Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ladakh 2014 - Final Phase (Stok in 24 Hrs)

Phase 3 – Boredom & Stok

Since I was able to attempt both of my objectives near Korzok in good time and complete both, the Merkha Valley and the Tso Moriri legs of my trip well within the time I had allotted them, I was back to Leh on the 20th. I had originally planned to be back by the 23rd, and fly out after a rest day at Leh. But I probably acclimatised very well and was able to achieve all the objectives in quick time; to my disadvantage really, because now I had 5 days to kill in Leh; well 4 days at least, since I would fly out on the 25th. Since I have been to Leh so many times and since it is such a small place that I have probably visited every street and alley on so many occasions; I was beginning to freak out at the prospect of not having anything to do over the next 4 or 5 days. 20th was no problem, because I reached Leh at about 5 in the evening. I had called John from somewhere near Choglamser, so he was able to arrange a room for me. I had a nice shower and was out to have dinner. John had to visit his friend for a little Nepalese get together. It was a community thing. I went to the market place and got a shave since I was among civilized folks for the next few days. I had my favourite apricot+seabuckberry juice before and after dinner. A lot of people would be a little put off by its tangy sour taste; not me. I absolutely love the concoction. Anyways, after dinner I walked around the market place, bought some fruits and returned to my room by 9. I had some difficulty falling asleep but fell asleep eventually and I think I slept well. The torment was to begin the next morning.

I woke up quite early. I heard Johns voice in the lobby, so I went down to the lobby. He was talking to a guest while I was checking out a Scooter parked in the guest house. John told me that it belonged to a friend who gave it to him, the night gone by, at the party, since it was too late. It was the same model which my father once had. My father had owned a number of scooters since the 80's; Vijay Super, Bajaj Chetak, LML Vespa and so on. I remember, when I was 6, my father once let me handle the accelerator while he changed the gears for me. So I just couldn't NOT look at it. I asked John if I could check it out. He said that I could actually ride the scooter. I was ecstatic. I jumped on it like a monkey and took off. I can say for sure, that those were the best 5 minutes of my whole time in Leh during the trip. I thanked John for the ride. He asked me about breakfast and told me that he would have to go downtown to return the scooter to his friend. I couldn’t resist a second ride. So we were off to his friends restaurant in 5 minutes. I had some lemon & honey tea while John had some black tea. While we were talking, one of Johns pretty acquaintances came in for breakfast. Her name was Anna and I think she must have been in her 50s. She was Italian and on hearing about my mountaineering trip, she began talking about the place she grew up in; apparently the place is surrounded by mountains and is a haven for mountaineers. Anna was witty and she had a sense of humor and it was hard for me to not pay attention to her alluring Italian accent. We hung around for a while and then walked back to the guest house. On the way back, I stopped at a bakery to pick a doughnut for me and a couple of cookies for John and his missus, since he told me he couldn’t finish the fairly large doughnut. I was hungry, so I just gobbled up my doughnut which was covered with chocolate all over.

At the guest house, I had nothing to do and thus began the torturous run of boredom for me. I spent some time browsing, courtesy the wi-fi from the office near our guest house, had some lunch and even walked around town for some time. It was no good. Then I was reminded something that could keep me occupied. The pinhole in my shell pant was bothering me. So I went to the market place to look for a patch of gore-tex or similar fabric that I could glue to my pant. Surprisingly nobody in Leh had it or had even heard of such a thing. My transportation sack which I use to cover my rucksack during flights also had a few tiny holes. So I took the sack to a cobbler and while he was working on my sack, we started talking and that is when he mentioned a shop in the old market which stocked waterproof fabric that could be appropriate for my shell pant. I was elated. The hole was very tiny, but as long as I knew that it was there, I wouldn’t be able to sleep well becauseI have a tendency to obsess with things dear to me. After patching up my transportation sack, I had some dinner and walked around the market place. It was beginning to get chilly which is normally the case in ladakh towards the end of august. By 9 I was at the guest house and I sat at the balcony for an hour browsing.

Aloo Paratha, soaked in Ghee & served with Curd
On the 21st, I woke up late and had some tasty Aloo Paratha with pickle and curd for breakfast at a restaurant called Gohil. It was by far the best breakfast I had in Leh; and it beat the Spanish Breakfast at Ooh La La (which I liked) hands down. After breakfast I went to the old market place, which is a part of Leh that I have seldom visited. The old market is a place which probably runs on a parallel system that is quite unlike the main market. Everything in the old market is laid-back.The shops are different, the people visiting these shops are different and the whole set up has an easy going pace. I was able to track down the shop I was looking for and bought a piece of waterproof fabric. I walked around the old market for a few minutes just to let it sink in my system and then went back to the room to fetch my shell pant. I rushed to the cobbler to fix the pin hole and the guy turned out to be a clown. I had to do everything; I had to cut the patch, apply the glue and paste the patch to the pant because the guy was useless and he did nothing. I don’t even know why I had to pay him.

Old Market - Leh
Anyways, since my pant was nicely patched up, I was feeling much better. So I went to the guest house and John was at the entrance. Since my trip was over, or so I thought, I invited John to bring his missus along for dinner as a token of thanks. Instead, he invited me over to his place for dinner that night, saying that only if I came, would he dine with me the following night. I gladly accepted the invitation. I desperately needed some home cooked food. A little later, I also met with a couple of friends, Nima and Pemba, with whom I climbed Nun last year. I was so delighted to meet them. We spoke for a long time and agreed to do something together next season. Since they had to go to the market, I walked with them. In the market, I invited them for a drink at Dzomsa. We sat there for a few minutes sipping the famous Dzomsa apricot juice before parting ways. After lunch I just went back to the room and embraced the gloomy boredom that the guesthouse had to offer. Since the lack of activity was tormenting me no end, I even considered going out on short hikes to the hills surrounding Leh but wouldn't be able to go too far because I am not too good at pointless stuff. While I walked around Leh, I would often look at Stok Kangri. For those unaware, Leh offers some fantastic views of Stok Kangri. Now, I have been to Ladakh so many times but this is a mountain I have never climbed. Stok is branded as an easy mountain and people usually do Stok in 3 to 7 days depending on factors such as level of fitness, acclimatisation, time of the year etc. Allotting 3+ days for something like Stok was something that I would never do. Besides, I didn't have three days to spare in any case. While I did consider Stok briefly, I would say to myself, "if its easy, why waste time". On the flipside I would recall the number of accidents and incidents that I have been told of, some even fatal, on Stok. So I concluded, easy or not, Stok is still quite high and not to be taken lightly. Anyways, in the end, I just dropped the idea and went out to pick a little something for the lady of the house. I went to Chospa and picked a box of cookies for Johns wife.

While I was shopping, John called me to remind me of the get together. I promised him that I would be there in a few minutes. So I paid  up and rushed to his place with the cookies. Pemba and his uncle were there too. Pemba was helping Johns wife with the chicken curry, while John was serving drinks. Since he knew that I didn't drink, I was served Coke. I handed the box of cookies to Johns wife and picked my drink. In a little while dinner was served; fantastic Dal-Bhat, Chicken, Salad and Dulle (a very small and very hot chilli). We had a few laughs and a few drinks and at some point during dinner Pembas uncle, who took a liking to me, asked me of my plans, since I still had a few days to go in Leh. I told him that I was thinking of exploring the hills around Leh and he brought up Stok. Since he was impressed with my solo effort over the last couple of weeks, He said that I could consider doing Stok. He thought I could do it in quick time. Quick time is a relative thing. Whats quick for me could be about average speed for a guide or a Sherpa. I asked him if Stok could be done in less than two days, and he thought that it very well could be done quicker. So with that though etched in my mind, I took their leave and went to sleep.

22 Aug 14

The following morning I met with John after breakfast. Yes! Aloo Paratha with curd again. I asked John if people got checked for permits at Stok. He told me that there was a good chance that somebody might check foreigners, but once in a while Indians did get asked too. John also advised me that the procedure for obtaining a permit was pretty straightforward. So I went to the IMF office at about 5 to 2. The officer in charge of IMF, Leh is a gentleman called Sonam Wangial, an Everest Hero. Unfortunately we got into a petty argument but we were both able to calm ourselves. He gave me a form to fill and asked me to bring him some copies of it at 5. That meant that I couldn’t leave for Stok that day. since it would be 6 by the time the permit was done and I would need an hour to go to the room and pack up. So in any case I couldn’t leave before 7. That left me with just two days to spare in Leh.

I thanked Mr. Wangial and came out of his office. While I was copying the form I conjured a brilliant plan. The reason for skipping Stok year after year was because it was thought to be easy. So I thought I could perhaps soup things up and "up" the challenge a bit. I could try to attempt climbing Stok in a 24 hour window, Leh to Leh. Although it sounded too adventurous, I thought about it during lunch. I thought, if I went light, REALLY light and moved quickly, it was a possibility. I was well acclimatised; exhausted and fatigued, but well acclimatised. So I rushed to the guest house and called on John. I told him about my thought and he said it was not impossible. Since we have climbed together, he knew my level of fitness (according to him I am very fit. I think I am about average), he thought I had a good chance of pulling it off. Since I would have to trek to the base camp from Stok village and then in 3 or 4 hours, attempt the summit, my plan was to strap down my pack to bare minimum; Just a pack, crampons, boots, ice axe, water, glucose and 2 bananas. I was not gonna carry a tent or sleeping bag or food/fuel etc, since I had heard that the Stok Base camp is a proper commercial base camp. So I thought that I would have dinner at the base camp and since I would leave for the summit at midnight, I could just sit in one of the restaurants; so I probably didn’t need a tent or a sleeping bag. John advised me that If weight was a concern, I could climb in hiking boots too, but that I should definitely take my down layer with me, perhaps the sleeping bag too. I argued that I didn’t use the down jacket on Kang Yatse, which a 80 meters higher than Stok. John said that Stok is much colder that Kang Yatse. I was reluctant, but I took his advise. I still insisted that I was not taking my sleeping bag with me, since I would only have to sit at base camp for 3 to 4 hours. I also felt much better about being able to climb Stok in my hiking boots. I thanked John for his inputs and then went to the IMF office to get the permit sealed by Mr. Wangial. This time he was much more enterprising and polite. I got the permit in a few minutes and informed Mr. Wangial that I would meet him again once I returned from Stok. I didn’t reveal my intent to attempt to summit Stok in under 24 hours. In any case, it was just a thought, so I thought it was best to leave it as it is. I said to myself that if I am able to make it in 24 hours, it would be terrific, but if I couldn’t it was still fine because the idea was to keep myself occupied for a day or two. If I left on the 23rd, I had resolved to return to Leh by 24th, just in time to packup and fly out on the 25th. So I would have to start my descent from wherever, summit or no summit, to be able to reach Leh before evening on the 24th.

