Stok Kangri Trek: Summit climb
Arjun Majumdar's Dairy extract of the summit day
It is night and I hear activity around my tent – lots of footsteps. I know these are trekkers getting ready for the summit attempt. I want to know what it looks like. I get out of my tent and see lots of torch lights flashing about. I peer into the darkness and look in the direction of the traverse to the first pass and don’t see any lights there. None of the teams have made it to the first pass yet. I am curious to know the time. I get back to the tent to check; it is just past mid night. I snug back into my sleeping bag. For 16,400 ft it felt very warm. I take off a layer of warm clothes and zip up. The noises outside continue and I drift to sleep slowly.
I wake up early – it is about 5.30 am and bright outside. I take a walk around the campsites - no one is around yet. I get back to my tent and snooze some more.
Today is a day of rest and to get our equipment in order. Everyone is lazy. In the morning the stream is not cloudy with mud. I refresh and drink some water from the stream.
The swollen stream is a lot easier to cross now. Sandhya skips over this time and together we climb the slope overlooking the camp. We need to make our office calls. Everything is in order back at our office. We get down to our kitchen for breakfast.
After breakfast it is time to get fitted with the crampons. It is a large team and it takes time for Tsering and Angchuk to get everyone’s crampons in order. It takes almost lunch by the time all equipment are in order. Some of us are not happy with our crampons but no one is complaining. We distribute ice axes to all. Tsering holds a small session on how to use the ice axe to prevent a fall.
Everyone wants to know about the summit day plan. I tell them I would do a briefing in the evening. I want to have a conference with Tsering before announcing anything.
At the Stok Kangri base camp, the timetable is skewered. We have lunch early and plan for dinner at 5.00 pm. Everybody needs to sleep by 6.00 pm to get enough rest before the summit climb. We plan to leave by midnight.
In the afternoon we retire to our tents. It is blistering hot. I can’t stay inside even for a few minutes. A group of our trekkers are playing cards. I watch their game lazily for a few minutes but want to catch a nap. I fling a few sleeping bags over my tent. This cools down the tent immediately and I am able to lie down. It’s not comfortable but manageable. I nap for a while.
It is early evening and I join Tsering who is resting next to the stream. I ask him the plan for the summit day. He wants the team to be divided into three. He would lead the first group while the other two guides would be in between. We would have a few helper boys to bring up the rear. Should anyone drop out the helper boys would accompany them back.
I return to my tent in deep thought. I try to plan out the composition of the three teams but am unable to arrive at any decision. If I put the better trekkers in group one then they would pick a pace that would be hard to manage by the other two teams, demoralizing them. Putting the slower team in the front doesn’t seem to be a good idea too. I ponder.
Dinner time is close. It is time to let the team know my plans. I call for a briefing session. I get Tsering into the meeting too.
I tell the team that we’ll leave sharp at the stroke of midnight. I want everyone to set their alarms for 11.00 pm. We would serve breakfast at 11.30 and be on our way at 12. I announce the composition of the team. We would have three teams, all of mixed ability as we were from day one. I also tell them the composition of guides Vs trekkers with Tsering leading in front.
There are lots of questions after the briefing. Shalab wants us to start earlier to catch the sunrise at the summit. I am firm with my decision – I don’t want the team leaving early and loosing rest time.
A few want to know about warm gears to wear. I advice them multiple layers but nothing bulky. I ask them to recheck their equipment and headlamps. Those without head lamps, I ask them to fabricate a sling on which they could tie their torches to their head. Finally I ask everyone to practice using their crampons once more.
The group immediately gets to the task. I can see most of them managing well with the crampons. A few are struggling. It worries me.
Dinner over, everyone gets back to their tents quickly. I sort out my climbing gears and put everything in order. I decide to take my backpack for the summit day. I can visualize myself picking up extra stuff trekkers leaving behind on the trail. I am happy with my backpack for another reason. It helps me to carry the crampon and my trekking pole easily. It’s almost 7.00 pm when I go to sleep.
23 July: I wake up on my own a few minutes before eleven. Everything seems to be terribly quiet around me. I was expecting more activity. I slip out of my tent and find everything still. I get back to my tent and put in a few more touches to my backpack and wait for the alarm to go off to get out of my tent to rouse everyone.
