The Stok Kangri peak (6153m)… – a not well-known mountain although it’s the highest peak in the Stok range in the Himalayas. 6 years ago I started out on my Stok Kangri climb and what started as a casual climb ended as a near death experience. Walking down the memory lane of this difficult trek and climb revives my passion for trekking and climbing.
Walking Along the Valley – Reaching Chang Ma, Base Camp 1
Arriving by jeep from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, we got to a small village café in Stok (3497 m) where I met my Sherpa, a mountain guide who would accompany me for the next 4 days. Once we had loaded our mules with our bags, tents, food and other equipment, my journey started along the valley towards base camp one.
For the first half of the day, we followed a stream, walked pass a stupa-sized water tank and an abandoned fort. We saw plenty of wild life including blue sheep, wild ponies, marmots and pigeons. It was fascinating to see how they had adapted to the extreme weather and high altitude of the Himalayas.
We arrived at Chang Ma (3988m) base camp one in the late afternoon and quickly settled down by setting up a makeshift camp and kitchen tent. I heard the fascinating sound of a water stream running next to my tent. I walked a few yards by the side of the stream and laid down on a man-sized rock with my coolers on. I slept for a few minutes and felt the stream water splashing on me. The combination of heat from the sun and coldness of the water created a wonderful, blissful feeling.
When I woke up I saw additional tents set up in the camp. More people had arrived from Stok village as well as from base camp two. What started as a dot in the distance, over a period of time became a cavalry of people and ponies the closer they got to our camp. It was fascinating to observe. I also started to feel the thin air at high altitude. My appetite for food had dropped significantly since the start of our climb.
The Shortest but the Steepest Climb – Arriving at Mankorma, Base Camp 2
The second day was a short but steep climb to Mankorma (4320m), base camp two of the Stok Kangri trek. The lack of oxygen added to my tiredness and I had to put in more energy to climb the slopes. As my Sherpa grew up in the mountains he naturally had a larger lung capacity and was able to climb without much effort.
During our climb, climbers from base camp two were passing by after they had either successfully summited the Stok Kangri peak or returned without submitting. Everyone of them was saying that the ice was deeper than they had expected. It clearly set our expectations straight and made us mentally prepared for what we had to expect.
We also witnessed a wild chase between a mule and black sheep herd. We didn’t know what triggered it but it was an incredible high speed chase down the slopes.
After three hours of climbing, we arrived at the Stok Kangri base camp two. The view from here was amazing and climbers made an incredible effort to establish the camp in such a beautiful panoramic landscape. We set up our tents in high wind. The wind was howling but I could still hear the sound of the distant stream. Most of the tents in the camp were empty as the climbers had gone to the summit. Everyone who had descended from the Stok Kangri peak said it was bad up there. The ice was deeper than expected. The advanced based camp which was closer to the summit was shut down due to heavy snow. That’s why we had to summit from base camp two. It meant for us that we had to start climbing at midnight so that we could summit in the early morning before sunrise. If not, the sun would melt the ice and it would have been too difficult to descend in the deep, soft snow.
Into the Darkness – Starting to Summit Stok Kangri
I was unable to sleep that night as many things were haunting in my mind. Oxygen deprivation didn’t make it easier. Possibly, my nervous system was also slowing down and panicking. I packed my lightweight rucksack with a coat, two mid layers, my balaclava, sunglasses, a water bottle, first aid kit, camera, gloves and spare socks.
Around midnight, we left base camp two in the dark to summit Stok Kangri peak. The first hour was a steep climb which consumed most of my stored energy and I was constantly grasping for oxygen. The terrain on top of the hill was dry and loose and I had to climb cautiously, focusing my head torch on the path in front of me. I couldn’t see anything beyond the scope of my torch-light and it was pitch-dark around me. Not even the light from the night sky could help us.
After some time we reached a flat surface and hit the snow line after a few yards. On the slope, I was cautious about using my ice axe as I didn’t want to create an avalanche. The path narrowed down to a single file. I could feel that it was a ridge but I still didn’t have any visibility on either side. The ridge was slippery. I knew that if I fell it would have been lethal. But for unknown reasons this thought didn’t bother me at all.
