Thursday, November 30, 2017

Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 3)

Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 1)
Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 2)
Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 3) (You are reading this)


"Where is the guide? Why haven't we started yet? Other groups have already left". Frantic shouts outside the tent made me get up at once. 10.30 PM was the time and we seemed to be already late. Quickly we came outside of the tent and assembled at our food tent. We were given few snack items which we loaded into our backpacks.

It was 11.15 PM when we started our march towards the summit. "Prashant, our rucksacks have become very heavy and we cannot trek with so much of a load. I think we need to quit." Bapu Pagar told me within first 10 minutes of our first ascent as he and Puneet Sanklecha decided to return to the camp. Quitting of two more guys reduced the count to six.

Another ten minutes followed as we ascended half of the first mountain. With heavy rucksacks first few minutes of ascent seemed extremely challenging which made Kiran Kale to quit as well. He requested our guide to go along with him to the camp. Considering campsite was still visible and  we were already short of guides (two guides + 1 helper), I asked Kiran to go down alone without the guide. He agreed to it instantly but our helper said that he would go down with Kiran to camp and will come back again. This arrangement suited all of us. Retreating of Kiran further reduced count to five -  Tushar Kothawade, Prashant Kothawade, Sanjay Kulkarni, Vishnu and Dr Atul Sathaye.

After hiking for an hour, we reached to the top of the first mountain. We rested a bit, sipped some water and started walking on a narrow traverse on the left side. After walking for almost 2 hours, we reached to the advanced base camp site. Previously there used to the final camp at this site but as the place had become filthy with a lot of litter, government banned this campsite. We rested for 10 minutes at this location and munched on few snacks.

As it was pitch dark, we were not able to figure out the terrain around. We crossed few patches of ice along the way but overall it was difficult to comprehend the landscape around. Walking incessantly at night with Oxygen layer getting thinner and thinner was testing us mentally.

Soon, we entered the inhospitable terrain of the glacier. Every step on the slippery ice was an ordeal. It quite slowed us down. Kulkarni Uncle slipped couple of times badly. Walking on the slippery ice was bringing our morale down. If that was not enough, our guide showed us few headlights heading towards the Summit at a height so staggering that it  looked impossible to reach to that height with our current condition. Suddenly Stok Kangri started looking impossible to summit.

After walking on the glacier, we found a set of rocks to rest. Looking at the headlights at the dizzying height further plummeted our confidence. "I am not sure if I can ascend with a descent speed. I don't have any energy left to complete this trek. I think I will go back to the camp now" Words from  Tushar Dada shocked me but having seen Tushar Dada's very low intake of food  during last few days, I could understand his situation and sympathise with him. It was quite rational decision at that time.

"Vishnu , you look quite distraught with your heavy coughing. You don't seem to be stable on your feet. So I would suggest you also come with me" Tushar Dada advised Vishnu. "No, I am fine and I will go further" said Vishnu. "Prashant and Dr. Sathaye look quite fit to reach to the summit. So please make sure that you don't bring any guide down jeopardizing team's attempt for Summit" Tushar Dada was very logical in his assessment of the situation. But Vishnu was adamant on going further. So Tushar  Dada decided to return alone with third guide (who was actually a helper) and was anyways going to return from this point.

Now, we remained four. Within five minutes of Tushar Dada returning, Kulkarni Uncle slipped badly one more time on the ice. He looked visibly distraught and immediately decided to quit. Now, we only had two guides left. Tenzing, one of our guides quickly descended for few minutes and called out for Tushar Dada and the third guide. Fortunately they were still within the range of shouting distance and they heard Tenzing's shouts. Kulkarni Kaka finally joined Tushar Dada and both of them started descending back to the camp site along with the third guide.

Now, we remained three having support of two guides. This seemed a fair ratio of trekkers to guides. Summit was still very distant. "Don't think too much. Take one step at a time. Each step will get you closer to the Summit." I was motivating myself as I was ascending a step at a time. Dr Sathaye looked the most comfortable on this ascent and was occupying the head position. Our head guide - Regzin was just behind Dr Sathaye followed by me.

