It’s cold, it’s freezing. It’s pitch dark. Only the white of the snow leads the way in the darkness. Up. Always up. I can’t feel my fingers anymore. But more so my breath is racing. I am resting my head on my pole waiting for another yawn. I am yawning by the minute now, I guess a sign off how exhausted I am. And I feel nauseous. There is a voice in my head that keeps talking to me. In German. It’s swearing a lot. Primarily at the mountain. This mountain that seems to be a straight vertical covered by 6 feet of powder snow and that has been playing with me for the past 3 hrs. While I rest, I feel a little pull upwards. It’s my guide Vishwas to whom I am connected by rope. I guess it’s meant to be a pull of encouragement but at this stage I just think ‘Whatever. Pull as much as you want, I am not moving anymore.’ and the German voice continues swearing at the mountain…..I don’t want to do this anymore. ‘Martina, what’s your problem girl?’, Vishwas calls. His voice is kind. ‘My problem? Let’s see……’ but I am too exhausted to talk. How did I get here again? More than ¾ up but yet so far from the peak.
I have been trekking in Ladakh for the past 3 weeks. Initially I signed up for a 12 day guided trek through the Markha and Stok Valley. I was keen on experiencing something different. Hiking and camping in the Himalayas, far from civilization, at altitudes 4000m+ in a roughed, arid landscape walking 7-9 hrs daily seemed like an achievable challenge – just enough of a stretch to test my limits given I barely had time to prepare for this trek. Once on the road I really enjoyed myself. Jumping rivers, descending valleys shimmering in green and purple, ascending arid mountain passes and hiking along river beds feeling tiny and insignificant compared to the Giants rising all around me. At some stage when we were admiring the snow covered peak of Stok Kangri, Vishwas said ‘You can climb it. You are fit enough.’. ‘Nooooooo. I could never do that.’, was he mad?! But the seed was planted and over the next 10 days I started toying with the idea and came to the conclusion: ‘Why not. Let’s try!’. And a few days later we, Vishwas and I, found ourselves leaving Leh with all gear strapped to our backs …which for me was a challenge in itself, carrying a 15kg backpack all the way to base camp at 4900m. The Stok Valley was familiar territory which helped me mentally to manage my strength levels on the 7hr ascend to base camp. But regardless, the last hour was tough. When finally the blue tents of base camp appeared in the fog, it felt like a Fata Morgana – and endless joy!! I was so proud of myself having made it all the way up. We went
for tea in the Mitra – the main tent – and I was ready to fall asleep right there although it was mid afternoon. There were quite a lot of climbers at Base Camp. Due to bad weather – it had been snowing for 2 days straight – no one had been able to summit, so everyone was waiting for the clouds to clear. And luckily that afternoon the sun peaked out for the first time in days. Our plan was to stay a night and start the summit hike in the second night. At 11.30pm to be precise when the snow is still hard making a climb ‘easier’ before the snow would get softer after day break.
Vishwas got me snow shoes and crampons to be better equipped for the conditions on the mountain. Snow shoes are like ski boots. Big white boots with a hard outer and a soft inner shoe. They felt heavy and super uncomfortable. Add the weight of the crampons
and I seriously wondered how I can possibly climb a mountain with all that extra weight on my feet. I did a circle around camp to become ‘comfortable’ but all it did was made me worry that those stupid boots would give me blisters, slow me down and eat up my energy. But…there was no negotiating and I had learned in the weeks trekking with Vishwas that I just had to trust his judgement. Great! (rolling eyes). The closer we got to summit night, the more anxious I became. Will I last? Will I have enough stamina? Is it ok to give up? As if Vishwas read my mind, he sat me down to give me a brief of the mountain. Six stages to the climb. Stage 5 being the toughest. Ok…. ‘And no matter what happens, please don’t give up because you are cold or nauseas or tired or have a headache. Everyone has that. Just power through it. Only give up for something really serious.’ Hmmmm…in my mind feeling nauseas and having a major headache totally qualify for abandoning the climb, but I kept my mouth shut and wondered instead about what would be an acceptable serious reason…..a heart attack?
I totally failed to nap that afternoon but managed to get 2 hrs of sleep before the alarm went off at 10.20pm. Crawling out of my warm sleeping bag was tough, however, the adrenalin was already kicking in. Plus having gone to bed in full gear helped. I literally just needed to put on my beloved snow shoes. There were two more groups summiting that night. Some climbers that had decided to wait for one more night until their summit attempt, were still awake to join us for a last cup of tea, wish us well and see us off. It felt kind of nice. I was excited. Headlights on. Hiking pole. Off we went. We managed stage 1 – a climb to a first ridge above base camp – in decent time, although I felt less fit than in
the afternoon. Also stage 2 and 3 crossing steep snow slopes on a narrow path went well. The snow was fairly hard and we were about 2.5 hrs into our hike by then. The night had something meditative. Stepping through darkness, just following the headlight in front of me and listening to my breathing. Before I knew it we entered stage 4. The ascent hadn’t been too bad so far. I was walking well, I felt good. No signs of being tired.
