My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK!

5th Aug 2017

About Stok Kangri

I had narrowed down my search to 2 treks and had to make a decision between Mt. Kilimanjaro (5895 meters), Tanzania and Stok Kangri (6153 meters), India. Putting logistics at thought I finalized it to Stok Kangri. Stok Kangri is the highest peak in the Stok range of Ladakh. Note that there are higher peaks in other mountain ranges of Ladakh.

This peak is very popular due to its extremely high altitude and non-technical climb. By no means it is easy, it is considered as one of the toughest treks in India. There are plenty of aspects that make it a tough climb naming few as lack of oxygen (50% oxygen as compared to sea level), 15 hour long summit day, over 1250 meters of elevation gain in single ascent on summit day. Beyond this trek starts the world of high altitude mountaineering.

I had a fair amount of experience with high altitude in my past trips to Ladakh (by bicycle) and Spiti (by car) but was novice to trekking in Himalayas. Therefore I registered with a trekking company 'Trek The Himalayas' which was recommended by a friend who had summited this peak with them.

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! 1/1 by Nakul Singh
Stok Kangri peak (6153m)

Training & preparation

I had read a lot of information about this trek and had a clear idea of what challenge I had signed up for. This expedition is not for beginners and I was well aware about this fact. People usually see this peak as their ultimate trekking goal. It is highly recommended to be fit (mentally and physically) in order to be able to accept grilling of summit day. Any endurance sports will help develop a strong foundation for such a climb.

I started training regularly for this expedition about 2 months in advance and my regime consisted roughly:

2 days a week staircase repeats (run/walk) with ankle weights repeating anywhere between 50 to 100 floors ascent. Followed by 1 hour yoga. 2 days a week indoor cycling sessions (1 hour each) on home trainer. Followed by 1 hour yoga. 2 days a week outdoor run (3 to 5 km) followed by core and legs strengthening exercises. Followed by 1 hour yoga. 1 day a week rest.

Day1 & Day2 (Arrival in Leh and acclimatization)

Reached Leh on 5th August morning by flight and headed straight to hotel provided by trekking company. Most of the day was spent relaxing and meeting other participants. In evening we had an introduction with our trek leaders and all the participants. From initial conversation we got an idea that our trek leaders were carrying a bad attitude and they were not the best suited leaders for such an expedition. We were a strong team of 18 participants from around the globe all of which carried a good trekking experience with me being the least experienced of all at trekking. We then headed for a team dinner at one of the restaurants in Leh market and were off to sleep early. Next morning we left at 7am for an easy acclimatization trek to Namgyal Tsemo monastery and Leh palace. Some relaxed for the rest of the day while others ran for shopping the gear they had missed out. Leh market is a great place to buy all sorts of trekking and mountaineering equipment with huge variety to choose from. In the evening we left for another acclimatization walk to Shanti Stupa.

Shanti Stupa

Photo of Leh by Nakul Singh

Namgyal Tsemo

Photo of Leh by Nakul Singh

Leh Palace

Photo of Leh by Nakul Singh

Day3 (Leh to Stok drive, Stok to Changma trek)

Elevation: Leh 11500ft - Stok village 11800ft - Changma 13087ft.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Next morning we checked out of hotel and were off to Stok village which was about 1 hour car drive from Leh. We reached Stok at about 10am and this was the starting point for our trek. After some quick snack and route briefing, we started the trek. Some participants had opted for mule (porter) for carrying their luggage while some carried their own backpacks. I was carrying my own backpack as porter charges didn't make any sense to me. Since I was the least experienced one in bunch, my backpack was the heaviest at somewhere around 13-15kgs (including water). Yes, I had made the mistake of carrying couple of extra kilos. First 1 hour of the trek I spent struggling with the mind where my mind continuously repeated 'OMG! What have I packed' and an hour later I got used to it. The pace was slow and easy as we slowly gained altitude from Stok village to Changma while negotiating our way through water streams and barren terrain of Hemis National park. Every 20 mins we would take a halt to sip water and relax. This day was moderate and my only difficulty was my heavy backpack. By somewhere around 2pm all of us made it to Changma campsite. There we received black tea followed by lunch. In the meantime we had set up our tents, sorted our sleeping bags and luggage. Post lunch most of us spent time relaxing by the side of river flowing near to the campsite. In evening we again got served black tea after which we proceeded for a short 1 hour acclimatization trek gaining about 150 meters in altitude. After heading back to campsite we received soup and then dinner. Some of us did night photography at this beautiful campsite where others headed to tents.

