For a couple of years now, I have been toying with the idea of a solo ski-mo adventure. The idea was, to start with sub 6000m mountains and slowly graduate to higher more tricky peaks. I have been training hard for solo alpine climbs and have been procuring lightweight alpine gear. The latest addition to my kit was some ski-mountaineering equipment. I got the kit delivered in September. I played with it in Gulmarg for a couple of weeks. After the trip to Gulmarg, I didn’t think I was totally ready even for any sort of solo adventure, let alone a ski-mountaineering endeavor. But I decided to go none the less. I had close to a month to prepare after Gulmarg, for the ski-mo outing. Of course a few days of rest followed by some training for a couple of weeks and a weeklong tapering period seemed in order. Solo outings to the Himalayas are a challenging affair to say the least. By solo, I am not just referring to the ascent on a mountain; but the approach to the base, mobilising rations, equipment etc, are all self supported. Hence, one might imagine, that a solo alpine ski mountaineering adventure would be even more arduous than a regular alpine ascent, because of the additional weight of the skiing equipment. Fortunately, thanks to a friend JBo, I had invested in a pair of super light La Sportiva RST’s, Dynafit Speed Radicals and Sportiva Sideral Boots – All pretty lightweight stuff; A ski mountaineers dream come true. I figured that in order to pull off the solo thing, I had to keep the overall weight within manageable limits; so I set a 25 kg cap; Quite unreasonable one might say given that the skiing equipment alone would add up to about 7 kilos. The backpack, clothing, sleeping bag, Tent, mattress and climbing gear (harness, crampons, ice axe, biners etc) would take me close to the 18-20 kg mark, even slightly over. Then I had to cater for food, fuel and snacks as well, which for a week would easily add up to 3-3.5 kilos. So I had to skimp at every moment possible.
I had allowed 12 days for the trip to Nimaling and back. Time permitting, I had also catered for a detour to Kang Yatse. I had aimed to be back by the 29th of April, for my sisters birthday. So, With a couple of tentative objectives in mind, I left for Leh on the 15th. I reached Leh by 8, the next morning. I drove to a guest house in Chanspa, with my friend Tsering, who is a cab driver. It took me an hour to settle into my room. I walked to the market and had some Chhole Bhature for breakfast. SInce I hadnt slept all night, I came back to my room and slept till 2. After the little nap, I headed back to the market to pick my ration and fuel for the trip. I picked up packaged, processed foods etc, such as noodles, soups, instant mixes, tuna and sardines. I also had some mutton fried momos for lunch. After the little trip to the market, I decided to pay a visit to my dear friend Sam; unfortunately he was not in his office. So I called him and we agreed to meet the following day at his office. The weather was quite nippy in the evening, so after roaming around the market place for a while, I headed back to the guest house. I had dinner in my room and after snooping around with my kit for a while, I slept. The following day, I was in a bit of a dilemma to stay or to head out to the road head. I decided to stay and gather some info about the weather, routes and wildlife activity.
Honestly, I was concerned about activity in the wilderness, more than other objective challenges. It was very cold in the morning, just as cold the night before. So I wondered, if it was that cold at 3500m, how cold would it be at higher altitudes where I would be camping. Anyhow, That afternoon, I met with Sam and discussed the current trip. He was a little perturbed that I was going alone. I confessed to him that I didn’t particularly enjoy going alone into the wilderness, but that I had no options. One of Sams ‘guide’ friends was there too, who claimed to have taken a bunch of swiss skiers to the Stok area a couple of years ago. He advised me against Nimaling and suggested that I try the Stok area. I was a little sceptical, but Sams friend was able to convince me with his description of the number of options available in the Stok area; I was still split 50/50, but decided to go to the Stok/Manikarmo area based on the convictions of Sams friend. We had lunch together. After lunch, I went to my room to packup. I called Tsering that evening, and asked him to pick me up from my guest house at 9 the next morning. I slept quite well. By 8, I was all packed and ready to leave. The feeling was a bit of a mixed bag. Usually, I am pretty excited and upbeat about solo trips. But those were mostly alpine style ascents which didn’t involve skiing. This was different. It was quite early in the season to be on the mountains. I was expecting it to be really cold and inhospitable. Then there was the element of unknown. I have never skied in the area. Last but not the least, I was a bit concerned about wild animals. I know that Ladakh is home to the Snow Leopard. I have seen wolves on more occasions than one, both in Ladakh and Kashmir. So there were a lot of questions lingering in my head. My mind was not totally at ease, but I tried to stay focussed and composed. Tsering was taking forever to arrive. So I called him and checked if he wasn’t too far. He arrived in 15 minutes and we were on our way by 9:30. I didn’t speak much with Tsering while we drive towards Stok, except may be ask him to expect a call from me in a few days. I couldn’t tell him when, because I didn’t know what to anticipate on the mountains, but I told him any day around 24th of April or later would be most probable.
