Kibber, a small idyllic place 20 kilometers outside Kaza in the Spiti valley at 4200m above sea level was the chosen starting point for my hike to Leh. Already 4 to 5 weeks before I had left Nepal and in the meantime completed the treks in Uttarakhand. There I only climbed up to 4000m for a short time, a circumstance that caused me to lose my acclimatization to the altitude unnoticed.
In the night before the start I woke up at around midnight with severe headaches, nausea and dizziness and despite pain medication I could not sleep any more. All symptoms that indicate altitude sickness – these should be taken seriously and usually go down a few hundred meters immediately until the symptoms subside. But I had decided to stay in Kibber and the following morning I went to the only doctor in town very early. She was able to help me with medication to such an extent that after a day’s waiting in Kibber and the symptoms having subsided I was able to start my hike late.
I had no idea how long it would take to reach the first stage destination, the village of Korzog at Tso Moriri (Lake Moriri) in the Chamtang area of Ladakh. First of all the pass ParangLa with 5594m had to be crossed by a glacier – on the one hand I was a bit insecure because again all local “experts” assured me that it would be difficult because of the snow and the glacier and on the other hand I couldn’t estimate the situation because I didn’t know to what extent the after-effects of altitude sickness would affect me during the ascent. Therefore I took food and cooking fuel for 10 days with me, which at least at the beginning inflated my load to a little more than 40 kg.
Normally you can easily cross the ParangLa pass and the glacier from Kibber in 2 days, but due to the physical discomfort shortly before I decided to spend an extra day for acclimatization in the ParangLa Base Camp at about 4900m – especially when you are on your own, it could be difficult to come out healthy with acute, serious symptoms like pulmonary or brain edema. But the shorter daily stages at the beginning also meant that I could get used to the kilos on my back more easily – which I learned to appreciate very much, especially later.
The ascent to the pass was relatively easy and of course, contrary to all warnings and expert opinions, snow-free. For information about the glacier crossing, the Buddhist Lama Tschangtsentubel (that’s roughly how he is pronounced) was mentioned to me in Kibber as a guide who could describe the 1 ½ hours of the ascent – one should walk on the right side, because otherwise it would be difficult and sometimes dangerous. Nevertheless I felt a bit queasy during the glacier ascent, because it had happened not only once before that people confused left and right when describing the route. The uneasiness was even increased when I had broken down along the described route on a snow-covered ice plate up to above both knees into an ice-cold glacier drain filled with water – nevertheless I had to continue and after three more break-ins I was finally very happy to have solid ground under my soles again. It took my feet several hours to recover from this cold attack in my soaked shoes.
Following the Parang-Chu (Parang River) to the northeast in its wide, stony river bed, the next days were marked by countless river crossings and the search for drinking water. At this time of the year, the rivers carry different amounts of water due to the melting of snow at different times of the day, i.e. the water levels usually rise until noon – fords that can be waded through easily in the morning can become an insurmountable obstacle just a few hours later. This was not only evident at Parang Chu and its tributaries, but actually applied to all rivers in the following weeks and months. In addition, it should be noted that these torrential rivers carry large amounts of sediments, stones and partly also mud – a crossing without shoes was therefore out of the question for me. If you get a stone weighing several kilos on your ankle or somehow slip, apart from the pain, the danger of falling is too great. An experience that had to be avoided with the luggage on your back. Once in the water, it would be difficult to get back into the dry quickly – at water temperatures of 2 – 4 degrees Celsius, you get hypothermia relatively quickly, which could have fatal consequences, especially if you are travelling alone. Drenched socks and shoes lead to blisters on my feet after a short time. Because of the weight I had to do without a second pair of shoes, so it became necessary to get the shoes and socks dry several times a day, to get rid of sand and stones in order to be able to go on without any problems.