With this thought I returned to the guest house. I ran into John and reminded him of my treat. We had a brief chat at the entrance to the guest house about my sudden plan and he had many things to share about it. He suggested that I could leave by 3 or 4 and it would take me less than an hour to reach Stok. The trek from Stok Village to base camp would take me about 5 hours. A break of 2 may be three hours at the restaurant in the base camp should take me past midnight; that is when I would start from base camp for the summit. He also gave me a rough outline of the route, since I have never been to Stok and since I would be arriving in the night, with no idea of the terrain or the route. I was now beginning to get restless and the fact that John was very upbeat about me being able to do it was bothering me. So once in a while I would just say somethings like, “you know John, I am just going to try this to pass time. Its no big deal. Its ok if I don’t summit. Besides I cant control the weather.” But John would counter that by saying, “no no. I know you can do it”. I was just anxious about embarrassing myself. He obviously had a high opinion of me and thought I could pull it off. But for me it was just a casual try. It was best if I went with an open mind. Obviously it was not going to be a sightseeing trek since I would be covering most of the trail in the dark. So obviously I would try hard. But I had resolved that I wouldn’t risk anything. I asked John about his best time on Stok. He told me that he once climbed with a Marathon runner and the contract was for 4 days. They got back in 28 hours, on the condition that John would still get paid for 4. Personally I think, if it was not for the client, John could have come back quicker.

So, after that intriguing chat, John, his missus and I headed out to Mentok Ling for dinner. It’s a nice restaurant and the folks running the place were good friends of John. I ordered a Thai rice and chicken dish, while John and his wife opted for an assortment of breads, rice and chicken curry. It was good. During dinner we spoke at length about varied stuff but the stories of John courting his wife were most intriguing. After dinner we walked back to the guest house, exchanged pleasantries and called it a day.

23 Sep 14

Big day for me, or was I making it a big deal. Whichever way I looked at it, it was going to be a tough day. No matter how much I said to myself that this was just a one day occupation, nevermind the summit, it didn’t help. So I thought, what the heck, lets give it the best shot. Afterall, this would be the last outing to the mountains this trip. I wouldn’t have to worry about fatigue or exhaustion, since I wouldn’t have to recover for another climb or hike the next day. It was just a one day thing. So I could actually afford to exert a bit. I had a very heavy breakfast at Gohils and opted to have something light at Stok village. I called Gyatso and asked him to pick me up at 3 in the afternoon. John was in the guest house, so we spoke for a while. I packed up and just lay in bed for a whle, trying to psyche myself for the quick ascent. At 2 I walked out of the room to calm my nerves. John was there too. He asked me if I needed something, and I told that I was ok. Actually I was beginning to get scared which was weird, since Stok was not even on my itinerary.
4 PM @ Stok Village
I was supposed to just take it easy and not care about the outcome, but that line of thought was not working. Anyways, at 3 I got a call from Gyatso and so I picked my bag, shook hands with John and got in the vehicle. John asked me to go easy. I agreed and we departed. I was at Stok village by 3:45. I had a couple of boiled eggs at Stok and had to pay a couple hundred rupees to the local authorities for attempting Stok. I began my trek to the base camp without wasting much time.

The initial part of the route was pretty straightforward. I had to hike along the stream and the gradient was pretty shallow. About 45 minutes into the trail, I reached spot where I had an option to follow the trail along the stream or climb over a pass. I chose the pass, to avoid any obstacles caused by the stream. With a minimalist set up, I didn’t want to get wet. From the top of the pass I was able to see the whole route along the stream, and it looked like I could have avoided the pass; it would have saved me much effort. The trail was along the stream bound between hills on both sides. I was feeling relieved that the trail was well marked out, since it was gonna get dark soon, and it would have been difficult to spot the route otherwise. At about 5:30 I met a guy who was probably a guide. Even though the trail was marked out well, I just inquired of the route. Thank God I did. He gave me an important clue which John probably missed. He advised me to go along the stream at a bifork some distance away, instead of the trail. When I reached the spot, I was confused since the trail which turned to the right of a feature was heavily marked where as the stream which was to the left of the feature had no traces of boot prints, dung or signs of traffic. Until that point the trail was along the stream and was pretty well marked. I had to make a choice. It was 6 and I had to choose. I chose the stream. I was scared for most part since I just couldn’t see anything or anyone along the stream. There was no trail, no cairns, nothing. I said to myself, that if I didn’t get to anywhere by 9, I would just trace back my hiking route to Stok. Fortunately, half an hour into the stream from the bifork, I reached another bifork with an arrow pointing towards Manikarmo. John had told me that Manikarmo was 2 hours short of the base camp. So that guide was correct afterall. I was glad that I took his advise. It seemed like I was still on schedule. I reached Manikarmo before 7 and got directions to the base camp from somebody working at the campsite there. Without wasting much time, I took off. By 7 it was dark. I put on my softshell and headlamp and started hiking. All the sweat since the last 3 hours was now making me uncomfortable and cold. The softshell was not helping much. I wore my glove liners to keep my fingers warm. I wanted to avoid hypothermia or chilblains, but on the flipside, I couldn’t wear anything too warm or that would cause excessive perspiration. The gradient had increased after Manikarmo and the altitude and cold too were taking their toll.
A view of Stok from the Trail

The trail was steep at a couple of places after Manikarmo, but nothing grossly untoward. I was not quite sure if I was moving quickly enough, because of the darkness. Since I was feeling very cold and was tiring too, I started looking around for a possible bivy spot. I didn’t have a sleeping bag, but I had a very good down jacket and I could use my rucksack too. I did spot a couple of enclosed ledges to my right and marked them in case I couldn’t see any signs of the base in the vicinity. To my left, some distance away, I noticed a few lights (I wasn’t sure if they were stars or headlamps), but I was pretty sure that couldn’t be the base camp since Stok was supposed to be to my right. Anyways, I continued climbing that steep trail and after about 10 minutes I could hear bells and singing. I was elated. A couple more minutes and there I was; the Stok Kangri base camp. I checked my watch and it was 8:30; very good time considering I was hoping to be there by 9 and only 10 minutes back I was considering either returning to Stok or bivouacking somewhere along the trail. There were a lot of tents and ponies and a very big tent which was probably the restaurant. I could hear singing and revelry from inside the restaurant, which I assumed was a group celebrating their summit of Stok or last day of their trek. I just walked in and picked an obscure corner in the restaurant while a bunch of sherpas were entertaining their European guests. I had some tang to compose myself and was shivering no end because of the sweat and the cold. The base camp was close to 5000m and it was the last week of august. There was a light breeze and it was cold. There was a guy seated 5 meters to my right. I walked to him and inquired about the cook. He pointed to the opposite side of the restaurant where the European guests were seated, at a guy who was seated near the entrance, next to a girl. I walked to the other side and sat next to the cook asking him if he had anything for dinner. The girl who was seated to his left responded by saying that the cook somehow managed to ruin the dinner that night.  I was amazed that she was able to understand my question about dinner to the cook since I spoke in Hindi. From her accent, it seemed like she was European, possibly Czech. I spoke with the cook, probing to find what my options were. I told him I was on a tight schedule but if he was busy at the moment I could wait for anything that he could make; noodles, soup, whatever. The girl seemed concerned and chimed in with me. With two requests, the cook couldn’t just sit there. So he went to make me some noodles. The girl was very inquisitive and asked me about my plan. I told her I was going to attempt the summit that night and she was surprised, may be even a little shocked. I got out my down jacket to warm myself since I was shivering terribly. The girl was curious about my effort. I just downplayed it and asked her about her summit effort, her route etc. She was part of a big group and told me in detail about the route from the base camp to the glacier and further to the ridge and along the ridge to the summit. Of course all this was not helpful unless I had some sort of orientation, since I had arrived in the night. But I listened carefully to all that she had to share. We also spoke of mountain schools, meditation and apparel too, since she seemed intrigued by mine. In 10 minutes I was served noodles. We continued chatting while I was having dinner; more like she would inquire and I would respond. After dinner when the noisy celebration began to calm down, the girl said that she needed to get some rest. I thanked her for all her inputs. In half an hour the restaurant was empty and only I was in there along with the cook and a guide. The guide was taking a client to the summit at midnight. His name was Sunny and the cooks name was Lotus. Yes you read it right, Lotus. I asked Sunny if I could follow him to the glacier. I told him I would be no hassle, I would maintain my distance and just needed to be shown the route till the glacier since I was told that the route above the glacier is tracked out right upto the summit because of the heavy traffic on Stok each day. Sunny was a very good chap. He gladly agreed to show me the way to the glacier and in fact invited me to follow him to the summit. I thanked him and told him upto the glacier was fine and after that I could climb along for company. On that note he went to sleep and I returned to my corner. I put on my base layers and just sat there trying to stay warm but it wasn’t working. John was right, I should have brought my sleeping bag. I was cold and my down jacket was not enough to keep me warm. While I was struggling in the cold, Sunny asked me to come to his side of the tent. I was glad he did. He was also not sleepy obviously because he had to leave in a couple of hours. He offered me a beer, but I politely refused. When he insisted, I agreed to take a sip from a bottle of mountain dew kept behind us. Although it was still cold, I feel good company helps. Sunny and Lotus even offered their blanket to cover my feet. Sunny told me about his childhood in Jammu, about the company he works for, his friends etc and once in a while would inquire about me too. Before long it was midnight and Sunny was out of bed to gear up. His client, Sandeep was in the tent by quarter past 12. A couple of ladies were there too who were being led by a guide from Leh. The ladies were taking their own sweet time where as Sandeep and Sunny were geared up in a jiffy. I just had to lace up since I was ready since 10.

