2014 Ladakh Trek and Climb Report

In August and September three of us pulled off a fascinating trekking and climbing trip to the northernmost reaches of Ladakh. Here’s the story and some select pictures:
The first of many ironic twists in this story is that the bureaucratic struggles came up, not in India, but here in the U.S.: getting a visa. To climb a peak in this region we foreigners need a special “X” visa, and though our whole team received several authorization letters for that from Delhi a new visa contractor here in the U.S. was essentially clueless about issuing that type of visa. Two committed members were unable to go because of this, and the remaining three of us were delayed by 3 weeks. This is a problem we voiced loud and clear at various levels, and I’m keeping an ear to the ground as to whether this frustrating situation is improving for next year.
Once in Delhi everything went smoothly, and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation made a special pre-briefing appointment with us on a national holiday to speed us to Leh and into the mountains. John Anton and I met our assigned Liaison Officer, a young man nicknamed “Hapi” from Dharamsala. On the flight to Leh I was surprised to see a lot of clouds and new snow on the few peaks visible. We would learn that one day previous the weather had switched from the usual blue skies to chilly and stormy.
Chuck Boyd was already in Leh, having gotten his visa earlier than us. He had by serendipity met up with a commercial British team, and in debilitating and almost dangerously rapid time several of them made the first ascent of a 6000m peak near where I’d intended for us all to climb. We met Chuck after he also cycled up and down the 17,582-foot high Khardung La. After a couple of days acclimatization we drove over that pass to acclimatize more with some fabulous trekking up the Rongdo valley, where I had explored and climbed in 2010.
Because I knew many of the villagers at Rongdo we were enthusiastically welcomed and we shared small gifts and bits of news from over the last couple of years. These villagers live in one of the most remote corners of Ladakh, and it was fascinating for us to see how they get along quite well with ancient ways and skilled techniques. For them it’s fascinating to meet curious and respectful people from the modern world. Watching one of the men shape local willow into a water-tight tea churn was particularly impressive.
While his daughter watches, this Rongdo man shapes water tight tea churns using only a plane on local willow.

While his daughter watches, this Rongdo man shapes water tight tea churns using only a plane on local willow.

For three days we trekked up the Rongdo canyon. With ponies carrying our gear and a Nepali cook (yaay Gokul!) plus helpers and a Ladakhi partner named Desal we were well looked-after. We visited petroglyph sites, we gawked at big granite walls and icy peaks, we paid our respects at a remote Buddhist hermitage, we visited a spectacular sacred waterfall, and we arrived at a grand meadowy camp at 15,300 feet. Chuck, who is a mountain guide with experience all over the world including the summit of Everest, said that this was probably the best trekking he’d ever done. Chuck received the news of a family funeral and other business awaiting his prompt return, so because of our delayed start if we were to climb our allotted peak with him we had few days to work with.
We trekked back out from Rongdo and took a couple of days’ rest in the big Nubra Valley while the ponies walked to our next trailhead. We visited two important monasteries, and on one evening we had the treat of watching a troupe of women performing traditional dances.
This woman named Stanzin does a traditional dance as part of a performance troupe.

This woman named Stanzin does a traditional dance as part of a performance troupe.

At this time the weather was stormy for at least part of every day. We learned from Chuck’s experience that the access to the peak I had originally intended to climb would be “suicidal” during wet weather because the route travels a narrow corridor through an unusual sedimentary formation of vertical and overhanging walls of loosely cemented rubble several hundred feet high. The British leader Chuck climbed with energetically affirmed this dire assessment, and I had seen this formation elsewhere in Ladakh. With this news and bad weather we didn’t hesitate to aim for another unclimbed 6000m peak in the Ladakh Range, a peak only Desal among us had ever seen but looked accessible on the map. A new road extended from the village of Hundar that way, and we would be able to reach a basecamp below the peak with a single day’s walk.
As soon as we unloaded our gear at the roadend it began to rain, making us glad we had decided to not venture up the “canyon of death” but rather a wide and green mountain valley reminiscent of pictures of Alaska’s Brooks Range. The rain stopped by noon, and we had tea courtesy of a young mother inviting us at her flower and vegetable garden. We passed some more petroglyphs, and by late afternoon we figured out with the map that we were arriving at the base of our anointed peak. We set up a comfortable basecamp at 15,300 feet in grass 30 yards from a meandering stream. The peak looked pretty easy to climb, one rounded high point on a ring with others that had ruddy granite summits.
Chuck of course was well acclimatized by now, and of course natives Hapi and Desal were in good shape to go high, but John and I were marginally ready to climb to 20,000 feet. I felt ok though and with Chuck’s encouragement that I be one of the first to the top, I decided I’d try to climb with the acclimatized threesome. After a day of rest I’d go back up with John to summit again. We carried camping gear and ropes up to near the base of the little glacier that poured off the peak, and though clouds lowered and surrounded us in fog we found a little bench with a small stream of water nearby, at about 17,000 feet. On these slopes we saw a healthy group of ngapo, or “blue sheep.”
A small herd of wild sheep (ngapo) frequent the approach slopes to our peak.

