When I asked around about Stok Kangri, the towering peak that can be seen to the south of Leh, the responses were mixed. "A non-technical feet", one person had told me, while another actively checked me out - lingering a quick but additional second on my waistline physique, and said - "you can probably do it." Others were less confident about my capacities, or just more cautiously inclined travelers, they opted for "why don't you get acclimatized first, go on a quick trek to Markah valley, or spend a night at 5000 meters before you charge for a big mountain. You just got here." And they were right. There was no reason to charge. There was no reason to jump into something big so quickly. But I kept walking around town asking each agency whether they had a coming trip to the Kangri - a mountain in Ladakhi, by the village of Stok. "Nope, sorry".
Then, one had one going. So I signed up, and away we went.
Carlos, the Spanish guy, talked enthusiastically about nothing of any import. He would silently light his joint every hour or so, offer it to others, and then a flutter of words would begin to attack everyone around. Jovially, he would share about his ambitious plan to get sponsored in his home town for having paid a guide to lead him to a summit, he would later not even reach. Hila, on her second visit to India, had signed up for the trip under the assumption that this was "just another trek", after the agent had told her that climbing to 6137 meters would be easy, and that anyone could do it.
It seemed like no one had a real clue as to what exactly they were getting themselves into, and I actively had to disengage my instructor-responsibility mode, and would only activate it during the trip when something extremely stupid was about to happen. Which came close once or twice.
But the guide, Pangsang, was a veteran Nepalese guide who had summited Everest twice, and regularly does the Annapurna, so when the hiking began and we chatted for a while, I knew that we were in good hands. Sonom, the helper sherpa, seemed relatively new, and his English was not bad, so when I asked him what trips he had led in Nepal, he nodded vigorously to the few names I knew and threw at him, but in hindsight his "yes yes" was one of complacency and not of acknowledgment. The cook, whom I shall call simply "cook", because his name refused to stick with me, also seemed young and inexperienced, and the constant bossiness of Pangsang tended to give away his lack of knowledge in his newfound occupation for the summer.
So with this eclectically assorted team, away we went.
The walk began gracefully on a slowly rising path through Stok Valley. With every turn the mountains themselves seemed to take a twist. Dusty sand dunes transitioned elegantly into jagged, saw-toothed rocks expressing the tectonic shifts that occurred eons ago. The constant flow of glacier water accompanying the trail gave life sporadically to green brush. When the first pass required us to exert more effort than the previous gentle flow of a gradual rise, we were greeted at the end by yet another Stupa. Pangsang and Santosh, another guide who would join another group later, gave tribute to the effigy by raising a stone and placing it, with intention, amongst the others adorning its sides.
By the first night we had risen 700 meters to 4200 meters, and the shortness of breath, and the effort each single act required intensified the experience. Though we had paid the guide and sherpas to do the work for us, I wouldn't allow them to do it all and I assertively grabbed the tents and went to work. Ten minutes later, with two tents lifted, I was exhausted and searching for air. But I couldn't rest, exhalted by the snow filled mountains and their illustrious peaks, I wanted to keep moving, to ensure that when the time would come to summit, I would not be debilitated by the altitude. Carlos, eagerly rolled yet another joint, only to bounce into yet another fit of exasperating senseless verbiage. Hila, who had struggled a bit more than both of us sat down to appreciate the feet she had accomplished, and gazed hesitantly at the horizon where the Kangri awaited.
As the sun rose on the mountains, I prepared myself for a long day. We were to climb another meager 800 meters this morning to arrive at base camp, and await for nightfall. At 01:00 am we would begin to charge the mountain, rising another 1243 meters to reach the peak.
Santosh, the second guide said I could walk with him to base campe since my pace was significantly faster than the others, and I over-zealously offered to carry some of his load in order to get my body prepared for the coming endurance test. He was from Assam, a northeastern Indian conflict-ridden state a friend of mine was studying, and so I asked about why they were fighting. "Many states in India, and in Assam many tribes" Santosh explained to me patiently, "and now each tribe want state, but India no agree because then Assam become too many state." I asked what tribe he was from, he said he was Nepalese-Indian, so he wasn't really part of a tribe in the same sense as the others. He seemed troubled by the state of affairs in his state and spoke of it lovingly, appreciating my polite inquiry in broken English. We spoke sparingly as the gradual increase shifted more bluntly into yet another rising pass, but with each break we spoke of rock climbing adventures and peaks; of how he could not go to lead trips in Nepal, since he was not of the Sherpa caste; of his 108 summits of Stok Kangri and his summers in Ladakh.
Then we arrived at base camp, humbled by the grandeur of our surroundings, we lay down our packs and awaited nightfall.
We arose to a star-filled darkness, and organized our belongings. Mountaineering boots, ice-ax and cramp-ons - check; down-jacket, wool socks, and a warm hat - check; inhaler, just in case - check. We were ready.
Hila was hesitant about whether she would actually summit, not fully caring about a peak she was duped into caring about, while Carlos, increasingly nervous, enthusiastically hedged against his success by announcing his good friend's advice "don't forget that whatever you climb up, you gotta climb down, and the most important thing is to come home safe." He was bracing himself, maybe getting sponsored may have been a tad overzealous. A tad.
The night climb began with a steady pace, crossing patches of snow occasionally. Hila had decided early on to not continue, and Carlos who had no headlamp and used mine, suddenly realized that I had not put fresh batteries in "his" headlamp, and he grunted at me softly while Sonom shined the path for him with his headlamp. Sonom's headlamp was actually Pangsang's, but he gave his to Sonom. So yeah, not the best of starts.
