Road to Kang Yatse II
Markha River Valley, Ladakh, India
After exploring Leh for a few days, we were feeling a little restless. Leh, for many, is the jumping off point by which most adventure tourism in Ladakh begins, and where countless number of beautiful treks can be found of all difficulty ranges from casual hikes to serious alpine feats. We knew we wanted to go on a multi-day trek that provided some stunning views and challenging hikes, and after some time researching we settled on the Markha River Valley trek in the Zanskar range of the Himalayas. It seemed to be the right distance and difficulty that we were aiming for. The trek can be done as a “tea house trek” which meant we could find accommodations along the way in the small villages of the valley rather than having to bring gear such as a tent and sleeping bag. All we really needed was to book a taxi to the first stopping point of Chilling or Skiu and the rest we could handle on our own.
In an attempt to minimize the somewhat exorbitant cost of the taxi, we spent the morning bouncing from one tourist-packed coffee shop to the next in an effort to see if another group was trying to leave the same morning as us, or if we could convince others that they wanted to leave the same morning as us. I was surprised to find that many seemed sheepish of the Markha Valley trek, mainly because its highest pass surpassed 5,000 meters. That’s when we met Noah and Shahar, 2 unassuming Isreali girls about my height and build who were also looking for a pair to share a taxi with to Skiu and as a couple of chumps that would join them and a paid guide up the summit of Kang Yatse II, a summit that veers just off the Markha Valley trek.
Now this was a proposition I was interested in. I have always been a bit presumptuous when it comes to most outdoor activities, particularly trekking – it’s just hard walking right? My brother Andrew and I have repeatedly shown little concept of moderation when it comes to day hikes, treating distance as a fictitious daily limit, and altitude as an accepted hurdle our once invincible running lungs will always be able to handle. However, the highest elevation I had under my belt up until then was about 4650m (approximately 15,400 ft) through the Salkantay pass in the Peruvian Andes with my family several years prior. Although incredibly challenging, I’d had the luxury of porters and no more than a few liters of water and a granola bar on my back during the most challenging stretches, in addition to just having come off of training for a marathon. Although I’d been able to finish the trek successfully, I also had vivid memories of ear-splitting headaches and restless dreams from a night of acclimating to the high elevation.
This time around we were talking 6270m (over 20,000 ft!). We would also have to carry all our gear with us – warm clothes, tent, sleeping bag, pad, food, crampons, ice ax – on our backs, for about 25 miles between the days leading up to the summit. For anyone reading this with backpacking experience, this is not exactly a walk in the park for people with little backpacking experience.
It didn’t really matter though, my excitement at the possibility of summiting a big mountain peak won me over. We agreed to meet Noah and Shahar at the agency that evening to negotiate logistics and pricing. They had been quoted at around 15,000 rupees (~ $185) each, and Dan and I determined we’d set our max there. We met Neo, the friendly sales agent around 7 pm. The conversation began playfully and then turned into a somewhat contentious back and forth, with Neo attempting to hike up the cost, insisting that we needed not only an additional guide but also a porter if there were 2 more trekkers. But to his demise, he let it slip that he had actually agreed to 12,500 rupees (~ $150) each in a conversation earlier with Noah and Shahar, at which point my cheap budget minded self with zero alpine experience pounced. We sealed in the deal, with a package including 2 guides (in the event that anyone would need to turn back this seemed responsible for a group of 4), the required alpine gear (crampons, ice ax, rope, and harness) all of which we individually agreed to carry the whole way, the taxi to Skiu leaving Friday afternoon, and the verbal agreement that we would meet our guides Sunday afternoon in the village of Nimaling prior to beginning our ascent of Kang Yatse II at midnight.
Dan and I ran all around Leh Friday morning looking for some last minute snow pants, an extra layer for warmth, and most importantly, a tent and sleeping bag for rent. We grabbed some ramen, snacks, and peanut butter off the corner grocery store shelves, and went to meet our crew at around noon. When we got there, Neo introduced us to our guides, Prem and Dawa, two Nepalese alpine guides who briskly told us they spend most of their time guiding those trekking to Everest base camp. Prem we learned was 54, and his years of experienced seemed to make him the one who called all the shots over his junior partner Dawa, who was 28.
Neo set out our ropes, ice ax, and crampons on the ground. Dan looked at the crampons, then at his low-top hiking shoes, and then questioningly at Neo. “Should we try them on?” Neo briefly looked down at mine, Dan’s, Noah and Sharhar’s shoes and brushed him off, “Nah, you all will be fine.” I cluelessly shrugged and started rearranging my pack, never even taking the crampons out of their bag to give them a look over. Important take away: always check your gear. 🤦🏻♀️
As I finished packing and Dan went to the bathroom, Noah and Shahar were confirming when to meet up with Prem and Dawa. By the time I was done, I looked up and our guides were bidding their farewells for the short term. Noah and Shahar gave us and Neo a quick recap of the communicated timing and unfortunately there were already a few discrepancies between what Noah and Shahar versus Neo understood. I silently punched myself for not having paid more attention but Neo promised to clear everything up with the guides before they were to set out on their way to meet us. We all handed off our heavy packs to the driver and were off!
We made it to Skiu by late afternoon. Rejuvenated after so long in the car, our driver let us out on the side of the road by the river, finally on our own. We took out some snacks and discussed the game plan: get to Markha by nightfall. And so we set out.