Gradually Vishnu started lagging behind. Tenzing  our second guide was accompanying Vishnu. After ascending for an hour, gradually it started dawning. With first rays of Sun, my motivation soared. Now, I was able to make the sense of surrounding landscapes. On our left stood the mighty snow mountains. We were walking on a glacier inclined almost 70 degrees. Snow reigned everywhere.

It was the first time that I was trekking through so much of a snow. On the right side, horizon turned crimson. I had never witnessed so rich of a crimson color on the horizon. It almost looked unreal and over-saturated. Sun was still hiding behind the clouds and its rays were filtering through the clouds making the whole visual surreal. Photographer inside me wanted to just soak in to this visual treat and capture more and more photos but trekker inside me took the precedence and ignoring this ever changing color fiesta at the horizon, I started ascending again. As I was ascending, Vishnu was struggling behind and finally decided to quit. His quitting made Tenzing to return with him and now we two - me and Dr Sathaye were left with only Regzin - our main guide.

Dr. Sathaye was in top form today. The work he had done to improve his fitness and stamina looked obvious. I couldn't have asked for a better companion on this extreme altitude. Doctor was carrying the kit of medicines and injections which could prove extremely useful in case of emergency at this crazy altitude. He was ascending at an astounding pace and there was a gap of about 10 minutes between me and him.

Our main guide was accompanying me. Surprisingly he never tried to push me and was stopping along with me to take in few breaths. A series of black rocks few meters ahead looked extremely inviting for me to take some rest as ice ruled everywhere during our ascent. I set my eyes on these rocks as my immediate destination. Dr Sathaye had already reached and perched on these rocks waiting for us.

After another strenuous ascent, making our way through snow, we finally reached to the rocks. Extremely exhausted, I just threw my backpack and perched to get a much needed rest. I tried to eat a dried fig but I couldn't swallow it and almost threw it up.

"Regzin, shoulder looks pretty close now. I think we can successfully summit now", I said emphatically with an air of confidence.

"We are pretty late now for the Summit now. It will take another 3 hours to reach to Summit." These words from Regzin shattered me and I couldn't believe his words. I thought he was exaggerating the time.

"Why didn't we start early then? We could have started around 9PM instead of 11PM?" I shot back. He didn't have any answer to my question.

As I was arguing with Regzin, a helper from another expedition descended and I cross verified the time that would be required to summit from the point where we were now at. "Sir, it will take around 45 minutes to 1 hour to reach to Summit". My cross verification irked Regzin as his lies and exaggeration about the time to reach Summit were exposed.

"Sir, you do not believe me. If you are too adamant, I will take you to the Summit but I cannot guarantee your safety during the descent. In sunshine, this hard snow will melt and descending would be pretty difficult."

I felt cheated and disgusted with the guide but considering I was novice and he was the expert in the terrain, there was no point in arguing further. I had a brief chat with Dr Sathaye and finally we decided to take the words of Regzin. On Dr Sathaye's insistence, Regzin agreed to take us till shoulder. As Summit was out of question now, I decided not to venture further and asked both of them to proceed to the shoulder. Regzin asked me to descend immediately instead of waiting for them. He briefly instructed me how to use ice axe and set off for the shoulder along with Dr Sathaye.

It took me few minutes to get over the disappointment of getting denied of Summit attempt. I just perched on the rock for some time reflecting on the events so far. As Sun was coming overhead, ice already had started melting. Now, my immediate goal was to descend safely. After few steps, i realized the enormity of tasks ahead of me. With my heavy backpack, heavy camera bag, hiking stick in one hand and ice axe in another, I was finding it difficult to balance myself during the descent.

Each step compounded my misery. I took stalk of the situation after 10 minutes and felt shocked to see the pace of my descent. I hardly had taken few steps and was still very near to the rocks from where I had started the descent. There was no one in the sight and I felt helpless feeling minuscule in presence of the towering mountains and blanket of snow everywhere. Dejected and helpless, I now decided to perch in the snow to decide on my next strategy.

As I was mulling over my next strategy, I spotted few mountaineers at a distance. They didn't seem to be attempting Summit but looked to be practising on this gigantic glacier for some other high altitude trek. They were roped to each other and ascending with a steady pace. These tiny looking mountaineers aroused my interest and I decided to capture them in my camera. After getting few good frames, I felt better.

