I stand on top of the mountain, arms thrust high, holding my ice axe. All around me, far below, the world spreads out. Valleys, ridges, some of them obscured by cloud. I breathe the thin air as deep as I can.
And then I stop daydreaming, snap the laptop shut, and get ready for the office. All this visualising success, all this planning; I just want it to end so I can get to India and try to climb Stok Kangri.
Weeks later, I reunite with Yon in Delhi and we make our way to Leh. She’s been in Chennai, down south, and it’s good to see her. Before our trek to the Sham Valley, I roam the streets looking for someone who can organise me a climb on Stok Kangri. I’d really prefer to go solo – I can navigate confidently and I think I can do it. I’ve studied the route so much on Google Earth and the internet I feel I know it by heart. But reason prevails. It’s the Himalayas, after all. I decide to get a guide.
It quickly becomes clear that finding an outfit to organise the trip is a gamble. One guy is vague on the details, another seem stoned, his glazed eyes scarcely able to focus on me as he says “yes, no problem my friend! Stok Kangri, right?”. Another takes offence when I ask why his price is so much higher than others have quoted. “It’s my price, it’s me”, he says, as though he’s Tenzing Norgay and I should be honoured. Eventually I find a guy called Jack. He seems friendly enough, if a little vague. When I get back from Sham he’s found me a guide, but not a group to go with. Fine, I think. Just me and a guide. It’s practically solo after all. I hand over my cash.
I haven’t drunk a drop of coffee or alcohol since the Cathay flight from Hong Kong. I haven’t taken a bite of meat. Everything I do comes with a threshold test: will this increase my chances of dehydration or food poisoning? If “yes”, then “no”.
Each day in Leh I stare at Stok Kangri. Far to the south, it stands tall. Not overwhelming like I imagine K2 to be, or Everest, but high and obviously higher than anything else. Leh is 3,500 meters above sea level. Stok Kangri is 6,137 (or 6,123, or 6,150, depending what you read, but I take the number from www.peakbagger.com). That’s more than two and a half kilometres, straight up.
I continue my mental process of visualising success. And I stop to buy a miniature string of prayer flags.
There’s one more thing. I don’t have quite enough warm clothing. In an alley behind Leh’s Kashmiri-dominated market area, we pass an army outfitter. The ancient man who seems to run the shop speaks no English, but it’s easy to communicate as I try on some wool jumpers. They’re new, but look like they were knitted for Commandos on D-Day. For 350 rupees (about six dollars), I buy one. I’ll be glad I did.
I shake Stanzin’s hand and size him up. Seems like a nice kid. Ill-equipped, but so often these mountain guys don’t look like you’d expect. He’s just wearing jeans and street shoes, and carrying what looks more like a school bag than a rucksack. I offer to strap his crampons and ice axe to my pack. He declines.
At Leh’s gritty bus depot he asks for the bus to Stok and we climb aboard. It’s leaving soon which is great. As I get on I see two impossibly tall and good looking Europeans. He is at least seven feet tall, and she’s close to it. He has a big beard and a fetching shock of black hair, just bedraggled enough to look unstyled without screaming “hippie”, despite his vintage looking gear. She is blonde and gorgeous. Everyone else is local, except the older European woman I sit next to. We grind downhill through Leh’s commercial district, cross the Indus through a sea of prayer flags, and bounce uphill to Stok. At the end of the line, the Euro-Amazons disappear up the trail before I have even slung my pack. We move out.
I wonder how I am ever to summit this mountain. Less than a kilometre from the trailhead, I feel tired and weak. A few parties make their way downhill, looking very depressed. I assume they didn’t summit, but of course I don’t ask. An Indian guy says “Good luck on Stok Kangri! Too hard for me”. I smile. Convoys of pack horses pass as well, bells ringing and their horsemen whistling and yelling. But I am carrying my own stuff. I stagger over a steep rocky outcrop as a platoon of soldiers – ethnically Tibetan – run downhill past me, huge packs on their backs and big grins on their faces. It’s a safe bet they summited.
Stanzin gets lost briefly, despite the route being marked on a stone. We bash our way down a gully and back to the correct path but I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt. Like I never made a nav error before? Eventually, I fall into a decent rhythm and start to feel ok. We reach the Lower Camp in three hours, a respectable time. It’s fairly empty, and I learn that the Euros pushed straight up to Base Camp.
This camp gives me my first understanding of “homestay” on Stok Kangri. There’s one large tent, rigged up so you can sit and eat in one end, and the guy running it can cook in the other. He calls me “Mr Australia” and he wears shorts and flip flops with football socks up to his knees. That’s a cool look up here, and the whole setup is very basic but perfectly comfortable. Meanwhile, some smaller dome tents are pitched nearby and I’m given one of those. At first I’m to share with Stanzin, which is fine, but then his best friend arrives with another party so he leaves the tent for me so he can hang out with his pal.
I enjoy the sun, and the wind. A flock of wild Blue Sheep grazes right by the camp, while others are climbing on the steep cliff opposite the river. I watch them in awe. They run down almost vertical rockfaces, and hop from one ledge to the other like you or I might move from the couch to the refrigerator. Prayer flags flap in the wind and they’re wonderful.
A wrinkly old German climber, wiry thin and with a big white beard, strikes up a conversation. “Ah, ja, I was in the Himalaya with an Australian mountaineer in the 1980s, what was his name?” He looks at me. I don’t know, obviously, and I offer up the two I can think of – Lincoln Hall and Tim Macartney-Snape. His face is blank. Not them, huh? The conversation ends. We both stare at the summit of Stok Kangri for a slightly awkward moment.
