Day 7 | Base Camp – Stok Kangri Summit – Base Camp | Summit Day
It was the seventh day of the expedition, and we started our ascent a couple of hours after midnight. The attempt for Stok Kangri summit is usually executed this way. Starting at midnight gives an edge over attempting this feat in the broad daylight. It easily takes around 8-9 hours to reach the summit from the base camp & if this is attempted in daylight or even at dawn, there’s a chance one may find trouble during the descent due to low light.
The group was up & ready by 01:30 am. The local staff suggested we didn’t need the Crampons to walk on the glacial ice & the snow up the shoulder of the mountain. I packed protein bars & a Red Bull for the show, and most importantly, the note for my parents back home. If everything went well, I’d be flashing the message from the summit soon. Sandeep wrapped up a quick briefing session & we were on our way. We were nine people & Sandeep had us walk in a particular sequence to balance the group dynamics during the trek. We switched on the head torches, for it was the darkest night so far. Usually, in such a vast landscape, the cliffs around you would be visible under the moonlight, but for some reason, we couldn’t see anything apart from a frail track ahead of us we knew we were to follow up the hill. We followed the spur above the base camp to fade into the depths of the unknown.
Base Camp – Spur
We started ascending up the trail which was a fine gravel ridden path disappearing into the bundle of mountain peaks. Soon after we left the humble abode of the base camp, the world around us changed. The scenery nearing the Stok Kangri was now more ravishing than ever, something which was never accessible before that point in time. The surroundings were lush black however the sky has a hazy shade of blue enough to light up the path ahead of us for few yards. There were no stars up there, just silent thin mountain air eyeing at us. It felt like the loneliest place on earth, yet that was the path chosen. For long stretches, the group was silent, no one uttered a word, but everyone followed the trek guide ahead of us. Sandeep kept talking though about what we could expect at every next turn or a hump; for he chose to be the last in the pack & was leading the group from there.
Hours went by & we negotiated our way into the deepest parts of the Stok ranges where the rocks turned white & the ground turned glassy. It was 03:30 am & we were at the rendezvous point where the trail at the roof of the spur meets the Stok glacier. Earlier this point was used as the Old High Camp where alpine trekkers would set up camp, aiming for the summit attempt. It is no longer used now, for the weather deteriorated quickly in this area & the place is prone to accidents. More recently due to environmental concerns, people no longer get permission to camp anywhere above base camp. We had gained close to 700 ft & were at 17,200 ft elevation now.
On one end of the roof, we could see the immensely detailed valley where the base camp was perched & looked frail enough. And on the other side, the trail would take us to the glacial ice driven to move underneath us & make matters worse. But what we had achieved so far, was just the warm-up.
Spur – Glacier
We walked ahead on the shadowy trail under the fragile light, making our way through the loose rocky patch at every step. It was getting tiring since each step had to be put forth with care & utmost attention. Such a paradigm was draining a lot of energy out of us. We stopped at regular intervals to catch our breath; for elevation wasn’t the only hurdle, at the time, the temperature was down to -5 degree Celsius & breathing was not as easy.
Hustling down the flat trail towards the glacier, we were at the mouth of the glacial ice patch that had to be crossed cautiously to reach the foothill of the long steep climb up the hill. I had never walked on glacial ice before & no idea how to go by it. While we halted at the mouth of the glacier, Sandeep instructed us about the do’s-n-don’ts in that zone to avoid any pitfalls. As per him, each one of us had to be attentive at all times & walk carefully. There were crevasses on the ice big enough to swallow a couple of us & no one would know. I wish I had some pictures from the point to share but unfortunately, I didn’t have the strength to grab my camera & click. I was freezing cold & barely breathing fine. I kept removing my muffler from my mouth to breath in the damp glacial air & would close back since it was freezing out there. We were at 17,600 ft. It was tough to breathe & soon, walk straight.