We reached Stok by quarter past 10. The village wore a deserted haunted look. I saw just one lady in the whole village. Obviously there were others, but none on the streets; none visible to my anxious eyes. So I got off the cab and quickly strapped up, lest the anxiety got the better of me. I asked Tsering to take some pictures of me with my pack. I shook his hands and reminded him to expect a call from me in a few days before hiking towards Manikarmo. I maintained a steady, easy pace throughout the trek. It was nice and sunny, but also windy. Once in a while, the sun would be covered by a sheet of clouds and the windchill would kick in. I did keep my softshell right on top of the pack, but never wore it because five minutes with the softshell on, would make me all sweaty. About 20 minutes into the trail, I could see patches of thick ice along the stream/river. An hour into the trail, the patches of ice slowly began morphing into a thick blanket of white snow/ice. With every passing minute, the thickness of the ice seemed to constantly increase. The thickness was over three feet in some places and I often stumbled in the gaps that were covered by fresh snow or a crusty layer. The falls were quite ugly because of the heavy load on my back.
After falling a couple of times, I was careful to probe with my poles before moving forward. Because of the
constant probing, the pace suffered immensely. I had done this route on my way to Stok Kangri in August last year. Of course, at that time I was hiking with under 4 kilos of weight on my back and I was moving much quicker. The lack of vegetation and the wind and cold were not helping with the breathing. It was good that I had been in such situations earlier. Under the circumstances, I was moving at a decent pace. The views were tremendous. A couple of hours into the hike and the whole stream was under a blanket of thick white ice with high cliffs on either side. The views were breathtaking and the silence was haunting and ever so often, the silence would be disrupted by gusty winds. I would stop every hour or 70 minutes for some electrolyte tablets or some snacks. I have hiked or climbed or skied alone in the past; Quite often. But this felt so different. I suppose it felt different because on previous solo trips, even though I was going alone, there was always a chance that I would run into someone along the trail. This time, I was pretty sure that I would not meet another soul for the next few days. Not on the trails, not on the mountains, not anywhere. It was too early, too harsh and too risky for the average hiker or climber to venture into the Himalayas. Although a number of pro climbers attempt winter ascents, I was pretty sure I was not gonna run into one of those chaps in the Stok area. Anyways, by 3 I reached a bifork from where Manikarmo was hardly 15 – 20 minutes away.
Unfortunately, as was forecast, I noticed some light snowfall. The weather began to packup and the sun was covered by dark clouds. I didn’t wanna take any chances, so I decided to camp right there. Although the area was covered by a thick blanket of ice, there were some rocky patches in between. One such patch had some plane ground with some small stones. I cleared the stones to prepare my campsite. It was very windy and cold with flakes of snow flying around. I put on my softshell and wore my glove liners before laying out the tent. The winds made it extremely difficult to pitch the tent, but I was eventually able to fix the tent. I had a little pain in my throat in Leh, but by now, the throat was parched and extremely painful. I didn’t notice the pain during the hike, but it was very disconcerting once I had stopped. I found it extremely hard to swallow water or snack. Fortunately, I carry meds for all sorts of conditions, So after pitching the tent and boiling some ice from the stream for water, I made some oatmeal for lunch and took a tablet for the throat infection. After lunch and warm water, I was feeling slightly better. I just sat in the tent for a while to think things through and compose myself. The sudden snowfall threw me off a little, so I needed some time to think. Ever since Nun, I have been extra careful not to spend too much time exposed to bad weather. I checked my right middle finger thoroughly (which was severely affected on Nun) for chilblains or sorts. It felt ok. I did my best to keep my digits warm, especially the right middle finger.
After about 30 minutes, I got out of the tent again. The snowfall was not so heavy and the sky had cleared a bit. I took a hike around the area to orient myself again. Even though I was almost certain that Manikarmo was in front of me, I had eliminate even the faintest doubts. Since I was already camped, I wanted to ascertain my position before moving out to Manikarmo the next day. So I tried the elimination process. I went back to the bifork and took the trail to the right (if coming from Stok, left if going back from where I was pitched), walked for about 20 minutes and was certain that that wasn’t the route to Manikarmo. I returned to the tent and made some instant noodles at 6. After an early supper I decided to go in front to further ascertain the route to Manikarmo. There was another bifork about 5 minutes from where I was camped. I was pretty sure that Manikarmo was straight ahead, so I took the trail to the right to eliminate that route as well. I noticed some huts which I had not seen enroute Manikarmo on my last trip. So I knew for sure that that wasn’t the route to Manikarmo. So after walking around for some time, I headed back to the tent. It was quarter to seven by the time I got back. It was still twilight, but quite chilly. I quickly got inside the tent and into the sleeping bag. It was an interesting day; I had hiked close to 4 hours and was hoping to make it to Manikarmo, but had to camp just short of it because of the precipitation. Made my meals, replenished my water supply, hiked in two different directions. All in a days work. All good. I was hoping to move to Manikarmo the next day. Although there was a lot of ice on the river, I didn’t notice much snow on the mountains and that was making me nervous. I didn’t want the whole trip to be a washout. Anyways, I went to sleep that night hoping that the fresh bout of snowfall would change things for good. I slept well as far as I can remember. But it did take some getting used to. It was very windy and after 8 it was pitch dark. The howling winds were a little disturbing. The tent flutter was not helping. Was I scared? I don’t think so. But I felt prettttty lonely. Definitely not a great place to be for the faint at heart. I did go out at 9 to relieve myself; I can say for sure, not many guys would be thrilled about that; and I am not even talking about the cold and the snowfall and the wild animals yet. Its just that the place felt so eerie and unsettling.
