Everyone I spoke to while planning this trek told me not to do it. Reason being I had only ever been to a height of 13000 ft and lacked experience. Stok Kangri stands tall at a good 20,187 ft and you do not take a 6000+m peak lightly. But me being me, didn’t listen. Not because I was trying to prove them wrong or anything. I just wanted to do it and I had decided I had to try.
The problem with finding information regarding treks in India is unless it’s the Everest, smaller routes simply aren’t documented correctly. Either the information is false or just incomplete. In my opinion all the information I got online about Stok Kangri was misleading. No person I spoke to or no account of the trek I read told me that the beginning of this trek will be easy. Very easy.
It’s a gradual and short ascend up to the basecamp (16500 ft). The difficult part begins only after this point as the incline increases dramatically and there are 90% chances of getting AMS (acute mountain sickness). This information is vital because if you falsely believe the entire route will stay easy you will begin to slack or worse get over confident. I did neither of the two but I had no idea what was coming. Nothing could prepare me for what was in store until I saw the mighty mountain up close with my own eyes.
Also the fact that you scale almost 4000 ft and get back to basecamp on the day of the summit makes it a long and exhausting summit day.
Elevation - 6153 Meters or 20187 ft
Starting Point - Stok Village ( 15 km south-west from Leh)
Getting There - Cab from Leh City
Season Time - June-August
Level of Difficulty - Hard
Deva, Ishan and me decided to do Stok Kangri earlier in August 2017. Ishan runs his own trekking company in Bangalore and I have worked part-time for him, taking small groups of people on weekend treks around Bangalore. I met Deva on one of those weekend treks. He happened to be part of the group I was taking to Gokarna. All of us had just one thing in common - We love the mountains.
Deva and me were pretty inexperienced but Ishan has done a Basic Mountaineering Course and is a runner. In my mind he was the fittest and most likely to make it to the top. But my mind doesn’t know shit, so continue reading to know what happened.
The beautiful beginning
We had an absolutely smooth ascend up to the basecamp. We ate and slept like babies with a belly full of piping hot dal rice and tired from all the day’s walking. We spent the night at the second campsite called Mankorma which is at 14,200ft. I remember feeling sheer excitement. The altitude was already higher than I had ever been before. Ishan, Deva and me shared the tent and that marked the beginning of the most hilarious moments we would have on this trek! I was trying to record snippets of the entire journey every night before going to bed. I had to be wise with my battery and storage since this was only the beginning. The boys ensured they were part of every video recording weather I liked it or not.
Arrival at Basecamp
The next morning we made our way to the basecamp at 16,500ft. When you are in the mountains you are responsible for your own entertainment. There is no relying on 9gag, twitter or instagram because there is no network. Ishan was a big help here. By now he had come up with our Trek Motto
“ Susu karte raho, paani peete raho aur chalte jao” meaning keep drinking water, keep peeing and keep walking!
All of three of us had read up way too much on AMS (acute mountain sickness), Acclimatization and the importance of drinking a truckload of water. It is said that water helps regulate the functioning of your body organs and is good for you especially as you climb higher. We kept reminding each other to drink water and checking for any irregularities. My head hurt when I reached the basecamp. I was kind of relieved that Ishan’s head was hurting too. Deva was too busy chasing mormons and capturing goats in his DSLR to worry about his head. We ate lunch and rested for a while.
Our guide Montu Singh was a lanky Haryanvi who seemed like he knew his stuff. He began showing us how to put on snow boots, use the axe and fix crampons below the boot. He also threw general instructions about timings and said we would start climbing at 10 pm if the weather cleared up. We then took a walk 200 m upwards.
At this point my head was throbbing so I wasn’t talking too much. To be honest I was scared and worried about not be able to do this. It was quiet at dinner, even though the tent was full of trekkers. Most people were confused about attempting to trek that night due to bad weather conditions. We went back to our tents and fell asleep.
At 11: 20 Montu came to wake us up and tell us the weather was looking good and we should get ready. I started layering up. I had no idea how much to wear so I wore 2 thin t-shirts, my fleece and down jacket on top and warm leggings under my trek pants. This was mistake number 1, as I was sweating by the time I covered the first 100m. If you wear too many layers you sweat and remain cold inside. We must have started climbing at midnight aiming to be back to base by 10:00 am or so.
Moment of truth
I was getting tired way too quickly. I felt it in my breathing and had no idea why. Ishan and Deva were panting too but they were walking faster than me. At one point I thought I am slowing them down so I increased my pace. This was mistake number 2. One must never ever race up a mountain. You end up tiring yourself, with no energy left to summit. The pace you choose should be consistent and steady. So now I was walking as fast as I could but the incline was increasing. The snow was soft. Hard, tight snow makes walking much easier as your crampons dig in and grip the ground making you walk effortlessly.
A little after the glacier not too far into the trek I was struggling to keep up. With every step I took my foot kept going knee deep into the snow and I had to use all my energy to take it out every single time. This was bad news. On seeing me struggle Montu the guide had already decided I won’t be going further. I paused to pee and heard him shout out “ Vidhi aap aage mat aaye” means don’t come further. To my surprise I felt glad. I was so tired that I didn’t even protest. Deva was in the same state as me and was asked if he wanted to turn around but he firmly said no. He said he would go slow but he won’t stop.
“It’s hard to wake up from a nightmare if you aren’t even asleep”
The boys and Montu kept moving ahead, while I turned around at around 2:30 am with another assistant guide who was climbing Stok for the first time. As soon as I started to go down I puked. My stomach felt sick, head hurt and I had to sit down. The guide assured me I would be alright but I didn’t believe him. I had a sip of water and kept going. I had to stop again to puke. I did this 7 times. I was so exhausted with all the puking that I refused to get up after the 7th time. He assured me if I don’t I’d probably just stay there because help was too far away. And so I had to get up and walk. Once I started walking I didn’t stop. All I wanted was to get to my sleeping bag inside my tent and so I kept going.
