I recall as I was climbing Kilimanjaro thinking to myself as to what kind of a nightmare have I invited. I was tired, super tired, more tired than I had ever been and why was I doing this? After summiting Kilimanjaro (you can read about the experience here) on my way down I recall thinking, wow! this was awesome I need to do something like this again. Well the something like this turned out to be an expedition in Ladakh, India, north of the Great Himalayan Range.
The experience was incredible. But it could have been better. A lot went wrong. Some can be expected and some can be avoided. I hope that those who read this blog will learn to make the correct choices based on what they are looking for. Please note that at no point in this post it is my intent be negative about anyone. Its all about choices and making ones that work best for you.
I signed up with Project Himalaya for a 30 day expedition style trek down the Rupshu valley that was to end with crossing the Great Himalayan Range via Parang-La and ending in Manali. The trek was to have at least two 6000m climbs and Project Himalaya came very highly recommended. Another benefit of going with Project Himalaya was that it was run by western guides. This may sound bad but having lived in India half my life and having visited so many times, India is not exactly known for reliable service. Nothing happens on time and no one seems to care that nothing happens on time. In fact very often you get a proud response of “Nothing happens on time. This is India”. I really did not want to be climbing mountains with anyone that has that attitude. So the decision was to go with Project Himalaya.
The trip basically commences when you fly into Leh. The flight from Delhi to Leh is a short 45 minute one with some amazing views if its not too cloudy. Having just flown in from the US to Delhi a short 45 minute flight was not too bad. I was in no mood for a longer flight. The folks at Project Himalaya were supposed to pick me up at Leh airport but when I get there there was no one to receive me. Not a big deal I said to myself. I pull out my cell phone (I got a local Indian phone in Delhi) and tried to call Project Himalaya. Hmmmm! this was weird. My phone would not work. So not a big deal I say to myself. I will just wait because these guys must be running late. 30 minutes later a cab guy comes to me and says I better take the last cab out of the airport because my flight was the last flight into Leh and the airport would soon shutdown. I didn't believe him and about 30 minutes later I find that security guards were escorting me out the airport and telling me to go stand by a highway. OK so now the situation didn’t look that good. My cell phone was not working and here I am all by myself standing by a highway. Luckily the same cab guy came by and picked me up. He told me he was worried about me being stranded. He took me to town to a phone both/Internet cafe where I could check online which hotel I was supposed to be at. He then took me to the hotel. He charged me a whopping $2. Wow! I was in love with Ladakh. Nice honest people.
So I get to the hotel and I ask my guide what happened and he shrugs and says welcome to India. Hmmm! Now wasn't this the reason I was avoiding a local Indian guide? LOL I guess India can convert anyone. Anyway, let bygones be bygones. I got to meet most of the people who would be joining the expedition and soon we were all busy talking about stuff. We walked around the town of Leh. I noticed I was breathless really fast. Leh is at 3500m and the effects of high altitude were definitely there.
No one, absolutely no one warned me about how disconnected Ladakh is from rest of the world. I travel a lot and in today's world I know I can always use my cell phone get in touch with anyone I want. In Ladakh your cell phone will not work. It doesn’t matter if it is a GSM phone or not. It will just not work. For security reasons no cellular communications can be made by phones that are not locally issued and you cannot obtain one when you get there. However, the city of Leh has several cyber cafes from where you can access the Internet and they have phones which you can use to call anywhere in India or the world and the rates are very affordable. Once out of Leh and specially once you are out trekking there is no communication with the outside world. So be warned.
Day 2 we decided to drive up to Khardung La after having rented some mountain bikes. The idea was to bike down the pass. Man was that fun. Plus the exposure to almost 18,000ft was good for acclimatizing. I had been up to Khardung La way back in 1987. It has changed a lot. There were huge glaciers and walls of ice. Now its all just barren.
Khardung La 1987
Khardung La 2012
The pictures above are not of the same spot but in both cases taken from the road at the pass. On the 1987 picture there was a wall of ice at the edge of the road. At some spots it was probably over 10ft high. In 2012 one could some snow on the mountains but the road itself was clear and at the highest point there was no snow at all. Both pictures were taken in the July-August time frame.
Day 3 was a short hike from Leh to a close by village (I think its called Saboo). The hike required crossing 2 passes at 3700m and 3800m. Though not a huge elevation gain it felt like a lot. This was not too good a sign. I felt I was not acclimatizing fast enough. But I still had time before the real expedition was to start. By the evening I had even more bad news. I was down with diarrhea. This is clearly not something I was looking forward too. In fact the entire team was down with diarrhea. Must have been something we ate. So now we were all taking antibiotics. This was not too good for me as I always seem to get much weaker when I take antibiotics. Anyway, next 5 days we were pumping pills into our system.