Anyways, after that short “excursion” just out of the tent, I got in and played some music to take my mind off the recent train of thoughts. It seemed to work. I didn’t realise when I fell asleep. By the time I woke up it was 4. For some reason I felt relieved that I was close to daylight. Not that I had any plans at that hour or any intentions to get out of the tent at that hour; but somehow I felt this “easiness” that the major part of a stormy, slightly scary (for some) night was over, and now I had the next day to look forward to. I went back to sleep and woke up at 6 again. After a drink, I slept yet again and woke up by 8. I looked out of the tent and there was a couple of inches of snow. It was still coming down lightly. I was not sure if it was a great idea to move. So I stayed till 10. It was still overcast. So I decided to continue camping there for the day. But I was not gonna sit in my tent the whole day. So I decided to take a hike to Manikarmo, may be slightly further. After breakfast, I filled my water bottle, packed some snacks and took off. It took me less than half an hour to reach Manikarmo. I was disappointed with the views all around. There was very little snow on the mountains. I looked in the direction of Stok Kangri base camp and all the mountains in the vicinity had very little snow on the slopes. I could see rocky outcrops from so far away, which meant that the snow was not deep at all. There was a bit of ice on the river though, but who skis on the river. I did continue hiking towards Stok Kangri base camp. But it was “more of the same”. In fact the ice on the river was much harder and blue, but there was hardly a few inches of snow on the slopes.
I was bitterly disappointed. I had thought of moving to Stok Kangri base camp and possibly attempt Stok, but that seemed out of the question. The hard ice on the river made the stok base camp inaccessible, but if I somehow took a chance and tried to make it to the base camp, it would still be a waste since there was hardly any ice on the slopes. So it was a vicious circle. I decided on the spot, that I had to drop the idea of attempting Stok. My only other option was to explore the area near Manikarmo. On my way to Manikarmo from the tent, I had noticed a frozen stream to the east of Manikarmo. I did notice a few mountains in that area, so I resolved to go on an excursion in that direction the following day, if the weather allowed me. With that thought I returned to the tent. Made some lunch and got in my sleeping bag for a siesta with some music on, since I had nothing else to do. In the evening I strolled in the vicinity of the campsite to present myself with an illusion of being active. I was terribly bored, which is a feature on solo trips if things don’t fall in place. I mean, if one gets to do the activities as planned, its all good, otherwise it seems like ones plans are being disrupted. I was hoping that I could shift base to Manikarmo on the following day and do some recce in the afternoon and hopefully get to ski on the days to follow.
Of course all this was possible only if the weather cleared up. That night, I went to bed an anxious man and woke up the next morning a very disappointed man. Apparently, it had snowed all night. I woke up at about 7 and took a peek outside the tent and there was a thick blanket of snow all around. It was gloomy and overcast and there was still some snowfall. I was beginning to lose it. It was the third day since I drove out of Leh and still no skiing. The only upside to all this was that there was atleast some fresh snow and that meant that if ever I did get to ski, at least the snow would be a few inches thicker. Of course I had to find some slopes to ski down in the first place, but I was trying to remain hopeful. After breakfast, I got back into the sleeping bag and played some tracks on my phone. Around noon, I could feel the tent warming up. After a few minutes I could feel the bright sunlight on my face and the sleeping bag fluff up slowly. While I was making lunch, I briefly considered if I should move, but I decided against it and told myself that I should stick with the original plan and just hang around till the next morning. But the sunlight was so constant and honestly I was tempted. Also, another line of thought made me change my mind. What if the sunlight caused all the snow to slush away. So I thought it prudent to move at the earliest and make the most of what was available. So I said, what the heck! I packed all the stuff inside the tent before I made some lunch. After lunch, I tried to pack up as fast as I could. It took me close to an hour to unpitch the tent stuff everything in my sack. Just when I was strapping up, it started to turn gloomy again and I saw some snow flakes in the air. I was amazed that how things tend to work out contrary to how I want them to work out; when I decide to stay, its sunny. When I decide to move, it packs up. Its like a vicious circle. I decided to rush to Manikarmo. There was no way that I was pitching the tent back at the same spot. In order to move quickly, I decided to skin up to Manikarmo. That would take the weight off my back and help me glide quickly. Not a bad idea considering the fresh snow over the last day and a half had to an extent covered even the few rocky patches that were visible.