We initiated our walk down the glacier. It was flat with some bumps scattered across, but we were on the glacial moraine now. We walked on the true right of the glacier. Crampons were not really required since the gradient is quite low on glacial ice, but utmost care is to be given at every step. Sandeep walked right in front of the group with the assistant trek lead & other staff walked along with us. It’s approximately 600 meters walk through the slippery glass road to reach the foot of the Southeast face of Mt. Stok Kangri.
As we walked on, our vision was limited to the illumination of our headlamps. The ice underneath was crisp but hard. I could hear the creaking sound as I put down each step on the brittle tarmac. While walking on glacial ice, one must be varied of Verglas – thin slippery layer of ice. It is often not visible & in those conditions, it was impossible to make out if you hit one. We may have overlooked such patches as we moved on but fortunately, no one lost grip & fell. We were past the icy patch in about 45 minutes from start. With a tiny gain in altitude, we were standing at a little under 18,000 ft.
Walking on the glacial debris wasn’t the most pleasant experience but it was thrilling to the core. I could tell, we were scared at first but as we went on taking each step forward, we enjoyed the ecstasy of that space. At moments, I would look on the side & there would be a wide crevasse aching to swallow me down. I would be terrified but the motivation in such opportunity was enough to keep me going. It was like walking on the most fragile path but with a smile on my face. Nothing was a miracle, all dealt with on ground zero.
I noticed the entire group made it the foot of the southeast face but wasn’t in the best of its shape. While some struggled with frost bites, a few found it hard to breathe. I too had difficulty withstanding the brutal conditions but somehow stood my ground. We spent 15-20 minutes at the bottom of the face while everyone came back to their right senses & were ready to head uphill.
Foot of SE face – South Ridge (Shoulder)
From here on, the slowest part of the climb starts. Up ahead lies a loose gravel slope (almost 50 degrees), prone to slippage & debris falling off at any moment. This entire section is considered the toughest to negotiate, yet it is the crux of the climb to the summit. Moving forward, the altitude effect showed up on each step up the slope. At 04:30 am, the elevation was now 18,300 ft. & the mercury dropped down to -7 degree Celsius.
Although the incline was consistent but felt rapidly toying with our strengths. It seemed like the ground underneath was constantly moving & we had to hold a good grip before taking the next step. It was both tiring & terrifying, for I could see the gradual downwards slope ending don’t know where. I realized I had slowed down significantly, but so did everyone. While the assistant trek lead was leading the group from the front, Sandeep stayed at last with the slowest trekkers & pushed them forth. In such conditions, self-motivation can be a boon & one must talk to themselves when in doubt. I kept reminding myself of the reason why I chose to go there, but somehow, the summit that was now feebly visible on the vertical horizon seemed unachievable. I said to myself multiple times, “The summit is too far & too high. How could I ever reach there?” That was probably my weak & tired condition talking. But for sure I was drained out of energy.
If I paced myself too much, I’d be out of breath in no time & would spend 10-15 minutes to catch up. If I went too slow, well, I’d just be slow. It was tough to maintain a pace that would drain me gradually & yet keep me going on. Slowing down on this face is recommended by experts but sitting or taking too much rest should be avoided. Slow breathing is friendlier than taking long hollow breaths. But it’s an effort you should make up your mind for.
Half an hour would have gone by & I noticed the first light of the day. I stumbled upon to my wristwatch & discovered that it was already 05:35 am. At first, it felt like too much time has gone by, we’d not make it to the summit in the right shape. It’s best to reach the summit while it’s still dawn & descend back to avoid working it out with the warm melting icy patches. But we couldn’t help it.
The early sunlight enlightened the entire Stok glacial & the ivory white shine filled the place. For the first time in hours, I turned back & noticed my fellow trekkers were struggling to walk along with Sandeep. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack, slowly ascending. The glacial rubble looked stunning in the morning light & that energized me quite a lot. In no time, it was bright as day. Hustling through the loose rocky slopes somehow became apparent to us. I could manifest the terrain better than before & now kept a good pace.
