Shangri La

Last August I trekked in the Himalayan mountains in the Ladakh region of Northern India. You can read about some of it here. We were partially defeated by the unseasonable weather – one of the increasing symptoms of Global Warming – although the whole experience was amazing. To give you a taster (and apologies if I’ve already bored you in person) we crossed 6 passes all around 5000m high, climbed a total of 5889m and walked more than 50 miles. Most of it in water, it seemed. We weren’t ab;e to summit the intended 6000m peak but we scaled the nearby 5700m Konga Ri.

One of the most memorable moments for me, and there were many, was on summit day when our guide spotted three animals in the distance. He was convinced they were wolves but footprints we came across later confirmed that they were Snow Leopards – a mother and two cubs. I have a grainy image of three dots on the snow slope which is my photograph of these rare creatures. I also saw Lammergeier Vultures, a Golden Eagle, Black Kites, Snow Cock, Blue Sheep (which are actually bluish grey mountain goats) and some of our little group were fortunate enough to see marmots in some of the many marmot holes we passed every day. The mountain environment we were immersed in was incredible too.

Inevitably, on the last day of the trek we talked about what was next. After we’d all got over the initial longing for a flushing, sit-down toilet that didn’t overflow in the rain, thoughts turned to what treks we would do next. In my mind I wanted to come back to Ladakh. By the time I’d got home and dumped everything in the washing machine, the new trekking brochure from Exodus was on my doorstep and 18 seconds later, I had found my next trek.

In the early spring, I’m off on a photographic adventure to get some snaps of the wildlife in the Ladakh region, with the aim being to photograph Snow Leopards. We will be accompanied by several wildlife expert guides who will scout ahead and spot for us. We’ll spend a week camping in the mountains at more than 4000m but this time there won’t be high passes or multiple river crossings. Instead we’ll be based in one spot and we’ll take shorter treks and walks to the places the spotters have identified as likely places to find the wildlife. Snow Leopards are incredibly rare – the number thought to be in the Ladakh region is in the low teens and the chance of spotting them will be low. But in our favour is the fact that it will still be winter in the mountains, and the Snow Leopards come down from their high altitude habitats to hunt during the winter months.

And so we come to the two factors that will certainly have an impact on the trek. Ladakh is high in the Himalayan mountains. Leh, the principal town of the region, is at 3500m and well within the zone in which altitude sickness can strike. In August I stepped off the plane at Leh airport and felt as if someone had taken all the air away. Pushing the trolley with 5 kitbags on from the luggage claim to the bus, perhaps 200yards, was exhausting. Climbing the stairs to my second floor room at the hotel (which was another 200m above the airport) with my backpack was exhausting. The local girls carrying my kitbag made it look easy, but when I offered to help, it was all I could do not to grind to a halt as I carried my bag along the corridor. The giggles from the young ladies were polite. The other element that threatens to curtail activities is the temperature. In August it was hot in Leh – 30+C. It was colder in the mountains, with negative numbers at night and during our blizzard day as the cold winds blew down the valleys from the snow covered mountain. But that was summer.

In winter, much of Ladakh is cut off from the rest of the world by land. Roads, which all have to cross high passes through the Himalaya, are blocked by snow and ice. Properly blocked; not with a light covering of snow which would bring the UK to a standstill, but with yards of deep snowdrift and frozen snow which no amount of gritting is going to cure. The only way in or out is by plane and the only reason the airport is open is because it’s a military base. I found a website the gives the weather in Ladakh. It offers a historical record as well so I thought I’d look at the weather last March as an indicator of what I can expect. The screenshot is below. But if you can’t wait, the good news is that on the day in question – mid way through the camping phase of our trip – the temperature ranged from -15c to -39c. Yup, those are little minus signs in front of the numbers. And we’ll be in tents.

I’ve been trying on my fleeces, down jacket, thermals and windproof jackets. All of them. At the same time.

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Let’s all do the Konga (Ri)

My bid to climb the 6200m Dzo Jongo in Ladakh was thwarted by climate change in the form of an unusual short but intense rain and snow storm. It was disappointing but that summit was only one of a series of amazing sights, challenge and achievements in the 10 days we trekked through the Stok mountain range. And we did bag a summit, the 5750m Konga Ri. This is my experience of it.

We had trekked from the village of Stok over 6 passes ranging from 4700m to 5300m in height. It had rained for two days and we spent one afternoon walking through a blizzard. On one day as we climbed up to Gongmaru La we followed the river through its gorge, wading across it 14 times as the path weaved and twisted along its banks. The river was in full spate due to the snow and rain on the mountains the fed it. We later found out that we had been cut off from the rest of Ladakh for several days due to floods and landslides.

