Even though I had done some hiking and running at altitude and flying in heights of 5000 meters, I knew this wasn’t enough to stay safe when cloudbase would turn epic in the Tajikistani Pamir in July, where one could expect 7000 meters on stupid good days… not that I plan on flying that high without oxygen, but just in case…
I left Bir with the feeling that I had done everything I wanted to do in this area and even more. I was very satisfied and my flying level was again at super-current. I drove to Dharamsala to get my girlfriend Sarah who had done a Yoga Teacher training there. Our plan was to fly to Leh, Ladakh in the northern Indian Himalayas where we would spend the next three weeks trekking and maybe one of the easier 6000er peaks that are abundant in that region.
After spending the last weeks in an old jeep, bouncing through the deep valleys of the Himalayas I was totally fine with the idea of spending a little more money to take the plane via New Delhi to Leh. Also I could leave all my heavy gear and my wing in Delhi, which meant traveling super light, with only our trekking gear in the small backpacks.
When you fly to Leh, you become quickly aware of the massive change of climate from the south to the north side of the main Himalayan range. Like in the alps, just much more extreme. The Himalayan range would completely stop all the moist air from the south, particularly shade the whole region off from the monsoon, the weather phenomena that would give all the life and water to the continent of the India. In a sudden change, all the green mountain pastures would disappear and a brown desolate world would open up. Rivers coming from the big mountains would bring life down into the valleys and create those oasis’s, like the Nil river in Egypt.
Leh is one oasis like that. When you land there you realize quickly how harsh the life up here actually is. Surrounded by what looks at first glance like a uniform brown, only through irrigation the people can get something out of the rocky and sandy ground. And then you see the snow covered mountain tops that surround the large Hindus Valley and your swiss mountain loving heart starts to weep of joy.
We took the cab to a small guesthouse that wasn’t right in town, so we could stay away a little from the backpackers hell. Even though it was June and not yet peak season, the town was already packed with big groups of Israeli’s straight out of the army, trying to shake their horror of three years (resp. two years for the girls) brainwashing in military service with smoking copious amounts of hash, wearing colorful bed sheets around their dreaded hair, so they’d look like a remnant from the 70’s, possibly to attract the willing hippie chick from Sweden that just had an amazing time down at the beach in Goa. Anyway. I’ll stop the hateration right there. This is a blog of a positive and centered person… ahem.
Of course this scene and the general tourist hellhole that is Leh gave us instant diarrhea (not literally… our bellies were by now used to all the E.Coli in the food) and we tried to hide in our quiet guesthouse and getting used to the altitude. Even though I had already spent quite some time at this altitude I could feel it and Sarah definitely needed the acclimatization before we could go on a trek in the mountains.
Also I had to get some internet work done, since there were some issues I had to deal with for my mission in Tajikistan. Ladakh isn’t a place where you should hope to get internet work done. The connection comes in waves, the strength isn’t good enough to down- or upload more than a single MB and then there was the strikes that would close all stores in town arbitrarily. So to anyone traveling up here, get your shit done before you come to Leh, seriously.
On the third day we left to the west, to a place called Lamayuru. This was the starting point of seven day trek we had planned beforehand. We didn’t take a guide either, since we had everything we needed to camp and trek on our own. Also, in case of need, there were enough small villages on the way to maybe get some emergency rice at worst or even a full Ladakhi homestay if you needed it.
When you start walking in the high altitude desert of Ladakh, you start realizing how divers the colors and the landscape actually is. This place is an eyecandy of a different kind and if you never seen anything like it, eyedrops fill your eyes because you can’t stop marveling at the sheer beauty of this land.
Apparently this place is called ‘the land of the many passes’ in the local language. And when you get to one of those passes, what you see will blow you away (sometimes the wind does literally). Already being amazed by the landscape when you walk in the valleys, but when you start to thread higher… there is hardly words than can describe it.
The trek was perfect to conservatively getting used to altitude. The camping possibilities would always be a little higher than the nights before and the mountain passes never too high to become a real issue.
But I admit, it wasn’t easy. Sometimes walking for ten hours a day in the incredible daytime heat, that the desert can produce even at over 4000 meters definitely grinded us. It wasn’t a really easy trek and you could tell by how many people we would meet while walking through this lost dreamworld. None. At least until we strafed another trek that is immensely popular.
