Trekking and Climbing in Ladakh’s Ruphsu Valley – Part 2

Saturday, 16 February 2013 01:40 by ranjanbanerji

Continuing from Part 1

Day 8

So this was the day of our first climb.  It was meant to be a warm up climb but I wanted to take it a bit more seriously.  The second and main climb of the expedition was to summit Kharpa Ri.  So now here is a problem.  I am afraid of heights.  Yes I am.  So I avoid exposures at all cost.  Kharpa Ri looked to be a scary mountain though my guide tried his best to convince me that it was not.  So climbing this mountain which was un-named and at 6080m was my way of achieving my goal of crossing 6000m.

The un-named 6080m Peak.

We started after a hearty breakfast and I was confident this would be an easy summit.  The rumblings in my stomach from the diarrhea had started to die off.  I felt good, or at least better.  The mountain was not very different from Kilimanjaro in the sense that it was a long slog up a scree slope.  The one big difference from Kilimanjaro was that there are no trails going up this mountain.  So you pretty much have to figure out what's the best way to go up.  About halfway up my guide showed me what he thought was the best way up and then he went on ahead with two of the team members.  This is about when everything started to go wrong.  The second guide got confused and went up ahead too.  As a result half the team was left behind with no guide.  Now I am no expert climber and while it may seem easy when someone says just go up this way, its a lot harder when you are trying to find your way up a mountain.  However, I continued climbing.  At some point I noticed these strange marks on the rocks and stopped to observe them.  Looked like some red colored moss.

Red Moss?

By the time I took some pictures I realized that now I was all alone.  Two additional climbers had moved on in one direction and were not visible, one was way below me, my guide was gone and I couldn’t spot the other guide.  Great!!!  Now I was by myself trying to figure out how to get to the top.  At some point I checked my altimeter and I was exactly at 5985m.  This is as high as Kilimanjaro.  I felt strong.  I was not tired.  I looked up and thought this is going to be a piece of cake.  So I proceeded to climb along a path that I figured was the best way up.  I soon reached a spot which seemed too difficult to proceed from so I traversed the mountain to my left, not gaining any altitude but hoping to find a better path to ascend.  I think I zig-zagged for a while without really gaining much.

At this moment I also start to feel the weight of my daypack.  I was carrying all my camera equipment and lenses which quite honestly was not a smart move.  High up at these altitudes there is a remote chance of spotting a snow leopard or a soaring golden eagle.  But the likelihood is low.  So one should decide whether you want to climb or take pictures.  On Kilimanjaro I hired an extra porter to carry my camera equipment.  This was not the case here.  I was lugging this extra weight and I was beginning to feel it.  Specially when I had to keep retracing my steps to figure out a good way up the mountain. 

Being alone with the extra weight probably made me make bad decisions.  When I think back about the mountain I don’t see why it was tough to find a way up.  After all other people were ascending.  Anyway, so my going was slow.  And then the worst thing happened.  I ran out of water.  This was really not good.  I checked my altimeter and I was at around 6009m.  The air is incredibly dry and of course the oxygen levels are low.  So as you breath heavily everything gets super dry.  I think this hurt me psychologically too.  I was now not having fun.  Suddenly I was very tired, exhausted, thirsty, and mad that I was here by myself.  I climbed a bit more then slipped (nothing dangerous) and realized I was way way too exhausted.  I was now at about 6020m just about 60m away from the summit (in terms of altitude), though quite honestly I did no such calculations at that time.  I just recall seeing the altimeter and thinking there is no way I can go anymore.  I had a power bar or some similar product, I am not sure it helped.  My mouth was dry as I had no water.  I looked around and saw none of the other climbers or guides.  This totally sucked.

Failed Summit.  Will have to come back.

After resting for a while I decide to make one last attempt.  I stood up and started to scramble my way up when I slipped and slid down.  Slid down right to the spot I started from.  That was it, the final straw.  I sat there for a while and then slowly started to descend.  What happened from feeling strong at 5895m and completely exhausted and broken at 6020m?  I have no clue.  My guess is that its a combination of things including: no guide when I needed one the most, carrying too much weight (camera and lenses), running out of water, and the diarrhea and antibiotics.  It is however, 90% about mental strength and this day I guess I was just not strong enough.

Yes it Rains: The climb however was not without its rewards.  I saw what I believe was a Golden Eagle circling right above me.  Also as I was resting before descending I saw a storm approach.  Ladakh is a desert and very dry.  It never rains there.  Wait! Did I say it never rains there?  So far ever since we started trekking we have had some form of precipitation everyday.  Usually its very brief, however at night it was not uncommon to hear rain or sleet drops on the tent all night.  So anyway, as I watch the rain approach I quickly put on rain gear and some warmer clothing.  I can see the rain fall as the system moves across the valley towards me.  However when it gets to me there is no rain.  I can see it fall but I don't feel the water.  This was a little strange.  Later I learned this is what is called as Virga.  I was too exhausted to take out my camera and take pictures.

