|Sunrise on Kang Yaze
It took us some time to realize that we had been outwitted by the owner of the Nezer View Guest House, Leh. We had arrived in the town at 8 pm on 15 June 2001, after a gruelling 13 hour drive from Darcha in our overloaded blue Maruti Gypsy. As we cruised into town in the darkness, driving hesitantly in a place that was new to all of us, a white Gypsy passed us. In a flash, it had made a U turn and was now beside us, driving parallel.
A head poked out of the driver's side window. "Hotel? You looking for hotel?" a young slim lad shouted across at us. I was too tired to debate the point, having been the sole driver since we left Delhi 5 days earlier.
"Yes," I said.
"Follow me," the young man said.
The guest house was okay, but the ethics that its owners lived by was not. We had driven all the way to Choglamsar a day later in search of a man who lived in the Tibetan sector to arrange the mules and ponies we would need for the trek from Martselang to the base of Kang Yaze, the peak we had come to climb. The man in question was not at home, so we left word with his wife that he should see us the next morning in our guest house.
|Stok Kangri, a very popular peak with trekkers, seen here from the terrace of the Nezer View Guest House.
The day dawned and there was no sign of the man. The owner had intercepted him and told him that there were no guests matching our description and turned him away.
When we questioned him later regarding this, he feigned ignorance and said that if it was mules and ponies that we needed, he knew just the man. We had already lost a day, so we agreed to meet Sonam, the muleteer that he sent us. If we had known at the time that the guest house owner was taking a "commission" which amounted to more than 50% of what we were paying Sonam for his services, we would have re-considered the deal.
|A view of Leh
A quick round of shopping for supplies in the market, followed by a walk up to the Leh Palace found me gasping for breath. I found this strange, having just spent time in the Bagini Glacier at over 15,000 feet only two weeks earlier ( http://accidentaltrekker.blogspot.ca/2014/04/bagini-bouquet.html ). My other two companions, Franklyn Silveira and Ravi Wadaskar, who had joined me at Delhi directly from Mumbai, should have been the ones feeling the altitude of Leh. Franco Linhares whom we had picked up from Solang before driving over the Rohtang Pass seemed unaffected as well! I put it down to the bout of Delhi Belly (diarrhoea) I had suffered from on my return to the capital city from the cool climes of Garhwal.
The guest house owner had one more ace up his sleeve. He offered to have our Gypsy in "safe" parking in the compound of the Hotel Horizon. He would transport us and our gear, for an appropriate (in his eyes) fee to Martselang in his white Gypsy. Sonam would rendezvous with us at Hemis, load up the ponies, while we would drive another short distance to start our walk.
When we arrived at Hemis on the morning of the 19th, there was no sign of Sonam and his four legged companions. We ate breakfast, toured the monastery, and fortuitously bumped into a ponywallah who told us he had seen someone called Sonam at Martselang, waiting for us. The mystery having been cleared up, we motored onwards to Martselang.
|Franco's backpack gets a ride
Sonam strapped our luggage on to his pack animals and then relieved us of our heavy backpacks and threw them onto the poor beasts as well! This mode of trekking - carrying only a small daypack with water, a few snacks and a camera - was new to all of us who had grown up in the old school of You Must Learn To Be Beasts of Burden If You Want To Climb Mountains! We did not argue with Sonam and enjoyed the luxury of a level and leisurely two hour walk along the Shang nala on a road of gravel and stones which led us into the little oasis of Shang Sumdo. We pitched our tents on grass in a "pay and camp" facility in the compound of a house, with a convenient little stream running through it. This was my first trip to Ladakh and already I was beginning to fall in love with it!
|Children of Shang Sumdo. The girl in the middle wears a shirt which reads :"Spirit of America. Forever true to our club."
The evening found us walking up to the monastery a short distance away to seek the blessings of the resident lama and as we walked back at dusk we could see a couple of bharal silhouetted against a salmon pink sky, high up on a surrounding ridge. It seemed like a good omen.
|Shang Sumdo is an oasis of green set in a rugged landscape
Passing Chokdo and the campground of Chukirmo the next day, the trail crisscrossed the riverbed many times, keeping us hopping from stone to stone in an effort to stay dry. The terrain was extremely rugged with the cliffs and rocks painted in intense earth colors, the clarity in the air enhancing the brilliance of the landscape. A couple of healthy looking partridges with extremely attractive feathers and a black ring round their necks scuttled out of the bushes lining the trail, reinforcing our belief that life did somehow flourish in the apparently barren surroundings. Wild rose bushes and clumps of brilliant yellow flowers helped balance the aesthetics.
|Child at Chokdo watches us go by....
|Wild flowers cling tenaciously to a cliff
|Sketch map of area in Himalayan Journal Vol 45
The European girl who was tottering down the sheet of ice which covered the riverbed as it narrowed into a gorge was obviously having a problem maintaining her balance! Sonam found out from the ponywallah who was accompanying her and her companion down from the Kongmaru La that she had had a generous helping of chang the night before at Nimaling and was now still hung over.
|Camp below the Kongmaru La
We camped about 500 metres below the Kongmaru La and Ravi took over the cooking. Ravi was a consummate artist and had persuaded his wife Sunita to equip him with a comprehensive range of spices packed neatly into little plastic containers. He would whip these out at the appropriate time and sprinkle the finely powdered ingredients into the pan.
|The Kongmaru La.
