Kyerse La was the name of the first pass, directly after Lingshed off the usual tourist route towards Padum. My next destination was supposed to be Dibling to get from there further west to Rangdum and finally to Kargil. Now I was on my own again and the question, why nobody actually walks this route, I should get answered in detail in the next days. Already the ascent to the pass was a thing of itself. Six hours of extremely steep ascent, one step forward and then sliding back half a step, demanded apart from the effort also bloody knees and elbows. Arriving at the pass I had to realize that once again I had obviously succeeded in choosing the wrong way. Two other, paved paths seemed to be much easier, at least from above, but were unfortunately not visible from my starting point at the foot of the pass. Instead, I had obviously chosen a shortcut that horse men with their animals only use for the descent.
Like before at the most exhausting stages, I got some kind of reward after the biggest strains. This time it was a perfect campground. The most important thing when camping is fresh water for cooking – usually this means sleeping near a river or stream and being constantly exposed to the sound of running water. After descending from the pass into a beautiful, quiet, uninhabited and not even grazed valley, I was able to pitch the tent right next to a river, but was protected from any noise by a ten meter high break-off edge. Marmots were the only ones who were trilling when I got there, but even that was over when I closed the tent. One of my most exciting experiences so far had certainly been watching a snow leopard hunting, so I was quite excited when the whole marmot colony started whistling again hectically at dusk. I had not seen any eagles or other birds of prey that day, so there must be some other threat nearby. In case of danger, guards always passed the warning signals on to the next shelter, so you could hear where the potential marmot danger was heading by the change of direction of the whistles. That was on the left side past my tent. In the meantime the outer tent had opened a gap, just enough to give me a good overview at the front of my tent and the opportunity for a photo. The waiting and the hope to get a snow leopard in front of the lens again caused some excitement, but little by little the whistling stopped to a complete silence in the night. It had lasted 12 hours, because that was exactly how long I had slept without interruption. The silence at this place was so unique that I seriously considered staying here for another night or two, but this failed due to lack of food. At the back, less than 20 meters away from my tent, fresh leopard tracks could be found in the sand the morning after – so if I had been right the night before, the lad must have sneaked past behind my back while I had waited in vain on the other side of the tent.
Shortly after the next pass, an unexpected but pleasant encounter with people – two shepherds, who live here in solitude for the summer months in a half-decayed stone hut and look after yaks, sheep and goats. Their main occupation was cheese, which is a loaf, formed into small balls or grated and dried in the sun. An invitation to salted butter tea, yoghurt, bread and tsampa cannot be refused – especially the freshly prepared “curd” is a unique treat, not comparable to the dairy products available in shops. It was easy to do without the daily ration of biscuits, which gave the two shepherds their joy again. Asked about their experiences the night before, they said it was easily possible that it had been a snow leopard. There were always problems and they had to be very careful. Not on adult Yak’s, but among young animals, sheep and goats there were always losses.
When I was asked how the way to Dibling looks like and how often you have to cross the river to get there, I was given a finger to point at. They gave me two self-carved walking sticks and told me to be careful, it could be a bit difficult. My interpretation that one finger meant a crossing was obvious. The joy was great when it was done relatively quickly, especially because I was told in the run-up to the tour that the dangerous thing about this route were the rivers, that’s why this route is so rarely used. It was also the last chance to take a photo, because the one finger was a misinterpretation on my part – they had probably meant a river, which had to be crossed thirty times in the next hours until evening.
The next seven hours became the most dangerous and unpleasant of my stay in the Himalayas so far. The time for photos was over, what works so well for adventurers in US-documentaries, namely to master “life-threatening” situations “alone in hostile wilderness” – mostly accompanied by a 20-person film team – and at the same time to get perfectly adjusted in the box, unfortunately doesn’t work for me. The first priority is to get through it somehow, only when I have the feeling that things are under control can I calmly reach for the camera – which was never the case this afternoon.