I wake up everyone in the other tents – the team is quick enough to rouse themselves. I step into the kitchen tent and find Bikki already busy over the stoves. He is getting breakfast ready. He tells me it is going to be rice porridge.
I can see other expedition tents getting ready. We are the only Indians. It feels strange, that in our own land we are the only Indian expedition to Stok Kangri. Everyone else is from another country.
I ask everyone to have breakfast and assemble by 11.45 am. I want to keep the deadline of 12 am start as tight as possible. I get back to my tent, pack everything one last final time and out before others.
Bikki is ready with breakfast and I help myself to two lump sums of rice pudding. Others start to fill in and it is 12 by the time everyone gathers together.
Mr Manmohan requests me to include his wife Shamala in his group. She is finding the pace of other trekkers difficult to handle.
It is cold outside but surprisingly not as much as I am expecting. It relieves me that Stok Kangri would be a comfortable climb.
In the cross beams of our torches I hold a last minute briefing. I reshuffle the leaders. I ask Dalip and Benny to lead group one. And Ajay and Gaurav to lead group two. I continue to have Mr Manmohan leading group 3. I hope with this reshuffle the teams will have a more even pace. I want to bring up the rear of all three groups. Climbing guide Tsering is in front and our other guides are asked to distribute themselves within the group.
At 12.15 in a haze of torch light we start our summit attempt of Stok Kangri. The leaders call out to their groups and lead the team out of the campsite. It is a long chain of 22 trekkers to Stok Kangri.
The trail to Stok Kangri is a simple 4 stage affair. Out of the base camp is a climb to a pass that brings us to a direct view of the summit. Then it is a long easy march to a point where a large glacier descending from the extended ridge flanks of the Stok Kangri flattens out. A crossing of the glacier is followed by a steep climb up the southern flanks of Stok Kangri. Three fourths of the way up, a sharp traverse over steep snow patches brings trekkers to the ridge of Stok Kangri. This marks the end of stage three. The final stage is the push to the summit of Stok Kangri along the ridge.
The team strikes an even pace straight away. I am at the very end, bringing up the rear. But the pace does not stay for long. On the climb leading up to the pass there is a sudden jam. Trekkers pause and the queue gets longer. I peer into the haze of flash lights. I can see some trekkers making slow progress over a sharp switch back bend in the trail. It immediately backs up the trekker behind them resulting in a slow grinding stop for everyone. I am reminded of horrifying Everest stories of long queues to get to the summit of Everest -- of people waiting endlessly in the cold for someone to move or get down. I don’t want a similar situation here.
The jam clears up quickly and we make progress uphill. The pace is even and slow that no one stops to rest. Unbelievably the entire team is on the top of the pass in 25 minutes. We have lots of cheering and congratulations. Everyone's upbeat about Stok chances now. From the pass, the night view of Leh is spectacular. It is a twinkling scatter of lights. From our height at 17,000ft, it is like looking down from an airplane. I ask the leaders to get their group together and continue moving . They set to task immediately. Group 1, followed by group two marches off. Group 3 follows closely behind. Far ahead I can see flash lights of a smaller trekking group. They seem to be the first ones on the slope and making good progress. I think they are half hour ahead of us.
Twenty minutes into our walk towards the glacier, P stops suddenly. He is not feeling too well (I withhold the name of the trekker here to protect his privacy). The entire group comes to a halt. Concerned, I ask him the problem. He says his stomach is bothering him and he needs to empty his bowel. I am a bit taken aback. I am not used to halting a group for trekkers who needs to attend a call of the nature. Yet on this trek, we must move as a team. I ask everyone to wait. Relieved, P steps back a few meters on the trail and sits down on its edge. I turn and look the other way. The other two groups are already out of sight.
In the silence of the night, with only the beams of torches swaying, trekkers joke about the situation. I look back to see if P has finished but am alarmed to see a group of trekkers fast approaching the squatted huddled figure of P. I don’t think he has time to clean himself and pick up his pants. P notices the approaching trekkers too, and in his hurry to clean himself up, the roll of tissue paper slips out his hand and rolls down the slope, leaving a long stream of white paper in the dark.
