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 adventure through the Miyar Valley and over Kang La, an 18,000ft glaciated pass connecting the states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Find Sarthak’s words in the bold font and Cam’s in italics.
Okay, I don’t care if it’s anticlimactic, I’m just going to come right out and say it; the Miyar Valley/Kang La exploration is my favorite trek...ever.
I’m going to correct Cam and say Kang La was the best trip of the year.
Well technically if it was the best trek of my life so far, it would also be the best of the year, you know, by default. Just saying - I’ve spent a total of 466 trekking kilometers in the Himalayas so far, and up till now, no trail has left me more in awe than this one.
Okay, if we’re just sayin’, I hiked more than that this year itself, but it’s not a competition. The point we’re trying to make is, it’s a really, really awe-inducing trail. If there’s one big, grand trek you should do in 2019, it’s this one. It has everything - infinitely endless meadows for the first three days, a bunch of holy, emerald green lakes, one painful day of mind and leg numbing moraine, two nights on a 25 km long, slowly-moving block of ice, panoramic views of monstrous and slightly terrifying peaks of rock and ice, and to top it off, you exit off the trail into Zanskar - the most inaccessible region of Ladakh.
Let’s begin, shall we?
The journey began with the ever nail-biting bus ride from Manali up and over the famed Rohtang Pass into the sweet little town of Keylong. The plan was to secure a guide, a few porters, our ration and be off.
If you’ve read any of our previous blogs, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that it did not go nearly as smooth as that. For the next three days we searched high and low for a guide and porters willing to take us on this massive and challenging 95 km journey, and started to wonder if we’d even be able to go at all.
Spoiler - we did end up going. I’m going to skip through the logistical nightmare, and nerd out about the trail a little more. The Miyar glacier is one of the longest glaciers in the main Central Himalayan range, and after Siachen and Gangotri, the third largest glacier in India. That’s a lot of ice. So much ice it takes most people, including us, at least two days to walk through it.
So, I was kind of bummed when we ended up leaving from Keylong late in the afternoon. After a regular issue bumpy Himalayan road trip, we ended up in the Miyar valley well after sundown. We set camp next to the Miyar river, it’s loud roar a familiar sign of being back in the mountains.
I knew it was going to be a good adventure when we were told we still needed to ride a tractor for two additional hours to reach the trailhead, a quaint little village thriving with agriculture. After a hilarious tractor ride, we began the 10km journey through an edible valley.
Not kidding, every half kilometer or so our guide would point out some new local crop, medicinal herb or the like, explain what it was and have us sample it. We encountered (and ate) everything from sugar snap peas to an anti-inflammatory fruit to broccoli, and the list goes on.
The really nice thing about the first three days of this trek is that even though each day is fairly long kilometer-wise, it follows an incredibly mild incline along the valley floor. I am not exaggerating when I say it feels like one gorgeous, extended walk in the park - you can actually take the time to stop and enjoy all the little surprises along the way since the initial difficulty is low.
So easy, in fact, for the first three days I barely felt the 20 ish kgs I was carrying on my back. Endless meadows, as opposed to endless moraine, is one of the best things about the mountains. In retrospect, I feel like the first three days are a joke played by the Himalayas on anyone who’s trying to cross the pass itself. At the time however, it felt kind of like a dream - easy trail, great weather, amazing campsites, swathes of wildflowered grassland, and impossibly tall cliffs all around.
The dream gradually broke as reached the snout of the glacier on the third day. The shepherds and flock we met lower in the valley were nowhere to be seen anymore. On the second day, at Zardung, we set camp under a furious shower. I got drenched and spent the evening trying to get the mud off my tent and the water off myself. There was a redeeming double rainbow though. The campsite itself is unreal - Zardung lies just next to a spine of house-sized boulders, sitting on top of each other, extending into the sky.
On the third day, we spent an hour crossing a stream. It wasn’t that it was difficult to cross, or the water too high. It was just that the stream itself fanned out into interconnected rivulets and channels over half a kilometre across. I had to retrace my steps two kilometres down when I forgot the Garmin where we stopped for lunch.
The cherry on top of those three days, by far, was the third campsite. Since we had entered into what were the beginnings of the glacier and its moraine, our tents were snugly tucked into a tiny meadow amongst a matrix of rolling piles of boulders. Naturally, we went off to explore, and were rewarded with the discovery of seven glittering lakes, pooled between the rock formations.
An enthusiastic photography session followed. It would be the absolute last time on this trek that we arrived before sundown.
The standalone Miyar Valley trek technically ends here, and returns back the way you came. Past this point however, the trek up and over Kang La becomes exhausting, tricky, filled with moraine and glacier traverses and absolutely insane views. And so began Day 4, aka the day of rocks and by far my least favorite of the week.
Allow me to explain for those unfamiliar with moraine. It is the stretch of boulders left behind by a receding glacier, nothing but endless loose rocks that you have to scramble over, 12 kilometers in our case. Left with no choice but to exit the moraine onto the glacier before we could make camp, we pushed for hours on end, finally laying our slightly bruised ankles down for night one of two spent sleeping on the glacier itself.
The day of the rocks was not as bad as Cam makes it sound. It’s not as easy hopping across one huge, moving boulder to another huge, moving boulder as walking through the meadow, but it is kinda fun. Until you’ve been doing it for 12 km and an entire day. Anyway, little did Cam or I know, there would be another day of the rocks just two days from now.
