Ice and fire in Ladakh

My first experience of Ladakh was in 2000. I trekked with a friend across multiple passes and a long glacier towards the northern end of India from where we hitched a lift on a truck to the capital of the region, Leh. We had a few weeks of spectacular remote trekking and unique experiences which stay with me over 18 years later.

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A magnificent place on a clear winter day!

The end of that first trip was less successful than the journey. I returned with septicaemia and spent a good portion of the first term of my 3rd year of university in hospital on intravenous antibiotics. It is only now as a father that I reflect on how my parents must have felt.

Many years later in 2007 I returned to Ladakh with my sister Eleanor. We had wanted to find a way to travel together again having spent a few weeks exploring Iran in 2002.

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Flying over the Himalayas knowing we would soon be amongst them

Memories of wild valleys, remote monasteries, and steep passes drove a return to the Indian Himalayas. The only time window that worked was a few days in December. Ladakh was edging towards winter with the temperatures dropping.

We decided to head to Leh and undertake a fairly modest route given the conditions, but we would need to to compress the recommend timings by doubling up some days of walking to cover the distance within our narrow time slot.

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Turning towards Leh with mixed emotions

Leh is not a large airport. You turn steeply to line up the approach giving spectacular views of the valley. I can’t quite explain how I felt. My last memory of flying out of Leh had been intense. We had been climbing the local peak Stok Kangri when the infection had really hit. I remember shivering for hours, developing paralysis in my left shoulder from septic arthiritis, and a single minded determination to get down to Delhi and back to the UK no matter what.

Returning to a location in your past can transport you through time. There is something indulgent in nostalgia but equally something therapeutic about winding back the clock through the physical and emotional challenges which had followed and reframing those memories.

Leh lies at an altitude of 3,500m. The first days are spent allowing the body to acclimatise. It’s a magical place. We were out of season so the town was empty and the majority of places were closed. In a slightly surreal twist, loud speakers across the town played Tibetan music on loop, creating the feel of being in an empty film set.

Temperatures were low, and entertainment for the local kids was to be found in a form of ice skating. Fashioned from a piece of wood held in place with a strap over the knees, speed was built up by thrusting with short spiked sticks.

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Local racers

We found one café which was open for dinner but there were no windows. Dinner was undertaken in down jackets, hats and gloves.

Our basic lodging had no running hot water, though hot water bottles were kindly supplied to allow a rinse if you could brave the cold of the room.

To compound the situation, I had at the last minute grabbed the wrong sleeping bag at home and had a light summer bag as opposed to the winter bag I had purchased for a walk/run in Whitehorse Alaska in 2002. Those who have been to the Indian Himalayas or up into Nepal will be familiar with the range of knock-off hiking kit, so I was soon furnished with a heavy and bulky bag entitled “BEAR MOUNTAIN”, my trusty night time companion for the following week. I slipped my summer bag inside for warmth. Needless to say, Bear Mountains’ zip broke on the first night.

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Post dinner entertainment entailed joing the locals to gather around street fires to share warmth. We had spent a lot of time debating which route to undertake. December is not the season for most routes and our time was limited. I had long harboured a desire to undertake a hike on the frozen Indus river, but it was too early in winter and the risk of breaking through too high. I remembered from before a monk telling us about the journey he would make along the river to the capital. In summer it was a long trip with multiple passes, but in winter could be shorted by staying on the flat frozen river. Sustenance was mainly in the form of butter-tea (strong tea with lumps of butter floating in it) mixed in with a powdered grain blend which offered a huge amount of energy. With a bag of the powdered grain and a thermos flask of tea for each stage, he would cover the various stops between his remote monastery and the capital.

Instead, we selected the popular Markha Valley trek. It’s normally a 7 day camping trek starting in Jinchen Gorge, crossing the Ganda La pass at 4,970m and then the Gonmaru La pass at 5,266m on final day. The night before the big pass is spent above 4,800m in Nimaling.

We didn’t have 7 days so had opted to get a lift on the initial dirt track to the end of the road, double up on couple of the shorter days, and get it done in 4.

The first memory is of the brutal cold on the first night. Once the sun dropped, it was  well below -20C.  I boiled water to make dinner, but by the time I had poured it into the bag and given the food a minute to rehydrate, it had cooled and was a lumpy powdery mess. I diverted instead to make tea but the water was frozen.

I crawled into Bear Mountain (pretty inadequate) and closed the top of my other bag over my head in an effort to warm up, all with a down jacket on until I finally warmed up and could strip off some layers.