When I got back to camp slowly other folks were returning too.  Turns out when the main guide and two other people on the team reached the top, they descended from the far side and climbed yet another mountain.  Yikes!!!!!  Good for them.  I was still tired and mad.  This was extremely different from my experience on Kilimanjaro.  My guide was never more than 10 yards away from me.  He kept talking to me, motivating me, never made me realize that I could be getting tired.  Having that support was huge.  In this case I believe my guide was geared more towards people who have a bit more experience.  One the members of the team was training to climb an 8000m peak.  For him this was a cake walk. But clearly not for others.

Also, to the team this was a warm up climb.  So no one was treating this as a must succeed attempt.  It was just a scramble up this mountain or two in preparation for Kharpa Ri.  But for me this was an important climb since I was most likely not going to climb Kharpa Ri as I was afraid to do so.  So this day totally sucked for me.

Day 9 - Thargang

Matters got worse.  I woke up with really bad back pain.  Coming down that mountain the previous day I must have jerked my back.  I have a history of back problems and I seem to have hurt it again.  What makes matters worse is that these are not the huge car camping tents I see people use in the US.  These are pretty small tents, laid out on the valley floor, no real padding and you better hope the surface is reasonably flat.  The tents are low so you are always in an awkward position when changing.  Now imagine yourself with a painful back.  The dining tent has no chairs.  You sit on the floor and eat.  I have already explained the toilet.  So if your back hurts you are in some serious trouble, or like in this case I was in serious trouble.  I started to use the dining tent as a place to stretch and exercise my back.

On this day we trekked to Thargang.  I walked really slow and careful so as to not jerk or hurt my back.  At Thargang I did more stretching and core stabilization exercises and took a bunch of Advils.

Zozogong to Kharpa Ri.  The missing segment is because my GPS ran out of battery.

Sleep time comes early in the mountains.  One is tired and it gets dark soon and once the sun goes down the temperature plummets.  Since the air is so dry temperature changes are very rapid.  Its always a good idea to get into your sleeping bag and be warm.  While on the subject of sleep, the one thing I hated was waking up in the middle of the night feeling suffocated.  Due to the low oxygen levels, any blockage of your breathing process (stuffed nose, sleeping back blocking your nose, etc) and you wake up thinking you are suffocating.  And when you wake up its pitch dark.  It took a few days to learn to not panic LOL.  Oh! and nose bleeds are common too so carry a small container of Vaseline and apply it in your nose.

Day 10 - Khiangshisha

My back was really in pain but I was ok when just walking.  I was no longer carrying my camera and though this helped my back it totally sucked.  I saw some black necked cranes and a few Kiangs (wild ass) but had no camera to take pictures with.  Great!!!!!!  We took a short cut to get to Khiangshisha.  Instead of walking down the valley we were in and then turning right and then turning left (See image above) we went over a small mountain pass.  Luckily this climb did not bother me.  We went up to 5100m and then descended down into the valley.  It was interesting to see several springs which were joining up to create larger streams of water.

Talk about Amazing Food:  I wish I had kept a note of what all we ate everyday.  This much I should say.  The food was absolutely amazing.  There are no stores, villages, towns in this area.  So absolutely everything must be carried on mules from day 1.  All supplies including food, kerosene, etc is on mule back.  Water is the only resource that is collected locally and filtered.  I have no idea how the crew from Project Himalaya managed to prepare amazing food that included items like pizza.  Each night for dinner we had a different treat.  Breakfast and lunch were good too but dinner was always just amazing.

Great Company: Another aspect of the dining tent and specially dinner time was the great company we had.  We played cards almost every evening.  The guide always had great stories to tell.  As usual some time wasting political conversation would get started but overall it was always in good humor.  Since we were all suffering from diarrhea jokes and conversations often headed in that direction.

Day 11 – Kharpa Ri Base

A short 1 hour walk to position ourselves higher and closer for climbing Kharpa Ri.  My back was still bad.  The plan was to climb start climbing Kharpa Ri early in the morning.  Between the fact that I am afraid of heights and this mountain looked quite scary and that my back was hurting I decided that there was no way I am going up.  It was a rest day for everyone.

Rapid Temperature Change: Because the air is so dry it takes very little time for the temperature to rise or dip.  A single cloud in front of the sun can make the temperature drop to 0C.  In the evening the moment the sun sets you can fill the chill and soon the freeze.  Being aware of this is important.  Always carry warm clothes in your day pack.  Most the day is comfortable and even warm at times.  But if you have clouds move in the temperature drops fast.

Day 12 - Kharpa Ri

As I slept through the night the rest of the team started their climb.  I think they headed up at around 5am.  By the time I got up and had breakfast, they were little dots climbing.  I decided to take a tripod and and start climbing.  I figured I could easily get to somewhere between 5100 and 5500m and get some good pictures.  Wow! was this a treat.  The views were great.  On the one side I could still see the team climbing up Kharpa Ri and on the other side I had a great view of mountains and valleys.