Trekking around Leh
Trekking around Leh
View of Saboo (green patch way down the valley) from the top of the second pass
GPS Trail on Google Earth
We stay an extra day in Leh since everyone is sick and down with diarrhea. Joy!!!!!!!! Leh is an amazing city and there are a lot of places to see around it. Mostly monasteries but they are worth a visit. I am not going to write much about it simply because there are better sources and because quite honestly they were not fun to watch when you have diarrhea.
Leh is predominantly Buddhist but also has a large Muslim population
Leh 2012. Looks greener and more modern.
Day 5 - Pang
Day 5 we actually pack up and get into an SUV a TATA Sumo and drive almost all day to Pang. Quite a nice drive. On some stretches you have nicely surfaced roads and then in some areas there is no road at all. The Border Roads Organization (the folks who build and maintain these roads) do a good job entertaining you with various road signs to keep you safe. In some cases its bad English but everyone gets the message. Here is a sample:
I am curvaceous be slow
After Whisky Driving Risky
Darling I like you but not so Fast
I think you get the idea. We stopped at some place for tea and Maggi Noodles. I refrained from eating anything. I was starving but was too afraid to eat anything. Once we got to Pang we packed all our stuff onto mules and started the first day of trekking though this was barely a 30 minute walk to the first camp site. Sleeping out in a tent in the middle of nowhere and yet kind of on top of the world was incredible. We were now at about 4500m.
I believe there are a few other higher roads. But this is still pretty darn high for a highway.
We started down there somewhere
This is the down there somewhere. Stretching after sitting in the TATA Sumo for 6 odd hours.
Day 6 - Trakstago
This was the first day of any serious hiking. We did 16 plus km which is 10 miles. I was carrying all my camera equipment and I have to admit that it was way too heavy. This sucked…. I was carrying a Canon 7D, extra batteries, a 300mm f4L lens which is quite heavy, and then of course lots of water. As the days would pass I will learn really quick that all this extra weight was not a good idea. Honestly I can’t recall much about this camp site except that it had these huge Raven or Raven like birds.
Yak and goat are the most common sight. This area has the Chongpa nomads who live here. You don’t see many of them. Two maybe three small camps with one or two tents each is what you will see. They herd goats which at these altitudes grow very fine hair which then creates the famous Pashmina wool. Kiang (wild ass) are always around too. Per my map we were close to some place called Trakstago but visually there is no village or camp or anything. How did this area get this name? I have no clue.
WARNING: Learn to squat. As I mentioned earlier, the entire team was down with diarrhea and this is the wilderness. At camp there is a small pit that is dug up and a tent put around it. That is where you go to take a dump. If you are not used to squatting, this can be a challenge. So start practicing sitting in that position before you get here. While trekking you just have to be shameless if you have to go. There are no bushes to hide behind. And if you do go out in the open, use a stone, dig a small hole, and then cover your crap (no pun intended) when you are done.
Day 7 - Zozogong
Another long but interesting day. We trekked from Trakstago to Zozogong (yet another name with no signs of civilzation). Interesting trek which included going through an area where all the rocks were black. As though they had been on fire. Very unusual sight (not sure why I did not take a picture). We then crossed the Thelakung La (la is pass) at 5020m and then descended to Zozogong at 4910m. Just as we went over the pass at 5020m we saw a few clouds come by. Wow! did the weather change fast. From what was comfortably cool weather we had a drop to sub zero temperatures within about 10 minutes. All of a sudden we had rain that turned to sleet that turned to snow. Now I understood why they said carry your rainproof gear in your day pack. Weather in the mountains can change very rapidly. As I descended down from the camp I could see a Chongpa tent and some of our team members who were walking faster seemed to have entered it. Now there is a slight problem. The Chongpa have these Himalayan Shepherd dogs that can attack anyone coming close to their camp. So standing far away from the camp I start yelling Julley (hello, greetings) till someone exits the tent and restrains the dogs so I can approach.
Once I entered the tent, it was quite fascinating. Its a large tent but houses the entire family and all their belongings. At the center is a stove burning Yak dung and brewing tea. The old lady in the tent was scrounging for every cup or container she could find to serve us tea in. I really did not want to look at her fingers. This was not a time to worry about hygiene. It was freezing, I was wet, cold, and tired. I was being offered shelter and some tea. I took it. It was pretty darn tasty. Goat milk tea.
Soon the storm passed by and the sun was out. We exited the tent and had our lunch out in the sun with a view of mountains just dusted with snow. The Chongpa family offered us some goat milk yogurt which once again was incredibly tasty or we were incredibly hungry and tired. After lunch we had a few more hours to go before reaching Zozogong. In the afternoon we used a sack of potatoes to act as wickets, and a piece of wood as a bat and a rubber ball and soon there was one the highest games of cricket ever played.
Cricket at 4910m
Most members of the team were still sick with diarrhea and this resulted in some good but crass humor in the dining tent. The crew though provided the best meals. The dining tent was equipped with all kinds of nice snacks, we were supplied with unlimited quantities of chai. Consumption of large amounts of fluids is great for fighting off the effect of high altitude.
Pang to Zozogong