7/18/2008 to 7/25/2008 | India , Ladakh

Trekking the Stok Range: Phanjila to Hemis

legacy gallery with captions

As I slid down the glacier my speed increasing with every passing moment I struggled with all the might my oxygen starved lungs could muster to slow my acceleration, thrusting my trekking pole into the ice with as much success as one might have in forcing a pencil through steel.  It would have been thrilling had very real danger falling into snow covered crevasse and being permanently entombed in this slowly surging river of ice not sobered my exhilaration.

I didn’t mean to climb the 6000 m peak which I was now sliding down, it just happened.  How does one climb a 6000 m by accident?  Curiosity I guess, for lack of a better response.  That force which initially drove my interest in science and then fueled my love of travel, new places, new sights, and new experiences.  I had started walking that morning from Nimaling, a meadow campsite beneath the massive 6400 m presence of Kang Yaze, along the well trodden Markha Valley trail.  I hiked up the ridge to get a better view of Kang Yaze.  But on reaching the top of that ridge I was confronted with another higher ridge whose gradual slope look very climbable and whose summit promised even vaster and more spectacular views.  Upon surmounting that ridge a vast snowscape of ice rock was reveled high above the painted canyons and valleys below. Canyons eroded by unstoppable forces of water, ice, and time.  The ridge which was broad where I now stood but narrowed as it climbed towards the west, paralleling the fearsome snow covered southern face of Kang Yaze.  I could easily climb to the rocky out cropping below the peak were the ridge became covered in snow.  Off course that wasn’t enough either, the jagged summit looming above me called out like siren tempting me we an unparalleled panoramic view.  I noted a possible path around the snow and I succumb to the call.  As I scrambled over the loose boulders and scree I knew the way down would be far more dangerous than the way up, a wrong step, a loose boulder coming free at an inopportune time pining or breaking my leg would leave me alone trapped in a harsh environment.  By now the way back was no safer than the way up so I struggled through the thin air and reached the summit, climbing higher than I had ever climbed before.  I didn’t know how high I was for certain, I figured it was close to 6000 m (19,680 ft) and higher than the 5,800 m I climbed to in Nepal.  I would later confirm my hunch when I saw a detailed contour map of the region which put the peak I climbed at just over 6000 m.  I sat staring out at the rivers of ice below me and the rocky peaks from which these rivers ice and snow were born, surrounding me in amazing and complete and awesome silence.  I force myself to start down as it had taken 5 hours to reach this point and I was not sure how long it would take to make it back down to the camp and I preferred to make it down before dark.  I don’t like walking down large scree; the loose boulders are accidents waiting to happen.  The glacier which emanated from the peak while starting out steep gradually leveled out reaching the valley below.   I tossed a few boulders down the glacier to see if there were any snow covered crevasses in the fall line.  The rocks slid to a safe rest further down the glacier.  I decided the glacier offered a safer and faster decent than the rocks and using my trekking pull as a break I hoped I could control my decent down the ice, a hope that vanished with my first hesitant push out on to the ice.  That was the last time on the ice I felt any sense of control.  My sole goal from that point on was to get back to the safety of the rocks.  I could hear the ice cracking as I slid and the rushing torrent of water that surged beneath the ice whispering of the hidden crevasses which were now my greatest fear.  I had long passed the region I tested with the sliding rocks neglecting to note the differences in mass between myself in the test rocks I had chose, friction was not capable of slowing my 200 lbs body hurling down the ice.   However those hidden fissures in the ice which I feared, did not swallow me into there icy depths but rather managed instead to provide me with lifeline back to solid ground.  My feet caught hold in a narrow crevasse wide enough for my toes to gain footing but fortunately not large enough to swallow my whole body.  I struggled with all my might my lungs starving for oxygen unquenched by my rapid breathing.  I nearly reached the safety of the rocks; my hand was straining to reach the black hand of firm ground, when I slowly began to drift down the ice, like a hand reaching out in vain from a departing train straining to bridge the gap of certain separation in a classic movie.  I was on the ice and the rock lie on the solid ground and once my momentum began taking me down the ice, the acceleration began again and the rock drifted further and further away.  I turned my attention back to stopping my decent.  A second small crevasse gave me another chance and I was determined not to press my luck for a third.  Gaining my footing I inched across the ice towards the rocks, careful not to dislodge my delicate footing.  I reached out for a rock and pulled myself toward safety with all the instincts and effort of self preservation.  I rolled over onto the rocks lying on my back trying to recover my breath in the thin dry mountain air.

A week earlier I had left Leh with Chantal, who went by the shorten Shanty (Hindi for peaceful), a well traveled woman from Gibraltar who had been teaching English in Japan for the last couple years, and whose repeated mantra was “I just like to have a laugh.”  I had met Shanty on the bus from to Leh and she was looking do a short trek but didn’t want to go on her own or with a guide.  The bus ride to the village of Phanjila where we were starting the trek was made unnecessarily longer by a grand total of three flat tires which the bus experienced en route as a result of the typically Himalayan combination of bad roads and over-worn tires.  It was a three day trek from Phanjila to aptly name village of Chilling on the Zanskar River.  A rather tough three days which took in 2 passes of nearly 5000 m (16,400 ft), we were rewarded for the effort with some beautiful views and couple very pleasant home stays in villages along the way.  From Chilling Shanty and I parted ways, she headed back to Leh, while I continued across the Zanskar River via a precarious rope cart to head up the Markha Valley, probably the most developed trekking route in Ladakh.  Despite the supposed popularity of the trail I ran into relatively few other trekkers, the vast majority of whom were on expensive guided all inclusive treks.  It wasn’t until I reached the alpine meadow of Nimaling that I ran into other “home-stay trekkers” like myself.

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