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 to Kang Yatse, a two-summit, 6400m giant at the head of the Markha Valley in Ladakh. They were joined on this expedition with Manjeet, one of our expedition leaders, and Rigzin and Tashi, two of our best Ladakhi guides. Find Sarthak’s words in the bold font and Cam’s in italics.
No matter how you spell it, twenty thousand, five hundred and five feet is a massive number. Heck, it takes six whole seconds to say, and a whole lot longer to climb. Even 20,505ft looks big, but nothing can compare to how huge the peak looked the first time we saw it in person.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This adventure starts in Leh - if you’ve ever flown there, you know all the flights out of Delhi leave at unearthly hours of the morning. So I turned up at Cam’s place at 3 am only to find her still unpacked, and locked out of her closet. Great start.
I finally broke her closet open (correction, he used the key), and we were in Leh a few hours later. I was super stoked to be back in Leh after a year, but also super sleepy. So, we spent the first day in Leh mostly taking a series of naps.
This was my first time exploring Leh, and even though we were fairly acclimatized from the trek we had done a few weeks ago, the immediate altitude shift from Delhi (318 meters) to Leh (3,500 meters), is definitely noticeable. Things like picking up your luggage just feel slightly more difficult than they normally do, so we started hiking our way around the city and surrounding monasteries to acclimatize.
In interest of full transparency, I am not much of a gompa (monastery) explorer. I believe, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I was forced to accompany Cam, but it ended up being better than I expected.
Most adventure is actually not all that engaging. A lot of it is just waiting for things to come together. A lot, a lot. The weather, the equipment, the people. That’s what we did for the next two days. Or three. It’s easy to lose track of time while waiting.
Kang Yatse is a throne shaped, two-summit giant at the head of the Markha Valley in Ladakh. Though not exceptionally tall for these parts of the Himalaya, it rises high above the valley floor, and feels quite majestic from anywhere you can view it in the Markha Valley, the most popular summer trail in Ladakh. It’s two summits are also a full 275 m and 125 m higher than Stok Kangri, Ladakh’s prized ‘easy’ 6000 m peak, that falls prey to countless herds looking to tick off a 6000 m peak from their bucket list.
Originally the plan was to summit both Kang Yatse I and II, the former having a technical mixed rock and ice route to the summit, but you know how plans go- there’s what you say you’re gonna do, and then there’s what actually happens.
Still planning for both, we finally collected all necessary gear, guides and rations, and headed out for the homestay in Chokdo Village at the foot of Shang Gorge where we planned to begin the expedition from the following morning.
Except the homestay was ridiculously expensive. So what did we do? In true trekking fashion, we literally set up our tent under stars on the road leading to the empty homestay, and took an early night’s rest.
Most people who hike the Markha Valley take 5 days to hike up the valley to the Nimaling meadows, and then a day to hike up the 5280 m Kongmaru La and descend to Chokdo in the Shang Gorge.
We didn’t really like the idea of taking 5 days to reach Nimaling, so we reversed the route to hike up to Kongmaru La from Chokdo, and then descended to Nimaling. Base camp in a day. A long day. We utilized the best part of the day to make the 13 km, 4500 ft climb to the pass, and then hurried down to Nimaling before the sun set, and the cold winds came rushing down the valley.
On the descent from the pass, we spotted a horse just next to the trail, dead probably not more than an hour ago, still bleeding from his mouth. A bunch of pika scurried around the corpse. We both wondered, whether it was an omen, and continued hurrying down to camp after Manjeet, starved after a long day fuelled by peanut butter sandwiches.
Off to a good start! Our night’s rest at Nimaling was the rejuvenation that we needed, and a hot dinner of sabzi and daal put some life back into our bodies. I will say also, that Nimaling is really a gem of a campsite if you like making new friends. Since it funnels everyone from the Markha Valley trek through its grounds for a night’s stay, you meet people from all over India and the world in this secluded little corner of Ladakh.
Local shepherds and truly thousands of cattle, goats and sheep give the place even more life, and the sight of a hundred sheep crossing the river that had turned orange with the sunset is a view I’ll never forget.
Feeling slightly more energized than before, I couldn’t help but notice though that I was still feeling under the weather for some reason. Maybe I was just adjusting from the massive altitude gain that had taken place today, I thought to myself as we dozed off.
We woke up to the sound of raindrops on our tent the next morning. Since we only had a tiny 2 km hike to the actual Base Camp to do that day, we lazed around till 11, finally packing up under the bright Ladakh mid day sun. As we climbed over a short hump, Kang Yatse came into view again. It looked a lot bigger now.
We kept walking for a bit, staring at the mountain all along, before we realised Rigzin was missing. We looked back, and there was no sign of him. We were all a bit confused about how an entire person just vanishes in the middle of a gigantic alpine meadow.
Manjeet and Tashi turned around to go look for him, while Cam and I decided to go ahead to look for our campsite.
Then came what I will refer to as the “River Conflict.” After all, even the best exploratory teams have their sour moments. Sarthak has a flair for leaping ridiculous distances across gushing bodies of water, trusting that none of the rocks will be slippery or dislodge and send him into the river as well.
I do no such thing.
I trust no rock.
I refused to jump, electing instead to hang my shoes around my neck and cross through the water, which I will take any day over a soaked backpack.
We made camp in the shadow of this peak that now seemed utterly enormous right above us. Manjeet, Tashi and Rigzin returned sometime later - turns out, Rigzin had gone for a nap.
