Going on an expedition to Stok kangri sounded super exciting and incredibly scary. I had never gone 20 steps up a ladder, let alone stood on top of a mountain that's 20,100 ft. high, that's higher than the highest mountain in Africa (Mt. Kilimanjaro) and even higher than Everest Base Camp. The first thought that crossed my mind was that I will be my usual clumsy ox of a self and slip down the mountain or worst of all, that I might give up midway. At the same time, I always wanted to summit a peak, it didn’t matter which peak, it had just been a dream to experience what’s it like to stand on top of a mountain, and because I have the coolest job in the world, I was told my next assignment is Stok. So here it was. And I was excited. But scared. But more excited than scared. I love challenges. The fact is that we never made it to the summit, but it doesn’t matter. Stok Kangri expedition taught me things only mountains can, and I am taking my stubborn self back to Stok soon. Anyways, let’s not skip the story, it’s an interesting one, I promise, so going back to the start. Yes, I was anxious, but keeping my fears aside, I went with my trek leader and met with the team two days before the trek.
Here I was standing in front of 9 men, the youngest of whom was aged 33 and 6 out of 9 were over the age of 50. With the round of introductions, we found out that most of them had been trekking together since the past 30 something years. All in all, they had accomplished a lot in terms of exploring glaciers and different terrains. Most of them had done their basic and advanced mountaineering courses, they had been on Everest Base Camp without a guide, they had done Goechala, Kalindi Khal, Zero Point, Chaddar trek, you name it and they had done it. I was super impressed, because you rarely get to see people passionate about hiking and trekking even at the age of 50 in India.
I had inspiration standing right in front of me, and I knew in my heart that I will be okay, and I will get to the summit just because their steps will inspire me.
They had set two days for acclimatization in Leh, which passed quickly, and before we knew it, we were heading to Stok Village to start our trek. The first few days were incredibly easy.
The trek from Stok Village to our first campsite, Changma, barely took us 3 hours. What killed us though, was the heat. We reached our campsite and stretched our muscles and rested awhile in the shade. When the weather cooled down a little bit we started playing a few old school games.
The team brought out games I hadn't see in ages; spinning tops and marbles from the 80s. Toys they had saved up since their childhood. I was beyond impressed. Remember, this was a generation from the 60s, unspoilt by technology, who grew up reading books and having face to face conversations instead of WhatsApp, who didn't need an iPad or iPod to kill time, who grew up playing outside instead of on PlayStations. They had seen all the different versions of the television, the were there when the first computers, VCRs, Walkman’s made a bang in the market. And yet, 50 years later, they were playing with marbles. It was their tradition on treks. It was a grand sight. It’s beautiful to see youth in every generation. The games brought out the kid in everyone. Even out hardworking kitchen staff came out to play.
Around 4pm we went for our first acclimatization walk over the Changma pass and sat there for a while. After a few minutes of contemplation, one of them said something beautiful. He said "It's the silence that brings us back to the mountains year after year. Khamooshi ki bhi apni zuban hoti hai hai (silence has a language of its own). None of them had their smartphones out, they were being present in that moment, and taking it all in, sitting and observing the views in silence.
They were on this expedition for the sheer love for the mountains.
On the next day, we started our hike to our next campsite (Mankarmo), which took us another 3 hours (even after chilling next to a river for 30 minutes) and played cards to kill time.
In the evening, some delicate little creatures (blue sheep) came by our campsite in search for water. It was beautiful to see little goats hopping over streams, we all kept our distance so we don’t scare them, and watched them.
We went for another acclimatization walk, and around dinner, epic stories started rolling out. When we got to talking to each other, the group told us that some of them had done their basic mountaineering course in 1987. We all laughed out loud when I told them I wasn't even born back then. They had been on the Everest Base Camp trek in the early 90s, when according to them, there used to be a guard on the runway, whose job was to blow a whistle before any plane lands and shoo away the kids playing cricket on the tiny runway. Abhijeet Sir, even showed me a picture (below) taken back in 1987 with Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person ever to climb Mt. Everest in the 50s.
Although it seemed like the first few days not so strenuous, what we were actually doing were preparing our lungs for the altitude. The better acclimatized we would be, the easier it would be for us to summit Stok. We knew we had to save our energy for the summit day. That was the day we were all here for, and that would be the day that would test our spirits and mental strength.