Living it up for the night & fighting it out with the most malignant terrain we’d walk on, we made it to the South Ridge of Mt. Stok Kangri ay 08:30 am. We couldn’t witness the sunrise for we were too late to the party due to the slow pace, but we were calm & content to have made it to the shoulder. It was satisfying to witness the daybreak with young souls gutting it out against the tough piece of rock standing proudly in front of us. From the shoulder, I gazed down & could figure out the tireless efforts we had made all night long. The mouth of the glacier from where we started the glacial walk, seemed like miles away. And the steep incline of the terrain we juggled with, looked fierce. In totality, I was delighted & content to have reached the shoulder. Managed to click a few photographs too:
South Ridge (Shoulder)
Looking straight up from the shoulder, the summit is visible at a vertical horizon. It seems like a vertical climb to the mighty summit. It’s motivating and at the same time a cruel reminder of one’s physical & mental condition. I felt weak while sitting there while my fellow trekkers reached. Sandeep sat alongside me & asked if I was ok, for I had a sad silent look on my face. It wasn’t the externalities, but what went inside my head. I didn’t answer, just stayed there.
To be honest, I could head everyone but didn’t utter a word. At times I thought I should speak, or I’ll go crazy, but I didn’t. I realized I was completely drained out. I had consumed the last protein bar somewhere up the trail & Red Bull wasn’t the best resort in these conditions. I grabbed a couple of cookies & slowly took a few bites. It didn’t make me feel better & before I knew it, I broke down. It wasn’t the physical turmoil I was going through but the mental pressure of not making it to the summit after reaching the shoulder. I hadn’t felt that weak on the entire journey so far. The thought of not reading out the message to my parents from the pinnacle haunted me. I sobbed in my own fears.
The mind plays curious games at the most malevolent times. I crawled into my backpack & pulled out the sheet of paper I’d written the message on. I handed it to my fellow trekker & requested them to read it out loud from the summit. Not for me, but for my folks back home. It was the toughest thing I had to do, given I had just walked on tons of glacial ice & had been wide awake for almost ten hours. I was sure I wasn’t going forward. I felt broke. The mountain knocked me down with its charm & now I was ready to give up. My parents face flashed by my eyes as I sat there, completely sapped out. I could not hear anyone else’s voice. Sitting at 19,500 ft, I went silent, soaking in my defeat.
“When you’re ready to give up, remember why you started!”. I’d read this message a million times before, but never knew it would make a good reason for me to revive myself from the distress I experience up high.
I looked at what time it was (09:25 am) & I stood right up. My fellow groupmates were awestruck & cheered for me. It felt like I was back to life. I was not low on energy anymore & could stand upright. Sandeep turned up to me & asked me if I was willing to go on. Without wasting another moment, I responded affirmatively. But having considered me struck seriously with high altitude sickness, he wasn’t ready to allow me to move forward. I humbly explained to him that I felt fine. Still unsure, Sandeep asked me to lift my left leg & keep it suspended in the air till he counted to 10. He had to be sure I was not delusional anymore & was in my right senses. Tell you what, I did good & was back to my sporting spirits. Sandeep was delighted & gave me a power hug. I asked for my message back & gazed the summit in the distance. At that moment, I knew why I had to do this. Not for any accolade, not for my self-worth or for this hefty travelogue. I did this to make parents proud & at that moment, I knew I’d make it to the summit.
We roped up in a particular sequence & started moving up. It’s a dominant vertical climb from the shoulder to the summit & is to be dealt with utmost caution. The way up the summit is along the ridge & it exposed to both sides of the mountain, so one needs to be extremely cautious. It was predominantly scary at first. The loose gravel on the pathway & the water seeping from the snow-capped summit made matters worse. Every now & then, I could hear someone behind me yelling, “Are we there yet?” It took us two long hours negotiating through the toughest terrain on the trek, risking it up the ridge to reach the snowy flatline that ended at the summit just a few meters ahead of us.