While I managed perfectly fine to walk on snow, hitting stage 4 of the climb Vishwas started to sink in on almost every step. The huge backpack he was carrying with all the equipment certainly took its toll. I offered him my walking pole to distribute the weight differently and it helped a little. About 45min later he gave it back to me. ‘This is stage 5. You will need your pole.’ Mentally I tried to comprehend what was lying ahead. Stage 5. The Marathon stage. It could take anywhere from 3 to 4 hrs……only up. Like a vertical. We had a quick break, snacked on some energy bars to recharge. I didn’t want to rest for too long as I could feel the cold creeping in.
As we moved on, breaking into the snow got worse. Which just didnt make sense cause as we got higher, the snow should get harder. But Vishwas with the big backpack kept breaking in 1-2 feet with every step. I was amazed how he kept going, just watching him made me feel exhausted. I decided to concentrate on my own steps. Gently to not break the snow, I kept walking and was super grateful for my hiking pole that helped me push up. ‘Slow and Steady’ I kept telling myself, ‘slow and steady’. I still felt like I could do this, although seeing the headlights of the other 2 teams that were ahead of us in the far distance, I became aware of how steep this mountain really was. By now I had totally lost track of time. Had we been doing this for an hour? Or 20 min? And then, out of nowhere my hiking pole broke. I looked at it in disbelieve. These things can break??? WtF! My ‘slow and steady’ mantra went out the window as I barely made progress taking a step up the mountain. All of a sudden I found myself in Vishwas situation, breaking in knee deep and tumbling backwards instead of up. It dawned on me that things were going to get tough and this really was not a walk in the park. Not that I ever thought it was. But the fun had certainly been taken out. I was on my knees a lot and despite trying hard, the lack of movement – respectively crawling in the snow instead of walking – made me feel cold. I was exhausted. How long did we have to keep doing this? Another 2 hrs? I decided to wait for Vishwas to catch up. I was ready to go home. I felt like we had tried hard enough now and deserved a hot tea in a warm cabin. Lol. Of course there was no warm cabin anywhere. It was just us and the mountain. Damn.
Once Vishwas caught up, he gave me his pole (thank you! thank you!) and decided to move over onto the avalanche that had gone down on the slope next to us. The snow was much harder – thank god!- and the sinking in wasn’t as bad anymore. In fact, it felt like walking stairs at least for a little while until I was making one step up and two backwards again. I was fucking freezing. My body was shivering. I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. My hands were frozen stiff. I had totally missed investing into a decent pair of gloves. Something you just didnt think about when it’s a hot 25 C degree day in sunny Leh. I was well aware that I was entering my whinging phase….. ‘I am really cold. I can’t feel my fingers anymore’, I told Vishwas. ‘Move them’, he said and showed me some exercise. Moving them was bloody agony…I was convinced they were about to fall off anytime now (drama queen moment). ‘It’s not helping. They are still frozen. And they bloody hurt.’. ‘Fine’, he said, ‘you can have my gloves. We swap!’ Yay! Smiling on the inside (outside face was frozen). I put on Vishwas gloves. They were leather! And cold and wet. Really not too different from mine. For some reason I expected to get a pair of heated gloves (was that unrealistic?). ‘You’re gloves are cold and wet’, I said trying not to sound like I am complaining (but I think I was). ‘It’s just sweat.’, he answered. Whaaat??? Not exactly what I was looking for. But I kept my mouth shut. ’You will get warm when the sun comes up’. And what if I am dead by the time the sun comes up? (drama queen moment part 2)…but nothing came out of my mouth….
So here I am on this mountain. More than ¾ up. With my forehead resting on the pole. Waiting for the next yawn. While feeling nauseas. I am wearing my crampons.
The sun is finally coming out (it is 4.45am). Despite everything, I am trying to enjoy this moment. I am watching as the sun rays are slowly touching my mountain and turn everything into gold. It’s so pretty. So peaceful. I wish I would be taking pictures. But I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to take off a glove and fish for my camera. My photographic memory will have to suffice. Let Vishwas do all the shots.
With the sun being out, I can finally see the ridge we are aiming for. It doesn’t look far. Maybe another 100-200m ….it’s just like walking stairs. Really steep and slippery stairs. At least this is what I tell myself…I can do this….I will get on top of this mountain!