Very quickly Dan and I realized our Israeli partners were not messing around. It checked out – these 2 women had spent the last 6 years in the military, making their way up the ranks to become intelligence generals. They, unlike us, had come with ultra light camping gear, a stove and plenty of food. Dan and I had barely enough food for the journey (we were primarily relying on the tea house stops to provide food for restocking), heavy camping gear we’d found last minute, and the optimistic hope that our bodies would always make it to our planned destination village for a hearty meal before nightfall.
When doing anything with Dan we become stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of people. I love this about Dan – it’s freakishly contagious and it’s made me so much more present-minded in all things since we’ve met. However, it didn’t jive with our new friends’ literal stride. They were going to easily out-pace us on the trail while we happily took our time gawking at the scenery. So we agreed to trek separately, with the goal of camping in the same spot together each night.
About an hour before nightfall, we came up on our friends preparing to camp alongside the trail. Sunlight was dwindling, and they’d decided to stop for the day. Dan and I however, were hungry and seemed to have gotten a second wind. With our headlamps readily strapped on, we wanted to keep going. I was convinced Markha was only about an hour’s hike away and the trail was so well marked, we’d be fine with our headlamps.
Turns out, Markha wasn’t that far away. However, about 20 minutes before the village was a knee deep stream crossing of very rapid, freezing water, and no visibility to the trail on the other side in the darkness. It didn’t take much time for us to realize we’d be idiots to attempt our first river crossing with nothing more than our dim headlamps and some starlight. So we took the loss on this one and set up our tent on the dry bank of the river. Laughing deliriously from the hunger, we munched on the meager amount of trail mix and peanut butter that was our meal for the night.
NAT’S EYE VIEW: DAY 1
The next morning, we packed up camp and made our way back to the river crossing. Sure enough, our friends had already made it across, having woken up earlier and surpassed us. I sat myself down and stared nervously at the river. Luckily the water level was slightly shallower than the night before. Dan already had his shoes off and was halfway across before I got back up. I poked my toes in the water and immediately got more nervous, slightly stepping away from the shore. Dan got across easily, and proceeded to shout some encouraging words my way as he videoed and silently laughed at my hesitation. I took a couple deep breaths, pacing a few steps before stepping fully in. It was miserable. My pack suddenly felt off balance, the pebbles of the riverbed felt slick and wobbly, and my one trekking pole was shakily keeping me standing, barely being dragged away by the rushing current beneath.
I tried to force myself to focus. Each step and placement of my pole would make the difference between a possible mishap or an uninjured continuation of my trek, or at minimum the difference between getting soaked in freezing water or staying dry for the remainder of the day. With only a couple steps remaining, my vision started to blur and I could feel the blood rush from my face. I have a history of passing out in ice baths, and we hadn’t eaten any breakfast. The last few steps to the other side of the pebbly bank blurred as I felt my head swaying from the cold before I sat myself down. A couple breaths later and it had passed.
I should make it very clear, this was a relatively easy river crossing. But a rushing river and ice cold water clearly freak me out, and I was tired, hungry and admittedly a bit grumpy. I had way more confidence moving forward and no more fainting spells after this first experience! Ultimately, it was pretty entertaining watching myself be a calamity in the video from the safety of the warm dry shore.
We got to Markha Village in the late morning for a much needed meal thankfully consisting of unlimited rice, vegetable, and lentil servings. The town consisted of maybe 50 people, the largest along the trek. The popularity of the Markha Valley Trek’s impact on the village was visible. Many of the inhabitants were busy with small construction projects: siphoning dirt for concrete, building new homes, and expanding the roads for larger vehicles to make way.
By mid-day we set out (our Israeli friends having unsurprisingly passed us again). We had previously agreed to meet that night for camp in the village of Hunkar. The trek that afternoon was a steady path along the valley floor without much elevation gain, passing stupa after stupa (dome shaped Buddhist shrine). As we neared the village of Techa, we caught sight of a Buddhist monastery, set high on a steep mountainside. From our ant’s eye view, it looked somewhat dilapidated, and it was so remote we doubted anyone would be there, but we ventured anyway intrigued by this Buddhist structure.
The path to the monastery was a series of steep switch-backs, lined with a small protective railing of neatly placed shards of stone. Going up this path was the most tiring work we had done up until this point in the trek, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of crazy monks decided it’d be a good idea to build a monastery so high up. I imagined the trek for the poor sucker of a monk whose turn it was to go get food for everyone. If the intention was to ensure the congregation seldomly left the property, they would certainly have accomplished their goal in my opinion.
At the top, an arched gate of white stone and freshly painted wood framing in the Tibetan style greeted us. We poked around for a few minutes before turning the corner to the smell of fresh wood varnish and the sight of maroon robes on a small bellied man. He turned to look at us, a smile lighting up his whole face. He pulled his attention away from the pillar he was retouching and immediately moved aside for us, displaying the temple door behind and gesturing for us to take a look. We bowed slightly in thanks, removed our shoes, and stepped inside the small temple maybe 15 ft square, the center wall displayed an altar with a gold Buddha along with other classic Buddhist artwork, statues and of course, offerings of cash and the occasional snack (9/10 times I saw Oreo cookies). We stood respectfully for some brief moments before indicating our departure. In half broken English, half sign language, the monk invited us for tea. We made our way over to the edge of the monastery, entering a small room with a stove and kettle opposite a large window overlooking the Markha Valley and the village of Techa in the distance.
Over a fresh cup of mint tea, Chamba told us that this monastery, or Gompa, was approximately 600 years old and was a part of the larger Hemis Monastery district (think archdiocese for any Catholics reading). Hemis is situated along the Indus river valley, quietly tucked away not far from Leh. At the beginning of the year, he had been sent to maintain the aging Gompa while observing his meditative practice and monkly duties. Come December, when snow in the valley will likely reach his waist, another monk will trek their way into the Markha Valley, and take over his post, while he will journey back to Hemis.
