Mt. Stok Kangri Expedition


Prologue | Contemplation

If I told you I felt nervous, unsure, feeble and muddled, I’d be understating my state of existence. If anything at all, I was vigorously numb. After having shared countless breaths with the treacherous side of the mountain, I believe penning down the emotions is beyond human competence. For anyone in their right state of mind, pushing their bodies at stretch for hours in sub-zero temperatures above the distant clouds is undeniably brutal. I’m going to try though.

Mountains make me emotional. I’m usually teary-eyed when I express my love for the deserted pack of boulders making up the gigantic canvas, touching the blue heavens. Of all the delight on the planet, I find peace & bliss in the lap of the mighty rocks. It’s an idyllic relationship. It’s the silence that draws me; yet tremendously expressive in its own ways. I’ve heard the best songs in the lap of the mountains where the thin air echoes passionately as the enchanting vocalist and the terrain dress up to the party amidst the friendly jewels in the night sky. I plan to never stop being a guest to this mighty extravaganza.

With the constant sweltering of irrelevant pressure at our daily jobs, we tend to lose out on the necessary warmth our minds & souls deserve. The enduring life swells across our lateral vision while we ensure we do our chores; repeatedly. The routines take up the space that once was vacant for us to fill with joy & contentment, that give meaning to our existence. But instead of chasing our dreams, we are being chased by our fears of losing out in the competitive world, full of lasting expectations & ruthless judgments. What happened to “I want to become…” and countless “When I grow up, I will…”! Those incomplete resolutions, the broken dreams stay close to our conscious but seldom make it to our attention. And we end up being who we are, broken & driven.

Hence, I promised myself years ago that I won’t give in. I would stand up for myself & back my dreams. I realized we only have one life, & doing it right was my only option. No more excuses, no tantrums, no cold calls, no stupid emails & definitely no more procrastination, I decided to give it everything I got. And that’s when I decided to scale down the highest trekkable mountain on my land. Set apart from the numerous chimes of cityscape & indifferent thoughts of concrete mortality, this is my story of reaching out to the unimaginable space and finding peace with my real self.

It’s more than a travel tale. It’s my account of leveling scores with the pain I hold; the passion I endure. This story travels through the deep conscience of starting a fight with oneself, chasing down the fears & earning respect in one’s own eyes. This is where I celebrated my dreams in the most inhabitable moments. Here’s how I found peace among deceitful peaks, uncongenial terrains, shattered will-power & immense love. Tag along on the journey to the summit of the highest mountain in Ladakh region on Mt. Stok Kangri Expedition.

Peace out,

Rahul Arora


Day 0 | Delhi | Gearing up

You don’t prepare for something this big in a small way. You study. And you study more & then you rethink your determination. And if your conviction is firm enough, you get to live the adventure. There are two perspectives to this enormous task; reasons why you want to do it & reasons why you wouldn’t do this! Let me start with the former one.

I’m a product design professional with a fancy title & fancier paycheck. Work-life balance is durable but that’s what keeps me going. Moments tick vigorously while I make it through the tangible schedules of the day. Having done a fair share of motorcycle road trips across the country, I boast a few national level accolades to my name viz. Wrangler True Wanderer, Castrol Passion Hunt and a few more. A keen nature lover, I’m a passionate shutterbug & a fanatic for writing. The only thing I’m not is an example of the fittest alpha-male. I could be strong on the emotions & have a vivid thoughtfulness, somewhere with the time, I stopped respecting my body. From being a state-level basketball player back in the day, I don’t even go for walks now. Such is the ordeal of work-a-day life. So why did I go against all odds to head for Ladakh, stare down the mighty summit & struggle up the steep barren path?

To see what I’m really made of.

“20,000 feet above sea level? That’s high!”, I said to myself when I heard about the country’s highest trekkable mountain peak years ago. But that was a humble start. I knew there was a calling; howsoever futuristic. I’d read numerous blogs & watched videos about the challenges one faces on this gigantic trek in the colossal Himalayan terrain. Being accustomed to the mountain air, I had been on numerous treks before this; Deoria Tal-Tungnath-Chandrashila, Triund to name a few. But I hadn’t stood face-to-face to a summit this massive, a rock this dreadful & the air this frail. I hadn’t walked on glacial ice before, let alone spending hours on it on the way to Stok Kangri summit; that too in the middle of the night driven to render me breathless But I have had the courage to go beyond my limits of physical & mental paradigm. That courage & belief drove me.

