Today is a special day. Guess why?

On this day, last year (23-Jul-2011), I summitted Stok Kangri. It is the only trekkable 6000+m peak that I know of. Today am going to share couple of special moments during the trek.

We started from the base camp at 12 AM sharp in bone freezing cold, packed in 4 layers of clothing. Energy was at its highest for me. This was the day I was waiting for ever since I signed up for the trek. Days and days of swimming, trekking and other endurance activities were just about to pay off. I could visualize myself standing on the peak and gazing with awe at the beauty of Mother Nature, in the form of undulating peaks of the Karakoram range. With the barest of the bare essentials, we began our march.

Around 3 AM we stepped foot on a massive snow field. The milky way had opened up above us throughout the night. If not for the cold & lack of tripod, I would have setup camp and shot the stars to my heart’s content. By 4 AM we were at the mountain’s base. Right above us, piercing the night sky in all its glorious beauty stood Stok Kangri. My throat choked. I’m eternally grateful to the mountain for allowing me, a mere mortal, to set foot on her.

Sunrise

Around 4.40 AM, we came to a place where we had to cross an icy patch that was covered with snow. As we were wearing our crampons, the best sight of my life unfolded on the east. The eastern horizon had a thin streak of gold. So subtly thin that it took special effort to notice it properly. Few minutes later, few more streaks joined the show… and then an entire range opened up.

Nature had seduced me completely. For those few minutes, passage of time stopped. Every little cell in my body was completely alive. Transfixed. Jaw dropping. The best part? It looked like the sun was rising from below us. First showing its few rays, then moving horizontally, sliding out of the mountain & then rising vertically … as it consumed its golden rays again.

Every particle of snow and ice in our surroundings glistened as if they were covered in gold. The various views were mind-boggling to say the least. Nature was displaying the best drama that I could possibly see and remember for a very long time to come. The mountain next to ours looked so much like a gold mountain that the photo below doesn’t do any justice.

Clear blue skies were our friends that day. Impeccable weather.

Special Moment on The Peak

Three hours later, I was on the peak. The fastest ones on the trek were turning back. I met them on the way. The slower ones were significantly behind. For approximately 10 complete minutes, the summit was mine. I couldn’t take a photo of myself. So, I waited for people to turn up. The wind ruffled my hair. There was absolute silence on the top. The couple of months that led to the trek whizzed past. At 20,000+ feet, it was a thrilling place to be. On the far east, many miles away, Leh was visible like a dot. On the far North West, our guide showed the savage mountain, K2. On the South, Khardung La (the highest motorable pass in the world) was there. Best of all, a flight passed below me. As I sat next to the prayer flags, I dozed off for a few minutes until my guide came to the top and woke me up 😀

It was lovely. I posed like Tenzing Norgay on summit cornice. What a moment that was!

View from the Peak

Here’s a panorama from the summit of Stok Kangri, on a day when the weather was impeccable, when I was in the best of my spirits & when everything in the universe came together to support me.

Check out the Ladakh trip’s Grand Itinerary first :)

For probably the rest of my lifetime, I wouldn’t forget my drive from Kargil to Leh. It was on that drive that I was simply about to be thrown out of the mountain, narrowly missed getting run over, narrowly missed running over someone and the best of all, with the worst ever spoken Hindi possible, I was able to bargain a place to stay for the night, when I could barely feel my feet. It was also on that day I learnt what “unconditional help” really meant. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the story.

Fotu La

Fotu La

Early on the chilly morning at Kargil, I got my wounds dressed (Thanks Arul :) ) at a nearby hospital for just 2 rupees. I had bruises on both knees and one on my forearm of the left hand. My bike had skid couple of days ago on an oil spill because of which I had to wake up at an ungodly 7 AM to get the wounds dressed. I was not 100% confident about driving my bike because the fall was pretty bad. So, when Ram asked, “Do you want to drive today?”, I immediately said, “Yes.” The only way to overcome fear is to take it head on; which is what I attempted to do. My bike was supposed to carry luggage that day. That means, I had a small backpack on my bike’s tank and 3 big backpacks tied to my bike. I tied them once and took the bike for a test drive. Everything seemed okay. When we started on the road, the rope magically came off & the three heavy backpacks were dragging my bike on one side. I made my way back to the hotel to re-tie it. By that time almost everyone had left and there were just 3 bikes including mine. Ram and Balu left in few minutes and I started after them.

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Check out our trip’s Grand Itinerary 😀

Unlike other places where you drive to reach a destination, in Ladakh, the journey itself is the destination. The road goes through such breathtaking vistas (and life-taking as well if you aren’t careful enough) that it is impossible not to be impressed by beauty of such magnitude. However, things aren’t rosy all the time. At high altitude, weather plays a crucial role in shaping up the day. This story is about one such drive when the weather was gloomy and we had very little time in our hands to afford the luxury of staying at Tangtse for an extra day.