I couldn’t help but imagine that sort of life for myself: waking up in the early morning, spending an hour or so meditating, then setting myself to cleaning, repairing and painting the remains of this dusty mountain top before setting out for supplies down the steep valley trail to the nearest valley village and back. All this without the company of others, just me and my brain – personally, I’d go crazy. But this man, although clearly excited to have some company, seemed perfectly sane and content to continue doing life as it was.
During a brief moment of silence, Chamba grinned and brokenly asked us how old we thought he was. I wouldn’t have guessed over 35. He giggled at our guesses and proceeded to tell us he was 52 and that he’d been in monastic life since the age of 14. Learning this tidbit allowed my brain some semblance of understanding – firstly, is meditation the ultimate secret to keeping young? The only wrinkles he had were from smiling and it seemed that his shaved head was still growing dark black hair. Secondly, this man has known nothing but monastic life his entire formative years, making him more than capable of this solitary life of prayer and meditation while still maintaining the sense of calm and peace he exuded.
Before leaving, Chamba insists that we go into an older temple. We thank him for the tea and follow him outside. He leads us into one of the smallest temples I had been in, covered from floor to ceiling in cracked walls painted with ornate Buddhist imagery that he tells us is at least 300 years old.
We bid our farewells and make our way back down to the valley floor. About an hour later we finally made it to the village of Techa, a tiny village tucked amidst the lush foliage of the river. Tired, craving the security of a guaranteed meal, and a soft patch of grass, we decide to stay in Techa and make up for lost ground early the next morning. Our host tells us Hunkar is only about an hour away, and making it to Nimaling (our next day’s destination) should be doable in one day from where we are. So we trust her word and our yearning for rest, settling in for the night under a spectacularly lit milky way sky.
Nat’s eye view: Day 2
The next morning we set out early for Hunkar. That’s when we caught our first sights of Kang Yatse, towering in the distance looking deceivingly friendly at a mere glance. The first thing Dan says to me is: “That looks easyyyy.” I know he’s talking in comparison to Yala Peak, a 5500 m peak he and Jordan climbed in Nepal. Although I’d agree Yala has the reputation for being more technical, we were adding an extra 500 meters and I was nervous to underestimate the beast.
We got to Hunkar a bit later than expected and stopped for lunch during which we saw 2 trekkers pass our way for the first time since we’d started. Once we’d paid the ladies of the cafe, we followed behind the others we’d seen without paying much attention, until we came up against another river crossing. The map we had was simple and bare boned to say the least, and we had for some reason decided not to download a trail map. Our map had no contour lines for understanding elevation and the curvature of the river didn’t quite seem to match our blue dot on Google maps. But it showed a river crossing at some point after Hunkar? So we tied up our shoes and went across. Another 10 minutes of hiking and we found ourselves at yet another river crossing. After 30 minutes of cross-examination between our map, Google maps, and a battle between our intuitions, we decided we were maybe going the wrong way. It seemed that the small steep switchback to the left of us before hitting the river that we’d ignored, was indeed the right way. So we turned back around and crossed the river again, finally reaching the small switchback and making our way up towards the next village.
Once confident to be back on the right trail, our spirits seemed lifted. We passed a beautiful valley reaching up along the river and came across a small woman tending to a patch of farmland. She smiled and waved at us, asking where our destination was. “Nimaling!” we responded. A fleeting look of doubt crossed her eyes. It was almost 2 pm at that point and she informed us Nimaling was another 5-6 hours.
Our morale dropped slightly. It seemed we’d made a mistake in staying in Techa the night before. We’d already been moving for about 4 hours, had had some small backsteps, and the signage or information from villagers along the way led us to believe our Techa lady had likely stretched (or really shrunk) the truth when she told us how far Nimaling would be the day prior. Understandably, she wanted us to eat and stay the night. Now we had little choice – we had to get as far as we could while we had daylight, so we took another quick water break and marched on.
This was my favorite day of hiking. We went from walking along the river valley to elevating above it. The trail we left in our wake displayed the shards of the Himalayan range I had only seen in photos, and I began to conceptualize how long we had journeyed and how high we still had to go.
The most difficult stretch ended after the town of Thachungste, when we crossed yet another river, tailing it north where it led us to a small glacial lake with a statue of a small golden Buddha in the center. Despite the elevation exhaustion we were feeling, the beauty of the journey revived us as we took in the cascading mountain range that now reverberated below us, and we allowed ourselves to rest momentarily as the reddish hue covering the scenery indicated that the sun had begun to set…
And then we realized, the sun was setting. We now had maybe 45 minutes of sunlight left and based on word from the last passerby, at least an hour left of hiking if we moved fast. I felt like I went into survival mode, treating each step as a mini race and test of my strength and endurance. I think Dan sensed my anxiety, but he kept a calm pace behind me. We were high up now, and had little shelter from the wind or the animals around us. Our water was running low and we’d seen enough animal droppings along the river to know that was a last resort. And then right when I thought we would make it, a false summit hit and we lost the trail.