Changma Campsite

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Changma campsite at night

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Star trails from Changma

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Day 4 (Changma to Mankorma)

Elevation: Changma 13087ft - Mankorma 14200ft.

I started my day early by doing yoga in dining tent which did not go so well. I was extremely out of breath while doing few rounds of sun salutation and had to breathe twice at steps which require only a single breath. Altitude had started kicking in at this point and I could realize how under-rated is oxygen in our day to day lives. We had breakfast, packed up our tents and started moving towards our next campsite Mankorma. Entire route we kept walking through riverbed except one tiny uphill during initial part of day. I was carrying very little drinking water in order to reduce weight in backpack and used to fill from river as soon as I emptied my bottle. It was an easy day and all of us made it through without any issues. After reaching campsite we again followed usual sequence of black tea, setting up tents, lunch, rest by the side of river, evening tea, acclimatization walk, soup and dinner.

Route from Changma to Mankorma

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

A bunch of deer spotted 50 meters above us

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Our group at Mankorma camp

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh
Day 5

Day 5 (Mankorma to Base camp)

Elevation: Mankorma 14200ft - Base camp 16300ft.

Difficulty level: Moderate to Hard

This was slightly tough and critical day with decent amount of elevation gain over short distance. Usual strategy for ascending is to go slow and to let your body adjust automatically with gain in altitude as oxygen becomes lesser with every meter of elevation gain. Some guys in the group did not realize the importance of going slow despite continuous reminders from route leader and our 18 member group got split into pieces. Sun was high on this day leading to thirst so I drank good amount of water from flowing stream throughout the ascent. Last 2 kms to base camp had a lot of uphill with a very steep approach in final section just before the camp site. I did struggle a bit on this day mainly due to lack of oxygen and my heavy backpack. Reaching base camp was not a good feeling as it was over crowded with over 100 tents already pitched in and us struggling to spot a flat place to pitch a tent. I was dead tired after reaching camp site and headed to the only dhaba (parachute restaurant) at the site to load up some calories (tea, soft drink and maggi). It was a well equipped place in terms of menu serving beer to 10 types of teas, not something you would expect at this altitude atleast!

Here my body oxygen level (through oxymeter reading) was low at around 70% so I started sipping water. Water is a great source of oxygen for body as oxygen in air is less at this altitude (about 55% oxygen as compared to sea level). Rested in afternoon chatting with team mates while enjoying sun at basecamp and in evening we headed for an acclimatization walk which felt like a race where we gained steep 150 meters altitude in just over 20 minutes. As per our guides this was our litmus test for the summit and he said roughly 90% of this group will be able to make it to summit. During our acclimatization hike we got a closer look of Stok Kangri summit which looked scary to me in golden shades of sunset with wind picking up rough speeds. And I kept sipping water throughout that day, having sipped total about 8 liters of water till dinner time. My stomach got bloated due to excessive water with my body oxygen level still down at 75%. This night's dinner was important for carbohydrate loading for anyone aiming for summit next day. I could barely eat dinner as there was no space in my stomach. I walked after having little dinner but felt overstuffed. I felt terribly sick and I puked! After throwing out my dinner and water I removed some burden but I still felt extremely sick. I had never felt this terrible and sick since long and having these feelings at 16000 feet was a daunting experience. There was no way I was going for summit attempt next day if my condition did not improve. I headed to sleep in my tent but all I did that night was run out of tent to pee after every hour!

At Stok Kangri Bas

Photo of Stok Kangri Base Camp, Leh by Nakul Singh

First close and clear view of Stok Kangri

Photo of Stok Kangri Base Camp, Leh by Nakul Singh

Day 6 & Day 7 (Base camp to Summit and back to base camp)

Longest (and toughest) day of my life.

Elevation: Base camp 16300ft - Stok Kangri Summit 20187ft - Base camp 16300ft.

Difficulty level: Extremely hard!!!

