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September 2, 2008 / calebdresser

Stok Kangri Journal – Day 3 – Up

My toes were finally getting warm when a bony Ladahki stuck a flashlight in my face and told me it was time to get up. Niels and Charles were peeking groggily out of their sleeping bags and muttering about how it was already almost 2 am and we should have gotten up earlier. Somehow I couldn’t find it in my heart to be too disappointed. Within a few minutes were were slurping cornflakes and hot milk out of little plastic bowls and trying to stow our cameras and headlamps in our clothing so as to keep the batteries warm. The flashlights of a less tardy group were just visible on the ridge above camp, tiny points of bluish light against the deep darkness of the mountain. I had carefully pre-loaded my pack the night before, and was able to verify by feel that my water, chocolate, crampons, and ice-axe were still secure.

The moon was fat and icy and brilliant, so we agreed to leave our lights off until we had to use them, and set off in darkness up a scree-slope toward the pass that would bring us within sight of the summit. I was glad that we’d already tried this bit of trail in daylight, for the footing was treacherous and my pack wasn’t balancing properly because of all the spiky metal strapped to the outside. By 4am we had reached the advanced base camp and begun traversing a boulder-strewn slope that faced toward Stok Kangri, perhaps half a mile away across a small mountain glacier. I took my morning poo in a chilly crevice in the rocks, and thanks to the increased altitude found myself quickly out of breath when I hurried to catch up with my party, which was waiting at the edge of the ice.

Crossing a glacier is a venture to be approached with caution, doubly so at night, and I was very glad to have guides along who had been there before. Though the lights of the early-starting climbers ahead of us were twinkling merrily as they moved up and off of the other side, I would have been reluctant to cross on my own before daybreak. The night was still quite cold and the surface of the ice provided good traction, which became very important when we began to encounter streams of meltwater flowing down along on or just below the surface. These were hard to see until you were right on top of them, even with the aid of headlamps. We took it in turns to jump across and move upslope toward the higher ice-floes, still chasing the firefly-lights of our anonymous early-rising companions on the heights.

Dawn found us moving slowly up a scree-slope of fist-sized broken rocks beside a gritty-looking snowfield. With the light came full realization of the magnificence and sheer size of the landscape. The glacier snaked off below our feet, its source in the snowfields at the head of the valley an enormous amphitheater of ice. The Himalaya ranged off east toward China in a checkered pattern of brown and black and white, a brilliant mirage in the glare of the rising sun. Above, shattered stone gave way to snow dotted with occasional ledges skylined against a dark blue sky in which a few snowflakes glinted pink in the rising sun.

Not long after, Niels decided to head back. He had been complaining of headache and nausea in addition to his difficulty breathing, and as a medical student he had a better understanding of what our bodies were going through than anyone else there. We had full respect for his decision and continued slowly upwards. Within less than a hundred meters, we had to put on crampons and move onto the snowfield. It was at this point that the group began to spread out, each taking whatever pace they could manage in the rarified air.

It got weird after that. We were well above eighteen thousand feet, higher than anything in the United States except Denali (Mt. McKinley), and the air was getting genuinely elusive. I could walk at most fifteen steps before I had to pause and breathe heavily, resting most of my weight on my planted ice-axe. My mind was running in the same slow-motion as my body. I thought back to a book I’d been given for Christmas two years earlier, a book about a tortoise and his slow-moving adventures, which mostly took place in English vegetable gardens. In addition to being a vindication of sorts for my slow progress, the short, simple language perfectly suited the occasion, and as a result most of my memories of the remainder of my upward journey are in little snippets of tortoise-talk, minus the elegant slow-moving descriptions I remember reading aloud in the Ithaca winter.

Its good being old. Gives peace, gives patience. I go my pace. Not yours. My pace. Like on our Sunday walks. Remember? I step and then I stop. So what? Still cold. I remember warmth. I’m still warm. Its cold. Oh well. Those rocks are far away. I wonder when I will get there. OH! That was a near thing. The old must watch their steps. No hurry. You’re old. Nobody hurries an old man. This snow is weak. Anchor. Your axe. Stop. Rest. You need longer sentences to say anything. Too bad. Nobody’s listening. That rock is loose…

I struggled up and up and up. Soon only a few steps meant more than a minute’s rest. My temples were pounding, as if trying to squeeze what little oxygen was left in my head out through my ears. I crept up past a Nepali guide; he shot me a grin from the rock on which he was sprawled, panting. How far to the summit? One, two hundred meters of altitude, sir. I chewed on that for the next half-hour, and finally concluded I was somewhere in the vicinity of nineteen thousand feet and felt like shit. The ridge line I was working toward seemed close – I could see the shine on the sunglasses of one of my Polish friends as he sat on a protruding ledge – and yet it was approaching hopelessly slowly. My ears were ringing, my heart a constant drumbeat. Twice I sat down, telling myself I would rest for a minute and then head down. Twice I got up again and kicked my crampon-toes into the softening snow on the upward slope.