Nervously I looked around. Across the river it looked like we could see the remnants of a somewhat trodden path, but this river crossing seemed so much wider than the previous ones. Was there another river crossing on the map that we had missed? Trying to maintain a sense of calmness, I told Dan my instinct was telling me to cross, that that faint trail we’d seen across the river looked like the way to go. This time, the path across the river wasn’t so obvious though, and we zig zagged through small boulders trying to find the safest opening. With maybe 15 minutes left, I hurriedly took off my shoes one last time that day. We finally found an opening and as my feet hit the water, my lower legs felt a stabbing pain before quickly going numb. This river crossing was the closest to the glacial source, and the temperature was just shy of freezing. But all my brain was thinking was, “We really should get to Nimaling.” We got across and I sat on the bank to put my shoes back on. I found a dry patch of grass and yelled to Dan that I was going to leave my bag for a minute and run ahead on the path, over the hilltop. I’d yell back at him if I saw a campsite. I jogged towards what I assumed was the right direction, and sure enough as I turned over the hilltop I almost leaped with joy at the site of…a tent? A rock? “What the heck is that?” Delirium had somewhat set in and what I was convinced had been a small camp shelter turned out to be a massive boulder.
I cursed my tiredness and yelled back my empty findings to Dan as the last bit of sun lowered. Reality set back in and I had to rewire my brain to focus on where to stake the tent. Luckily, the patch of dry grass I’d thrown my bag on proved to be more than acceptable. The numbness of my toes subsided and the cold in my fingers kicked in as Dan and I wriggled with the stakes and tent cover. We got ourselves cozy and comfy inside and ate the remnants of our peanut butter and some prunes laughing at our tiny meal once again and the hysteria that had nearly overcome us (or at least me) the last hour.
Sleep came slowly, abruptly interrupted by movement around our tent. Dan jolted up and I wide-eyed told him I’d heard it too. Dan yelled into our surroundings, attempting to scare off any animal that might be nearby. He finally dared peak outside, only to find a few chipmunks nibbling at the prune seeds we’d chucked earlier.
Nat’s eye view: Day 3
We rose with the sun the next morning, stepping out of our tent to a frost covered ground, the sound of the rushing stream, and the view of a thousand mountain peaks below us. With a good night’s rest and fresh mind, we gathered our things. Our now rested and non-frazzled brains picked out what was clearly the right path on the other side of the river, not far from where we had been. I chuckled at myself as we prepared to cross back yet again.
Only 15 minutes into trekking after we’d crossed, we saw a camp in the distance, nestled below the mighty looking Kang Yatse. Practically skipping, Dan and I happily walked into the camp area. A large crew of about 20 people were packing up tents, food, and gear. One of them approached Dan and I, introducing himself as the group’s guide. We told him we unfortunately didn’t have any food for breakfast and were waiting for our guides to meet us. He kindly offered us some steamed potato and sat with us as we ate, clearly glowing from the ascent he’d just finished. A member of their group approached us with a wide smile on his face. He along with only 3 others in his group of 12 had made it up the summit and had just returned. Aside from the shocking odds that seemed against us, I looked around a bit confused: Where were Noah and Shahar? They definitely should have made it last night. I waited for a pause in the conversation before clarifying with the man, “This is Nimaling, right?”
“Oh no – this is base camp. Nimaling is about an hour and a half down from here, maybe less without your packs.” We had ironically ended up even further than our planned destination!
Luckily this wasn’t really a problem. We decided it made most sense to set up our tents and just take a small day pack down to Nimaling. We’d meet Noah, Shahar, Prem and Dawa in the afternoon and figured we’d set up at base camp before summiting anyways, so there was no need to carry all our gear twice. We set up our tent at base camp and set off down the opposite way from which we’d come. We thanked the guide we’d met and congratulated the group that’d made it up the summit and those who’d made the daunting attempt.
45 minutes of hiking down some rolling hills, past a herd of yaks and some grazing sheep, Noah and Shahar appeared in our view, warming some oats over a small stove on the outskirts of a campsite lined with rows of brightly colored yellow and pink tents. “Hey! We missed you guys,” Shahar yells our way.
They hadn’t seen or heard anything about our guides and it’s around noon at this point, which is when they’d agreed to meet us in Nimaling. The game plan, we decide, is to wait a few more hours, hydrating and relaxing our bodies. Prem and Dawa said they’d be here around noon, but maybe they got caught up in traffic or something. Assuming they make it, we could all make our way to base camp before summiting at midnight as planned.
In the middle of the Nimaling campsite is a larger tent that serves as a communal gathering area. Next to it is a smaller tent that housed the kitchen and the crew of young men that worked the campground. Unfortunately they were out of supplies for a full lunch, but they had an unlimited amount of leftover (slightly stale) roti and some peanut butter. Stashing a few extras in our pockets for the road, we carbo-loaded ourselves up, asked for some hot water and went into the larger tent to rest and wait.
The hours passed and still there was no sign of Prem or Dawa. Noah and Shahar were getting antsy, debating whether to continue waiting in Nimaling or go to base camp to wait and acclimate, concerned about making the trek to base camp too close to the summit without being able to properly get suited for crampons, practice any alpine techniques that may be required, and acclimate/rest. It would take about 2 hours on the way back up since Noah and Shahar had all their gear and they weren’t trying to go from Nimaling to the summit all in one go.
By 4 pm it seemed like going to base camp was our best bet. If something dire had occurred we’d come down in the morning, but assuming they were just late, we could tell the crew at Nimaling to let Prem and Dawa know we’d kept moving. And so we left.