I got up fine this morning and was feeling good despite of broken sleep past night. I was down on energy but high on spirits and in good health. This day was our training-cum-rest day at base camp as same night we were going to push for summit attempt. Since I had lost vital body fluids and salts the previous night it was time to replenish those else I would end up having cramps during summit attempt. So I drank 2 sachets of electral, 1 enerzal, few types of tea totaling about 5 litres of water till evening. I took heavy breakfast, moderate lunch and light dinner as my meals for the day. Body oxygen was at good 85% throughout the day. 2 guys from our team showed symptoms of altitude sickness and our guides sent them down. One of which had to get himself admitted to hospital in Leh and other descended to a lower camp. Out of our 18 member strong group, we were now down to 16 participants. In morning we were distributed harness, carabiner, micro-spikes and had demo session on roping techniques, arresting fall, mandatory clothing for summit, etc. We were also briefed about the phases of 7 km route leading from base camp to summit. Everyone looked nervous that day as if we all were heading for ultimate test of our lives. Months of planning and hard work was about to show results now. We were instructed to be ready with all gear, food, water & meet at 9.30pm. It was going to be a long cold night with 1200 meters of elevation gain to be made before sun rise of next morning. Summit attempts are usually started at night as the snow below feet is solid at low temperatures of night making it easier to walk. Whereas during day same snow below feet becomes soft and slippery due to heat from sun making it tough to walk on it.

The tremble- Base camp to Advance base camp (Muddy/rocky trail) ~ 2 hours

At 9.30pm all of us geared up from head to toe in multiple layers stood outside the tents. We were all set to try our lucks at Stok! There was again body oxygen level check and minimum cut off to start for summit was 75%. One of the participant was down at 60% and was not allowed to start. Now our team of 15 started from base camp at 10pm. Route leader outsetted with a blistering fast pace with participants shouting at him to slow down but he did not not slow down infact shouted back at us to walk faster. That was a blow for all of us because this fast pace would have exhausted us much before summit. All of us (participants) teamed up and decided to keep a slower pace with Mithilesh (one of the participants) taking the lead and kept a distance from route leading guide. We were ascending in a single queue. My only strategy was to stay with the lead bunch. After walking for about 2 hours (over 350 meters elevation gained already) 60% of the group made it to Advance Base camp together. Advance base camp was nothing more than a pole and prayer flags. We took a short break here to sip water and some food which we were carrying in our backpacks. A huge bowl shaped glacier was shining in moonlight next to the Advance base camp.

Advance Base camp (clicked while returning from summit)

Photo of Stok Kangri by Nakul Singh

Glacier crossing (Solid Ice bowl) ~ 1.5 hour

We left advance base camp at midnight and headed towards glacier in same queue sequence. As we crossed rocky approach to glacier and stepped on glacier it got hard to find grip and we struggled to make any progress. Imagine walking on a kilometer long slanted piece of solid ice, you are bound to slip. Our route leader asked us to put on micro-spikes below shoes, so we did. Now the walk was much easier in terms of grip but the cold air on glacier was freezing us down to bones, it was very cold at this point. As we traversed from one side of glacier to other, we had to jump across a few feet wide river flowing through middle of glacier. We were only 5 guys (Mithilesh, Sparsh, Sushant, Gyan and me) left at this point so we stopped to wait for few more to join us. Our route leader yelled at us to keep walking but we could see few head torches approaching us. We realized that whoever got dropped now they will not be able to make it to summit. Sophie, Wilmar and Vicent joined us in couple of minutes as we waited by side of river. In the mean time Gyan from our group lost his patience, broke the code of team and joined the route leader (guide) standing 50 meters ahead of us. All of us abused him from the bottom of our hearts, this move from him could have put entire team's summit attempt at question. But route leader did not take him ahead and waited for us to join. We crossed the river and walked to other side of glacier approaching a slope.

The glacier on the way back

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Main climb foot to shoulder (Steep snowy slope) ~ 3 hours

We reached the foot of the main climb which looked like a 45 degree relentlessly steep slope entirely covered under deep snow. This was the main climb where we were about to gain 500 meters of elevation. Our team mate Mithilesh who was controlling the pace in front of our group fell sick due to altitude sickness and had to abandon his summit attempt. I was next to him in sequence so now I took the work of controlling the pace & navigating the group through best path. There was about 2-3 feet of snow on this slope and at some places it was soft where we used to go knee deep in snow. At most places snow was hard which meant easier walk on top of it. We were at 5500 meters altitude already and the going was getting tougher due to severe lack of atmospheric oxygen. With every 5 forward steps we used to go out of breath so we took 2-3 breaths and walked again. By this time a technical guide came from behind who did not like our resting strategy and started shouting at us to walk faster in order to make the cut off time. We were panting for our lives up there and the technical guide was abusing us to go faster. He messed up our rhythm big time and our group shattered into pieces with everyone struggling at their own pace. 3 hours later we reached the shoulder of the climb at 4.30am. On the way up, we had overtaken another group which had started 1.5 hours before us from Base camp thanks to crazy pace set by our guides. We were all tired, thirsty and sleepy after walking for over 6 hours where we gained 1000 meters altitude. 8 of us made it to the shoulder by 5am and these 8 had the option to push to the summit or return back if too tired. One of us (Vicent) who made it to the shoulder got so frustrated with the relentless climb that he did not feel like going for summit and he returned.