We finally reached the base camp on day 4 and heard a lot of stories from different trek leads about the amount of people who feel Stok Kangri is an easy summit and act stupid. The stories rolled out about how the year before, someone from Israel went to the summit alone and fell on the way back and had to be rescued by a helicopter due to multiple fractures. He was in a coma for 6 months. Then there was someone from Chandigarh, who came for Stok Kangri expedition without a guide, but never made it back. He didn't allow his body to acclimatize well and died because of HAPO or HACO on the trail. It’s sad when people die in the mountains due to lack of judgement or proper guidance.
The trail or the ascend or the weather on the Stok Kangri trail is not what kills you, it’s the rapid gain in altitude and not allowing your body to acclimatize to the changes that kills you. It’s so easy to get Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) on this trail, which if in extreme cases can turn fatal. You need to be extremely sensible in the mountains. In here, you follow the rules of the mountains.
The basecamp was quite beautiful, we couldn’t see Stok from there, but we knew we were close.
We were going to attempt to summit the next night. We were all anxious. We went for another acclimatization walk the next morning till the basecamp of Goleb Kangri. We gained quite some altitude and then took some crazy pictures.
I had read a quote somewhere once ‘We didn’t know we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun’, and that’s exactly what it felt like. We were enjoying every phase of the trek.
Today was the big day. Tonight, we were heading out for the summit, so we tried to rest all day. Our aim was to leave around 10:30pm and we did. It was super cold, and with our bellies fed, head torch and gloves on, we started our ascend.
We had clear instructions from our trek lead, that we are not going to rush. The more consistently and slowly we make our ascend, the higher are our chances of summiting the peak. We were 13 people altogether, 9 participants (including myself), 2 guides, and 2 helpers. We reached the beginning of the glacier after around 2 hours, but by then one of the participants had to turn back due to a swollen ankle. The glacier part was the most cruel, cold and rough patch that we had to cross. Even our guides who have done this trek multiple times, did not expect so much snow and drop in the temperature but thankfully, they did not say that out loud, so the rest of us thought, maybe this is how cold and snowy it usually is.
After another hour or two of bearing the bitter cold, 3 other participants gave in to exhaustion and decided to turn back. For me, they were all brave hearts, but at the age of 50, your body can only endure so much, they had wild spirits trapped in a vulnerable human body. But years of experience had taught them wisdom, they knew how to read their bodies and when to say, “it’s okay, we can try again some other time, but for now, we need to turn back”.
Ultimately, it was just 3 of us who reached the shoulder around 6 AM, it took us seven and a half hours to get there. Seven and a half hours of fighting the cold, and sleep and wishing we had a warm bed close by, and warmer socks and wishing our hands didn’t shake as much so we could take some pictures and cursing the wind that hit our face like needles. But these were the same 7 and a half hours that we felt like warriors, we felt strong, and brave and unyielding and stubborn that we will not let the weather or the terrain break our spirits and our hearts telling us ‘you got this’. Nothing can really prepare you for what you actually face on the summit day. All your mental strength comes into play that day. You need to hold on tightly to the sole reason you are doing this, and that’s the only thing that will help you keep one foot in front of the other.
Anyways, we were so close now. From the shoulder, the summit was just 2 hours away. But we had to wait up on the shoulder for 30 minutes, because our local guide was helping someone from our team just 50 meters away from the shoulder. When we sat down, our intentions were to continue. The sun had made its appearance for a few minutes before hiding behind the clouds, but for those few minutes, the sky looked dramatic and deep orange and the snow sparkled and this was one of the best sun rises of my life.
But out of us 3, just two of us had the strength to continue, and we couldn’t really leave our third team member at the shoulder for a few hours. In addition to that, because it was so windy at the shoulder, I had a splitting headache and it was still extremely cold, so I was anxious to either move forward or turn back. We were happy with what we had accomplished, so we decided for the safety of everyone to turn back, just 200-meters away from the summit.
And this 200-meter distance is what is going to bring us back, or at least bring me back. I left a piece of me at the shoulder when we turned around. And I am going to go back to collect it so I can make my dream of standing on top of a mountain come true. Giving up is not something my soul understands.
I am super blessed and have been able to accomplish everything I have set out to do. But sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s okay, we live and we learn. I had an incredible experience and I am not so scared anymore. I know in my heart I will get there, and judging by the wonderful team I just trekked with, I know I will be summiting peaks even in my 50s.
So long Stok. Until we meet again.