This trip report was written by one of our trekkers Olive Kelly of her adventures on our Stok Kangri trek in August 2016.
I gave myself the weekend to think about it and make a decision. I always thought I would go to India for Yoga. Now I was thinking of going to climb a 6,153m mountain.
My natural habitat has always been by the sea and on a yoga mat. However, over the past few years, I’ve found myself ascending and descending hills in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I went to the Sierra Nevada and made it up Mulhacen (3,479m). I even scared the bejaysus out of myself and had a serious case of ‘jelly legs’ on the Via Ferrata.
Over the weekend I sat in a coffee shop with my friend, Malika. I told her “I’m thinking of going to India to climb a really, really, really big mountain. “Do it!” said Malika not hesitating to show her enthusiasm. “You will always carry the experience with you”.
Booking my Stok Kangri Trek
On Monday morning I spoke to Earth’s Edge. “I want to climb a mountain in India”. “Great, you’re in”, was the reply. Decision made.
My fingers ran over the map of India and up into the Jammu and Kashmir region. I chose to climb Stok Kangri. It’s the highest mountain in the Stok Kangri range of the Himalayas in the Ladakh region of North-west India. The peak is in Hemis National Park, 24km southwest of the Ladakhi capital of Leh.
Part of my brain was now permanently taken up with thoughts of planning and getting ready for the trip. How many pairs of knickers should I bring? Where will I be sleeping? Will there be giant spiders there? Earth’s Edge provided a foolproof packing list of what was needed as well as a comprehensive itinerary.
This was very welcome information for someone who had never taken on such a challenge. Although the spider question was never answered, everything else was. They even took us on a training weekend in Wicklow. We hiked with the Irish Guide and Doctor for the trip and some of my fellow mountain adventurers. There were 17 of us in total. We started a Whatsapp group for support, advice and wisecracks on a daily basis. India visa – check; insurance – check; visit the Travel Health Clinic – check. Diamox (used to prevent and reduce symptoms of altitude sickness) – check.
Flying to Delhi
Good to go. See you at the Airport. Adventure awaits!
I didn’t feel nervous on my way to the airport. I felt ready but I also felt anticipation, happiness and excitement that something big was happening.
People told me about Dehli before I left Ireland but nothing prepares you for it. You only know by physically being there what it’s like. For me, it was like someone was pressing the fast forward and pause button on one of the old style tape recorders. Everyone and everything is either moving very fast or very still.
People whiz by on motorbikes having full blown conversations while smoking a cigarette and texting. Groups of people curled up in the foetal position on the side of the road sleeping. In the house I grew up in we had a little Lego man on a shelf beside the telly. We named him “Paddy Gawking”. He just stared. I was Paddy Gawking while walking around the streets of Dehli. We stayed one night in the hustle and bustle of Delhi. That was enough for me and the next day we flew from Delhi to Leh.
Leh is the antithesis of Delhi and there was a sense of calmness, order and peace. You know you’re already at altitude because at some point you notice your movements have slowed down. Carrying a bag or tying your shoelaces takes a bit longer and a bit more effort than usual. Perhaps this is a glimpse into what it will be like when we arrive at old age (hopefully we’ll still be out in the hills).
We had two days acclimatising in Leh. Those were the days, my friend! We relaxed in the beautiful garden in the hotel, walked around the markets, and listened to street musicians. There were plenty of sights to see and I loved watching the locals get on with their daily lives. We had time and space to rest and acclimatise. After two days, it was time to move on and start trekking.
Starting the Stok Kangri Trek
Our local guides picked us up from the hotel. We spent the next seven days with them and the most amazing cooks. Each day we trekked between three and ten hours. Our lives revolved around talking, drinking water, trekking, eating and sleeping. There was another jelly legs day when we crossed a river in a small cable car.
Every evening, we sat around camp for dinner and listened to a briefing session from our Irish Guide and Doctor. Phones disappeared as people played games, talked, read, drew and rested. Some of the lads in the group were stargazers so we would look up to the sky before bed and they pointed out what was on view. It was magic!
The acclimatisation was slow and steady and every day we got a little higher. I took each day as it came and did not think much about the summit until it was nearly upon us. Those feelings of anticipation and knowing you were doing something big returned.
Summit night on Stok Kangri
The day began at 11 pm. We left camp under a black canvas dotted with stars and our head torches lit the way. We walked for a while and set a pace that allowed me to relax into my own stride. I kept my eyes on the moon and outline of the surrounding mountains. It was cold but I wrapped up well and sipped water constantly. On the first half of the trek, we crossed an expansive glacier.
I was relieved that conditions were favourable enough not to have to wear crampons as I had not perfected my John Wayne walk. According to our guide, you need to walk like John Wayne to avoid tripping over or nicking your ankles!
I could write a whole article about the sunrose and magnificent colours of the mountains which towered above us. All I can say is the whole trek was worth it just to see such a kaleidoscope of greens, oranges, pinks, and purples
The second half of the trek was tough. I seemed to lose my stride and my breathing was much more laboured. I was getting cold and I wondered if I should stop and put on my big jacket and mitts. Thinking too much at sea level can mess with your mental health but at nearly 6,000m it can wreak havoc. Sanity prevailed; I put on my jacket and mitts, drank water and I found my stride again.
The final push
The last part of the trek to Stok Kangri’s summit is a steep climb over what seems like a never-ending ridge. Feelings of desperation, hope, despair and encouragement rise and fall in quick succession. I was getting closer and I could just about see the prayer flags. Prayer flags are colourful rectangular cloths, they’re strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside.
My legs felt like dead weights and I’m pretty sure I was making some kind of Frankenstein noises. However, I reached the prayer flags, and joined the group in hugging, kissing, laughing, crying and ‘can’t believe we just did that’ faces.
Unfortunately, it was very foggy so we didn’t have great views from the summit. We did get a great photo of the gang though. We stayed at the summit for about 10 minutes. During this time, and all through the trek, I hadn’t even thought of the fact that we had to trek back down to base camp. Oh dear!
Back to Base Camp
The descent was more gruelling than I had expected. My fatigue and loss of focus meant that the walk down was tough. We went slowly and our guide’s good humour and encouragement kept our mood up and we kept each other going. It seemed that when someone was struggling the most others would instinctively walk by their side or give a word of encouragement.
Once we had lunch and a break everyone’s energy and vigour started to return. On the last leg back to base camp, our guides met us with some homemade lemonade. It was like all of our birthdays at once and there was pure joy on everyone’s face.
Back at base camp, the Doctor advised everyone to eat before getting some sleep as it helps with recovery. Everyone wolfed down some food and passed out in their tents. That evening the celebrations began with more delicious meals and chocolate cake made by our amazing cooks who have since inspired me to cook new and different dishes.
The journey home
The next day we made our way back to lovely Leh. Once again we had time and space to rest and recoup. We flew back to Delhi for one more night and when the time came, we reluctantly got on the plane home.
I boldly walked across busy streets in Delhi, peed on cliff edges, got to the top of Stok Kangri and nearly saw the Dali Lama. That’s another story, but this whole trip is an experience that will stay with me forever.
I have the group photo on the wall behind my desk in work. People ask me “What is your next big trip?” For now I’m still absorbing my Stok Kangri trek and when I’m ready for another one, I’ll give Earth’s Edge a call.