Monday, September 15, 2008

High Hopes

The Stok Kangri story...

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On my first day in Leh, I fancied I detected a strain of worry in Pankaj Lagwal, our guide for the trip. Taxed with it, he smiled but admitted it: “I’ve been here for two weeks now, and look at the mountain constantly. Only on two days have I been able to see the peak.” We raced up to the terrace of the hotel Kang-Lha-Chen, and brought out the binoculars. As he’d said, the peak yonder was veiled, shrouded in cloud and rain. We could see why he was worried—what was a pretty sight here was probably a fairly vicious storm up there. Stok Kangri was having a right royal snit.

I and five others were in Leh to make an attempt to summit Stok Kangri, the trip organised by adventure operators Aquaterra. The highest of the Stok range, the mountain is an imposing six-thousander; what makes it even more special is that it is a non-technical climb—accessible even to fit trekkers without mountaineering skills. The word on Stok Kangri has gone around. Come August and climbers from all over the world descend on Ladakh, making their way to the mountain in what is part pilgrimage, part ego-trip.

On day two, we were still being acclimatised and the itinerary included Khardung La and a leisurely tour of a couple of Leh’s fine monasteries. The long mountain road back was a thin dark imprint in a land of white dust. We looked, as we tended to do, at our particular pile. There was a shout—we pulled up and brought out the big lens. The weather on Stok Kangri was clearing, and only a few wisps of dark cloud still clung to the peak. For the first time since we arrived we could see it fully—the object of our current desire. It is a beautiful mountain.

The next day, from admiring the scenery we went into it. Our group of six: Aman Nugyal, Amit Sharma, Takako ‘Coco’ Inamori, Aaron Wolff, Rajesh Huddar and I. Assisting Pankaj with guide-work were Chain Singh and local boy, Rigzin Tamchos. The route took us past Spituk and over the mighty Indus; the bridge so heavily adorned with prayer flags I was only able to see the river through the chinks. Then from a point in Zingchen, we started to walk, making our way through rain to stop at Rumbak (3,870m). This was the first time I was trekking at elevations so high. The two days spent getting used to the thin air helped but not enough. The trek was arduous enough but the challenges piled up with the weather. Ladakh’s summer, July to September, is known for its congenial temperatures—climate change, however, knocks all assumptions out of reckoning. Like it did in 2006, it has been raining incessantly here: the streams are swelling, and we were obliged to trek and camp in the rain—never one of my favourite things to do.

I puzzled the first couple of days at my fatigue—not all your reading of how altitude affects the human body prepares you for the fact of it. Terrain I thought I should be traversing with reasonable ease became formidable; my feet seemed dipped in treacle, my breath dragged in far less than I needed. It was lowering.

If the first foray was gruelling, the second day was tougher still. We headed to Moun Karmo (4,250m) via a cruelly-placed pass called Stok La (4,890m). Footsteps became small and great effort seemed to be needed to make even minuscule advances. Once over the hump though, we skied down mud paths, and made quick work of the descent. When we finally tramped into camp, I sat down to watch lammergeirs in the cliffs surrounding us.

So far, we had been circling Stok Kangri like wary boxers. It was time to make a move. Day Three saw us make a bold stroke—we moved to Stok Kangri Base Camp (4,975m). This, I must say, is something like an international camping festival. A widish meadow with a stream running by, it is a necessary pit stop for trekkers on their way up and those on their way down. A shack here provides the essentials—instant noodles, energy bars, chocolate, beer and rum. Tents of every hue are pegged here, and the scene has campers walking about, kitchen fires going with wholesome aromas, and mules and horses tethered here and there, nibbling at grass and at each other. I fell asleep to the hum of voices and the jangle of mule-bells.

We were now to see the whites of the eyes of our target. Advanced Base Camp (5,315m). A flattering name, for all it is really is a pile of rocks, with barely enough room for four tents. Our cook Ravinder conjured up some divine khichdi and soup, and we all huddled into the kitchen tent to tuck in. The air was nippy—Stok Kangri (6,153m) was sending out tendrils of biting cold to run their fingers down our spines.

