A return to the land of mountain passes

Wow, it’s been a hectic last few weeks for me and my apologies for not posting for a while.

The good news is that I’ve made it to the end of all the hecticness, and I will soon be leaving for my first real foreign holiday since December 2019 – which now seems an age away in a parallel universe (and for all I know, it probably is).

The venue for our adventure is Ladakh in northern India, a desert region north of the Himalayan watershed. The name ‘Ladakh’ translates as ‘Land of Mountain Passes’, but it’s more affectionately known as ‘Little Tibet’. It’s a Buddhist region, laden with monasteries, stupas and prayer flags commonly seen in northern parts of Nepal.

A glorious campsite in a remote mountain valley, Ladakh, northern India.
A glorious campsite in a remote mountain valley, Ladakh, northern India.

It will be Edita’s very first visit to Ladakh, and although I’ve been twice before, this will be my first visit for 15 years. I can’t wait.

I climbed the popular trekking peak of Stok Kangri on my first visit in 2005, while on my second in 2007 I joined a Jagged Globe trip to attempt some unclimbed peaks in a remote region north of Leh.

Since I haven’t had time to write anything original before departure, I’d like to whet your appetite with an extract from my diary from that 2007 trip, when we attempted a 6,078m peak called Sahib Chasa.

I will hopefully be able to write more extensively about this wonderful region when I return, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy the extract.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

We awake this morning to a winter wonderland: several inches of snow cover our high camp and the mountains look fabulous. Today is the day our party breaks into two. Most of the group will stay here for another day and attempt a first ascent of Deception Peak, while John, Ulla and I break off on our own to go and climb Sahib Chasa. Sahib Chasa has been climbed before, most recently three weeks ago by another Jagged Globe group, but it’s a little bit higher (6,078m) and looks to be a much more interesting mountain.

The first two hours of the walk down to the first lake are indescribably beautiful due to the fresh snow, and I keep stopping to take pictures. Below the lakeside campsite the snow disappears, but I have another stroke of luck when we stop for packed lunch. Ulla agrees to swap my chickpeas for her chocolate cake. Imagine that – chickpeas for chocolate cake! These Danes are crazy.

Below this we see our first marmots of the trek. They’re quite rotund and have obviously been fattening up to hibernate for the winter. Despite their corpulent appearance they run surprisingly fast, and I feel bad about frightening them. They must be losing quite a few calories sprinting away from us with their bellies swinging.

We reach our campsite beside the confluence at Tingsa at 3 o’clock and find ourselves back in civilisation again as a huge flock of sheep and goats accompanied by a friendly sheepdog passes by. Here we have another surprise when we discover the Ladakhi language must be similar to Danish. After John struggles to converse in English with an inquisitive shepherdess, Ulla then has a ten-minute chinwag with her, each of them speaking in their own native language.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

We have a two-hour walk up to our base camp at Doksa today, a grassy meadow a short distance from some shepherds’ cottages, where we’re greeted by yet another friendly sheepdog.

The whole camp routine has become much more relaxed and friendly now that we’re a smaller group. Although it’s slightly less comfortable squeezing three of us into a single tent at night, eating our dinner in the cook’s tent with our Nepalese staff is a much more pleasant experience. They have laid out a mat in one corner for us, and a rectangular board wrapped with tin foil for our table. It’s all very cosy.

Our entertainer is Gokul the cook. He has an infectious laugh that I find myself laughing at even when I can’t understand what he’s talking about. When I ask if he has any whisky, he offers to send someone down to Hundur Dok to fetch chang, a well-known local home brew universally acknowledged as being undrinkable to foreign tourists. I thank him for his offer and hope he quickly forgets about it.

At lunchtime we sit in the cook’s tent talking while the kitchen assistant Ang Dorje sits in the corner sharpening a large knife. I assume he’s just passing the time but later learn that while we’re innocently sitting there chatting, a helpless goat is being quietly dispatched the other side of the canvas. For dinner that evening we have goat’s liver and noodles. I usually find liver disgusting, but this stuff is so fresh it’s actually quite edible.

Monday, 10 September 2007

The weather’s making it feel a bit like Scotland. Just before breakfast, while we’re brushing our teeth outside, another patter of snow sends us hurrying back to the shelter of the tent. Twenty minutes later, when we resurface for breakfast, the ground is covered by an inch-thick white carpet. Then the sun comes out and by 10 o’clock the grass is green again. This continues throughout the morning, but by afternoon the sun’s out again and we set off for our high camp up a side valley about 400m above us.

Immediately after setting off, Ulla gets wet feet crossing the river. The first 200m is a scramble on rough boulders. It’s hard work as we carry all our own personal kit. But then we’re rewarded by a view that makes it all worthwhile. We arrive in a high valley and it’s like arriving in another country – grassy outcrops, moss-covered rocks, and the dramatically snow-capped Sahib Chasa suddenly there right above us.