The trekkers approaching P hurl a heap of abuses on him for squatting on the trail. A surge of anger rises inside me. Yet, I can see that they are not unjustified in their abuses. P could have chosen a spot a few meters higher or lower on the trail.
The trekkers pass and I rush towards P to help him out. I scramble down the slope and retrieve his stream of tissue paper. I hand it back over to P. He quickly gathers himself up while I rejoin the group. In five minutes P joins us, apologises for the delay. We are on our way again.
We have lost fifteen minutes. The distance between the first two groups and us worries me. So far behind, we have no one around to lend a helping hand in an emergency. With no guide to lead us, we are alone in our own small group.
The trail is gently ascending and we soon reach the snout of the glacier. The trail avoids stepping on the glacier and runs parallel to it on the moraines. Far ahead, I can see the flash lights of other teams ahead of us. They are very far ahead.
Soon we hit our first snow patch. Aswin who has never stepped on snow is delighted. He gleefully sinks his trekking pole on the snow only to hear a solid sound resounding back. The snow is hard as a rock.
The group is quieter now aware of the long gap. Mr Manmohan continues to keeps his slow steady pace and everyone accepts it. For the first time I see lights have crossed the glacier and have started to climb the flank of Stok Kangri.
It takes us a long time to get to our group of trekkers waiting for us at the start of the walk across the glacier. We are met with angry glances. People have been waiting in the cold for us for more than 15 minutes. Tsering urges me to stick to the group . I try to explain to him the cause of the delay but I don’t think he understands. It is 2.30 in the night.
Crossing the glacier is not difficult. It is a flat stretch of snow and ice hardened over. Tiny rivulets run across it which sometimes needs to be hopped over. We are on the other side in fifteen minutes.
We begin our climb up the flank in a long chain of trekkers. The pace is slow and sometimes the chain comes to a halt. For me at the end, I don’t feel I am trekking -- just walking along. I look up high on the flank and notice trekkers almost a thousand feet above us, their torches swaying wildly in the dark.
We are at 18,000ft and the difference in ability between trekkers begins to show. Many have dropped out of their group and are going along on their own. The thin oxygen starved air makes every step painful. I know the trekkers who have stopped will find it even more difficult outside the group. The rhythm and motivation is lost when they step out.
I leave my sweepers role and take charge of leading the team. I ask Aswin to bring up the rear. He does not want to and asks me to employ Harsha instead. I quickly change roles and I rush up slope to lead the team. The three groups have broken up and it is a scattered bunch of trekker.
I quickly get the scattered trekkers in a long chain and lead the climb. I set an even pace. The strugglers are happy to be part of a team again. But my even pace is too fast for the group and I notice a gap building up. I slow down further and look back often to check the progress.
In the dark it is not easy to pick the trail. Sometimes I get confused and recover just in time for the team to catch up and not realize the break. It is past 4.00 am. In the distant horizon I can see the first signs of the dark easing into light.
Snaking up in a series of switch backs, the glow of dawn increases. After a while I switch off my torch to realize that I can see better without it. I turn around and instruct everyone to switch off their lamps. About another 200ft above I can see our first group of trekkers sitting on rocks waiting for us. It looks to be the end of the climb up the flank.
Reaching the trekkers I can see most of them putting on their crampons. Everyone finds a spot to sit on the steep slope and fumbles about trying to tie their crampons in place.
I dig out my crampon from my backpack and put them on. I see Sandhya struggling with hers. I move down to her. Her face is full of anguish. She can’t seem to be able to put on her set. I bend down and help her. A few others need help too.
Shalab is standing on the edge of the snow slope and catches my attention. He says he has been trying to step on the snow but finding it difficult to stay on it. I can see he is scared. Without the crampon, the slope is steep and a fall would result in over a 1000 ft slip. I tell him to stay put and that I would help him cross.
I put my first step on the snow with the crampon. The crampon holds beautifully. I put my other foot and it holds too. I traverse across without much problem. I turn back to help anxious Shalab. I hold his hand and guide him gently on his first step on snow. I show him how to use his body weight to grip the slope. He catches on fast and is able to move more efficiently.
