“Are we there yet?” I asked Sam while gasping for breath. “I don’t think so, but keep on walking even if it’s just little steps” replied Sam. “I don’t think I can make it later at the summit guys, I’m getting a headache now,” Sina said. The air was dry and cold, it was 5 degrees Celsius that time, the oxygen getting thinner and thinner and gravity is pulling your body weight more as you venture this mountain called “Stok Kangri”.
I started planning trekking Stok Kangri when I was still in the Philippines. It was worth 3 months of preparation both physical and mental. Reading books and online articles about this enormous mountain in the Himalaya Range gives me expectations and apprehensions. Though I’ve trekked small mountains in the Philippines, still Stok Kangri is incomparable. With its towering height of 6,153m and bipolar weather, Stok Kangri is very infamous for beginners like me. “Probably it will be very cold, are you used to cold weather? perhaps not, but as long as you have the equipment to keep you warm, you will be fine.” said Sina, “Yeah, let’s try this Raf, it will be fun!” exclaimed Sam. I met these two British guys in Delhi and explained to them my itinerary in India including trekking Stok Kangri and invited them to join, gladly they did. When we arrived in Leh City, we immediately booked the trek. The trek can be completed in 4 days (some do it for 2 days time) for those who are physically fit and are acclimatized well, but given my lack of experience in cold weather and hiking, I am not sure if I’ll summit on the 4th day.
We arrived in Stok Village half-past-eight in the morning, the sun was well above the horizon and touched our skin akin to being blessed by the mountain spirits. The flock of sheep and horses rumbled upon the grassy terrain, a monk’s wail can be heard in the far off distance, birds circling high in the sky spectators to the events happening below. It was the enthusiasm of my friends that kept my adrenaline pumping “How long is the trek?” I asked our guide, Tundup. “Ah, if you are fast it will only take 6 hours to get to the first camp, 4 hours to base camp and 6 hours to get to the summit,” he replied while walking not minding how rugged the terrain is, yeah, they are used to this. Guides or Sherpa as they are called are professional and hustler hikers, they treat the hiking path as their playground. The trail ascends steeply few kilometers away from the starting point. Our group was enthusiastic and lively, we kept on talking about our experiences in each of our countries while making our way to the first camp. We were surrounded by an impressive gorge with a tantalizing view of the snow-capped peaks; rhododendrons make their appearance in every trail, flashing their beautiful red to pinkish flowers, curved and arched rock formations intricately designed on each side. You’ll never notice how much time passes when hiking and appreciating the greatness of Mother Nature.
We entered a wide gorge leading to small thickets and crossing from streams to streams. “look at your right, there’s a sheep.” murmured Tundup while pointing the topmost part of the cliff as rays of sunshine sparked through the chinks. It was a sheep. Blue Sheep or Bharal as they call it, he was a huge Bharal and stood so elegantly from atop having a good vantage point in observing us. Humans. No one spoke nor moved. Slowly, the tension slipped from our body, I had the courage to move one step forward to get a better view, but the Bharal turned around and went back to his herd. Probably an alpha male, they usually separate from groups from time to time to find trails and evade predators that will lead its herd to safety. It was a magnificent and astonishingly surreal moment.
We then arrived in the first camp 4,000m, Tundup immediately set up our tent while we went to parachute tent (a makeshift tent that serves hikers food and tea ) and quenched our thirst of purified water and had few cups of hot herbal tea that warmed our bodies. Few minutes or so, our guide gave our ration food, it was Ghuguni, a spicy curry with mashed potato and chick-peas going well with the herbal tea they were serving. It was delicious!
“Time for breakfast! wake up wake up!” shouted Tundup while tapping our tent. After having breakfast, we started to ascend for our next trail. The trek begins its ascent of almost 5,100m to the base camp. As we progress local traders riding horses and or donkeys are apparent on the trail, they provide supplies to and from the campsites. This time, the terrain is very unforgiving “Don’t worry guys today’s trail is very short it will only take you 3 or 4 hours to get to the base camp, but beware that the terrain is short but steep” as Tundup emphasized. That moment, I felt fear and uneasiness, the energy I had yesterday was suddenly gone.