When I woke up that morning, I felt fresh and the song Mazhai Thuli (rain drops) was playing in my mind. Almost instinctively I had a look outside the window and it was drizzling. I heard that Ladakh was a high altitude cold desert and that it doesn’t rain much. So I convinced myself that some clouds might be moving around and sprinkling some water on the way :) . The usual blue of the sky was missing. The horizon had a few black clouds as well. Determined not to let go of the day, we got ready quickly. Ram P and Suresh started first on Ram’s Pulsar 220. Some time later, I followed.

First touch of snow :D - A special moment

First touch of snow 😀 - A special moment

I was well protected. Thermal inner wear, jeans, rain pant for the bottom and for the top, it was again thermal inner wear, followed by a t-shirt, fleece jacket and leather jacket. For the legs and feet, it was cotton socks, woolen socks and then ankle length leather boots. For fingers, I wore woolen gloves and Cramster’s leather gloves. As I started the ride, I was thinking that if it had rained a little here – at 14000 feet – would it snow at 15000 feet and above? That day we had to cross India’s third highest motorable pass known as the Chang La at 17000+ feet … in inclement weather. A light cold wind was blowing too!

The Drive

After 7 km I came to a fork in the road. Right fork led to Durbuk and the left fork led to Chang La and then to Leh. I took the left fork and few minutes later, the ghats started :) . Drizzling stopped this time. But it was cloudy and the slight drizzle had wet the roads considerably. As soon as I crossed the first few hairpin bends, I saw the sight of a lifetime. The winding road with its various hairpins wound down to the plains at 14000 feet and then went to the fork in a straight stretch. Another fabulous straight stretch took the road to Tangtse. Both these towns were visible from this vantage point.

View en route Chang La. Durbuk and Tangtse are visible.

View en route Chang La. Durbuk and Tangtse are visible.

After clicking couple of pictures, I was on my way. Rest of the gang weren’t visible yet. Since I was on a 125cc bike, I wanted to start a bit early so that by the time my bike climbs, the heavier bikes can come quite fast and catch up. In most places, the roads were quite steep. The altitude was climbing steadily. I was well acclimatized and hence didn’t feel the pressure of oxygen. The drizzle came down harder and visibility was going down. Soon, I crossed the magical 15000 feet and crossed a heavily puffed up rushing river – over a fragile bridge 😀 . At many points, roads were joined vertically through off-road trails. Four wheel drive cars managed to climb up and down very easily while I was watching them from my 125cc!

Snow Attack

At about 15150 feet, I could feel the chill on my fingers. The warmth was long since gone and they were fast becoming cold. Feet were doing good so far. Suddenly, my jacket was no longer watery. A gray layer was forming as I was driving. I quickly realized what it was! It was snow! SNOW FALL. Snow was coming down real fast and it was being blown all around. Until then, when snow had come in contact with us, it would simply melt and wet the jacket. But that day was different. Snow fell on my jacket and it froze, becoming ice.

Road on the way to Nubra Valley

Road on the way to Nubra Valley

Within minutes, visibility was reduced to mere meters. Few minutes later, visibility was zero. Bike was wobbling slightly. I couldn’t see anything. Immediately I realized what had happened. Snow had fallen and frozen on my helmet visor, thereby taking out the visibility. I stopped the bike and took a minute to clean my visor. Snow was falling down hard and fast & it froze. It was not possible to drive with the visor on. Roads were steep and slippery. Hence, wearing the visor wasn’t an option. I started my bike again and took off. Soon, those tiny fluffy particles of snow started hitting my face and were pricking my eyes. Unlike rain, snow particles are really small, come in huge numbers & take a good helping of the skin! It was similar to a swarm attack.

Donkey, Simon and Snow

Donkey, Simon and Snow

My speed had come down to about 15 kmph. Through all this, I suddenly realized that bike stopped again. Reason? I couldn’t shift the gear. My little finger and ring finger were screaming in pain. They had frozen hard. I was at about 16500 feet now. Everywhere on the road, the milestones mentioned about the remaining distance to Chang La, Leh and the altitude. I was hoping there would be some place where I could have a cuppa chai 😀

Wish Granted

Ten minutes later, my wish was granted. I saw an army camp at Tsultak at 17000 feet. Along the direction board, there was another board which announced the facilities of the place & the one that caught my eye was the “Mess –>” direction board. I drove straight to the mess. My fingers and feet were pretty much frozen now. Any effort with them required enduring pain. Two army folks appeared from the mess.

Me: Mujhe thoda garam paani chahiye (I need some hot water)

Army dude: Pehle, helmet kholo (Remove your helmet first)

Me: (after fiddling with the helmet lock) – tried talking in Hindi (didn’t work out) – Please remove them yourself. Fingers are frozen.

Army dude: He smiled and then removed the helmet. I was called inside the small mess.