We set camp, and settled down in the warmth of the kitchen tent. Plans were set in motion to leave the next night for an attempt on the lower Western summit. Plans were denied.
That evening, and most of the next day, it poured and it snowed. There was brief respite from the overcast weather that allowed us to see fresh snow on the northern slopes of the peak that we were going to climb.
As the weather cleared in the afternoon, we hoped we might make it still. After an early dinner, alarms were set for midnight. When the alarm rang, we could hear the pattering of the rain over our tent. When it dissipated after a while, Manjeet went out to check the skies.
“Is it bad?”, Cam and I chorused as he came back in.
“So, so, so bad.”
We went back to sleep.
Well, they did. I, on the other hand, coughed through the majority of the night. Whatever I had been feeling at the Nimaling campsite had definitely gotten worse, complete with a fever.
The following day we waited, watching the sky, playing that game we’ve played so many times before trying to guess what the clouds will do. Another early night, another round of alarms set, bags packed, ready to go.
At midnight, the sound of Sarthak saying “all clear” from outside the tent brought us to our feet. The summit push was officially on.
When you have to get out at 1 in the morning at 16,500 ft, you feel the need to put on every layer of insulation you own. As you actually start walking up steep slopes, your body heats up, you start sweating, and you keep pausing to take off each of those layers.
By the time we reached the glacier at 18,000 ft, I was down to a fleece, and feeling quite toasty. We climbed another few hundred feet up a scree ridge before traversing onto the glacier. As we switched out hiking shoes for our heavy, double-layer Scarpas, the night turned to day. The summit looked deceptively close. It was not.
And I felt like absolute crap, to put it mildly. I could only breathe out of my mouth now and had a pounding headache, but man, was that the view of a lifetime. We lodged one trail-breaking step after the other in our diagonal traverse almost straight up, ice axes in hand. I found myself struggling more and more with pain but also exponentially more at with how small the rest of the world looked below us. It was truly one of the most unforgettable scenes I’ve experienced.
After four grueling hours of breaking trail through thick snow, we came to a rocky outcropping of the glacier from where the summit ridge began, 300 meters from the top now. I lowered myself to the ground, shaking and coughing hard. After seven hours of non-stop climbing, maybe I just need a snack, I thought to myself.
Without an appetite, I slowly munched a Snickers bar, hoping it would take away whatever was hurting and give me the energy for the final push. It didn’t.
It had taken us 4 hours to climb 200m up the glacier. It was mostly Tashi and Rigzin breaking trail, but the slow pace of movement had gotten to all of us. The sun was had risen by now, and at 19,500 ft, it saps energy even at 9 in the morning. Though the snowpack on the ridge we now had to climb was considerably more compact, we estimated at least another two hours to the summit. I thought noon was too late to be that high and exposed.
With strained voices, we had an argument about whether the faster amongst us - Tashi and Manjeet - should carry on, or whether we should all head back. Tashi was adamant about the latter, so we turned back, and plunged down the slushy, sugary slopes back to camp.
We made it back to base camp a few hours later, a bit dejected and very exhausted. I noticed I was having trouble seeing, and that my balance was really bad. Normally I’m pretty sure-footed, but I found myself tripping over easily-avoidable stuff. I kept it to myself at the time, but told Sarthak about it a few months later, who said that it had probably been the onset of high altitude cerebral edema (aka brain-filling-up-with-fluid-and-killing-you-illness). Lovely.
As a side note, always keep a dialogue about stuff like this open with your trek leaders or teammates, don’t withhold. I know better, and should have said something.
The plan was made to push for the summit again the next day, but a little different this time.
We took a long nap that afternoon, and through the evening. Another team, led by a friend of mine, had moved in a few hundred metres down our camp.
“We didn’t make it, but we broke trail for you guys. You’re welcome.”
They were going to be making their summit push that night. I wondered if we should tag along, but we were already exhausted from our climb the night earlier. So, we strategized.
The next afternoon, Manjeet, Tashi and I left from our camp, and quickly made the climb to the top of the scree slopes next to the glacier. We set up an intermediate camp, and watched the setting sun over the mountain, painting the sky with every colour that exists.
After a meal and a short, uncomfortable nap, with three people in a 2-person tent, we were up at 2. We had another meal. It feels good when you can work up a regular appetite at high altitudes.
We started climbing, and made the climb that had taken us 4 hours two nights ago, in an hour and a half. We calculated pace, and figured we would summit before sunrise, so we spent half an hour munching on frozen chocolate at the rocky outcrop. We started our final push to the summit, still barely working up a sweat.
Another hour and a half later, prayer flags came into view. I checked the Garmin. 6200 m. Another ten minutes, and we found ourselves at 20,500 ft with a panoramic 360° view of the Zanskar and Ladakh ranges, and the sun rising in front of us.
Though I had led groups on Stok Kangri the previous year, none of them had made the summit, and this was also my first 6000 m summit. I was happier about the last evening’s sunset and this morning’s sunrise though.
We made quick work of the descent, and were back in camp for breakfast.
Many hi-fives were had when they came in to view over the ridge I had watched the guys disappear behind the night before. I had spent the night solo in the tent, laying awake most of the night wondering how the summit push was going and praying they made it to the top.
And just like that, Kang Yatse II was a memory, and we headed home to warmer, slightly less interesting lives.