Friday, October 7, 2011

Stok Kangri (6153 m), Ladakh: my coitus interruptus climb

Ladakh: a photographer's pilgrimage or orgasm
Ladakh is the ultimate photographic orgasm or pilgrimage - depending on whether you love photography or worship it. I have aways found the beauty of Ladakh breath-taking - figuratively & literally. And my expedition to Stok Kangri proved this statement even more true to it's meaning.

Stok Kangri (6153 m)
South of Leh in Ladakh, India, the peak dominates the skyline with it's snow covered summit touching 6153 m. One of the few 6000+ m peaks that can be reached by trekking & does not require any serious technical mountaineering training or equipment - this is the greatest lure of this mountain & the biggest trap. I succumbed to it.
“Kang” in Ladakhi means ice & “ri” means mountain and “Stok” is the name of the village that ushers the way to this peak. The approach location is Leh at an altitude of 3500 m - which itself requires serious acclimatization. There are two trailheads leading to the peak - first & shorter starts at Stok Village & second at Spituk. For want of time Stok Village was obvious choice - yes I was looking at short cut to success. It was going to be my first attempt at a serious 6000+ mountain & my first solo trek.

The itinerary was decided in consultation with my guide - Tashi Norbu Jayo (+91-9596929195

26 Sept 11
Leh / Stok
Rest & acclimatization
3600 m
27 Sept 11
Village walk & meet people
3600 m
28 Sept 11
Trek & camp
4500 m
29 Sept 11
Trek & camp
4900 m
30 Sept 11
Peak & back
Summit Push
6153 m
1 Oct 11
Stok Village
3600 m
2 Oct 11
Stok / Leh
Return Flight
235 m
In addition to the guide there would be a cook (Mr. Chamba) & a pony man (Mr. Tsering Angchok) & of course four little ponies (the work horses).
Day 1 (26 September 2011, Monday)
I booked the morning Kingfisher flight from Delhi to Leh at a leisurely time of 8:45 am. Carefully I chose left window seat 04A - that’s the side to get you the best aerial views & photo opportunity (to the right on return). So from 235 m above sea level (Delhi) I reached Leh (3500 m) in just 1 hour 20 minutes - well that’s a perfect recipe for high altitude mountain sickness. However, to mitigate that I had started Diamox (actually Iopar-SR 250 mg twice a day - a slow release preparation) from the previous day, and I intended to take complete rest for 2 days before embarking on my strenuous journey up the mountains. The parasthesias (needles & pins tingling sensations) in my extremities were reassuring as they told me that Diamox was working - also a constant nagging reminder to breath deeply, consciously.
With my past experience of two visits to Ladakh (& especially the 5 day stay at Tangtse last year when the eventful cloud burst played havoc on Leh & Choglamsar), I expected to fare reasonably well at high altitude. Moreover, with a dedicated support team & option of  rapid descent, it was a safe proposition (for anything else I had the travel insurance).

Stok is a small quaint village southeast of Leh across the Indus river. Farming is the main occupation of people here & the population is sparse. Far from the maddening crowd it offers peace & serenity to it’s visitors, and some places for meditation. I chose homestay in this village with my guide’s sister’s (Tseang Yangzes) family. My room was a traditional one on the first floor with beautiful vistas visible from the windows & floor sitting arrangement. I crashed into the bed on arrival & took the rest of day easy.

Day 2 (27 September 2011, Tuesday)
The day began lazily with Ladakhi bread (Khambir) served in the breakfast - I don’t know why I felt a kind of a bond with the bread. The day was dedicated to walking around in the village and meeting local people - talking to them & imbibing their lives & culture. I had tea & biscuit at some place & fresh from the trees apples & apricots at others - they filled my spirit with palpable energy.

Having had a traditional lunch from my host's kitchen, I wandered into the fields & glades in the neighborhood. Gazing at the blue skies while ponies were grazing made me feel like I had blended into the field I lay in - the wind cutting through the leaves filled the air around me with soulful flute.
. . . I felt completely attached to the mother nature.

