From Hypothermia to holding hands at 6000m
SUMMITING STOK KANGRI: A STORY OF BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS
On the 14th July 2017 fourteen young, clean and hopeful students headed for the Himalayas, guided by a bearded Mr. Blackshaw, a positive Miss Pride, and the man, the myth, the legend, Justin Featherstone, blissfully ignorant of the daunting wonders that Ladakh is home to. The next day we stepped out into the moist, inescapable wall of Delhi heat; the journey had begun. After another flight we caught our first glimpse of our home for the next three weeks: the view from above of the vast expanse of snow-capped peaks and vibrant valleys left us all in awe and excitement for the days to come. Leh, a small Buddhist town perched at 3500m, embedded in the embrace of the peaks, welcomed us warmly (a few degrees too warmly for some). Our fascinated minds absorbed the tranquil Buddhist culture that Leh’s monasteries and manic markets had to offer which was greatly contrasting our sheltered London lifestyle. Soon we left the comforts of Leh to experience the wonders of the wilderness in India highest mountains.
Experienced wilderness explorer Justin and our sturdy Sherpas eased us in with a three hour stroll to our first night amongst the stars. For some, the tent was a daunting prospect (little did they know what was to come). By day two, the gentle pretences had come to an end, when it dawned that those gym sessions perhaps would have paid off, after a 23km trek. For 12 days we followed the Markha Valley Trek with days ranging from 8 to 23 km. What surrounded us was an endless span of rugged rocks, ripping rivers and striking skies. Our journey took us along through magnificent elevated passes, exposing us to head-spinningly beautiful views (quite literally at altitudes of 5200m). While the landscape ahead drastically changed from barren to fertile, above the mountains remained as permanent pillars of beauty. Following through the cascading canyons with the scorching skies above us, our already tight-knit group grew closer and we began to forget the stress and chaos of our exams. At nightfall, the skies came alive and left us all in awe. At morning, we put on our wicking tops, thermals and B1 boots with Ash still fashioning Supreme attire on the mountainside (one must maintain appearances!).
However, our journey was not without its trips and falls (especially for Aoife). The trip was kept interesting as we were guided by Mr. Blackshaw’s extensive knowledge of alpine flowers, Charles’ failure to grasp the wrath of hearts (a popular card game among the Stok Kangri group) and the rap evolution of Lucy and Ash. It’s fair to say that the altitude sickness did not surpass us but there was nothing a cup of Masala Chai served by Lop and SP (our favourite Sherpas) couldn’t solve. It is no exaggeration to say that we were wallowing in our own filth having not showered for 13 days by the end, however, this only brought us closer in friendship (if a little further away at the dinner table). With Justin’s survival hacks, Miss Pride’s support system and Lucy and Bea’s keen enthusiasm (guess who’s writing this article?), everyone got through the toughest days of the trail. Another vital element to keeping us going was the extraordinary dishes (even pizza and cakes) that the Sherpas managed to produce in such a remote environment. We could not foresee the emotional attachment we would develop to Compeed blister plasters and antibacterial gel (essential for our makeshift tented toilets).
And then arrived the blood sweat (a lot of sweat) and tears of summit day. After a day of eating our bodyweight in carbohydrates, we arose at 10pm after a mere two hours of sleep to the sound of foreboding rain on the canvas of our tents. Our eventual departure began at midnight and we shuffled along in silence, bundled in every down jacket and gortex coat available. Placing one foot in front of the other, we struggled through what an experienced mountaineer (Mr. Blackshaw) described as ‘the worst snow conditions he had ever seen’ with a confusing mixture of emotions. By 4am, the sun began to rise on the snowy Stok Kangri and we were struck by the colossal expanse of mountains which lay before us. To our delight we could see the top and Bea foolishly exclaimed ‘Just about an hour left I reckon guys!’…four hours later…! We were roped up and some of us were dragged up mountain half asleep, somewhat nauseous and very weary, by the superhuman Sherpas. By 8am we reached the Stok Kangri ridge. Despite being around 100m away from the summit, we had reached 6000m and were satisfied and overwhelmed by our achievement and far too exhausted to contemplate going further. As fatigue clouded our judgement, we fell onto out bottoms and slid 300m down Stok Glacier in a joyful daze. After finally making it back onto our feet, we continued to slip and slide (some even into a glacial meltwater river). By midday we stumbled back to base camp, returning as worn as the trails we walked upon, having not slept, eaten or been truly sane for 14 hours. Despite its casualties and catastrophes, summit day taught us true perseverance and team spirit as we faced the toughest physical challenge of our lives.
On the 1st August 2017, fourteen wise, unwashed and reflective mountaineers returned to London, guided by the more bearded Mr Blackshaw, the more positive than ever Miss Pride and our trusted leader Justin, who provided us with endless knowledge and wisdom as well as his great company. Looking back on our trip as we prepare for another school year in London, it seems strange to think we became accustomed to walking alongside yacks and passing colourful prayer flags, that now remain imprinted in our memories. Having experienced everything from hypothermia to holding hands at 6000m, our group will remain a tight-knit team for years to come.
By Bea T (12SG) and Lucy H (12SH)