The click of a camera-shutter startled me. I stopped and looked around; yes, I was for the moment alone, the nearest people forty or fifty yards sideslope to the east. Odd. I kick-stepped up another ten feet of slowly melting white nothingness. There it was again. And again. In time to my heartbeat, fully audible in both ears. The shutter noise faded out after a few seconds as I rested, but returned full force once I started walking again. Whatever.

When after a supreme effort I finally achieved the ridgeline, I found our lead guide slouched on a pile of rocks looking bored. He checked to make sure I was ok, cautioned me about pushing too far above my acclimatization, and scampered off toward the summit. I could have killed him. I made a mental note that next time I would try to be a cute brunette, as one of my friends in another climbing party said her guide had offered to carry her to the summit if necessary.

By this point I was feeling horrible. Everything moved slowly, my headache was worse than ever, and to top it off I was feeling like I might puke at any time. I moved up along the ridgeline with great care, well aware that it was anyone’s guess whether the weathered rock slabs I was on were stable or not. My crampons were suddenly a major difficulty, for they were singularly ill-suited to the rock I was now ascending in a sloth-like scramble. In my addles state, I didn’t trust myself to get them on again properly when I hit snow again, so they stayed attached to my boots. During one of my frequent pauses, I heard faint echoes of shouting from somewhere in the basin below. On the far eastern side, opposite my position on the west ridge, little black specks were tumbling and bouncing down the mountain. Following their line of descent, I saw one of the guides sheltering behind a boulder and shaking his fist at the neon-clad climber far above him, whose missteps were causing a cascade of large stones to rain down the mountainside at the slower climbers.

That pretty much settled the issue. Moving northeast along the skyline, I was approaching the point where there would be people directly below me, and I was well aware that my reflexes and judgment were so poor that I could easily knock bits of the mountain down on their heads. My headache, nausea, auditory oddities, and general fatigue had reached a zenith; between that and the potential for injuring other climbers, I concluded it was time to rest a bit and then head down. I sipped some water – I had drunk less than one of the three liters I was carrying – and at a bit of the warmed chocolate I had been carrying next to my skin. I rose and took my first downhill step in several hours. The Himalaya stretched out below my dizzy feet in a breathtaking panorama of eroded stone and puffs of cloud.

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6 Comments

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  1. Leigh / Sep 3 2008 12:14 am

    a) you climbed the himalayas??!!
    b) i miss those tortoise stories…. 🙂
    c) take care of yourself…you would climb absurdly enormous mountains. !!! hehe

  2. Margaret McCandless / Sep 3 2008 2:01 am

    a) Please give the title of the tortoise book.
    b) How fine that you did this, along with living in India for many months and doing rice research.
    c) This vividly reminds me of how each step was difficult at 11,000 feet when the four of us paused on our drive over the Rockies, 2001, just before the rafting trip; ditto hiking Longs Peak, a week later.
    d) Your photos remind me of our hiking above Exit Glacier, Seward, Alaska, 2003. Now I am grateful I was merely out of shape, not also at high altitude. The Himalayas, fabulous!
    e) Wonderful, vivid writing. Thank you.

  3. BenGolas / Sep 4 2008 3:31 am

    I can’t say I’m not insanely jealous of your hike. That’s pretty spectacular.

  4. becky / Sep 5 2008 3:36 pm

    Your last photo was totally taken from an airplane.

    I mean, wait, you climbed that???? WOW!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Jessie C / Sep 11 2008 12:54 am

    a mountain is a house
    where the air flows freely
    the sun shines through the roof
    the stairs are rugged.
    rocks cushion our heads
    as we look at the lights
    scattered across the ceiling.
    where we find a challenge
    but-
    a mountain is a home
    where our souls are soothed.

  6. Ronak / Feb 11 2009 2:57 pm

    Excellent description of your expedition. Thanks. Have your written day one / day two ?

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