Stok Kangri Days 7 – 12
The rest of us were coping well and apart from getting a little out of breath if we hurried up the hill to the hotel no one except poor Mark had suffered any bad effects from the altitude.
In the afternoon we were led by Tashi, Chosphel’s assistant guide, as we walked first to Leh Palace then up a winding path to Tsemo monastery and on to Shanti Stupa which had been built by Japanese Buddhists twenty years ago. Chosphel remained in Leh checking our tents and kit for the trek ready for us to leave at 10am in the morning to drive to Choksi. I wanted to try out the solar panels for my Power Monkey so I tied them to my rucksack with my spare bootlaces. Every kit list suggests spare boot laces and I always end up using them but never for their intended purpose. It was good to be walking but as I descended down the steps my knee was quite painful. Looking down on Leh it seemed much bigger than I had thought and we had amazing views towards the Khardung La where we had been shivering in snow a few hours previously and also of Stok Kangri which, for the first time since we arrived, was almost out of cloud. The Markha Valley group were doing much the same tour as us today and several times we met up. On route to the Japanese stupa Clinton spotted them ahead of us and immediately decided we should be on a mission to beat them. He set a fast pace and quickly we managed to overtake them. Now there was friendly rivalry between the two groups to reach the stupa first. One of their group was very large and looked very unfit but he was walking at a good pace at the front of his group. There was a road leading all the way up to the stupa but Nathan and Andrew set off up a steeper rocky path. Following them, although slightly slower, I climbed quickly and as I reached the gap in the wall where we rejoined the road there was the large Markha Valley man who had reached the top at the same time as me. So much for my assumption about his lack of fitness ! In fact today I had been a bit breathless but thought this was probably due to the exertion and lack of fitness as much as the altitude.
I was very happy and feeling confident though too scared to admit it, even to myself. It was strange being completely out of contact with home. I had sent my postcards which I didn’t expect to arrive until after my return but it had made me feel a little less isolated. I felt strangely liberated but also a little sad and lonely. At supper I sat next to Andy who commented on how bonded we were as a team already and what a pleasant experience that was. He also spoke of how it is easier to share this experience with people who understand and how his family ‘just didn’t get it’. We all agreed only fellow trekkers understand the attraction of this type of experience.
Back at the hotel I checked my kit ahead of us starting the trek the next day. I struggled to fit my yeti gaiters onto my iceboots and checked I could fit the crampons. Stretching the tough rubber of the gaiters over my boots was very difficult and I wondered if I’d have the strength to do it at altitude. Chosphel had said he thought it was unlikely we would encounter much snow but today had heard reports that it was snowing on Stok Kangri. I drank my dioralyte which was to become a habit each evening from now on. Before getting ready for bed I spent ages packing and repacking my kit. I was worried about my drinking bottles and realised I should have bought some litre bottles to store my water before purifying it. My idea of using the plastic bottles from the hotel was silly as they were unlikely to be sturdy enough to survive many days and would be difficult to fill. I felt angry at myself for thinking of this now and being so poorly organised. If only I had thought to bring iodine drops as a back up plan in case I couldn’t use my ultraviolet purifier. It was unlikely I would be able to buy any bottles tomorrow before we left. Even without the summit kit, which was packed separately to be delivered to us later at base camp, my day sack was very full and the main sack difficult to pack. My anxiety levels were rising and I was faffing. I knew I needed to relax and get some rest. Once in bed I continued to worry and remembered Harriet’s story of one of their ponies running off with vital kit. I got up and put the purifier in my day sack. Later I was up again packing antibacterial wipes. I thought about how careful I had been to use antibacterial gel on my hands and only drink hot drinks and lassi but now I thought about how our bowls and cups were being washed in unpurified water so all my precautions were probably a waste of time. I knew I was inventing problems to worry about but struggled to relax. Eventually I fell into a fitful sleep and had unpleasant dreams which seems to be a feature of being at altitude.