Sam and our guide are walking normally and judging by their pacing they will make it to the base camp in no time. Meanwhile, Sina started to have a headache, “You guys go ahead, my head hurts.” he stopped for a while, gasped for breath and sat on the boulder. “No, we cannot leave you, let’s take a break. how do you feel Raf?” said Sam “I feel exhausted and tired.” I replied while clutching and jugging my water bottle. Sina laughed boisterously “Climb Stok Kangri they say, It would be fun they say” Sam laughed and said, “We should post a meme about this!” The silent and anxious mood were replaced by bursting laughter. We packed our laughter and thrill as we traverse, truly this is the staple food for our mind-over-body. As we ascend further, we have been rewarded a glimpse of the imposing snow-capped mountain of Stok.
Contrary to the usual 2-3 hours hiking, we hiked 5 hours before reaching the base camp. Tundup, of course, arrived first in the base camp, “Are you guys okay? Rest up and tonight we will hike the summit.” “I can’t make it, I give up. My head really hurts!” Sina complained. “Me too, I won’t make it there. Also, I got a headache,” I seconded. I came to the point where my mind says go but my body won’t. Disheartening as it may seem, but there’s a little voice inside my head saying, “Sorry, but your adventures stop here.” I and Sina stayed in one tent, while Sam in another. Sina hurriedly went inside to rest and drank a tablet for anti-mountain sickness to suppress the pain. It was half-past four in the afternoon, everybody was either taking a rest or equipping themselves pertinent gears to help them conquer Stok Kangri’s summit. The ascent will start at exactly 11 in the evening. Soup, tea and, bread were rationed in the parachute tent to make us full in preparation for the highlight of the trek.
At exactly 11 pm, some started to climb. I heard them from our tent as they zip their bags and locked all gears including their trekking pole made from various metals clashing like swords when tied-in. And of course, I kept on hearing the most common word “Let’s go!” Sina was still snoring loudly indicating that he was in deep sleep, oblivious to the din outside the tent. Sam shrugged my tent, “Raf you going?” “No Sam, my head still hurts. Take care, Sam, don’t forget to take photos!” I closed my eyes and went back to sleep before my envy and self-pity seep into me. I woke up and went outside to pee, checked my watch and saw that it was 2 am. It was dark but star shone brightly above the midnight velvet of the sky, a panoramic view of Stok which beauty was in and of itself a mystery. Amidst the beauty of darkness, I saw a trail of light in the far east of the rugged hill and realized it was them. They started to ascend the most difficult part of the trek. I nodded and felt regret for not being able to join the climb to Stok, the primary reason why I went to India in the first place.
As I was going back to our tent, I was met with a 2-meter silhouette of a large black creature with big horns growing out of its head and curved upward halfway along its body, then the air was charged with tension. The clouds slowly faded and the moon re-appeared in a timely manner unveiling the creature. The shrill snort, indignant growl and, the black-caped fur seemed familiar. It was a Himalayan Yak. I gazed and blasted a trunkful of sand from his nose and suddenly stood up without blinking his eyes upon me. I knew it felt part fear and part amusement same as I was to him. Ultimately, it was the most thrilling wildlife encounter in my life. I realized that even if I failed to climb the summit, I was rewarded with this view and other wildlife encounters.
It was half-past 8 in the morning, there were people coming back from the summit, some failed but most succeeded. I saw Sam from the distance because of his orange thermal coat, “Sina! Sam is returning!” As he approached our tent, he seemed excited and cheerful, “I made it to the summit!” We immediately hugged Sam and congratulated him. While Sam was narrating his experience in the summit, it felt as though we also had been there, pitting our senses against each other, listening to him with exhilaration. While we listen, part of my consciousness took a long, hard look in the panoramic view, the jaw-dropping backdrop of Himalaya is superb with its magnificent peaks and glacial valleys- it is no surprise that this is every traveler’s dream, and Mother nature has its spectacular surprise hidden in her gloves.
That moment is truly breathtaking. It really feels good to see this amazing feat.