By the time we got to base camp, our sunlight was dwindling, as well as our hopes of summiting that evening. Noah and Shahar cooked up some rice and lentils for everyone, while Dan and I boiled some water for the ramen we’d picked up, the last substantial serving of our food supply. Dan attempted to make a fire with a little bit of wood that had been left behind, and we all huddled around the small flame for warmth until the last ember dwindled in the swift cold wind. Despite the discomfort and uncertainty of the situation, spending time with Noah and Shahar during that time was wonderful. They were quirky and smart, and clearly addicted to “type 2 fun” the same way we were. Noah told us she had some alpine experience and Shahar just seemed like the type of person who was always down to check beautiful challenging adventures off her list. They’d come to summit Kang Yatse, and they were going to be bummed if they couldn’t.
I knew even if we didn’t summit, I’d be happy to have trekked the Markha Valley. After all, that’s the goal Dan and I had initially embarked on. But the feeling of the camp and the resolve I could tell Noah and Shahar both shared, definitely made me sad to think we wouldn’t get the chance. Not to mention, I was dreading having to confront Neo once we got back to Leh about getting our money back.
We cleaned out our plates and got in our respective tents. Before settling in, I went to brush my teeth in the river a few meters away. Just as I came up to rinse, I saw a bumbling light in the distance. I squinted a little bit, convinced my eyes were tricking me and that I was seeing a star on the horizon, but then that star split in two, clearly moving towards us: two headlamps on the trail. It seemed we might just get up Kang Yatse after all.
I waved my headlamp in the darkness and minutes later there was shouting in the distance. I call out to Dan that I think it’s them and then turn my attention back to the lights. Before long Prem and Dawa are at the opposite side of the river. They’ve taken their shoes off at lightning speed and already started across. The whole scene was hilarious – these 2 grown men, full of energy, feet bare, pants rolled up, came splashing across the river as if nothing was amiss.
Dan comes up behind me and asks, confused, where their tents are. They inform us that they don’t have any and ask if they can sleep under the fly of our tents. Noah and Shahar make their way over and we all agree that we’re obviously not summitting at midnight and we’d get some rest and discuss further in the morning.
At this point Dan and I have exchanged several understanding looks of confusion. Our guides have arrived incredibly late in the total darkness with no reasonable explanation, completely disregarding our questions. They seem completely disheveled, have nothing but the bare minimum gear on them; no tent, no sleeping bag, and no food. It’s one thing for us to be unprepared, but our guides? Seemed a bit strange. And it’s COLD. We all head back to our tents and Prem starts to prepare himself for sleep at the edge of our tent. Dawa calls to him mid-way and they start investigating a stack of materials a few meters away that has been left in the base camp with a tarp covering. At first I thought this was some sort of shared pile of supplies for all the guides and they were expecting to find a spare tent. But the real treasure was the tarp, which the two grown men proceeded to wrap themselves in like sardines and settle in for sleep on the cold hard ground with no other source of protection.
Back in the tent I couldn’t stop laughing. These guys seemed like total goons and were either total hardos, so used to these harsh elements that we were the ones being soft, or, we were entrusting a couple of unprofessional guides to bring us up 6000m. Either way, we either had to trust them or go back to Leh, and that option didn’t seem particularly enticing. We’d take the strange guides.
Despite attempting to sleep in knowing we had a long day ahead of us, again we woke up with the sun. First things first: Noah and Shahar had to let us know that they were still game to go at midnight. They were on a tighter travel schedule and had been going back and forth about staying an additional day. Fortunately they chose to stay!
Next, all of us were out of enough food for an additional day, since we had anticipated being on our way down from the summit and able to get food in Nimaling by now. Base camp technically had no communal food options. Prem and Dawa seemed to understand the lay of the land though and told us they’d figure it out. There was one other group of private guides nearby that Prem approached. This group had cooks and porters, the actual climbers and their guides however were on the mountain, climbing Kang Yatse I, the sister peak to our goal but a significantly more technical route about 200 m higher. They had enough food to spare for 6 others and we all agreed upon a fixed price in return for 3 meals that day.
Breakfast was a warm serving of all-you-could-eat Dal Bhat, or rice and lentils. At first I felt somewhat bad that there was so much food for us, but Dawa kept putting more and more rice and lentils on our plates insisting we eat. He kept saying “Dal Bhat power, 24 hours.” Personally, I was sold. I love eating vegetarian food when possible, and I was feeling incredibly energized having eaten only Dal Bhat for almost every meal during our time trekking. Once we were done bulking for breakfast, Prem told us to take some time to digest before adjusting and trying on our crampons.
This is where Prem and I became best friends – and by that I mean mortal enemies – just kidding! Sort of…
As a reminder, when Dan and I had asked Neo, the alpine trekking professional whom we were paying to guide us through an experience in which we had no expertise, we were told our shoes would work fine for the crampons the company was providing.
Fast forward to the crampon try-on session. First off, when Dan removed his shoes from the wrapping they were in, he had 2 left crampons. Dawa quickly notices, shakes his head, and offers Dan his own set of crampons, leaving us wondering if this man is planning on summiting with 2 left ones. Secondly, it becomes immediately apparent that both mine and Dan’s shoes are totally wrong for this expedition. I have very thin, flexible barefoot style hiking boot, and Dan’s has a pair of low tops. However, as far as Prem’s concerned, I’m (Dan’s not included here) a total idiot for daring to believe Neo, the professional who sold us the package, that are shoes would work. Dawa stayed awkwardly out of our interaction. Before completely giving up though, I attempted to see if there was an alternative or what the exact risks of me going up with ill-fitted crampons would be. I tried desperately to seek a solution, “Prem, is there anything I can do to try and make the crampons fit better? Should I go down to Nimaling and see if someone has extra boots? What are the pros and cons of potentially going up the mountain with ill-fitted ones? If I can’t get the crampons to fit, can I even make it up this mountain?” Every time I asked a question I was met with pure derision, and Prem not only would mock me for not knowing better, but would most times defer to Dan to explain to me how comical it was how little I understood about mountaineering.
