The 2012 Outdoor Activity Department College expedition was to Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. Thirteen Marlburians committed themselves to the 18 day expedition setting off a day after the Leavers Ball with a 24 hour stop off in Delhi.
Arriving at Leh airport the following day was a huge culture shock. Leh is approximately 3,500m above sea level so it was going to take time for our bodies to adjust to this. Lotus, our Indian guide met us at the airport and we were driven to the Ladakh Sarai Resort, an oasis of calm. This would be our base for the next three days to explore the area and learn a little of the culture. We were accommodated in ‘Yurts’ and generally took things at a slow pace careful not to do anything which would increase our heart rate!
The local food was amazing, and the masala tea proved a popular drink that most of us had never tried before. From the Resort we could see in the distance, Stok Kangri, (6,153m) the mountain we had come to climb.
On the morning of our departure to start the trek, on of our drivers arrived an hour and thirty minutes late, and this characteristic impunctuality is known as Ladakh time! Mr Tong had explained that due to the large presence of the Indian Army, maps of any detail were difficult to come by. However our vehicle drop off point was most definitely in the middle of nowhere, irrespective of what map you looked at. We arrived at our first campsite, Zinchen a few hours later and whilst waiting for our Ponies carrying our expedition supplies, cooks and helpers to arrive we proceeded to build a, not so hot, hot tub in the river!
The following day we continued up the valley towards Rumbak. Within an hour of departing camp we were negotiating the first of several river crossings due to bridges having been swept away or the river changing course. The terrain, the stark beauty and the remoteness began to give us the feeling of being on an expedition. Our second campsite was just above the village of Rumbak at a little over 4,000 metres. We stayed here for two nights. The following day we set out on what was described by Mr Tong as a short ‘acclimatisation trek to a small hill’. This materialised into ascending four peaks above our camp at 4,500 metres.
The following day was daunting prospect, the crossing of the Stok La pass at 4,900 metres. On reaching the prayer flags marking the top of the pass it was comforting to see all our team looking relaxed and comfortable. The descent down from Stok La on the other side showed the path zig zagged down a massive scree field (very small loose stones and shale). The next morning we set off at 8.30 am and walked up stream. That night we camped just below the recognised Base Camp and at this height altitude related sickness was to be expected to some degree. We were fully aware of the dangers of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).
After one more day acclimatisating trekking up to the edge of the glacier at approximately 5,400m, we watched other parties negotiate the soft snow whilst they were descending from the summit late in the afternoon. We eventually descended ourselves and settled in at Stok Kangri Base Camp. Friday 13th was the first of our planned summit days. One thousand, one hundred and fifty three metres of ascent, not to dissimilar from starting out just above Fort William and climbing Ben Nevis, the United Kingdoms highest mountain.
At 11.00pm, Thursday night spirits were high but a little fragile as we made our way to the cooks tent and ate as much porridge and nuts as possible and set off at 12 midnight. To get onto the glacier we had to cross a small stream, which seemed to get wider as each person went over because they broke more and more snow. The pace was slow, the ascent tortuous and the lack of oxygen lung bursting. Every twenty paces or so we would stop, look into the swirling cloud and falling snow and wonder how much further until the summit ridge. Finally we climbed a 5 metre snow wall which was the last obstacle before emerging onto the rocky, ice and snow covered ridge. From this point to the summit was an interesting climb over, what is known in mountaineering language as, mixed terrain. The reality of which had us climbing over patches of snow, ice and rock, a challenging combination when wearing twelve metal spikes, crampons, on the soles of your boots. Finally at 8.45 am with the presence of numerous flapping streams of prayer flags, a view into the a bliss and no further height gain possible we celebrated reaching the summit of Stok Kangri at 6,153 metres.
Of course reaching the summit is only the half way point. Statistically the majority of mountaineering accidents occur on the way down, a thought we were acutely aware of. The descent was long, and at times, tedious but once we removed our crampons it did allow us the opportunity to display our prowess at the technical skill of ‘bum’ sliding!
At 1.30pm, some thirteen and a half hours after leaving for the summit the last of us walked back into Base camp desperate for sleep but with a real sense of achievement and satisfaction. The expedition concluded where we first arrived in India, in Delhi, a real shock to the senses. We had a day to relax and finally a long day in Agra visiting the Taj Mahal before catching our flight back to Heathrow.