Take a closer look at this picture.
Now imagine yourself up there, all geared up, wearing crampons and gaiters and everything, 20,100 ft. high, watching the sunrise. It's going to be super tough and will take all the strength in your body and soul to get up there, but you are not alone. You can do it, with the help of your team and the voice in your head telling you 'don't give up now, you are almost there'. What say you, are you up for a challenge?
Stok Kangri is the highest trekkable summit in India, but you know that already. If you are reading this, you already know how high Stok Kangri is and how many days are needed to summit it. So I am not going to reflect on that. I am here to tell you the challenges it gift wraps for you and how it will try to break you down. If you are an experienced trekker, Stok Kangri expedition will become your training ground. It will break you down, then build you up for the next big thing. It will be your stepping stone between a difficult trek and technical expedition. Your strenuous stairway to heaven and back so you can go summit other even higher peaks.
Know the challenges so you can prepare for them. This is what you are going to face.
Rapid altitude gain and everything that comes with thin air: gaining altitude too quickly induces AMS, which usually kicks in after 9000ft. and all of Stok Kangri’s camps are above 13,000ft. The entire Stok Kangri trail gains altitude rapidly, and if you are not properly acclimatized, you are bound to get sick. People usually reach the basecamp in 2-3 days, which stands at 16,300 ft. and then head to the summit the next day. So, all in all, in a matter of days, you gotta go from approximately 11,000 ft. to 20,000 ft. in order to summit Stok.
There is a recent trend of summiting Stok in 2-3 days, which is doable, if you are a seasoned and well acclimated trekker, but for others, that’s just a suicide mission. I have heard plenty of stories of ambitious trekkers never making it back from the Stok Kangri trail, or heading directly to the nearest hospital due to fatal mental and physical injuries, so a word of caution, take your time, make sure you are acclimatized and let your body adjust well to the change in altitude. If you take it easy, you’ll get to the summit just fine.
The biting cold wind: the biggest challenge during the Stok Kangri trek is the summit day. And what makes it even harder is the sub-zero temperature, the never-ending glacier, and the biting cold wind. The wind hits your face like needles. Your most vulnerable areas are your hands, feet and your face. I have seen people come back from the summit with bloody noses, as the weather can be harsh and unforgiving sometimes. But there are no short-cuts, no easy way, no escaping the weather. You need to go through hell, if you want to get to the top. All you can do is layer up and keep moving to keep your body warm.
Steep Incline all the way up to the shoulder: It's a blessing that you start your trek at night, because you can't see half the dangers you are surpassing, or the distance or the steep slopes. From the basecamp all the way to the shoulder, you are just going to be walking uphill, for about 5-6 hours, at a 60-70-degree incline. Out of 8, just two of our team members managed to survive the glacier patch and reach the shoulder. From the shoulder, it does not get easier either, you will rope up and walk on the ridgeline for about 2 additional hours until you reach the much-awaited summit. But what helps after the shoulder is the sunrise. It starts warming you up a little bit.
Steep descend: the success of a summit is never just reaching the top, it's always coming back safely to the basecamp with everyone. You should know proper techniques using your crampons to descend safely back till the bottom of the glacier. I have seen people trying to roll down the slope or slide down, which leads to injuries.
Your speed as a group: the speed of everyone in the group matters the most on the summit day. There is no place to rest on the glacier, and if you stop for too long and allow your body to cool down, you will definitely get AMS. The only place where you could rest your bottom is at the shoulder. But it's pretty exposed and it gets quite windy and chilly up there. So, you can't stay there for too long either. In a nutshell, the success of your expedition lies in team work and your speed as a group.
These are the obstacles you are going to face, but they are worth it.
If it was easy to summit mountains, everybody would be doing it. But it's no piece of cake. To scale a mountain is one of the biggest challenges in one’s life. You need to be strong willed and a special nutcase to do this. So, if you are a beginner, gain some trekking experience in high altitude areas before taking on Stok. And if you are experienced enough, all you need is good preparation and a strong mindset that you will not give up until you reach the top.
But you will see one of the best sunrise of your life and all the pain and efforts are worth standing on top of a mountain and seeing the magical orange sky above the beautiful white snow-covered mountains surrounding you.
It's a sight you will never forget, and for a few seconds, you will feel like the world is wearing snow.
Happy trekking! Happy Stok!