Getting roped up at shoulder

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Slope from Glacier to Shoulder

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Shoulder to Summit (Narrow broken ridge topped with Rocks + Snow) ~ 1.5 hours

Now only 7 of us were heading to the summit. The route from shoulder to summit is through a narrow broken ridge covered with rocks and snow with deep gorges on both sides. Its not too tough to slip/fall from this ridge so everyone is roped together in sequence with few feet of gap in between. If one person falls, others on same rope can arrest & save the falling one. While roping myself in I requested the technical guide to check if my harness is tightened correctly but he declined from checking. He asked if everyone had filled disclaimer form so that he is not blamed if any mishap occurs. Hearing this my slumber & tiredness disappeared and I was fully attentive. We all struggled through the highly steep ridge with depleting oxygen in air. We were above 6000 meters now and progress was getting really tough in this section. Technical guide again yelled at us to walk faster. After pushing hard for 1.5 hours through deep snow and loose rocks we reached the summit. I took sigh of relief as the suffering was now over for a while. We were standing at 6153 meters/20187 feet which comes under Extreme altitude (over 2/3rd altitude of Mt.Everest). It was ridiculously cold at the summit. We could see Karakoram range far away in Pakistan from this summit. Drank water, clicked pictures, laughed and it was time to head back.

Prayer flags at summit

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Final approach to summit

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Watch that scary ridge from shoulder to summit

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh
Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

Accidents! The Descent (Getting down the mountain is the toughest part) ~ 4 hours

We had walked 8.5 grueling hours to reach the summit and it was only half job done. We all were tired and sleepy but now the real challenge was to descent safely to base camp. Most of the climbing accidents happen on the way down rather than coming up so we had to be really alert. We again roped up at summit and started descending. Though I had little energy left but I was highly attentive on the ridge. A team member Rahul, who was in front of me on rope slipped from the snowy ridge and fell on one side off the ridge. I was next on the rope having 2 options, fall with him or arrest his fall. I shouted loudly 'Fall, Fall!' making everyone on rope alert. All of us took arresting position and saved him. If he had no rope, this would have proved fatal for him. This incident took a lot of energy out of me as most of his weight was held by my hands. We reached back down to shoulder and I was exhausted. We took ample rest here, I finished my water and felt very sleepy.

Looking at glacier from shoulder

Photo of My epic journey to Stok Kangri summit and BACK! by Nakul Singh

My second birth

It was about 8am and sun had started melting the snow on the slope of the main climb. We tried standing on the slope to walk down but failed to do so. Anyone who tried walking immediately fell and started sliding. Our half inch long micro spikes were of no use on deep soft snow. So we all started sliding down in sitting position. We were still roped in and were not able to control the sliding speed. The guys at the back of rope used to bump into the guys in front and it got very uncomfortable for the guys in front because of bumping. We approached a rocky section where our guide removed our rope and asked us to walk through it. So I got up first and stood on the outer side of the slope and tried to walk. Since I was still standing on soft snow, I couldn't get enough grip and slipped. Due to gravity my body immediately started sliding down with me trying to stop myself by pushing elbows and heels into snow. Still sliding I approached a section of rocks, toppled over it and fell on a small cliff few meters below rocks. I was facing down and roughly a feet away was the end of cliff. There was a huge drop next to that cliff where I had landed. If I would have gone any further, am sure my life would not have been the same. Team mate Wilmar and a guide came to my rescue at the cliff. I was definitely in shock but all of my body parts were intact. Couple of scratches around knee and legs but the mountain spared me!