24 Aug 14

We were out of the tent and on our way by half past midnight. It was very cold, and I was wearing my super warm Neutrino Endurance, which was probably an overkill for Stok Kangri, because I was sweating in half an hour. I just let the perspiration vent out instead of getting rid of the down piece altogether, since during breaks I would have had to probably wear it again. Sandeep, Sunny and I were maintaining a steady pace. In less than an hour we reached a feature from where one had to traverse a scree section for another hour to reach the glacier.  We took a short break and then continued hiking towards the glacier. I was feeling very tired and sleepy, but kept on moving. Once in a while Sandeep would ask me about how he was doing; honestly I thought he was doing pretty well. He seemed to be sure footed. By half past 2 we reached the glacier and took another break. Sandeep was bent on wearing his cleats to cross the glacier; Sunny and I trusted our boot soles to get the job done, besides, I didn’t bring my crampons along. It took us about half an hour to cross the glacier and after a quick drink we were off on our way towards the ridge that leads to the summit. The Tang I brought along was beginning to make me sick since that is what I had been drinking for more than two weeks. So I picked a Mountain Dew from the restaurant for the summit attempt. The drink was frozen by the time we crossed the glacier, but I was still able to suck through the frozen pieces, and it still tasted better than the Tang  I was carrying. Once we had crossed the glacier, the route was pretty well tracked out and Sunny and I could have parted ways, but I just stayed behind them to be polite.The route was not technical at all, but the thing about Stok is that the route is very very long. Attempting the summit from the base camp is slightly exhausting and I am surprised that people opt to do it that way. On the flipside, most people go through a rigorous 3 to 5 day acclimatisation process before attempting the summit. So its all good I suppose. By half past 4 we were able to hit the ridge. From this point it was just a matter of grit, and the weather holding up, since the summit ridge, although long and exposed in many parts, was easily negotiable; as long as the folks attempting the summit were not afraid of heights, since once could fall 100’s of meters either side of the ridge leading to the summit. We took a break at some point along the ridge. The girls who probably started 20 minutes after we departed from the base camp, did very well. Their guide probably brought them through a shorter route, because they intersected us at a ridge after we had been on it for half an hour. From there the six of us were pretty much around each other. At quarter to six, we were able to see the summit from the ridge. One of the girls was probably going crazy. She started pushing around and overtaking without any word of caution to the one in front of her. The slopes on either side of the ridge were quite steep; a little mistake could cause a fatal accident and her shoving around was not helping at all. I took the chivalrous approach and let her pass, even though I was feeling pretty upbeat by now. I could have very well stayed in front of her if I wanted since, suddenly, with the summit in sight, I was not feeling sleepy and I had a spring in my stride but I remained slow, to be polite to Sandeep and Sunny. I thought it to be rude to overtake the guys who had been nice to me. Sandeep on the other hand had slowed down considerably. He was only taking a few steps at a time and was stopping more often for short breaks. But it was not even 6, and I had enough time to meet my deadline. So I wasn’t worried for the moment. The other girl, was alright. She was taking it easy, but was still able to maintain a good pace and she was much more civil compared to the crazy girl.

@ The Summit
Just short of the summit, Sandeep asked me to go past him and I politely refused. I thanked him and told him that he should summit before me. We reached the summit at 0625. Good views from the top. K2 and Nun were hidden by dense clouds but Kang Yatse was clearly visible. Sunny was the one who showed me Kang Yatse. We all got busy taking pictures. The crazy girl was on her way down very soon. The other girl stayed a while with us. Since Sandeep was shooting a video, she did an “oh Yeah” dance on the summit. She said her name was Amit or Aemit (I am not sure how to spell it). She also said she was hungry, so I offered some chocolate to Sandeep, Sunny and the girl. After spending a while on the summit we headed down. I estimated that I would be at the base camp by 0930 and after a short break if I hiked to Stok I would reach before noon. I had instructed Gyatso to be at the village by noon to pick me up. An hours drive  to Leh meant that I would be done in 22 hours. But that was on paper. Who knew what was in store along the route on the descent. We were all very careful for the initial part of the descent since it was very exposed. Not very long after, we got off the ridge towards the glacier. With the sun beating down hard the route was clearly visible right upto the glacier. When we crossed the glacier, Sandeep noticed a figure on the other end who was standing still for a very long time. He waved and tried to gain his attention, but the other person kept standing still. It took sunny about 15 minutes to reach the person and that was when he first moved in a long time. We thought that he was suffering some form of AMS. Sandeep suggested that Aemit and I go to the base camp to get some help. I was reluctant to go with her, so I hung around for 5 minutes till she was a 100m in front. I asked Sandeep if I should stay back in case we needed to make a stretcher. Sandeep thought that it was better that a Sherpa or someone guide would be able to help better. In the mean time Sunny waved and yelled to say that everything was ok and the other guy was able to walk. Since things were ok, and since this incident had somewhat delayed my descent, I told Sandeep that I would go to the base camp and ask Lotus to keep some refreshments, especially tea, ready for the chap. I was able to reach the base camp by 10. Since I still had a good chance of making it back to Leh within 24 hours, I didn’t think it wise to waste much time at base. I had woken up at 7 the previous day, so I had been awake for well over 24 hours now, but I didn’t feel like I needed any rest or break. Aemit was able to spot me at the base camp and we spoke for a bit about the gift she should buy for an Indian colleague of hers. While we were talking I had a banana and some tang and just did a final check on my gear. I offered a Mars mini to Aemit and she was thrilled. I told lotus to keep some tea ready for the guy from the glacier. On my way out of the tent, I got a warm hug from Aemit; obviously for the chocolates and for Sandeep and I helping her out during the descent.

I strapped up and started rushing towards the trail, which is when I met the other girl from the previous night. She seemed thrilled that I was able to get to the summit. I didn’t think she had ever seen it done that way; arrive at base in the night and then leave for the summit shortly after. But she seemed delighted that I was able to pull it off. We exchanged pleasantries and I thanked her a lot for her help the night before. Soon enough, I hit the trail and this was no big deal. I was able to descend to the stream in about 10 minutes and reached Manikarmo in an hour. Manikarmo to Stok was a straightforward route too. The sun was out and I just had to go down stream. I maintained a brisk pace and my estimate was that at that pace I would make it to Stok before 1. About 20 minutes from Manikarmo, I met a group, who inquired about the route. I told them about the route I took the previous night and they were grateful. A little later I came across a bunch of mountain goats. I couldn’t resist snapping them. I also took a quick break there. About half an hour later I reached the point where I had to choose between the pass and the river. I chose the pass so that I would be able to call Gyatso and check if he was on his way or at Stok. Unfortunately, I had reception but Gyatsos phone was not reachable. I tried for about 10 minutes before giving up. I climbed down the pass and joined the trail. Soon I was able to see the village and I upped the tempo a bit. I reached the spot where I was dropped by 1. No sign of Gyatso, but there were other drivers there, who were from Stok.
@ Stok Village, waiting for the driver.
So I decided to get a drink and wait for Gyatso for half an hour. If he didn’t show up in half an hour, then I would drive out with a different driver. Gyatso was not there till half past one and his phone was still not reachable. I had been awake for 30 hours and couldn’t wait any longer, So I took another taxi. I still didn’t feel good about going with someone else, so I kept trying Gyatsos number. About 20 minutes after we set off from Stok, I got Gyatso on the line and gave my phone to my driver to explain to Gyatso in Ladakhi about why I chose to drive with him. We all agreed that I would swap taxis somewhere in the middle, just short of Choglamser. The guy from the glacier, the half an hour halt at Stok (for nothing) and a 15 minute argument between the two drivers while I swapped taxis, cost me close to two hours on the clock. (not to mention that I spend 4 hours sitting at base camp doing nothing – so in a perfect world, I might have been able to do this much quicker. But I would still take 24 hours anyday. Besides, I wouldn’t advise anybody to try Stok or any 6000+ m mountain this way) I still had enough time to make it to Leh before 3. There wasn’t much traffic enroute and we were able to get to the guest house by 2:30. Well within 24 hours. I was elated. John was not in the guest house, so I just went to the room, washed up and rushed to Korean House for lunch. I told Pops that it was my last lunch this trip. I ate well, thanked Pops for the brilliant food and then went to Dzomsa for a drink. Later I met with Mr. Wangial and told him about the quick ascent. He was reluctant to believe initially, but was convinced  as we spoke. He gave me his number and asked me to stay in touch.

After visiting Mr. Wangial at the IMF, I thought I should go to the room and sleep, but then who sleeps on the last day of a trip. So I just strolled around town. I got a shave and continued sauntering around. I even went to my favourite Kebab place and gobbled a few like a glutton. At about 7 I got a call from John, but we couldn’t talk because of terrible reception. So I got some cash from the ATM for incidentals and then rushed to his room. I first paid up for my room and then we spoke about my little speed ascent. On hearing my account, the first thing he said was that he knew I could do it. John invited me to a friends restaurant for dinner. I refused to have dinner but told him that I could join them once I am done packing and may be have a drink, Coke perhaps. I asked him and his wife to go rightaway, while I went to the room and did some packing. I hadn’t slept for close to 40 hours, but I said, what the heck? I could sleep I got back from the restaurant. At 9, I met with John at the restaurant and had a coke. He also offered me some snacks, but I just couldn’t eat after a heavy dose of Kebabs earlier in the evening. Incidentally my friend, Tomek was arriving the following day and I was to meet him at the airport at 8. I told John to take good care of my friend and help him out in the best way possible. Johns words were assuring. He asked me not to worry. At 11 we walked back to guest house and I thanked John for a wonderful time. I just went to the room and crashed on the bed. I didn’t even know when I fell asleep, but the next 6 hours were by far the best 6 hours of sleep for me. Lesson learnt? Boredom could get you to the top of a 6150m peak; in quick time. ;)

25 Aug 14

My flight out of Leh was only at 11, but I had to meet with Tomek at 8. I skipped breakfast, and opted to have a doughnut instead. John insisted that he pay for it, so I let him. Since Gyatso was busy with a function involving his mother, he sent a friend to drop me at the airport. I thanked Johns wife for the fantastic food and hospitality. I thanked John for all the help, advise and goodwill. At 8 I started for the airport and was there in 10 minutes. Tomek and his friend Wojtek were there, waiting for us. We could speak only for a few minutes since the security wouldn’t allow the vehicles to be parked at the airport for too long and Tomek and his friend were to use the same taxi as mine to get to the guest house. However in the brief time we spoke, I tried my best to share as much useful information as possible, to help make their trip better. Tomek was so thoughtful to bring an illustrative book about Poland. I felt thankful and ashamed at the same time, since I had nothing to give to him. Before I helped them into the taxi, I invited them to visit my house in Chennai at the end of the trip and requested them to keep me posted about their current adventure and also to let me or John know if they needed anything or were in a spot of bother. We shook hands and parted ways. I checked in at the airport, went through security and identified my baggage. While it was time to take the bus to the flight, I ran into that Czech group again whom I met at Kang Yatse and later at Korzok. The young lady, the couple and the two gentlemen, were all there. We were delighted to meet. I mostly spoke with the young man who spoke English, but the others were just as delighted to meet me, and I was delighted to meet with them as well. Soon enough we were boarding but we met again and spoke for a brief while in Delhi. They were going sightseeing in Delhi while I had to return to my drab routine in Chennai.