Aside from the fact that I was clearly getting a disrespectful serving of misogyny from this man that I was supposed to entrust with my life, even my defensive brain had gathered that going up in my barefoot style hiking shoes would be a legitimate safety concern. Dan’s shoes by any mountaineering standard were totally unacceptable as well, but my attempt to find an alternative simply produced pure scorn from our guide who offered no alternative. I wanted to be positive but was getting nowhere – we’d made it this far after all! I walked away fuming to myself. Dan came over with words of reassurance and understanding and gave me a little pep talk. I knew I just had to do my best to remain optimistic and not to let Prem get to me.
Prem huffed away when he saw me continuing to fidget with the crampons, desperately attempting to make them fit more snuggly to my shoes. With still no alternative being proposed, Prem had us put on our harnesses and practice walking tied together anyway. We walked up and down a steep hill in our crampons while tied together. This is when it became absolutely clear no matter how snug I could get my crampons, they were not made for boots like mine. Dan’s crampons were rubbing the back of his achilles raw, but at least they were staying on his shoes.
Prem and Dawa fell asleep at the bottom of the hill as we finished our walking drills. We went back to our tents to relax until lunch. As far as I was concerned, I was not making it up the mountain and was mentally preparing for that outcome.
Dawa came to our tent a few hours later to fetch us for lunch. As we were walking to the other group’s tent he softly told us Prem would ask the other guided group if they had anyone with our sized shoes. I gave him an appreciative smile as we walked on. He could clearly sense the tension between Prem and I, and was the designated mediator trying his best not to disrespect either side. There was still no guarantee, but at least there was now a practical suggestion. We got to the tent a little early, and had time to sit and chat with the cooks and porters of the other group. In the corner I noticed a pair of boots left behind, a size 7 – my size! They let me try them on and I had a perfect fit. Now they just said I had to check with their boss man to ensure I was good to borrow them. They said to check in around 6.
After another serving of Dal Bhat, we went back to our tents with the intention of napping. Although unsuccessful, I did feel acclimated, stretched, hydrated, and maybe a little restless. At 6 pm on the dot, Dan and I headed back to the food tent. I was feeling good about the shoes and my chances of getting up this mountain.
When we got to the tent only 1 of the group had returned, and damn this man was on an endorphin high! He had just spent over 10 hours in extreme conditions and he was offering – adamant really – that we take a seat instead of him and even that we eat some of his food the cooks had whipped up that he and his team had paid for. His energy was contagious, and before jumping into our boot request, we happily listened to him talk about how challenging the climb was, the battle of his body and his mind, and his respect for their guide, Stanzin. About 20 minutes later, a second man from their group made it to the tent. He too had the same intoxicating energy and was also insistent on Dan and I joining them and taking his seat and food. Indian hospitality at it’s finest. The more we sat with them the more excited we got. Eventually we told them about our boot situation, and it turned out the second guy had Dan’s same shoe size.
Stanzin arrived shortly with the remainder of the group, another guide and a woman who had attempted the climb but unfortunately fell sick from altitude short of the peak. Stanzin seemed like a local celebrity. His party around him clearly had so much admiration for him. The second guide was beaming telling us about how Stanzin was the real deal, and how they were doing an 8000 m peak in just a few days together (aka this was their warm-up). Stanzin was a smaller man but his presence was anything but. He wasn’t loud or boastful, but rather incredibly soft yet firm spoken; when he spoke his word seemed absolute. Despite his station, he clearly took the praise being given to him with so much humility, it made him all the more endearing. At a certain point, the first two men we’d met told Stanzin about Dan and I’s boot situation, to which he immediately offered us the boots and even found me a better fitting pair. When we offered to pay him for the rental, he simply gave us his phone number for us to contact him when we were back in Leh and told us to make it up the mountain. Stanzin was pretty chill.
Prem showed up shortly, and when we excitedly told him we’d gotten boots, for some reason his reaction was to tell us he didn’t think they’d work. Confused considering these boots seemed to be some of the most commonly worn and relied upon alpine boots in the sport, we ignored the Negative Nancy and told him we were going to try fitting our crampons to them. At this point it was getting close to our departure time, so we started bidding farewell to Stanzin and his team. They wished us luck, in addition to stuffing our pockets with some of their leftover trail mix, chocolates, and candy for the road.
Back in our tent, we got the crampons snuggly snapped onto our boots. Prem came over and insisted he needed to check on our work since we obviously didn’t know what we were doing. He gave them a quick look before conceding that we’d actually been successful in our handy work and that the boots were indeed appropriate. I smiled and thanked him.
We packed up the boots, water, and our packed meal from Stanzin’s crew, and met for a final huddle before taking off. We all warmed our hands and huddled in the guide’s tent as Prem prepped some freshly brewed instant coffee. The atmosphere was light. The four of us were clearly energized and Dawa and Prem seemed amused.
Prem and Dawa admitted they were pretty tired, but that they’d gone through harder with less sleep as they gathered the last of their gear, stepped outside the tent, and pointed into the darkness towards Kang Yatse. Our ascent had commenced.
