One of the best things about my hiking and travels so far have been the people I’m able to meet up with along the way. My great friend Nina and I have climbed some of the highest peaks in Washington, California, and Nevada together – and so our next natural course of action was to take on an international peak. Without really meaning to, this trip completely fell into place on its own. The surprise and excitement I felt when we discovered we’d both be across the world in the Himalayas at the exact same time was indescribable.
After years of hearing about Leh’s stunning scenery, Nina and her parents planned a family vacation to one of the northern most cities in India, and she pitched me on the side project she’d had in mind: climbing the 20,182 ft Stok Kangri. While her folks got to explore a new part of their home country, I got a chance to visit my third Himalayan country and reunite with a great friend for another high-altitude adventure.
The high-altitude Leh valley sits perched at an altitude above 11,000 ft., begging a full, relaxing rest day and plenty of liquids upon arrival. The blend of Indian and Tibetan restaurants, religious sites, and colorful architecture kept me plenty busy on my first day here.
My second day in Leh was spent hiking the town’s surrounding hills, including a short hike up to the palace overlooking the valley. Even this 200 meter ascent was challenging after flying in from Kathmandu, I could feel the altitude change in every step.
It was a short hour-long jump across the Leh valley to the trailhead where we’d start our journey. We were accompanied by an expedition group (luxurious by all other standards) which consisted of our lead guide Rimzin, our cook and co-guide Dorje, plus a handful of ponies and pony men to escort us up through our camps.
Our ascent through the Kangri valley was long, gentle, and pleasant as we watched the greenery make way for towering rock spires that guided our way up.
At high camp, we dump our backpacks in an explosion of clothing, gear, snacks, and emergency supplies to prepare for summit day. After two short acclimatizing days we’re prepared to ascend over 4,000 ft. to one of the highest altitudes either Nina or I have ever been to.
11:30pm rolls around sooner than we’d expected and we’re greeted by our guide Rimzin and a huge thermos of coffee. Nina and I force down some porridge, don our harnesses and ropes, and set off around 1am.
The snow falls softly around us as we begin our trek, a strange blanket that warms us in our first hour. Our steps are made clumsy and awkward by large double-plastic mountaineering boots that will only seem to serve their purpose once we reach the hard-packed snow that will require us to put on our crampons.
When day starts to break and we see the blackness of the east smolder into ash, and then into a bleak white light, our hearts lift. Still walking in silence, I can feel the words each of us are suppressing: cold, wind, weather.
There is only one group of climbers ahead of us this morning and we follow their bobbing headlights up the glacier. Once we’ve reached the top, at the bottom of the ridge that will guide us straight to the summit, they are already well ahead of us grappling with the complicated ice-and-rock scramble.
Breaking at the ridge, even with the sun fully out, Nina and I are the coldest we’ve ever been. She shakes uncontrollably, lips and teeth chattering a pale blue and so we slap each other’s hands to spur blood circulation. Rimzin actually takes my feet out of my boots, unzips his parka, and sticks both feet in his underarms. We’re warmed, fueled, and hydrated, and continue up the sticky ascent ahead.
The 500 meter-high ridge line has us grappling up icy rocks and treacherous drops on either side for nearly two and a half hours. We take a few slips, take even longer breaks, and watch the weather turn from bad to tolerable to worse to bluebird clear.
After nine hours, we finally reach the summit and soak in the thin air above 20,000 ft. To our right we see sprawling desert mountains speckled with snow, while straight ahead the towering ice-laden peaks of the Himalaya stretch on forever. We spend less than a half hour snapping photos and fighting the persisting wind before returning down.
Descending, as always, feels endless. It takes us almost as much time to retreat off of the ridge as it did to go up. Once we have firm feet on the glacier we find a spot below the rocks to take off our crampons and glissade, cutting off at least a little of our time. However, at this point we realize Nina is suffering from some pretty serious altitude sickness and our walk slows to a crawl until we return safely to base camp.
14 hours later, we emerge from our tents feeling accomplished, sore, and already absolutely exhausted thinking about the long day ahead of us – returning to the trailhead. The day is tiring but thankfully, uneventful, and we make it back to the cars and our hotels unscathed.
Whichever was tougher – the weather, the cold, or the altitude – is to be determined, or in fact, may never be. All I know is no matter how battered either Nina or I came out of this adventure, there will be another one waiting for us just around the corner.