On the day after the blizzard, we found that our original base camp was under a foot of snow and, more seriously, under the threat of avalanche from an overhanging serac. The summit ridge was heavily corniced and the approach was waist deep in snow. We got the message. So our experienced guide (Valerie has been leading treks in the region for more than 30 years) pointed to a low, rounded summit to the left of Dzo Jongo and said ‘we’ll do that one instead’.

The plan was to ascend to the Lhalung La pass, at 5320m. There we would split with those who had chosen not to attempt Konga Ri, who would drop down towards the camp with the ponies and crew and await our return. Those going on would have to commit to the climb, as the only escape routes were over Konga Ri or back the way we’d come.

We set off around 8am, taking an easy line up the side of the valley. As we reached the snow it made the going that much harder. Feet slipped back with every step forward and as the sun rose it became warm and then hot. The light was bright and reflecting off the snow and I was glad of my sunglasses which dealt with the intense radiation. I’d covered myself in sun cream and was liberally applying lip protection but I could still feel the sun burning my lips.

It took us a couple of slow hours to reach the pass, a flat plateau of thick white snow at 5300m with fantastic views all around. We gathered slowly at a cairn and took a break while the stragglers arrived. In every direction there were snow covered mountains.

We said goodbye to the people that weren’t making the attempt on Konga Ri and set off to the right, ironically heading directly towards Dzo Jongo. The route was flat to start with but the snow and altitude made even that walking more tiring that usual. Before long, the path started to descend slightly as we crossed over to the ridge that would lead up to the summit. I could see that beyond the dip in the ridge there was a steeper pull up the side of the mountain. We walked slowly, pacing ourselves and saving energy for the climb but even so the altitude began to tell.

Tamchos, our guide, suddenly stopped us and I tried to see what he was staring at. He said he’d spotted three wolves in the distance, following the path we would be taking up the side of the mountain. I couldn’t see anything and I stared ahead trying to spot the movement. My sunglasses have prescription lenses but they are so curved that it’s a compromise and my vision isn’t as good with them as with my usual glasses. I aimed my camera in the general direction and snapped away. Later, I found one image where I can see three dots which correspond to the place Tamchos was pointing.

We moved on a little and bumped into two trekkers who had been following our group and staying in the same campsites. We’d got to know Andy and Phil, the latter was a photographer and movie maker who was carrying around a lot of camera kit that had attracted my attention. They and their guide were stationary also watching the dots in the distance through telephoto lenses. They were convinced it was a snow leopard and two cubs. Tamchos didn’t agree but didn’t argue. However a few minutes after we left Phil and Andy, we came across paw prints in the snow. The general opinion was that they were cat like, not dog like as dogs cannot retract their claws and there were no claw marks. We only saw one set, which were adult leopard sized and they followed the route we were taking, leading up to where we’d spotted the dots.

Now we started to climb again and once the excitement of the wildlife spotting had faded, it began to get tough. The snow was deep, the path indistinct and the gradient rapidly became steep. We must have been around 5500m, higher then Everest Base Camp, and the gradient began to take its toll. I tried to maintain Tamchos’ pace as we climbed the side of the mountain but found it increasingly hard to do as my feet were slipping in the snow, dropping me back half a pace for every one I took forward. I expected him to zig zag up the slope but he attacked it full on.

We reached the top of the climb exhausted and panting only to find it was a false summit. We set off again with Tamchos explaining that there were two more such false summits but that it wasn’t far. The next section was very steep and although I overtook a couple of our group (I’m not sure who as I had my head down) I did so very, very slowly and as I recall, they had stopped to rest or to remove a layer. As I reached the top of the second climb I had to stop. It was getting increasingly hot now and I had to remove a layer and take a drink or risk overheating. Tamchos had taken a pause but set off again almost as soon as I reached him. I didn’t dare look up to see how far was left because now I was in a world of my own; my own breathing was the only sound I could hear. My feet were all I could see and my pace was the only pace. In my head, thoughts were racing between the ‘this is do-able’ mantra I had used on all the other passes and ‘I can’t do this’, which I dismissed several times as I was clearly doing it.

Suddenly, in my head, I decided that there was another false summit ahead. At the same time I felt all my energy just draining away, a strange feeling I’ve never come across before. It really was as if a tap had been opened and my energy was spilling onto the floor. I slowed to a crawl, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I took a couple of staggering footsteps and looked up, ready for another slope ahead and the inevitable defeat.

