Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Reaching the summit of India’s highest trekkable peak doesn’t sound like you’re in for an easy ride, but a Stok Kangri trek will mean you can achieve just that.
Anything with the word ‘Himalayan’ attached feels daunting to a novice mountaineer, but this towering 6,153m mountain is the focus of a new movement of hikers and adventure seekers, wanting an alternative to the crowds on Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. As an avid novice mountaineer, I went to see what all the hype was about.
Year on year, the number of hikers attempting Kilimanjaro has soared, with the rise in popularity of adventure tourism bringing charity groups, backpackers and trekkers of all ages to Tanzania’s star attraction. With this rise of numbers comes a rise in cost. In two years, the price of climbing this icon has increased by over £800, pushing it out of reach of many would-be trekkers and adventure enthusiasts.
As someone who does my best to head off the beaten path and is driven more by ‘good value for money’ (i.e. cheap) than I would like, this lesser known Indian mountain provided an answer.
Stok Kangri in nestled in the Himalayan province of Ladakh, close to the Chinese and Pakistani borders. Unlike neighbouring Kashmir, this state is stable and safe, sparsely populated mostly by Tibetan refugees who took up residence in the region after fleeing their homeland in the 1950s, and never left.
This part of India feels distinct for precisely this reason, with none of the chaos usually associated with the country. Tibetan heritage has made its mark on the local capital, Leh, with local restaurants offering momo dumplings, thenthuk noodle soup, rice wine and heady incense. Buddhist temples are scattered across the mountains with long lines of prayer wheels leading up to their entrances.
Hire a mountain guide and porters or, as I did, go with a reputable UK expedition company that offers a trip like 360 Expeditions, and you can head up to the high-altitude desert that is Hemis National Park, Stok Kangri’s home.
Our approach is similar to Kilimanjaro, with multiple routes to choose from – some short and some long. As with its African counterpart, the chance of summitting successfully massively increase with the longer you spend going between altitudes.
It’s all to do with acclimatisation, rather than the mileage you can cover in a day. Flying into Leh from Delhi already puts you at 3,500m – that’s just over two and half Ben Nevis’s stacked on top of each other.
From the minute I step off the plane and onto the chilly tarmac, I can feel the drop in oxygen. It takes two days for my body to adapt before I can even begin to start going up higher. Taking this time is paramount for your body, but it also allows you to explore the local temples, monasteries and museums. An expedition is often about more than the end goal of the summit – it is a journey that is hugely enhanced by learning about local culture and customs.
Reputable companies will take you on routes which gradually increase in altitude over a week, until you are comfortable in the mid-4,000m range. Most paths will lead you over 5,000m passes every few days, before dropping back into the comparative warmth of (still very high) valleys. Each night there is only a few hundred meters of gain, keeping altitude sickness at bay.
My guide is Rolfe Oostra, a world-renowned mountain guide and Everest summiteer with a career spanning 30 years – not that he would ever let on. He has led hundreds of expeditions on every continent and has lived in mountains, jungles, deserts and over coral reefs. He tells me that ‘Kilimanjaro is tough to beat, but this Stok Kangri trek has all the elements to make it an even more authentic adventure; no crowds, fantastic scenery, remote location plus a lot more wildlife. Plus breaking the 6000m barrier is also an incredible achievement.’
Like Kilimanjaro, you will have the support of a team of porters, cooks and mountain guides. Unlike Kili, there are also ponies and mules to help with the load. These were the most well-treated, well-fed and respected animals I’ve seen on an expedition, and were limited to doing five hours work a day and then let lose to graze until the next morning.
Off the beaten track
The main pulls are the lack of other trekkers and access to isolated traditional villages. On Stok, there are no queues, no sharing campsites with hundreds of others and no permanent huts. There is no plastic pollution or risk of path degradation and your chances of seeing wildlife are high. You are thrown into life at its simplest, where you can catch glimpses into the daily life of rarely visited communities.
