1st July : We finally reached base camp. It was a short though arduous trek from Hunkar. We were steadily gaining altitude. Although “mah boyz” had found a rhythm for walking and breathing, they each had to struggle with their own altitude demons as we gained height and the breathing became more laboured and the ruck sacks became heavier. I, on the other hand, have never suffered from the ills of altitude. Never.
(Our resting spot atop a small col)
(….and from this spot a second view of Kang Yatze)
As we walked into the valley below Kang Yatze, the lassitude and head aches gripped the youngsters. I felt almost guilty for not having the same sufferances. I wanted to quietly disappear without being noticed because I was feeling so fit and it felt like I was thumbing my nose or insulting that vastness for not going through the same rites de passage of acclimatization!
(The lotus eaters gripped by lassitude)
Getting to base camp was like successfully completing the first hurdle on the expedition. We could now concentrate on climbing the mountain. Through the night I heard the distant menacing avalanches coming off the face of Kang Yatze I. Our own Kang Yatze II though less technical was almost too vast and insurmountable. With these thoughts rushing through my head, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to concentrate only on the “here and now” and get back to the Yogic way of being!
Sleep at high altitude becomes a rear and precious commodity. Dreams are vivid. If there is one fall out from altitude that I suffer, then it is perhaps this rather odd sleep pattern. It is never a deep sleep. Always shallow.
(Base Camp. Kang Yatze II on the right with the ridge joining it to Kang Yatze I to the left. Almost 2,000 ft of morraine in the foreground that makes up the shoulder of the mountain.)
If there was a way of slowing down any further then it was at base camp. All the political and geographical catastrophes seemed to belong to another planet. Not part of this arid piece of magnificent Ladakh. Getting to the summit of Kang Yatze seemed like a much more important and worthwhile goal for our time than constantly worrying about the Nation. This goal seemed much more attainable than trying to understand the opinions of even friends who’s politics seemed threatening to peace and harmony of the social fabric of the Nation. This dry vastness seemed like the safe cocoon that I didn’t care to leave.
30th June : By the third day of walking we had got into a rhythm despite the wetness. I was never more than 10 mins behind the boys. Though I must confess that keeping up with them became my primary focus and I paid less attention to the surroundings…..
(A glacial river crossing before Hunkar village)
Takpa Lay, our guide, continued to feed my ego and called me a “genius” for my healthy lungs and strong legs. I continued to tussle with maintaining a humble exterior and tried hard to not let all the compliments go to my head! I sagaciously imparted the benefits of Yoga to all (until I literally had Takpa standing on his head!), as I laboured with keeping up with “mah boyz” and maintaining a certain rhythm and pattern for my breathing and walking at ever increasing altitudes. We had by now reached about 16000 ft asl.
(Takpa Lay demonstrating a version of the Shirshasana)
The Markha is indeed a beautiful valley. These days one can travel light with just a back pack with personal belongings because there are home stays available in every village throughout the valley. They seemed clean with palatable local food. Most home stays provide toilet facilities. Some are better equipped and cleaner than others. The Ladakhi toilet is similar to the old Portuguese toilet in Goa. Though in Ladakh, there are no pigs to keep the toilets clean. So although the squatting area is at least 10 ft above the landing area and the holes are small enough that one can’t fall through they are still large enough for the eye to notice the details of what is below. And the sight is never pleasing or aesthetic…….
(A Ladakhi toilet exterior. I leave the interior to your imagination…..)
We arrived at our third day’s campsite at Hunkar and the clouds parted and sunshine seeped through and warmed our bones, our tents and sleeping bags. Our spirits lifted. As often happens when one is so close to the elements in the outdoors and living under canvas, every ray of sunshine, cloud or drizzle is interpreted and given a meaning and is taken as a message sent by a higher being. The sunshine at Hunkar was interpreted by us as good will from the higher being and we felt that now that the bad weather was behind us we would surely scale Kang Yatze.
(Sunning at Hunkar campsite)
28th & 29th June : We left Leh amidst dappled sunshine and non threatening clouds. Seemingly the best kind of weather for walking in the vast Ladakhi landscape. We drove 2 hrs to Chilling village. After several dust ridden delays along the way because of road construction activity we finally reached the point just beyond Chilling where the cold Zanskar river had to be crossed in a “jhoola”. The bridge across to the other side had been washed away a few years ago. There seemed to be no urgency to repair or replace it.