Next morning following confusion over breakfast time I hurried into town to look for water bottles. I had been recommended a particular shop but, like most shops, it did not appear to open until late. No particular opening times were displayed in any shop. It seemed they opened when ever the owner got there. I tried in vain to find shops I had seen previously on route to restaurants and ended up rushing around up and down unfamiliar streets and returning to the original shop which remained firmly closed. From a nearby clothes shop a man shouted to me, “ What you want ? Water ?” “ No, thank you just a bottle.” “ Come with me, come with me,” he insisted trying to urge me into his clothes shop. I tried to protest but felt obliged to enter the shop as he encouraged me through the door. Once inside the shop which was stacked floor to ceiling with clothes and nothing else, the man darted behind the counter and pulled out a battered cardboard box full of perfect wide neck nalgene drinking bottles exactly what I was looking for. Even better it turned out my ultraviolet purifier fitted them perfectly making purifying my water so much easier. The shops in Leh seemed to stock strange combination of things. When I had bought my postcards, which are only available from bookshops, the shop keeper encouraged me to go next door to a shop which sold only pashminas and stamps. Postage to the UK was a great bargain at only 20 Rupees (about 20p)
Back at the hotel everyone was beginning to collect together outside ready to set off for Choksi. The last to appear, as always, were Mel and Simon, the two journalists and Mel promptly announced she was going into the town to ‘pick up a few things’. At this absolute last minute she was going to buy down jackets and a sleeping bag ! For someone who was a seasoned trekker and spent all her time ‘explaining’ things to Simon she was unbelievably poorly prepared. Simon had done nothing like this before and Mel revelled in her superior experience telling him how it would be at every opportunity. They did return reasonably quickly and we piled into our cars.
As we drove out of Leh you realised what a militarised area it was as we passed miles of army bases. We drove quickly on good roads looking across at the sandy brown mountains, stark and uninteresting although their enormity was inspiring. Andy and Clinton talked about how conscripts would have felt coming here 100 years ago and finding themselves in this vast inhospitable landscape and the amazing scale of the brown mountains. Clinton spoke of the similarity to Afghanistan where the terrain is very similar and how insurgents who knew ever inch of the mountains would appear over the hills in their ‘pyjamas and flipflops’ but have an immense advantage over our well equipped troops. After our first photo stop on the Indus river I saw a red kite circling overhead before we stopped again to look down at where the cold Zanskar River meets the Indus. Chosphel explained how in the winter it would freeze over and people could trek up the frozen river to the next village. Later we would follow the Zanskar along a road that deteriorated into a rocky track the ride getting rougher and rougher. We passed several groups of workers collecting rocks and some laying dynamite into the valley sides presumably to get rock for road building and construction. The groups of workers included many women and also young children and old men, each group was overseen by someone in uniform. Health and safety had no place here as they drilled into rock and crowbarred boulders with ten foot metal poles wearing flip flops and no hard hats. As we drove on the road got worse and worse and narrower and narrower until it was barely the width of the car axle. Looking ahead the road seemed to disappear all together. At this point we got out with all our bags and kit but most of the drivers went on carefully negotiating the narrow road with a solid rock face to the left and sheer drop into the river to the right. We all felt decidedly safer going on by foot. The pony men had bought ponies to meet us to take our main sacks. I was surprised by how small they were and one donkey was so tiny I couldn’t believe he was to be used but sure enough he arrived at the camp later burdened down with bags. The beginning of our walk to camp was steep, down a loose rocky path and then alongside the river before climbing up into the small settlement at Choksi. Nathan was wearing his customary flip flops which were his footwear of choice. Before each walk he would ask Chosphel, “Flip flops Ok ?” Today Choksi is home to four families although in the past it was inhabited by just one family of two brothers sharing a wife. Chosphel explained this is no longer acceptable in Ladakh where the high and low classes have arranged marriages but the middle classes are able to chose their partners. Smiling, he told us there are no dowries now, in fact, the man has to pay the wife’s family.
