Stok Kangri — The Common Man’s Everest — A Visual Climb

Prayerflags fluttering away at Matho la overlooking Stok Kangri

For the adventure enthusiast, seeking a high altitude mountain summit, the Stok Kangri Climb offers a surmountable challenge as it is one of the ‘Highest Trekkable summits’ in the Indian Himalaya. The trek of its steep slopes tests more the physical tenacity and resilience of a climber and not so much their technical mountaineering skills. The craze of climbing Stok Kangri is fueled by this achievability! A short 40 mins drive from Leh to the roadhead, its ease of reach is an added advantage. The entire trek and climb expedition can be wrapped up in 9–10 days. The first few days it is necessary to get acclimatised to high altitude and rarefied oxygen in order to avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Once acclimatised, the trekking exercise — reaching base camp (2–3 days) followed by the attempt at the summit, ending with the final descent to roadhead (1 day) just about takes a total of 4–5days. Depending on the time of the year and the conditions on the summit night, Stok Kangri could either prove to be a simple climb or a totally arduous ascent. Being a high peak with variable conditions throughout the year it deserves due respect. Climbers who take this lightly or falter on adequate preparation often end up having failed attempts at the summit.

This blog is an attempt to help you visualize the climb up the 6153m high Stok Kangri. It includes details of the acclimatization trek and successful ascent of one of our guests’ who attempted the climb in the first week of July in 2017 under heavy snow conditions. We break the whole climb into different phases starting with the acclimatization trek, going on to ascent until we finally get back to the road head at Stok. The blog offers some deep insights and some spectacular visuals that promise to be an engaging and highly informative read for prospective climbers who plan to attempt Stok Kangri. Read on…

Part 1 — Acclimatization Walk and Approach to Basecamp(BC)

After spending about 2 nights in Leh getting used to 3500m, we start trek from Matho village. Over 4 days we make our way slowly to Stok Kangri BC, crossing over Matho La(4900m) on the way. This is a preparatory trek to get better acclimatized to high altitude and to reach Stok base camp with better temperament and physical readiness needed for Summit Night. Day 1 is a short trek of 2–3 hours, and then resting at campsite by Matho chu.

Ethereal night sky at Gangpoche Campsite

Day 2 of the trek is towards the vast and expansive grounds of Gangpoche. The arid desert vegetation of Ladakh, willow trees and small seabuckthorn shrubs are scattered as we hike crossing many small streams and then climb the steep slope that ends in a platform which is our campsite. The mountains surrounding the camping grounds are a burst of purple with patches of green. The campsite is mainly a shepherd settlement area with stone encampments for livestock called Doksas. In the evening, when the shepherds return from higher slopes after a day of grazing, we could be having little lambs getting curious around campsite with the little ones even entering our tents to nibble on our socks and stuff lying around. Great chance to spot some Ladakhi wildlife — Himalayan Bluesheep or Bharaal. Another interesting aspect of camping here is that, we could be invited for a warm cup of butter tea at the Doksa, by the very warm and courteous shepherdess. And if luck would have it, we could be treated to some fresh goat milk, cheese and even the local brew — Chaang!

Day 3 is pass-crossing day when we cross Matho La (4900m) and descend towards Yuruley or further on to Smankarmo. We camp here for the night, before we head on to Stok Kangri basecamp the next day.

After hiking for about 3 hours we reach the prayer flags strewn pass — Matho La(4900m). We are in for a grand vista of the Stok Kangri and the entire Stok Range! Surely a pick-me-upper after the hike and also fuels us with some positivity — well needed for the days to come. Yuruley which is about 30 mins away is the last grazing grounds for horses beyond which we enter the arid, desert like Stok region. The horses descend to this area after they have have transported the camping equipment to Stok Base Camp and graze to their hearts content until climbers finish their tryst with the peak!

On Day 4, we enter Stok Valley. The footfall in Stok Valley during the summer season has earned it the moniker — Stok Highway. It is a busy route with horse caravans, crew and climbers all walking up its slopes to Stok BC or returning to roadhead at Stok village. We get to meet Happy summiteers with faces lit up and eager to share stories from summit night. Also disappointed ones, who didn’t make it. A 2–3 hour walk from Smankarmo leads us to Stok Kangri BC.

Part 2 — Stok Kangri Basecamp(BC) and Advanced BC Walk

Stok Kangri BC is at an altitude of 4900m. Beyond this point, camping is not allowed and summit attempt has to be made from this altitude. This is what makes Stok Kangri a formidable ascent increasing time duration of summit attempt and safe descent…more often leaving climbers totally exhausted towards the end.

Golep Kangri — Stok’s twin which is just short of 6000m is about 4hrs to summit and is an easier climb. With Golep as a formidable fort towering on the side and myriad tents in varying sizes pitched around, the basecamp is easily comparable to a Battlefield station. It takes similar efforts into preparing and planning, both physically and mentally to attempt summit at an altitude of 6153m.