I look back to see how the rest of the trekkers are doing. I find many hesitant to step on the snow. I am aghast to see Chaitanya with only one cramponed feet. Torn between Shalab and the rest, I let go of Shalab and head back to them starting to step on snow.
One by one I guide trekkers across the steep snow patch. I guide them to a section from where I feel the trekkers can manage themselves. The sun by now is on the snow patch. The constant ferrying of trekkers at this altitude exhausts me. But I am happy when most of them are across the snow patch and are on the last small climb to the ridge.
From our vantage point, the entire range of summits in view looks below us. I can see endlessly into the horizon with rows and rows of mountain ranges lined up one after another. The immediate summit next to Stok is truly below us with its vast flank feeding the glacier that we crossed in the night.
I don’t realize it but it has taken us more than an hour and half to get everyone across. On my own I would not have taken more than fifteen minutes.
The ferrying of trekkers has warmed me up. I am mildly sweating inside my warm gears. It is a short switchback climb to the ridge. I find Sandhya waiting for me. She has an anxious look. She has been waiting for almost half hour. Sitting on a rock she is getting cold.
Standing on the ridge, I see the other side of the Zanskar range for the first time. There are never ending rows and rows of brown mountain tops. In the far distance I see a horizon of white snow peaks.
The ridge is narrow but there is space for a trail to climb on. The trail breaks often climbing over slabs of stones and rocks – sometimes exposed over a long drop down the flanks.
Climbing up higher I find a group of our trekkers resting. They look exhausted to me. Manoj seems particularly down. Sandhya and I wait with the group for a while. But I am impatient to get to the summit quickly. I can sense we are late already. We should have been on the summit by now. I gather the strugglers and resume the climb. The pace is extremely slow. I turn back every few moments to check if anyone is lagging.
We climb another 300 feet. It is not easy. At above 19,000 ft the air is thin and the progress slow. The team stops every few moments to collect themselves. Heaving themselves up over rocks that requires clambering winds them.
No one is giving up and everyone's determined to reach the summit though.
A little ahead, I pause on a rock waiting for others to catch up. I look around at the beautiful sight around me. The sun is already high up in the sky. It’s around 8 am. On either side of the ridge I see Ladakh stretching endlessly.
At the end of the ridge from where we have just climbed, the ridge extends to a saddle beyond which the ridge continues to another lower summit. I don’t know its name but from my vantage point I can see it has more snow. The vast ridge wall connecting the two summits is long, almost half a km. From the snow covered ridge the glacier cascades down to the valley floor almost 2000 ft down. The glacier is big for its standard – I remember seeing Stok Kangri from Leh and wondering how we would get across the glacier and on top of the ridge.
I hear a shuffling sound above me. I turn to find Ajay coming down on the trail swiftly from above. I am a touch alarmed. Is he turning back? Ajay is one of our best climbers.
Ajay tells me that the summit has been bagged. Ajay with Benny and Dalip were the first to summit. They had spent 15-20 minutes on the top and then started their descent. I should be elated but I am rather stoic. I pass on my congratulations in a mechanical way and ask him about the views. Ajay has his usual bemused smile on his face but is brief in his answer. I can sense he is in a hurry to get down. I ask Ajay how much further it is to the summit. He says it is another 45 mins to an hour. It seems a long distance. I gather the team and ask them to keep moving.
The entire Indiahikes team is sandwiched between the first summiters and us. I am convinced now that all of them will make it to the summit. Just as Ajay is leaving, I shout out to him to wait at the ridge and collect a few trekkers on his way down.
I am a bit annoyed that Ajay broke off from the group and didn’t have the weaker trekkers with him. He is a strong climber and his presence would comfort the weaker trekkers.
I gather the team and hurry them along. A few meters up on the trail over a bend that overlooked Markha valley, I spot Gaurav sitting down on the trail. Pathik is also nearby. Gaurav has summited already and is delighted. Pathik is on his way up.
I catch up with Gaurav as he is digging into his breakfast. He narrates his climb story with lot of excitement. The elation of the entire team on Stok Kangri starts to get to me.
We start to climb when Gaurav stops me. He asks me whether he can come to the summit again with us. I tell him that if he is feeling fit then he is welcome to join us. Happily Gaurav joins us on his second summit attempt of Stok. I can see he loves our company.