Kharpa Ri

Kharpa Ri

View from about 5300m up Kharpa Ri

Day 13 - Lameke

A short trek to Lameke.  At this stretch the stream through the valley starts getting bigger and bigger.  So far though we have crossed streams many times, they have not been deep.  But now we have a fast flowing, really cold, hip knee to hip deep stream.  Crossing were a pain.  Next year I will carry trekking poles.  I don’t like them, but they are useful under these conditions.  We also entered this areas where the terrain was very different.  So far we had been walking on stony dry terrain.  Now had grass but not on an even surface.  Its tough to even describe the terrain.

Bumpy, cup shaped, grassy terrain

Once at camp I saw some marmots and found a dead yak (mostly eaten) and some pug marks that looked quite large.  I took some pictures and showed it to the Ladakhi/Tibetan crew members who told me not to go back there as this was probably a special large wolf that they referred to as nar-spyang.  Spyang or spyang ki is wolf in Tibetan.  Nar is man in sanskrit/hindi thereby implying a werewolf.  Werewolf?  Seriously?  But then folklore exists everywhere.  I bet the crew was having a good laugh.  I don’t believe in werewolves but that night I did not stray too far from my tent.  Somehow the tent offers a sense of security LOL.

Marmot

Day 13 – Tso Moriri

This was one very long day.  A 21km walk to the southern shores of Tso Moriri.  Now the stream starts to become more of a river and the views are quite amazing.  We stopped by the banks of the river for lunch which was pretty amazing.  As you approach Tso Moriri the trail goes up a mountain and then all of a sudden you see the lake.  The view is incredible.  Because of my back I did not have my camera.  I used my mobile phone but it just does not do any justice to the view.

Lameke to Tso Moriri

First view of Tso Moriri (phone camera)

We set up camp right by the lake.  This is paradise.  The east of the lake has Chamser and Lungser Kangri both over 6600m and the west has the Mentok Kangri peaks.  This is the first time we see other people camping.  Tso Moriri is a popular destination.  People drive to Korzok and then do a day hike to the southern end or some other spot and camp.  Tso Moriri is large enough to create weather patterns of its own.  And sure enough in the evening we saw a thunderstorm shape up. Half the lake was under clouds and the other half not.  The result was some amazing colors.

Tso Moriri after the Thunderstorm

A bunch more pictures from around Tso Moriri can be found here.

Even though I was in paradise my back was hurting me more than ever.  Korzok was another 22km away and two members of the team were already headed that way since they had planned to exit sooner.  I really wanted to cross the Great Himalayan Range at Parang La but my back was now hurting too much and heading to towards Parang La was moving into even more remote areas.  So I decided it would be a smart idea to join the folks leaving for Korzok next morning.

Day 14 – Tso Moriri to Korzok

The 20 plus kilometer walk from the southern tip of Tso Moriri to Korzok is a great hike.  The lake offers amazing views.  On the western side you can see Mentok Kangri and on the eastern side you see Chamser and Lungser Kangri.  The walk is along the lake and if you are lucky you can see some wildlife.

Tso Moriri

The clouds just wouldn’t let me get a good view of Chamser and Lungser Kangri

Chamser Kangri (left) and Lungser Kangri (Right)

Wildlife doesn’t have to be a Snow Leopard.  Though that would have been awesome.

Piles of prayer stones can be found every few kilometers.  Unlike monasteries, churches, temples etc, these blend in with nature.

I may need some prayers if I attempt climbing Chamser or Lungser Kangri

Or if I attempt Mentok Kangri

Its a long walk to Korzok but a rewarding one.  Korzok itself is a small town.  There is a monastery, a few tented camps, a few houses, and perhaps two tented restaurants (if you can call them that).  But they serve hot momos, and cold drinks, and beer.  What more can one ask for.  The night was spent at a “home stay”.  Basically someone offers a room at their place.  At first thought you think its a dump.  And perhaps it is.  But then you have to pause and think about it.  You are in the middle of no where.  There are barely any roads, no electricity, or maybe they do have some solar panels, people here are poor but honest.  After 15 odd days of walking in the mountains you now have a roof and a bed.  It was awesome!!!!

Room in Korzok

View from my Room in Korzok

Day 15 – Drive Back to Leh

The drive from Korzok to Leh is about 6 hours and like anything else in Ladakh it offers amazing views.  A significant part of the drive is along the Indus.  The drive goes through small towns and villages so one finally gets exposed to civilization once again.  By the time you get to Leh you start dealing with traffic jams.  Ugh!!!

Conclusion

This was an amazing trip.  Yes I failed to summit a 6000m plus peak and yes I hurt my back, and so on and so forth.  But this was an incredible journey and an incredible introduction to the Indian Himalaya.  The expedition was with a great bunch of people.  Project Himalaya and its crew did an amazing job of taking care of everyone.  The food was incredible.  The trekking was amazing.  To put it in perspective, I plan to be back in Ladakh in the summer of 2013.  I have still not given up on Project Himalaya as I am talking to them about my next expedition.  Though this time I am doing more research and asking more questions

My advise to anyone planning a trip here is to talk in great detail with your guide before you start.  Let them know what you are looking for and what your physical condition is.  No matter which company you go with you have to communicate your concerns and your needs to them.