The camp was in a beautiful setting in an orchard under apple, apricot and walnut trees. In the narrow diverted stream women were washing barley ready to roast and from there the water dropped down in a narrow channel less than a foot wide through a small water mill with a vertical shaft and a horizontal wheel with paddles only about 10”x 4” but turning at great speed. Our cooks bought us mugs of lemon juice and they started to set up our camp, green double tents and blue singles. I wandered a little way downhill to where someone had been stripping the bark off felled willow and the scythed hay lay drying. There were small vegetable patches of carrots and potatoes and under some polythene what may have been a small threshing machine. Closer to the river a few cows grazed and beyond it on the other side the majestic rocky valley side rose up. I saw a pied wagtail and an unfamiliar bird slightly larger than a blackbird but with grey wings.
Lunch was made up of spicy vegetables and tuna with bombay potatoes and soggy sandwiches with soft cheese, tomato and lettuce. We ate bananas and drank black tea. Sally was surprised but pleased to see Nutella on the table again. As we ate lunch a small cat appeared and a donkey wandered past.
It all felt more real now I was going to be sleeping in a tent and I was feeling very relaxed and comfortable. Even the ‘local’ toilet was not too bad although the small hole made aiming difficult and the curtain as a door did not afford much privacy. We had a discussion as to the appropriateness of whistling to announce your presence and to disguise any other noises ! Apart from this it was an idyllic setting with the constant tinkling of running water and faintly in the distance Indian type music which sounded almost like wind chimes. I wondered about this. Where did it come from ? Who was making the music far away in the hills ? Much later I was to realise it was the bells on the donkeys’ neck collars.
Normally it would be too hot to walk from here until late afternoon but today was surprisingly breezy as we set off on our trek at a very slow but steady pace. As I joined the long crocodile I noticed with some amusement that Andrew, now in shorts, had disproportionately skinny legs compared to the rest of his broad shouldered frame. We passed our ponies who were tethered behind the camp and were tucking into hay while being shod ready for the trek. The path was quite steep with plenty of loose scree and some places were very rocky, but it was a stunning valley and eventually we had amazing views of the mountains. However, all the way up I was worrying about coming down and especially how my knee would cope. One of the pony boys had said he had seen a snow leopard in the area so we all hoped it would put in another appearance. We were not in luck although Sally and the leader claimed to see some of the famous blue sheep in the distance. We all squinted at the bare rocks she was pointing to in vain. This led to all sorts of bogus claims of sightings of snow leopards, tigers and even dolphins and mermaids in the river ! Lovely herby smells emanated around us as we trampled on mint, thyme and other familiar smelling herbs. I was very happy. I loved the whole trekking experience, the exhilarating views, the isolation, the friendly companions and even the successful outdoor wees when I avoided wetting my boots or worse my rucksack or clothes. I was in a good place.
We climbed to 3800metres and photographed each other on a large boulder which we claimed to be our ‘peak’. Most people had large, good cameras and seemed very keen photographers. Roger and I felt a bit pathetic with our cheap ‘point and press’ cameras but I assured myself my photos were not intended to be masterpieces but rather memory triggers of a great experience. I was hoping everyone would share their photos and so I would actually get to see some good pictures. One hour twenty five minutes up, thirty five minutes down was testament to the steepness of the climb. Surprisingly the descent was better than I expected and my knee only ached slightly and I didn’t resort to using Mick’s poles which were tucked into my daysack.
In the afternoon Nathan and Jen sat and played cards as almost everyone else read. It seemed an odd thing to do on a trek I had not even considered bringing a book. I guess it would have been a good idea especially as I had no tent mate I may get lonely and bored.
At dinner Andy tipped a hug heap of salt onto his plate as the lid fell off the salt cellar, everyone resolved to be more careful holding the lid on with their thumbs and then Mel did exactly the same thing with the pepper. Each day for dinner we would have soup to start, several dishes as a main course and then dessert followed by a variety of teas and, much to Sally’s delight, hot chocolate. An early start was planned tomorrow with a 6.30am wakeup call with tea and a bowl of warm water for washing being bought to our tents, breakfast at 7.15am and ready to leave by 8.00am. By 8.30pm every one was retiring to their tents and quietness fell over our little campsite save the gentle gurgling of the stream and the dull ringing of the ponies’ bells as they grazed. I was not at all tired and disappointed I would have no one to talk to in my tent but at least the single tents were quite roomy. This was just as well as I did not feel very organised yet in my tent. I regretted leaving my insect repellent in Leh as I hadn’t realised we would be sleeping lower and close to water which meant there were plenty of flying bugs around. Writing my diary I realised the logistic difficulty of wearing glasses while using a head torch as they knocked against each other.