I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the summit. It is still hidden from view.
The climb is painful for most. The trail is not difficult but the thin air makes taking a few steps breathless. I can see most of them stopping every 15-20 steps.
I find many of our team descending. All of them have been to the summit. They are surprised to find Gaurav climbing again. With a grin he tells them that he is doing it again.
The trail moves from the eastern side of the ridge to the western side, the one facing Markha valley. The rest of the climb is from the western side. We are at 20,000ft. I spot Mr and Mrs Manmohan resting along the trail. Both look winded. They have not summitted yet. I am happy to see them. They are the senior most in the team and doing very well. Though they looked tired I can already visualize them on the summit. I sit down with them and share some dry fruits we have been carrying.
The summit is not far from where we sit. Even as I wait with the Manmohan’s the others are hardly 50 feet behind on the trail. Yet, they stand on the trail like a statue unable to move. The thin air is making them stop. They are hunched over trying to catch their breath.
I haven’t been doing too well myself. Climbing every few steps makes me breathless. The two hour ferry of trekkers on the snow patch below the ridge has made me tired. There is not much of congratulations as I pass our summitters on their way down. I can see the elation on their faces – and also an anxiety of the long trek down to the base camp. The congratulatory messages are short and quick without much warmth. The effect of the climb will sink in only when we get back to our tents.
With a few hundred meters to go, I still can’t see the summit. The elusive summit is a goal to reach. Without a visual sight at 20,000ft it looks more difficult than it is. The team catches up and we are ready to go again. The trail winds up around the western flank of the summit. I was expecting the trail to be steeper but it ascends gradually.
The trail gets into a groove of the mountain, and into the shadows emerging into the light over a slushy overhang. We skip over quickly to glimpse our first sight of the summit. I can see prayer flags fluttering on the summit – numerous multicolored ones. The summit is directly above us -- almost 100ft. It hangs over us. We need to strike a path that climbs to a shoulder that leads to the summit.
Pathik hands me his camera. He wants me to shoot a video of the final climb to the summit. I start recording the final steps to the summit. It is not a mad dash to the summit but the same deliberate labored steps leading to it. I can see the Manmohans stopping for a while at the shoulder. I don’t think they are taking in the view. I can see Shamala Manmohan’s hand on her knees taking a breather. It is just 20 steps from there to the summit.
I record my thoughts on the video and continue. I reach the shoulder and the view below me is astounding. I see a new vista of the Ladakh hills. I see Leh too. I turn to face the summit – it’s just steps away – the sun directly on my eyes. The final members of our team have summited. I can see it has been emotional for Pathik. He's down on his knees on the snow, both arms in the air. He looks up for a moment towards the sky.
It is 9.15 when I reach the summit.
I skirt around Pathik to find Chaitanya on the summit. He's reached a few minutes before us. It is a big moment for him too. This is his second attempt on Stok. The first time he had to turn back because of bad weather.
For Mr and Mrs Manmohan it is an accomplishment too. At this age attempting Stok Kangri and being on the summit is a momentous occasion. Shamala Manmohan digs out incense sticks, some puja offerings and surprisingly prasad for all. She conducts a small prayer of thanks and distributes the prasad around. Somehow this gesture is emotional to all.
I venture towards the eastern cornice of the summit. I look around me. I can see a 4,000ft drop on either side. In front, a step away is an equally big drop down. It is scary at this point. A false step can lead to a fall. I retrace a few steps where it is safer and call my folks from my cell phone. The signal is loud and clear from the summit. It takes time for the fact to sink that I called home from above 20,000 feet.
The 360 view of the summits around us prompts Gaurav to dig out a panoramic summit map of Ladakh. We spend time trying to compare the summits we see to the ones on the map. A summit in the far horizon is supposed to be K2. We are not sure.
At the summit we spend almost 45 minutes. At the stroke of 10 am I gather everyone around and begin our descent. It is going to be a long journey down.
As I shepherd the group around the shoulder suddenly I am alone at the summit. Alone, I stop and sit down on a boulder. I take in the sight around but in absolute silence. I feel grateful towards the mountains and tears flow down my cheeks.