Thus well rested and well fortified we climbed up to the Kongmaru La the next morning and were immediately confronted with the object of our desire right before us, across the Nimaling Plains. We eased ourselves down into the broad and welcoming valley and pitched our tents close to a stream where grazing yaks occasionally came down for a drink and to cool off in the water. I guess we could have crossed the next hump and gone directly to camp right below Kang Yaze, but since Sonam was being paid for four stages to Base Camp, we took this opportunity to laze around in the sun reading and dozing and postponed the move to the next day. The weather was perfect and it seemed such a shame to waste it by hurrying along!
|Franco reads in the sun at Nimaling camp
FRIDAY, 22 JUNE 2001. KANG YAZE BASE CAMP. 4900 M. 8:41 PM (Excerpt from my diary):
"The musical sounds of the ponies' bells complement the gentle murmur of the stream to our right. We are camped on a flat green patch next to the shallow nala that is fed by Kang Yaze's northern glacier and another glacial valley at the head........ There are lots of big, plump marmots around here and also many "pika" or mouse hare. On our way up this afternoon we even saw a large partridge-like bird walking across the stony slopes. There was some dramatic light in the evening."
There was more drama to come at this idyllic spot - it snowed for three days which forced Sonam to descend with his ponies to more hospitable realms towards the Markha valley. We used the time to indulge ourselves with plenty of food and chai and seized the opportunity in the few clear spells to walk around and hike up the surrounding slopes to get a better idea of the terrain and to dump some loads at about 5100 m where we hoped to spend a night before our climb to the summit.
|An umbrella is essential equipment when venturing out to answer nature's call on a snowy day!
The 27th of June dawned bright and clear, the sunlight seeped through the tent fabric at precisely 5:57 am and we knew in our hearts that we had our window of opportunity! Leaving Franklyn behind at Base Camp, the three of us toiled up to our proposed high camp site and by mid day were well settled in on a patch of stony ground we had levelled for the tent. We packed our rucksacks for the climb and Franco and I sheltered in the tent whilst Ravi chose to sleep under the stars in a bivouac sack.
|Our camp for the summit climb
Diary excerpt : "The sunset was magnificent this evening, a crescent moon hanging above a golden hued Kang Yaze against a darkening sky. It has been the clearest, most perfect evening so far, the wind too has died down....."
I started brewing up at 2:30 am on Thursday, 28 June after being awake from 11:30 pm the night before. We began to climb at 4 am on a crisp and cold morning. The wind howled out of Tibet as we walked up the broad saddle to the foot of the north west face. A quick gulp of tea from my small flask made the task of attaching my crampons here a little more bearable and soon we were crunching up the snow. After a couple of hours we were on the western side of the mountain where we took another break, perched on some stones jutting out from the face. The Nun Kun massif dominated the horizon and there was a sea of peaks all around. The sun was taking a toll on the snow and it was becoming softer by the minute. Inexplicably, Ravi began to vomit and thereafter he was not his normal self. He became listless and weak and a few vertical meters later I had to ask him to stop and wait for us to come back. He did not argue, just nodded his head and sat down in the snow. We talked to him for some time, made sure that he could look after himself, that he had water and snacks with him. We suggested he start descending as soon as he felt himself capable. The terrain was not very technical and I knew that he could handle it, especially since we had left deep and huge footprints in the snow which he could easily follow and the weather did not pose a threat. I had climbed with Ravi three years earlier ( http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2014/02/the-chango-chronicles-1998-third-time.html ) and knew he was a hardy soul and I did not feel guilty as Franco and I kept plunging up to our knees as we soldiered on upwards.
|Ravi follows in Franco's footsteps
|Friends in high places! Ravi (left) and Franco at our rest spot.
Many hours later, and only 35 vertical meters below the corniced summit, Franco said he was too exhausted to continue. In 1988 Franco had climbed to around 26,000 feet on Kanchenjunga during the first Indian civilian expedition to the third highest peak in the world and I felt sad that he was stopping within reach of the summit! I could understand his condition : the deep soft snow and the intense heat of the sun had combined to extract every ounce of energy from our bodies. I looked longingly at the summit and decided that I was not going to let this one slip through my fingers - in a few weeks' time I would be emigrating to Canada and the opportunity to stand on the summit of a Himalayan peak, however modest, was not going to come along in a hurry!
|Franco took this photo of me near the summit with the 300 mm lens I had left with him.