Here I also meet three friendly Europeans – Tom the Czech, Frer the Dutchman, and Andreas from Germany. They’re trekking together and their guide is more experienced than Stanzin. Before long our two groups are loosely integrated. We play cards until sunset, eat two enormous plates of almost pure carbohydrates, and I indulge in the first Mountain Dew I’ve drunk since college. An Indian man named Ananda joins us too. He’s getting married in a month and using the time until then to travel his country, alone. Despite the altitude, I sleep soundly, and my confidence returns.
It takes just 90 minutes to walk to Base Camp. Stanzin’s found his own spot again so I get a tent to myself. This homestay is just like the last, but through the day more and more people arrive and more and more tents are erected and there are more and more horses rolling on the ground as the men remove their heavy loads. One group laying siege on the mountain has even brought a folding toilet seat. “Really”? I think. You want to climb a six thousander but you can’t squat over a hole for a few days?
You don’t conquer mountains and you don’t assault them. You quietly sneak up there and you respectfully sneak down.
After another hearty lunch – it’s already clear we are in no danger of starving on this trip – we do an acclimatization climb up an adjacent ridge. We can see mighty K2, the second highest mountain in the world at 8,611 meters and considered one of the world’s most dangerous, challenging ascents. Compare it to Mount Everest, which was first climbed in 1953. Since then, it’s been summitted more than five thousand times by more than three thousand people – a blind man, a thirteen year old and an 80 year old among them. It’s been skied down, and a helicopter has landed on its peak. A couple was even married there (at least they were Nepalese). For every hundred successful summit attempts on Everest, just 4.3 people are killed trying. K2 is an entirely different place. You only hear about Everest if more than ten people die at once, or when the latest gimmicky climbing record is broken. But just climbing K2 at all can still be newsworthy – the first ever Pakistani team to succeed did so as we were in Leh. It was top news on CNN. Though first climbed in 1954, no-one succeeded again on K2 until 1977. By 2010, the same year as the Everest data just given, only 302 people had reached the top. And for that success, 80 had lost their lives.
Mountains don’t kill people. People on mountains kill themselves. Especially on K2.
But more important than all that, from here we also get our first close view of Stok Kangri. Our mountain is immeasurably easier than K2, far lower, and it can be walked up rather than climbed with expert skill. But it’s our mountain, and it’s here and now, not far off in Pakistan. It’s my clear and present dream, and it is more than enough to handle just now. We can see the route, or at least the upper part of it. The glacier and lower sections are obscured by the first ridge we need to climb. We are at about 5,300 meters, and I feel good. The key, as I already know but practice has proven, is to take your time. Slow and steady may not win the race, but it will get you up the mountain.
Someone asks about the tall, skinny cairns we saw all around, just piles of stones reaching precariously into the sky. They’re everywhere. “My grandmother told me that when we die”, Stanzin explains, “the demons try to get us. But if you have one of these you can hide behind it. Small ones are good too”. Later, I build one for myself. By some miracle it is still standing amongst the tents when I leave Base Camp. Perhaps people are superstitious, and don’t knock it over, but neither do any horses.
At Base Camp we learn that Europe’s Team Amazon had not summited. They’d not stopped at the lower camp, and the next morning had slept late before heading to the summit. Even so, they quickly overtook everyone else and by the time they reached the glacier, despite having GPS, they couldn’t identify the route. So they waited. By the time the first party arrived, the woman was so cold she could not continue. They turned back, and stayed in Base Camp just long enough for the sun to rise and to tell us the story. They were Czech it turned out, so Tom conveys it to us. I quietly decide that my choice not to solo was a good one.
Someone tells another story. A week ago, an Indian woman joined – or was permitted to join, by a dodgy agency – a Stok Kangri group. She’d hardly hiked before, and had hardly spent any time in Leh. She made it some way up the mountain above Base Camp but, predictably, really struggled with the altitude. Leaving her party and returning to camp, she went straight to her tent and fell asleep. She never woke up.
Mountains are not fair or unfair. They’re just dangerous.
There’s another Indian guy here, who’s also never hiked. An unscrupulous agency in Leh put him in a group with a young Australian ski instructor and his Austrian skiing girlfriend. They complain about how slow he was, but really the agency is to blame. He’d walked in off the street having just arrived in Leh and said “I’d like to try trekking”. Because they had an empty slot on an already organised trek, they put him there. Never mind that it was to 6,137 meters and one of the most difficult treks available. He’s a nice boy, and some of us quietly encourage him not to push himself. He already sees the situation clearly and has no intention of trying for the summit.
Late in the day two young guys walk into the camp. I forget their names but not their opening pitch. “Hi, I’m from Israel, there’s lots of us around, and after we finish the army we either go to South America or the east. I chose the east”. Friendly kids, as I know from both South America and the east. But I am immediately a bit bemused. Defying all common sense, they’ve come straight from Leh that morning and not stopped at the lower camp to acclimatise. And they plan to summit with us first thing in the morning. And they have no proper gear. And they have no guide. And, essentially, they have no clue. “Do you know the way?”, he asks me. I show them a few photos of the mountain I took from a high point, and encourage them to stay an extra day before trying for the summit. They seem genuinely thankful, and I retire.
In the last hours of sleep, I dream fitfully of standing on the summit, and of crazy Israeli guys trying to persuade me to do dumb things.
“The thought of approaching action aroused strange and contradictory emotions in me. I felt an immense pity for all the little men who toiled on in the prison which society has succeeded in building against the open sky, who knew nothing and felt nothing of what I knew and felt at that moment. Yesterday I was like them, and in another few days I would be like them again. But today I was a prisoner set free; and tomorrow I would be a lord and master, and commander of life and death, of the stars and the elements.”
— Giusto Gervasutti.
Click for Part Two: Summit Day.