The plan worked. I had to take off my skis only once for about 10 minutes where the layer of snow was not very thick. I was moving pretty quickly in order to avoid a bout with the weather. About 10 minutes after I moved out of the campsite, I noticed a track of foot prints. The prints were too small to be a snow leopard print and too big to belong to a rodent or a mountain goat. Besides, on my way up from Stok, I noticed that Mountain Goats were quite happy to stay below the snow line. So that meant it was most probably a pack of wolves. I took some pictures and moved on towards Manikarmo as quickly as I could. In about 15 minutes, I was able to see Manikarmo in the distance. The heavy pack was not exactly fun to lug around but I tried to get there as fast as I could before the weather got any worse. By the time I reached there, the snowfall had intensified a bit and it was quite chilly too. Couple that with the wolf track I saw enroute, and I was in two minds about camping at Manikarmo. Suddenly a brilliant idea struck me. Manikarmo has these huts made of stones; 6 huts I think. At this time of the year, there was no one in a 100 square km area let alone the huts. I didn’t foresee anyone coming to Manikarmo in the next few days.
Taking shelter in the hut seemed the only way I could safely (to an extent) carry on with the adventure any further. I checked out all the huts and there was so much garbage in all of them. I picked the hut with the least garbage, which also turned out to be the largest of all the huts. I used the tent groundsheet as the first layer and then spread the mattress on top of that. I laid out my gear and apparel on the groundsheet against the wall to create a gap between the sleeping bag and the stone wall. Then I set up the stove and melted some ice to replenish my water supplies. By 4 I was settled in the hut. Since I was all set, I decided to take a little tour to the east of Manikarmo, The only place that was left to explore where I could possibly identify some slopes that I could ski down from. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance the following day, so it made sense to go out and identify some mountains. And if I didn’t find anything, then I could just consider it a wasted trip and head back to Leh the following day, instead of hanging around for another day. There was still some light snowfall, but nothing that a hardshell couldn’t fend off. So I left the hut at around quarter past 4 and headed along upstream towards east. The day before, I had hiked upstream towards south in the direction of Stok base camp and that didn’t turn out so well. So I was hoping that this exploratory hike would give me some hope and a reason to stay. I had not even hiked for 10 minutes and I saw some beautiful slopes to my right. In the further distance, I saw some higher more serious mountains. This was already turning out to be a very promising hike. I hiked for close to 45 minutes till I reached a break in the frozen river. There was a rocky patch which was surrounded by mountains on all sides, especially in front (east). Since I was it was beginning to get dark, I decided to head back. I thought that I could probably test out the equipment on the first slopes I encountered about 15 minutes from the hut on the following day and then on the day after, I could skin up further east for some more challenging ski descent. I could still see a lot of bald patches and rocky outcrops on some of the slopes, But I was pretty sure that the snow was atleast a foot or two deep where the coverage was continuous. With the atleast the next two may be three days covered for, I hiked back to the tent taking pictures along the way to work out a route to ascend the objectives once I reached the hut. It took me close to half an hour to reach Manikarmo.
While I was still about 5 minutes away from the hut, I noticed something moving on the mountain that was on the other side of the hut. It blended well in the muddy background and had the looks of a canine. Was it a wolf? Was it a jackal? I wasn’t very sure. I didn’t move. I just tried to reach for my camera to take some pictures of the beast. While I was reaching out for the cam, another beast appeared from the background. I looked down into my jacket for may be a couple of seconds and within the blink of an eye, the beasts were gone. Their camouflage was so fantastic and they were so quick to disappear, that I was amazed and a little perturbed. I am not one to shy away from a little adventure, but I do not fancy ending up in the belly of a pack of wolves. This little encounter got me thinking. What if they came back with the whole pack. I had no chance against a pack. Heck, I had no chance even against one of those wild mutts. I just made some loud noises to claim my ground. Loud enough to make sure that where ever those two wolves were(I am assuming they were wolves), they heard me. I rushed to the tent to see if those chaps had been inside. I didn’t see any damage to the apparel or the food supplies pilfered. I looked around the campsite and noticed that the local authorities use some sort of metal sheets to make compost toilets. Some sheets were lying around. I carried a couple of those sheets to my hut to see if they were good enough to cover the entrance. Not the perfect fit, but I figured it was good enough to get the job done. With the most advanced security system (under the circumstances; pun intended) in place, I felt a little secure.