We followed the group ahead of us closely due to the lack in light, and Pangsang and I would occasionally exchange glances of wtf. Carlos in the meantime, blissfully ignorant of the stupidity of our situation, continued to exclaim about the wonders of conquering mountains, still 1000 meters below the summit. The gradual incline, the tepid advancement, the cautious approach to the glacier which we would ascend alongside, all seemed to point in the direction of failure. If we would make it to the top it would be despite the initial conditions.
With crampons on, and ice-axes retrieved the real ascent began. It just seemed tall. And long. "One step in front of the other, one foot at a time", I sang to myself my hiking song, the one that pops up when I still have a long way to go. The sun's glimmering light began to envolve us, and with it the peak now fully revealed. It was 5 am, and the first group was about to summit, while we were still far down. Pangsang had been walking behind, signaling from a distance that he wasn't feeling well. Sonom, continued with me and Carlos while I set the pace for us all. Carlos' mood would shift violently from exhaltation to pessimism, trying to recalibrate his expectations of whether he would make it or not. And I, I just wanted to keep walking.
And it hurt. The breathing was shallow, the crampons were heavy, and my legs refused to be commandeered to finish the tenth step I had promised myself I would make. But I looked up, took a deep breath, and counted to ten. "keep going, and shut, the fuck, up!" So I did.
When we reached the ridgeline, "the secondary peak", as Carlos reassuringly called it, he sat down and couldn't get up. It was just me and Sonom now, and he was asking for a break. "This expedition, no trek" Sonom would repeat to me multiple times at every break, "hard hard work." I wasn't sure whether having the sherpa tell me that what I paid him to do was hard work, was supposed to make me feel better about myself or sketched out, and I settled for both. We had climbed another 150 meters, before I was ready to call it quits. I didn't like the situation, and having a completely inexperienced guide who had no ice-ax or experience in snow had finally activated my instructor-responsibility mode, and I hesitated to continue.
I was also exhausted.
I told Sonom I had had enough, and he once again nodded vigorously. "Yes Yes, "hard hard work" he grinned at me sheepishly, "rest now, okay okay." I was ready to go down, retreat in my defeat of a situation that got the best of me, and when we picked up our packs, he began to head up. Naturally.
I decided to trust in the sheepish instructor, while Glenda the 50 something year-old Austrian mother of two passed us on her way down with her two teenagers in toe, "you're right there" she said, "it seems a lot farther than it really is." If fucking Glenda could do it, sure as fuck I could do it to.
"One step in front of the other, one step at a time."
Even the last twenty steps couldn't be made in a single go. It was 5 steps, then rest. 5 steps, then rest. Then one final push and we made it.
The stupa once again accompanied another small triumph, and Sonom found the closest rock and told me to give him a few minutes. He was going to pray.
And me, I just sat there. Proud. Twisting my neck in all directions to see every peak in the distance. The clear blue skies allowed us to see for hundreds of miles in each direction, thousands of snow covered peaks in each direction with a glacier sitting heavily on our sides, now beneath us.
I sat solemnly for a while, only to realize that Carlos was actually right, and we still had to climb it down. But at this point it seemed effortless, gravity was on our side, while the crampons prevented too much of its pull. We traversed the ridge-line, slided down the side of the glacier, walked back the long path, always peeping every once in a while over our shoulders, to recall what it was we had accomplished.
We arrived back in camp, I took off my heavy mountaineering boots, and stretched. Then fell asleep shortly after.
Santosh once again, told me to come with him. "Come come, no wait" he compelled me, and I promptly followed suit. We stopped along the way for a short bouldering session and arrived within 3 hours back at the bottom.
And so I waited for everyone else to arrive.
And as I waited I observed the scene around me quaintly.
The Himalayan mountains in the background, and the glacial water flowing to us.
The tiny shop that sells everything for cheaper here than in the touristy Leh.
The elder gentleman, who just sits and waits, until he stops and goes somewhere else.
The woman, who might be 14 and might be 30, doing daily chores around the house. Today, she shovels dirt to filter for rocks and get sand. As her inexperienced hands settle to make a makeshift stand-up net, the dust expires straight into the front of the shop where the only three people in town are sitting outside.
The mud bricks surrounding each house, and behind it yet another makeshift field growing grain to be stored for the winter - exploiting every inch of free land to prepare, winter ever coming.
The Austrian family of four arriving as their taxi awaits. A Mom and Dad with their two teenage sons stealing the last moments of shared adventures before they go find their own ones.
The group of college age Indians, giving adventure their first go, with boyish backpacks they rented from the hostel, hoodies tied around their waists, not expecting the heat to rise while hiking, and trying to hike in their not-adidas and not-puma shoes.
The Swiss couple who summited at six am, tipping generously - the guide, the sherpas, the driver, still overwhelmed by their euphoria from achieving a life long goal, and doing it with a stride.
The little girl, running towards the school bus which had just passsed her, and stops 30 meters ahead at the shop to the sounds of joyous 7-9 year olds retreiving their end of day treats. The girl, now at mid-panic, throws her backpack sideways, leaving it haphazardly on the side of the road, and darts towards the bus and joins the line to get her some goodies. She buys two bags of potato chips, and begins to wander back to collect her pack. And I expected her to rush back to the bus, but she just took her bag, kicking it first and walked home.
And I waited, and observed. And smiled.
It was never about conquering a mountain for me. I don't think that climbing to a mountain's summit is conquering a mountain. To conquer a mountain, would mean that it is subdued, but go subdue a fucking mountain. Only we, humans and animals, recognize ownership and power. But mountains don't recognize us. They don't care if we plant a flag up their asses, or build a shrine on their tops. They just are.
And we, we get to enjoy them, to be challenged by them, to impose on them our thoughts, our emotions, our desires, our challenges.
We conquer our challenges, and the mountains just provide an outlet for us. They can be a canvas for our thoughts and dreams, while making us earn - through the pain in every inch of our body, whatever it is we seek to find.