This was an awesome trip. It didn’t have the magnitude and glamour of a big mountain like Nun, but in many ways it was so satisfying. What was most amazing was that I was able to pull it off on my own. Stok was definitely a bonus and I am so glad I chose to do it instead of hanging around in Leh doing nothing. Stok also taught me that even after being spent physically and mentally for 16 days in two different areas, I still had at least 24 hours of effort hidden somewhere in me. I think I will do this solo thing more often. For now I will just keep training and wait for my Ski-mo equipment to arrive soon.

Ladakh 2014 - Phalung Shumo

PHASE 2 (Phalung Shumo)

Going easy for a couple of days at a lower altitude, when you’ve exerted at high altitudes for a while,  can do a world of good for one’s mind and body. No wonder folks spend close to two months climbing Everest, which involves shuttles between the base camp and higher camps. Of course it would be unfair to compare my little adventure to an Everest Expedition, but the idea was to just present a thought; a thought that after 6 days spent between Leh and Kang Yatse on some treacherous trail with a heavy pack, I was extremely sore. But a couple of days rest in Leh and some good food truly refreshed me. I went around town on 13th talking to agencies about transportation to Korzok for the next phase of my trip. I left my number with a couple of them and took their numbers too. After lunch I went to Chospa, a general store in Leh, to replenish my rations; more of the horrible noodles, soup and same old, same old. I went for different brands for a change. Tang and some chocolates were definitely part of the pack. I also decided to pick some plums and apricots, since I found fruits to be a lot more palatable than anything else. I am just a terrible eater at high altitudes. Most of 13th was spent in the market place, where I would go to pick stuff that was either missing or insufficient, and in the guest house where I would come during the day for an hour or two to relax and
respond to mails from friends, especially Tomek, who was to arrive at Leh on the 25th and had a bunch of inquiries which needed my attention. I also found time to have a steak for lunch at Korean House and say hi to my new friend Pops. In the evening I had a brief chat with John about Kang Yatse and also discussed strategy for the next phase of my trip before I went to sleep.

14 Aug 14

I woke up quite late. It was 8 in the AM if I remember correctly. By 9 I was out on my way to grab a bite. That’s when I received a call from an unknown number. On the other end was a chirpy, sweet voice speaking in an oriental accent, asking me if I was going to Korzok, near Tso Moriri. I was able to guess straightaway that one of the agency guys must have given out my number. The inquiry was a pleasant start to my day. Since I was excited about getting out of Leh as soon as possible, I decided to skip breakfast and just picked a doughnut which I hogged on my way to the office the agency that the girl was calling from. I asked the girl about the name and location of the agency she was calling from, and then headed straight for the office which was on the road that leads to Changspa, a part of Leh which probably has the most restaurants and guest houses. I reached the place, which was managed by a Kashmiri, called Manoj, in less than 10 minutes and there they were, a guy, probably in his early twenties in the company of 3 pretty girls. Some guys just have everything going FOR them. Anyways, as it turned out, the guy and two of the girls, including the one who I had just spoken with a few minutes ago were Koreans who were on a sightseeing trip to Ladakh. The third girl was from Kerala, possibly Muslim and had just met with  the other three, moments before I walked into the office.

The group, especially the Koreans were a lively bunch and they were quite inquisitive too. They seemed quite intrigued by my solo adventure and had so many questions about it but I did my best to downplay the whole thing. I asked them a few questions about Korea and Seoul, their hometown, before I decided to make a move. They were all in their twenties, just out of college perhaps. The bunch were just looking to bring down the cost of travel to Korzok and me going with them was helping them in a way. One of the girls asked me to join the group for breakfast. I politely refused citing the big doughnut, that I had before meeting them, as the reason. We all agreed to meet at the agency at 7 the following morning. I was set to leave for Korzok on the 15th in any case. If none of the cab agencies had contacted me, I would have gone with Gyatso in his mini van. Of course it would have cost me quite a bit, but I was there to climb; so no point in cringing over cost. But the Korean connection was beneficial for me too I suppose. On that note, I walked out of Manoj’s office and rushed to my room to do a final check on my stuff, so that I could get things from the market, if in case I was missing something. I was pretty much sorted out. But I thought a trip to the market, after lunch, would do me no harm. I went to Chospa, a general store in the main market and picked some nuts and tuna. In the evening, I had a chat with John, who advised me to try a peak called Sara Shuvo.  
He told me that he had never climbed the peak but had seen it on his way to the Mentok peaks. He gave me a general orientation of the area that the peak was in. I told John that I would definitely check out the area and if possible attempt an ascent. After the chat with John, I packed up my sack and tried to get some rest because the drive to Korzok was long, arduous and exhausting.

15 Aug 14

I woke up by 5 and was ready by 6:30. John had woken up a little early to see me off. Since I was departing quite early, I couldn’t eat breakfast because none of the restaurants were open. Manoj was at my guest house with his MUV and driver by  7. We were to drop Manoj at his office and pick up the Koreans and the girl from Kerala from there. I said goodbye to John and thanked him for his services before driving off with Manoj. We were at his office in a couple of minutes; the group was waiting while we arrived. Manoj and the driver helped load up their luggage on the roof. They were carrying a lot of stuff for a bunch who were going to Korzok only for a night. I took the seat in the front, the three young ladies were in the middle row whereas the guy chose the rear bench, so he could stretch himself during the drive. He was good at it. He actually managed to sleep well for most of the journey. Anyways, we were on our way by 0715. The girl from Kerala (I think her name was Asmina – I looked at the Innerline permit which had all our names) wanted to stop in the market to get some cash, which worked out well for me too. One of the two Korean girls had an upset stomach and the other girl wanted to have some tea. So we stopped at Choglamser which was to everybodys benefit. The driver, Sonam and I had breakfast at a restaurant, where as the three girls got their tea, medicine etc. I think the guy just kept sleeping in the back of the MUV. Anyways, after breakfast, I got a kit kat for everyone. Since Sonam was reluctant to take the chocolate, I had to shove it in his hand. Over the next few hours, Sonam and I became good friends. We were soon on our way and I assumed we would stop at Chumathang for lunch and may be at 2 or 3 checkposts. Since Sonam was playing some Ladakhi music, which was fine for a while, but it was beginning to get to me after a while. So I paired my N8 with the system on Sonams car and we were good; Coldplay, A R Rehman, Lata Mangeshkar etc and it was much better. At least Asmina and Sonam seemed to like some of the music that I was playing; cant say the same for the 3 koreans. We did seem to have a semblance of a conversation once in a while; but I am terrible at dialogues or conversations.

Since the BRO was working on widening the roads, most of the route was ruined and we were even held up at a small bridge crossing for about 15 minutes. This was a blessing in disguise, because Incidentally, our left rear tyre was flat. The 15 minute hold up afforded us useful time to change the tyre. We arrived at Chumathang by noon. Apparently the Koreans, and Asmina too, had not done their homework and were probably only keen to get to Korzok. Only when I told them that there was a hot spring in the vicinity of Chumathang near the river bank did they get out of the vehicle. Even then I had to describe the hot spring for a few minutes before they even started walking to the river bank. For some reason the girls decided not to go together, so I was tasked with the job of showing them the way to the spring one by one. I would basically walk them to a spot from where I could show them the way to the springs. The guy finally woke from his slumber and needed a place to relieve himself. Yes I had to give him directions to a spot around the corner too. Apparently, “this is India, go anywhere you like” didn’t make sense to him. Anyways, after my guiding and navigation skills were tested, I went to a small restaurant for lunch. Sonam was there too and I sat next to him. He was almost done when I got there. By the time my lunch was served, the group joined me at the restaurant too. The Koreans ordered some noodles and coke, whereas Asmina had Rice with Dal. Somehow, lunch was about how impressed the Koreans were by my solo effort. With that background, I felt obliged to pay for their lunch as well. By 1 we were on our way to Korzok via Mahe bridge. The route between Chumathang and Mahe was fine. I was mostly busy shuffling tracks on my phone which was being relayed to Sonams system. I cant say for sure if the Koreans were too thrilled about the choice of music, although I mostly found them sleeping. At Mahe, Sonam and I had to report at a checkpost and had the innerline permits checked. By the time we got back, the Koreans had turned on their own little discotheque. The girls were playing tracks off their mobile device. Well, we were the hosts, so it made sense to play along. Asmina, pretended like she liked the music. May be she really did like it. Sonam and I literally had no opinion. He was our driver and had no say in our choice of music and I was trying to be the accommodating host. Yes! Host because they were in my country.  Anyways, it wasn’t too bad but it was annoying that the girls were sleeping with that Korean music still on. One of the girls, who earlier gave her name as Sue, had a peculiar way of sleeping in a car; her long locks running from the back of her head to over and covering her face. I just couldn’t resist sneaking a picture while she was unaware. In about an hour we reached a small lake called Tazang Tso. Sonam and I began discussing my possible alternatives in case Sara Shuvo wasn’t feasible; always good to have alternatives. The girl from Kerala took a walk to the lake with one of the Korean girls to get some pictures. She had professional looking camera. The other girl, Sue, lay down on the tarmac in the midst of the barren desert. The guy came out of the vehicle too and lay on the road next to our vehicle. Kids! They do the darnedest things.

