Its August 2019 and I’m high up in the Stok Mountain range in Ladakh, Northern India, camped by the side of a river in a place called Chuskyumo. Outside the tent, the pitter-pat of rain turns to the gentle swish of snow. Inside, I’m lying fully clothed in my sleeping bag wishing I was somewhere else. Anywhere else. I am cold, miserable and still damp from the incessant rain of the previous day. Worst of all, I need to pee and the toilet tent is 50 cold, wet and muddy yards away. The previous night I had spent some time re-erecting the tent after it had partly blown over in the wind. Earlier this morning, the hole into which I had to perform had begun to over flow the little mud dam someone had thoughtfully built around it. I could have booked a flight to some sunny island and sprawled on the warm sand for two weeks. I could have just stayed at home. But no, I had to book another trek.
In 2007 I had trekked to Everest Base Camp. I was immediately hooked by the new culture, friendly people and incredible landscapes that I was exposed to. So much so that I went back and did the same trek again in 2011. It was during this adventure that, following a chat with the trek leader, I decided that I wanted to climb a 6000m peak. At the time I knew of only two and he talked about running an expedition to climb one of them – Mera Peak. I was interested and when I got home I set about figuring out what I’d have to do to have a realistic chance of taking part. It mostly involved lots of steep hills and mountains, many hours in gyms and the carrying of heavy back packs.
Fast forward to 2014. As part of my ongoing plan, I climbed Kilimanjaro. Apart from the challenge and achievement of getting to the top, I wanted to see how I did with a steep night time climb at altitude, and how I coped with 5900m altitude. You can read about the adventure elsewhere in my blog but (spoiler alert) I did it and felt relatively good during the climb.
Toubkal in Morocco is 4200m above sea level and I chose to climb it not because of the altitude but because it offered a chance to learn and practice for real the winter climbing skills I would need to attempt a 6000m peak. On the ice and snow covered slopes below the mountain I learnt to walk in crampons and carry out self arrests using my ice axe. We will gloss over the hilarious first attempt at an ice axe arrest which saw me spinning on the ice while others laughed. I successfully summited Toubkal in 2018.
By now my research had revealed that there were many 6000m trekking peaks and the one that appealed to me was in the Ladakh region of Northern India. Stok Kangri was on many trekking company’s books as it was a relatively straight forward walk in and climb. But as I started to delve deeper, I found a second trekking peak in the same region but less popular than Stok. Dzo Jongo is around 6200m (the actual height varies according to which guidebook you read) and lies further in to the Stok mountain range, which is situated in the Indian Himalaya. Apart from being less busy (Stok was actually closed for a few seasons to allow the routes in to recover from so much erosion by climbers), it also had a better walk in. By that, I mean that to get to the mountain involved several high passes which would allow us to ‘climb high but sleep low’ – the key to successful acclimatisation.
In August 2019, after three days acclimatising to the starting altitude of 3500m, we set off into the mountains to begin the 7 day trek to Dzo Jongo Base Camp, at the foot of the mountain. Although it was the monsoon season in India, Ladakh is surrounded by mountains high enough to prevent the storms and clouds from reaching it’s interior and this season is the best for attempting our climb. But thanks to an unusual weather system, probably as a result of the impact of global warming, they weather turned grey almost from the start. On day 6 it began raining as we began walking. By the time we reached that evening’s camp site at Chuskyumo we were all soaked and our spirits had fallen. The following day we could go nowhere as because of the rain, the river we were to follow that day had swollen in the narrow gorge and blocked the paths. We were due to cross the river many times on paths that were regularly washed away, but the torrent of icy meltwater that faced us would have washed us away with the mud and stones, so we waited in camp. And here was where I began to feel at my lowest on any trek I’d done. There was no guarantee we’d be able to go on anyway. Another day of rain could have made the sides of the river gorge unstable and dangerous to pass. As I lay in my tent, listening to the rain, I wanted to be on the sunny island. Or anywhere.