Back to homestay, the owner’s teenage daughter (Nurzinangmo) showed me their 200 years old heritage home - a gem hidden in the backyard of their modern home. I was transported to a different century. I had never thought time travel could be as simple or as profound as this.
Retired after packing my bags for tomorrow’s climb.
Day 3 (28 September 2011, Wednesday)
Hit the trailhead at 9:30 am (3600 m)  & started out after obtaining the climbing permit. Reached Changma (4000 m) at 12:30 pm - the half way mark, and reached Mankarmo (4500 m) at 3:30 pm.
The trail was well defined & clean. Mostly a gentle slope with a gradient of about 20-35 degrees (maximum 45 degrees in short stretches). But even a 30 degree felt like 60 degree in terms of breathlessness it caused. There were also long stretches of rock fields in valley through which streams were flowing.

Took a half hour break for lunch at Changma - only an established busy trail could have a chai-dhabba. And previous to that was a short poo break - thanks to mild diarrhea which certified my traveller status.

My journey was rewarded by encounter with Bharal or Himalayan Blue Sheep. These graceful small animals dot the slopes of Himalayas & form a pleasant sight. Wild horses, cows & Ladakhi crows are the other life from seen on this trail. The mountains & views were beautiful all around. Every step was a step into heaven & at every turn a new vista unfolded.

I was doing very well on the musculo-skeletal front but the cardio-respiratory department was overworked - I was deliberately breathing hard & deep. Deep breaths supplied more oxygen to the brain - as a result any sensation of an impending headache simply vanished. I was glad.
The camp at Mankarmo was a nice flat next to a water stream & gazing directly at Stok Kangri & Golep Kangri (flat topped but technically more difficult peak). An out house toilet enclosure was a luxury that is hard to find on such altitudes - but thanks to Indian Mountaineering Foundation- it was an attempt to maintain the ecology of the place.

Alone in a two men tent I enjoyed my space which would have been cramped for two. It was quite cold with evening temperature inside the tent dipping to 5 degrees - that heralded a freezing outdoors at night. As a result I was hesitant to go out to the kitchen tent for the dinner. However, the venture was rewarded by hot soup in a cosy tent warmed by kerosene stove. Dinner was a satisfying experience.
My fears of cold were unfounded. No sooner than I zipped up my tent & my -5 degree Quechua sleeping bag, I became warm enough to sweat. I had to shed my Sherpa fleece layer & felt comfortable in base-layer. However, what knocked constantly at the door at night was a pounding headache which initially I resisted with breathing hard & deep but in the morning I had to resort to consuming Voveran-D (chewable Diclofenanc my favorite for headaches & pains). Another hour of sleep & the headache was gone & with it were gone my fear of having to abandon further journey. I shared my fears with my guide after getting up for a late morning breakfast but assured him that I was ready to roll (however, cautioned the support team to start an hour later than us).
Day 4 (29 September 2011, Thursday)
Late start from Mankarmo (4500 m) at 10:45 am due to headache & slowly moved on to reach Basecamp at 1:30 pm (4900 m). Support team was instructed to start an hour later & they crossed us at about half-way through. The trail was a gentle uphill gradient of about 25-35 degrees throughout & mixed with rock-fields along river streams.

It was tough for me - I was extremely breathless. I needed to stop every 10 steps or so to recover my oxygen debt. My mind was wandering all this time about how would it be at the basecamp & during the summit-push (if there was going to be one). I thought that this would be my last endurance trek, I was happy with the enjoyable family holidays. I was tired & out of oxygen. But then I thought that I must do it for my family & my friends who wished me success at my attempt. So I went on.
Reaching basecamp I just sat on my camp chair for half an hour & had tea & biscuits. Felt energized again.

My tent was placed on a smooth level ground - first time I wouldn’t have to struggle in my sleeping bag. A rare luxury in a camp.
A poo trip took me out in the open with cold wind blowing all around me.
Lunch was hot & sumptuous with vegetable / potato pulao followed by refreshing water-melon. It gave me enough fuel to walk around in the camp & do some photography.

Early dinner at 7:00 pm & retirement at 8:00 pm in order to plan & prepare for the summit push the next morning. We would be starting out at 4:00 am before the day break - a big day ahead.

Day 5 (30 September 2011, Friday) - Summit Push
I woke up at 3:30 am, got ready & we set out at 4:40 am from the Basecamp (4900 m). Touched the 6000 m mark at 3:00 pm & managed to get back by 8:00 pm to the Basecamp. What was meant to be a strenuous trek for 10 hours got stretched to grueling 15 hours on feet (& on lungs).