Anyways, after about 15 minutes at the lake, we resumed the last leg of our drive to Korzok. We had to halt at a checkpost 10 minutes short of the village. By 4 we reached the village. Sonam led the group to a guest house close to the jeep stand, while I got busy trying to spot a camp site for the next couple of days. I didn’t want to be too close to the village, so I hiked for about 15 minutes out of the village to a bridge, more like a culvert, where I found a spot, far away from the crowds. It was the perfect spot, because the stream was very near my camp site, the village was just 15 minutes away and it was quite close to the trail leading to the mountains. It took me about 15 minutes to pitch my tent and settle down. While I was putting my stuff inside the tent, I heard somebody honking the horn. I was pleasantly surprised to find Sonam and Asmina behind me in the MUV. Apparently they had been looking for me for a while. They asked me to join them for a short drive to the nearby villages and view points. I am not much of a sight seer, but It would have been rude to say no to them; considering they had been looking for me in order to join them. I inquired about the Koreans, and Asmina had no clue. Sonam said that him and Asmina looked for them in the village for a while, but then decided to get going before it got dark. I got my head gear and a warm layer and hopped into the vehicle. I took them to a view point I knew of which offered great views of the lake in the front, Chumser in the backdrop and the Mentok range behind us. Asmina got snapping with her camera while Sonam and I just hung around talking about stuff. The girl told me that she wanted to meet some of the local people but I didn’t think Sonam was too thrilled about the idea since it would take some time.  I think that’s the reason she asked me instead of Sonam. Not wanting to disappoint her; I used my boyish charm (just joking) and subtle persuasive skills to convince Sonam to go to one of the villages in the vicinity. As it turned out, this village was just a couple of hours from the foot of Sara Shuva; so the little excursion turned out to be beneficial for me too.

Sara Shuvo - Not very challenging!
Sara Shuvo didn’t look too challenging at all; in fact it looked too plain. Of course, relatively easy was something that I was looking for but what is an adventure without challenges. While Asmina was bonding with some of the locals at the village, I spoke with a shepherd who gave me the names of the peaks in the vicinity. Its been a while since I returned, but I think his name was Namgial. Fortunately the whole range was visible from the village. By now I had ruled out Sara Shuvo, but there was an interesting looking peak to the left of Sara Shuvo. Namgial told me that the peak is called Phalung Shumo, which when translated means a piece of rock. Honestly, the peak looked a lot more than just a piece of rock. I was tempted to call it Mentok 6 or 7 since it was situated in a ridge which was an extension of the Mentok range. Besides, the peak was not marked on any of the maps that I had referred to, even though Sara Shuvo was. Even though I was may be two to three hours away from the base of the mountain, I was able to identify a nice place to camp just short of the mountain. This was awesome - attempting a peak which was not mapped. So I had resolved that the next day I would make a trip to the base of the mountain and possibly drop some load off at the spot too if I did find a suitable place to camp. On that note, Sonam and I got in the vehicle and waited for Asmina. The scrawny girl took her time talking to the villagers and taking pictures. In a few minutes she joined us and we drove past my tent to the village. Asmina thanked us for the ride and probably went to her room while Sonam and I went to a restaurant for some “Chai”. I think it was called Dorje Restaurant. The restaurant was to be my place of refuge over the next few days before and after the climb. The restaurant would hardly pass off as a tea shop in a small town, but it was good enough for me. It was run by a lady who was extremely hard working. Her husband would help her out once in a while. I would often visit the restaurant for a beverage, after a hike, after a load ferry or for a meal when I just didn’t feel like cooking.

While Sonam and I were chatting over tea, Asmina came in for an early dinner. Sonam asked me if I wanted to stay for dinner. Since him, Asmina and the Koreans were to depart the next morning, I decided to dine with Sonam; I could always go back to my rations for the rest of the trip.  We had something the locals call Skyu, which is basically wheat dough broken into little balls and boiled with mutton. Just when Sonam and I were served Skyu, the three Koreans joined us at the restaurant too. They had had dinner in the lodge where they were staying and were out walking when they noticed that we were in the restaurant. They were a funny bunch so it was obviously great having them around. I was ok with the broth and the mutton in the skyu, but the boiled dough was terrible. After dinner, we hung around for a long time talking about all and sundry -  Korea, India, my solo trip, why the three Koreans wont eat anything but noodles, why I don’t have a girlfriend etc etc etc. Before I realised, it was 9 and I thought it best to go to my tent and get some sleep. When I asked for their permission to leave, Asmina got going to snap the stars from the terrace of the lodge while the Koreans  were itching to go the their room and get some sleep. I shook hands with Sonam and we agreed to meet the next morning before he drove the group back to Leh. It took me about 15 minutes to walk to my tent over a rather dusty, uneven jeep track on a very dark night. I fell asleep rather quickly.

16 Aug 14

I was up by 6. I had intended to go to the spot I had identified the previous day near Phalung Shumo. If everything worked out well, I could decide on a place to set up a base camp and drop some load to ease my burden on the day I decided to actually move to the base. There was another group camping not far from my tent. They must have arrived after I drove away with Sonam and Asmina the previous evening. One of the ladies was up quite early and was struggling to make fire. I thought for a second to offer to help, but resisted to avoid coming off as intrusive. By 8, I had had breakfast and was packing stuff that I could perhaps drop at the base camp, if at all I found a suitable spot. Since I didn’t need any technical equipment during the hike I decided to drop the ice axes, carabiners, harness, crampons etc at the base. I also packed the mitts, part of the rations and the Nylon rope OI had. Although I never used the rope on Kang Yatse and was pretty sure I wasn’t gonna use it on Phalung Shumo, I decided to take it with me none the less. Just when I was done packing, I saw Sonams vehicle in the distance. The Asmina, Sue and the other two Koreans were in the vehicle with Sonam and they seemed glad to see me. I shook hands with Sonam and said bye to the bunch. There was an extended gaze from Sue, but I didn’t make much of it, because there was no point. I wished them well and in a few minutes they were gone.

By now there was a lot of activity in the neighbouring camp. I made acquaintance with a guy called Rigzin who was camping with his wife and some friends. Since I had to go do some exploring and Rigzins group was to drive around the lake in their Bolero, I requested Rigzin to watch over my tent once they were back from their excursion; at least till such time I was back. My estimate was that I would be back in 6 hours or there abouts. We spoke for a while and then I took off with a slightly heavy pack. I think about 13 kilos. Instead of hiking to the village, near Sara Shuvo, where I went with Sonam and Asmina the day before, I took a detour on the trail that leads to the Mentok Peaks. About 15 minutes on the trail I turned right towards the Phalung Shumo – Sara Shuvo ridge which is hard to miss. 

For the rest of the route, the Lake (Tso Moriri) and Chumser behind me would offer breathtaking views during breaks, whereas Phalung Shumo in front of me would just keep getting bigger until a point where the whole ridge was concealed behind a feature which was covered with rocks or was it a moraine. Well there was a stream running down the feature with huge rocks and boulders either side of the stream. The location that I had identified for the base camp was probably somewhere on top of this feature. It took about 90 minutes from the point of detour to reach the moraine. The top of the moraine didn’t look so far from the village the previous day but distances can be deceiving in the mountains. Having to tackle the rocks was also exhausting especially with a slightly heavy pack. Anyways, I was able to make it to the top of the feature by half past noon. I spent close to three quarters of an hour on site to identify a spot to pitch my tent the following day, but to my utter surprise, I could not find even one cairn, not even one flat spot, not even one campsite. Believe me, it was not a small place. On top of the feature, there were rocks all around and there was abundance of space, but nothing suitable for a camp; No wonder the place was not marked on any of the maps that I had looked at. Well! I couldn’t NOT camp there just because of the absence of a flat spot because there were so many right things about the location. Water was in abundance and the site was not too far from Phalung Shumo and the ridge in general, in case I decided to climb another objective on the Mentok Ridge. So after looking around for a while, I settled on the least freakish spot; it was less uneven and less rocky than the surroundings and there was grass in between the rocks too. So I dug up a little and got rid of the rocks. It took me about 10 minutes to prepare the place. I also made a cairn nearby and found a concealed spot near some huge boulders, where I dumped my equipment.

I started the descent by half past one. I took a slightly different route on the descent. I was just getting a little adventurous, but it was just as easy or difficult as the uphill route. During the descent, the views of the lake in the afternoon were outstanding. I stopped at a couple of places to just sit and watch the lake whereas Chumser and Lungser in the background of the lake looked brilliant in the afternoon sun. I was able to maintain a brisk pace and covering a lot of ground during descent, because my pack was empty. I made it to my tent by 4. I saw one of the ladies from Rigzins group, who I  presumed was his wife. I think the rest of the group were in their respective tents. We smiled when I crossed her; because I was exhausted by the time I reached the tent, I lay on my belly next to the tent, for a few minutes. Because I was starving, I made some noodles and opened the can of chicken. I added some chunks of chicken to the noodles; it was terrible, but I had to eat it. A little after lunch, I made a trip to the village. After strolling around for a while, I went to that restaurant where I had dinner the night before. I had some tea and chips and sat there looking at the snaps from earlier in the day. The lady of the house stood next to me catching a glimpse of the lake and the mountains. Late afternoons – early evenings were low on business for her, so she could afford to breathe a little. I could tell that she liked the pictures. By 7, some tourists started to come in to the restaurant, so I paid up and started walking slowly to my tent.