High camp is situated at 5,100m in a small flat area at the foot of glacial moraine. A very foolish sheepdog has followed us all the way up here, and now it doesn’t want to go down again. It snows heavily all afternoon.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

We wake at 4am to the sound we least wanted to hear: snow pattering on the tent. We take breakfast at 4.30 in the cook’s tent, but it’s still dark and John doesn’t want to set off until it’s light because of the boulder field we have to cross right at the start of our ascent. It will be treacherous in the slippery conditions.

After returning to the tent and unpacking our sleeping bags again, we finally set off at 6. John, Ulla, Mingma and I cross the stream at the back of the campsite and realise that we’re being followed. I noticed the dog, its fur covered in snow, outside the cook’s tent earlier. I think it had spent all night there. I naively assumed it would know where to draw a line. But no, it’s decided that’s not the end of its adventures.

We ascend gently across the boulders before reaching a flattish bowl where John and I wait for the others to catch up: Ulla, Mingma and, yes, the dog. After several futile conversations with it, during which I explain that it will get itself killed if it follows us onto the glacier, I point back down the mountain and order it to descend. It responds by sniffing my finger.

During the next steeper section I ask John if he will help me rescue the dog if it falls down a crevasse. His response is terse. I then ask if he’ll help me rescue it if it falls down a crevasse and starts whimpering pitifully.

“It wouldn’t make sound mountaineering sense,” he replies, a little heartlessly, I feel.

The next time we stop and rest I wait for the dog to appear over the rise, throw a few rocks in its direction and then start charging at it waving my ice axe. John shouts at me to come back and stop wasting my energy. But it works. The dog and I stare at each other for a pregnant moment before it wises up, turns around and slinks back down the mountain. Sometimes you’ve just got to be cruel to be kind.

We reach the glacier and begin ascending, but the snow is now so deep that I don’t even realise we’re on the glacier until I see a large boulder off to the side which has been lifted and supported by ice. But the ascent is easy – while John stumbles away in front of me wading through snow at times knee-deep, I simply follow in his footsteps.

Then John looks behind to see how far the others are behind us. He chuckles and points. It’s the blasted dog again. This time I give up on it. Let it be the first dog to reach the summit of Sahib Chasa if it wants. I don’t care anymore. But if it dies on the way down, does that count as a successful first ascent?

In the end the weather puts an end to the issue. By 9am we have reached the end of the glacier and the rocky mountain slopes rise above us again. We’re now at 5,500m and the next 400m of ascent is across boulder fields. Although we can just about see the summit, visibility is not good, and it doesn’t look like getting any better. It’s still snowing heavily, and although he’s not going to let on, John must be worn out after breaking trail through thick snow all the way up.

He makes the decision to turn around. Although I’m disappointed, I can see that it’s the right decision. We’re in an unexplored, remote area here, and nobody’s going to help us out if the weather gets dramatically worse.

On the way back down, I decide to make friends with the dog, but it doesn’t take long for me to realise that it’s now terrified of me. We descend back to high camp, pick up all our gear and continue onwards. It isn’t until we reach base camp in Doksa, when it tentatively accepts my gift of a hard-boiled egg from my packed lunch, that we make friends. By then the sun has come out and it’s another beautiful day, but that’s the way it goes.

Later that afternoon the rest of the group arrive in Doksa and announce that they’ve claimed the other unclimbed summit, Deception Peak. Although I kind of like them, there’s also a pang of regret that our smaller, homelier mini expedition has ended with their arrival.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

We have the luxury of lying in until 7.30 this morning due to the short day of walking we have ahead of us. Now that we’re nearing the end of our journey it has decided to stop snowing. It’s a fantastic day.

“Could’ve happened yesterday,” John and Ulla both mumble to me independently over breakfast.

The path continues to follow the river up the picturesque Thanglasko valley, grassy meadows, rocks and sparkling water much in evidence. After about an hour’s walking I realise that a different dog is now following us. Word has spread about my behaviour yesterday and Nick, somewhat cheekily to my mind, gives me a rock to throw at it.

Then Gokul arrives and drops a bombshell about the dog I made friends with yesterday.

“Dog has died,” he says.

“Died,” I reply, “how?”

He makes a gesture which involves putting his hand over his throat.

“What, somebody’s strangled the dog?” I ask in amazement.

It’s only later that I realise he was saying, “dog is tied” and not, “dog has died.”

At lunchtime we witness a fight between two male yaks over a female. It’s fascinating to watch and extremely violent, but it goes on for ages and eventually we all get bored watching. By the time we leave, the female they were fighting over is nearly half a mile away, grazing peacefully. I’m not sure she ever finds out who wins.

We camp in a bleak spot underneath the 5,400m Lasimo La pass, eagerly anticipating our final climb of the trek and a hot shower and cold beer in Leh the following afternoon.

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One thought on “A return to the land of mountain passes

  • August 26, 2022 at 9:23 pm

    Look forward to reading about your trip, Mark. Hard to get vicarious pleasure from the exploits of others if they don’t go anyway! Safe travels.

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