Now Mt. Stok Kangri stands proud as the highest peak in the Stok Range of the Himalayas in the Ladakh region of the Indian subcontinent. The peak is located in Hemis National Park, 12 km south-west of the Stok village and around 15 km south-west of the city of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Meant only for experienced trekkers, the 20,153 feet high summit is higher than the highest mountain in Europe & Africa. The geography of the rock is pretty interesting. On one side lies the steep 60-degree climb to the shoulder & then a 200 meters enormously dangerous walk along the ridge to reach the summit. On the other side, there’s a thousand feet vertical drop you don’t want to peep into. Though one can reach the summit without any prior technical experience, this humongous trail shouldn’t be walked upon by beginners. Get your game running & then head for the foray.

This was my chance at high-altitude trekking. And hopefully, into the technical mountaineering incursion.

The itinerary for the trek is segregated keeping in mind the participants spend enough time acclimatizing to the conditions, which is crucial before they arrive at the base camp. The altitude variations that one experiences on this trek make it mandatory for the trekkers to be in their best shape & spend ample time acclimatizing. Here’s an altitude chart signifying the height variations throughout the trek:

I trained rigorously for 2-3 months, combining tireless cardio routines with minimal weight training. The goal was to strengthen the core along with robustness for a strong cardio ordeal. I did just that. With each day passing, I grew a sturdier cognizance of the task at hand and prepared my body & mind for the strenuous journey up the mountain where every rock I stepped onto was determined to push me from achieving glory. On the day I was to fly to Leh, I felt strong & determined to take down the snow-capped massif.

Packing for such a remote & barren destination, you’ve got to stick to things you’d absolutely need. I packed my essentials well into the 60-liter rucksacks & kept my camera bag handy. I was carrying a Nikon D5300 DSLR Camera with 18-55 mm Kit Lens and a useful 70 – 300 mm to capture the curious details of the landscapes. Not to mention, my OnePlus2 camera did a great job in clicking its way through the quickest moments on the journey. I intended to capture each moment & document in a video log, and that’s why I carried a GoPro Hero+ v01.50 camera to capture the exhilarating moments of a lifetime. And most importantly, I carried a printed note for my parents back home, greeting them from the summit. Due to this endeavor, reaching the summit was of immense importance for me; to make my folks proud.

I shopped appropriately for snow gloves, fleeces, warm socks, head-mount torch and other essentials from the Decathlon store in Gurgaon. And all this, somehow fit into my humble yet inflexible rucksack. Full marks to Wildcraft for coming up with such full-bodied packs.

Having packed my bags, I was ready to fly to the land of enchantment. Not just to scale the malignant heights, but to fulfill my destiny. It wasn’t a quest for solitude, I had sunk that boat down the ocean a while back. It was about discovering my breaking points & the kind of strength that would lift me back up, once I’d break down. I knew I was meant to be more than I was; it was time I found out what limits I could reach. It was time, we celebrated dreams, up above the mountain.

Looking for adventures down the trail,

Rahul Arora


Day 1 | Delhi – Leh | Bon Voyage

All I dreamt of was the vision of myself standing tall at the Stok summit with a tough grin on my face & my not-so-frost-bitten hands holding the selfie stick up high capturing a 360-degree video with the endless Himalayas in the backdrop. Each frame spoke of the pain & rigor invested to get there; priceless! I just hoped I’d get there.

There are a handful of airlines that fly to Leh namely GoAir, Air India, Jet Airways, Spice Jet & most recently Vistara. I wanted to reach Leh in the bright Himalayan light, so I chose the early morning GoAir flight. It’s no surprise that the flight was full, for it was the season for visiting the crowned jewel of the Indian Himalayas. Departure time was 05:30 am from the T1 terminal of the Indira Gandhi International airport & I reached the airport at 04:50 am, thanks to my Uber driver who took me for a stroll down the road to the T3 terminal. Somehow, I managed to reach the designated gate by 05:25 am, just to find the doors closed & the staff of GoAir looking at me in suspicion. Long story short, I pleaded them to let me board the flight & after some persuasion, they did. It was the first time I had the flight doors shut behind my back seconds after boarding the flight. Lesson learned; always reach the airport on time!

We took off & I couldn’t be happier. I was traveling towards my dream at a malignant speed to discover my own vigorous self. It felt numb but immensely satisfying. Needless to say, Delhi looked splendidly fabulous at dawn with mild lights spread across the city. Here’s a glimpse:

The flight was pleasant, not to mention I dozed off minutes after the takeoff. It has been imperative with me; I can’t sleep a night before I have to travel. Had a sound sleep for a while before I woke up to acquaint with some of the most beautiful views of Himalayas, any flight in the world can offer. I’d only heard & read about the aloof & enormous landscapes of Himalayan canvas from the flights bound for Leh, this was my chance to get up close with them. The distant views of the white canvas resting precariously on the massive territorial grounds took my breath away.

