Ladakh Trekking; July 27 - August 8, 2013

Summary: Our Markha Valley trek, traverse of the Stok range, and climb of 20,187' Stok Kangri went off without a hitch. Our guide, crew, equipment, route, weather, and food were at their worst just fine and at their best outstanding, with no complaints or problems to speak of. The variety of terrain, culture, and other trekkers kept the entire 13 days interesting, and reaching the high summit on the second-to-last day was truly the icing on the cake.

The long version:

We opted for an "expedition-style" full-service trek. Comfortable camps and a crew that takes care of everything except the walking does take some getting used to, but we're accustomed to it by now, having trekked in a similar fashion on numerous previous trips. (Our first full-service trek was also in the Himalayas: Alex and Jennifer's 1992 Annapurna Sanctuary trek in Nepal.) On this trek we had a guide, assistant-guide/gofer, cook, cook's helper, and horseman, all at a very reasonable price, presumably thanks to low-cost labor in India. Seven horses toted everything: sleeping tents, a dining tent for us and cooking tent for the crew, a toilet tent for campsites lacking an established latrine, and of course stove, kerosene, full range of kitchen equipment, folding table & stools, everyone's personal gear, food, and probably a bunch of stuff we weren't even aware of. Our horse train can be seen in photo 1 and a typical campsite in photo 2. We reminded ourselves
periodically that we're providing jobs and boosting the economy, then we just relaxed and enjoyed the service.

Not that we were being lazy! The trekking varied from moderate to downright strenuous. We frequently camped above 14,000', and we crossed four passes over 16,000'. Hiking varied from 4-8 hours per day (except the 10-hour summit day; more on that below), and the altitude could be a challenge. Sometimes the trail was smooth and graded, while other times it was rocky, fraught with river crossings or steep ups-and-downs to avoid them, and on occasion nonexistent. The terrain was often steep-sided canyons (photo 3, with passing shepherd), somewhat reminiscent of the US southwest. But in addition there were high snow-covered peaks, glaciers, meadows, many streams, and a few wider rivers (photo 4, with our trusty guide "K.G."). Wildlife included yaks (photo 5, technically not wild but they seem to roam at will), blue sheep, marmots, picas, and a variety of birds. Large herds of domestic sheep and goats wandered by, and there were shepherd dwellings throughout the trek. Adding to the scenery and providing some culture during the more settled Markha Valley portion of the trek were frequent Buddhist Mani stone walls (photo 6), Stupas (photo 7), and a couple of monasteries (photo 8), probably reminiscent of trekking in Bhutan or Tibet. Prayer flags were omnipresent on every pass and summit (photo 9).

With 13 days on the trail one does tend to settle into a rhythm of hiking, eating, leisure time, weather-watching, and sleeping.

  • Hiking: Alex and Emily were in excellent physical shape after training for (and successfully completing) the San Francisco Marathon earlier in the summer. In addition, Emily maintained a routine of hundreds of sit-ups every day, even at the 16,300' Stok Kangri base camp! All of that meant Jennifer set the pace. Jennifer's slow-but-steady approach turned out to be faster in the end than many other trekkers, who thrived on lengthy rest stops.

  • Eating: It's remarkable what meals can be assembled by an experienced trail chef. It would be a stretch to classify our food as gourmet, but there was considerable variety including and beyond Indian fare ("pizza night" was a particular favorite), and always plenty for everyone. Around the middle of the trek we came within a day's horse-ride from a road; a resupply freshened up the slightly sagging menu. At a more basic level, nobody got sick, which is hardly a given for India.

  • Leisure Time: We typically started hiking before 8:00 AM, so on some days we reached our camp by early afternoon. Somehow we had no difficulty filling the hours -- reading, endless games of Shanghai Rummy, a bit of summer homework for Emily, and just enjoying the scenery.

  • Weather: Ladakh is popular for summer trekking because of its fairly predictable dry weather, especially compared with the Nepal Himalaya. We did have some rain, but nothing substantial and never during hiking hours. Most distinctive was how quickly it changed from hot to cold, sunny to cloudy, calm to windy -- that's the high mountains for you! Overall the weather was not a significant factor, and we were especially lucky with an absolutely clear night for our peak climb.

