This blog is a little different from our other ones. It was written jointly by members of our exploration team, Sarthak and Cambria, each with their own voice and perspective on their most recent adventure to Digar La, an 18,000ft pass in Ladakh not far from Leh. Find Sarthak in the bold font and Cam in italics.
First things first, we saw a wolfpack.
It was dope. Also, terrifying.
How did we end up seeing wolves? Through months of meticulous planning, research and studying about the migratory behaviour of the Tibetan and Himalayan wolf. Actually, no - we kinda, sorta just fell into the situation. Rewind about a week.
We’d just flown into Leh for the third time this year. If that sounds like too many trips to Ladakh for a year, it isn’t. The plan was to leave for Kargil the next day, drive up the Suru Valley to a village with brilliant views of Nun and Kun called Panikhar, and then hike across the Bhatkol Pass to Pahalgam in Kashmir via the upper reaches of Kishtwar’s beautiful Warwan Valley. I think I’ve said this before in another blog, but as far as plans go, there are plans, and then there’s what actually happens. A recent spell of heavy snowfall in the Western Himalaya had blanketed the surrounding peaks and passes under a lot of snow. A lot, a lot.
While we waited for the snow to melt (it takes a lot longer in October than it does in June), we decided we are hibernating animals and thus, we must fill ourselves with all the food and coffee in Leh before the impending winter.
Trust me, we now have a thorough knowledge of where all the best coffeeshops in the city are, and who sells the best pastries (it’s Lala’s Coffee Chocolate Cake, if you’re wondering).
But I digress, and unlike bears preparing for hibernation, we now had to go climb several mountains from Ladakh into Kashmir, which I’m pretty sure is the exact opposite of hibernating.
After a small fight over the window seat (which I graciously gave up for Cam) and a stunning 6-hour journey from Leh to Kargil, during most of which we found ourselves pressing our faces against the window glass to get a better view, we began searching for our guide.
He proceeded to tell us that the cops claimed there was too much snow to cross the pass we had come for.
Well, he told Sarthak in Hindi, and I stood there confusedly trying to follow along.
So after an hour cab ride to the airport, flight 1,000km north to Leh and 217km in a jeep to Kargil, here we were, stranded.
Except we didn’t know we were stranded yet.
Told by the local guides we were consulting that the route would reopen after a day or two’s time, we remained in Kargil with the hope of still taking on this trail.
So we took a long afternoon walk, totally in the opposite direction of where everyone said we should go - because Cam insists on going where her sometimes skewed internal compass takes her. Then, we had lunch, and took another walk.
For the record, we log about as many kilometers on our off-days as we do on our treks because we can’t sit still.
Then, we woke up the next day with a strong sense of deja vu. Except, we had actually lived the same day yesterday.
Our Kargil friends tell us we have to wait another day to be permitted to go through by the checkpost police at the trailhead. So, we wait another day. The next day, we are told the route is closed for the season - the cops won’t even let the bakkarwals (Kashmiri shepherds) through. We took a while to process this news.
Fairly dejected on our way back to Leh in the evening, we couldn’t digest the possibility of going back to Delhi without having put on our hiking boots. Subsequently, another plan was made. This one actually came to fruition.
The goal? Digar La. An 18,000ft pass just outside of Leh serving as a window between the Central Himalayan and the Karakoram ranges via the Nubra Valley.
Of course, this meant that we had to start over finding rations and a guide last-minute. Luckily, one grocery store in Leh was still open, and we stuffed our cart full of ready-to-eat paneer, dehydrated milk for chai and biscuits.
So we were off - in what felt like our eighteenth time in a jeep that week - to the village of Saboo, barely a tiny blip on the map. Amongst a few sleepy cottages and grazing cows, we were headed off and up.
Right away, all the stress, and trial of city life, having Plan A cancelled and driving literally back and forth across the Himalayas was put to rest. We were back where we loved to be most, on the trail, and not even the biting cold winding its way down the snowy valley was going to stop us.
As we stopped for lunch on the first day of our hike, we contemplated crossing the pass the same day itself. We soon realised how bad of an idea it was.
Oh! Tell them about the peanut butter jelly!
I dug into our jar of peanut butter and grape jelly - mixed together, in the same jar! How I love technology. While I was lost in PBJ heaven, Cam and our dear friend, Rigzin, devolved into making what they thought were yak sounds. They were not.
I think devolve is a strong word- they were fairly decent, actually.
Stop interrupting me, Cam.
They also thought they saw yaks nearby. They were not. They were dzos - hybrid between yaks and cows. As we climbed higher up the valley, magnificent views of the Stok range opened up behind us. Really magnificent. Really. We could see the clouds begin to develop all around, eclipsing the Ladakh sun I love complaining about in the summer. The thing about Ladakh’s high average altitude is that the air is too thin to maintain a mean temperature between shadow and sunlit areas. So, in the month of October, when the clouds hide the sun, it gets really, really, really cold in about five minutes.
A silent, gentle snowfall began. For the first time in almost a week, everything was peaceful.
Which of course meant I had to start running around like a dork attempting to catch snowflakes with my tongue.
I was unsuccessful.
The thing about these recces (exploration trips), is that a lot of the time, we aren’t 100% sure, well, where we are going. I mean, we have a general idea and we research a lot before, but at the end of the day, the reason we are exploring them is because they’re pretty seldom travelled. The result? We are never sure what we will find.
