words by Matthew Holt
photo Mandy Ramsden
I crawled up a rock step that broke apart in my hands, then waded through a deep pool of snow with the consistency of shaving foam. It was only about 300 metres to the summit, but I suspected we’d soon have to turn back, like the other teams before us that season.
Ten days earlier, we’d flown into Leh, an old trading town overlooking the Indus River. The town’s perimeter looked distinctly hostile, bristling with machine gun nests, stern-faced soldiers and signs stating emphatically that trespassers would be shot dead. (In mitigation, we were in Kashmir, close to India’s disputed borders with Pakistan and China.) Fortunately, the town centre was more welcoming, with quaint roof-top bars and quirky shops selling singing bowls and thankas.
Mandy Ramsden and I were on a commercial expedition to Stok Kangri, the highest peak in the Stok Range at 6,153 metres. The rest of our dozen-strong team were predominantly from northern England, with chopped consonants, blunt humour, and nicknames like Bin and Sponge. Less stereotypically, most were teetotal and vegan.
From our hotel, we looked out at the Stok Range, 20 kilometres southwest. Our target, however, was persistently hidden beneath a bulging black cloud. More worryingly still, the talk in town was that unseasonably deep snow made the peak unclimbable.
We spent several days acclimatising around Leh, largely in cars, driving up the 5,359 metre Khardung La, and visiting precariously-perched Buddhist temples. We were chaperoned by our head Sherpa, Uden, who patiently explained the four noble truths, eight steps to Nirvana and the difference between red and yellow hats. Evenings were spent at roof-top restaurants in the old town, watching televised cricket world cup matches on bed sheets serving as makeshift big screens. After four days, however, this pleasant routine came to an end and it was time to head for the hills.