On 19th September 2018, 16 women from the Love Her Wild community, including myself, met in Heathrow, as a group of sleepy strangers hopping on a plane to Delhi, looking forward to trekking with each other up to the summit of Stok Kangri, the highest mountain in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas.
Connecting from Delhi, we began the trek by having a couple of acclimatisation days in Leh, a dusty Himalayan town buzzing with markets, street cows and the spicy smell of fresh curry. It has an eclectic vibe of Tibetan refugee history, mixed with Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist traditions, surrounded by high, snowy mountain peaks, including our Stok Kangri. We explored the town and visited monasteries, relaxing before our expedition truly began. We had already been advised at this point that we would be taking a slightly different route than originally planned, as there had not been enough rainfall on the original route for us to pick up plenty of drinking water. This wasn’t a big deal – both our expedition leader, the wonderful Jo Bradshaw, and our local guides had done the route before. Little did we know what was headed our way.
Once we’d let our bodies get used to the lack of oxygen at 3,524m and got to know our tentmates, our guides arranged a lift to our starting point, in a tiny village of Chilling. Here we enjoyed a restful afternoon, allowing us plenty of time to chill in our tents, in preparation for starting to hike the next day. Unfortunately, this is where plans began to change further.
The rain began around midday when we arrived in Chilling, and was relentless throughout the night. Awakening to raindrops battering our tents, the group still arose with smiles on our faces, ready for the first day of trekking (what are waterproofs for anyway?!). The trek initially followed a dirt road, and it was evident from early on the rain had caused some damage. Whilst we still managed to continue, treacherously at times jumping across collapsed tracks, cars definitely would not be able to cross. Hopefully, there would be relief from the rain that afternoon.
We reached the village of Skyu that afternoon around lunch time and were told our plans would possibly be changing. Due to the amount of rainfall (which had not subsided as we had hoped), we could not pitch our tents and would be staying in a home stay. Not only that, but tomorrows trekking was in jeopardy. The route in our plan was through a valley surrounded by steep rocky slopes, which meant a high risk of dangerous rock slides due to the rain. We witnessed some of these from the safety of the home stay, sounding like approaching thunder before we realised it was tons of rocks speedily rolling from the slopes surrounding us! Whilst the rain eventually dissipated overnight, a decision was made to stay in the Chilling homestay for a full day, whilst the guides ran around the surrounding valleys to check out possible alternative routes. Reality set in that not only will we probably not make Stok Kangri, but we might be stuck here for a while. The homestay did provide much needed shelter and the owners were very accommodating, but it was an experience in itself of life in the mountains. Several leaks in the roof dripping on people’s sleeping bags; all 16 of us crammed into the family’s living room; no electricity; a smelly cat that wouldn’t shut the hell up; the bathroom (which in these regions is an elevated hole, of the ‘squat and drop’ style) had a hole in the roof, which meant water pouring in towards your back while you try and get your balance over said toilet hole. Thankfully rather than moan, we laughed and bonded as new friends, including a much-needed sing-a-long with Carole and her guitar to keep spirits high!!
After our long, uneventful day in Chilling we were off!! Thank goodness!! This time a plan (Plan D at this point) had been concocted for us to head through a different, far less dangerous, valley, and make our way up past the village of Shingo, to eventually camp wildly in among the mountains. The beginning of the day was a gentle uphill slope through the valley, but with some iffy, but exciting, scrambling up a waterfall thrown in between! After a stop for lunch the second part of the day was harder for many of us. It was a decent altitude climb that day and it started to take its toll. Nausea and difficulty to catch breath were the main culprits. But slow, slow, slow is the saying at altitude! And these struggles allows for a huge part of this trip to manifest itself – supporting your team mates. It’s all about encouraging each other when the going gets tough, and our team definitely did that. We took it easy, and eventually arrived at my favourite campsite of the trek, deep in the mountains surrounded by snow and stunning mountain peaks!
Once again, our plans for the next day changed. Plan E. It was evident to the guides that there was a huge amount of snowfall on the high passes surrounding us, causing route-blocks once again. The only way around this was to tackle Stok Kangri from the other side. This meant a long, tough today of trekking. We set off from our beautiful Campsite bright and early, heading up towards Ganda La, a very snowy pass we had been staring up at from camp the night before. The walk was semi-steep, and again a decent enough gain in altitude. Once again we took it slow, as the altitude was hitting us. I felt unbelievably sick reaching the top of Ganda La. Out of breath, exhausted, and extremely nauseous – the only thing that stopped me lugging my guts up was seeing a paw print in the snow!! Delighted!! What I now believe to be a wolf print, brought me so much excitement, it took my mind entirely off how I was feeling. We stopped for a rest, drink of water and snack, before heading down the opposite side of the pass. There were quite a few of us this day who were feeling very unwell – and unfortunately, it was a long slog, due to our change in plans. The downhill stretch seemed never-ending, and exhaustion really was setting in. But as good teams do, we all supported each other. Dawn passed me some jelly beans on her way passed, when I’d stopped to catch my breath and hold back tears of tiredness – even the simplest of gestures shows your teammates are looking out for you, and while the jelly beans gave me an energy boost, Dawn and the rest of the team members who also came up behind, giving words of encouragement and advice are what keeps you going sometimes. We stopped for lunch on the way down, snapped a quick group photo, and continued on. Becks really kindly gave me some of her water as I’d already lugged my way through all mine, trying to fend off an altitude headache that was lurking! After lunch, the terrain started to vary a little too, which kept it interesting. More and more greenery appeared, something I wasn’t expecting in the Himalayas at all. Eventually, we reached our goal of Zhingchen, a one-house town, where two cars were awaiting to whisk us around to Stok Village, on the other side of the mountain. At this point, it was still looking hopeful that we’ll make the summit. *come on mountain gods, be kind!!*
It needs to be noted here that even though we had a tough day, the horsemen and the beloved ponies, horses and donkey who were helping with our gear had an even longer day. They were doing the full 9-hour trek, plus walking all the way around to Stok Village (about an hour in the cars) just to help us have a chance at Stok Kangri. They are definite saviours!
