I've always been a bit afraid of heights. It was never as bad as James Stewart's from Vertigo but, for instance, I couldn't stand next to the wall of my terrace without feeling a bit dizzy, or climb more than the lowest branch of my neighbour's mango tree. When I first came to Ladakh, I took to walking up the 550 steps of the Shanti Stupa, to get fit for my first trek. Towards the top, the steps narrow to a couple of feet with the hill on one side and a drop on the other. The first time I climbed up, I walked this section sideways, with my back pressed up against the rock and my arms splayed along it, while other climbers paused to give me bemused looks.
So it was that while I'd heard about the "trekker's peak" of Stok Kangri a little after I reached Leh, I never gave any serious thought to it. Trekking up high passes involves some vertiginous bits but you're usually too exhausted to notice and, anyway, develop "a certain absence of imagination" that makes you forget that the drop exists at all. But a peak is a very different story - they can bludgeon some imagination into the dullest of minds. Also, passes tend to be used by locals for transporting goods from village to village, and usually have serviceable trails up and over them for the horses. Then there's the psychological thing. A pass, no matter how high, is the weakest link in the topography. A peak is the exact opposite: and the Stok Kangri is quite intimidating, a peak visible all over Leh. In short, there was no way I was climbing it.
Little by little, though, the devil's favourite sin started to catch up with me. At 6153 metres, it's taller than any peak in four continents (sometimes by kilometres) and only a few metres short of the tallest in North America... not too many people can say they've been at over 20,000 feet on their own two feet. "And it's just a trekker's peak. You climb up, have a bit of tea up top and then climb back down. Easy-peasy." (It was nothing of the sort - more on this later.)
The first day involved a climb of a little over 800 metres to the tented camp of Mankarmo, at 4500 metres. It wasn't too difficult and the views were interesting, much starker than on any of my other treks. The toilets were disgusting.
On the morning of the second day, we set out for the base camp. The plan was that we'd reach there in about two hours and then sleep through as much of the day as possible, before we set out for the peak at midnight. During the day, the glacier starts to melt, making the walk up more difficult - hence the climb at night. We did reach the base camp in two hours but I couldn't sleep a wink. Even at 5000 metres, the sun converted the tent into an oven, making sleep impossible.
Towards evening, when the sun had cooled down, I was much too nervous to get any sleep. It had something to do with the atmosphere in the camps there. On my other treks, people had signed up simply for the joy of walking in the mountains and taking in sights unlike anywhere else. But here, most people had turned up simply for the bragging rights - including myself, I'm sorry to say. There was no sense of joy or adventure, all the peak was for was as a tick in a few bucket lists. Only a fraction of the parties that went up actually make it to the top and the stories around the camp were of how most folks turn back because they couldn't take the altitude and even of the few who fell to their deaths on the climb up - though more people have died due to altitude sickness.
In the late afternoon, though, a giant cloud hovered over the mountains that looked exactly like the USS Enterprise. I had been moping about wondering whether signing up for this trek was the wisest choice, and so this cheered me up immeasurably. After all, what could go wrong when Spock, Bones and Kirk are keeping a watchful eye on you from the skies?
After an early dinner, I went back to my tent to try and get some sleep. But again, no luck. So it was that at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world slept, I arose to... well, I arose to find a little lunchbox packed for me and my water bottles all filled up. It was windy and the cold was biting. I was wearing thermals, a shirt on top of that, a further woollen sweater and a thick jacket over all of that. I'd never worn this many clothes in all my life. I deposited the contents of my backpack in the tent and packed just the lunch and the water.
At the "cafe" tent, my guide was waiting for me with a cup of tea. I then slowly put on my balaclava, the gloves, the boots, tested out the trekking pole and the torch, until there was nothing left to waste time on. I now understood why all the sports movies fetishize pre-game rituals so much - it's a way of delaying the inevitable and also to calm the nerves. My guide clapped me on the back reassuringly and asked me whether I was all set. "Yes" was about the only answer possible, so with the pack on my back, the trekking pole in one hand and the torch in the other, I set off up the hill with him.
The first hill was very steep and slippery and it was unusual walking by torchlight. It took me a while to get used to it and I started to despair - if this is what the first hundred metres or so was like, what would the really difficult bits be like? At the top of the hill, we took a little break. We switched off our torches and sat in the starlight for a few minutes. I don't ever remember noticing starlight before, so this was a magical experience for me. There was no moon and to see the mountains lightly covered in light even older than themselves was an experience bordering on the spiritual. It was as if the Himalayas knew they were in the presence of something far older and mightier, so they took some effort to be on their best behaviour. Rather than appearing stark and intimidating, they looked delicate and reassuring in the pale light.