A small herd of wild sheep (ngapo) frequent the approach slopes to our peak.

The four of us woke at 3am to go for the summit, but storminess including a couple of intense blizzards kept us from heading up. At 9am however it seemed to be clearing, and we started up. When we reached snow slopes along the edge of the glacier we found the surface to bewas powder underlain with hard ice, a common condition I’ve noticed on glaciers in these arid parts of Asia. The others climbed on the west, rocky side of the ridge. The blocks of granite were also covered in powder and treacherously slippery, so I chose to keep my crampons on and make my way up the snow-covered ice. At about 1pm another blizzard blasted us and threatened to push us back, but the squall let up and by about 2pm we made it to the top, never having roped up. Our view was nice but abbreviated by the clouds. Our altimeters read 6070 and 6080 meters. Visibility improved enough to let us see that an easier scree and talus slope could take us all the way down to a lower glacier. Along the moraines beside that glacier we found a couple of cairns, then below that evidence of a campsite. These signs suggested that a previous group might have made an unauthorized ascent of “our” peak. Nevertheless we would be credited with the first ascent, and we named the peak Lungmochey Kangri, as local shepherds referred to that side valley as Lungmochey, which I believe refers to winds and a female mountain deity or spirit.
Me and Chuck Boyd on top of Lungmochey Kangri.

Me and Chuck Boyd on top of Lungmochey Kangri.

Our local guide Stanzin Desal and Liaison Officer Hapi on top of Lungmochey Kangri

Our local guide Stanzin Desal and Liaison Officer Hapi on top of Lungmochey Kangri

We continued descending and made it all the way to basecamp at dark to a grand meal from Gokul. In the morning Chuck hustled out and he was able to reach Leh that night and make his flights home the next day. John and I looked up to climb the peak again, but the unusually bad weather got even worse. With more snow falling on the heights we decided to do more exploratory trekking instead. We visited two other valleys, both with lakes reminiscent of the Sierra. Rain and snow continued, however. Desal, who has lived in Hundar all his life, said he’d never seen such weather in Ladakh in any time of year, much less late August and early September. This was my 10th visit to Ladakh and I felt the same. We would learn that the same storms were much worse on the monsoon side of the Kashmir Himalaya. The famous Kashmir Valley completely flooded, an unprecedented event. Between India and Pakistan some 500 people were killed and thousands made homeless.
This villager, Tsering Angchuk, was herding sheep up high, and he invited us into his hut for salt tea.

This villager, Tsering Angchuk, was herding sheep up high, and he invited us into his hut for salt tea.

We enjoyed leisurely trekking up canyons that few Westerners have ventured up. With daily storms adding snow up high though we started to worry about crossing the 18,000-foot high Lasermo La to get back to Leh. Our intrepid horseman Phuntsok said it should be no problem, but we remained concerned. I had expected to make good use of a solar shower on this trip, but in lieu of sun one day everyone gathered a big heap of ample yak dung and Gokul built a fire to heat us up a bath.
Making use of partly sunny periods that came most every day, we moved into position to cross the pass. At our highest camp a gazgazri (lammergeier vulture) buzzed us a few times, and we also saw some other rare birds  streaming for the pass, heading south to no doubt winter in the Gangetic plains.
Ponies carrying across the snowy Lasermo La.

Ponies carrying across the snowy Lasermo La.

To our surprise we found it pretty easy to hike over the pass because winds had left the snow pretty firm. The ponies didn’t even hesitate. Dropping down the other side it was heartening when we started seeing the Indus Valley and the peaks above Leh again. At our camp that evening we were visited twice by a beautiful red fox. The next day we reached road again above the village of Phyang, and we drove back to Leh.

Red fox near camp

Red fox near camp

There’s many more places to visit and peaks to climb in the Ladakh Range and Karakoram, and as my familiarity with the language and land continues it seems like ever more doors of interest open up. Stay tuned, I will likely be scheduling to lead another trip for 2015, and let me know if you’re interested to have me come through your town with a multi-media show on this area.

The Ladakh Marathon

Distance runners take note: one of the more scenic and fascinating marathons in the world today is held at the northern tip of India, the Ladakh Marathon. This last September 14 was the third annual celebration of distance running in the Himalayan rainshadow, terrain reminiscent of the Eastern Sierra on steroids. Rimo Expeditions, the event organizer, asked me to be the official photographer this year, so I got an up-close look at the action and the changing faces in this magnificent territory.

