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The Makeshift Mountaineer

Julian Oldmeadow

I forced my heavy legs to make the last few steps up to the fluttering prayer flags and stood on the small white summit, drinking down gulps of thin mountain air. The sun was rising through patchwork clouds and all around, and far below, a sea of brown shadowy mountains stretched out as far as I could see. I smiled, but my cheeks hung numbly on my face, masking the tumultuous emotions I felt inside.

Otsal, my young Ladakhi guide, already had a bounce back in his step and he jumped around in his tennis shoes grinning madly, obviously delighted to have guided a successful ascent. It might have punctured my sense of achievement – me with my ice axe, plastic Koflach boots and crampons, him with his makeshift walking stick, tracksuit pants and tennis shoes – but I didn’t care. I was standing on a mountaintop in the Indian Himalaya, 6,153m above sea level and nothing could dampen the joy.

To the north we could see fertile green patches along the Indus River, far below. To the east, a prominent cluster of high mountains stood out; one of them K2, the world’s second highest summit. To the west, the slope fell sharply away under a cornice of ice, all the way down to the valley floor. Standing precariously close to this edge in his tennis shoes, Otsal described how one climber had fallen to his death down this side. ‘It’s impossible to fall off mountains, you fool!’ Ray had claimed in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. ‘Perhaps,’ I thought, ‘but you can certainly fall down them.’ I took a step back to the safety of the plateau.

Stok Kangri rises above the town of Leh in the North Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, in a region known as India’s ‘Little Tibet’. It’s reputed to be the easiest 6000m peak in the world and touted by local guides as a ‘baby trek’. True, it isn’t technically difficult, but there’s nothing ‘baby’ about a 6000m mountain, and many unsuspecting travellers find this out the hard way. Trekking in Ladakh is, compared to Nepal or South America, still relatively under-developed. Tour operators based in Leh offer cheap treks through Zanskar, the Markha valley, and up Stok Kangri. The treks are sold out of small shopfronts along the traveller’s area of Changspa Road, where would-be trekkers are enticed in by signs proclaiming urgently: ‘Two or three more people needed for expedition to Stok leaving tomorrow’. The various shops coordinate and when they’ve found enough people they set up a trek with a few horses and a local guide. That’s how I came to join my ‘expedition’.

To the north we could see fertile green patches along the Indus River, far below. To the east, a prominent cluster of high mountains stood out; one of them K2, the world’s second highest summit. To the west, the slope fell sharply away under a cornice of ice, all the way down to the valley floor.
Mountaineering - The Indian Himalaya
I hadn’t come to Leh specifically to climb a mountain. I’d cycled here along the famous Manali-Leh highway and was in desperate need of a break from the bike when such an advert caught my eye – especially the height of the mountain inscribed in the sign’s top right corner. The guy behind the wobbly desk made a quick phone call and announced there was a group of three leaving tomorrow. They’d supply the guide, the cook and all our equipment. And it was dirt cheap. I asked how difficult the climb was, inviting an honest assessment of my suitability. ‘You do trekking before?’ he asked. I told him I’d done some treks in Nepal and just cycled the Manali-Leh road. ‘Then okay,’ he answered dismissively, and with that that I signed up. We hurriedly chose some overlarge plastic Koflach boots and established I had a sleeping bag of my own. Nothing more was mentioned about gear.

At eight in the morning on the next day, a minibus arrived and I met Larry, a young pale-faced English lad, studying psychology at Goldsmiths. There was no sign of the other two would-be mountaineers who were supposed to be joining us. We were told they would meet up with us tomorrow, but I suspected they’d pulled out or, perhaps, had never even existed in the first place. Sacks of gear were thrown on the roof amidst assurances that all was taken care of. We were about to set off when Larry suddenly asked ‘Hey, is there anywhere I can buy a pair of sunglasses around here?’ The slick-haired businessman, who had sold the trek to Larry, offered him his own. ‘Here. Take mine. You can give them back at the end.’

I pulled my too-big plastic Koflachs and a pair of old crampons out from the hessian sack. Otsal jumped in and started trying to fit them, and I quickly realised that he didn’t know how to put them on. I asked him about his own and he said he’d be climbing in his tennis shoes. By now I wasn’t surprised.
The trek up to base camp can be done in single a day, but we took two, allowing for acclimatisation. Leh lies at 3500m, high enough to be a problem for people flying in from the hot plains of central India. Many experience mild symptoms of altitude sickness – headaches and nausea – for the first couple of days. The rule of thumb is to ascend very slowly at this altitude, sleeping no more than 300m higher each night. But we didn’t have that luxury. According to our itinerary we would be ascending one vertical kilometre to the first camp, climbing to 6150m the next night, and coming back to base camp for the final night at 5000m. Even if the rule of thumb is conservative, the body can’t adjust that quickly. Luckily, I was already well acclimatised from the ride. Larry, however, had only arrived in Leh three days ago and his clothes still smelled of his mum’s laundry powder.

By the time we reached base camp around midday on day two I was starting to have doubts about the credibility of our little party. Larry had taken three hours to cover the few kilometres that lay between our drop off point and base camp, and was complaining of a thumping headache, while Jimmy seemed no more qualified as a mountain guide than the boy from the local village, which is pretty much what he was. Adding to my concerns were the thick grey clouds hanging over the mountains, that and the few returning climbers we passed on the way, who all just shook their heads despondently when we asked them how they’d got on. To some relief, at base camp we met Otsal, a friend of Jimmy’s and fellow guide who would accompany us on the summit attempt. Apparently he had climbed Stok Kangri thirty times and K2 once, though I had my doubts. Still, I was relieved that Larry and I would have a guide each so that, selfishly, my success would be somewhat decoupled from his.

