|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.
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:
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.