The event actually includes four simultaneous races: a half marathon, a 7k fun run, the showcase marathon, and a super challenging ultra: in over 40 miles the the Khardung La Challenge tours up and over a 17,582-foot high pass. We decided to make the marathon the photographic priority, so from before the 6:30am start I spent several hours riding along the 26-mile course on the back of a motorcycle. I also covered the extensive post-race festivities.

High elevation gives this marathon a fitness fascination. The start is at the race’s high point of 11,800 feet (where the air pressure is about 35% less than at sea level), and from there the course heads down, down to the “lowlands” and a breathtaking (in every way) tour through the villages and grand spaces along the Indus River at around 10,500 feet. The course then ramps back up to finish at the city of Leh at 11,150’. This is not extreme elevation, but it’s plenty high so that visiting contestants need to arrive at least a few days ahead of the race to get used to it. Four or five days should give most everyone enough acclimatization to prevent mountain sickness and allow a reasonable performance. Many visiting runners got by with just three days, but their performance must have suffered. Even better performance and more ease would come from doing a trek through the mountains for a week or two at 12-15,000 feet, as after that the marathon elevations feel pretty tame.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Ladakh was an inland kingdom until a few generations ago, and the main town of Leh until recently was a trade, palace, and religious center “in the middle of nowhere,” where caravans of camels and ponies came from far away to barter wares. After 1947 independence the new nation of India barely knew of its trans-Himalayan territories, and even today many or most Indians won’t recognize the word “Ladakh.” The Ladakhi people are of a mixed Tibetan, Persian, and Kashmiri heritage. A majority are Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, almost half are Muslim, and a small percentage are Christian. Today Leh has a thriving tourism business with daily flights and dozens of guest houses and curio shops, making it reminiscent of Kathmandu 20 years ago. Most of the visitors are European “adventure-backpacker” tourists and Indians looking to experience the farthest reaches of their nation.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

This year the four races attracted about 3000 runners, most of them Ladakhi. This evinces an interesting change compared to when I first started going to Ladakh back in the 1980s, when I was fresh out of college. At that time the overwhelming majority of Ladakhis were subsistence villagers. To hard-working families then, any idea of sports and seeking out extra exercise seemed like crazy foolishness. In fact I remember seeing a play where they poked fun at a Ladakhi character who tried to act cool and modern by wearing a sweat suit and faux-jogging around town. Today tourism, government and military work have allowed many Ladakhis to accumulate enough wealth to buy cars and winter homes in warmer parts of India. In Leh very few people still grow their own barley and wheat, though they might have vegetable and flower gardens. And the new generation of Ladakhis runs in the Marathon—especially students, young adults and soldiers, women as much as men—they are excited about it. The Ladakh Marathon has quickly become an avenue for Ladakhis to build new strengths and identities as people who are advancing into the modern world on their own terms, and staying true to their values and important traditions. Look around the globe and you see that it’s quite rare for cultures anywhere to go from village subsistence to modernity without gross disruption of some sort, but Ladakhis are doing it, and their Marathon is a case in point. Any foreign runner will be welcome, and part of any the experience will be seeing an indigenous people working out a positive future. The post-race party featured both a Ladakhi pop band and a traditional dancing troupe, and it was impressive how seamless was the mix between generations.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

This year as before all the races were won by Ladakhis, who of course are genetically adapted to high altitude. Most of them train very little. The ones I interviewed typically said they trained for “about 10 days” to “about a month.” The winning times this year were 3:16 by Shaukat Ali for the men, and 4:10 by Sonam Chuskit among the women. There were a decent number of Indians who came up from the lowlands, as well as a few European runners. The fastest Indian lowlander ran the marathon in 4:11, and a Danish woman came in at 5:02, but I think in both cases they had a minimum of acclimatization time. It seems to me that a 3-hour foreign marathoner who acclimatizes with a couple of weeks or more at altitude could give the Ladakhis some stiff competition. But who knows?

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Challenging the Ladakhis in the Khardung La race might be another story. The winner there was Shabbir Hussain, who came in at 6:35, barely a minute ahead of Rigzen Norbu. Tsetan Dolker was the fastest woman there, at 8 hours flat. Along all the courses there are numerous refueling/aid stations.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

Rimo director Tsewang Motup is highly optimistic about Ladakhis’ future as runners. India does not have a great long distance running tradition, but there are other marathons around the country, and the top Ladakhis are starting to compete in Mumbai and other locations. Tenacity and a likely genetic altitude advantage tell Motup that Ladakhi runners should start aiming to represent India in a future Olympics, perhaps as early as 2020. We’ll see, we’re shopping for some inspired coaching to visit and get a training program going.

For more information check with me, and know that starting next summer I might be organizing a trek timed to cap off a great mountain holiday with the Ladakh Marathon.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.