Crossed the rocky section and took the slide all the way down to the glacier with few others from team. Walking on glacier was getting a bit tough now as the glacial surface was now brittle due to sun and it used to crack at places where we were walking. Carefully we walked across glacier, reached the advance base camp. Rested some time while looking at the magnificent view of glacier and the Stok Kangri peak. Soon we headed towards the base camp and reached past 11am. Everyone at base camp congratulated the summiters. After a 13 hour long stressful night, base camp felt like heaven. We were all back to the tents safe and sound. I drank water and slept hungry hoping someone would wake me up during lunch. Sadly that did not happen and I woke up in afternoon when everyone had finished lunch and were asleep. I was exhausted, hungry and thirsty. My body had literally no energy, I could barely walk around base camp in search of food. Luckily my teammates Dheeraj and Ketki gave me home made laddoos and those felt like the best thing I had ever eaten.

The evening passed with everyone sharing their summit day experience, not everyone was as lucky as us. Team mates who could not make it to the summit shared their stories how the guides demoralized them and did not allow them to go beyond Advance base camp. We realized how unprofessional and bad our guides had been during this trek. Despite having a very strong team of 18, only 7 made it to the summit.

Day 8 (Base camp to Stok village trek, Stok to Leh drive)

After a night sleep at base camp we headed down towards Stok village next morning. It was going to be 13 km long downhill walk through the same route with which we came up. I was tired from the summit day but my legs were fine. After crossing Manorarma my vision got blurred for about 10 seconds and I did not realize what just happened. I started walking again and my vision got blurred once more. So I stopped to have water and some dry fruits. I was experiencing blurred vision for 10 seconds which repeated after every minute. I couldn't believe what just happened and started laughing. Shared my problem with few of my team mates who were around and we came out to a conclusion that its exhaustion from summit day and lack of energy in body. So I was now paying for my mistake of missed lunch and digging deep into reserves on summit day. Dheeraj, Ketki and Jeet from my team gave me lots of sweets and chocolates making sure I get some instant sugar. Mithilesh took my heavy backpack and we started walking again. Had lunch at Changma camp where another team mate Anuradha who happens to be a doctor gave me few steroid tablets ensuring my smooth walk to Stok village. Everyone reached Stok safely, we loaded our bags in van and headed to Hotel in Leh. In evening we met again and some of us headed to restaurant to have snacks. While eating I again got blurred vision which lasted even for longer duration. I quickly had dinner and rushed to bed. All I needed was sleep now. I got better next day.

Equipment/gear used for summit

Having right gear is very important if you are heading for a high altitude trek. Wearing layers of clothing is more beneficial than wearing thick cloths. Here is the list of gear that I used during summit attempt:

1. Head: Endura cycling ear warmers (good), Decathlon woolen beanie (poor)

2. Neck: Woolen buff purchased from Leh market (Excellent)

3. Upper body: Kipsta base layer (excellent) Quechua SH500 Snow hiking fleece (excellent) Woodland Active Down jacket (average) Quechua Forclaz 100 Hiking rain/wind jacket (good)

4. Lower body Quechua Forclaz 50 Fleece tights (excellent) Quechua Forclaz 900 trekking trousers (good)

5. Socks: Inside dry fit running socks, outside knee high thick Decathlon woolen socks (average)

6. Shoes: Salomon X-Ultra Mid 2 GTX (Waterproof) (excellent)

7. Backpack: Wildcraft Cauvery 60 ltr. Carried only food and water on summit day after leaving luggage at base camp, its a huge backpack. Take a small backpack for summit day

8. Water: 4.5 litres (water freezes in bottles, keep atleast 1 litre flask full of warm water). Guides usually suggest carrying 2 litres water. Carry atleast 4 litres of water, its a long walk!

9. Food: 4 sneakers, a pack of dry fruits.

Do's and Dont's at Stok Kangri:

1. Travel with good guides. They make a lot of difference to your experience.

2. Choose your trekking company wisely. Budget operators may not be the best.

3. Keep sipping water while gaining altitude, its your alternate source of oxygen. Do not over drink.

4. Filter your drinking water if drinking from a stream (use water purification tablets or portable filter bottles). People at higher camps may be contaminating the water before it reaches you.

5. Do not sleep in day time right after gaining altitude no matter how tired you are. You may catch altitude sickness.

6. Acclimatization walks to higher altitude are very important. Do not skip them.

What's next on my list?

1. Early 2018: Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

2. Mid/late 2018: Annapurna Circuit trek, Nepal (or some other trek of similar grade).

3. Sept 2019: 4 weeks Basic Mountaineering Course from Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi (NIM).