The day actually began the previous night with preparation about what to wear & what to pack. The aim was to dress enough for the below -15 degree C anticipated and carry the things to be used & for emergency. But at the same time the objective was to travel the lightest possible.
I needed to rest  & sleep the previous night but simply could not. But I didn’t mind staying awake because of fear of aggravating AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) during sleep. During sleep the respiratory drive is decreased leading to an increased severity of symptoms of AMS - as happened to me during the night at previous camp (Mankarmo). I was finally out of bed at 3:30 am getting ready for the day. Well, the only “nature’s call” to be heard today was the “call of the summit”. Had tea & biscuits for breakfast & started off.
As I moved there were apprehensions about AMS on my mind but I was confident about everything else - that was the weather, my physical ability to climb & my desire to do so.
I moved slowly and steadily to climb up to the high mountain pass after the basecamp. It was a steep slope with a an inclination of about 50-60 degrees & made of all smooth soil without much hold. It wasn’t too difficult to climb up it - I was more scared at the thought of having to descend it later that day (which later turned out to be even more scary). After the pass it was long gradual uphill walk on a narrow trail to the advanced basecamp. Somewhere here we were greeted my morning snow.
My lips & tip of nose began to get tingling & pin-prick sensations & very soon I could not feel them. I lifted the tube of my hydration bladder to sip on water, I heard a crackling sound & when I bit on its mouth piece I felt a crunch but no water came through - it had all frozen inside the tube. I reached for my bandana to put it back across my face as protection from cold wind, all I could feel of the bandana was a shapeless paper-mache art. Welcome to the world far below 0 degree.

Advanced basecamp gave the first glimpse of the beautiful glacier. This camp has been abandoned to preserve the ecology of the place. Next was one long stretch of of rock & moraine field which somehow I had no difficulty in traversing.
First steps on the glacier were exhilarating & the further I walked the more I was in awe of its beauty. May be it was my first experience of any place like this but I found the place genuinely spectacular & rewarding in itself. Midst of the glacier you are faced with 180 degrees of snow covered wall of mountains which gently feed this smooth river if ice. Here you just need to avoid slipping or falling into a crevasse (there are not supposed to be too many). I did manage to slip & fall but without any hurt - fortunately didn’t fall into a crevasse as we didn’t have any gear or preparation for crevasses rescue (or may be there aren’t any real deep crevasses).

On the far bank of the glacier was another short spread of moraine field that was crossed with any problem.
Until this point my breathing was comfortable except  for a normal awareness of being at high altitude. But here on as the gradient of the trail turned up so did the severity of the graph of my AMS. Now was the climb to the shoulder which the guide had earlier hinted as being “steep”. To my eyes it was an inclination of about 65-75 degrees. The slope was a mix of smooth soil, scree & rocky patches but never was there a hint of comfort in the ingredients.
As I climbed my AMS worsened from one breathing cycle for two steps to one complete cycle for every single step forward. Every 10 steps or so I paused to recover my breath. I kept breathing hard to keep my brain lucid & to keep my body working. Somewhere close to the shoulder I was stopping after every 2-3 steps to lean forward & rest my head on my hiking pole to take recovery breaths which increased from a few to as many as 50 to give my mind some clarity. I was beginning to lose my balance & my vision beginning to become unclear as though I was watching a dream. I avoided taking any long sitting breaks because that would cool the body down & then re-starting was an ordeal. I also noticed that this part of the journey was not very easy for my guide too even though he had shed part of his load at the bottom of the slope - the shed load included our precious torches & headlights.
I was beginning to feel drowsy& felt that I could fall asleep while resting my head on hiking pole. A fall - asleep or otherwise was something I could not afford at this stage of the climb. I struggled my way up to the shoulder (5800 m) - a narrow bend of rocks. From here the gradient eased to about 20-30 degrees of gentle traverse. The trail, however, still not an easy cakewalk - it wasn’t too difficult but still required strenuous effort. And to over-worked limbs, hard pounding heart & a choked out brain every little effort counted.
The views were amazing. Panorama of himalayas on either side of the ridge spanning almost 360 degrees. I tried hard to spot K2 - I saw a couple of high standing peaks to north-west but there was no way of knowing if I saw K2. As the spectacle more breath-taking, the more breath was I losing. I could have easily slept off at the shoulder & my guide almost did. After this first long rest since we started in the morning I decided to get up & move on - after all life is all about getting up & moving on. Slowly we started negotiating up the narrow ridge. Yes, it wasn’t difficult but did require some effort & concentration. I still needed to pause every few steps to recover my breath - if at all that could be called a poor attempt at recovery.