Ice is cold, and ice at 15,000 ft is colder. All we could manage for dinner that day was a slightly-less-horrible-than-I-imagined mix of instant noodles and powdered soup. The glacier itself, in its lower reaches is not as flat as it is higher up. This meant we were sleeping on tiny knobs and bumps and depressions under our tent. I tried curling into a cocoon several different ways throughout the night, but the only thing that helped me sleep was the knowledge that Cam was having a harder time half a foot away.
It’s true, I was. Holy crap it was cold. You’re literally sleeping ON an ice cube, and you can feel the chill seeping up from beneath you. The only thing colder was the next night, still on the glacier, just 500 meters higher up.
The next day entailed my first time ever walking on a glacier. About an hour in however, I saw something in the distance that made my heart sink.
Ugh- I was not ready for that again, but Miyar Glacier had different plans in mind, so back into the rocks we went for another few solid hours. As we approached our second glacier campsite though, I forgot the pain in my shins as I got my first real look at just how fascinating glaciers can be. Tiny streams rushed by, carving trenches into the surface layer of the ice and then plunging into slightly terrifying-looking black holes deep underground. Strange cave-like ice formations popped up here and there, and the crevasses became wider and more frequent.
It’s all fun and games until the sun goes down though, and the wind blows up the valley over the ice right to your tent. That night was too cold to write about.
When we woke up the next morning, I knew it would be a long day. I just didn’t know how long. By the third day on the glacier, we had perfected the drill. Wake up just as the sun hits the tents so you don’t freeze your hands off. Pack your bags and have breakfast while the tents dry. Pack the tents and start walking.
Soon after we hit the 5000 m mark, the glacier rose abruptly in the final climb to the pass. We could see an obvious saddle at the head of the valley, that seemed to be the pass. As the glacier steepened, the crevasses came more frequently, became wider and bigger. We stopped more often to catch our breath.
It was late in the afternoon when we came across the biggest crevasse. At least 10 feet across and a lot deeper. We circled around, trying to find a way. I looked at the Garmin - 5,300 m. I didn’t want to turn back just a 100 m from the pass. The saddle I thought was the pass still seemed a lot higher and further away.
That was the most confusing, and slightly discouraging thing- the Garmin was saying that we were so close, but it still looked so impossibly far away.The sunlight was changing into that pre-sunset glow, and we realized that what looked like solid ground all around us were actually cravasses masked with a thin layer of snow on top.
‘Okay, gotta watch out for those,’ I thought, avoiding the thought of what would happen should one of us fall into it.
But we still had to cross the enormous crevasse directly in front of us, or forfeit crossing the pass and risk still being on the glacier after sundown. The thing looked absolutely terrifying- jagged ice spikes protruded from every direction, it looked impossibly wide and you couldn’t see the bottom- it just descended into black.
There’s no way we’re crossing that.
The guys begin hacking shallow footholds into the near-vertical incline on the other side with their ice axes.
Okay so we are crossing that. Lovely.
One by one, they leap across this jagged, gaping plunge into God-knows-where and scramble up the other side. My turn…
Ou guide holds out his hand and assures me it’ll be fine if I go for it. I look at the discouragingly-shallow foothold waiting for me on the other side, and go. My foot slides into the hold, and then slips right back out. I start to fall, and instead of helping me back up, our guide starts to fall to. I take my ice axe and plunge it into the ice next to me and press my whole body up against the wall- I stop sliding. My heart still pounding, I crawl the rest of the way out and we make the final push to the pass, which turns out to be hidden just up ahead, right where the Garmin said it would be, not the saddle we had been eyeing from below.
I looked around at everyone’s faces - a little too tired to celebrate, but glad we’d finally made it. I looked at my watch. 4 pm. On the other side of the pass, another glacier extended far down the valley till it bent out of sight. We started down, hopping over crevasses rhythmically. Before starting out on this expedition, I had read a couple of places that the Miyar glacier was ‘heavily crevassed’. Till the previous day, I was amused. Now I knew, it was, indeed, heavily crevassed.
None of us were ready to spend another night on ice, so we decided to hike as long as it took to get off the glacier. It was well after sundown that we finally got off the ice and found two tiny spots to pitch our tents on the moraine.
The next day, we slept in well past sunrise. Well deserved, though not the wisest decision. It was almost noon by the time we got going. Though we were still well over 4000 m, the harsh, icy landscape had been replaced by grass and shrub and rock. It felt alive again. There’s a sense of relief that accompanies you when you come back down from the high world of rock and ice.
That sense of relief and complacency was a little misplaced, however. Before long, the well marked trail disintegrated into a pile of boulders on landslide-swept slope. It seemed rocks and boulders would never leave us on this trail. We navigated through, retraced our steps a couple of times, crossed another impossible long stream - This one was way colder - and yet another day, hiked well past daylight.
Finally, the trail spit us out on the side of the road as the sun was setting. The nearest town was another 12 km away, and deep in the Zanskar valley, you don’t really get buses. Or taxis. But wait. As i sat down, a little dejected at the thought of camping out on the roadside or hiking another three hours into town, I saw a truck rounding around the corner.
We waved our arms frantically, and it came to a grinding halt. We were let on, and as we climbed into the cabin, we were greeted by Basharat, who was in the process of constructing a hydro project plant further up the valley. Lucky for us, he was headed into Padum to pick up some supplies. Also lucky for us, he didn’t mind us taking off our stinky shoes.
Stinky is an understatement.
The remaining colors of the almost-faded sunset had me watching the sky through the truck’s windshield in awe, and I noticed something written in Arabic on the glass. I asked Basharat what it meant.
“Whoever sees this, may God bless them,” he said.
I thought to myself, that couldn’t be more true.