The huge camping ground is eerily silent when we reach early noon on Day 5. We pitch our tents, rest for the day and get accustomed to 4900m. By late afternoon and dusk, the camp is abuzz with activity when other summit teams return. It is exciting to be surrounded by climbers ready to climb, happy summiteers — who are eager to share their story of the climb and also humbling to see some stoic faces who missed making it to the top. The evening is a good reminder that mountains are not conquered, we just submit to its magnanimity and get only to bask in glory for a while. The night again is buzzing with activity for a bit, when summit teams attempting that night start leaving BC.

A stairway to heaven-Golep Kangri as seen from ridge line above Stok BC. The tiny specks of colour are tents at Basecamp

The next day, Day 6, as part of preparing and planning for summit night, we walk up to the 5200m ridge above BC and further on to Advanced BC to make a note of the terrain and acclimatise further. Remember the mantra — Climb High , Sleep Low! This vantage point gives a good view of the surrounding mountains all the way to civilization. We return to BC, do a gear check by trying on snow boots, crampons and retire early with an early supper by 5pm to catch up on some sleep before we wake up again around midnight and embark on the 10–11 hrs attempt at the summit. We will be thoroughly riddled with excitement and anxiousness which is when it becomes important to have a calm mind ready to take on the challenge. It is not just physical grit and stamina that will take us to the peak. A cool and composed mind is even more important to keep yourself together when the going gets tough.

Part 3 — Trek to Summit

Headlight, ice axe, ropes, snowboots, gaiters, crampons, emergency food packed in, climbers head out for the summit attempt. They are layered with thermals, fleece and wind cheater to protect against cold. A quick prayer before embarking on the long walk to summit through darkness, sub-zero temperatures and possible wind chill!

We leave the camp anywhere between 11 pm to 2 am in the night — depending on the pace of the group. The trek from BC to summit is a daunting 1250 m ascent, easily 7–8 hours of well-paced walk. This is where a peak like Stok Kangri poses a challenge. Since there is no permission from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) to camp any further up, the ascent and descent from 4900m becomes a marathon effort!

It isn’t how fast a person walks, but how steady and at what altitude! It is all about striking a fine balance between maintaining body temperature with a steady pace in the cold and limit gasping for breath in rarefied air — these factors play a vital role in an individual’s ability to reach the Summit. It is very important to time the ascent in such a way that you reach after day breaks and before the sun gets too warm. If you are too fast and reach summit in dark, you have to wait till dawn to enjoy views from the top. If you are too late to summit, the descent might become dangerous with snow conditions changing. A good summit window would be anywhere between 6 am to around 9 am in the morning, after which the descent gets difficult with melted snow becoming squishy and tiring to plough through. Also, exhaustion sets in and that’s when mistakes happen. Some which could prove deadly!

After walking in darkness for the better part of night gathering every bit of energy and motivation on the steep slope to the ridge, the first rays of the sun is like the elixir of life. As the dawn breaks, it warms us up and gives us a fresh lease of life. Never in our lives would we have craved for the sun as much as just before dawn on a cold summit night! In just a short while, we could be shedding some layers, there is suddenly a spring in the stride and a new found confidence to make the summit.

As the Sun dawns upon us, clouds making way to bright blue sky,the path to the Summit is clearly visible

With infused energy, we climb up to the ridge line, which offers some astounding view of the Zanskar range, Stok range and also the east Karakorams. From the ridge line, it is another 1.5 hrs to the summit. There is a little resting place on the ridge, to take a breather and have a bite before the last push to summit. This is wear crampons could come on unless you have already not worn them much below after crossing the glacier. The timing all depends on the snow and ice conditions of the day. In the last rung of the climb, the pace is much slower, everything is down to one at a time — one breath, one step, one moment of time. Chanting ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ under your breath could just help to have an unwavering rhythm to follow 🙂 . The pace is even more slowed down owing to mounds of snow and difficult negotiating bits. Concentration is key!

A climber’s ability to persist and persevere with a cool clear mind will be the last guiding factor to have a safe and successful Summit. The path is narrow and there is just one way to the summit. It could get crowded with jubilant climbers walking down and anxious one’s still making their way up. Being roped up on this stretch with your guide is very important.

Part 4 — The Summit

Walking the ridgeline especially during heavy snow conditions needs to be done, wearing crampons and roped to the guide. Albeit simple but an important note, is the colours of the jackets — always choose bright, easy to spot colours. When the mist rises, one should be easily spotted from a distance, this could be the tipping point that ensures safety during bad weather and low visibility conditions.

It seems like it is taking an eternity to reach the peak. What with heavy breathing and exhaustion seeping in. The sight of prayer flags strewn above lifts our spirits — point 6153m is at a sniffing distance. And then…

At the Summit!! Prayer flags strewn summit under a heap of snow is just at a crawling distance.

At the peak!!! All the effort and dogged resilience have paid off.

