The last month has flown by. My trip to Kerala (post coming soon), bi-weekly visits to the Hubli Police Commissioner, and wrapping up work in Hubli have kept me busy, putting this blog on the backbench. I’ve now finished work and left the South, free to roam. A longer post about my time in Hubli is underway, but I’ve been struggling with the format. It’s been hard to do the experience justice in writing without making my close friends and colleagues seem like book characters (something I’d like to avoid). This is where this long-form blog format struggles, and where video starts to have its merits. Nevertheless, there are experiences and stories that deserve recording and sharing. I’ll figure it out eventually.
I thought I’d take a moment to informally outline my plan for the next few weeks. If you’d prefer to read about me doing cool things unfortunately this post isn’t for you; if you’re fine reading about me planning to do cool things, then stick around.
As I write this I’m in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. From the little I’ve seen it’s beautiful, nestled on a large flood plain, bound by green slopes rising to snowy peaks. The air is crisp despite 30 degree temperatures.
Nestled in the foothills of the Zanskar range, the city of a million people is touted as India’s Switzerland. It’s also about 100km to the border with Pakistan, and pretty close to the LoC (the Line of Control, or the edge of India’s claim to the contested Kashmir Valley.). This is where my Himalayan Adventure starts.
Loosely defined for a couple of months now, my Himalayan adventure plans have necessarily solidified in the last couple weeks, before being yet again upturned and resettled earlier this morning. It’s good that I’m reaching the end of the line for itinerary edits. Here’s the outline.
The Goal: Stok Kangri
While the start of my itinerary has changed considerably, my ultimate goal hasn’t. Set in my sights is the 20,000-foot summit of Stok Kangri, the tallest mountain in India that can be climbed without a full set of climbing equipment. I’ve spent the last month preparing; reading and training, cruising forums and sending emails.
Standing opposite Leh in Ladakh, Stok Kangri has become a popular destination for hikers looking to ascend their first Himalayan peak. At 70% the altitude of Everest, it’s not among the Himalayan giants, but at 6153 meters, the effects of altitude cannot be underestimated (for comparison, the tallest peak in North America, Denali (Mt. Mckinley), stands just slightly taller at 6190 meters). Acclimatization is a must, and to this end there’s no substitute for taking things slowly. See my section on altitude below for more technical details.
From the start, achieving this goal has been riddled with caveats and set-backs. This is my first tall peak, incomparable to anything I’ve hiked in the Pacific Northwest. In the last 2 months, I’ve become accustomed to 35-40 degree heat on a low, flat plain; I’ll feel the cold all the more, and I’ve had zero chance to do any warm-up hikes at altitude. I’ve had to buy new warm weather gear, and will have to rent the rest when I get to Leh. All this leads back to my earlier point about taking things slowly, which is why I’m in Srinagar first.
(On a positive note, my physical fitness is still good. I’ve been walking over 10k every day, I run a comfortable sub-25 minute 5k in 30+ degree heat, and can do pistol squats and handstand push-ups for reps.)
Two Plans: The Tortoise Beats the Hare (Yet Again)
I left Hubli on the 25 of May. Until today my plan was to reach Leh by the 30. Despite 5 days’ journey, this still had me rushing altitude, with over 1000 meters gain on the last day. Hearing reports of regional instability and clashes with police in Kashmir, I was keen to push on. Having arrived, seen the lay of the land and spoken with some locals, I’ve been persuaded to stay longer, allowing me to pursue a solid warm-up hike. This pacing is something my former plan lacked, after having ditched a yet earlier plan to try Roopkund on my way north (which for other reasons was a silly plan from the start).
The 2 night, 3 day warm-up hike climbs to over 12,000 feet, preparing me nicely to immediately push acclimatization upon reaching Leh. Climb high sleep low. The tortoise wins.
There’s another reason I’m ditching my earlier plans for a warm-up hike in Kashmir: It looks simply stunning.
Where Leh and Stok Kangri sit in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, dry and desolate, Gangabal Lake is quite the opposite. Up in a high mountain valley above Sonamarg, the Lake is accompanied by plush alpine meadows, rushing streams, and snow. It looks like alpine paradise (I’ll save posting pictures until I can post my own – wait for the story.).
The plan has been tailored by the helpful hosts at Lonely Guest House in Srinagar. To allow time for the guides to prepare, I’ll spend a day being shown around Srinagar, then head out to hike the next day. I wish it didn’t stretch my student budget as much as it does, but considering I’m hiking alone and the fee goes to pay for a driver, guide, assistant, mule, and all equipment, food, drink and alpine permits, I’m feeling ok paying what I am. Conscience kicked in before I started bargaining this time.
Once in Leh, I’ve got to get moving. I’ve yet to find a group and guide for Stok Kangri, so the first couple mornings will be occupied shopping around before heading up some trails. The good news is it seems there are many options and many hikers around to link up with. The bad news is it’s still shoulder season, so it could be quieter up there than if I had gone after June. There’s one tour company I’m already talking with, but they’re attempting Stok Kangri’s twin peak Golep Kangri in the same trip, which seems like overkill. I’ve got between June 4 and June 14 to fit this trek in. Time isn’t pressing too hard, but it isn’t too relaxed either. Tortoises can’t stop moving.
Technical Notes: Altitude
I’m no expert, but I’ve done considerable research to prepare for this trip. If you’re looking to do your first high-altitude climb I recommend doing your own, to get a better understanding of the risks. That being said, here’s a collection of the best resources I’ve found for my use.
This 25 page book by the UK-based MEDEX is a fairly comprehensive source for information on altitude-related sickness. It provides good explanation of the causes, effects, and treatment options for Acute Mountain Sickness (also known as Altitude Sickness or AMS), as well as for the more serious HAPE and HACE (affecting the lungs and the brain respectively). It also provides information on available medications, some information on first aid and other considerations when hiking in the high-altitude backcountry.
- Here are warnings from two tour companies about the dangers of Stok Kangri, how it needs to be taken seriously, and how you should prepare. This information should serve for other 6000m+ peaks as well.
Leh-Ladakh and Kashmir Travel Resources
Over the course of planning, several sites and forums helped greatly. Here are a few of the gems:
- Vargis Khan’s site is super helpful, with regularly updated details on bus schedules, road closures and other information for getting around the region: http://vargiskhan.com/log/srinagar-leh-highway-status-2017/ & http://vargiskhan.com/log/leh-bus-service-buses-ladakh/
This thread put me more at ease about traveling through Srinagar.