Keep it Clean:  Ladakh is beautiful.  But slowly, like the rest of India it is turning into a dump.  Plastic seems to be the biggest culprit.  Well its people who are the actual culprits.  Don’t throw stuff anywhere you feel like it.  Take out whatever you bring in.  The whole notion of tossing a bottle of beer of coke out of your car is lame.  Keep it clean.  Seriously!!!  Its really not that tough.

Trekking and Climbing in Ladakh’s Ruphsu Valley – Part 1

Saturday, 19 January 2013 02:19 by ranjanbanerji

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.

Day 1

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.

WARNING:

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

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

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

Day 4

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

Leh is predominantly Buddhist but also has a large Muslim population

Leh 1987

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

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Ranthambore National Park

Tuesday, 1 May 2012 23:37 by ranjanbanerji

I have been to my share of national parks in India and other countries.  Ranthambore, though close to Delhi is one park that I had not gone to until a month ago.  To get basic information on the park I suggest you look it up here.

My trip to Ranthambore, however, was disappointing.  Now most national park trips turn out to be disappointing if you don’t get to see the main attraction.  Imagine a week at the Masai Mara and not seeing a lion.  So Ranthambore without a tiger sighting can be a disappointment to anyone,  But I did see a tiger (from far away) and yet I was disappointed by the experience.

So lets start from the beginning.  Most national parks in India require a permit and you need to get a booking for your entry into the park.  So far I have not found it difficult to obtain entry for any park .  But Ranthambore is a different story.  The state of Rajasthan (where Ranthambore is) has set up a website where you can book your trip.  Ranthambore is divided into several zones (I user the term several because it appears to me that the number of zones keep changing).  The web site shows 4 zones.  However I saw people being sent to 8 zones this past March.  So this is how it is supposed to work.  You go to the website pick a zone, date, time, and select between a Gypsy (Suzuki Samurai) or a Canter (A truck) Safari.  A Gypsy takes 6 passengers and a Canter takes 24.  Also a Gypsy can go more places than a Canter hence the preference for a Gypsy.  Right here the problems start:

  • All Gypsy safaris are sold out for the main Ranthambore zones (1 through 4).  How come?  Tour operators seems to be booking them by bribing the state officials.  How do I know this?  Call a hotel at Ranthambore, reserve a room with them and demand a Gypsy safari.  They will get you one for about 3 times the official price.
  • Despite paying 3 times the price you may end up going to a not so good zone (5-8).
  • Not only do you get to book your entry to the park but the state decides who the driver will be and who the guide will be.  So you cannot take your own guide, or if you do then you must pay for your own guide as though they were a visitor to the park (at three times the actual cost).
  • They say to increase your chances of a tiger sighting and to truly enjoy the variety of animals at Ranthambore you must do 4 to 6 safaris.  Each day you can only do two, one in the morning and one in the evening.  So with the state run booking, guide, and safari system you end up getting a different guide and driver each time.  So you never get to develop a relationship with your guide where he understands your interests.  For example one of the guides I was with just did not understand that in addition to looking for tigers I was interested in photographing birds, insects, etc.
  • The park is open for two safaris a day.  Morning from 6:30 to 10:30 and afternoon from 2:30 to 6:30 (plus or minus 30 minutes as I do not recall the exact times now).  So you would think that the safari vehicle will be at your hotel 30 minutes before the national park gates open so that you enter the park at opening time to maximize your visit time. But on 3 of my 4 safaris the Gypsy came late.  On one of them it came an hour late.  On each of the safaris the gypsy left the park way before closing time.  So lets get this right.  You pay three times the official price and get half the safari. Hmmmm!!!!!!!
  • Also the state run website is not easy to use and it often crashes.  For example you can only book one safari and for 6 people at a time.  So if you want to book 6 safaris you need to select the date, time, and vehicle option 6 times.  For each time you make a booking you need to enter names, age, ID numbers (passport number etc) for each passenger, then your credit card information and then make the booking.  So for 6 travelers wanting 6 safaris you would have to enter their details 36 times.  That's if the site actually works.

Given this situation of booking safaris at Ranthambore I feel you are better off going to one of the many other national parks in India or Africa.  I found the main attraction at Ranthambore to be tigers and crocodiles.  I did not get to see leopards and bears. I did get some nice bird shots and got to see a Savanna Nightjar which is quite tough to spot.  In fact I thought it was wood will I noticed the wood had eyes.

Savnna Nightjar

Savanna Nightjar

Teach your kids to use Binoculars

The one tiger that we did spot was far away and in a cave behind a tree.  See below

The tiger was photographed using a 300mm lens.  With the naked eye it was impossible to spot.  If you have little kids who do not know how to use binoculars then its a good idea to make sure they learn and practice before going on such a trip.  I made the mistake of not teaching them and when we found this tiger the children were unable to spot it.  Bummer!!!

More pictures from this trip can be seen here.

