Having trekked in the Sahayadris for over a year now, Bhavini, my wife, and I had heard many stories of trekking in the Himalayas. The majestic mountain range had been a place of wonder for many years and we always wanted to explore the stunning vistas that Himalayan treks had to offer. Now seemed to be the right time, and so we set off in search of the “Perfect first Himalayan Trek”. This turned out to be more difficult than we imagined. The Indian Himalayan region spans across multiple states viz. Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal. Each state has its own set of publicized treks and local gems that we wished to explore, however, we could choose just one due to the constraint of time and budget. Moreover, there are many trekking companies who organize treks in the Himalayas and choosing the right one involved doing detailed trip reviews and cost analysis, even though not much information was available especially for the local trek operators. How we resolved the problem of choice is detailed in this post. In the end, though we zeroed in on Stok Kangri Trek with YHAI – Youth Hostel Association of India.
Stok Kangri, at a height of 20182 ft. (6153 m) is the highest mountain in the Stok Range of the Himalayas in the Ladakh region. The peak summit was on my radar for quite some time as it offers a non-technical foray into high-altitude mountaineering, and it is the first peak above 20000 ft. that every mountaineer looks to conquer. However, the difficulty level of the summit climb is highly underestimated. We too would have made the same error had we decided to summit, but the YHAI arranged trek was only until the Base camp of the Peak. This, in hindsight, turned out to be good. I always thought how difficult could it be to climb mountains, after all, it just takes putting one step ahead of the other. I was wrong, it is indeed difficult. This is due to the rarefied air in the atmosphere, that makes breathing difficult. Even a nominal gradient while ascending seems to be a task, and I found myself having constant headaches whose severity only kept increasing with the increase in stress. In addition, you get hit by other symptoms of AMS ( Acute Mountain Sickness ) viz. fatigue, dizziness, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping ( thankfully, I never had a problem sleeping ), which makes the mountaineer’s job tremendously difficult at high altitudes.
Day 1: Arriving in Leh & Reporting to YHAI Base Camp
We decided to fly into Leh, as opposed to traveling by road from Srinagar or Manali. This was primarily due to time constraints. In addition, someday I wish to do the entire road trip from Manali to Leh to Srinagar, on a bike – preferably a Bullet. So flying in seemed logical. Also, we had heard that the views of the snow capped peaks, from the flight, were exceptional, and we were not disappointed, they genuinely were. Pro-tip: To get the best photos on the flight to Leh from Delhi of the snow-capped peaks, try booking a seat on the A-side of the plane. This gives the best views, without the morning sun becoming a hindrance.
On landing in Leh, we were greeted with announcements warning passengers about the symptoms of high altitude sickness. That is a good initiative considering that Leh itself is at 11500 ft. and traveling from Delhi, you are instantly hit by the high altitude as you step out of the plane. I felt a bit lightheaded, and my heart seemed to beat a bit faster but in general it was a non-issue. However, that was not the case for everyone, In fact, we did not see any smiling faces feeling excited about being in a new destination. Everyone seemed a tad bit low on energy. The bags arrived quickly, and slowly we proceeded towards the Prepaid taxi booth. On learning the fare, from the airport to the YHAI Base Camp, in Skara, my heart skipped a beat. It was expensive. This is due to the taxi union fixing rates, rather than having a fixed meter. Anyways, soon we reached the YHAI Base Camp, our home for the next three days in Leh until we proceeded to the higher base camps.
Travelling with YHAI on adventure programs deserves a separate post. It is a government organization, with a Mission statement:
“Our mission is to enable and promote travel, tourism, adventure spirit, national integration and Education & Health by providing hostels of good standards to millions of youth of limited means during their travel at affordable rates on a sustainable basis and by organizing adventure and educational events and to develop understanding among youth about social and development issues”
YHAI does stand well on this Mission statement. It provides hostels all over India at affordable rates and its adventure and trekking expeditions are at half the market price. Moreover, since they are a government agency, they get permission to operate programs in locations where other commercial companies cannot go. Our Stok Kangri Basecamp expedition of 9 days, cost Rs. 7350/- that was half the cost of local trekking companies who offered to do the Stok Kangri trek and summit. The flip-side to traveling with YHAI is that it is truly bare-bones. We enjoy traveling this way, but if you are a luxury traveler, then you might want to be aware of this tiny detail.
