Inching towards 5,800m, my left calf tightens as the crampon digs into snow. The southern ridge ahead curves towards the Stok Kangri peak. Looking over my right shoulder, the powder-clad flank of the mountain surges below into a vortex of snow with sparse patches of rock. About 20 steps ahead, Jigmet stops in his tracks. “We’re almost there,” he shouts, pre-empting me from a second thought of rest, and points to the northeast at the rising hops of undulating snow. A thoroughbred Ladakhi, Jigmet often guides expeditions from Leh (the capital of Ladakh) into the surrounding Himalayan range.
The final 300m, under receding oxygen levels, is quite strenuous. However, working our way to base camp over several days acclimatised us to the weather gradient and ensured a successful summit. On top of Stok Kangri, hunched forward on a knee, Jigmet runs his index finger through the frosty air, outlining the distant Karakoram Range, marking its peaks on the panorama like a teacher on a blackboard with chalk. The view, with K2 towering above all, humbles me into a meditative void. Thick clouds encircle its massif in silent reverence. Jetting out from the slow moving white shroud, a gargantuan rock head, blanketed in virgin snow, rises sharply to a jagged icy tip. Sunlight renders its western face in a cream veneer and casts a deep blue shadow across its other half, giving it the impression of a two faced giant. This most unforgiving mountain, called The Savage for flicking innumerable mountaineers to their death, appears stoically indifferent to the world beneath, more God-like than beast.
On our descent, we meet shepherds from high altitude villages who smile and nonchalantly climb past. Passing through the Buddhist monasteries of Spituk and Stok Palace, I am engulfed in the smell of incense burning, the murmur of prayer chants, and the vision of monks and visitors alike, rotating the prayer wheels as they encircle the shrine. Experiencing Ladakh so vividly is homage to the land, as well as its guide – Jigmet – opening its door for others to come explore his home.
Trudging along at an easy pace, heading back to campsite in fading light, Jigmet and I get talking about all that's under blue and orange merging in the evening sky: trekking, daily travails of life in the mountains, global warming, receding snowlines, tourism. With adventure travel picking up in India, he pins hope on the internet to reach out and sustain his niche, providing a native climbing experience away from packaged incursions. We continue our conversation at the campsite, perched on a massive boulder, sipping hot Tibetian chai. Jigmet describes how he trekked the slopes of Stok Kangri as a child, years later as a porter, and now as a guide. Discussing the changing landscape around Leh, our attention hits conservation efforts involving trekkers and ecological concerns between us overlap more than I'd imagined. Cold dry winds blow across our faces, as the copper sun sets.
A few months back, Jigmet enrolled on Great Wide Open (GWO), a website connecting him directly to trekkers seeking to summit Stok Kangri. GWO links adventure enthusiasts – mountain bikers, river rafters, para-gliders, touring bikers – directly with local adventure guides in India. Like Jigmet, they are native to the region and under their guidance and familiarity of the terrain, a shot of adrenalin or another vertigo rush crosses over to an awakening of something much larger than us.
Venture Out! Visit: www.greatwideopen.in.