I reached my tent at 5:45 am and crashed for 5 hours straight without even taking my shoes off. My legs dangled outside my tent while I peacefully slept to recover.
End of attempt #1
So after the first failure I packed my bags to go home. The only person who summited among the three of us during that first attempt was Deva. Ishan said he was hallucinating and too tired to go on once he reached the shoulder and turned around. Deva walked like a tortoise consistently and came back down with blood red eyes. He needed to be sent to a lower campsite. They had both gone down that very day. I stayed.
The most important twist in my story - Col. SS Shekhawat
I stayed because earlier that day I met an army officer in the kitchen tent who was eating dal rice and looking at a weather device rather weirdly. Being the chatterbox I am, I casually asked him “ Have you got any experience with high altitude treks?” He said “ A little” & went on to get more dal. I thought to myself “weirdo”. A very attractive woman sitting next to him who I later found out was the wife of a couple he was taking up the mountain said to me “ He doesn’t like talking about it but you should know that he has summited Mt. Everest 3 times and led various dangerous missions for the Indian Army. Also he is the most decorated officer in the history of the Indian Army”. At that moment I had no intention of climbing Stok, infact I thought I should jump off it due to embarassment. Basically my goal was to stay away from him so that I don’t ask him any more stupid questions. But 5 minutes later he called for me. I went outside the tent and he asked me if I was the girl who got sick that morning. I told him what had happened. He said if you aren’t hurt, tired or sick you are ready! He convinced me that AMS occurs only if you are not acclimatized with the altitude and that if I had no injuries and felt alright I should try to climb again.
It took me 10 seconds to agree. That night I tried again. This time I was more prepared. I went through the whole drill of drinking water, resting, sleeping, wearing crampons and even layered correctly. I had a good feeling about this. I had convinced a kitchen staff member- Dava Sir (Sir because he is also an HMI instructor) to take me since my guide had left. It was an uneventful beginning. I went slow, took breaks, nibbled on chocolate and kept going. It was 3:00 am when I stopped. I didn’t move for 10 minutes. Dava sir asked me if I was alright. I didn’t answer him. He asked again “ Do you want to go back?” I immediately said yes. He asked again. He said we were just below the shoulder and very close. I said I won’t allow him to drag me up or worse carry me down. I knew I was done. I knew.
I felt exhausted. I didn’t think of anything else at the time and started to walk back. As daylight broke and I realized that I failed in my second attempt I began to feel slightly hopeless. But it wasn’t until I heard the disappointment in the voices of others that I felt guilty. Col. Shekhawat, said it’s okay, maybe I would do it next year. The cook said, doesn’t matter. Fellow climbers said it happens. Everyone was being nice while not being nice. I told myself to go home.
The following day I met Deva at the second campsite where I stopped for tea. He saw me and congratulated me thinking I obviously would have made it the second time around. I felt so bad. He then offered to come with me next year to do this again. I told him angrily I don’t want to come back next year. He said if I do it a third time now he will accompany me. I froze. A third goddamn time. I was crazy. I had to be. I mean who even considers that. And just like that we were on our way up again!
Same routine, same preparations, same schedule. Everybody at the base camp was shocked to see me. By now they all knew me as the girl who wouldn’t go home. Once again they welcomed me and my not-so-dead-spirit. I told everybody if it didn’t happen this time I would go home.
The Persistent Fool
What I couldn’t explain to anybody is why I was trying again. I promise it wasn’t a fight I had to win. I wasn’t going to conquer the mountain. I came to trek up Stok Kangri and yes I failed twice but the reasons were just not good enough.
“I did not have a satisfactory reason to give up”
I had AMS during my first attempt, and in my the second time I just got tired. In none of those attempts had I put myself or my team in danger, or been party to an injury. I felt fine. And I had time until my flight back to Bangalore. To me it was the most logical thing to do. And so I did.
We began my last and final attempt at 10pm that night - Deva, Santosh (another guide I found on the way) and me. This time I had no feeling because I realized feelings are wrong. All I wanted was to reach the top. To see what everyone saw and to feel the wind hit my face. We walked, talked, stopped and walked again. It was a slow and mundane walk. This time when we got to the shoulder I just wouldn’t talk because I was too scared to hear the words “let’s go back” come out from my mouth. This is not the smartest thing to do because I was beginning to worry Santosh and Deva. So at some point I just spat out “ Don’t keep asking if I’m fine! Just keep going”.
It was time for the final push to the The Top Of The World. We left our bags on the ridge and roped ourselves. This is the scariest part of Stok Kangri not because the ridge is too thin but because of how many inexperienced climbers like myself attempt this trek year after year. So many of us on an exposed ridge at 20,000 ft can be disastrous if things go wrong. Once again this trek is not technical and no one needs to be a mountaineer to do this. But one has to keep in mind Stok Kangri is at a high altitude and there is always the risk of unforeseeable circumstances.
The brand new me
Once I was roped up I found a new burst of energy. Deva & Santosh will vouch for how I raced up till the end to the tip. I was the happiest I have ever been. The view blew my mind away and I did a little dance up there to entertain Deva and Santosh. They obviously thought I have gone mad. I had no intention of leaving. It was beautiful and overwhelming. I stood there looking at everything. Just looking.
I don’t know if trying it three times was right or not but it was necessary. My journey to India’s highest trekkable mountain is an unforgettable story which I will cherish for a lifetime.
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