In about 10 minutes, while I was still a hundred meters away from my tent, I heard a commotion in the campsite. Rigzin was unbelievable. He somehow managed to get a big soundbox, belting out loud hindi music from the cars music system, powered by the car battery. So much for resourcefulness. I just walked to my tent, zipped up the fly and started preparing dinner. Yes, I had to zip up the fly sheet because it was extremely windy. Fortunately the tent was well ventilated, so the fumes were not a huge concern. 5 minutes later, my worst fear came true. I am not comfortable at all in social meetings, parties etc. I heard a voice outside the tent calling me out. It was Rigzin, asking me to join his party. It would have been terribly rude to say no to him. So I requested Rigzin to allow me 5 minutes to cook dinner which was almost done.
5 minutes later, I walked to Rigzins camp; I took my dinner along with me. Rigzins wife, her lady friend and two of Rigzins friend were dancing; rather trying to dance, since they had had a few beers. Rigzin kept me company while a German girl was making fire. She was a friend of Rigzins wife too but was not dancing. We smiled. Rigzin asked me to sit by the fire but I could not because of my clothing. Synthetics should be kept away from fire. So I sat a couple of meters away from the fire. Rigzins wife asked me to join her and her friends. It was already unlike me being part of a loud revelry. Dancing would just take it to a whole new dimension and I was not prepared for that. So I made a witty remark that if I danced, they would all run away. They all laughed and left me alone. I sat there for about an hour, mostly talking to Rigzin, mostly about the mountains. He seemed very impressed by my adventures; it was kind of him to ask me to call on him when I was back in Leh after the trip and during future trips too. I thanked him and offered to be his host if ever he was in my town. I believe kindness is best dealt with reciprocity. Rigzin had an arrangement with a restaurant in the village, who had prepared dinner for his group, which Rigzin was to collect by 9. I drove with him to the restaurant and helped him bring the dinner back to his camp. The group asked me to join them, but I politely refused since I had already had dinner. I thanked the group for their hospitality and returned to my tent. It had been an exhausting day. I had covered a lot of ground, up and down. So I fell asleep rather quickly; but I could hear Rigzins group chattering over dinner and a little later into the night too; not that it was bothering me. I actually didn’t mind the chatter, since the group would be gone the following day and I would be alone in the mountains, especially lonely in the base camp for the next few days. In all the background chatter, I never heard the German girls voice. I slept well that night.

17 Aug 14

I was feeling kind of weak , when I woke up in the morning. The dilemma was whether I should move to the base camp or not. I decided to wait for a couple of hours and see how I was feeling and then make a call. I had the same boring noodles for breakfast. Fortunately, I had brought a couple of different brands for change of taste.  I had painkillers and diuretics to help ease me, even though I didn’t think it was an acclimatisation related condition. I thought it was a simple case of over exertion. The group from the neighbouring camp were packing up by 8. Rigzin gave me his email and phone number and insisted that I contact him when I reached Leh. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness; just before the group got inside the vehicle, I got a smile from that German girl. By half past 8, they were on their way.  I wasn’t feeling much better even after breakfast. I made my call. I decided to stay at Korzok that day and explore the lake. I also resolved that I would at least have dinner at  “my” restaurant. Familiarity works well for me, and the lady and her restaurant were about the only ones I was familiar with in Korzok. I just lay in my tent for a while trying to rethink the whole plan, in light of the slight hiccup. I estimated that I would still be able to accomplish the task within the allotted time. I had actually allotted 2 days for recce; but since I was able to recce and drop load on the same day, I think I had saved a couple of days. So in my opinion, I was still on schedule. With that thought, I grinned to myself and decided to do a little hike around the lake. I picked my pack, some chocolates and some Tang to keep me replenished.

I traced the jeep track to the lake. I stayed on the jeep track for the initial part of the hike, right upto the view point where I took Sonam and Asmina a couple of days back. There was a monastery off the jeep track, just before the view point, but I gave it a miss. From the viewpoint, I got off the jeep track. Since it was sort of a day off and I had the whole day to myself, I decided to test the Carl Zeiss lens on my N8. I snapped everything I could. Lizards, flowers, ducks, sand, water, stones, the lake, the ridge, anything really. I was especially intrigued by the ducks and lizards. The lizards tended to be very camera friendly and would wait for me for as long as it took to aim and click. The ducks on the other hand would rush to the waters when I was yet 100 meters away.  When I had crossed their spot, they paddled to the shore. They did this every time I crossed their spot on the shore. After a while I gave up the idea of getting close up shots of those ducks. I never liked Daffy anyways. I had to be meticulous about covering myself since the periphery of the lake was heavily infested with mosquitoes. I mean mosquitoes the size of bees. I didn’t want to get bitten by one of those demons. I think I must have hiked for close to two hours. I had reached a distant point on the shore where I had brilliant views of Mentok behind me and Chumser - Lungser in front of me. To my right in the farthest distance were some more intriguing mountains. I sat there for a few minutes, munching a chocolate and sipping some tang. I was not really thinking of anything. I have been meaning to do that for a long time; Just sit and not care about anything.

I must have stayed at that spot for 15 minutes. After a while I began hiking back to my campsite. I was slow and deliberate to avoid exhaustion. This was just a leisure hike. I didn’t spend much time playing with the camera, so I didn’t think I would take 2 hours to reach the village. After hiking for an hour, I reached the monastery which is on the lake shore. I sat there for about 10 minutes and then resumed my hike to the village. I reached my tent by 2. It was an easy hike, so I wasn’t really starving. But I still had some noodles and chicken for lunch. After lunch I had some plums and apricots which I got from Leh. Considering the fact that I was eating stuff that came out of poly packs and tin cans for the last so many days, the tangy fresh fruits tasted so good. I hung around my tent till about 4 pm. That’s all I could take. I began to wonder, if 2 hours of loneliness at the road head could make me so restless; what would hours and hours of solitude do to me at the base camp and beyond. I thought it best to avoid pondering too much over it. To help ease that eerie feeling, I decided to go to the village and spend some time at the restaurant or among people. So I put on my boots and walked to the village.
I first went to the restaurant and had some tea with chips. The lady was intrigued to still find me in the village. She assumed that I would have left with the group that had departed a couple of days back. I explained to her that we were just sharing the cab and that we had totally different agendas. I asked her if I could have some chicken and rice for dinner. She said that she could that for me, but it would take her a while. We agreed on a time when she could serve me dinner and then I went out for a walk around the village. The lake looked especially beautiful in the twilight. I also ran into a couple from Gujrat. I don’t quite remember now, but I think they were from Baroda. I told them that I had lived in Jamnagar for a few years and had to travel through Baroda to reach Jamnagar. The gentleman was especially thrilled about my solo adventure. It was great talking to them. While we were talking, their son arrived. The little boy was the most curious person that I came across in the whole trip. He had a question for every occasion and about everything. His father gave him a stern instruction about not bothering me with his questions. I assured his dad that I was loving every bit of “the interrogation”. The kid actually thought that I was some sort of a commando and inquired about why I wasn’t muscular like the commandos he had seen in the movies. His father and I laughed about it. I told him that I was no commando and that I never had muscles. The family were on a sightseeing trip, so they had to leave because they had a jeep waiting to take them somewhere. We shook hands and I returned to the restaurant to check if my dinner was ready.

I had to wait for a few more minutes, but dinner was eventually served at 7. It was really good. Better than the skyu that Sonam and I had two nights ago and definitely better than the garbage I was eating in my tent. After dinner, I was feeling kind of good and strong. Good food does that to you. I sat there for a while not wanting to go to the tent just yet. But when a few tourists started trickling in, I decided to move out. I thanked the lady for the good food, paid up and wore my down jacket before heading out to my tent. It was really cold and I was very careful not to expose myself to the elements unlike Nun, where I got a little adventurous. On my way out, I spoke with a bunch of bikers. I think I managed to shock or probably scare them out of their wits with my narration of events at Kang Yatse and the prospect of a solo attempt at Phalung Shumo. They wished me luck. I thanked them and then walked to the campsite. I noticed a couple of tents pitched near my tent. They must have arrived after I left for the village earlier in the evening. It took me a while to fall asleep, but I slept eventually. This trip was different in that sense. I slept on quite a few days. The day to follow was very important and any rest that I could get was going to be crucial.

18 Aug 14

This was it. No more hanging around, no more rest. I was definitely moving to base camp. The cook from the neighbouring camp offered me some tea. I thanked him and asked him if he needed anything from me. The group was on their way to Leh and they left by 7. I was able to pack up by 8 after breakfast. I was on my way to the base camp by 0830. Navigation was not a concern, since I had been to the base camp a couple of days ago; it was a bright and sunny day too, so the route was pretty clear to me. The pack was just about 13 kilos and so I was pretty quick. Although my feet were quick, my heart was kind of reluctant; I am pretty much a loner but for some reason the thought of being alone at this base camp was in a way unsettling for me. I took a couple of breaks along the way. With each passing minute, the village, where I went with Sonam, and the lake behind me were constantly receding away. With each passing step, I was getting more and more restless. I was not sure what I would do at the base camp, when I was not climbing. When one has a partner, its kind of comforting knowing that one has company, even if there is no talking involved. But when one is all alone, it’s a totally different ball game.
Phalung Shumo - Center Right
While these thoughts were, in a way, hindering me, I was constantly gaining altitude and approaching the base camp. I took a break at a spot where the views of the lake behind me and the ridge in front of me were astounding. I looked at all the mountains around me and the peaks in the ridge whose base I was approaching and it occurred to me, that if may be I kept myself occupied all the time or at most times, I wouldn’t feel secluded. I thought if I was occupied with the task at hand, I would so tired by the time I got back to the tent that I would be sleepy and wouldn’t have time to “feel” alone. Besides, I would climb for two, may be three days from that base camp before returning to Korzok, so I didn’t have time to waste. That’s when another idea struck me. I thought that perhaps I could attempt Phalung Shumo soon after reaching the base camp. I was moving pretty quickly and I was not tired, well! Not at the moment. So I thought once I had established camp and had lunch I could consider the possibility of going after Phalung Shumo. It was a bright and sunny day and I could navigate much better in daylight than in the dark if I had opted for a traditional alpine start.