The first few hours consisted of slow and steady hiking through a series of steep switchbacks on a path carved from stone shards. Prem led the pack with Dawa taking up the rear. It seemed those first few hours that Prem wanted to stop and rest every 15-20 minutes. His pace seemed incredibly slow, his breathing was obviously labored, and after the third rest in 40 minutes even Dawa was chuckling at the older man. For a moment the thought occurred to me that Prem seemed hungover, but that would be crazy. It couldn’t be. Noah, Shahar, Dan and I were confused and getting restless, insisting by the fifth break that we were really okay to keep moving. Dan and I couldn’t help but exchange concerned looks again. We’d spent the morning hydrating, stretching, and napping while it seemed that Dawa and Prem had spent all their free time taking a smoke break. What were they thinking?!
NAT’S EYE VIEW: DAY 5
It was about 2 am when that part of the ascent ended at the beginning of a white snowy bank that looked like a straight wall of ice to my novice eyes. Prem all of a sudden seemed to have more energy and impatiently told us to put on our boots, crampons, and harnesses, we’d leave all the superfluous gear behind. We did as we were told, moving as quickly as we could. By the time Dan and I had all our gear on, Prem had tied into the rope with Shahar and Noah already attached. Dawa immediately looped Dan and I into the system when we got up. Each of us had about 3 meters of rope between us. Before Dawa even had a chance to tie himself in Prem was already on the icy snow. I blurted out a “Wait! Can you show us how to arrest a fall?” Arresting a fall requires a climber to strategically and quickly dig their ice ax into the ground should they or one of their climbing partners take a fall while tied together. This was one of the only things we hadn’t reviewed and it seemed to be a critical teaching lesson that was completely left out. Prem gave us a 30 second tutorial, after which Noah and I tried to copy his movements. I tried 3 times, each time Prem telling me my form was horrible. By the fourth attempt, I either legitimately figured it out or he’d run out of patience, hurriedly telling me “That’s fine.” I moved to my designated spot in our formation behind Dan, in front of Dawa. I was watching Dawa still fumbling to tie into his end of the rope when I felt a tug at my waist. Prem, Noah, Shahar, and Dan were already solidly on the ice.
I kicked my crampons in using the techniques we’d been taught and leaned my body forward, balancing with my right hand lightly against the snow and my left hand gripping my ice ax against the mountain. It felt incredibly awkward. My calf and quad muscles burned in those first 30 minutes as my body tensely moved forward. Despite being in cold snow, I was sweaty and terrified. My dim headlamp illuminated a tunneled vision no more than a few feet around me and the narrow field of vision made the icy wall in front of me seem significantly more vertical than I’d anticipated. I was confused at how inefficient and taxing my movements felt. Somewhat desperately, I called to Dawa (who was casually readjusting the double left crampon on his right foot every few steps) and asked him if he could watch what I was doing and give me some pointers. He suggested I shift my weight to the outer part of my foot more for steeper sections, especially when resting.
Slowly I found my rhythm and began to sense the tension and fear dissipate. As a way to relax, I found myself narrating out loud what was happening:
“I’ll put my foot this way – whoops just kidding. Don’t do that Nat, shift to the right.”
“Well that was a bit dicey.”
“Holy sh*t this is insane, we’re on top of a mountain in the pitch darkness climbing ice.”
“This is hands down the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Like actually the craziest thing I’ve ever done.” (This one was on repeat.)
“Hey Dan! THIS IS CRAZY! Isn’t this crazy??”
I tend to process out loud as Dan can attest to, and this was my version of doing so during the ascent. I sort of assumed I wasn’t being that loud, especially because I kept asking rhetorical questions, wondering how everyone else was doing, and was getting no response. I think only Dawa and Dan could hear me. If Noah and Shahar heard, they gave no indication, or simply ignored me and thought I was going crazy. In retrospect I probably would’ve told me to shut up. But honestly, once I found my stride, I was just having a BLAST. I felt so. Freakin. Good.
Dawa and I also bonded every 30 minutes or so, making eye contact and cackling to each other when we’d get an unsuspecting sniff of someone’s in the group’s escaped flatulence.
A wave of endorphins slowly flooded my body and my vision started to adjust to the darkness. In front of me, I could see Dan’s silhouette illuminated from his headlamp surrounded by a navy backdrop of clear night sky and soft dewy stars. Together our movements became a collective flow and those first few hours flew by. Before I knew it, Prem was calling for a break around 4:30 in the morning. We all shifted our weight into the mountain side and sank into the snow.
Apparently we were a bit behind schedule and when we started moving again, Prem seemed to have a renewed sense of urgency. The goal was to spend as little time climbing in the sun, as the snow would melt and become more slippery (and more dangerous). With each hour that passed and each foot of elevation we gained, it seemed that Prem and Dawa only grew stronger. This was where their experience as Sherpas became obviously indisputable. They could have had 2 hours of sleep and smoked and drank all day and still they would’ve outpaced us up that mountain; this was their territory. The four of us still seemed in good spirits but breaks became more necessary.
The sun began to rise around 5 am. It was one of the most incredible sunrises I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t help but gawk as the tiny beam of light in the distance rose, slowly transforming the sky from a deep shade of purple to a gradient of fiery orange and finally a clear, cloudless blue. Even crazier was the view the sun revealed. It was as if a curtain had lifted from the earth, displaying the entire Himalayan range below us.