Next morning I packed up all my stuff and succeeded in zipping and securing my main bag shut before realising I had included my comb so today was to be a ‘bad hair day’, probably the first of many but another advantage of camping is not knowing how you are looking ! Later, my image was further damaged when I unceremoniously fell off the stone bank separating the two levels in the orchard as one of the stones moved. Luckily the only thing injured was my pride.
Some people were already seated at our breakfast table when I arrived and we noted how all the singles were there before any of the couples. Last to arrive were Mel and Simon. This was become the norm as they were were always last to arrive for meals and last to be ready to set off in the morning and after each rest. Roger sat at the end of the table fussing a small kitten that sat on his lap. Later as we set off on our trek the kitten was to come with us prancing along between the walkers. No amount of shooing deterred her and in the end Chosphel called back to our rear guide to take her back to the village. Our route followed the same path as yesterday but we ascended quicker and soon were appreciating the aromatic herbs and at each rest stop admiring the scenery and the vastness of the landscape. In one area we saw a lot of partridge which Chosphel said they used to hunt in this area but it was now banned. At one stop I saw a small red cheeked lizard sunning himself before startled, he scurried away. In some places the path was quite steep and I was a little breathless when drinking but was happy near the front of the group, desperate not to be at the back which can be so demoralising, but this morning we all kept to the same pace. I was just content plodding along ‘Poley poley’ looking down most of the time checking my footing. As the valley opened out some of our team of guides overtook us carrying large flask like containers. By the time we reached our lunch spot a cloth was laid out on the ground and one of the flasks was revealed to be containing soup and the other, stacked tin dishes containing vegetables, sausages and chapatis. We ate off our tin plates and then while Clinton snuck off for a doze the rest of us lazed on our backs staring at the sky pointing out the shapes we could make out in the clouds including the elusive snow leopard, a dragon, a bulldozer and bizarrely Miley Cyrus ! Our long rest at lunch time was to allow the ponies to catch up and overtake us carrying all the supplies and our kit to the next camp. I was surprised to see they walked in a line untethered following the leader with only four or five pony boys to keep them together and urge them forwards. They looked so small to be loaded down with so much stuff.
Simon commented he had not slept last night and just lain awake. Mel unsympathetically replied sharply, “ That’s how it is, I did tell you.” Mel and Simon had both looked pale and tired at breakfast although that may have been lack of make up on Mel’s part and the generous application of suncream. They both seemed to be struggling today and in the afternoon the rest of the group carried on with Tashi, the assistant guide, while Chosphel bought them up slower. This was not of great concern as it is often those who struggle early on who adapt to the altitude and are fine as they acclimatise.
As we climbed higher in the afternoon and the landscape opened out, the vegetation became lusher and there was grass where we saw untethered ponies and donkeys grazing, their bells gently tolling indicating they belonged to someone. We walked on and on leaving them far behind until suddenly we saw the top of a green tent. Our next camp was in a large clearing surrounded by hills and as we arrived the boys bought us hot orange to drink. Trevor, already renowned for being pedantic, remembered his tent number and so took the same tent. I had no idea which one was mine but made a good choice closest to the mess tent and furthest from the toilet tent. I collected my bag, laid out my thermarest to inflate, hung my sleeping bag over the tent to air then I took off my boots and hung my socks next to my sleeping bag. Next I would powder my feet, empty any remaining water into my camel back, set up my solar charger and sit on a rock to write my diary and drink my dioralyte in the sunshine. This was to become my routine at every camp from now on. At dinner I would take all my drinking bottles to be refilled and then purify them before going to bed. It would have been good to have the luxury of a clean T shirt and socks tomorrow but that wasn’t to be. Every one had their own solutions, Sally had a system of two sets of clothes which she alternated each day and Clinton aired his shirt on his tent, I and some of the others just tried to ignore the unpleasant odours as we tried not to raise our arms !