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Last chance to collect firewood for winter

The second day opened up a realisation to us. Markha valley is known as a tea-house trek. Certainly at the time, all groups would camp but there were plenty of tea houses to get food and refreshments. We hadn’t banked on it so had our own supplies, but it suffices to say that the friendly summer walk was a tougher winter hike. We were powering along, expecting to reach a tea house to enjoy some hot food. On arrival, there were a handful of people left but it was closed. After some negotiation the most we could get was a much appreciated cup of tea and some time by a smouldering stove. Around us lay evidence of how busy and well serviced it would have been in season, but in December it had pretty much been abandoned.

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A good tea house in summer, pretty much shut in December!

The same was true of the next location on the map where we thought we would find a small village, but this time the entire settlement had been dismantled and there were scant signs of anything having ever been there. That was somewhat disappointing!

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Following a local up the valley

The following day was one of extremes. The sun was very strong during the day, burning the skin though it was cold. Squatting with the stove to make a quick lunch, the back of my neck was burning whilst my fingers were so cold I struggled to light a match. Soon after that though, clouds rolled in and it started snowing pretty heavily which continued through the day. We pressed on up the valley, but the conditions were pretty grim.

We eventually saw a tiny house off the track which also looked abandoned, so we crossed over and let ourselves in to get some shelter. It was a small place with a few rooms, but feeling like intruders we stopped after the front door and lit our stove for a brew. Our sense of being intruders was confirmed later on when a woman emerged carrying a child, she had clearly been asleep so had not heard us knocking.

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Tea and lunch with our hosts

After the initial shock, she lit a fire so we could cook and eat. She spoke no English but it appeared she was alone, over a days walk from anyone else.

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Pretty chuffed with “Dipsy”

We had randomly picked up a teletubby teddy we had seen in Lek as a hiking mascot which then became a present for the child. It still amazes me how remote they were in the valley as winter closed in.

The desire to stay after lunch was pretty strong but we were on a tight timeline so with some regrets we packed up and headed back out into the cold and pressed onwards to reach a village with a small monastery. It was a long day, and the final climb to the village was almost too much for us and it was getting dark by the time we arrived.

We were met by a few bemused locals though no one spoke English. We were seeking somewhere to stay because the temperatures had fallen far too low to camp (and my bag no longer had a functioning zip), and eventually a family agreed to take us in and allow us to sleep around their stove with them and have dinner.

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More fire, more tea – happiness!

Everyone slept on mats around the fire, which was dutifully kept smouldering with dried animal dung and the occasional stick. To us, it was heaven.

Our timing was good because there was a Buddhist celebration that evening, so we were taken along to an hour of chanting. A local alcoholic concotion was being passed around, a few swigs of which warmed the belly pretty effectively.

We knew this was where the hiking itself was going to get tough. The route would climb to the high village of Nimaling. We had some fears as we walked that the village may be totally deserted.

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Pressing on

We got there pretty late in the day and the smell of smoke from chimneys allayed our fears. The sun had already dropped as had the temperature. The thought of driving in pegs had no appeal, so some further negotiation secured us another night with a family around the stove. A definite highlight was when they lifted a blanket to reveal a yaks head. Thin strips of meat were sliced from the neck, then thrown onto the metal surface of the stove where they would sear until they peeled off. One flip and they were ready to eat and tasted simply divine.

The last day up and over the pass was frozen solid. Our compressed hiking and long double-days taken its toll and we clearly looked pretty tired. The father offered his donkey as a lift for our bags up to the pass we were pretty happy to accept. His daughter guided the donkey up the icy footpath, leaving us when we reached the pass to make our way down the frozen waterfall on the other side.

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View from the top

When a route is defined so clearly by a major pass there are pros and cons. You know you’ve broken the back of it, and have the elation of knowing the climbing is over. Equally, the adrenalin drops and you have a long way to get down back to civilisation and need to just grind it out and get down with one foot in front of the other.

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Our guide for a few hours climb from Nimaling

Our short trip achieved our modest goals. A physical challenge in fairly tough conditions. A reconnection with family after time apart. And a reminder of the spectrum of how people across the world live which offers a small lantern in the darkness to illuminate our own privilege and how irrelevant most of our day to day worries are.

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Ending with a prayer

A final memory of the trip was back in Delhi. My sister was flying eslewhere and had a connecting flight immediately but I had half a day to spare. I hadn’t washed in days, the skin on my face was cracked and looked like rice paper from the sun and cold, and my clothes filthy from fire and hiking. I booked a half day spa treatment in a top hotel – on arrival there was some genuine confusion and disbelief that I could be the customer but once the situation was understood they took me and so began my journey back to physical recovery.