It was hard to tell how far we’d trekked even with the rising sun making the path we’d carved visible. Soon we stopped at an area of exposed rock for a longer break and snack. Dawa and I brought up the rear practically bouncing, I had so much energy. Annoyingly I overhear Prem talking to Noah, who is slightly shivering (we are all shivering a bit from the cold), telling her how silly she is for her choice of jacket, pointing to his own, more weather appropriate down jacket and explaining to her that that is a coat for the mountains. He wouldn’t let it go for some reason, as if he had to insert his dominance and ability to withstand the harsh environment over ours. This irked me to my core. Clearly Noah was a bit uncomfortable, but so were the rest of us. We were all rubbing our hands together to keep warm while standing still on an incredibly exposed mountain peak 6000 meters high. She was just being expressive and was by no means complaining or asking to turn back. Also I was feeling starved for some positivity from Prem, who at every instance had displayed a healthy heaping of negativity and narcissism when he should be acting as our biggest motivator.
I naively jumped in to her unsought defense, “It’s all good Prem, we’re all cold, but we’re still having fun. Happy to be out here.” Prem took this poorly and his immediate response was to turn to Dan as if I wasn’t right in front of him, “This apparently college educated woman doesn’t understand mountains, can you please tell her so she understands how unprepared she is with that jacket.” My jaw legitimately dropped at this man’s unmasked sexism; out of the corner of my eye I see Dawa turn his face away slightly shaking, and I’m hopeful he understands the crudity of his boss’s attitude. Dan gives me an apologetic look and aggressively shut Prem down, “She understands perfectly, Prem. Everyone’s fine.” I wish I could say Prem understood at that moment that he’d been super disrespectful but really what had happened is he realized that he had upset Dan, another man deserving of his respect. Prem dropped it.
I’d never experienced sexism so blatantly and my body defensively tensed up, ready to verbally dig into Prem. I desperately wanted to tell him off and teach him a lesson. I was on my high horse, ready to inform him of how rude his attitude towards women was and how that’d get him nowhere with our group or other women he might guide in the future. I met Dan’s eye though, and knew it was pointless. This man had already clearly shown humility was not his strong suit and I wasn’t about to change 40+ years of ingrained chauvinism. I’d have to just kill him with kindness and my stoke for the mountain for the remainder of our time together.
Attempting to quiet my anger and reinvigorate my good mood, I turned in the direction of the peak which seemed well within reach at this point. I asked Dawa how much time we had, and surprisingly he said about another hour and a half, to which Prem motioned for us to start moving again.
About 50 meters of elevation shy of the peak, our pace slowed. Noah in particular was battling the grueling altitude and we all benefited from the rest every few meters. Prem to my surprise displayed great patience, stopping when asked, encouraging Noah that we were close. Soon we scrambled around some boulders and one by one hoisted ourselves up and onto a friendly ledge. We’d all made it to the peak, brief hiccups and all.
We all wide-eyed took in the scenery and the magnitude of Himalayan range before us. The sun now fully out, kept us warm and in good spirits. Dawa and Prem made a couple video calls and Shahar and I moved around laughing, sharing the chocolates and candy we had left over, swapping phones, and snapping pictures. Dan sat quietly, smiling but reserved. I found out later he’d been battling his stomach the entire trek up, which explained the smelly culprit Dawa and I had kept chuckling at with each cropdust. Extra kudos to him for accomplishing an incredible physical feat with a bad stomach the whole way up. LOL.
The hike down was when my energy finally began to wane. The now almost 24 hours of being awake became noticeable and the fatigue in my muscles began making an appearance. I stopped chirping out loud and focused on my breathing, my balance, and simply putting one foot and then another firmly into the mountain.
We made it to the snowy bank in only a couple of hours at which point, the four of us needed a serious break. Dawa and Prem seemed as energized as if we’d just started and hesitated before giving us space, moving on to base camp where we agreed to meet them once our feet gained back any semblance of feeling. I drank water and attempted to eat some nuts, but my body was so spent that this initially brought on a wave of nausea. I quickly found myself horizontal baking in the warmth of the sunshine, unwilling to move, allowing myself a brief moment of shut eye. Dan disappeared for a solid 30 minutes – I think his stomach had finally reached it’s limit.
By noon we’d made it painfully back to basecamp, practically collapsing into our tents for an all too short-lived nap. Once 3 pm rolled around, our bodies numbly and robotically gathered all our belongings and packed up. Slowly, our feet and now an extra 30 pounds of weight made it wordlessly down to Nimaling, attempting to take in the incredible views around us as each joint in our body silently waged resistance.
At Nimaling we pitched our tent and went for dinner in the main tent, which was packed that night with other groups of foreigners energized by the beauty of the Markha Valley. Noah, Shahar, Dan and I sat together, comfortably chatting and peacefully relinquishing control of our bodies to the exhaustion we were experiencing. Although far from recovered, we filled our bellies with more Dal Bhat, and slowly sensed some vitality creeping back into our bodies, allowing ourselves to take in the feat that was the peak of Kang Yatse II.
Nat’s EYE VIEW: DAY 6
Our bodies woke up stiff and creaking from a deep sleep. Noah and Shahar revealed one last batch of oats for us in the morning before we embarked on the last stretch of the Markha Trek to Chokdo where a taxi would pick us all up and take us back to Leh. One final ascent to a 5500m lookout loomed above Nimaling. Once we’d made it to that point, we spent another 5 hours quickly descending to the valley floor. In an effort to save my knees, a hiked down in somewhat of a squat. My quads were shot.
That last day felt like an eternity (much like this post!) and I practically cried of relief for my aching legs when Chokdo finally came into view. Prem and Dawa had been waiting there for us for hours. However spent I felt sitting in that taxi heading back to Leh, I knew I’d run it all back as soon as the next peak opportunity presented itself. Fingers crossed that time isn’t too far off.