After a few hours of walking, we came to a steady, gradual climb on a vast area of snow. My guess was that we reached a glacier which my guide confirmed. It meant we had to watch out for glacier crevasses. We were prepared with ropes, harnesses and fasteners in case anything would happen.
The only question was my energy level at that time. The climb became strenuous while my energy level went down. I was mentally strong to reach the summit at any cost unless the weather would turn bad. I suffered from slight altitude sickness but over a period of time it started to fade away. The Sherpa kept asking me whether I had a vomiting sensation, head ache or giddiness. I was truly aware that if this happened the climb would have been abandoned.
Beyond Tiredness – Finally Reaching the Stok Kangri Peak
We started to use the path followed by previous climbers as it was tramped down by their footsteps and made our climb easier.
It was around 5am which usually was my peak sleeping hour. My body was naturally shutting down and I could feel it. The only way I could keep myself awake was to climb without resting or thinking.
Around 6am, the sun started to rise and we were able to see the summit of Stok Kangri. It looked close enough and my rough estimation was 20 minutes or at most an hour before we would reach it. We had our crampons on and connected each other with ropes through harness. We switched to Alpine climbing for the rest of the trek. It was a vertical climb and even the Sherpa didn’t anticipated such steepness and deep ice. It was one of the worst years for Stok Kangri climbers due to the heavy ice.
At that moment, my physical strength was close to zero but my mental strength was still strong. It was more like conquering your mind than summiting the peak. What looked like a 20-minute climb took 3 hours. I gasped for oxygen, I was tired, sleep deprived and had little food due to my loss of appetite. Strangely, giving up never occurred to me even once during that tenuous three hour climb in extreme icy conditions. Everything was falling apart around me. My brain was slowing down and my nervous system was an absolute wreck due to the lack of oxygen. My arms were shivering so badly that I had difficulties to set my ice axe. I kept slipping every now and then but managed to hold and climb.
Finally, we summited at 8am in the morning (6153m). The sun was fully out. The view of the clouds flowing through the mountain peaks of the Stok range was breathtaking and seeing it from the peak of the tallest mountain in the range was spectacular.
Steep Down into the Abyss – Leaving the Summit of Stok Kangri Peak
After a 20 minutes stay at the Stok Kangri peak, we started to descend. The descent was not bad as the ice was still hard. We were able to see the panoramic view of the landscape and the glacier on which we walked earlier in the dark. I was able to see the ridge on which we walked during the ascent. A slip or fall would have meant a certain death. Also the chance of triggering the avalanche was high. Descending was faster though tiredness almost killed us. I stopped counting how many time I fell during the descent. On the top of the final hill before camp 2, we took a break, put down our climbing tools and slept facing the sun with sunglasses on. Bizarre enough I slept like a baby. After all, it was a 13-hour strenuous endeavour since we left at midnight.
Stok Kangri – Death in Chang Ma, Base Camp 1
The following day we started our final descent back to Stok village. The estimated time to reach Stok village was 4pm if we started at 9am. That was when I heard the news of a German climber who died in base camp one due to altitude sickness just a few hours earlier. He was young, just 26, and came along with three other climbers. It looked like he misjudged the altitude sickness and possibly made a quick ascent without getting his body used to the high altitude. Altitude sickness has nothing to do with the strength of one’s body and everyone reacts differently to high altitude. High altitude can impact the performance of lungs and the heart due to the thin air. So they need time to adjust to the altitude. Unfortunately, most people die when they are asleep. (You can read more about altitude sickness and its symptoms, treatment and medication here.)
The Last Leg – Returning from My Stok Kangri Climb
We continued to descend and reached Chang Ma base camp quicker than expected. There was a poignant silent atmosphere at the camp site. I looked at the tent where the dead body was kept. I realised heavy-hearted for the first time that mountains can kill. On the way down to Stok Village, we walked pass a group of police officers heading towards base camp one to fetch the body to Leh.
After that the descent was smooth, the thin air was vanishing and I was able to breathe more generously. We reached Stok at 4pm as planned and a pickup vehicle waited for us to take us back to Leh. We shared our stories with fellow climbers at the café at Stok Village before signing the log book that we had returned safely from our Stok Kangri climb.