So it all seemed to be adding up nicely for me. Suddenly, that eerie feeling was gone. I was still gonna be alone, but I had a plan, and I was liking it. I made it to base camp by 1130 or so.
Base Camp
Three hours and half from Korzok to base was good time in my opinion. I quickly pitched my tent without wasting much time. I had some chicken (Canned Luncheon Meat), and noodles. Yuck. After lunch I took a moment to quickly think over what I had planned. I was pretty sure I wasn’t tired or exhausted. Base camp was probably around 5350m and Phalung Shumo couldn’t have been a lot higher than 6100m. Between 1 and 7 I had about 6 hours of daylight/twilight. My rate of ascent on Kang Yatse was about 200m per hour. So it was not impossible for me to, if possible, summit Phalung Shumo and return to base camp. Since everything seemed logical, I quickly geared up and set out to attempt Phalung Shumo by 1 in the afternoon. Initial part of the route was a gradual ascent over a rocky section for just over an hour. I had to circumvent a rocky glacial feature, which was between my campsite and the ridge, for a while. I had to climb from the right side of the feature to reach Phalung Shumo. Going from the left side of the feature would lead one to the Mentok side of the ridge. Such features usually have a glacial pool on top; I would have to wait a while to find out. The route was not very demanding. It was just climbing a rocky section on a shallow gradient. But all the work done earlier in the day, moving from Korzok to base and then setting up camp, was probably beginning to show. I was still moving at a decent pace. In just over an hour I reached a flat spot. The foot of the ridge/Phalung Shumo was just 10 minutes or so at the other side of the flat spot. I took a break there. Had a drink. Tightened my laces and without wasting much time began the ascent.

Initial part of the route was a combination of rocks and scree. A little higher, the scree was absent and the rocks got slightly bigger. About 30 minutes later, I reached the snow-ice section of the mountain. I could have continued on the rock section, but I prefer snow to rock. I quickly had a sip of tang and wore my crampons. It was quarter to three and still a long way to go. The moment I got on ice, I was able to move much quicker. I was able to zig zag swiftly. The gradient was almost the same as on Kang Yatse. I was confident from that summit, so not a lot of thought was involved. Because I was moving so easily and so swiftly, I probably didn’t notice that the ice was slowly getting harder and more difficult to pierce; the terrain also getting steeper every minute. Because the ice had gotten harder my crampons began bouncing off the surface. I was not getting much purchase of them. So I decided to stop and rethink and when I looked beneath, that is when I realised that the terrain had gotten quite steep. I had to rework the plan. Instead of traversing the slope, I decided to front point as one would in a typical ice climb. Although the crampons were still bouncing off the surface, I was moving better than when I was traversing. After about 20 minutes of climb since I changed from rock to ice, I reached a point where I could shift back to rock. The spot was a bottleneck where ice was only a few meters wide. From that spot, the rock section was to my right and the ice section began to widen again to my left. I decided to continue on ice. Because of the crampons constantly bouncing off, I think I was exerting too much and about 2 minutes from the bottleneck I slipped and fell about 20 meters. It all happened so quickly that I had no time to react. I only remember saying “my God”. It had been two years since I took his name. I tried to arrest the fall with my ice axe, but in vain. Fortunately, my feet were downhill during the fall and I was stopped by a rock at the bottleneck. I took a moment to compose myself. I don’t think I was scared. But I was a little rattled. I really thought it was going to be easy and this was a good wake up call. The lesson I learnt was that no matter how easy things seem and how well one is doing, one can never be cautious enough in the mountains. It took about 5 minutes for me to calm down and the incident to sink in. I was not going to go back. So I continued climbing. I was more deliberate, more cautious. I got past the point where I fell. I stayed close to the rock section to my right, so that I could shift from ice to rock in case I got too tired. Because I was exhausted from the extra stress on my legs, I managed to drive the front point of my crampon into my pants. I was upset. I hate torn pants or any apparel for that matter. Although it was just a pinhole, I was upset. About 15 minutes later, it happened again. I slipped and almost fell again, but because I was close to the rock section, I was able to grab on to a rock and arrest the fall. I was disgusted with the ice. There was only so much strength I had in my legs to drive the crampons into the ice. But the stupid thing felt like tempered glass. The front points would just bounce off the surface.

I took another short break there. It was quarter past three and I had to decide quickly. I brought myself to the mountain to climb, not slip and fall every ten minutes. I didn’t think the mountain had scared me enough to make me turn back. But two (almost two) falls was sign that I should avoid ice. Turning back was not an option for me. Yes I was a little shaken, but I have been shaken in the past. I was also not injured. So I decided to lose the crampons and ascend the rock section. I checked the GPS and I was at about 5750 meters. I set a deadline. I decided to begin the descent at 5, whether I had made it to the summit or not. It seemed reasonable to give myself at least two hours to descend to the base camp in twilight. It would be difficult to navigate in the dark. I put the crampons in my sack and strapped the ice axe to the loop. The route over rock was steep but definitely negotiable. It was not the toughest. There were more than sufficient holds and I was moving pretty swiftly. The rock route was also becoming narrower as I was gaining altitude. There was ice either side of the rock section and it became clear to me that at some point I would have to go back to ice in order to continue climbing to the summit. I had already decided I wasn’t going back to ice. So I thought of a plan. I picked a shoulder, the highest point on the rock section that I was climbing. That was to be my summit for the day. There was no way I was going back to Ice that day. I could perhaps have considered it if I had a partner to belay me. But since I was alone, and fortunately unhurt, yet, I chose to keep things that way. So I kept ascending the rock route cautiously and was able to make it to the top by 4. The GPS reading was 6005 meters.
The summit seemed 75 to 100 meters higher from there and at least an hour to 90 minutes away. But it was all ice and it didn’t seem like a good idea to me. I looked either side of the narrow ledge that I was perched upon.

I felt a little sad because the ice routes either side of ledge were very doable. The gradient was similar to Kang Yatse, may be only slightly steeper. But the ice conditions were much more hostile than Kang Yatse. The crampons stuck well on Kang Yatse, but on Phalung Shumo they would just keep bouncing off the surface. A partner to belay me or some ropes to secure myself better could have changed things, but there was no point brooding over things that weren’t. So the top of the rock route was my summit; I began the descent at quarter past 4. Before descending, I noticed a glacial pool in the distance. My assumption about pool on top of the glacial feature was correct. Back to the descent; the top of the rock route was a very small space to stand and observe and the winds were so gusty that I almost felt like being blown away. As I continued descending there was more space and more security. I tried not to rush things. I was pretty confident that at the pace I was descending, I would be able to make it to the base camp by half past six. I reached that bottleneck that saved me during the ascent by quarter past five. I had to make a crucial decision. At the bottleneck, the top part of the rock route ended and I would have had to wear my crampons and descend on ice. The bottom part of the rock route was a few meters to the right of the ice. I chose to traverse the ice to the right and continue on rock. Since the ice was hard and broken in parts, I used that as a hold to traverse. I was able to traverse safely and continued my descent. It was pretty uneventful. I was just a little exhausted because of excessive activity during the course of the day. I reached the bottom of Phalung Shumo by quarter to 6. By 1830 I was at my tent. I just sat for a while and wondered. Would I have made it to the summit if I had rested and attempted an alpine start; on the flipside, would the fall have been worse in the dark. I had played my card. The day was over. I was back, unharmed. That is all that mattered. I lived to climb another day. I made some soup for dinner. I was hoping that I would sleep well after dinner and after such a long day; unfortunately I couldn’t sleep well at all. The terrain was so uneven and it was so windy that I felt like the tent would be blown away. I lay there the whole night, tired and sort of disgusted; tired, because I had been active for over 10 hours; disgusted, because I was hoping that exerting for long would enable to me to sleep well. Alas, the effort was in vain. So I just lay there; in my tent, which was being swayed by the loud gusty winds. The uneven and stony ground was not helping either. So just waiting for the sun to rise seemed like the only logical thing to do. I think I must have had dinner around 1930. From then till about 6 in the morning, I just lay there, trying to get comfortable with the pitch dark tent and the howling winds.

19 Aug 14

I don’t think I slept even for a minute. So at sunrise, I got out of the tent. I felt terrible; Heavy head, puffy eyes and exhaustion. All part of the package I guess. The first thing I did was clean my mess tin. There was no way I was gonna clean the mess tin the night before. What with all the winds and chill and that, at the end of such a long tiring day. After supper, I just got rid of the shell and hit the sack. So cleaning up the tin was top priority in the morning, if I had to make breakfast. Yes! Yucky noodles again. During breakfast I had to plan my day. The objective, Phalung Shumo, was tackled rather quickly. I was hoping for a rather extended effort on Phalung Shumo. A couple of days recce, load ferries and then a day for the final ascent. But It all ended rather quickly. I was able to recce and load ferry on the same day and then a day later, I was able to move to the base camp and ascend the mountain on the same day too. It seemed like a precarious situation but I thought I could use it to my advantage. I assessed the events of the previous day. I opted for the top of the rock route instead of the main summit because I was hesitant to shift from rock to ice because of the two falls. So my objective for the day was to gain some confidence on ice. The whole ridge was in front of me. To the right of the glacial feature between base camp and ridge was Phalung Shumo and to the left of the feature was the Mentok Range. The main Mentok peaks were a little too far for me to attempt. But a few high points on the Mentok Ridge, which chronologically, could be named Mentok 3,4,5 etc, were not out of the question. I picked a nice easy snow-ice section leading to the top of the ridge. I gave myself an hour and a half to get past the glacial feature and moraines and another  hour to cross the glacier. Even though I was tired and sleepless, I thought I could climb from the glacier to the top in a couple of hours. So 4 to 5 hours from the base camp to the top of the ridge and a couple of hours to get back to the base camp, was the plan. Before setting out, I reminded myself, that the objective was to gain some confidence on ice on some nice easy sections; not getting to the top, which would be a bonus obviously. So I left the base camp by 8. I had to circumvent the glacial feature from the left over what could be considered a terminal moraine. It took me just over an hour to reach the glacier.