It was flat. The way ahead was a plateau with Tamchos about 10m in front of me. I stopped for a couple of breaths, unable or unwilling to accept that I had done the hard bit. Then I thought I’d better keep going or I might never move again. Each step was an effort but also a reward. I was there and all I had to do was walk about 50m and I could rest. I don’t know how long those 50m took me to walk, but I made it and stopped, only able to stand and grin as Tamchos congratulated me. I had done it and it felt really, really good. Then Tamchos offered me a piece of cherry cake and that felt even better. It was 2.55pm, seven hours after we’d left camp.

The others staggered in over the next few minutes until everyone who had set out to get here was standing or sitting around the cairn. There were congratulations and selfies. I had more cherry cake and some digestive biscuits. I finished the last of my Snickers off, and had a few squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.

By now, I was starting to regain breath, energy and my senses. And I started to look around at the view from the top of this mountain. Everywhere I looked there were snow capped mountains. To the south was the extended ridge of Dzo Jongo. It was clear how the cornice of snow would have halted our progress over the final ridge; we wouldn’t have known whether we were stepping on solid ground or a thin covering of snow over a sheer drop of some 500m. Roped up or not, it would have been extremely dangerous. I don’t think anyone had any doubts that Valerie’s assessment was the wisest and, in reality, the only decision. Other peaks were characterised by long sharp ridges with steep sides and few accessible slopes. In the distance, the horizon was made up of the whole Himalaya and such was the perspective that between our white plateau and the white tops of the distant peaks was a darker strip that could have been placed there just to enhance my photographs.

The brilliant blue sky and intense sunshine that had accompanied us on our climb so far was being threatened by clouds coming in from the south. But we were still in brilliant sunshine and I didn’t want to leave this hard gained summit. We gathered around the cairn, which was adorned with a complete yak skull and horns, and a group photo was taken. Then, after another piece of cherry cake, we prepared to leave. At least it was all downhill from here.

Tamchos set off and soon he was outpacing us and I was finding it hard to walk in the deep snow. In places it was up to my knees and mostly way above my ankles so I was having to lift my legs higher to avoid dragging them through the snow. Under the snow, the ground was rocky and so now and again my foot would slip and twist on a hidden rock or dip, making progress harder. And this was before we’d reached the serious slope.

The downhill gradient started to pick up but rather than it being easier to walk, it was just as hard as coming up, as my feet were slipping, failing to get purchase on the uneven ground beneath the fresh snow. There was a steep drop to my left as we descended and I did consider getting my ice axe out, but it was rocky and it would have been unlikely to do much; I was better off using my walking pole to maintain balance.

We continued down for about 30 minutes until Tamchos stopped to check the route ahead, I welcomed the break and looked back to see that we had outdistanced the others. It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t the only one suffering and my aching legs relished the short rest. But cramp threatened to set in and I was eager to set off again.

We took a slightly different bearing that led through deeper and steeper snow. My feet continued to slip but now I found that occasionally, I could control the slip to ease the impact on my knees by deliberately sliding. Tamchos advised me to pick my own route so that the fresh snow would help prevent more serious slips and falls. We spread out and now some of the others caught me up. We descended the steepest part of the mountain in an extended line, overtaking and being passed as the conditions dictated. We later joked that one of the camp tea trays would have enabled us to slide down far quicker, although everyone admitted later that they hadn’t considered the stopping part.

After about an hour of slipping and sliding and giant steps down, we reached the snow line and shortly afterwards we stopped for a rest. It had been almost as exhausting coming down as the last part of going up, and it had certainly taken its toll on muscles I hadn’t been using until now.

We could see the green valley ahead and Valerie explained that just around the corner behind the rocks on our right were the tents. I half believed her, thinking it might just be a moral booster; the false summits earlier still played on my mind. We set off once more on ground that was much easier to walk on. It was green and rocky and muddy in places but now we could see the hazards and the slip risk was considerably less. Everything ached and the sun was beginning to warm me up again now we had left the cooling breeze of the descent. We kept together as an extended group as we walked over the flood plain and dropped lower until we were crossing the little tributaries that made up the river ahead. The red rocks of the mountain in front of us began to glow with the evening sun and contrasted with the greenery surrounding us.

And then, just as we walked down a particularly steep part of the plain, the white of the cook’s tent came into view ahead. As we rounded the spur of grey rock and scree, more tents became visible. The mess tent looked beautiful and inviting and as we neared we could see that all the tents had been put up. It had taken us 9 hours to complete the summit and return.

We all did the Konga (Ri).

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