Revoltingly early on the Monday after Speech Day, before the end of term dust had even thought of settling, a select group of Upper Fifth rather nervously assembled down at the OEC to catch a minibus to Heathrow – the start of their three-week adventure to the Indian Himalaya and the ancient kingdom of Ladakh.
As ever the objective of this longer expedition was threefold: experiential learning, through leadership and the development of independence in a remote environment; a physical challenge, trekking and mountaineering at high altitude; and promoting cultural awareness in a wonderful country on the other side of the world.
Our trip out was a little protracted, necessitating changes of plane at Mumbai (monsoon) and Delhi (hot), before transfer to Leh (high), where we landed somewhat breathless at an altitude of 3500m, fighting for oxygen and struggling to carry our bags to the waiting taxis. Welcome to high altitude!
The next morning everyone was feeling more comfortable with the lower air pressure and began the acclimatisation phase of the trip, going for gentle walks, visiting the amazing hilltop monasteries and palaces dotted around town. We were also fortunate enough to be able to attend HH the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebrations and see the local Buddhist population in their traditional finery. A visit to Rimo (our in-country trekking company) gave everyone the opportunity to meet our team of Sherpas led by Neema and Reeta (soon to become firm friends) and to be fitted with crampons and high-altitude boots.
The expedition now started in earnest, with a short drive out to the road-head where we met the full Sherpa team and loaded our duffle bags onto the ponies, leaving us to carry just water, waterproofs and emergency kit. Carrying full packs at this altitude would have been too much of an ask. Life on trek soon fell into a steady pattern as we made our way along the amazing Markha valley trail.
Wake up with tea and warm washing water (all rather “Last days of the Raj”); drop tents, substantial breakfast in the mess tent; trek through wonderful scenery, stop for the occasional cup of tea in a remote home or even more remote trailside stall; meet and chat to locals and other walkers; picnic lunch; more stunning scenery, geology and wildlife, arrive in camp (already set up by the support team); juice on arrival; tea and biscuits later after a wash in a chilly river; fantastic three course evening meal (it was amazing what Devram was able to produce on just two gas burners); review of everyone’s health and the day ahead; bed; rinse and repeat.
Each day we ended up a few hundred meters higher, and managed to tick off various altitude goals such as exceeding the height of Mt Blanc. I have walked a fair few miles in my time and this certainly counts as one of the best and most memorable treks I have ever undertaken.
As our objective drew nearer, we spent an additional day in the village of Markha itself, carrying poplar trunks up to a hill top monastery to build an extension for the monks as well as helping out in the local school. We were also able to lend a hand to a member of a Czech team on our campsite who was suffering severe complications of AMS. Fortunately our gear allowed us to call in an Indian Army helicopter for a much needed evacuation. We subsequently learnt that after a couple of days in hospital our new friend had been successfully repatriated and is now fully recovered.
Eventually we reached basecamp at a height of 5100m and had a good, if rather intimidating, view of Kang Yatse – “our” mountain. Our objective was not the main summit (too technical, too far and, at 6400m, too high), but the shoulder on Kang Yatse II where the glacier joined the main ridge. After a brief recce during daylight, we retired to bed for the afternoon and after a hearty evening meal set off in the dark at nine o’clock. Snow conditions were such that we wanted to arrive at our top for sunrise thus allowing us to get back down before the surface started to melt and become increasingly treacherous – hence most of the ascent being done in the dark.
The whole team made it to the impressive height of 5,700m (higher than Elbrus, the tallest European peak), where we stopped to put on crampons and move out onto the very steep snow slope. Unfortunately, by this stage two members of the team were feeling the altitude and were unable to continue, so I brought them back down to camp where, as anticipated, they recovered rapidly at the lower height.
The remaining members of the party pushed on undaunted with the gruelling ascent and reached their goal just after sunrise on a rather damp and somewhat Scottish morning. Views were, I gather, decidedly limited. The whole team was eventually reunited back in base camp for a weary lunch and much mutual congratulation after an epic twelve hours on the hill.
Two days and one high pass later saw us all back on tarmac, being greeted by the welcome sight of taxis to carry us back to Leh. This left us with a few days to enjoy the fleshpots of town, do a little retail therapy in the markets and spend an exhilarating day white-water rafting on the Indus before reluctantly catching our flight home.
Every member of the team gained massively from the experience and came away with lasting memories, a widened outlook on the World and skills to help them in future life. A massive thank you is owed to Ash and Jo from Outdoor Resources for leading the trip so skilfully and sensitively, to the Sherpa team from Rimo for guiding and spoiling us rotten and to the wonderful people of Ladakh for making us so welcome.
If you are interested in finding out more about the trip, do come along to the Tom Avery Lecture on the 20th September when the team will be telling the full story of their exploits, illustrated with loads of their photos.