Our bid for the summit started, as these often do, in the middle of the night. The plan was to climb up to a ridge on the mountain and then crawl along the ridge to the summit. The weather seemed fine and would hold out, God willing. Layers of clothing were donned, miner headlamps were fastened, a preparatory cup of tea was imbibed with biscuits. We set off over rocks at first and then over the glacier, stamping to keep the ice off our shoes, digging in the pick axes as we scrambled for purchase. We began to climb now in earnest. A trail of sorts there was, but difficult to pick out in the dark. All I was sure of was the direction: up. In the distance behind and before me, I saw headlamps bobbing in the dark—about 20 trekkers were trying to summit that day.

A few hours into the foray and it started to get light over the east. The sun crept up from behind snow-rimmed peaks, lighting them an eerie and utterly gorgeous orangey-yellow. I was tiring. Some of the others in my group had long gone ahead. Nausea rose up my chest and I was beginning to get light-headed. Rigzin was with me, holding my hand to prevent me falling, sometimes dragging me, sometimes urging me on. Stopping, gasping, grunting, moving...Some time after daylight, I staggered onto the ridge and flung myself down.

I was wondering if I should climb on. My tired mind came up with reasons for ‘not’. The summit, if made, should be reached, I told myself, only by the supremely fit. I saw no glory in struggling on for the next two or three hours, in such a state as I was in, dragged across by a guide. On the other hand, now that I had made the ridge, I should wait for 10 or perhaps 20 minutes. A renewal of energy would put a different spin on things. This would not be the first time I had been intimidated by challenges that I had eventually tackled.

It was not to be, though. Coco, who had reached about 100m from the summit, had collapsed. She had to be given oxygen, brought down quickly. While those close to the peak would go on, it would be difficult for the expedition to guide me to the summit as well. Fate had taken a hand and made up my mind for me. So I looked around the magnificent Karakorams, took a few pictures and descended, not sure what I had accomplished here.

Ladakh and Stok Kangri beckon climbers like a flame. Over the six days we walked, we must’ve encountered at least 200 trekkers, a large majority of whom were foreigners, some from the US, but mostly from Europe. On the way to Moun Karmo, through the high pass of Stok La, there was a veritable traffic jam and my head hurt from nodding at passing trekkers, porters and pack-mules. Juley, we all went, bonhomous in a fellowship of trekkers, Juley!

Why do people climb mountains? The question has been asked and the retort is ‘because they’re there’. Which puts you in your place nicely. There is nothing to do but to digest that response and ask again. Why climb mountains? Why brave unforgiving sunlight, blistering whippy winds and harsh elements? Why have your face go ruddy, your lips blackened and cracked? Why sleep on slopey, slidey rough ground with pebbles pressing up under your Karrimat? What’s so special about having your body so fatigued it can’t eat? What’s the deal with swaying drunkenly with lack of oxygen as you climb into thinner and thinner air? Why is that spot of land—the highest spindly point of this pile of rocks, snow and rubble—worth so much trouble?

I ask these questions as if the answers follow, but honestly I don’t have them. Nearly everyone agrees though, that mountain-climbing is an internal business. The mountain is inside you, and the obstacles. Whether you summit or not, there are lessons for everyone—character faults loom before you in all ugliness, personality-driven walls come up slap in your way. Your belief matters. What effort you consider significant matters. How kamikaze you’re prepared to be in your attainment of a goal matters.

And so it was that three of six touched down on the peak of Stok Kangri and three of us didn’t. Shall I go back to try another time? I don’t think so. I’m not convinced that placing my foot at any cost over just that precise patch of mountain says anything about anything. I shall probably keep trekking though. Keep that fitness handy, so if an achievement like this comes offered on a platter again, I’ll take it as if it was meant.

4 comments:

Sharada said...

I bought the September issue to read your article (so much better than sitting in front of the comp and getting bug-eyed)!:) What fabulous photos!And you are so right about wanting to climb a mountain or tripping off on any expedition just because it is there, waiting to be done.:)

Sheetal said...

oh you read? good, yes, real thing much better than comp!

Shalini said...

I loved reading this. Having being brought up in the foothills of the Hymalayas I could so relate to what you felt. Home means those bumps and furrows covered with snow and rain, mist and mildew but they are gorgeous in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Had no idea you had shifted to Delhi. That's my "illaka"Have fun.

Sheetal said...

Thanks, Shalini. Before this, I had been as far as the foothills upto the Dauladhar range but no higher. Frankly, I had not imagined there would be so very many of them, such folds and folds of them, such immense masses of earth jutting out.