It’s a mixed bag of emotions, jubilation, cries of satisfaction, tears of joy! Exhaustion giving way to new vigour. It is time to count your blessings, show gratitude to the natural elements that paved way for you to reach the top. Lots of celebratory clicks and smiles. String up your own prayer flags. It’s a marvelous, breathtaking, magnificent and altogether humbling view of the many mountains ranges around. On a clear sky, we could even sight the world’s second highest peak- K2 all the way into Pakistan. Take a minute to silence it all, let the calm pervade you. Be aware of all your senses, feel the chills, see the snow covered peaks from above. You will not be at a point like this in the near future. Take it all in, let it seep through.

We cannot be staying up there for more than 15 to 20 odd minutes, since a mild headache is prone to start building sooner or later. We gotta harness our last reserves of energy for a safe Descent.

Part 5 — Descend to Stok BC

The narrow ridge line of Stok is not only the path for ascending but also the path to descend … so there would be traffic on busy days. We are still all roped up and it will be so until we reach the resting point on the ridge, where we normally stop for a quick breakfast from the packed food we have carried. It is a picturesque descent; with the successful summit behind us, the rush of dopamine elevates the happiness quotient and we get to ‘see’ the beauty around us which seemed to be marred by physical difficulty on the way up. The beauty of glaciers and mountain ranges from that altitude is much more appreciated, enjoyed and imbibed during the descent.

Heavy snow conditions keeps pulling you in on the way down

Depending on the snow conditions and the time you descend, the descent can be easy or tough. In heavy snow conditions, you could be glissading down short safe stretches and ploughing through the rest. In light snow, it could be easy walking. In no snow conditions, you need to concentrate a lot since you will mostly be walking through a lot of loose rock and moraine. A discerning eye could easily spot raw crystals in the moraines on the Stok Kangri slopes. They make for a pretty good souvenir!

In the light of day, the enormity of the efforts put in to climb is clearly visible as we retrace our path.The limited visibility of the headlight the previous night helped us not to see the ‘mountain of a task’ ahead of us! Few steps of the lit pathway was a good way to soldier on and keep our spirits unbroken.

All energy dissipated, it’s the last mile of walk, walk, walk down the slopes to base camp. At this point, we are just waiting get down to tents at BC, sit back, relax, and have something warm. Knackered…is how most climbers reach base camp. The kitchen would be ready with some hot food to fuel the body and mind. The food helps replenish supplies, post which most of them are knocked out for a while…catching up on sleep and getting over the total exhaustion. It is business as usual at BC, with other teams prepping themselves for the summit night. We are now the happy summiteers glad to share our tale with nervous climbers.

Mountain peaks offer a unique perspective to all who attempt. We are now not the same person who spent the previous day anxious about the climb.The time left at BC is a great opportunity to reflect, introspect and most of all be grateful to the seen and unforseen forces that chimed together to make the climb happen for you!

Part 6 — Walk to roadhead

It’s time to bid adieu to the snow-crested mountains! It’s the day of lasts.

It’s the last day to view contrasting and varied hues of the mountains.

It’s the last day to let the feel and sight of the panorama sink in.

The last day — trek to the road head is not anti-climatic. It is a befitting end to a grand adventure.

We make our way down to the roadhead now through Stok Valley. We descend down to Smankarmo and head to Stok Village past Changma campsite through the vividly colourful and striated Stok Valley crossing over a small la towards the end. It takes about 5–6 hours with many stream crossings that meander all along the route. The route is busy with hikers, crew, horsemen and horse caravans making their way up and down. A little before reaching Stok we cross a small pass from where we get our first glimpse of the village. Our phones catch network signal and messages start buzzing. Civilization is close! The Golden Buddha and green of Stok — poplar and willow trees and green farms can be seen from the La. From this point, it’s a half hour walk to the road head of Stok Village where our taxis will be waiting to take us to Leh, to the comforts of a hotel room.

An epic journey and a momentous adventure come to an end!
Almost at the roadhead. The curtain closes on an Epic Adventure

The Stok Kangri climb, notwithstanding the successful summit attempt, is a beautiful trek through the landscapes of Ladakh. Many variables contribute to the success of the Summit Night — the weather, acclimatization, snow conditions, individual’s fitness both physical and mental, your guide, the support staff, feel good factors and a lot more things. Whatever the result of our attempt, there is more to this trek than just reaching the summit.

“The journey, not the destination matters”

We hope that ‘Stok Kangri — A Visual Climb’ has been a captivating journey through words and photos. Hope it triggers your imagination and incites a yearning to live these photographic moments for real.

If its adventure you seek, look no further!

Adventure Sindbad operates departures to Stok Kangri peak in Ladakh every summer.

For more info visit —Stok Kangri Climb

Photo Credits: Martina Heilig and Vishwas Raj

Author and Visual Creative: Sumathi Ganapathy


Originally published at adventuresindbad.com on May 15, 2018.