Stok Village was a beautiful campsite on the edge of, surprise surprise, the village of Stok! After a well-deserved early night, we set off again the next day, this time heading up to Mankarmo, a popular camping spot with trekkers attempting Stok Kangri. The trail that day was generally very slow and steady, with a couple of serious uphill inclines thrown in! I remember for the first steep uphill it was a zigzag path up through a rocky face before popping out the other side and following a gentle slope down. And it’s probably the first time in my life I actually really enjoyed a steep uphill climb! I have no idea why but something about that part of that day just sat right with me! After lunch was again a gentle incline, following the valley. Reaching Mankarmo was a godsend – the last few hours in the valley was easy walking but visually very same-samey, and when the afternoon heat is relentless, it just makes everything seem longer, slower and more difficult!
On the approach to Mankarmo, and at the camp area itself, we bumped into several trekkers – none of whom had managed to make it up the mountain. Everyone was passing on the message that even Base Camp was far too snowy and cold, and this is where trekkers need to begin from, as the summit day itself is long and hard going. It wasn’t looking good, and worry started to set in. Once we were at camp and settled down for some tea, it was official: we were not summitting Stok Kangri in two days time as we had hoped. It was off the table. Too much snow; winter conditions instead of what should have been summer conditions. Whilst everyone kept a smile and understood deeply that we cannot change mother nature and her weather, there was an undertone of sheer disappointment and guttedness. We were devastated – with all the training, the build up, the gear we’d bought, the money for the trip and managing to get this far, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But, it is what it is, and we are really lucky to have had a group that did not complain or throw a fuss. We had all still had an incredible time trekking, and still had a few days left, which we would make the most of.
The next day, rather than heading to base camp which we had decided the night before we would still do (Plan F), we kept our camp in Mankarmo and decided to try and get as high as we could on a wee day hike (Plan G!). For those like myself who had never had experience with crampons and ropes, and was very much looking forward to that opportunity, it was great to hear we’d still get to play with some winter skills. We walked for an hour or so until we came to the base of Golap Kangri, a much smaller peak that rests near to Stok Kangri. We roped up, got our crampons on and started to head up the steep side of this hill. It was a tiresome slog, reaching two summits – the first of which is now better known in our group as ‘thinking rock’. We continued up to finally reach the cairn we had our eyes on, reaching our highest altitude of the trip at 5,050m. It was super difficult navigating in a team roped together, but my god I had THE BEST TIME! I am absolutely looking at doing a winter skills course now – the views you can get being able to climb snowier peaks and ridges with those skills is well worth the difficulty of it. You take it slow, so as not to literally drag your teammates around with your connecting rope, and work in smaller groups of 4-5 people. It was a great feeling to be at the top of Golap Kangri, looking across to Stok Kangri – she was taunting us by looking so close you could touch, but we were happy with our achievement on our own peak.
Photo courtesy of Bex Band
After we returned to Mankarmo, we celebrated with a cake made by the cooks (on a two ring gas burner!!!), and looked up at the most beautiful night’s sky I have ever seen in my life, including a very clear milky way. It’s moments like this that you can’t photograph, but that are forever yours as an amazing memory.
The next day we simply re-traced our steps right back down to Stok Village, our last day of trekking, followed by the three stray dogs that temporarily adopted us as part of their pack due to us feeding them leftovers the night before! That night the guides arranged for beer to be dropped off to us, and we enjoyed a campfire sing-song celebration with the guides. It was a brilliant time to just celebrate with an amazing group – the fellow trekkers who not long ago were strangers, and I could now consider friends, whom had supported each other through thick and thin, and the many emotional ups and downs of our adventure; and with the guides and horsemen, who had gone above and beyond in every such way to make sure we were fed, happy, healthy and could get to where we wanted to be, every day doing so with smiles on their faces and humming happy tunes around the campsites.
We had a few days in Leh to reflect on the trek and settle back into normal life (you know, the luxuries of running toilets, a shower, a bed). I feel so grateful to have been on this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime trip. I will definitely go back one day to finally summit Stok Kangri, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t gutted to have not made it. But our adventure was like no other – with the amount of plan changes, the stranding in a tea house, the amazing guides and locals we met. I cannot wait to meet up with my trek-mates again – experiences like this are certainly bonding like no other!
Anyone looking for inspiration, look no further than these three recommendations. Huge thanks to our expedition leader Jo Bradshaw, an Everest summiteer and superbly inspirational woman, for safely guiding us including stopping us from peeing under rockfall-areas (sorry Jo!!!); to 360 Expeditions for organising the important logistics of this amazing trek; and to Love Her Wild , the incredible Women’s Adventure Community, for arranging the trip with 360 Expeditions – it really has been one of the most memorable and laughter filled trips I have ever had.