We unroped and I continued up the ridge, making sure I was a safe distance from the cornice on my left. A combination of fatigue and deep soft snow made my progress agonizingly slow. I would take 10 to 15 steps at a time and then stop, constantly knocking off the huge clumps of snow that would accumulate around the points of my crampons with my axe. I would stop, gasp for breath like an underwater swimmer just surfacing after a prolonged period, then repeat the process again. It took me almost an hour to cover the distance. Finally, I hoisted myself on to the summit boulder where someone had left some prayer flags. I contributed two Nestle eclair candies to the sacred pile and looked around with a glow of satisfaction.
The horizon was crystal clear in every direction. A sharp connecting ridge led in an intricate ribbon to the top of Kang Yaze's main peak, which had seen very few ascents. I stood on the summit of what can be called Kang Yaze II which is where most trekkers end up.
|Kang Yaze I from the summit of KY II
After spending ten minutes on the top I made my way carefully back to where Franco waited patiently. He congratulated me graciously, we sat on the snow and nibbled on some chocolates, sipped a little water and began to descend. It was 4:15 pm. An hour later we caught up with Ravi who was getting a little worried. It was almost 8:30 pm by the time we reached the tent and after a round of chai and soup, we ate some Wai Wai noodles for dinner and I settled down in my bivouac sack to sleep under a starry sky while Ravi moved into the tent with Franco.
On our return to Base Camp the next day we were welcomed by Franklyn with steaming hot mugs of chai. He had followed our climb with his binoculars the previous day and was glad to see us safe and sound. Eight Austrian trekkers had also arrived with their 15 horses and Thondup, their guide. Thondup later dropped in to say hello and also to ask if he could borrow a pair of crampons from us as one of his group who initially had no intentions of climbing had now changed his mind and they were short of one pair! I loaned him my pair and Thondup said he would return it when they caught up with us at Shang Sumdo.
The walk back to Shang Sumdo was a sheer delight; we were buoyed up by our successful climb. As we took a break on the Kongmaru La, we could see the Austrians right across the valley on Kang Yaze following the tracks we had stamped out. They had made a 2 am start and climbed the peak from Base Camp. Even allowing for the fact that a ready made trail made their progress faster, I was quite impressed - their group was made up mostly of seniors over 60 years old, except for the thirty something lad who had borrowed my crampons!
|Telephoto taken from Kongmaru La of the Austrian group climbing Kang Yaze
We were joined on our return walk by a cute little black puppy who appeared out of nowhere and attached himself to us for two days and then, just as mysteriously, vanished! We fed him and I let him sleep in comfort on top of my down sleeping bag. As if to reward us for our generosity, we were privileged to watch a herd of bharal, numbering 13, cross the Shang river and clamber up the sheer scree slopes on the other side to graze in what appeared to be extremely precarious perches.
|Puppy gets a little TLC from me..... while Ravi looks on.
As a Farewell to the Himalaya trip, Kang Yaze and Ladakh will be etched in my memory forever as one of the most enjoyable excursions to the mountains I have ever made and will ensure that I shall return some day.....!
A NOTE ON "TREKKING" PEAKS
In these days of mass adventure tourism, many experiences have been devalued and downgraded due to the proliferation of extensive information and knowledge and their conversion to "soft" adventure. Thus a whole new world has been opened up to millions of people who would otherwise have not even considered the idea of taking the risks involved on their own. Climbs to Island Peak in Nepal and Stok Kangri in Ladakh are good examples of this. For people with deeper pockets and a willingness to devote more time, even some of the highest peaks in the world are now accessible via their normal routes. However, climbing these peaks without guides or fixed ropes and the safety net provided by a good trekking agency, is still fairly challenging for most people.
One should however not belittle these efforts: like all things in life, what is a relatively easy thing to one person may be someone else's personal Everest! A toddler in diapers scrambling to the top of a three foot high boulder perhaps experiences the same euphoria as a seasoned alpinist on a new route on the north face of K2!
More importantly, "trekkking" peaks also have the same ability to dish out death and disability under certain conditions. A wise person never underestimates the power of the mountains, however insignificant or innocuous they might appear to be in the media.
For an interesting discussion on this topic, see : http://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2011/when-does-trekking-become-mountaineering/#comment-276810
MORE THINGS YOU DON'T REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT KANG YAZE!
The main summit of Kang Yaze is almost 300 meters higher than the "trekking" summit. Parties which have climbed it have done so via the north and east ridges - you need to be experienced and competent to take on this climb.
|Illustration from Himalayan Journal Vol 52 (1996), Plate 39.
M .Ratty had proposed to add two more summits in the group and call them Kang Yaze III and Kang Yaze IV. (Himalayan Journal Vol 52)
|Kang Yaze III from the summit of KY II
|View north west
|Franco (circled) waits
|View west towards the Karakoram
|Ravi doing what he loves at Shang on the return
|Marmot frolics in the snow at Base Camp
|Looking towards the Markha Valley from Base Camp