These are villages cut off all winter long, reached only by driving up the frozen Indus and Zangskar rivers. During the warmer summer months when the Stok Kangri trek is open to hikers, you are likely to be invited in for a cup of yak butter tea and biscuits. Walnut and willow trees line the glacial streams which support the collections of mud brick houses that sit in shadow of these dusty, jagged mountains. Small herds of domesticated sheep graze in the narrow, grassy flood plain, which provide just enough water for strips of crops to be grown too. Traditional farming methods are still being used - there is no electricity up here.
As you get higher, local communities become fewer and wildlife becomes more noticeable. Hares dart over a landscape now littered with scratchy shrub. Chubby marmots waddle around the entrances to their burrows, becoming nimble whenever an eagle soars too close. Yaks, ibex, blue sheep and big-horned urials wander the cliff faces, pushing small stones down as shrapnel when running away from passing hikers. Tracks of increasingly rare snow leopards are sometimes seen after fresh snowfalls. Tales of wolves and lynxes are whispered too, if you ask around in the few hardy villages left at that height.
This is a place where you feel like you are part of an intrepid, remote expedition, gaining a unique insight into a way of life before mass tourism and globalisation but yet still within reach of an emergency rescue by helicopter, if you should ever need one.
Like Kilimanjaro, summit day is a tough and long.
An early rise at 1.30am, with headtorches and every down layer on, it was time to go. Feeling a little groggy from camping at the 5,000m base camp (only 300m lower than Everest Base Camp, for context), we started with a steep, steady plod. Surrounded by darkness, I was mesmerised by the singular sight of one foot in front of the next. One foot in front of the next.
After five hours of going through the night and trying to chomp through rock solid Mars bars, the sun cast a dawn haze as we slowly approached the glacier, showing for the first time just how beautifully remote I really was. In the summer months would not be a technical section, with only one shallow crevasse which is small enough to hop over.
From there on up it was about slow, short traverses. Altitude gain is rapid and my pace dropped and dropped until, after another three hours, I reach Stok Kangri’s ridge. This was the most exposed section of the entire expedition, with sheer 1000m drops into valleys below on either side. It was a Grade 2 scramble, though given the height and exposure of the ridge at this altitude, we roped together, donning crampons and ice axes for added safety.
I was as close to physical exhaustion as I had ever been. Those couple of Mars bars were far from enough food, but the altitude had made me lose my appetite completely. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t stomach anything. I started to sway, unable to walk in a straight line, feeling confused and disorientated. I needed to reach the summit soon, this was beginning to verge on unsafe.
The last 200m of ascent took me well over 2 hours, the rough terrain and thinning air, combined with my minor signs of altitude sickness slowed us to a few paces a minute.
Finally – finally – I rounded the last corner of the snow-packed ridge and the path ended in what felt like mid-air. I’d been imagining this moment for months in the lead up to the expedition, and every waking minute for the past two weeks. When I got there, though, I felt none of the elation I usually do when I reach a summit. Instead, I felt empty; I collapsed onto the icy path and lay there, staring emptily up at the cloudless sky, just breathing.
After ten minutes, I could finally face getting up. I was rewarded with 360-degree panoramic view of even higher Himalayan peaks in India, China and Pakistan. K2 and Broad Peak were clearly jutting out over the border, leaving long shadows deep into their valleys below.
There was no wind, no approaching weather systems; just a beautiful, bluebird day. Descending back down again seemed criminal.
By mid-afternoon, though, I was safely back down to base camp – fed, watered and feeling strong once again.
With the right training, support and a little bit of luck from the weather gods, anyone aiming for Kilimanjaro can also aim for the summit of the more adventurous Stok Kangri. It is the natural progression for those who have climbed Africa’s equivalent and are looking to answer the question of ‘what’s next’?
I went on this Stok Kanrgi trek with 360 Expeditions and would thoroughly recommend their trips. This 14 day expedition runs throughout the summer months and costs £1,795 and flights are approximately £650, though this will vary massively by time of year. Mention 25before25 when booking.
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