I took a quick drinks break and then began crossing the glacier in order to reach the mountain. The glacier was the worst I have seen yet. All the bright, hot sun had made the ice crusty and hollow and as a result it was hard to find a firm footing. It took me a long time cross the glacier. I didn’t wear my crampons for the initial part of the traverse, but somewhere in the middle of the glacier, I thought it wise to wear them. Traversing the glacier was also scary because I could hear really loud streams flowing under the glacier. One would think that when ice is melting the crevasses would be opened up nicely. Although, I didn’t come across any crevasses, I was still cautious because of the streams under the glacier. Not too long after, I reached the initial part of the main ascent to the ridge. The route was somewhat like an exponential curve; a mild gradient to begin with, which steeped up sharply towards the top. The top of the ridge was also heavily corniced. As I gained altitude, I was better able to gauge the route. The part of the route near the top was dicey in my opinion. Without a partner to belay or even just rope up, it was asking for trouble in case of a fall. So I decided to divert towards an alternate high point which was at a tangent to the top of the ridge. The high point was basically a rocky outcrop, with a shoulder where I could rest for a few minutes. Once the objective was finalised, I got back to concentrating on the climb. After about half an hour or easy climbing, the gradient began to increase. The terrain was slightly more inclined and the ice was sometimes slushy and crusty at other times; so I had to be cautious. About an hour since the glacier, I took an altimeter reading. I was at 5700m and this is where the gradient got even steeper. I would say slightly over 60 degrees. I stayed on my toes – two point climbing; I didn’t use the ice axe for most parts, but had it handy to arrest in case of a fall. The crampons were sticking quite well, unlike on Phalung Shumo the previous evening.

At quarter to noon I took a reading. I was over 5900m; a regular feature this trip. I was invariably ascending at 200m per hour on summit days. From that the slope varied between 60 – 65 degrees till right under the top of the corniced ridge where the route was very steep. I climbed for about 20 more minutes, but towards the high point which had a rocky outcrop instead of the top of the ridge. I just wanted to avoid a mishap in the hitherto injury free trip. Yes there were those falls on Phalung Shumo the previous day, but that was why I chose to play it safe; to avoid a similar incident/accident again. Besides, like I said earlier, I idea was to make myself go back to ice even for a brief while. So reaching the high point was certainly a bonus. I stayed there till quarter past noon. I am not much into photography, but I always take pictures at summits or like. The worst thing happened that day. I could only manage a couple of snaps and my N8 died out. It was stupid of me to not charge the device while I was in the tent. So I slowly began the descent and was careful during the intial steep parts. After about 30 minutes the terrain eased out considerably, and I was able to descend much quicker. By half past one I was able to cross to the other end of the glacier. I got rid of the crampons. Had a drink, sat for a while and gloated at the fact that the trip was over (or so I thought) and I had attempted 3 mountains instead of the 2 that I had planned. Yes Chumser/Lungser would have been more satisfying in that they were much higher. But the army activity which made the peaks out of bounds for trekkers and climbers was not something that I could control. So under the circumstances, I did ok. I still call myself a coward for a flipping at the last moment from Kang Yatse main summit to the easier Kang Yatse 2. But In my defence, I just didn’t wanna end up in a precarious situation again, where I had the strength and stamina to reach the top, but was forced to return for lack of a partner, skill or ropes. After that brief gloating session, I began my hike to the tent. For a brief while I lost track and was slightly disoriented. So I decided to climb to the top of that glacial feature that I did circumvent from both sides to reach the mountain. The top of the feature was cratered and the glacial pool was in the middle of the crater. From the top I was able to see the base camp and was able to home in to the tent in half an hour. By the time I reached the tent, I think It was quarter past 2. While descending to the tent, a crazy idea struck me. I thought since the climbing was over, why stay at base camp; why not descend to the village. I am usually swift on the downhill, even with loads, so I was pretty sure that I could reach the village in 3 to 4 hours. If I broke camp by 3, I could make it Korzok by 7. Then instead of the garbage that I was carrying, I could eat some tasty food at the restaurant. It was very tempting and took the bait. One has to bear in mind that I hadn’t slept for over 30 hours; and I had had two extremely long days. But since this leg of the trip was almost over; well at least the climbing bit was, I opted to go down to the village. So I got all my stuff outside the tent. I took down the tent first and then stuffed everything else inside the sack. I skipped lunch; just had some chocolate and tang. I was ready by to go by 3. I strapped on the rucksack, looked at the ridge behind me for a brief while and then began the descent to Korzok.
I had given myself 4 hours to make it to the village, but I was moving pretty swiftly, which was surprising considering I had a heavy pack weighing over 21 kg. I know for sure that I hadn’t gotten stronger over the last two weeks, but perhaps I was better acclimatised and conditioned as the trip progressed. Also I think the prospect of some good food at Korzok was reason enough to rush downhill. I don’t remember taking a break, but every once in a while I would turn around to glance at the whole ridge. The lake in the farthest distance beneath me was beautiful too. I think it was great that to be there alone, seeing all the awesome beauty and not having to say thing to anyone or hear a thing from anyone. It was just for me to be still, watch and sigh. Then move on; Stuff that dreams are made of. I was so quick that I reached my campsite by quarter to 5. From base to the campsite in an hour and 3 quarters was a brilliant effort I thought. It took me close to three hours from the base to the campsite, with an empty pack, just three days back when I dropped some load at the base camp. True – I took a longer, circuitous route that day, but under 2 hours with a really heavy pack was still a very good effort. At the campsite, I had some company. There was a bunch of youngsters from Leh who were training to be Lamas who were camped there. We hit it off rightaway. Those guys were intrigued by my solo adventure and I was amazed at how a boy could dedicate his whole life to celibacy and abstinence at such a young age. There were 5 folks in their group. 3 of them were busy playing cards while the other 2 were with me; talking to me, trying to help me with the tent, although they had no clue about my tent. But they would look at how I used the pegs and repeat the process. We spoke a lot; about their education, my education, their plans, my plans etc. It was refreshing talking to youngsters who were uncorrupted by these horrid times. Those guys were very innocent, warm and accommodating. I just hoped that they stayed that way. Once the tent was pitched, the boys asked me if I would have dinner with them. Not wanting to be a burden to them, I politely refused. I told them that since I had not had lunch, I had to eat rightaway and hence was heading to the restaurant in the village for an early dinner. I offered them some chocolate and then left for the village. I also took my ration along with me. I thought it would be of some use to the couple running the restaurant.  They had been good to me, especially the lady, so I thought I could give all that stuff to them. I had a lot of instant noodles, soups and some tuna. Once I reached the village, I tried to hook up with a cab driver, to give me a ride to Leh. I didn’t have much success initially, but eventually a group agreed to give me a ride to Leh. I asked them about the money and they refused rightaway. I thought that was a great gesture. But not wanting to tag along for free, I offered to buy lunch the following day on our way to Leh. We all agreed to meet the following day at my campsite. A little later I went to the reataurant, had some very tasty mutton in gravy with chapathis. I thanked the couple for their hospitality, handed them the ration and returned to the campsite. I had a brief chat with the young lamas before going to the tent. I slept very well that night.

20 Aug 14

I woke up by 5:30 and was packed up by 7. The gentlemen from the previous night were running slightly late. So I asked the Lamas to look after my stuff while I made a quick trip to the village. I went straight to their vehicle and waited for them. I would have waited for 10 minutes or so when they arrived at the stand. I was glad to see them. We quickly got inside the vehicle and drove to my campsite. I loaded my stuff onto the vehicle and soon we were on our way to Leh. We opted to go through a different route, via Tso Kar, a salt water lake, instead of Chumathang, via Mahe. The drive was lot more dangerous on this route, often passing through steep narrow mud-gravel tracks. In a couple of hours we reached a high pass called Polokonka La.
Polokonka La
The pass was at an altitude of 4950m and the Dil Chahta Hai trio were suffering with the altitude. We got out of the vehicle to take some pictures but I advised the driver to get out of there as soon as possible lest those guys gave in to AMS. The route from Polokonka La to Tso Kar was much more sane. Tso Kar at 4750, was mostly dried up. Since none of us had had breakfast in the morning, we had to chose between Tso Kar and Depring, which was an hour away from Tso Kar. We opted to have lunch at Depring.

We all had dal rice and vegetables at Depring which is basically a small settlement with a few restaurants and huts in the middle of a vast deserted plateau. It was at an altitude of 4600m, and one of the guys was still showing signs of AMS. I also bought some Mountain Dew along with the lunch for the whole group. After lunch we were on our way to Leh.  We had to drive through another very high pass called Tang Lang La. It was no big deal for me, but the other guys were on a sightseeing trip and wanted to stop at every place that had some stat associated with it; Second highest motorable pass, high altitude lake, this or that, and I could respect that. Besides, those guys gave me a free ride, the least I could do was go along with a smile. We spent a few minutes at Tang Lang La and then began the descent to Leh. Along the way, we stopped at one of the many weird boards that the BRO makes along the highway. This one read “be gentle on my curves”.
It was hilarious. The trio even had an argument over which one of them had the right to put it on their facebook profile. I had a good laugh at their expense. It was fun riding with those guys. When I had some network coverage on my phone, I called John and he was pleasantly surprised to hear my voice. He wasn’t expecting my call for three more days. But he did his best and made a room available for me. We reached Leh by 6. I thanked those guys for the ride and we wished each other luck for the rest of the trip.

I was glad to see John. He showed me to my room. The first thing I did was wash up and head out to Dzomsa for a drink. I had a lot of chicken and mutton for dinner that night. Because I was able to knock off this leg well within the allotted time, I had 5 more days to spare and no clue as to how I would keep myself occupied. I thought that perhaps I could hike to the mountains around Leh, but that was a concern for later. For the moment, I was more concerned about catching some sleep and gloat over the fact that I was able to pull off a Himalayan hat-trick on my own. At the guesthouse I met with John and he was keen to know about my trip. We spoke for a few minutes and agreed to continue the conversation the following day. Although, when I went to bed that night, I thought the trip was over for me, a part of me reminded me that I have put myself in bizarre situations in the past and something within me was telling me that may be this was just the beginning of the end. With 5 days still to go, the ”end” seemed quite some distance away. Well! I just had to sleep it off that night and wait to find out how I could surprise myself.