After I entered the canyon the first rain clouds came up. The sky became completely dark, which caused a very bad feeling. The gorges in Ladakh are notorious for their spring tides after cloudbursts. The vegetation-less mountain slopes cannot absorb the water and pass it on unhindered. Within minutes a trickle turns into a falling wall of water and debris that carries away everything that is on the way downhill. If one intervenes, the chances of survival drop to zero – during the flood disaster in 2009, several hundred people were killed in this way in this region, entire villages were washed away. Not long ago, such a flood probably raged in this gorge as well, the original path was only fragmented, walls of rubble and driftwood blocked the way. No traces of horses or people were to be seen, usually a bad sign if nobody chooses this path. The weather caused additional time pressure and stress, with no thought of making rapid progress under the given conditions. Climbing was the motto, over rocks, loose scree and slippery ground. The more streams flowed into the river, the stronger the current became. Even the strategy of always choosing the widest point for river crossings didn’t help, the water reached partially to the navel, the rucksack got wet and without the two poles and the additional weight on my back I would have had a hard time overcoming the icy cold water. To find a halfway passable way also meant to march hundreds of meters up to the thighs in the water along the river when it seemed too dangerous to climb along the smooth rock walls. Falls in the water had to be avoided, the chance of being washed away was simply too great. In between a few raindrops made a lot of steam, increased the willingness to go to the physical limits and to take more risk, especially when climbing, which in turn led to more dangerous situations that I don’t want to go into in detail. If I were to go into detail here, not only my girlfriend Sabine, but probably a large part of the readers would consider me completely stupid. Fortunately, it had not really started to rain. The next day both shins were bruised, green and blue. During the descent through the cold water completely free of pain, I hadn’t noticed anything of that.
The twilight was already very far advanced when I reached the exit of the gorge and the Oma Chu, the river and the valley towards Dibling, and thus could leave the immediate danger zone. Since the shepherds had offered me food and drink in the morning, I had neither eaten nor drunk anything – there was no drinking water to be found, so another hour and a half with a headlamp strapped on passed by stumbling through the darkness before a suitable camping site finally relieved me from stress and my backpack for the day.
This afternoon was the first time I felt that I was not in control, the control had slipped away from me. The weather-related urge to move forward quickly had completely switched off my mind. I was obviously lacking the necessary reason and the “reversal gene”, both are sometimes necessary, especially when you move alone on such terrain. There is an urgent need for change, because the well-known difficult, still open sections of the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal, will not forgive such slips in the coming months.
The morning after in Dibling I learned that there would have been another, strenuous but safe route over two passes – the locals didn’t use this route through the gorge anymore because it is considered so dangerous. I had only chosen it because it was marked as the shortest in my trekking map. Unfortunately the trek over the passes did not appear in the map.
Maybe 30 houses, a sleepy village almost untouched by tourism in the middle of a green oasis surrounded by karstified mountains. The inhabitants are friendly and open towards strangers, they differ in their naturalness and authenticity from the people in the more touristy settlements further east in Zanskar. If it weren’t for the occasional solar panels on the roofs and music from battery-powered portable radios, nothing else would indicate the present, the 21st century.
According to the forecast of the locals it had taken another two days to Rangdum, a very difficult pass had still to be crossed and a considerable river to be crossed. I had obviously had it with the rivers on this stretch – I arrived at the bank an hour late and the ford was impassable. I had been told to get to the other side by ten thirty at the latest, after which the river would be too torrential because of the melting snow. So at half past eleven there was no chance of getting across at that point. The same game again – either wait a day or find another place to cross. Upstream a suitable one seemed to be found soon, wide and therefore less deep. 3 minutes through the water meant 15 minutes of rest afterwards – although I am top fit and meanwhile very experienced in river crossings, it was again a borderline, physically exhausting borderline experience. With a subsequent climbing program of course. So much for my above-mentioned purification – I believe that nothing more will come of it in this life – maybe in the next one then.
Arriving in Rangdum in the rain, we first had to get the necessary information for the planned way to Kargil via the mountains and the Wakha La Pass. Extremely challenging route, difficult to find without an accurate map, again a river to cross at least seven times either very early in the morning or during the day in September and at least 5 days of walking, plus the delays caused by the river crossings. My need for unwanted water features was more than amply covered by the last days. Locals did not go at the moment, because it seemed too dangerous for them. In contrast to the canyon in front of Dibling, I knew that now in advance. So again a change of plan: After 2 weeks on foot over another 13 passes through the Markha-Valley via Zanskar to Rangdum I decided to drive the rest of the way by car to Kargil.
36 hours of waiting, that’s how long it had taken a vehicle to pick me up. There is a badly constructed road connecting Padum in Zanskar with Kargil – but there are hardly any cars on the road and if there are, they are usually overcrowded. Less than 5 minutes outside of Rangdum the first breakdown caused another delay of another four hours.
Anyway, one day I arrived in Kargil. The town itself was so uninteresting that I had not taken a single photo. I kept it like everybody else – spending one night in Kargil and then leaving very early the next morning to continue my journey westwards. To march on foot from here to Nanga Parbat was impossible because of the political situation between India and Pakistan – especially because of the disputes over the Kashmir region. So I had a long bus ride ahead of me until I could continue my tour to the westernmost of the 8000m peaks in the foothills of the Himalayas in Pakistan.
Without now anticipating the next article too far and dramatizing too much – the days in Pakistan had taken a completely surprising turn for me, caused by senseless acts of violence, that I would like to delete them from my personal repertoire of experiences. So wait a little and read it in.