Reporting to the Base camp, Bhavini and I were given admit cards. We were assigned different tents – I was in tent #8 directly under the sun, making the afternoon heat unbearable while she was in tent #2, that was shaded beneath a tree. Lunch was simple and nutritious hot meal, which was served on plates, bowls and spoons that we were required to get from home. At the end of every meal, you wash the dishes and put them back in the backpack. The bathrooms and toilets at the Basecamp were clean, however, there wasn’t any hot water at the camp. After lunch, we decided to go to the Leh market and do some local sightseeing in Leh. We ended up walking quite a bit, and in the bargain got some wonderful pictures of the City from small temples and monasteries that stand on top of hills.
Day 2: Acclimatization Walk to Shanti Stupa & exploring the Leh Palace
The day began at 5:30 am with morning calls to wake-up. Grudgingly, I got out of my sleeping bag at 6 am, and headed out of the tent to check for Bhavini. She was already sitting outside sipping on her glass of tea, I went to the washroom to finish the morning rituals. After having tea, we decided to go out for a morning walk/run. The morning sun, beautiful views of Ladakh, and seeing the military people on their morning run got my adrenaline running, and I managed a decent 5Km run in high altitude all the way to the Hall of Fame – A museum constructed & maintained by the Indian army in memory of the soldiers who lost their lives in the Indo-Pak wars. After breakfast, we were to go to Shanti Stupa as part of our Acclimatization walk. We were required to carry our backpacks with our blankets to make a weight of around 3Kg. The idea was to train your body to climb up with weight, as we would have to carry our own backpacks during the trek. We assembled at 9 am in the morning, and the walk to Shanti Stupa commenced.
Shanti Stupa at a height of 11841 ft., stands on a hill in Changspa overlooking the city of Leh. It is one of the top tourist attractions as it provides awesome panoramic views of the city and its surroundings. From the top, one is able to see the Stok range and Stok Kangri peak to the right, the Indus river to the center, and Khardungla pass – the highest motorable road in the world, to the left. We climbed up the steps of the Shanti Stupa. It has over 500 steps, and in Pune or Mumbai, climbing up these many stairs would have been easy, however in Leh, the rarefied air made it difficult to breathe and get oxygen in the lungs. The result we stopped every few steps panting for air. On the positive side, the stops provided a good opportunity to take photos of the Leh City. Once up, we visited the meditation hall and the two levels of the Stupa which were covered with reliefs depicting the life of Budha. Later we had a formal introduction session of all the 29 people in the group and then proceeded downwards via the road trail towards the base camp for lunch.
We had the afternoon free, so we visited the Leh Palace. Considering the exorbitant prices that the taxi drivers charged in Leh, we were left with little option but to walk all the way up to the Palace. The only constraint was the time as we had to reach back to the Base camp by 6 in the evening. Time was of the essence, and we had a 4-5 Km hike, which was to be followed by a steep ascent on steps that took us all the way to the Palace entrance.
Leh palace is a nine-storeyed dun-colored structure. It is a dominant architecture icon that is modeled loosely on the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The dark and narrow walls of the palace enclose few exhibition rooms and a prayer hall. However, the best parts of the palace are the open terrace at higher levels that provide terrific views of the city. We had already seen the views earlier in the day from Shanti Stupa, but taking a few more photos didn’t hurt. Since time was at a premium, we soon made our way down, and took a taxi to the basecamp, instead of walking all the way back there.
Day 2: Acclimatization Walk on a hill:
The second day started off similarly to the first day. We woke up, went for a walk this time towards Skara Market, and then had our breakfast.
Today’s acclimatization walk was on a nearby hill. There was a tiny monastery in between the hill, but the plan was to go all the way to the top. Unlike yesterday, there were no stairs nor were there any trails. We were trekking on the rocks to climb up the mountain in a style we were quite familiar with due to extensive trekking in the Sahayadris. Moreover, our Action trekking shoes, as they provide good grip, were perfectly suited for a trek like this on moving gravel and rocks. The thin air did make trekking in this terrain more difficult than the Sahayadris. Nonetheless, we were on the top in less than 2 hours. And once there, the views were fantastic. On one side stood the airfield, and sandy hills while on the other stood the mighty Stok Kangri. The third side was taken over by the Leh city and its surroundings. We could see Shanti Stupa at a distance, distinctly below us and that gave an idea of the height we had climbed. Its peak was a tiny place, with just sufficient space to hold all 29 of us. We spent a considerable time up there clicking photos, singing songs and making Litchee squash. The climb down was trickier due to the moving gravel. Many people slipped, but not us as we had the mighty Action trekking shoes. Once down, we proceeded back to the camp for Lunch.