So with that fake sense of security, I got ready for dinner. After that little encounter, everytime I went out, I carried my ice axe with me; Whether it was to the stream to fetch some ice or a trip to the toilet. I had some tuna and noodles for dinner that night. I took a walk around the hut for a few minutes after dinner just to make sure that I didn’t have any “guests” lurking in the vicinity. At half past 6, I shut the entrance with the metal sheets. There were still a couple of gaps, but under the circumstances, that was the best I could do. By 7, it was pitch dark inside the hut. I could hear the wind whistling through the little gaps in the hut. It was a little unsettling. So I thought of turning on the music. On the flipside, I thought, what if I turned on the music and while my canine friends decided to visit me, I wouldn’t know? So after all these conflicting thoughts, I arrived at a decision. I said to myself that it was I who wanted to do this solo. I was not compelled or obliged to do it this way. Wild animals were always going to be a threat. I was aware of that. So I decided to turn on the music but set the volume on the head set to the lowest possible setting. With that taken care of, I felt at ease. The wind and the darkness were not so disturbing anymore and I was still able to stay alert in case I heard something untoward. I was amazed by how well my mobile device was holding up. It was my third day in the wilderness. I was using the device as a camera, a positioning device and an entertainment device and I still had close to 35% left on it. Impressive. I also had close to 5000 mAH of backup power. So I was covered on that front.
With all these random thoughts, I didn’t even realise when I fell asleep. It felt like I had been asleep for a while. The music was not very helpful anymore. So I turned the music off and got rid of the earphones and that is when I heard some rustling sounds. I was pretty sure that the sounds were from inside the hut and not outside. I am a very proud man, so I wont admit that I was scared. But I was definitely, inquisitive about the little intrusion. I groped for the headlamp in the dark and once I found it, I mounted it on my head and then turned it on, all the time hoping that it was just a dream. I noticed that my Bounty (chocolate) was suspended in the air. I looked a little more keenly and noticed a tiny shiny beedy eye. It was a stupid mouse. I was both relieved and infuriated at the same time. Relieved that it was “just a mouse” and infuriated that I was being robbed of my ration. I tried to ‘shoo’ the little rodent away, but he stood his ground shamelessly. So I made a little gesture with my hand and he dropped the chocolate and ran for his life. It was just past midnight when all this happened, so I was a little upset that it would take me some time to fall asleep again. I got out of the sleeping bag, retrieved my beloved Bounty and got back in the sack. It took me a while to settle into the sleep mode again. When I was just about to fall asleep, I heard the rustle again and there he was, yet again, perched between the stones with the Bounty in his clenched between his teeth. I didn’t have it in me to go after the mouse once more. I was tired and needed the sleep. So I said to the critter, “fine, you can have one, but no more”. It was close to 2 by then. In my sleep, I heard the rustling quite often that night. I couldn’t get out of the sleeping bag, but I figured that by the time I woke up in the morning, all my Bounty would be gone. I would however just turn the headlamp on for a few seconds once in a while and say “shoo” randomly, just to keep them guessing. Interestingly, I stopped hearing the rustling sounds around 4:30.
I guessed the mice do their rounds between midnight and 4-4:30. So I thought I had some clue about the scavengers and concocted a plan for the morning. With a tentative plan in my mind, I felt a little happy about myself and fell asleep. I think I slept very well between 4:30 and close to 7. Even though the rodents kept me up between midnight and 4, I didn’t feel sleepy or fatigued. I got out of the sleeping bag at 7 and checked my supplies. Two Bountys were gone. I was actually happy, because I thought I would lose a lot more. With most of my ration still intact, I began plotting to rat proof my equipment and rations. I was more concerned about the equipment than the food, because if the food was pilfered, I could return to Leh. But if any of my expensive equipment or apparel was damaged, then I would have to go through a lot to procure a replacement. So in order to protect my equipment and ration, I used my sling to set up a suspension system from the ceiling of the hut. I put the food right in front followed by gear and apparel. I left nothing on the floor. I decided to carry the sleeping bag and down jacket with me, cause they were the two most expensive articles in my inventory. Everything else was packed and suspended from the ceiling. I had some kheer (Indian Porridge) for breakfast and set out for my little adventure by 10 after securing the entrance to the hut.