As I was soaking in the great vista, a guide along with his client descended rapidly. This client was roped to the guide and both of them were descending pretty comfortably. I was amazed to see their speed of descent and soon realised that I was missing an important thing that they were having - crampons. Though we were carrying crampons in our rucksacks, our guides never told us to wear them during our ascent. Ascent would have been much easier had we worn the crampons. This simple arrangement would have prevented so much of agony during ascent at night. Now also, while Regzin instructed me how to use ice axe, he never uttered a word about fitting the crampons to my shoes.

This idea of crampon made me elated and I gradually took out crampons from my rucksack. I removed my gloves and tried hard to fit the crampons to my shoes. But alas! Crampons didn't seem to fit to my shoes however hard did I try. I desperately needed some helping hand to do this activity. I spotted a guy some distance below chatting with the guide who just had descended with his client. After guide and his client was gone, I shouted to catch attention of this guy. Fortunately he heard my shouts and came towards me.
"Brother, I am not able to fit these bloody crampons. Can you help me?"
"Yes, sure."

It took five minutes for him to fit crampons correctly and once done, he asked me to descend few steps to check whether crampons were fitted correctly. I felt quite comfortable and thanked profusely to this messiah of god. I asked him whether he could accompany me during the descent as I didn't know the exact route. He said that he was acting as a helper for another expedition and waiting for other members to descend. He advised me to follow the foot prints and after confirming the tentative route, I started descending again.

With nicely fitted crampons, I found descending so much easier. I started enjoying my descent now. Descending solo on the glacier was a novel experience for me. I was concentrating hard on each step. Heat of sun had made hard ice very soft now and this posed another challenge as my leg was totally immersed inside the snow most of the time. I was wearing two pairs of socks and that helped my feet to stay dry for most of the time.

At one point during the descent, I toppled myself as my hiking stick got stuck in the snow. I nosedived for few feet but luckily without any injury. With snow on my face, I laughed at myself and again perched in the snow for some time, gulped some water from the fresh ice stream flowing just a feet away. Gulping the cold water refreshed me instantly.

There was still some part of the glacier remaining and I just wanted to get the hell out of it. Now, I was presented with another challenge where a crevasse blocked my way. I walked in parallel to this crevasse to search for the part of crevasse from where I could jump to cross it. It took me five minutes to find such a point. Praying to god, I jumped this crevasse and crossed it successfully. Feeling the sigh of relief, I ventured ahead.

Though I was not stranded alone as I knew my companions would be joining me shortly, I felt vulnerable being along in such a territory at that particular point of time. Thought of spotting snow leopard or pack of snow wolves was a possibility and it made me haste. In the process of crossing the crevasse, I lost track of the route. As I was trying to find the correct route, I heard faint shouts originating somewhere up the glacier. Though shouts were not clear, I knew those were meant for me and definitely I was off the track of the correct trail. When I looked back, I saw two tiny figures descending. Looking at their outfits, I guessed Dr Sathaye and Regzin would be joining me shortly. I felt so happy to see these guys and perched again in the snow waiting for them to join. I was almost out of the glacier now but not sure of the route ahead, decided to wait these guys to join me.

I felt relieved to unite with my team. Dr Sathaye helped me to take out my crampons after crossing the glacier. We kept a safe distance from Regzin to give him the message that we were upset with him.

Dr Sathaye told me that reason Regzin refused to come on Summit was that he was not carrying the rope required to reach the Summit. These ropes were carried by Tenzing, our second guide who had already returned with Vishnu. Mismanagement on part of these guides deprived us opportunity to conquer Stok Kangri and we were helpless to do anything about it.

In the campsite, Tushar Dada was restless checking again and again to see whether he could spot us coming down from the mountain. Finally he was happy to see us descending to the camp and welcomed us as we reached to near the campsite. Time: 11.30 AM

Hiking for twelve consecutive hours in the thin air had fatigued us tremendously. After gulping a lot of water, I retreated inside the tent and slept like a log for almost 4 hours. Except Tushar Dada, Vishnu and Kulkarni Uncle, all other trek mates had decided to return to Leh instead of spending another night at high altitude.

Next morning, we descended to base within four hours and finally reached to Leh in the afternoon culminating the exciting as well as unnerving days spent on the high altitude.