  • Sleeping: We generally slept long, sound nights, except early in the trek when we were still adjusting to the altitude, and one memorable camp where a lovesick donkey tied up nearby hee-hawed literally all night long.
Naturally we very much missed having Tim along. Over the years we've perfected traveling as a family of four, so undertaking an adventure of this scope as a three-some took some getting used to. (There's no denying, however, that Emily greatly enjoyed having her own tent!) We rented a satellite phone so that we could be reached in case of emergency, and Tim agreed to send regular text messages to the phone with updates on his bike racing in Europe. It turns out Tim's definition of "regular" didn't quite match ours, but it was nice that we could remain connected, and even nicer that the phone wasn't needed for an emergency.

Trekking in Ladakh, and the Markha Valley in particular, is quite popular, so we met a variety of other trekkers. Many were traveling expedition-style like us with group sizes ranging from 2 to about 20, others were making use of the "home-stays" (photo 10, a typical proprietress) and semi-permanent encampments that have popped up in the most popular areas, and a small handful were self-sufficient backpackers. Some of the more memorable folks we met:
  • An older Hungarian couple living in Hong Kong -- intrepid travelers headed to scale a technical peak.

  • An American couple with their college and graduate-school age kids (the latter a recent Stanford grad), giving us hope that Tim and Emily will travel with us for years to come.

  • An adventurous French family with 6 and 8 year old boys whose tents had shredded in a windstorm.

  • A Swiss couple who had been told, erroneously, that they could find food and shelter near where we were camping; our crew generously provided them with both.

  • An Israeli duo on reconnaissance for their group of eight. Their home-stay had run out of food and they too had erroneously been told they could find food near our campsite. We sent them back with a bag of chocolates and some energy bars, for which they were very grateful.

  • A group of students from South India hoping to scale Stok Kangri. At an earlier camp their horses had apparently wandered off, so they arrived at the base camp with minimal gear.
Of course many trekkers, including ourselves, had few tribulations like the ones above, but even those with challenges seemed to be having a good time.

And lastly, an account of our Stok Kangri ascent, which was certainly the apex of the expedition. At 20,187' Stok Kangri is the highest mountain in the Stok subrange of the Himalayas. Photo 11 shows one view, but lest you think it's one of those mountains that's impressive on one side but a gentle slope on the other, photo 12 shows the side we climbed. It's undoubtedly the hardest peak we've scaled, eclipsing Kilimanjaro both in altitude and in difficulty, although both are considered non-technical. The route up Stok Kangri has a bit of everything: regular trail, rocky glacier moraine, a glacier crossing, steep scree slopes, "class 3" scrambling on a rocky ridge, and some precipitous drops, all greatly compounded by the altitude. By 20,000' it's truly one labored step at a time. We were well acclimated, having been in Ladakh almost two weeks and frequently above 15,000', but at 20,000' everyone feels significant effects. On the good side, it's been a dry year and we were relatively late in the season, so there was less snow than usual and we didn't need to use crampons, ice axe, or rope to reach the summit, although some parties did rope up nonetheless. Finally, we were extremely lucky with the weather. Our 1:00 AM start (traditional on many mountains) saw a cloudless sky, which remained until well after we left the summit around 7:30 AM. Clouds eventually built up, but we were back in base camp enjoying a well-deserved rest by the time any rain set in.
Photo 13 is the requisite family summit shot. Photo 14 shows the mass of prayer flags at the summit (K.G. surprised us by adding a string), along with another small portion of the magnificent view, which included world's second highest mountain, K2, in the distance. Photos 15-17 give a small flavor of the climb.

Next: After a planned buffer day in Leh to absorb any logistical snafus (thankfully none occurred, so we booked a whitewater rafting trip to fill the time), we'll fly back to Delhi for our whirlwind traverse of the "Golden Triangle":  Agra, Jaipur, and Delhi.

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