Today afternoon, we had little time to spare. We needed to prepare our bags and get ready to proceed towards the higher base camp tomorrow morning. The excess luggage had to be deposited today itself and everyone was busy sorting their bags. The organizers clearly called out to not to pack a bag that weighed over 3-4 Kgs, as it would be very difficult to carry the weight and walk. We tried to reduce it to the bare minimum, however, the woolens and thermals had weight and our bags were quite heavy. Truth be told, I could have avoided an extra pair of clothes as there was not a chance of taking bath upstairs, plus few more items. But I didn’t. My final bag, still weighed around 8-9 Kgs, with water and food but I, in my bravado figured that we would manage just fine.
In the evening we went to the Gesmo Coffee-shop near the Leh market. I was craving real coffee, and Bhavini wanted to eat anything made with Yak cheese. I also needed wifi to connect back to family and facebook. Gesmo cafe had a nice ambiance, and the Coffee was really good. The same could not be said about the Yak cheese sandwich, but post that we ordered a regular grilled vegetable sandwich and that turned out to be decent. With our appetites satiated, we headed back to the camp for dinner 😉 .
Day 3: Stok Village to Changma Camp [ 13222 ft. ]
Today was the D-Day, the trek was finally going to start. We skipped the morning walk, as knew we had a tough day ahead. Our backpacks were already packed from the previous day, so we did not have much to do. We watched as the kitchen crew loaded the tents, sleeping bags and LPG Cylinders and groceries into the jeep. It was loaded with all the vital essentials that would be required by us for the next 5 days on the trek. The jeep would drive up to Stok village, and from there all the items would be transported on horses to the base camps. They would move with us, albeit more swiftly. After breakfast, at 8:30 am we got a happy reception and a flag-off from YHAI Basecamp. We headed first to the Stok village by bus, from where the trek was to start. It was a 45-50 minute drive to the Stok village, and along the way we cross the Indus and a huge Buddha statue. We were lapping up the views and waiting in intense anticipation with what lay ahead of us.
After breakfast, at 8:30 am we got a happy reception and a flag-off from YHAI Basecamp. We headed first to the Stok village by bus, from where the trek was to start. It was a 45-50 minute drive to the Stok village, and along the way, we crossed the Indus river and a huge Buddha statue. We lapped up the views and waited in intense anticipation with what lay ahead of us.
We reached the village and alighted the bus. A tiny board clearly indicated the start of the Stok Kangri trek. We followed our trek guide Tashi. In the first few steps, I knew that walking with such a heavy bag, will not be easy but now I had no option. The trail starts along a stream. Behind us was the Leh city, while in front of us, all we saw were huge mountains. Stok Kangri was nowhere visible from where we stood. Initially, I thought the tiny stream would be the Indus, but I was soon corrected. It was just one of the many streams that flow from the glaciers. We were to cross many of them during the course of the trek. This was good, as it meant that we would not require too much water to be carried along with us. We could always fill up our empty bottles from the adjoining streams. However, drinking water from these glacial streams was a challenge as the water was ice cold. Pro-Tip: One should not drink the water from the glacial streams directly, as it would cause a cough and throat aches. Instead, keep the water in your mouth for sufficient time, until it is warm enough to gulp it down the throat. This is difficult at first, but once you get a hang of it, its fun.
On the trail, we saw an ominous looking board, “If you can cross the river, you don’t need to climb the pass”. I had no clue what that meant. The stream was still quite small, and one could cross it quite easily. Yet, our guide – Tashi, did not seem interested in crossing it. Soon, we saw a might hill and a steep ascend to pass through it. While I struggled to make my way to the top of the hill, I could see people crossing the river and walking along the river bed. Why we crossed the pass instead of the stream I am not quite sure. However, from the top, we got some amazing photos and that was my takeaway. Good photos is a result of great effort. On the trek, it was the promise of some awesome photos, that helped me carry through many steep climbs.
Slowly, the landscape changed. The hills turned into tall mountains. The stream still flowed along our side, however, the rocks were now serrated, and sharp instead of blunt Sedimentary rocks that we see in Sahayadris, and lower Himalayas. These, I believe, are the forearc rocks that are a peculiarity of the Ladakh region.
