It wasn’t the first time on this trek that I had lent a hand with pitching tents. However, it was the first time I felt a hammer pounding inside my head.
It was late morning. We were at High Camp, 5,200m above sea level, scheduled to start our attempt around midnight on the summit of Stok Kangri, a trekkable peak in Ladakh that stacks up to 6,152m. The mules and horses had arrived from the base camp at 4,900m, shed their load on to the rocks, and were ready to trudge back down, neighing and braying. Their bells sounded louder against the quiet nagging headache. The strong sun reflected a white glare off the glacier next to the campsite. Grey clouds loomed at a distance, teasingly robbing us of the visibility of the peaks on the horizon.
High up: (clockwise from top left) The view from the Stok Kangri peak. Photograph: Somasekhar Sundaresan; conditions on the last leg are dire. Photograph: Sanjay Gilvady; however, all but one of the group made it to the summit. Photograph: Gopika Pillai
The signs were clear: The weather gods may not play ball. However, gambling on the fact that mountain weather is fickle, we would initiate the summit attempt after midnight anyway. Giving up was the last resort.
And yet, here I was, sitting back and watching the support staff level just enough earth amid the rocks to pitch a tent. There was never any obligation to help set up camp, but straightening a few foldable tent rods was as far as I could go. Self-doubt mounted with every pound of the subtle pain at the tip of my neck.
The past four days, in contrast, had been a dream run. I was among the few in my group of trekkers who were not on Diamox, the blood-diluting drug mountaineers use to pre-empt mountain sickness. I had had no symptoms of either a loose tummy or plantar fasciitis (an inflammation of the sole), two common mountain ailments, as we hiked up from the Stok Kangri base camp, or earlier, during the short trek to the base camp from Mounkarmo (4,250m), our previous stop.
Also See Trip Planner / Stok Kangri (PDF)
The climb to the base camp had been rather easy but, at the camp, several of us began displaying symptoms of fatigue. Clear skies had held out hope of a fantastic summit view. However, after an acclimatization climb, the higher altitude triggered serious anxiety pangs.
Given the dropping confidence levels, Avilash, our guide, decided to spend the extra day built into our time budget at base camp. Aussie Catherine seemed to have sorted out the diarrhoea she had contracted en route, but welcomed the added rest, as did Gopika and Suman, who had pulled along slowly but steadily. American Patrick, who had trotted up to base camp with no visible discomfort, woke up with a scare at night when his wife Nisha began whimpering in the cold despite wearing multiple layers. She would eventually sleep with two sleeping bags over her. Sanjeev and Manmeet, who had carried their own baggage, started showing the first signs of tiredness.
Tough climb: The Stok Kangri peak. Photograph: Sanjeev Ganju
It was our second spell of downtime on the trek. We had set out after a drive from Leh to Zingchen under a scorching sun. Halfway to Rumbak (3,870m), where we were scheduled to camp for the night, we learnt that our mules had not yet arrived in Zingchen. Since there was no point in arriving in Rumbak without our equipment, we settled for a siesta in a shady meadow, and launched our own forays into the green countryside. News of the mules came just ahead of sunset, and we made our way up to Rumbak through home-stay villages and herds of pashmina goats. A scheduled 4-hour day had extended to 7 hours, but we were at emotional peace with the Himalayan terrain by the time we pitched up at Rumbak. Our first “Big Day”—the very second day of the trek—lay ahead.
It revolved around a long and hard “mini summit climb” up Stok La, a high mountain pass at 4,890m. “If you do this one well, you’ll be mentally confident of the main summit,” Avilash had said, suggesting we take this day seriously. Breathtaking Himalayan country unfolded all around us as we trudged up, but the steep trek took the wind out of some in the group. Behind us, Rumbak and its surroundings slowly moved from life-size to miniatures and then to mere specks beneath our feet. Up ahead, all we could see was the steep trail that would eventually lead to Stok La.
As we neared the top of the trail, it began to snow, first just light flakes and then heavily, blurring visibility. Huddled against the mountain wall, we gradually began our descent to Mounkarmo. Snow eventually gave way to sunshine and then to rain, and then hail. Ten hours after we had set out, we reached the wet campsite. Each one of us was relieved to be able to crawl into our tents—and no sooner had we than the skies opened up again.
“For me, it is the journey that matters, not the destination,” I had assured my mother in an email from Leh. “If I find that I cannot make it, I will be true to myself and turn back.” At High Camp, memory of that email came back to me. One of the group had dropped out at the base camp after the extra day of rest. And now, every single one of us looked knackered.
Before the trek, I had read Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind and the need to conquer the mountain in my own mind was clear. After imagining the climb in my mind’s eye and hydrating myself with several dozen cups of hot water and salty soup, I found the nagging headache dissolving before the resoluteness to summit. Besides, I had sought pledges of financial support for Akanksha, a child education NGO, on the back of the summiting. There had to be a strong reason to give up the trek at this advanced stage.
We broke into two groups later that night, with the slower one—to which I belonged—starting earlier. We crossed the glacier and crisscrossed our path up the moraine to clamber on to the mountain ridge. A steady snowfall kept us company through the night as we took the ascent step by careful step, focusing our head lamps on just the immediate path ahead. What the eye does not see, the mind does not fear.
As the day broke, we were atop Stok Kangri. Clouds barred our view from the top in all directions, but for a slight parting as we assembled for our descent. But it did not matter. Every single trekker from High Camp made it to the top. Not only had the journey been completed, the destination too had been reached.
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