Kilimanjaro - 3 - The Climb

Monday, 29 August 2011 17:13 by ranjanbanerji

The journey to not just up Kilimanjaro can be a long and tiring one. I started my journey in the US with a long flight to Zurich (about 8 hours). Luckily the wait in Zurich was very short and then I switched to a Swiss International Airlines flight to Nairobi (another 8 hours). Swiss International had a pretty good aircraft with some pretty awesome entertainment in economy. Their monitors were much larger than what I have seen on other aircraft. But, as luck would have it the monitor on my seat did not work. So I had a long boring flight. I was wondering if this was not a bad omen.  It wasn’t.  Just my lousy luck….   LOL

At Nairobi I had arranged to stay at the Wildebeest Camp and they had a taxi arranged for me so my ride to the camp was quick and I did not have to deal with getting a cab and negotiating rates etc. I found the Wildebeest Camp to be nice, clean, very affordable, with ok food. I had a deluxe tent, which came with a bathroom and the bed was comfortable. Not very good sound proofing so I could hear city sounds but I was tired and I slept well. The tent was large with one queen size bed and one perhaps twin size.  So you can probably get three people to stay there.

The next day the Wildebeest Camp arranged a cab for me to go to the Parkside Hotel. This is where I got the Riverside Shuttle to Arusha. I had already booked my ticket with the shuttle via their web site.  When buying your ticket at the riverside shuttle web site remember to put your hotel name in Arusha or Moshi.  Don’t just select the city as your destination.  The shuttle drops off people to several hotels in Arusha and Moshi.  But the web site does not explicitly offer the option for the hotel drop off.  The bus ride is ok.  Took about 6 hours.  Riverside shuttle has some newer and some older buses.  I got an old one.  It was pretty cramped.  So after 16 hours of flying this 6 hour ride was not exactly joy.

In Arusha I stayed at the Outpost Lodge.  I found this to be very affordable and they have good rooms.  The same day I was visited by my Team Kilimanjaro guide Nick.  Nick reviewed my gear, gave me a briefing and we were all ready for the Kilimanjaro climb starting the next day.

So why the rush?  Why not get some rest before starting the climb?  Well many people tend to get sick when they visit a foreign country.  Specially if it is in Africa or Asia.  So one runs the risk of getting an upset stomach and some mild viral flu like illness.  Minimizing your time as a tourist on the streets of Nairobi, Arusha, or Moshi helps prevent picking up some bug.  Climbing when sick is not fun.  Leave the tourism for after the climb.  So try and get as much rest in those long flights.

Day 1

Day 1 started early with leaving the Outpost Lodge and a long drive to the main Kilimanjaro gate.  This is where you sign in and get all your permits etc for the climb.  Once the paperwork is all done (my guide Nick took care of it all) it was another long drive on very bad roads to the Rongai gate.  The drive was referred to as the “African Massage” and I must say it lived up to its name.  At the gate we had lunch and then the climb started.  I was asked to go slow but the path was pretty flat so I was going at a good pace.  Nick was quick to tell me to slow down.  He was establishing the Pole Pole rules early on.  In retrospect this was a good thing.  Keep a slow pace.  This is not a race, most of us are not used to high altitude and the effect of high altitude can hit you fast.

The Rongai gate is at 1996m (6549ft).  Day 1 is a short day since most of the day is spent driving to the gate.  We walked for 6.7km up to 2626m (8615ft).  By the time we got to Simba camp the porters had already setup camp, tents, mess hall etc.  Had some tea and later had dinner.  Also started to observe all the other teams that were on the Rongai route.  There was a small team of the 3 Americans from out west, another team of a few American women climbing for some charity.  One woman on that team was well how do I put it, large.  So large that the guides starting placing bets on how fast will she quit the climb.  I got to meet her.  I think her name was Cara and she has a web site http://www.fatwomanonthemountain.com/.  Now that is confidence.  Found out she had already succeeded at climbing Kilimanjaro.  The fact that she had already succeeded got a lot of the guides and porters to start respecting her effort.  That was pretty cool.

I also noticed that Team Kilimanjaro had setup have a seat like contraption as a toilet inside a small tent so I don’t have to squat to take a dump.  Make sure you request one.  These make life a lot easier.  Specially at night when it can be very cold and very windy.  Trust me you don’t want to be stripping outdoors.

I was hoping to get some wildlife pictures of monkeys and birds as day 1 goes through a rain forest.  But got very few.  I could hear a billion birds but could barely see any.  A big joke on day 1 was that despite the fact that we were climbing Mt Kilimanjaro we could not see the peak.  However we could get beautiful views down into Kenya which is north of Kilimanjaro.

Views into Kenya

Day 2

Day 2 was a 11.8km hike going from Simba Camp at 2626m (8615ft) to Kikelewa Cave at 3679m (12070ft).  The first half of the day was supposedly harder.  Majority of the altitude gain occurs then.  But I was fine except that my urine was dark yellow, i.e., I was dehydrating.  This is a bad sign.  I am not sure why it happens but high altitude dehydrates you fast and staying over hydrated is one way to reduce chance of high altitude illness.  I needed to drink a lot more water.  So for lunch I had plenty of soup and water along with chicken and grilled cheese sandwiches.  Sitting eating lunch out in the open made me a little cold so I put on a light wind breaker and decided to continue with the climb.  I felt if I kept sitting I would get colder.  So instead of letting my lunch settle a little I started the hike.  This was a bad idea.  Lunch was not digested.  My heart rate shot up, i started to get a bad taste in my mouth and I was breathless fast.  So I stopped got some rest and then things got better.  This was a lesson learnt and good that this happened so early in the climb.  I now knew I have to be a lot more careful.  At Kikelewa Cave I had some some hot chocolate and peanuts.  But I started to get a mild headache.  I was told it was normal.  A good nights sleep took care of that.