Damaged Car

Damaged Car

One guy was a Mallu and the other guy was a Tamilian. Seeing my TN registration plate, he asked in tamil, “Neenga yengendhu varinga (Where are you coming from?), for which I answered “Chennai.” I was damn happy to hear a guy talking in Tamil at 17000 feet. Apparently, they were from the Madras regiment and they had just returned from a posting on top of Siachen Glacier!

The board that mattered

The board that mattered

A huge cauldron of boiling water was in the middle of the mess. With almost no effort, he lifted the cauldron from the stove and moved it elsewhere. I was stunned at his strength. Then he increased the flame and got a chair for me. He also helped me remove my shoes. Both my socks were wet. Toe edges had become white. Fingers were frozen. As the flame increased, I thawed them, massaged them and brought them back to life. In an impulse, I put my bare feet on the ground and felt the chill sending a shiver up my spine. The army dude then inquired about the bike trip and said that winters in that place were truly horrible; with temperatures reaching -10 during day time itself. As we were discussing about his life and my trip, he asked how many people were we. I said 13 and then he asked whether we’ll like corn soup!

Corn Soup

I pinched myself. What? Corn soup? At 17000 feet with snow wrecking havoc around? Before even I could reply, I thought “WOW! That’s dulcet” and then I said “Yes! We would love it.” By that time, the rest of the gang had come in and they were getting toasty in the visitor’s room. Soon, the soup was ready. Everybody took large helpings of the soup. As the hot soup went down my throat, I could feel life surging back in my limbs and body. Various parts of my body along the oesophagus started to absorb the warmth. As the warm soup splashed my stomach, it was nearly orgasmic. After warming up sufficiently, we headed to Chang La. It was few kilometers from the army camp.

Hot Soup and the Gang

Hot Soup and the Gang

The army guys warned us that we were about to enter avalanche zone and that not more than one bike should cross the zone at anytime. Since it was also snowing, the risk of avalanche was higher. We bade them goodbye, thanked heartily and then went on our way.

Chang La

Seeing the prayer flags flap in the chill breeze was a HUGE relief. I felt happy from the inside for coming that far. I was thinking of how folks would feel when I narrated the story to them after getting back. My mind drifted to Chennai. Then, it was time to savour the moment. At Chang La, the Indian Army gives free tea to everyone who makes it there. After couple of group pictures and a funny dance (am trying to find the video), we bought some mementos and then started to Leh. We crossed snow fields and some more avalanche zones.

Paari at The Chang La

Paari at The Chang La

Weather was showing some improvement. Though chill winds were blowing, it was not snowing. Through winding roads and more splendid views, we reached the beautiful village of Sakti and then reached the outskirts of Leh by around 4 PM. Paari and Arul went to Hemis Monastery. Rest of the gang, caught on the football fever, found a ground to play. I went to Thiksey monastery and then drove to Leh. Due to an earlier adventure that’ll be described in the next post, I missed Leh Palace before. So I drove to Leh.

Sunset at Leh

It was around 6.30 PM by the time I reached Leh. Sun was setting and I was offered a splendid view of the sunset from the top of the Leh palace. I made friends with the Buddhist monks there and they were telling their stories. I wanted to climb to Castle Tsemo opposite to the Leh palace. But unfortunately, it was becoming cold quickly and it had already become dark. So I thought Castle Tsemo was for next time and then went back to our home stay.

Sunset at Leh

Sunset at Leh

The day was absolutely brilliant and it was one that I would never forget in my life! Even months after coming back, that day is still fresh in my memory. I can recollect every detail even now. I can’t stop talking about the beauty of Ladakh.

See you soon on the next adventure post!

Ladakh – Below is a snippet of the lyrics from the song “Kanmani Anbodu” from the movie Guna.

Unnai enni parkayil kavidhai kottudhu
Adhai ezudha ninaikayil varthai muttudhu
la la la … la la la …

It roughly translates to, “When I think about you, emotions flow; but when I try to put them down, words fail me.” That exactly describes how I feel about Ladakh and the bike trip. The beauty of Ladakh beats all superlatives. Its memories left me in a dreamy state for days together … making sure that I longed to visit that place again and again.

I totally felt at home at Ladakh. The people were cheerful and friendly. The weather was so cold that its summer was like Chennai’s winter. Mile after mile, we passed through breathtaking vistas, rushing rivers, snow capped mountains, snow storms, bad roads, snow fields and what not! Each of those scenes screamed at us to stop, close our eyes, take a deep breath and take in that scene. Much of those even rendered me speechless. Sunset time was especially brilliant. Though we were never able to see the actual sun set – because of high mountains around – the golden light created so much contrast that everything around us opened up to its purest beauty.

There were 13 of us on the Grand Ladakh Trip and I’m sure every one of us had personal special moments that we will cherish for our lifetime.

Team Poster

Team Poster

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