At the second pass we had lost the trail numerous times and we spent quite a bit of time at altitude. After a while the headache sank in, we started running out of water and I started getting worried for my Sarah who started feeling the altitude and excessive strain. But after wandering on the wrong trails for a while I started trusting my instincts and found the proper pass eventually. It took a while until we would find water as well and we would loose the trail again too, but that would actually turn out to be a much better choice than the proper trail, as it would send us in a deep shady gorge, where found the trail washed away by the river. For two hours we’d adventure in this gorge, trying hard to keep our feet dry.
This evening we couldn’t be asked doing our own food and asked a local for some proper Ladakhi dinner.
Here the large Zanskar River lay before us and had to be crossed with this little hand driven cable car, which was just too much fun. It was also the lowest part of the trek at 3200 meters and the heat even at 7 am was immense. We longed for the cool altitude of the high passes and made our way back to 5000 meters, desperately trying to keep hydrated.
We could feel now, that the acclimatization had settled in and our legs would get accustomed to the walking and weight of our backpacks. The last mountain pass on our last day was dispatched nearly in running mode and we felt heroic and strong.
Our next goal was now clear and straight before our eyes. Famous Stok Kangri, an easy 6000+ peak, that lies just in front of Leh. Perfect to make a ton of money for all the guiding companies in town that would try to get the Delhi people up to their first real mountain.
At first we hesitated doing the peak by ourselves, as Sarah had very little mountaineering experience and I wasn’t too sure about the difficulty and technicality of the mountain. But when some of the local guides made us ‘special’ deals for over 300 USD to bring us up there and some other foreigners reassured us about the easyness of the climb, we didn’t hesitate anymore. Also there is an enhanced teastall at basecamp to would keep us fed for as long as we wanted to stay up there.
We were fit and acclimatized now, so within a couple of hours we were at basecamp. The teastall was a large tent that could give 40 people enough room and the hyperactive Ladakhi who ran it, made great food. He was also a great dancer and we had a great pastime, making some dancing videos.
And they even served beer. So all the additional food we had brought up there, was unnecessary. Didn’t matter. I needed the training. Also, if we hadn’t brought the food and all the other things up there, then there wouldn’t have been anything up there. One of the most important rules of traveling India: NEVER RELY ON ANYTHING.
Next day we walked up to the glacier that stretches between the actual climb of the mountain and the easy approach. I just did need an idea where to go, as we would walk for the most part during the night and there weren’t so many groups up there at this time that we could just follow some other guided group. Also we hated the idea the rely on someone else, particularly as the climb was supposedly so easy.
I got some beta and additional info by a foreigner couple that had just come down and they advised to not be too late or too slow, since the morning sun will quickly soften the snow on the main face, which you traverse. Apparently they trapped themselves numerous times on the downclimb in the deep soft snow. They had taken around eight hours for the climb and told us, that since we look fit it would take us around seven hours if we were fast. In other books I had read around the same. Usually it would people between 6-8 hours, only the fewest manage it in five hours and make it there just for sunrise.
We started walking just at midnight. Three groups had started before us and we could see their headlights from basecamp. As usual, my burning ambition starts kicking in when I see people in front of me. Sarah is usually a slower starter than I am, but I didn’t realize here that I was pushing her a little too much at the start. When her engine is warm though, she is a damn fast walker.
Quickly we passed the other groups. They all had guides but weren’t as acclimatized as we were. As soon as we were past the glacier on the actual climb we were able to switch off our headlights, as the moon was nearly full and we could see as good as daylight. It was pure magic.
I missed the trail to the final ridge by a little and we came into some steeper terrain. But even though it was Sarah first time on crampons and ice axe, she managed it like she was born on ice.
The ridge to the top was really perfect and easy, no dangers whatsoever. And so we were up there at exactly 4:30 am. It had taken us 4 hours and 25 minutes to get to the top, including all the little breaks. We were proud, felt even more strong and heroic.
On the way down we took things slow, we had pushed it quite a bit to the top and the downclimb on the ridge is a lot more tricky, especially if you’re not used to walking crampons on rocks.
But everything went alright and soon we were back in camp to get our well deserved chai’s and beers.
The last couple of days in Leh were mainly filled with eating as many calories as we could find. I desperately needed to get some fat back on my ribs for my mission in Central Asia.
I was happy. I had gotten what I came for. I felt that I was perfectly acclimatised for the altitude of the Pamir and I was as fit as a fiddle. And I had spent some real quality time with my love Sarah.