It takes me some time to get a hold of myself. Slowly I get up and resume my descent. I round the shoulder, look one last time at the summit, and turn to spot the team negotiation the slushy part of the trail.
I am already formulating a plan to avoid the snow patch where we have to use crampons. It is going to be almost noon when we get there and I can’t imagine anyone of the team calmly negotiating the soft snow. The best climbers of our team were already down. Tsering, our lead climber, who was all along with us at the summit, was quite a bit ahead with two trekkers. I was on my own with six trekkers.
It takes us an hour for us to get back to the Col on the ridge.
Trek Fees and batches
Stok Kangri Trek
per person (Leh to Leh, 9 days)
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Day 1: Arrive at Leh and rest.
Day 2: Drive to Shang 12,000 ft. Acclimatization trek near by.
Day 3: Trek from Shang 12,000 ft to Shang Phu 14,250 ft
Day 4: Shang Phu 14,250 ft to Matho Doksa 14,500 ft , via Shang Phu La 16,750 ft
Day 5: Matho Doksa 14,500 ft to Gangpoche 14,550 ft via Matho La14,850 ft
Day 6: Gangpoche 14,550 ft to Stok Kangri Base Camp 16,300 ft
Day 7: Rest day at Stok Kangri Base camp 16,300 ft
Day 8: Stok Kangri Summit climb 20,080 ft and back to Stok Kangri Base camp (16,300 ft)
Day 9: Stok Kangri Base 16,300 ft to Stok village 11,800 ft and drive back to Leh.
Day 10: Buffer Day *
* Trekkers are advised to keep an extra buffer day for the Stok Kangri trek. The buffer day may be required if there is bad weather on the scheduled summit attempt day. If the buffer day is utilised then trekkers have to bear an additional cost of Rs 1900 towards the trek fee. This money will be collected only if the buffer day is required and to be paid to Indiahikes trek leaders on location.
In case the buffer day is not utilized on the trek, the stay and food at Leh for the extra day has to be paid by the trekkers.
5 days Vs 9 days trek
Stok Kangri: 5 day trek Vs 9 day longer trek
Lack of information often makes trekkers opt for a short 5 days quick burst trek to the Stok Kangri summit. This is potentially hazardous and needs to be avoided. Trekkers sometimes underestimate the altitude of the summit. At 20,086 feet, the Stok Kangri summit is 70% the height of the Everest. Most mountain summits in the world are below this height. Oxygen available at this altitude is so low that most climbers return to base without bagging the summit because their bodies are not properly acclimatized.
While Stok Kangri is trekable all the way to the summit, it is critically important for a trekker to acclimatize well before attempting the summit. That’s why a longer trek to the Stok Kangri base camp is necessary. The trek route starting from Shang village crossing over two passes at 17,000 feet before getting to the Stok Kangri base camp is the best way to acclimatize for the trek. The Indiahikes Stok Kangri trek follows the longer route to the base camp.
Another advantage of the longer route, often ignored, is the chance to see the entire topography spectacle of Ladakh. Trekkers get to see barren landscape, jagged ridges, desert meadows, multiple colored layers of mountains, deep canyons and streams with red water flowing through them like blood. This is not possible on the shorter routes.
After getting to the base camp, trekkers follow the same route to the summit. The Stok Kangri base camp is at 16,250 feet.
Difficult. See link for details.
9 days, long walks each day. Summit day is 14-16 hrs long.
Stok Kangri summit, 20,085 feet (6,120 mts).
Leh can be reached from Delhi by air. Leh is also accessible by road from Manali and Srinagar. Journey time by Sumo: 18 hrs – 20 hrs.
Shang, near Hemis.
Mid July to Mid September. Oct and Nov are extremely cold but possible.
Temperature in July, Aug and Sept
Day: 15° to 30°C. Night: 10° to 15°C. Temp at highest camp, Stok Kangri base: Day 15°C to 25°C. Night: 7° to -2°C.
Usually dry. Could have cloud bursts in July Aug.
Reasonable snow on the Stok Kangri flank in July. Ridge could have snow as well. Gradually recedes by Aug.
Physical preparation mandatory. Prior high altitude trek experience required. See link for more details.