During the hike I asked Nick what's with the summit night concept?  Why don’t people make the summit during the day?  Why start climbing at 12am?  He said its mostly because people want to see the sunrise from the top.  Hmmm! I had absolutely no interest in watching the sunrise.  I simply wanted to climb Kilimanjaro.  So we started discussing the option of doing a day summit.  This way I do not have to focus on keeping warm during the climb.  Just focus on going up.

I also noticed that there was a small number of climbers who did not make it to camp.  I did not think people would start feeling the negative effects of high altitude so fast but it happens.

Early morning Day 2 is when I saw the Kilimanjaro peak.  My first view.  I thought I would be able to see it on the drive to Arusha from Nairobi, or from Arusha itself, or on the way from Arusha to the Kilimanjaro gate.  But due to clouds I was unable to do so.  It was day 2 when I got this first view and I was thinking to myself, oh! crap, is this what I have to climb?  lol

First View of Kilimanjaro

Day 3

Day 3 is a short 3.7km hike from Kikelewa Cave at 3679m (12070ft) to Mawenzi Tarn at 4303m (14117ft) but you actually go much higher than 4303m and then you descend to Mawenzi Tarn.  So a short but very steep hike.  Had lunch, was so exhausted i napped in my tent.  this was good as  i have not been getting much sleep.  Yesterday i stopped taking the malaria pills.  I think they were keeping me awake. In the afternoon we went for an acclimatization hike to about 4700 maybe 4800m.  Very very steep.  I also loaded my backpack with a little extra weight.  I wanted to start preparing for the summit.  So the acclimatization hike followed by a 30 minute rest at a higher altitude for a while before descending was the strategy.  Get used to rare air and get used to heavy loads.  I came back from the acclimatization hike with severe headache and nausea.  I had to force my self to eat soup.  I was not at all hungry but I made myself eat.  I knew I needed the energy. Within minutes of eating I started to feel better.  To make matters worse I now also realized that I had diarrhea.  This was not good news at all.  Luckily it was more along the lines of loose motion and not some kind of a stomach bug that required me to run to the toilet frequently.  So I did not take any Imodium.  Later that night I felt a lot better and did some night time star trail photography of Mawenzi peak.  It was cold.  I was now high enough to be in sub zero temperatures.  Staying out at night taking long exposure pictures was fun but it took me forever to warm up in my sleeping bag.

At Mawenzi I noticed that more climbers had abandoned their efforts.  My guess is that by now about 10% of the total number of people attempting the climb had dropped out.  So despite my headache and nausea I was doing good.  Pole Pole was a good strategy and so far working for me.  By now people across the different groups started to get to know each other.  There were climbers from all over the world.

Earlier in the day during the acclimatization I once again discussed the climb schedule with Nick.  I wanted a day climb and instead of descending to 3rd Caves on day 4 I wanted to proceed to School Huts.  If we got to school huts early I could do another acclimatization climb on day 4 and then attempt a day summit day 5.  Or if the acclimatization climb at School Hut shows I am not fit then I stay an extra day at School Hut, acclimatize, do more acclimatization hikes and then I can summit on schedule on day 6.  After some discussion we had a new plan.

Mawenzi

Mawenzi

Mawenzi Tarn is like bowl so you are protected from crosswinds.  During the day it really heats up despite the high altitude, but at night the temperature drops rapidly.  I think we went from 20C to –5C in an hour.  So be prepared to get into your sleeping bags before it gets too cold.  At high altitudes even shivering can get you breathless.

Kilimanjaro

Star Trails around Mawenzi

Day 4

This I thought would be an easy day.  But that was not the case.  The hike from Mawenzi Tarn at 4303m (14117ft) to School Hut at 4722m (15492ft) doesn’t look all that tough.  After all its only a 400m altitude gain.  But getting out of Mawenzi Tarn itself requires a steep climb, then you descend for a while before you cross this saddle between Kibo Peak and Mawenzi peak.  It’s just a long walk. We got to School Huts for lunch, I napped then went for an hour long acclimatization hike up to 4900m or more.  it took us 10 maybe 15 minutes to descend.  This was an indication as to how slow I would be on the summit attempt.  Once again during this acclimatization hike I overloaded my daypack and I made sure I sat at the higher altitude for a while.  Not just walk up and down.  All the other climbers from Mawenzi went to Kibo hut.  School Hut is not a commonly used base camp.  So I was alone with respect to the group of climbers I started with.  There were two groups with two people each at School Huts and then there was me.