** I was excited, because finally I was going to get some downhill mileage on the skis. I was still quite far away from the top of the objective, but atleast I was out of the hut and on the way, and it was a bright sunny day. SO It seemed like things were finally falling in place for me. I had decided skin up to a mountain just east of Manikarmo. I would have to veer off from the main stream and hike for about 10 minutes to reach the base. From there, I would have to skin up may be 200-250 meters. It was a very bright and sunny day and extremely hot. Once I reached the base, I couldn’t straightaway skin up the mountain. I had to take the skis off and negotiate a muddy slope for about 10 minutes. From about 20 meters higher, I was able to step in and skin up again. It hardly took me an hour from the base to reach an altitude of about 4700m. The slope was 45-50 degree for most parts and perhaps 60 in a couple of places. I was able to negotiate the terrain with easy AVA turns. Although the mountain was much higher than the Afarwat in Kashmir, the ski run was not quite as long. I could have climbed a 100 meters higher to the summit, but there were so many rocky outcrops and the snow near the summit looked so shallow, that I decided to ski down from 4700. I took a nice long break under the summit and had a snack. After taking some pictures, I got rid of the skins and geared up to ski down. The snow was so moist and slushy and very shallow in many places. It was no fun skiing down at all. By the time I got to the base, it was 1 in the afternoon. I had to negotiate that muddy terrain once again, in order to get off the mountain and onto the stream before heading back to the hut in Manikarmo. The soft mud ruined my boots. Once I reached the frozen stream, I walked all over the place for close to 10 minutes in order to get rid of the mud from the sole and the sides of my boots. After a few minutes, I wore the skis and headed back to Manikarmo. In 10 minutes I reached my hut.
I kept looking for the wolves from the day before, but gladly they weren’t anywhere near to be seen. I got rid of the equipment in a jiffy and made some more kheer for lunch. For variety, I broke down a couple of Bountys and added it to the vessel. The Bounty-Kheer tasted very good. The greatest fears now were not the wild animals or the rodents. But since it was not even 3, I feared the boredom would get to me. As long as I was hiking or skiing, there were no hassles, but once I was back to base, I had the most terrible feelings of boredom and more boredom. So after lunch, I decided to hike south in the direction of Stok base camp. It was a pointless exercise, except the fact that I was trying to pass time so I don’t die of boredom. I hiked on top of the frozen stream for a while, but then climbed to solid ground, because the snow/ice was melting at a rapid pace and I didn’t want to end up in a sticky situation. I was also getting a little concerned about the route to my objectives towards the east of Manikarmo, because, without good snow, I wouldn’t be able to hike/skin to the objective I had planned for the following day. With these thoughts in my head, I reached the fork on the stream from where one would have to turn south east in order to go to the Stok base camp. The conditions were a lot worse than a couple of days back. The route was inaccessible, because of the melting ice on the route; and even the mountains were already showing a lot more muddy, rocky patches, compared to the conditions just two days ago. This second trip towards the Stok base confirmed my conviction that I couldn’t do Stok Kangri, or anything in the area; not on this trip.
I hiked slowly towards the hut after a drink. I was back by 5. I sat out on a rock on the stream to stay warm in the evening sun with some of my favourite music. By six, the sun began to recede away so I went inside the hut to prepare dinner. Dinner that night was the best compared to all the other meals through that trip. I had Sardines in Oyster Sauce with Noodles. Very good stuff. Since I had taken care of the mouse menace by suspending all my gear and the rations from the ceiling, I just had to the lay out the ground sheet and mattress and sleep. I didn’t sleep very well that night, but not because of the mice. They just couldn’t snitch my food or my chocolates because of my brilliant plan. Sometimes I surprise myself. May be that was the reason I didn’t sleep well that night; so that I could witness my brilliant plan in action. I did see a couple of mice snooping around the hut, but they just couldn’t make it to the suspended ration bag. I was gloating in my sleeping bag about the victory over those mice. I finally did get some sleep.
** The next day, I was a little sore and sleepy, but I absolutely had to go out that day. It was a bright sunny day for the second day in a row and I didn’t think the shallow snow would stay on the slopes for too long. Of course, in the next few hours, I realised that not only was I to be concerned of the snow on the slopes, but even the frozen stream, which was to afford me easy access to the mountains, east of Manikarmo, was a cause for concern. But more on that later. I left the hut by 10. Since the areas close to the campsite were not so good, because of the sun beating down heavily the previous day, I hiked with the skis on my back. I probably hiked for about 15 minutes upstream towards the mountains and wore the skis close to the the base of the mountain that I skied down the day before. From there, I had to skin up for close to 90 minutes to reach a y fork on the stream from where I could pick between a great variety of slopes and so many mountains. During the hike, I came across fresh snow leopard prints, they were pretty much consistent throughout the length of the route. I took some pictures and continued to hike towards the mountains.
There were some beautiful mountains either side of the stream, but mostly with very shallow and patchy snow on the slopes. The mountains in the far east, in front of me seemed really intriguing. So I kept marching. Often times there would be breaks in the route; there would be a gap in the ice, or stones and small rocks covering the stream; so I would step out of the bindings and walk to the other side of the break. After about an hour, may be 75 minutes from the hut, the stream had some “steppy” uphill gradient. At that point the ice was really hard, unlike the round crystalline ice that was characteristic of the area and the season. I took a break around the 60 minute mark and then at the Y fork. I had some peanut candy and Gatorade and decided on a beautiful mountain, south east of where I was. From the Y fork, it took me 10 minutes to reach the base of the mountain. I began the ascent. Considering I had been hiking from the hut till the y fork for over 2 hours, I was still ascending at a very brisk rate. At many places I could see that the snow was very shallow. So I would mark those places to avoid skiing there during the descent. Often times I would come across a bald patch; so I would circumvent those patches and continue skinning up. Even though I was carrying my sleeping bag and down parka in the sack (to keep them safe from the mice), I was still able to skin up at a decent pace. I reached the top 1 in the afternoon. For some strange reason, the GPS wouldn’t work. I took some pictures and videos, but wasn’t able to get a fix.