In the afternoon we got together to discuss the ‘plan’ and do a kit check. We would start at midnight, with the aim of reaching the top for sunrise. I pulled my too-big plastic Koflachs and a pair of old crampons out from the hessian sack. Otsal jumped in and started trying to fit them, and I quickly realised that he didn’t know how to put them on. I asked him about his own and he said he’d be climbing in his tennis shoes. By now I wasn’t surprised. I asked Jimmy about a torch and he glanced at me with a look of mild panic. ‘You no have?’ He asked. I sighed and told him not to worry. I had a head torch, I just didn’t know how much battery was left. So much for everything being taken care of. Larry didn’t have any gloves and was saying it’d be fine. I said it wouldn’t be fine and told him to go and borrow some from an Indian group who were waiting an extra day at base camp to acclimatise.

We set off a little after midnight, making our way by torchlight up and over the shale ridge that separated base camp from the lower flanks of the peak. Thankfully, the sky was clear and the stars were thick. The Milky Way stretched like a cloud across the night’s canopy and shooting stars streak brightly in the darkness. Larry kept up for a while but soon called for rest stops and then complained of feeling ill. Jimmy and Otsal took off ahead in places, leaving me to fall back to help Larry across the various sections of snow that lay across the steep slope. At one point Jimmy slipped and slid down to the bottom of the slope, unhurt apart from his pride. The guides were throwing their torchlight here and there, searching for the way, and at various points took a clearly suboptimal route were even I could see a better one.

Mountaineering - The Indian Himalaya
Soon we reached the glacier, where Otsal indicated for us to put on our crampons. I had mine fastened in a few minutes and was up and ready to go. Otsal was still helping Larry with his, trying to tie them on in any way that seemed like it might work. Jimmy’s were clearly not set up for his shoes and he was hopelessly trying to loosen the adjustment screw with his fingers. I handed him my Swiss Army knife. He managed to adjust one and strap it on his right boot. The other was jammed so he started tying it on with string. I just shook my head and waited patiently. Eventually we set off again but within a few steps the string broke and Jimmy’s left crampon fell off. In frustration he resorted to using just one. After all, Otsal was in tennis shoes.

Larry’s calls for rest increased in frequency, and we waited impatiently for him to catch his breath. We reached the other side of the glacier where the ground kicked up steeply on loose shale and snow. Within a few minutes Larry called out from behind that he thought he had to stop. He had fallen over three times and was starting to see multi-coloured shapes blister in front of his eyes. I was in no doubt that his climb was over and called up to Jimmy to stop and go back with him. Jimmy came down reluctantly and asked whether Larry had any Diamox. Luckily he didn’t, so there was no excuse not to go back down. Jimmy and Larry started down, while Otsal and I carried on towards the summit.

When Otsal and I arrived back into base camp around 9am after successfully and uneventfully reaching the top, we found Larry laid out on a mattress in the chai tent, covered with a thick blanket. I asked him how he was and he replied he was feeling better, but the rest of the night had been quite an ordeal for him. Soon after Larry and Jimmy turned around and headed back, Jimmy’s torch failed and they had to make do with one between them. Larry was getting worse with spells of dizziness, falling over on the rocks, seeing bright coloured shapes. He was totally spent and needed to get down fast. But Jimmy lost the way and they ended up heading down the wrong valley, having to climb back up and over rocks and shale slopes repeatedly for hours until they finally found the right path. Larry was almost incapacitated but Jimmy – obviously frustrated and annoyed at himself and Larry – wasn’t much help. At one point Larry considered just stopping and sleeping right there amongst the rocks and waiting for morning. They stumbled into base camp just as we were reaching the summit and Larry crashed out in the chai tent where I found him hours later, somewhat recovered but clearly and understandably fuming at the guides and the world at large.

I sat with Larry for a long time and we chatted things through. I empathised with him, but tried also to put the whole thing in perspective. These two guys were doing the best they could, given they were just two local boys trying to make a living by ‘guiding’ people up a mountain. They had no training, paltry equipment, and were being paid pittance for it. Jimmy would be feeling embarrassed and sorry that he’d gotten lost, even if he couldn’t say as much. If Larry wanted to be pissed off with someone, I suggested, it should be the slick-haired businessman who sold him this trip as a well-organised, well-supported and safe trek up an ‘easy’ mountain. For my part, I didn’t feel like being pissed off with anyone. Now safe at base camp, I felt like smiling at the craziness of the ascent, breathing in its rawness, and being thankful that there are still places in the world where you can stumble upon a slapstick adventure just like this.

Julian Oldmeadow

Julian Oldmeadow has a passion for adventure, whether its firing makeshift guns on the North West Frontier of Pakistan, getting lost on an Enfield in the Thar Desert of India, or cycling over the Himalaya. His preferred mode of transport is bicycle, by which has travelled Morocco, India, Scotland and Burma. When not travelling he is an academic psychologist, and occasionally works as a cycle touring guide for Redspokes.

Email: [email protected]