Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Fifteen. Stok La.

Wake in the night, the moon so bright
Beating the alarm again, I walk into the dim dawnlight

Rumbak isn't completely flat... have to be careful how you orient yourself when sleeping. Don't want blood pooling in your head...
It's bitterly cold. My whole body's frozen solid. Fifteen minutes of shivering, stumbling movement, staggering in circles to warm up before heading out to find an N-spot. Faint footsteps as somebody else on the same quest strolls around in the dark. Everything numb. Knees weak and stiff, legs trembling.

Today will be the toughest yet - we're going to do two days' walk in one, reaching the next point to give us more time inside the park.
Today, we're going to scale the pass - Stok-La.



Dawn breaks, the peaks erupt with brilliance. A gold-red glow flows down the slopes, slowly trickling downwards as the sun rises. We pack up quickly, a small light breakfast, and by seve, we've started walking.



The next four hours are a haze. Initially it's fine, a gentle slope, and us full of energy. And it keeps going - on and on and on. The slope gets steeper. Breath runs shorter and shorter, until I'm gasping. Head pounds. Lungs burn. Legs are literally screaming for the oxygen that just isn't there.
I'm taking five steps, resting. Five steps, rest. Five steps, rest.
I and St struggle up, encouraging each other periodically, in second place; Nm has gone charging ahead, determined to prove he's not a typical lazy Indian bugger to the group of Germans who crossed us early on, completely kitted out and lugging giant backpacks, several of them well beyond fifty. Everyone else trails far, far behind.


The landscape is saw-toothed and jagged, harsh and savagely beautiful. Blue sky, distant clouds. The horizon is clustered with needle teeth. A sudden break when a young woman in neon-green lycra shorts from a different group just in front of us decides that she has to take a dump; and since there's no place but the path, she does it on the path. I have to stand staring tactfully back at the rest of our team until St gives the all-clear and we proceed.



Himachal and Ladakh is filled with these messages, written by the displaced populace now living in political asylum here.


Rock lichens, blazing orange unexpected life on the sterile stone... the slopes are getting steeper. My head has started to pound, now. Resting is a rare luxury - it's only the trail, and just the trail, that's my universe. All else is steeply-slanted scree, only too eager to send you skating down the slopes with twisted ankles and skin scraped raw, on a single misstep. Nowhere to sit. You just keep walking, cursing-singing in your head...

One bloody foot
after the next bloody foot
One bloody mile
after the next bloody mile...

- The French Foreign Legion's unofficial marching song


The local fauna watches us in amused bemusement, munching peacefully on the scrub as we struggle past.


And the slope gets even steeper. S-bend after S-bend. Scrabbling on sliding pebbles and dust. Pause and turn around - Rv has commandeered a horse to carry her, and is plodding gently along. The Professor is showing a sudden dramatic increase in fitness and energy and is catching up with her. Ns is just about a hundred feet away. Look the other way, ahead, up, up, and Nm is at the top, sitting on a rock and peering down.


Whoops. Looking up was a bad idea. Wait for the flashing lights and the ringing in my ears to fade and start again. Now doing little baby steps. Each leg weighs more than a mid-sized car. The mules also cross us, and it's a terrifying sight; each mule has to be physically pushed up by a guide, to stop it from slipping down.


Ns passes us a few minutes later, looking a bit wild-eyed but otherwise doing ok. The scree gives way to a sixty-degree rock spine, made apparently of petrified razor blades.
Walking not possible anymore, we start rock-climbing. It's a relief in a way - my arms can do some of the work now, and my climb up is virtually a series of boosted push-ups, hauling my body along while the feet just about keep up.

The rock is shattered, splintered, and really, really pointy; I stop feeling the edges after a while, and pain fades away. The biggest mistake you can make is get over-excited and try to finish it quickly; it's higher and tougher than you think, and extra effort only makes you dizzy and queasy. Climb - rest - climb - rest - slowly - steadily - wait for the dizziness to fade - climb again - until suddenly, a panoarama opens up of a beautiful valley before you, framed by fluttering prayer flags.

I've done it. I'm at the top.
.
Sit among the razor rocks, staring at the distance-hazed snowcaps, feeling my heartbeat slow down to near normal.


Nm and Ns are standing at the top, looking each other up & down. Before I continue, let me update you - the last few days, Nm has been drinking out of a hydration pack he picked up recently. The hydrapak is a flexible watertight container, with a long rubber tube and a bite-valve at the end; you keep it in your backpack, loop the tube out, and bite down on the rubber valve at the end to open it and allow the water to flow, every time you want a drink. It saves you from stopping and taking out a water bottle.


Ns pulls an Appy Fizz out of his pack, takes a sip, makes a disgusted face, and offer it to Nm.
Ns: Nm, apple piyega?
Nm: Tu kuch bhi pila yaar... mein piyega
Ns: Mutthi piyega?
Nm: Nikaal.
Yg: Yaad rakh - pichhle 10 din Nm ko peene se pehle zor so kaatne ki aadat ho gayi hai...
Ns: .....!!!


We hang up our own prayer flag line, and start heading down again on the other side. It's a vast panorama of green hills, and to reach them, there is a long, winding, trail through a mountainside of scree, sand and pebbles.
Our guide does an Indiana Jones on us, lacing up his boots and launching himself onto the slopes, and sliding down at 500 kmph, somehow managing to stay upright in a cloud of dust. An animated meteorite going for a crash-landing.


A series of disasters now proceeds to unfold. I twist an ankle. Ns tries to imitate the guide and twists his ankle as well. St manages to get stung by something, and gets the sting stuck inside her skin; she sits and starts frantically chewing gum like a turbopowered chewing machine to make a sting remover. Rv, amazingly, unceremoniously dumps the horse, launches onto the slope, and reaches the bottom in 30 seconds, safe and sound, as scree patters to a stop around her and the dust settles. For the rest of us, it takes two hours. The Prof turns a pretty boiled-lobster-pink in the sun, and I give him some sunscreen. He responds by comparing me to a Community Living Textbook. Yg gets attacked by vicious caterpillars. And finally, by the time we reach a small claring at the bottom of the slope, ns has come down with AMS. He pushed himself too hard while climbing and spent too much time at the top.



'Ladakh really is the land of extremes,' said Ns, emerging from behind some rocks fifteen minutes later, 'I was puking and shitting at the same time. What is this, yaar?'
PP agrees with him by sharing his extreme experience as well on the climb up, where he went from acutely constipated in the morning to acute loose motions 3 hours later.


Walked a while longer, into the sanctuary, passing herds of wild Bharal perched on the sheer rock faces around us (who gave Nm a brilliant Nat-Geo-worthy photo-op) until, by dusk, with perfect timing, we reached our camp at Changma.

1 comment:

जाट देवता (संदीप पवाँर) said...

शुभकामनाएँ आपको ऐसी शानदार यात्रा करने के लिये, मैं बाइक से गया था

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