So Since we are pretty much at the equator the sun is really hot.  Even at 4700 meters it is hot.  But the moment the sun sets the temperature plummets to -15C.  After my experience at Mawenzi where I found it difficult to warm up I decided to stay warm this night.  I needed the energy for the summit attempt at 4am.  I wasn’t sure why Nick wanted to start at 4am.  Since I was not interested in the midnight summit and sunrise is at 6:30am I was not sure why we had to leave at 4am.  Anyway, so I dressed into my summit gear:

  1. Top:  Champion base layer, Polartec mid weight base layer, Tshirt, Patagonia Nano Sweater, Columbia anti wind and rain shell, Balaclava, glove liners, and mittens.
  2. Bottom: Polartec mid weight base layer, socks liners, smartwool mid weight socks, hiking pants

I had dinner and jumped into my sleeping bag in my gear.  Smart idea and it worked well till I realized I had to pee.  Except for my first night on the mountain I kept a pee bottle with me in my tent.  At first I was repulsed by the idea, but one trip out of the tent when it is below 0C and windy was enough for me to agree to the pee bottle idea.  Something you should seriously consider.  Despite having a pee bottle, peeing with all these layers of clothing was not easy.  Luckily I did not have to go take a dump.  For those of you thinking this is funny or disgusting, this is actually a serious issue  LOL.  Its too fucking cold up there and due to the oxygen shortage once your body gets cold, it takes a lot of energy to warm up.  So staying warm is critical.

Mawenzi from the Mawenzi Ridge on my way to School Huts.  Our camp was down there.

Kilimanjaro from the Mawenzi Ridge.  You can see the trail going straight to Kibo huts and the ascending up the mountain. Way down the trail splits and one fork to the right goes to School Huts.

Day 5

Day 5 started really early.  Not at midnight as for most but early.  There are not many people who stay at the School Huts so I was not super disturbed when they left at midnight starting their ascent.  I was woken up at 3:30am to get ready for my climb.  I had a light meal but I was still concerned about the diarrhea from the day before.  I was much better now, but this was no time to eat like a pig and suffer from further indigestion.  But I knew I needed the energy. Ah! the delicate balance of life.

I have already talked about what I was going to wear.  In addition I was carrying:

  1. Camelbak in my daypack and two bottles of boiling water.
  2. Couple of cereal bars and some Toblerone chocolate bars.

We started off slow but were actually going at a reasonable pace as we reached the point of our 1 hour acclimatization hike in about 45 minutes.  The hike from School Huts is a steady steep climb but on firm ground.  No scree.  So this makes it better than the climb up from Kibo Huts.  As I hiked I could see a line of head lamps headed up.  After about 2 hours I met up with the scree slope that all the climbers from Kibo Hut use.  I got there at around 5000m at Williams Point.  Basically I escaped about 300m of scree climbing.

The red line is approximately the path I took from Mawenzi to School Huts to Gilman's Point and then you circle around the crater to get to Uhuru Peak. The green path takes you to Kibo Huts and then to Gilman’s.

Sunrise from Hans Mayer Cave

Now the real painful part of the climb came.  Though soon into the climb I reached Hans Mayer Cave which is at 5150m.  It was now about 6:30am and the sun was rising.  This was quite an amazing view, so I stopped, took a few pictures, got some much needed rest and water.  Because I started at 4am my water had still not frozen, so this was good.  So far I had not encountered any other climber.  They were all way ahead of me.  In fact about 4 hours ahead of me.  So most of them must be summiting.

Soon after Hans Mayer Cave the climb gets really steep.  You can see Gilman’s Point.  Many people say it looks so close.  To me it looked really far away.  At this point you do some serious zig zagging to go up.  The effect of the scree is really felt here.  You get the feeling you are sliding down rather than climbing up.  Its like walking on sand and it gets tiring really fast but I was doing ok.  Pole Pole was the way to go.  I was in no race and in no rush.  I took my time.  I decided to walk to each switchback, stop, count 5 and then walk to the next.  All the interval training I had done was now paying off.  I noticed that my heart rate would shoot up but each time I stopped it would drop back down.  I was able to recover really fast.  Having a heart rate monitor was useful.  I noticed that at these altitudes my resting heart rate was over 100, while climbing on this stretch my heart rate would peak at about 190 but the moment I would rest it would drop to about 130.  I made sure I got some rest every so many steps.  I did not want to collapse.

Breathing was tough.  I could clearly tell that there wasn’t enough oxygen.  Another thing that helped out was this concept of breathing from your belly.  Before the climb I was reading somewhere that when we breathe we do so by expanding our chest.  This brings air into the top 2/3 of our lungs.  However if we breathe by inflating our belly or expanding our diaphragm we fill the entire lung with air.  A friend who plays the saxophone told me they are trained to do the same.  I practiced this technique prior to the climb.  Now that I was over 5000m and really short of oxygen I started to breathe in this manner specially when I would pause at each switchback.  It was incredible as to how quickly I would feel myself recover with the additional air coming in.