We reach the ridge at 6.25am. It feels like a major achievement. The view is amazing. I truly feel like on top of the world and only now I become aware of how many peaks are around us. So many that most of them don’t have names. We rest for a short time…not too long because I am shivering again…but somehow it’s more bearable when the sun is out and the view is terrific. Only another 300m in altitude to overcome. I can so do this! I am totally reenergized. The excitement is back. The smile is on my face….or at least I am smiling on the inside. Climbing along the ridge (stage 6) looks like a walk in the park compared to the nightmare of stage 5 – ok, maybe I am getting carried away. Vishwas reminds me to be careful because a wrong step can mean falling down on either side of the mountain. What that means I am able to visualize a few minutes later. In a moment of distraction I let go of my pole (Vishwas pole really) and before I know it, I watch it fall in disbelieve. There is no way I can retrieve it. I turn to Vishwas and he doesn’t say a word. But his look says it all. This was probably the dumbest thing I have done. I am wondering whether my chance of reaching summit has just rolled down the mountain. But luck is on my side. Shortly after we run into the first group of climbers that is already on the way down. Their mountain guide gives me one of his poles. Yay. I feel so much better, so much more confident. Like someone saved my life.
We reach summit at 8.15 am. Pure happiness. I did it. Vishwas looks as happy as I. I am searching for a summit cross or sign that I am standing on top of Stok Kangri. But there is nothing but prayer flags. And me knowing, I have done it!
Descending along the ridge is so much more fun. My feet do the work all alone. The scenery is amazing. The snow and the sunlight make everything look stunning. It’s peaceful. It’s quiet. It’s just me on top of a mountain and no one else for miles and miles.
Once we are back to stage 5, descending the murderous slope, I become aware that going down will neither be much faster nor much easier. It is 10am and the snow has become much softer. We literally sink in to our hips with every step. Pulling out on leg, moving it across the snow to sink in again to the waist is tiresome but my mood is still high. ‘Why didn’t we bring a sleigh? Vishwas, you should add this to the packing list for next time.’
Going down on a sleigh would be too much fun! Instead we attempt to slide down the mountain on our bums. It kind of works but not very well. The snow is too soft and too deep for us to pick up speed.
But ….as long as it is steep we are faster than when walking. Still it takes 1.5hrs to leave stage 5 behind us. At the end of it I am quite wet since I didn’t wear my waterproof pants. I am soaked through my trekking pants, my merino liners and my underwear. There is a puddle in my snow boots. But the sun is stinging so hard that I am not feeling the cold, it is hot. I am pulling out my sun hat and get rid of my down jacket. While stage 5 was still fun to descend, stage 4 and 3 turn into a real work out.
By now the terrain is much flater and there is no cheating by sliding down a slope. Step by step we sink into the snow, and step by step we need to pull our legs out again hoping that eventually the snow will get harder which is wishful thinking really. I am taking my fleece jacket off and I am grateful for all the snacks we packed because I need the extra energy. But we are still all smiles.
Maybe it’s the adrenalin of having reached the summit, maybe the beautiful landscape is compensating for the pain because if one thing is for sure, I am exhausted. In the distance we see the prayer flags that mark the beginning of stage 2. We both know that this is the start of rocky terrain. I can’t wait to get there.
I am over the snow. I just want the snow to go away. No more snow please!!! As much as I keep walking, the prayer flags don’t seem to come any closer. How is that possible. Poor Vishwas is still carrying the weight of the large backpack, he is far behind me by now…Eventually – after what felt like an eternity – we reach the end of stage 3. Yay for prayer flags! Now it should be easy. Maybe another hour…I fall and slide a lot in that hour. My legs are clearly tired but knowing how far we have come keeps me going. At 1pm we reach the ridge that is towering above base camp. Looking down at the tents in the sunshine next to the little stream surrounded by green grass is pure happiness all over again. It’s only now that ‘We did it’ really counts. We hug once more and take a final photograph before we start the last descent of the day.
Stok Kangri is the highest peak of the Stok range of the Himalayas in Ladakh. It is considered a challenging trek.
Key season is late June to September. While during June and July snow can be expected at the peak, having snow from 5000m is unusal. In fact, my guide who had climbed Stok Kangri many times, had never ever experienced it with so much snow.
A summit trek is usually 7-10 days if you need to acclimatise. Otherwise it can be done in 3-4 days via the ‘Stok Highway’.
If you are interested in trekking in the Himalayas I can highly recommend Vishwas Raj with expansive experience across the Indian and Nepali Himalaya. His company is called Adventure Sindbad. More info at http://www.adventuresindbad.com