We trudged on breathing, pausing, recovering & enjoying wonderful views on both sides of the ridge. The glacier with its surrounding bowl of appeared even more magnificent with distant himalayan peaks forming a frill on its top. Towards north were endless views of peaks p some of which standing really very high. Each time I looked north my drowsy mind filled with thoughts of K2 - there was no way to know & my mind was too groggy to ask.
I now saw another row of prayer flags - at least they reminded us to pray, whether our prayers written on them were taken to the heavens by the cold wind - only heaven knows. Winds were very strong & cold but that did not pose any difficulty rather it infused in me a feeling of a high. I paused, rested, breathed & breathed (without counting). My head was dizzy, my vision was misty & dreamy & my feet unsteady - if someone were to test me for balance by making me walk on straight line, I would fail miserably. It is so foolish that all throughout my climb the entire respiratory physiology & AMS ran through my mind  like a documentary - as if I was revising it all before my professional medical exams. Is my heart pounding at its maximal rate? Am I breathing too hard - hard enough to grab all the oxygen molecules in the air or am I washing out too much CO2 ? Am I hypocapnoeic? Am I in respiratory acidosis? Are the paresthesias in extremities due to Diamox or cold? That my cardio-respiratory system working at its best could only meet the demand of either the musculo-skeletal system or my brain - it could not satisfy both. Is my foggy vision a sign of papilloedema? Do I have early snow blindness or the irritation in eyes due to dry air? Being a doctor can be both a boon & a bane - a medical mind is always obsessed with physiology or pathology of one’s own body. Doctors tend to think of the worst possible complications & medical catastrophes especially when it comes to themselves or their kin. Doctors can’t be patient.
Suddenly a thought struck me & I looked at the watch - it was 3:00 pm. I asked the guide, “What is the cut-off time for the summit”? He returned a blank look - either he found my question stupid or he did not understand it. I repeated my question & he repeated his look - I got my answer & also the reason why it’s called a non-technical peak. I realized that his is to guide & mine is to lead. I put my limping brain back on some quick action & did some cold calculations. I had touched 6000 m mark but some 150 odd meters were yet to go & with my crawling pace & oxygen breaks every 4-5 steps, it would take me another 1-2 hours to reach the top. That would mean about 4 pm leaving just 2 hours of daylight. And in 2 hours it seemed impossible that I could descend to the bottom of the slope where our stashed bag & headlights were lying - I did not even consider estimating if we would be able to cross the glacier & the moraine in daylight.