Finally, we saw a rock, that proclaimed Changma. We had arrived, at our destination, and soon we saw our camp. The tents were already pitched and the kitchen crew was working on preparing the dinner. We had been handed packed lunch at the base camp, which we slowly devoured at the Changma camp.
Bhavini and I spent the afternoon, walking and sitting on the slopes contemplating the events of the day. Both of us were tired, and she had a mild headache due to the altitude. In general, though, we were doing good and raring to go further. I wanted to climb on top of the hills, but Bhavini stopped me. The altitude would have meant I would be panting all the way up, so it was not a bad decision. Soon, there was the call for Soup at 4:30 pm, followed by tea at 5:30 pm and lunch by 6:30 – 7 pm before it got fully dark.
The nights fell soon thereafter, and we all sat around talking and telling ghost stories. The sky filled up with more stars than I had ever seen. I could spot a lot of falling stars, and if one had the courage to get up in the middle of the night post 2 am in the cold, then one could spot milky ways and what not in the sky. I never managed to get up and get out of the tent in the freezing cold, and thus was never able to spot them. This would be my biggest regret of the trip.
Day 4: Changma [13222 ft.] to Manakarmo [14698 ft.]:
The second day of the trek required us to gain serious height, even though the distance was not much. We started around 9 am from our Changma camp. Tashi decided to go along the river this time, instead of crossing the hill. As per him, even though the walk was longer, it was more enjoyable and we were simply happy to not to have to climb another hill.
He was right, the walk along the river was indeed breathtaking. The clear blue skies and the pointed forearc rocks gave the feeling that one could easily be on the sets of Game of Thrones. However, there was a price to pay for these beautiful views. Some of the streams were flowing heavily, and this meant getting our shoes wet. At one point, my entire leg got submerged while crossing the rocks, and I had wet shoes and socks all the way from there-on. The cold air also started biting In through my shirt, and I had to get my jacket out. Moreover, the altitude really started messing up with my head, and soon I had a headache that seemed as if it would split my forehead into two. The remaining trek, I walked along in a daze, smelling camphor hoping that the camp would come soon. But it did not arrive.
Finally, at around 1 we stopped for lunch near a rock that proclaimed, “Imagination is greater than detail”. It is in the most unlikely of places that we receive bursts of inspiration and I held on to this quote, especially since when all I could focus was on the splitting headache and the wet shoes, instead of the image in front of my eyes that comprised of so many other tiny details that it would be impossible to comprehend all of them to get a grasp on reality reality.
After lunch, we turned a corner, and there stood another rock with “Manakarmo” written on it. Our hopes raised up, as the base camp should now we be near. However, yet again the base camp did not come until quite some time. Finally, we reached the base camp around 2:30 in the afternoon. The mighty Stok Kangri peak stood in the background, and I was happy to dump my backpack in the tent, and go to sleep. Of course, sleep was not advisable, as it worsens the altitude sickness instead of making it better. So soon, Bhavini made me get up and we sat there, shivering, watching the stream and waiting for the soup and the tea to be served by the kitchen staff.
Day 5: Mankarmo [14698 ft.] to Stok Kangri Basecamp [16338 ft.]:
Even though the night was cold, I slept deeply. My headache subsided in the morning, and I was in a great mood. Bhavini, though, had trouble sleeping in the night, and she was cold and listless in the morning. Breakfast was served early, but I had no appetite to gulp down the food. Bhavini did make me eat quite a bit though as we had a long walk ahead of us. Today, we had scheduled our tryst with the mighty Stok Kangri, and the entire trek to the Base camp and back would be 9 Kms – The longest that we had trekked until now. Since we returned back to Mankarmo in the evening, we didn’t need to carry our heavy backpacks. I simply stuffed biscuits and electral salts in the camera bag and grabbed a bottle of water.
At 8 am we started our trek. Soon we were greeted with our first ice patch. It was a tiny patch, but we got decent photos. Some guys played around for a while, and then we moved ahead slowly. Bhavini, and I formed the bottom of the group. That was partly because we took many pictures on the way and partly because I was panting so heavily, that at one point I was literally counting 20 steps and then halting for 2 minutes before proceeding further. Slowly, but steadily we made progress. We spotted many Dzo’s, Ladakhi hybrid between a cow and a yak. They were grazing on the mountains and were so adorable that it was difficult to get our eyes off them. So, we halted and took pictures before proceeding to the Stok Kangri base camp. We reached up around 11 am and took a halt.