Its on this stretch that I now started to see other people.  The first bunch were people that appeared to be unconscious being taken down by guides.  Then I started to see people pretty much collapsed, unable to go any further.  Some were just throwing up, others were collapsed sitting, trying to catch their breath, and a few were just emotionally broken.  I eventually caught up with a group that had set out from School Huts.  One of their climber was doing well the other two not so well.  We stopped and offered some help.  One the climbers had just completely broken down and was unable to move.  Their guide decided to make her descend.  The other lady joined us.  This slowed us down more but Hakuna Mutata (no worries as everyone in Tanzania says) I was in no rush.

All of a sudden we reached a bunch of rocks just before Gilman’s point.  The top was so close but now in addition to walking one had to scramble up some of the rocks.  I met the team with which Cara (The Fat Lady On the Mountain) was climbing.  They were on their way down after deciding to stop at Gilman’s Point.  Still a great achievement.  A few encouraging words from them had me going up again.  By about 9 maybe 9:30am I was at Gilman’s point.  When I got there I met several people that I had come across during the previous days.  Most seemed to be having some pretty adverse effects of high altitude.  They looked like a bunch of zombies.  No one had the look of success and joy and elation despite their achievement. 

I on the other hand felt fine.  But I knew I needed rest.  There are plenty of rocks at Gilman’s Point so I sat on one for a bit.  Nick gave me a red bull and I have to admit that gave me a surge of energy that I did not know I had.  Now that I was full of energy and suffering from no high altitude effects I started to enjoy the views.  Uhuru peak is a short distance (about an hours walk but can be done in less time) and I was full of energy.  So between helping this other team and me walking around taking photographs I actually ended up taking a lot of time getting to Uhuru from Gilman’s.

The walk along the rim of the volcano from Gilman’s to Uhuru is pretty easy.  On one side you see the crater, with trails going down, I wanted to go down but Nick said no way.  On the other you soon start seeing huge glaciers.  You can tell that they are receding.  From what I heard, once upon a time you had to walk almost next to them, now they appeared to be a mile away.

Finally above Mawenzi.  It feels good to look down.

Kilimanjaro Glaciers

Eventually as I wandered around I reached Uhuru Peak.  There was a bunch of people ahead of us so we waited almost 30 minutes for them to be done with their photo moments.  Then of course I took my obligatory Uhuru Peak photograph.

I made it to the top of Africa

Once we were done with the pictures the return journey started.  This was long, very long, very very long.  The first step was to get back to Gilman’s point.  This was easy.  From here you scree ski down pretty much all the way to Kibo huts.  The way back does not require going to School Huts.  The scree skiing was incredible fun.  I would climb Kilimanjaro again just so I can scree ski down.  I think I made it to Kibo Huts in an hour or two at most.  Then there was the long endless hike to Horombo Huts.  This was one night I really enjoyed my sleep.

Day 6

Day 6 was another long walk to the park gate.  It was long and downhill walking can be pretty tough too.  The walk was mostly uneventful, I started from being above the clouds to finally going back below them.  Soon I was back in the rain forest region, saw a raptor of some kind but could not ID it and also saw a blue monkey which was pretty cool.

Blue Monkey

Not sure but I think its a Jackal Buzzard

Finally we were at the gate and the Kilimanjaro experience was over.  Well not exactly, there was one major task/destination that was still left.  I needed a shower.  I have never wanted to shower more desperately in my entire life.  Every time the car would slow down I wanted to scream and say hurry up.  The moment I got to the hotel I took that long, much needed shower.  Then I had a beer.  Now the Kilimanjaro experience was over.

A rough table of distance and altitude gain per day is in the table below.

Day   Alititude (M) Altitude (ft) Destination Alititude (M) Altitude (ft) Distance
(km)
Distance
(miles)
Elevation Gain
(M)
Elevation Gain
(ft)
Climb Rate
1 Rongai Gate 1996 6549 Simba Camp 2626 8615 6.7 4.16 630 2067 9%
2 Simba Camp 2626 8615 Kikelewa Cave 3679 12070 11.8 7.33 1053 3455 9%
3 Kikelewa Cave 3679 12070 Mawenzi Tarn 4303 14117 3.7 2.30 624 2047 17%
4 Mawenzi Tarn 4303 14117 School Hut 4722 15492 9 5.59 419 1375 5%
5 School Hut 4722 15492 Uhuru Peak 5895 19341 5.4 3.36 1173 3848 22%
  Uhuru Peak 5895 19341 Horombo Hut 3705 12156 15 9.32 -2190 -7185 -15%
6 Horombo Hut 3705 12156 Marangu Gate 1860 6102 19.7 12.24 -1845 -6053 -9%

Aftermath

Ever since climbing Kilimanjaro I have been obsessed with the idea of climbing other mountains.  Several of the 7 Summits (highest mountain in each continent) are non technical climbs.  This includes Elbrus (Europe), Denali or McKinley (North America), Vinson (Antarctic), and Aconcagua (South America).  Aconcagua is the highest non technical mountain one can climb and is at 6962.  Too bad Aconcagua is not at 7000m.  There are several other amazing non technical climbs, Stok Kangri in Ladakh, India is at 6153m.

Next summer I may attempt Stok Kangri to break the 6000m barrier and then try Denali and Aconcagua.  Let’s see how this works out.

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