The high sediment content of the water could be easily recognized by its greyish colour and the cloudiness – locals drink this water without any problems, but for me it leads to diarrhoea, which is why it was necessary to find drinkable water again and again. It is hard to believe, one moved the whole day at an altitude of 4500 – 4800m with 30 degrees outside temperature along different rivers and nevertheless it was extremely difficult to find drinking water. The length of the daily stages was therefore not based on my mood or degree of exhaustion, but on the possibility to camp at a campground with fresh water nearby. Without exact knowledge of the place it is a matter of pure luck, which is why I had to continue until a suitable place was found. Hikes into the darkness, 13 – 14 hours and 40km distance on some days were therefore part of this trek to Leh.
On the fifth day I was so focused on getting ahead that I missed the turnoff to the right valley and continued towards China instead of turning off to Tso Moriri – 28 km detour and a few hours of annoyance were the result. In this area there are so few people on the road that it is even possible to approach extremely shy wild animals like Blue Sheep at 20 meters without them fleeing immediately.
In the morning of the sixth day the time had finally come – I saw the first people since my start in Kibber. A patrol of about 100 men of the Indian Army on its way to the neighbor China, was so conspicuously and noisily busy with the dismantling of their night camp that one could already observe this colorful hustle and bustle from far away – obviously the goal was not to take cover but to show presence. The gentlemen were extremely sociable and nice, invited me to a 2nd breakfast and gave me some information for the further route towards Korzog, the first place at Tso Moriri.
A little later we met the first nomads. They move with their animals in summer to the pastures south of the lake and spend 2 to 3 summer months there. Since China annexed Tibet more than fifty years ago, in the border region of Chyamtang, in addition to the nomads from Ladakh, there are about 2500 Tibetan nomads without legal status – i.e. they cannot rely on Indian state aid, go to school or exercise any kind of profession.
The first time we met them was strange – they were not friendly, but not rejecting either, they should not meet tourists so often and were very surprised that I carry my luggage around with me myself. Several families share a grazing area for sheep and goats. The animals are milked daily and the milk is processed into cheese. The wool is plucked from the goats with a kind of comb and not shorn, which the animals – at least according to the sounds they made – did not seem to be very happy about. The people are darker than usual in the region, the skin is tanned by wind and weather, so it was not at all possible for me to judge my respective counterpart by age.
The last 25 kilometres along the lake to the village of Korzog were very easy and easy to manage. From the army patrol I had received the information that there was no drinking water along the shore – they themselves had to suffer thirst on the section, the lake itself contains inedible brackish water. Therefore I had loaded another 4 liters of drinking water into my rucksack at the supposed last water point, so my eyes came out of the eye sockets another 2 mm further. In retrospect, this information had proved to be wrong, because I could see 5 water points up to Korzog without much effort. I hope for India, that the men of the national defense are much more careful when securing the border than when finding drinking water.
In Korzog I was able to freshen up the food for the second half of the trek – I could buy soup, tea and biscuits and as a responsible tractor I could of course dispose of the plastic waste collected until then. In Korzog I had also met the first tourists – and as chance would have it, a retired Viennese teacher couple who had made a trip to this lake by jeep.
The next six days past the Tso Kar (salt lake) on to Leh were very exhausting but not spectacular due to the long daily stages. This route is very popular with trekking tourists in groups because it is relatively easy to master in a wonderful mountain landscape. After I was a little faster on the way, I could cross another twelve passes within six days, whereby I very often met on this way oncoming hiking groups.
A little excitement had been added on the last morning, when I had to descend a gorge in the dark at 4 o’clock in the morning with my head lamp. I wanted to catch the bus to Leh in the next town, which left at 8 am, because it was the only one that day. River crossings and rock climbing in relative darkness give a special kick, as I can now report from experience. Anyway, I had reached the bus in Shang Sumdo at 7 minutes before departure and half an hour later I was in Leh.
The next report will be from Leh and from the ascent of the first mountain – an uncomplicated summit victory at about 6150m.