On the summit, I noticed that there ware lumps of poop everywhere. It had to be snow leopard poop. I couldn’t think of another mammal, which would go that high and have such a voluminous dump. LOL. After about 10 minutes of snapping pictures on the top, I got rid of the skins, had a drink and geared up to decend. I gave the GPS another shot and this time it worked. Just while I was saving the coordinates and altitude, I heard a peculiar sound in the distance. I had a terrible feeling that it might be a snow leopard. May be he didn’t like my intrusion into his “dumping ground”. I looked around, but couldn’t see a mammal for quite some distance in all directions. But I didn’t wanna hang around for much longer. I was off the mountain and down the slopes in a jiffy. I stopped at a couple of places along the route to avoid the shallow areas. Also, because of the bright hot sunlight, the snow was quite soggy and the skis were stopping often and the ride was choppy. I somehow got to the base and continued skiing to the Y fork. My original intention was to ski along the stream for the majority of the route but boy was I mistaken? As it turned out, the ice on the stream was melting really fast by 2. I tried to ski a bit, and just two minutes from the Y fork, the base of my skis, touched some stones.
Apparently, the frozen stream was turning into a small river. The melt was so fast, that I was involved in a terrible tussle with the fast changing stream for the last couple of hours on my way to the hut. I had no idea that within a matter of 4 hours, a thick blanket of snow and ice would turn into a slushy sloshy river. So I had to get rid of my skis and strap them to my rucksack. It was a really long hike back to the hut for me. At so many places the ice would be so deep that I would be knee deep under ice. In order to avoid that if I walked on the rover then the water would be deep in a few places and seep into my boots. Along the way, I could hear the ice cracking, gushing waters under the thick layer of ice and sloshy waters on the surface. I even noticed some shed hair. It looked to me like something a snow leopard would shed. I didn’t see the hair on my way up, so I knew it was quite recent. May be the snow leopard decided to take a roll on the stream before it started melting. I took a few pictures and continued hiking towards the hut. I reached the hut by half past three. I got out of the wet ski boots and left them to dry in the sun. Made some Rajma rice for lunch and then stayed out in the sun, drying some of the gear and trying to stay warm. I was certain that the trip was over. Even though there was some snow on the mountains, the approach was pathetic. So I decided to go back to Leh the following day. I stayed hydrated for the long hike the next day. It was going to be exhausting with over 20 kilos on my back, at the end of a trip. I kept an eye around me for signs of activity. I just wanted to avoid any unnecessary confrontation with my wild friends. By six I got in the tent and had the left over Rajma Rice and packed up some apparel and equipment. I went to sleep by 7. The mice had no more luck since the night before and even though I was able to spot them a couple times in the hut, I never found them close to my food or equipment. So I slept with a peacefully. I did wake up intermittently during the night, but generally slept well. I woke up by 7, excited to go back to civilisation, hoping to stay away from the wolves for a few more hours.
It took me a while to warm up and start packing. I made some oats for breakfast and then continued packing. I was ready to leave by 10. I strapped the skis to the rucksack and was on my way by quarter past 10. Before marching off, I turned back and looked at the hut, my house for the last few days, one more time. I was slow and steady, but overall very coordinated. To avoid falling in gaps on the frozen stream, I kept probing with the ski poles before stepping forward. I was not in a hurry to reach Stok, so I was taking my time hiking downstream towards the village. I stopped at a couple of places for a break and a couple more for some pictures. Its amazing how much beauty I missed on my way up because I was so focussed on doing things right and getting some purchase out of the trip. It baffles me that I don’t seem to understand that sometimes appreciating the views around oneself during a hike is also part of “getting purchase”. Anyways, I met nobody along the route and I was not, surprised, because the conditions were sort of dicey over the last few days. Besides, nobody climbs or hikes this early in the season in this part of the Himalayas. And all this worked out well for me I guess, since I had the satisfaction of doing this “alone” in the true sense of the word.
