Mountaineers call it summit fever, the inexplicable drive that pushes climbers up treacherous slopes, loose rock and thin ice, risking their lives to claim the peak. Climbing a mountain usually requires dedicated training, expensive equipment, the time and drive to be part of long, high-risk expeditions. But if the 20,000ft summit is calling out to you, there’s an easier way: Try trekking the handful of peaks in the Indian Himalayas that let you summit without too much training or equipment.
“You don’t need a hard training schedule, money or equipment, but you do need the desire,” says Supreme Court lawyer Riju Raj Singh, 42, who has been trekking to peaks since college. “In fact, I climbed my first peak in sneakers and jeans.”
Summit fever: (top) The Stok Kangri summit. Alex Filipkowski/courtesy alexandallison.wordpress.com; and Nick Brennan. Courtesy Nick Brennan
As easy as he makes it sound, trekking peaks is no stroll in the park: You climb upwards of 8,000ft a day and need to be reasonably fit and mentally strong. Singh almost always climbs solo or with friends, but most trekking peaks can be attempted with the help of adventure tour operators, who take care of all the logistics.
The Churdhar peak in the Shivalik range near Shimla is one of Singh’s favourites. “Churdhar is the point where the Westerlies and the Easterlies meet, and it’s ringed by the Giri river, creating a unique biosphere all its own,” he says. “The rhododendron forests begin after the first village and then you reach a spur, with 1,000ft drops on either side. The steep climb to the peak begins here, usually through powdery snow.”
At a little under 12,000ft, Churdhar is the highest peak in the area, but can be climbed in just two days. At the top, it provides a spectacular, 360-degree view of meadows, forests, rhododendrons and snow peaks, with Shimla visible on one side and Kasauli on the other. “Imagine,” says Singh, “on a Friday you leave office and on Sunday you are on a snowy mountain summit, looking down at the world.”
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If Churdhar is one of the smallest trekking peaks in the Himalayas, the highest is Stok Kangri (20,000ft). American graduate student Nick Brennan, 20, joined a trek operator last year to attempt the peak. “Summit fever definitely is a factor,” he says. “I had a motorcycle accident three days prior to the ascent, so I was climbing with a sling.”
But the effort was worth it: The route traverses three significant passes, glaciers and sweeping valleys with surreal views, and takes one close to the highest peak in the Zanskar range, the Kang Yatse (20,997ft).
“I was climbing for the view all along,” says Brennan. “I really wanted to see K2 from the peak. On the way up, the arid valley had these magnificent fins of rock jutting up like a fallen card tower. Really spectacular.”
Once at the top, Brennan took in a view that embraces hundreds of peaks in the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges, extending all the way to the Karakoram range.
Singh, a veteran of multiple Stok Kangri ascents, says the experience is different each time. “The first time, I could not believe that I was above 20,000ft,” he recalls. “I thought of myself as a survivor, not an achiever. I thanked the mountain for being good to me. Once while summiting in the early morning, I saw the setting full moon and the rising sun together. At that moment I wanted everyone I love to be there with me.”