That morning I dozed, read and contemplated life and after a couple of hours, I could hear movement outside. But more importantly, I couldn’t hear rain. I looked out and there were people moving about; our crew preparing lunch. I saw a few of my fellow trekkers peering out of tents too. The rain had turned to snow and left a dusting of white all around and it hid the mud, changing a dreary landscape into a crisp one like only snow can do. But best of all, I saw a small chink of blue sky above one of the mountains that surrounded us. ‘Enough blue to make a sailor’s shirt’, as my mum used to say. Much heartened by the temptation of the blue sky we talked about plans and contingencies over lunch. We had a spare day built into the schedule and this was it. Tomorrow, if the rain held off, we would continue on to base camp. This afternoon, we would walk up the hill behind the camp as acclimatisation and to shake off all the woes of the past couple of days.
At the top of the hill I could see plenty of blue sky all around. The sun was warm and my clothes were drying on my back. Over dinner that evening the talk was of tomorrow and the river crossings and the Gongmaru La – at 5260m, the highest of the passes we were to cross and about 1100m higher than the campsite. The sign that all was safe to proceed would be the sight of the first pony train making its way down the gorge. While us trekkers could negotiate the washed out paths and narrow places, out tents and kit were on the backs of ponies and if they couldn’t climb the gorge, it was pointless us going on. We donned climbing helmets as there was a real risk of mudslides. ‘If you see or hear a mudslide, run’ was the advice. With some relief, during breakfast mules were spotted leaving the gorge. We left the waterlogged campsite at about 6.30am and started along the fast flowing river. It looked cold and it was a creamy colour with debris washed down from the mountains above. By the second thigh deep crossing, my feet were numb. I stopped rolling my trousers up as it was pointless because the water was beyond the highest I could hitch them. We crossed and recrossed the river, following faint traces and hints of route left by the subsiding flow of water. In many places we were making our own path and the ground underfoot was soft and loose. Little rocks and stones tumbled down from the side of the gorge. I was ready to run.
About halfway up the gorge we had to negotiate a narrow passage between two large cliffs of rock, no more than 4m wide, through which the river gushed. It was exciting and scary but it felt like the watershed as afterwards, the route became a little easier and just over an hour later we emerged from the gorge to a snow covered valley, where we rested and attempted to warm up. I could see the route ahead, zig-zagging relentlessly uphill, but at least there were no more rivers to cross.
Three hours later I was stood at the summit of the Gongmaru La, cold, tired and elated that we’d made the crossing. But there was still a way to go yet, so we set off down the other side, grateful to be heading downhill. An hour later, we were in a thick blizzard which made visibility beyond the person in front almost impossible. And then I lost sight of the person in front. For a few minutes I was alone in a snowstorm at 5000m in the Himalaya. I had visions of frostbite and documentaries being made about me but after a few minutes I spotted a shape in the distance and followed it. We spent perhaps an hour descending through the wind and snow until we reached the campsite, where I found I was one of the first to arrive. The crew were having difficulty setting up the tent so a couple of us lent a hand, hanging on to ropes to prevent the canvass blowing away while they anchored it down. Then we were inside and sipping hot water to try and warm up. In the next hour, stragglers arrived and joined us in the tent until we were all present and correct.
The following day was the best of the whole trip, weather-wise. We woke to bright warm sunshine which lasted all day. Clothes, boots and other kit dried out completely and it was an opportunity to rest and recover while the crew carried out a recce of the route ahead. The views all around were of brilliant white mountains while a gently flowing river passed close by the tents. Our ponies grazed on what little vegetation they could find. Birds hopped about the campsite, hoping to find scraps from our breakfast. Above, a golden eagle soared, checking out our tents.
When our crew returned from the recce they brought bad news. All the rain and snow of the previous few days had rendered Dzo Jongo base camp uninhabitable and above it loomed a giant overhang of snow and ice which threatened to avalanche at any time. The final ridge route to the summit was heavily corniced with snow and too dangerous to attempt. Our bid to get to the top of Dzo Jongo was off.
I loved the trip, despite the hardships of those two days in rain and snow. Ladakh is beautiful, the people are friendly and welcoming. Most of the time the weather was hot and sunny. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to attempt Dzo Jongo, but it didn’t ruin the trip for me. I had completed an arduous trek in tough conditions and learnt a great deal about mental preparedness and attitude from the experience. And most important of all, I had decided that I would be back to try Dzo Jongo again. And so I will, later this year. I’m heading back with the original crew and some of my fellow trekkers to make another attempt at 6000m.