Stok Kangri proved to be the most challenging trek of my short trekking career. Though there was a tinge of disappointment of not conquering this peak, I really grew as a mountaineer. For an amateur mountaineer like me, testing heights of 19000 ft was no mean a small feat. Images of absolute whiteness experienced on the treacherous slopes of final glacier still dance in front of the eyes. Peak of Stok Kangri still calls me in my dreams. Some dreams are better to be unfulfilled. It keeps you alive, grounded and motivates you to strive harder next time.  As Philippos Syrigos rightly said:
I dare to dream greatly; I dare to fail greatly. I dare to tolerate the ashes of my unfulfilled dreams, for I may dream again. I dare not tolerate the ashes of my unfulfilled life, for I may never live again.

Thank you for reading the blog!

Note: Though it was a brave decision to carry my heavy camera during the Summit bid and it posed a great challenge for me especially during descent, it also enabled me to capture few breathtaking frames which will remind me of the unforgettable moments spent on this beautiful yet foreboding glacier. Here are the few clicks:

Just before the sunrise:

 Dawn about to break up:

Glorious display of colours over the horizon:

Regzin our main guide taking a break:

Blanket of snow everywhere:

Golden light gradually illuminating the snow:

Beautiful filtered rays:

Hostile and unnerving descent through the ice:

Mountaineers practising before some other high altitude trek:

Crevasse cutting through the glacier. I had to jump this crevasse down the slope:

Almost out of the glacier:

Magic of shade and light:

Relieved to spot my team members approaching towards me:

Return hike to Stok village:

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Happy hiking!

Appeal: No litter; no plastic; no wrappers; keep the mother nature clean!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 2)

Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 1)
Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 2) (You are reading this)
Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 3) 

Day 3 (28th July, 2017)

Shouts of bed tea made us wake up around 6.30 am. After finishing early morning chores and breakfast, we got ready for today's hike to our second camp at Manokarma at 14200 feet.

Tushar Dada ready for the hike:

We ascended a trail to reach to the plateau we had visited yesterday as part of our acclimatisation. Yesterday we had followed the left trail going up on the mountain but today's trail was in the opposite direction. We rested a bit on this plateau before descending for some distance.
Initial ascent to reach to the plateau:

Vishnu on the backdrop of rocky mountains:

Yesterday we had followed the faint looking trail going up the mountain as part of our acclimatisation walk.

Now, we were walking with the mountain on the right and a river bed on the left with part of river bed occupied by a gushing stream.

Gushing stream accompanied us for some part of trail.

Today we started encountering trekkers going back to Leh from Stok Kangri expedition. "Did you summit Stok? How was the experience?" were the questions posed for these trekkers. Most of the trekkers answered in the negative and we realized that summit was going to be a challenge for our group as well.

A pretty lady was descending with headphones almost dancing. She seemed pretty ecstatic.

"Did you summit?" and "Yes" was her emphatic reply.

"How was it?"

" It is pretty tough sir. Only will power will take you up there." She was the only one from her group to have made it to the summit and she was over the moon.

"What is your name"?

"Kubra Sait"

Name didn't ring any familiarity to me but it did for Vishnu from Bangalore Team. Later he told us that lady was the famous Radio Jockey, actress and anchor of Pro Kabaddi league.

Team with actress Kubra Sait:

Vishnu with Kubra Sait:

Just before our second camp, I came across three German trekkers. All of them were successful in scaling Stok Kangri and were in effusive praise for Leh Ladakh and India. They were in Leh region for a month and had done few acclimatisation treks before attempting Stok Kangri. As compared to them, we seemed poorly acclimatised after just 2-3 days of acclimatisation.

Our tents were not yet laid as we reached to the campsite. Soon, weather deteriorated and everyone started shivering. To keep the body warm, some of us kept moving here and there. Milind Dadu decided to have a small jog to keep the body warm. Everyone retired to the tents as soon as they were laid.

Today I was feeling much better and was able to eat much better (though 25% of my normal diet) than the previous days. In fact I was feeling the best today in all the days since I landed in Leh. It made my mood buoyant. I participated in UNO game and kept on playing for many hours with the team.

