A party of twelve Cranleighans accompanied by SAHY and two other leaders from Outlook Expeditions have just spent a most exciting month in Northern India. The initial destination was Leh, the capital of Ladakh, situated in the Himalaya, sandwiched between Pakistan and Tibet. At 3500m above sea level even the walk up the steps to the accommodation proved a challenge on arrival and everyone seemed breathless after the slightest exertion. However after a few days of gentle walks the party rapidly acclimatised and were able to set off on our planned trek. This was planned using the mountaineer’s adage of “climb high – sleep low” to maximise the chances of summiting the 6153m summit of Stok Kangri. Each day saw the team heading over ever higher passes before dropping down to our next camp site each afternoon to be met by our baggage ponies and the wonderfully efficient Nepali support team (including the auspiciously named Tensing Sherpa). The team continued to acclimatise superbly and were able to tackle the notoriously tough Stok La pass (at nearly 4900 m, higher than Mt Blanc) in high spirits before arriving at base camp (5000m) in great shape.
After a rest day, rigid mountain boots, crampons and axes were dug out and the group climbed a nearby glacier to get the feel of moving on ice. This session was followed by an early supper and bed in preparation for summit day. To avoid the problems of slushy snow and falling rocks released by mid-day thaw it was decided to start the walk in at 11 o’clock in the evening. Together with the high altitude guides (several of whom had summited Everest multiple times), a silent crocodile of head torches began the steady plod up over the shoulder and onto the main glacier. Crampons were fitted and the party roped up and headed onto progressively steeper ground and up the head wall. Unfortunately by this stage a few members were finding the going a bit tough and made the sensible decision to turn back with one of the guides. Dawn saw the remaining stalwarts up on the final ridge which, after a brief rest for breakfast and an hour or so of scrambling on mixed snow, rock and loose shale, led up to the summit. In all eight members of the party, together with two Sherpa guides were able to stand “on the roof of the world” and admire the view north to the Karakorum and several identifiable 8000m peaks. It was a particularly poignant moment for Ella Flavell who was able to celebrate her sixteenth birthday in a truly unique setting, something she will surely never forget. After an all too brief time on the summit the group retraced its steps, in about half the time taken for the ascent, and was able to collapse into Base Camp at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The next day a relatively simple trek took the team back down to the village of Stok and transport onwards to the next phase of the expedition.
This was SECMOL, a self-sufficient school for Ladakhi students who had so far failed to thrive in mainstream education due to poor teaching standards in their local schools. Here the Cranleigh group were soon immersed in the daily routine of milking the cows, weeding the veg patch and helping in the kitchen. During lesson time their role was to participate in the one-to-one English conversation classes. SECMOL was a truly inspirational institution not only for its self-sufficiency in terms of energy and food, but also the genuine thirst to learn and the open, friendly and welcoming nature of everyone there. Alas, all too soon, this phase of the trip also drew to a close and after a week here it was time to move on again.
It was time to return south to Delhi, but, instead of flying over the Greater Himalaya, the group had opted to take one of the highest motor roads in the World and drive over the infamous Tanglang La Pass (5300 m) via Kelong to Manali in four wheel drive jeeps and then pick up the overnight bus down to Delhi. This all sounded very straightforward, given how well acclimatised everyone was, but did not take into account factors such as the monsoon and major landslides blocking the road for six or seven hours. All in all this turned out to be quite an adventure!
Back in Delhi the pace changed yet again and, despite the sensory assault of that city, the team relaxed into tourist mode for a few days, taking in the sights, smells and sounds on offer. This included a day trip to nearby Agra to visit the unmissable Taj Mahal and Red Fort. However, in what seemed like no time at all, it was time to repack our bags and head home – older, wiser and infinitely enriched by a brief sojourn in an amazing country.
Many thanks to the group for making this such a memorable and happy expedition; to Outlook Expeditions for taking my initial sketch and realizing it as a concrete itinerary; and especially to my co-leaders Ian Fleming and Helen Shipley, who could not have been more professional or eager to help the group succeed in its goals – true friends (something one cannot usually say after an uninterrupted month on expedition!). My final thanks are to the people of Ladakh for their warm and open welcome and allowing us a glimpse of their awe-inspiring culture and country.