I decided. I turned to my guide & said, “Let us go down”. He said, “Doctor the summit is very close by & we can reach it in 1 hour”. I just said, “We are going down”.
Climbing down was easier & I needed less frequent oxygen breaks. But I was still as slow & my mind still as much in haze. At sunset we reached the spot where are goodies were lying safe in a bag. And by the time we reached the it was dark. Half way down the ice river we has to switch the headlights on. Then came the long rock & moraine field which was little more difficult to negotiate than earlier. The headlight made this rock strewn surface look weirdly two dimensional - so it was difficult to judge if you were stepping on the rocks or between them.
In the far distance I noticed shimmering lights of the city of Leh but nowhere could I see the end of rock field or a glimpse of advanced basecamp. We kept moving on hopping rock after rock & then checking to see any trace of the abandoned advanced basecamp. Suddenly I could see two pairs of eye red glows - I could identify one pair - a pony & I could correctly guess the second - the pony-man who had come there on a rescue mission because we did not return to the base camp by 5:00 pm. It was 7:00 pm now & it was reassuring to see help at hand. But how? They insisted that I got on to the pony for the rest of the journey back to the basecamp - which meant traversing down the narrow trail to the mountain pass & then down the dreaded steep descent to the basecamp. I didn’t have much time to decide or a position to negotiate. I surrendered - I knew that these animals are extremely able & reliable on the mountains. On the other hand was the animal I could not trust - my AMS. Hesitatingly I climbed on to his back - and my hesitation had nothing to do with my ego - I was simply afraid. The animal lived up to his reputation & my expectations. Safely did he bring me down to the basecamp. I was still scared throughout the ride - which strangely I found bumpy yet thrilling. Funnily I thought to myself that this is exactly what was required to make the picture of my adventure complete.
8:00 pm I was comfortably lodged in my tent at the basecamp. I wasn’t breathless any more - rapid descent it the treatment of choice for AMS. I was extended the privilege of being served hot soup & maggie noodles right inside the comfort of my tent.
There was ample time but no energy or state of mind to write my journal and the end of that eventful day - I completed that chore later. But the mind could not help but reflect on the happenings of the day. In the hind-sight it was very logical decision to get back without obsessively clutching to the lust of the summit. It was also justified to to push myself to the 6000 m mark - “Take it to the limit” - yes, I did see some birds soaring high up there over the mountains but my vision was too hazy make out if they were eagles or Ladakhi crows. We do get the choice to test out limits, we also have the choice to improve our limits by training & perseverance but what is our limit is not of our choosing. I’m glad I tested mine.
Day 6 (1 October 2011, Saturday)
Lazy morning - the morning after. I got up at 8:00 am & did not feel any rush to pack my bags & get ready for the return trip. After a lethargic breakfast I started down at 10:15 am - this time I walked all alone. Before starting, a short uphill walk to the toilet point was a quick reminder of yesterday’s AMS.

Walk down the trail was comfortable & enjoyable. I decided to indulge the day in my passion of photography - so there were no more oxygen breaks but shutter-release breaks. Therefore, today I only carried my camera bag. And it turned out to be the most “enjoyable” day to the trek - no pressure of reaching the summit, no chasing after the oxygen molecules. Reached Stok village at an unhurried 5:00 pm. Ended the day with an extended long bath, phoned back home to tell my wife that I was still alive, had dinner, packed for the next day’s journey & diary time. I could have written endlessly were it not interrupted by my involuntarily falling off to sleep - a fall that I could now not only afford but also desired.

Day 7 (2 October 2011, Sunday)
Time to go back home. Early morning & I stole a walk to the village to capture a few last parting shots. It was also the time for photographing my host’s family.
As I waited to board the air-plane the words kept flowing down my pen. And then it was time to position in my chosen right window seat 03A ready with the camera settings to shoot through the sky. I’m glad that I could capture some aerial shots of Stok Kangri. Looking at her my eyes were wet - may be I was just missing the drying effect of cold summit wind . . .



Love it love it love it. You write so well, Sanjay! Time to get down to reading all your blog posts!!!! I know where I am going when I can't take the city any more! I have been longing for the mountains for quite a few months now! I guess though I will have to wait for the next season :( Awesome write-up.

Dyslexicon said...

Thanks Globeracers ! Please reveal yourself !!!

punidha said...

simply loved it!!!! beautifully written n d whole thing is very inspiring!!!!

Dyslexicon said...

Thanks Punidha !

surjit said...

Excellent, I felt as I was there,I read it all with my eyes half open, you are one of a kind.!!!

Dyslexicon said...

Thanks SSB !

Swati said...

Now this is something I am content to experience second hand, and you really did it so well! The AMS would have been totally on my mind too :)

Dyslexicon said...

Thanks Swati ! You can image how a medical mind (mis)behaves ;-)

Shibal said...

Wow!!Loved it..what a cornucopia of remember whens!! Can only imagine how enriching the experience must have been..Beautifully recounted, I could almost sense the glacier come alive :)

Dyslexicon said...

Thanks Shibal !

avinash pratap singh said...

Wow ..sir nicely written..loved it.. :)

avinash pratap singh said...

nicely written sir..loved it :)

Dyslexicon said...

Thanks Avinash !

sonny said...

totally impressed !
will take time to soak it all in slowly....but wow....

and u need to disable the code thingy to prove that one isn't a bot...annoying thing when one wants to comment each time.and more often than not i type it wrong..:)

Dyslexicon said...

Thank you sonny for taking time to read my lengthy post.

I have disabled the word code.