Our campsite:

Enjoying the game of UNO:

Today I was feeling great and did not want to go inside the tent. Somehow spending time inside the tent was making me lethargic; so I kept killing time outside the tent. In the evening I decided to go a bit higher. Only Aadil Baba agreed to accompany me as everyone preferred to stay inside the tent with a very dull weather outside. Weather was overcast and possibility of rain loomed. Still I took a chance and went for a stroll with Aadil Baba accompanying me. Hardly had we walked for 10 minutes when it started raining and we reluctantly returned back to the tents.

Today's day went really well as far as I was concerned. Finally all the negative thoughts of not getting acclimatized were swept away and for the first time I started imagining myself conquering Stok Kangri.

Day 4 (29th July, 2017)

We woke up to the crisp morning next day. Today's target was to reach to the final camp at 16500 ft. I was pretty excited as for the first time in my life, I was going to camp at an elevation above 16000 ft.

Start of hike towards base camp:

We were gaining height slowly and steadily. At one point we witnessed many mountain goats wandering merrily on the eerie slope of the mountain in front of us. We kept on watching their movement by perching on the rock.

We encountered a big ascent as we were approaching our final camp site. This ascent tired all of us and we took frequent breathing breaks while negotiating this final ascent.

A large campsite with large number of tents greeted us as we came on a large plateau. Again our tents had not yet arrived and we just lied down on the grass . Finally we had arrived at the campsite over 16000 ft. Campsite was again beside the big mountain stream. A gigantic mountain laid in front of us and we spotted a distinct trail going up the mountain. Same trail was going to take us in the direction of Stok Kangri.

Beautiful weather at camp site:

Today we were just advised to rest avoiding doing anything strenuous. So we just killed time in strolling around the campsite, playing UNO and just chatting. In the afternoon, I preferred watching a movie on Milind Dadu's mobile instead of sleeping.

Most of us seemed to be in good condition when we arrived but some started developing headache and mild dizziness as the day progressed. Worst of the lot was Milind Dadu who had acute headache and preferred to rest inside the tent. Being the fittest member of our group, I was pretty certain that Milind Dadu would start feeling better soon.

Kiran Kale posing and urging me to take his photograph:

Next day morning, we were taken for the acclimatisation walk on the trail going up the mountain. It was a gigantic mountain but we did pretty well and reached to the top in 40 minutes. Campsite looked like few tiny dots as we reached to top of the mountain.

Soaking in the great vista:

Today night we would be traversing the immediate mountain ahead and I kept looking and wondering what would be in store for us behind the mountain.

Group photo before descending to camp:

Final acclimatisation walk was done. All participated. Though no one complained, I started worrying about Milind Dadu. Though he came with us on top of the mountain, he looked very wretched and slept the whole time we were on top of the mountain. After spending half an hour, we descended back to the camp site.

Milind Dadu's headache didn't subside even after taking multiple tablets. Considering his condition, Dr Sathaye, I and Tushar Dada advised him to descend to Leh as soon as possible and he also agreed instantly. This retreat was pretty shocking to us considering Milind Dadu was the fittest member among us. Sadly high altitude sickness had cut short his quest to conquer Stok Kangri . A helper from the team was chosen to accompany Milind Dadu to Leh and we all escorted him for certain distance and kept on watching him till he disappeared.

Considering number of strenuous treks we had done together, losing Milind Dadu from the expedition was the personal setback for me. But it was the right decision at that moment and we had to take it in our strides. Still there were 10 of us and there was a peak to be climbed.

We were going to start for the summit bid at night and we were asked to rest the whole day. Considering we had to trek the whole night, we preferred to rest inside the tents and tried to get as much rest as possible. In the afternoon, our guides prepared the crampons to suit all shoes and we were given crampons, ice axes and harnesses to carry in our rucksacks.

As the afternoon wore on, I came to know that Pandit Dhondge and Aadil Baba had also decided to quit and they would rest in the camp itself. It brought the count to 8 now . We were given early dinner around 5 PM and then were asked to sleep for few hours. Considering the long night ahead, we retreated to our tents. Tonight I was embarking on the most challenging high altitude trek of my life. Mentally preparing myself for the summit bid, I tucked inside my sleeping bag to get the much needed rest.

Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 1)
Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 2) (You are reading this)
Stok Kangri - A Dream Unfulfilled! (Part 3)