The moment I moved to stare out the window, I realized I’d booked the seat on the wrong side of the aisle. But nevertheless, I managed to get glimpses of the magnificent colors down under. While the flight made its way through the pebbles of cold slate, there was utter silence in the cabin. Probably everyone was busy capturing the spectacular beauty of the Himalayas. It was a proud moment.

Here are some instances from the moments I captured sticking my camera at the heavens underneath:

We landed at the humble Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh at 07:45 am. It was a bright morning with a plush blue outfit & the crimson-colored peaks surrounding the quaint airstrip. It was almost like we landed in the middle of a Star Wars movie. The sight at the airport was different from any other airport I’d been to in the past. The bare minimum infrastructure & the limited number of luggage belts were apt for the crowd the city gets. It was a compact setting with hundreds of travelers, yet it was surprisingly charming.

The modest breeze added to the aroma of the air. I got down the airplane & the first thing I noticed was the spectacular sight of the famous Stok ranges of Ladakh eyeing at me from a distance. It was then when I felt eager to step up & head for the peaks. Everything looked barren yet alive. The air was dry & chilly but was truthful to the harmony of the extravagant city of Leh. I mumbled to myself, “I’ve arrived”.

The sight was mesmerizing & at the same time the realization of the fact that I had to reach the summit seen in the distance in the next 5-6 days, kept me at ease. I was thrilled but content; overjoyed but yet calm. I asked a fellow passenger to click one photograph of me with the destination in the backdrop. I was longing for this picture for years, now was the moment. Here it is:

I noticed the air was clearer on the city roads as we made our way to the hotel I’d booked for the first 2 days of my stay in Leh. I learned from the driver that the Ladakh Marathon 2016 was due in some days & that settled my curiosity regarding the numerous people jogging along the tidy roads. I managed to capture the moments of the city roads in my GoPro camera; a compiled video of the same should be coming up soon.

I took us about 45 minutes to reach the Yangphel Guest House on Upper Tukcha Road. The guest house owner Priyanka greeted me with awe as she abruptly mentioned: “Are you here for the Stok Kangri trek?”. She said she could tell from my rucksack, trek pants & the rugged trekking shoes. I nodded in affirmation & smiled humbly. I checked in & settled my luggage. It’s evident for the locals to meet trekkers headed for Stok Kangri or Zanskar Chadar trek when it’s the right time of the year. It was September, an apt time to scale down the Stok range.

I planned my travel such that I had two days to myself in the city of Leh before we take on the mammoth trek up the hill with the Bikat Adventures group. That would give me ample time to acclimatize to the attitude & breathe easy. Leh is perched at a little over 11,000 ft, so it is advisable to spend some relaxing time here before moving to higher grounds. After getting the lovely breakfast prepared by the in-house cook, Shankar, I stepped out to take a walk. The guest house was a just a 10-minute walk from the Leh market & the road conditions are reasonably good to walk on. I explored the local market, especially the local cuisine. The Himalayan Café on the main street in the Leh market is a must visit if you wish to try out some amazing Ladakhi and Tibetan cuisines. I clicked my way through the local shops & streets, soaking in the aura this delightful place had to offer. Scroll down for some clicks:

It was 5 pm in the evening & I realized I should at least visit the Shanti Stupa up the hill before dusk to appraise with the crimson-kissed sunset upon the valley. I marched towards the Shanti Stupa & as expected found a plethora of tourists crowding the holy attraction.

The way up to the Stupa is a vast staircase cut around the cliff. Those countless steps may seem difficult to counter at first, but the view from the top is outstanding. You get the best view of the Leh city from the Shanti Stupa with the lush green cover clouding the city & the flamboyant Stok ranges in the backdrop. Since it was a little hazy, I couldn’t witness the sunset clearly, but the colorful skies made my day.

From the warm crimson shades of the valley to the cold damp aura of the soil, the evening had everything I desired. And what better could have been than a wonderful cup of coffee at the café porched right under the ridge where the Stupa is sited. I was there until it was dark enough to make descending down the stairs a little tricky. But it was blissful & the spirituality of the place had a captivating effect on the moments I spent there. And as is evident, I was busy clicking the way of life.

The first day in the enrapturing city closed with a mild dinner at the guest house on the rooftop with countless jewels in the feeble dark sky lighting up the gathering. Plan for next day is to rent a mountain bike & explore the city on two wheels, just not in a hurry. Plus, a visit to the Leh Palace up the ridge is a must. I tried to get a taste of the city’s locale, and on the go, learned heaps of facts.

Lights out,

Rahul Arora