrubs which were all spread apart from each other, but each arranged in a form of a circular bunch making a bouquet! It was like a reward for having done our Stok La climb successfully!
We continued further, bumping into various places that had Yak horns perched atop stone structures – considered a good luck omen locally – and cairns (stacked stones spread on path, used as navigational tools), lots and lots of them, until we reached the river again (this is the Stok river we realized). The broad base of the river gave an idea of what kind of flow this could sustain in heavy monsoon days, and the vertical mountain walls surrounding the river. We did have to cross the river at some places, and did accidentally step into what looked like liquid rock – a stream of muck so slow it looked like brown rock!
We followed the river further upstream, and, in what looked like a journey without any end, we reached Mankormo base camp, drenched, exhausted, and very sleepy!
A quick tea, followed by bowls of soup did something to cheer the spirits, but the bodies were in tatters, and just waiting for the night fall to get a good night’s sleep!
We started from Mankormo at 8 am, and, now, having gotten used to the drill of packing and moving along the trail, started towards the Stok Kangri base camp, the day’s destination.
The trek today was supposed to be a relatively short one. And we were taking it easy too. Midway we met a lady returning solo with an infectious grin on her face. We stopped her to have a quick chat and learnt that she is the famous Jyothi Rongala who was returning after her twin successful summits of Stok Kangri and Mentok Kangri! And all this as a warm up to her upcoming 10’000 km solo cycling trip around India!
It is also at this time that we encountered another group that was practicing rhythmic walking. It was a group of about 18 trekkers, from Kolkata, and were walking slowly and rhythmically…almost as one. Unlike our group that was split between faster, slower and slow walkers, thus distributing the attention of the guides between the groups, and losing the benefits of comraderies and oneness build up. Lessons learnt, Nidhi, Radhika and I continued on, and the last one hour before reaching base camp, were practicing rhythmic walking – not too slow, not too fast, but just comfortable, but continuous pace, to not elevate the heart rate too much. It was a good experience walking like this, and crossing over a mountain, we descended to find the Stok Kangri base camp teeming with tents of a myriad colors and shapes. Here we are…the penultimate destination, and we will be spending 3 nights here.
Most of us were feeling good, and accomplished at this point and went across the river a couple of times, soaked in the beauty of the mountains around, and made plans for the acclimatization walks to the mountain in front of us. This is the mountain we will also be climbing tomorrow for the summit attempt, and from there, weather permitting, we can get a clear view of the Stok Kangri peak.
And today was also the day of jubilation! We could climb a smaller hillock opposite to the Stok Kangri path, and get a clear line of sight of the Leh village far away…which also means mobile signal! We took turns to make calls to our families, on the lone Airtel postpaid device we had with us. Nothing other than post-paid BSNL or post-paid Airtel works in Leh and surrounding areas due to government restrictions due to security concerns.
In the early afternoon, we did acclimatization walk to the small pass that we would be doing again next day on our way to summit.
The day ended well, though sleep was disturbed due to thunder showers with heavy lightening and thundering that went on pretty much through the night. Some of our tents were flooded, and we had to dig channels to divert water flowing downhill from the slope to circumvent our tents. All this at 1 am in the night!
This day was spent at ease in the base camp, we had short training session on self-arresting technique using ice axe, some basic training on climbing bigger rocks – three point contact technique – and other stuff around walking with harnesses and being roped up. Then we had a quick session on fixing and removing crampons on our shoes. We were all given our respective crampons to keep with us in our day pack that we will carry during our summit attempt tonight.
After lunch, most of us slept, at least tried to, in anticipation of an overnight assault on the summit. We had an early dinner at 8 pm, and gathered around the guide for the briefing, and left for our tents to get some nap. We were to leave for summit at 11 pm. Some of us chose to stay back in the base camp, having concluded, or having been advised by the guide, that it is best to stay put and not jeopardize the rest of the team’s chances at summit.
Continue to Part 3 of this three-part blog post covering our summit attempt and return to Leh.