Tashi pointed out the Stok range and asked us to return back to the same the point by 2 pm when we would make our way down. Most of us decided, to stride ahead towards the advanced base camp. This was a steep ascend all the way to 17000 ft. on loose gravel. The Wind blew strongly in our direction. Going up was difficult, and we took a couple of breaks until we reached all the way up. But the view from the top was worth all the effort. Stok Kangri stood directly in front of us, and the dreams that we harbored all along were finally met. Up there we took a vow, that someday, we would climb up here again, not to stop at 17000 ft. but to go all the way up to summit the peak. It would be difficult, and standing there I could grasp the real effort and strength a mountaineer needs to summit mountains. Something that I could never fathom while viewing these peaks from the comfort of my home on Nat geo or on the Internet. We spent approximately 30 minutes up
We spent approximately 30 minutes up there until the strong wind forced us back down to the base-camp. At the base camp, there is a Mitra café, and we had Maggi noodles and omelet. I was tired but not starving as one tends to lose appetite at high altitudes. Nonetheless, the cosy environs of the Mitra café comforted us and we enjoyed our lazy lunch in there.
Finally, we started our journey down at 2 pm. The walk back down was faster and easier than the way up. Nonetheless, we took regular breaks and clicked many photos on the way. We reached Mankarmo basecamp at around 4pm. The soup was already waiting for us, and it was quickly followed by tea and dinner. I was very so tired that post dinner, I headed straight to the tent, where I was fast asleep by 8 pm.
Day 6: Mankarmo [ 14698 ft. ] to Ganpoche [14511 ft.] via Mathola pass [ 16210 ft.].:
The trek to Ganpoche passes through Matho pass which is at a height of 16210 ft. Then we start our descend to Ganpoche basecamp. Unlike yesterday, we would have to carry our heavy backpacks. And, we wouldn’t be going along a river stream. So we needed to carry sufficient water for the entire trek. We started off early at 8 am and made our way to Matho pass. Slowly, the Stok Kangri peak disappeared and so did the Stok range, until we were firmly in between the Matho range. Because of the steep ascend, I was panting, as usual, and again we were at the bottom end of the group.
At Ganpoche, we were promised vast green pastures that spread as wide as 20 football fields. For some reason, I could envision the green pastures in the Alps from the movie Dilwale Dulhani Le Jayenge. However, when we reached Ganpoche, the pastures were nothing like those found in the Alps. They were made of tiny grass and cacti. It was more brown than green. Nonetheless, at such a high altitude, we were happy to spot so much greenery along with a variety of tiny flowers. We stopped for lunch, just after crossing the Matho pass, and from there we arrived at the base camp by 3 pm. The base camp was closely surrounded by tall peaks, and as a result, the tents were not as cold as the ones in Mankarmo. Also, descending and coming down in altitude felt good. I no longer had a headache and finally, at the end of the trek, it seemed as if I had acclimatized to the altitude.
Day 7: Ganpoche [14511 ft.] to Matho Village [11286 ft.]:
The last day of our epic trek started early at sharp 7 am. We had plenty of streams to cross on the way. The force with which water flows in these stream increases as the day progresses. As a result, crossing the stream later in the day gets quite difficult. We were happy to start early, as we were all looking to get back down to regular creature comforts. Some people from our group also had a bus to catch later today to Srinagar, and hence everyone wanted to be down on time.
The trek started with a stroll along the green pastures. The Matho range stood on our right, with its snow-capped peaks. Again, we were behind the group, but this time, it was because I was busy taking photos, and not because I was panting. Slowly, we came across a herd of donkeys and horses near the Ganpoche village. From there, we proceeded towards a long walk that seemed to take us into the valley, and once down we were walking along the stream. From here, we had to cross multiple river streams at regular intervals. I counted at least 13 river crossings, Some rivulets were quite wide, with fast moving water and I got my shoes and socks fully wet on the way. However, we were descending, so the wet shoes did not bother me much. We collected lots of pebbles along the way, and in general, we passed through awesome landscapes that were unlike those that we had passed on the previous days.
The trek, though, was really long, and towards the end, it seemed never-ending. Moreover, we were hardly taking any stops on the way as Tashi was afraid that the water in the streams would overflow, making them difficult to cross. So we walked non-stop for over 5 hours when we finally stopped for lunch at 12 in the afternoon. After a short lunch break, we again continued and reached Matho village around 1:30 in the afternoon. There a bus was waiting to drop us back to the Skara base camp at Leh, bringing an end to our epic journey.