At 11 pm the previous night after shoving my feet into the thick concrete white moon boots, bundling up for a night and early morning worth of chills, and mounting my head torch for a trek in the dark, I set off with Christoph, Sebastian, and our ‘guide’ Tun Tun with the Nepalese cook tagging along and even leading the group. As we climbed the pass that we practice climbed the day before, I could see the many headlamps barely lighting the way up. It was a challenge hobbling like a duck up that steep incline with those boots but I managed anyways already overheated partly from the too fast pace Tun Tun tended to lead which in normal circumstances would have worked well with my eagerness to move fast but in this case could lead to detrimental conditions when trying to acclimatize. Once the dirt and rock path was lost the way continued over a solid glacier as we trudged through the hardened snow while still not yet reaching the incline that surely awaited us in pursuit of the summit. Once the path cut by others before us who we were quickly gaining pace on began its steep ascent we attached the ice clamps to our boots and made greater use of the ice pick that hopefully would never be required to step in and save any of our lives from a fateful fall. The pace began to slow down visibly partly from the sudden change in incline and the lack of oxygen as we moved into high altitude climes plus I needed to take those moments to pause turn off my headlamp for a moment and look up at that glowing slice in the sky that attracted all attention to it forgetful of the stars. Since Christoph had his history of summiting having already completed Kilimanjaro, he emphasized a more deliberate slower pace that suited these unnatural heights but even he had some need to keep up with an unnecessary pace that Tun Tun was carelessly leading. We were moving too quickly and only Tun Tun found it as an accomplishment forgetful and unaware of his responsibilities as guide to be accountable for his group knowing the status and health of each representative. Around this time Sebastian had developed a severe headache. While I had my own headache it was minor at this point but his situation began to concern my own. In a jaw dropping move that I was not made aware of until later, Tun Tun told Sebastian we were only thirty to forty five minutes away from summiting when in reality we were still a minimum, a minimum two hours away from even approaching it. Sure as a guide you want all of your group to accomplish the goal each of us had set out for but not to the detriment of an individual’s health. After a short length further, Christoph rightly advised Sebastian to go back and seek lower altitude. The cook joined him as a guide while the rest of us continued climbing. Here the guide attached the three of us to a rope through our sports climbing harnesses for an added safety measure with myself positioned at the rear. My steps turned drastically slower with my own heavy, short breathing and headache while also keeping in mind my susceptibility to endure the same fate as Sebastian. The climb the rest of the way to the Stok Kangri shoulder was extremely steep and at this point the black mountain dog that I had grown to call her Lehla based on the nearby city of Leh. She was running and walking up the mountain with ease moving at each of our sides while checking on other groups as well. I made my slow steps up but each one was a struggle not for the physical exertion of it under the power of my muscles but the necessary breath required to operate such a maneuver. To no surprise to me, our group caught up to the rest and lead the pack, a fact I am not proud of with my increasing headache. Once at the shoulder we were now balancing on the ridge between two steeply declined drops but here we could finally see some serious spellbinding views with the sun’s early morning rays beginning to peak out over the far mountain ranges. Besides the bleach white snow and ice behind and below me where we had just ascended, I could not only see my potential death down into the still dark endless abyss of craggily accepting and bone rattling jagged rock but the slowly enlightening valley of rippling rock some peculiarly noted by their reddish maroon hue and earth toning river water cutting its many paths. Even though we were so close to the top of the mountain, the place I awaited to reach and paid so much to accomplish I still moved at my slow pace afraid of altitude sickness, deprived of oxygen, and the endangered by any mistake that could lead to my doom be it a trip or misstep on an unsteady patch of snow or rock. Eventually at long last accompanied by the crazy dog Lehla, I had summited Stok Kangri and now stood over 6000 meters above sea level at a total of 6153 meters. The view was speechless as I felt now here more than ever atop of the world with nothing breaking my view of the sunrise and a full 360 degree panorama of mountains and valleys each with their own character and some possibly lying in distant China if my eyes if was able to stretch as far as those distant limits required. We didn’t spend too much time there considering the how much we time we spent to arrive here thanks to the cold, my own bludgeoning headache, and the need to descend before the snow grew to soft. Not until another group arrived did we hear the warning that I already assumed but didn’t hear from our own guide that on the other side of the peak lay a straight vertical cliff face that dropped precipitously without fail and to no hope of survival. Before descending I got my pictures with the dog and the famous Tibetan flags all in front of a background none could be of a land limitlessly and intimately filled with mountains. Even as we slowly descended with me leading our group still attached by rope, I couldn’t help occasionally looking down at these views that would normally only be captured through the window of an airplane. I was surprised that despite my fear of heights upon descent that I still kept it together even though I could have easily died on that mountain with barely any wiggle room to work with on either side. Once off the shoulder away from any great likelihood of falling, the trek was eased downwards with the headlamps no longer a necessity and I could finally see more than several meters ahead. When we were further down and the decline wasn’t as steep we were freed of the attached rope so that I could slide down on the still hardened compact snow flying down not quite of control but with flash-like speeds until I whipped my torso around to hook my ice pick into the snow where it deadened my pace after several meters of slicing its way into the white chill. I took my time down since my least favorite part of trekking is easily the point of descent. Unsurprisingly but still an unfailingly bullshit our guide ran away up and ahead disappearing altogether. The way back was relatively straight forward but regardless our eyes were not accustomed to the area since our entire way in this summiting direction was all performed in the dark. Christoph and I finally made it back to base camp tired but mostly for me sapped of all energy thanks to the headache and my own huffing and puffing. Luckily Sebastian was okay but he clearly had signs of altitude sickness that could have even killed him if he continued up under those debilitating conditions. He told us he vomited and spit pink on his way down and even the cook had been suffering from altitude sickness. With assurances that our trekking group had supplied us with a small oxygen tank and medical kit for our personal safety in case the situation arose, I believed while organizing the trip I was in good hands. Even though this group owned and run by the slightly German speaking Ladakhi with the most impeccable pitch, it still fell short. Our guide even had the balls to ask Christoph if HE had motion sickness Diamox pills for the cook to take. How can you be so ignorant and ill prepared? Even as much research as I did to find the right group I still end up with lesser quality. Even though nothing can be trusted or believed sometimes you have no choice but to do the best you can and hope for the best. Sebastian in a brilliant move that our guide would have never mentioned descended all the way back to Leh where we would meet him the next day. Even though Tun Tun was a decent guy, it didn’t excuse his incompetence considering he had been doing this trek several times per year for quite some time unless he was such an idiot to lie to us even about that. For the remainder of the day even though I had the original desire and time to do some separate trekking on my own where I could meditate through my own thoughts inspired by nature, I had no energy left beyond eating and taking many naps. That night I slept relatively well slowly working my way out of a difficult nauseating headache.
Expecting the Unexpected in India Day 240: 6153 Meters High Firmly Atop of the World