About an hour short of Stok, I met a bunch of photographers who had set up a tripod and were keenly trying to capture something from the mountain on the other side of the stream. At this point, there was no ice on the stream and very little snow on the features either side of the stream; this was Ladakh as I had come to know over the years. We exchanged pleasantries and I inquired if they were going beyond that point. They suggested that they were camped close to the village and were just out to get some pictures; nothing serious. They seemed intrigued by my gear but mentioned nothing. We nodded our heads to wish each other well and I continued hiking. About 10 minutes down the trail, I saw a few tents and I knew it belonged to those hikers I had just passed. About half an hour short of the village I noticed that someone was waving at me. I waved back. They were too far and seemed alright, and I was too exhausted to walk up to them. The guy waving at me was with a girl and someone who looked like a guide to me. I figured that they were not in any sort of trouble and were just waving to say hi. May be they didn’t expect to meet someone on the trail and were just surprised by someone hiking, even more surprised by someone hiking with some skiing gear strapped to his back. Those three didn’t have any packs on their back, so I knew that they were tourists taking a stroll and that I would meet them at the village.
I reached Stok at around half past 1. The village was still deserted and there wasn’t even a single place from where I could make a call. Fortunately, there was this guy who was washing his vehicle and offered me his phone. I thanked him and then called Tsering. Tsering told me that he’d come pick me up in an hour. After taking care of the cab, I got chatty with the guy cleaning his vehicle. Apparently he was with the trio who waved at me and was cleaning up while they were out on the trail for a short excursion. Soon enough, those tourists arrived and the guy who waved about me was curious about where I had been. He was Australian and the girl with him looked Oriental. The third chap, as I had guessed, was the tour guide indeed. I told the chap about the places I had been and he told me that may be he’ll consider doing something next year. I just cautioned him about not doing it alone and to bring at least a friend with him, if he didn’t want a guide locally. After the group was gone, I was left behind to wander and wait for Tsering to arrive. So I left my kit at an abandoned building and walked just walked around the village. Tsering was there by half past two with his daughter. He apologised for being late and told me that he didn’t expect me to be back for atleast a couple more days. I told him that I was really thirsty. He offered me some water. I told him that I wasn’t thirsty for water. I told him that I was thirsty for Thums Up.
We stopped mid way between Stok and Leh at a major junction and I looked around 10 provisional store; I was told that Thums Up and all other colas are never stocked in Leh between December and June, because of the 3 month shelf life. This was ridiculous. I asked one of the ladies running a store, if people didn’t get thirsty during winters or springs and she smiled and told me that not everyone was exerting as much as I did. I guess she made sense. With that sort of sedentary lifestyle, they wouldn’t feel the kind of thirst that can only be quenched by Coke or Thums Up. Anyways, I picked some local favourites; Apricot juice for me and Pineapple for Tsering and a couple of packs of Ruffles Lays. The three of us shared the chips while Tsering and I had the drinks. I just needed a place to crash at the earliest but not before a good meal. We were at the guest house by half past 3 and I was shown to my room. I had a quick shower headed to the market. I had the Apricot – Seabuckberry juice at Dzomsa and then tried to reschedule my ticket at an internet place. It was a failed attempt. So I thought, I will have my uncle do it for me later and went to meet Sam. He was busy with stuff in his office. He was so glad to see me that he commented, “you are lucky to be back, ALIVE”. We laughed. He was waiting for a friend called Makhan (Butter). The three of us later went to Gizmo’s, a nice cosy place on Fort Road, for some coffee. We stayed back quite some time at the restaurant. So long that it was time for dinner. So I decided to have dinner at Gizmos and insisted that Sam hang around too. We had a Chicken Sizzler and Chicken Steak Burger. They were both delicious. After dinner I thanked Sam for his time and headed back to my room.
The following day was pretty much routine. Nothing fabulous. I spoke to my uncle and had him reschedule my flights over the phone, no thanks to the internet. Sometimes things get done faster the old way. Once the flights were taken care of, I went back to Gizmos for lunch. Chicken Sizzler and Pineapple juice for me. Sam was kind enough to keep me company. After lunch I went back to my room and then came back to Gizmos in a couple of hours for an early dinner. Yes! Chicken Steak burger. I can safely say, that if I was not flying out the following day, I would still come back to Gizmos for more of the same. I thanked the staff there and went back to the guest house to pack up. I called Tsering to pick me up at 6:30 the next day. I slept well and woke up by 5. I was ready by 6 and waited for Tsering. He dropped me off at the airport by 7 and I was out of Leh by 8:30. I reached home by 5 in the evening.
The trip was not quite as fun as I had expected. But it was a question of one’s resolve and grit; and I believe I was able to stay composed under the circumstances. I would have loved to ski down a few more mountains and for a few more days. But at least I was able to ski down a couple of mountains, come back with all my digits intact and with no serious injuries; so that is some sort of a moral victory for me. And to be able to pull it off all alone; that felt good too. Perhaps, next time I wont listen to hearsay and just carry on with my adventure as planned. Who knows, if I had gone to Nimaling/Kang Yatse as planned, perhaps I could have had some more fun. Perhaps next year. 🙂