The first sight of the Tibetan prayer flags at the summit (20,182 ft) melted my heart. I made it. We all did. We burst in celebrations & congratulated each other on the success. I hugged my fellow trekkers & appreciated their efforts. It was evident from everyone’s face, they were proud of being there & so was I. But more importantly, I was proud of not giving in to the pain. Statistics suggest that of all the people who make it to the south ridge of Stok Kangri, 90% of them make it to the summit. I felt blessed to share that strength.
From the summit, you get a 360-degree view of the massive Himalayan territory, with the Karakoram range beyond the Khardung La to the north, Zanskar ranges to the west and towards the Chang La and Changthang valley and dark-brown hills rolling towards Tibet. In the end, the views and the feeling of summiting a mountain made me feel that it was worth all the effort! I did my photography rituals & most importantly, delivered the heartfelt message to my parents back in Delhi from the top of the world. I was overwhelmed knowing that the last several hours had been immensely challenging & yet worthwhile.
Now reaching the summit is the job half done, we’d have to get down safely. Most climbers find trouble descending down as it’s easy to lose focus under the shadow of accomplishment. We roped up again & started the descent slowly but gradually. Again, the ridge is exposed to the vertical drop on one side & the steep incline on the other, so we took it nice & easy. Soon enough, we made it to the shoulder from where it all started. I had mixed thoughts looking at the spot I rested & almost gave up at. But for the love for mountains, I smiled & bid the place goodbye. Since everyone was keeping different pace, I lead from the front with the assistant trek lead, jostling down the loose rocky incline.
We maintained a good pace, but altitude sickness wasn’t done with me. It so happened & the loose gravel under my shoe slipped drastically toppling me down on my ass. Since the steep was too obscure, I slipped haphazardly several meters upon the rocky trail hitting every bump along the way. If it wasn’t for my fellow trekker, I’d be peddling down the cliff like a peg of damp soil and end up on the glacier. And we all know once you topple on the glacial ice, it doesn’t end well. He held me from my waist & somehow stopped my uncontrolled descent, which could’ve been fatal if we lost more time.
During the fall, I had enough sense to avoid hitting my head but couldn’t control the fall. My trek pants were torn, I have bruises on my palm, but I was worried about my savior, who experience several bruises on his knee & damaged his gear immensely. I’m 6’2 & weight plenty, but he still saved me from hurting myself further. I thanked him & discussed his well-being while we dusted ourselves up. As we moved forward. The humble fella held my hand to avoid such instance. He was from Nepal & a had mountaineering in his blood. He got me down the glacial debris calmly & dealt with my uncontrolled walk due to sickness. In a situation like that, it must have been a whale of a job handling a 200-pounder like me through the most spiteful walking trails. But he kept his nerve & brought me down to the base camp safely.
While we took aside to rest at the roof of the Spur just above the base camp, other trekkers arrived. Leading them was David with a wide grin. We congratulated each other & asked each other’s well-being. It was a tiring descent & took us hours to accommodate. Time was 04:00 pm & I realized we descended really slow, it usually didn’t take that long. Fortunately, in spite of struggling with fatigue, David made it in good time. Hats off! I didn’t click any pictures on the day, given my physical condition. As soon as we reached the base camp, I took to my tent, drank some Electral water & dozed off.
The next thing I remember was seeing Sandeep & others sitting out front, enjoying the evening snacks & sharing their versions of the story we just carved on the mountain. Everyone greeted me & asked about my health (mostly mental) while I joined them. We spent the humble evening talking about the grand endeavor we took on & the much-deserved respect for one another. Words were plenty but not enough to encompass the emotions that existed in us. We chatted for hours while dinner got served. Fortunately, everyone was in good health & there was a positive synergy in the team. Moments passed; I don’t remember when the night sheltered us & we went off to sleep. All I remember was that we smiled & didn’t let ourselves down.
Been there done that,