This break helped my mood considerably and I was able to forget about the peak and the glacier and altitude sickness and folks falling to their deaths, and recapture some of the joy of my earlier treks. We walked for about 2 hours until we hit the glacier. I couldn't see how far up we were on the mountainside, and I wondered whether I should be thankful for the darkness. (Turned out, it wasn't very high at all.) Walking on the glacier was extraordinary. Since I couldn't see anything, sounds were all I had to rely on. It made a reassuringly crunchy sound as we walked on it, though less reassuring bits included ominous-sounding cracking of the ice not too far from us. When we finally hit our first crevasse, I was massively disappointed. I'd expected something gigantic, of the sort you see in movies that have mountaineers falling to their deaths. But this was this one-metre-deep crack with a little stream flowing at the bottom. Chimet used his ice axe to carve footholds for us to jump across and that was that.
The glacier was done with and now began the real ascent. The first bit was a zigzag path up a rocky mountainside. It got steeper and steeper until I though I'd fall over backwards. And then we came across a hillside completely covered with soft snow. We had to cross it horizontally, through a tiny path cut across it. It didn't look much at all on the way back but, then, on the way up, it looked well nigh unpassable, that I'd slip and slide all the way down the hillside.
Chimet stepped in reassuringly. He cut a few footholds in the snow for me and then took my hand to lead me across. It was the first of several instances where I'd have turned back without him. He is several years younger than me - only in his early 20s - but there's a quiet competence about him that's absolutely reassuring for a beginner like me. Just after this patch of snow, we lost the trail for a bit and so ended up clambering on rocks for a bit. I was very near panicking. I have never climbed in my life and have neither the balance nor the instincts for it. Chimet again stepped in and in that calm way of his told me where to put my foot, which route to take up the hillside, and which rocks to take a hold of, all the while standing behind me, in case I slipped. I kept my head resolutely down - I didn’t want to see the heights ahead of me and I certainly didn’t want to see the consequences of slipping, down below me - and blindly followed his instructions. There was even a point where I was stranded on a smooth 2-metre-long bit of rock. I don’t know how I got on it but there I was, unable to move in any direction without sliding off it and taking a tumble down the hillside. Chimet simply asked me to hold still (I had no intention of doing anything else), while he clambered up another way and pulled me to safety by extending his trekking pole towards me.
In winter, with the snow covering the peak, the ascent is less complicated. You simply use crampons and rope and go straight up from the valley to the peak, on the soft snow. In summer, without the safety blanket of the snow, the walk to the peak is rather circuitous. You walk along the ridge and then circle around the peak, taking the steepest and narrowest trail yet just below the summit. As we were climbing up this last section, we met some folks who’d gone up earlier and who were now on the way down. Terror was writ large on their faces, as they walked down. I suppose that was on mine too.
The walk down may not have been particularly scary but it was still hard. I hadn’t slept for 36 hours and without anything to motivate me, my mind started to drift. It was incredibly tedious, relieved only when we hit the glacier down below again. In the full light of day, it was an awesome sight. The glacier went up a peak almost as high as the Stok Kangri, so it was like a giant waterfall that had frozen over, along with the river at its base. We only had to cross the (very wide) frozen base, so it was a flat and long walk that allowed me the comfort to appreciate the glacier in all its glory.
Now, about the "trekker's peak" bit. The reason why the Stok Kangri has this reputation is that it doesn't need any of the more technical mountaineering skills. If climbed from mid-July to mid-August, when there's little snow up top, you don't need any gear at all - not ice axes, not even crampons. But just because you don't need any gear doesn't mean that it's an easy walk up. I had to use my hands quite a bit, and you definitely need a bit of experience with that sort of climbing to do it alone. The term “trekker’s peak” conjures images of a lazy walk up - it certainly wasn't that at all.
Given how much easier the climb down was for me, you could argue that the climbing bit is a skill easily learnt. But what you can’t negotiate with is the altitude. Many people come to Ladakh to do this as a sort of trophy and many agencies propose them an itinerary of about a week or a week-and-a-half to climb the peak. That’s 3 days to acclimatise and then a slow climb in 6 or 7 days. What they don’t mention is that the 3 days is JUST to acclimatise to Leh’s altitude of 3500 metres. Climbing up a 6000-metre peak is a different story altogether. The only way to practise for that is to trek across a high pass or two. The trouble is, this involves an itinerary of 2 weeks, minimum, and is a lot more expensive. And many don’t want to spend either the time or the money. It’s a shame because the views on the way and up top are astonishing, and best enjoyed without a splitting headache.
I reached the base camp a little before 2 in the afternoon, and, oven-like tent or not, I slept like a log. I dreamt of large mountains.