Once across the river, our 10 mules waiting on the other side were loaded with all our climbing and camping equipment. We started walking towards Skiu village, our destination for the first day’s walk.
We spent time surreptitiously sizing each other’s capabilities on this first day’s short walk. Actually, let me rephrase that and say that our guide, cook and cook’s helper not to mention my own three young men pretended to be casually though actually looking very hard (without making it too obvious!) to see whether I could keep up with their pace or not……..
An intense wind picked up soon after we started walking, blowing desert dust into our faces. The strong winds soon gave way to a steady monotonous drizzle.
(Mah boyz….Tejas, Farid & Iqbal)
And so began our trek to the base camp of Kang Yatze. The steady drizzle was relentless for the next 48 hours. Our tents and our clothes held us in good stead and I was grateful that I had borrowed my clothes and equipment well!
Unfortunately for me I had a damp sleeping bag by the second night but I made do with a couple of blankets and kept all my clothes on. There is nothing more comforting than a warm tent and dry clothes when it is pouring outside.
We were all popping a low dose asprin at breakfast and dinner. Our acclimatisation was going well and we were hoping that the clouds would lighten their loads as we got closer to Kang Yatze.
26th June : We have automatically “slowed down” on reaching Leh. There is patchy wi-fi and erratic phone signals. We are disengaging from the gadgets.
In the last twenty four hours, time has taken on a whole new dimension as it always does in Leh and places like it. There is time to eat and think about the next meal. There is time to read a book. Time to chat. Most of all there is time to think and be present in the moment.
We are drinking at least 6 litres of water daily and this along with slowing down has eased us into the acclimatization process remarkably well. No headaches, no light headedness or woolly headedness.
We met up with our climbing guide Takpa Norbu. I liked him immediately. He seems to be around 25 but could be 35. He is fit. He has a wonderfully mobile face that smiles and laughs easily. He seems like someone who could be sitting still for hours in meditation or doing long and arduous walks in the mountains, both with equal ease. His long hair tied up in a knot makes him look like a monk, a Samurai or a modern day Ninja. Either ways he seems pretty solid and someone we could trust with our lives on the mountain. This is my first impression.
We got our climbing gear sorted and hired our snow boots, crampons, ice axes, harnesses and helmets. A good hard hike in the mountains seems like the best detox programme and a perfect way to align mind and body.
Its been 21 yrs since I stepped out to do a serious trek / climb. I am venturing back into the trans Himalaya with my two sons and nephew. They have agreed without (too much) demurring to my joining this expedition to Kang Yatse II, 6200 m. KY is a small snowy peak deep in the Markha Valley in the Zanskar range in Ladakh.
I am physically quite fit though the last three weeks were spent almost immobile. A heavy wooden bed crash landed and broke (the bed did) on my right foot. No worrisome damage to the foot though plenty to the bed. Two days ago I was even able to wear my hiking boots without much difficulty. Though I haven’t had time to break them in.
Equipped with borrowed climbing gear (since mine from 20 years ago is pretty outdated) and armed with a lot of mental resolve, I am off to Gadabout in Ladakh. One of my all time favourite places. Going to Ladakh always feels like coming home. And I am grateful that in the last twenty years I have had several opportunities to visit different parts of it, all the way to the recently “opened” Turtuk. Though that will be a different story. For now its Kang Yatse.
We fly to Leh on Sunday / 25th June. Our expedition is over two weeks. We will acclimatise first in Leh and then walk over two or three leisurely days to the base of Kang Yatse. We’ll take the more challenging route back to Leh over the Kongmaru La (Pass) after summiting Kang Yatse. But let me not get ahead of myself.
For the moment I am struggling with packing my borrowed clothes (underwear is my own) into my borrowed rucksack. Its a challenge! Its not the same thing packing for the mountains at 51 as it was when I was less than 30 yrs old. Ankle supports and knee supports and warm clothes for sub zero temperatures add up to the weight.
I’m struggling but……..I’ll get there!