After 8km and 3,000ft of elevation gain, we looked at our GPS, decided our location matched well enough with the altitude and coordinates marked on our map, and set up camp as the sun set over Stok Kangri right in front of us.
As we set camp, we took in our surroundings. A thick snow blanket from the recent storm, a few boulders and something much more exciting... An enormous set of animal tracks from, well, from something.
After a quick dinner, as two full sized adults tried to fit in a tiny tent meant for one person or two dwarves, we heard what sounded like someone walking right outside our tent. I tried convincing Cam it was only the wind, too lazy and warm to get out of my sleeping bag and go check. I knew she would give in to temptation sooner than I would.
She did. After about half an hour of animated discussion, she decided to leave the warmth of the tent.
I gotta say, as I hid behind a rock at midnight trying to pee in -15 degrees cold, looking behind me to make sure I wasn’t going to get eaten by a snow leopard, I began to question why we dragged ourselves all the way up here.
There’s always this point in the trek, where something uncomfortable or terrifying (or both) happens, and makes you wonder why the heck you do this stuff in the first place.
At this point, I was comfortable enjoying the entire tent to myself, stretching out my legs and arms, trying to steal Cam’s sleeping bag. Rude.
Then you look up at the pitch-black sky with the clearest constellations you’ve seen in months, and you remember, even though you can’t feel your fingers anymore, that this is a special place to be.
Successfully escaping death by mountain cat, I ran back to our semi-warm tent. Time to rest up for the pass-crossing in the morning.
Although I was in no mood to wake up before the sun hit our tent the next morning, my desire to stay warm was no match for Rigzin’s loud wake up calls at 7 am. I was irked.
We walked a couple of kilometres up the valley to get to the base of the pass, where the actual climb began. Although a wide, well marked trail went all the way to the summit, it was steep as far as passes in Ladakh go. We were lagging behind Rigzin and Norbu by around a hundred metres on the pass climb when we hear Rigzin cry out, ‘Wolf!’.
We turned back to see wolf after wolf come into view. I slammed my pack down and started digging through it before I realised the camera was in Cam’s bag. I have always wanted to spot some sort of wild predatory animals on all of my trips in the Himalaya, and though I’ve been lucky enough to see plenty of bharal (blue sheep) herds both in Uttarakhand and Ladakh, I wasn’t really expecting to see a wolfpack on a two day hike, barely 20 kilometres from Leh. I guess that’s just one of the funny ways life works.
C'est la vie.
I’ve been teaching Cam Hindi, English and the little bit of French I know.
I won’t deny the Hindi/French part of that, but English? Seriously?
Halfway between terrified and thrilled, we go into full-on nature-nerd mode, taking more photos and videos than we'll ever know what to do with. I start counting- one, two, three… fifteen… all in all, the grand total is 25.
Twenty five wolves, barely 100 meters away from us. My day had been made, and we weren’t even at the pass yet.
After watching them chase each other further up the valley for a while, we manage to peel our eyes away and continue climbing. After an hour more, we found ourselves just below the summit.
That’s always one of my favorite times of a trek- the moment right before you reach the thing you’ve worked relentlessly toward for hours, when the trickle of accomplishment starts to flow in.
A few more steps, and there we were, amongst the prayer flags, thick snow and towering mountain views in whatever direction we turned. Time for a celebratory chai- made from melted snow.
At 3pm, I knew we were late for being at a 5,400m + pass in Ladakh, in October, with the goal of hiking another 15 kms to the trail end roadhead at Digar. There was, however, no convincing the rest of them against the chai celebration. I was admittedly hungry as well.
We started descending down the valley, the massive Karakoram ranges visible far to the north, looking for the first sign of water so we could have lunch. The weather cleared by the time we got down to where the stream unfroze and we wolfed down cans of tuna and paneer.
It was now 5 pm with another 10 kms to go.
We started racing down the valley as another squall hit us, transforming the landscape into the surreal, almost-Arctic terrain Ladakh looks like as winter approaches - my favourite look for Ladakh. I slowed down, now certain we wouldn’t reach civilisation before nightfall. This was becoming a theme with so many of my trips this year, and I had grown to like it - walking through parts of the mountains not many people get to visit is a great way to end the day.
As night fell and we turned on our headlamps, we saw the faint, glimmering lights of the village far in the distance. I looked at our Garmin to see we had crossed 22 kms and 11 hours of walking, with 1800 ft of ascent and almost 5000 ft of descent. No wonder my legs were asking for a break.
I will say, if there is one thing trekking does to you besides make you lose weight, it’s make you better at appreciating the little things- like the homestay we ended up in for the night.
Truly simple, and run by a local village family, our rug beds on the ground with hay-stuffed pillows felt like heaven. After a mighty feast of homemade yak pulav, traditional Ladakhi salt-butter tea, milk chai, home baked bread and curd from the cow in the side yard, we sleep instantly.
With the lights shut, as I drift off, I remind myself that this is not a thing a lot of people get to feel. The exhaustion from a 22 kilometer day, the ache in the bones from an epic mission accomplished, the full tummy, the memories of hiding from wolves, hi-fiving at 18,000 meters and the warmth and safety of our secluded little mountain resthouse for the night.
I wasn’t hiding from the wolves.
These are the things we will never, and should never forget- which is why we write this blog.
As much for you as it is for us, we write it too so you know what adventures are out there if you only choose to go for it.
So go for it.