Later we would have a cup of tea with biscuits and cake and then an acclimatisation walk to 4400 metres. This camp, known as Shepherds Camp or Summer Camp at 4200 metres was where Trevor had broken his ankle last year. Simon was happily chatting with Jen and Nathan while Mel rested. I wondered now if it was Mel who was struggling most. I was already thinking about the summit and how the group would be divided up. Although he looked very pale and was slowed by his ankle Trevor was amazingly resilient and determined. Everyone else seemed very fit, most were runners regularly taking part in half marathons upwards and Richard and Sally competed in kayaking as well as all sorts of other crazy stunts. I did not want to be in the slowest group on summit day but even so was confidently thinking about my summit photo with Mick’s poles and helmet and how I would send a copy to Veronica.
Once camp was set up the ponies were turned loose to graze. The donkeys stayed close to the camp and one was particularly inquisitive and had to be shooed away from the tents which he seemed intent on seeing inside. The ponies were more adventurous and wandered off onto the hillside. In fact we were to learn the ones we had passed long before reaching the camp were our own ponies which the pony boys would collect at 4.30 in the morning ready to load up for the next day.
Chosphel normally wore a grey checked cap and across the camp I thought I saw him talking to David so at first I didn’t notice he had actually already set off with others on the walk. David, Mel, Simon and Trevor had decided not to go but I set off hurriedly to catch them up. They were only about twenty yards ahead but by the time I reached them I was out of breath. It was a nice trek but on scree again so I was worried about coming down. I picked my way carefully and fell a little way behind with Jen. We stopped not too far down from what looked like the craggy top of the ridge, which Nathan and I were keen to reach. But Chosphel assured us it was a false summit and given that the top of the ridge was much further on it was best for us not to continue upwards. As we set off downhill, Nathan characteristically ran down but Clinton, Ian and I took it very slowly. I lent a pole to Ian and keeping my pole on my uphill side very, very slowly made my way down. Clinton was very calm and reassuring, repeatedly telling us it was not a race and when it got easier and we were happier he left us to continue our slow descent.
Before dinner Andy and I again spoke about how happy and privileged we felt to be in this amazing place. As the sun went down it started to feel chilly and I decided I may start to wear my primaloft for dinner. Tonight there were trays of popcorn which made a change and the soup was followed by paneer in a sauce with both noodles and chips. Nathan was enjoying the food, especially having the opportunity to eat carbohydrate which he denies himself at home. Mel who had seemed to eat very little anyway did not come to dinner as she was feeling unwell. The cook was concerned and made her garlic soup which is supposed to help with altitude sickness. Later in the trip we would all be having garlic soup most days. As we left the mess tent we were amazed by the vast night sky lit by an unbelievable number of stars. We all stared in awe as uncontrollable emotions swept over us and several us were moved to tears. The night was cold at this camp but I was still too hot in my sleeping bag. Next morning Mel felt better and joined us for breakfast. Each day our morning routine was similar, a wake up call with a cup of tea and a bowl of warm water for washing, the clanging of pots to call us for breakfast 45 minutes later and a set off time after another three quarters of an hour. Every day so far breakfast had consisted of porridge or muesli to start but today the choice was different with cornflakes or rice pudding ! Toast was always available and egg in some form, usually omelette or fried although one day there were boiled eggs. I had taken to making an egg sandwich with my toast.
Today’s trek was very pleasant and in what Chosphel described as ‘Marmot country ‘ but although we saw loads of holes none of the cute creatures showed themselves. We did see an eagle although not a golden one. We moved at a slow, steady pace and were able to admire the amazing scenery and majestic mountains which surrounded us. I felt quite emotional, my breathing was good and my head in a very good place. I thought about Mark and hoped he was still ill and not better and regretting his decision. With the camp in sight but a fair way ahead Chosphel said,” You are free.