Saturday, November 17, 2007

To the North and back again

Ah, India. Land where nothing is what you think, but that means there's always something you haven't thought of. Lin and I went up to Leh, in the Ladakh region of Jammu&Kashmir, to get high in the Himalaya. It's a little late in the season for 20,000 feet, so we signed up with a guide, cook and horseman. If you've never trekked with hoofed animals to carry all your gear and someone cooking for you, you're missing out. I'm a pretty self-reliant person, but it's awfully nice. *grin*

It's long past the trekking season there at 11.600', so the town was much more local-feeling, and quite Tibetan in its flavor - butter tea and the like. Our guest house was delightful - no heat in the room or running water as it is now cold enough for the pipes to freeze, but wireless high-speed internet available (as long as the power isn't out)! Good local food and a few interesting solo travelers from around the world.

We set off toward Stok Kangri - a beautiful acclimatization hike with all of our warmest gear along. Camped at 16,200' the second night and prepared to climb the next morning. Reconnaissance showed a few inches of snow, but nothing different than we're used to in the Northwest; the guide said this would be difficult, unlike summer conditions. We shall see.

Walking by 3am in 10 degree darkness, clear but with light snowflakes materializing out of the air. Around the bottom of the moraine, guide a little turned around in the snow and clearly not liking the snowy conditions. Cold toes and fingers, definitely, but good. Sunrise found us on the rocky lateral moraine beside a pretty benign glacier, guide clearly unhappy and not wanting to continue. Why? Looked good to us - the snow had stopped and there were rocks to walk along to the upper part of the route.

Turns out the "guide", despite answering yes our direct questions, did not have plastic or even heavy boots! He was climbing in low-top hikers, with gaiters that didn't come down over the tops of his shoes! In snowy conditions his feet were wet and very cold, and he certainly didn't appear to have climbed Stok Kangri at this time of year before. Aargh! Lin and I decided to press on around the corner - I broke trail for an hour up to 18,300' to look around.

The upper part of the route appeared to be a snow-and-scree scramble, over a shoulder and up to the summit. By this time, however, it was 10am and we weren't sure of our speed or safety in getting up and back before dark and 2000' of scree wasn't all that appealing. To go or not to go? Thoughts of coming on our own the next morning, but it was pretty cold and I wasn't excited about another long day following this. Our guide said flat out, "I'm not going up there." Wow. Is there something we don't know? So far everything seemed pretty standard snow travel, but as a guide I ask people to follow my advice, so it's hard to disregard him. But really, no snow boots??

Ultimately we decided to go down, rather disappointed and certainly miffed at the inadequacy of our "guide's" gear despite direct questioning. I had brought my skis in case the glacier was skiable, but by that point had decided he wasn't worth much in the way of accurate information. Headed out the next day, never seeing our cook who was supposed to return for the last day after going to a friend's wedding mid-trip, and made it back to Leh that night. The power was, of course, out, making it slightly more difficult to finalize travel plans back to Delhi.

Ah, India. The airline we wanted had an office but couldn't sell us tickets, another could use frequent flyer miles but only if you hadn't missed the deadline 15 minutes ago by waiting for them to get to you, the third wasn't flying today. The first airline would take our cash in Delhi, but only for the next hour. Time crunch - Lin's husband and driver collaborated to get to the Delhi airport to buy tickets there(no ma'am, we require payment 1 1/2 hours before the flight now, not 1 hour). Of course, the flight might leave early if everyone has arrived. Lin distracted the office person for an hour as people were going through security in Leh so he wouldn't leave and not come back before we were booked. Finally our names came through and we were allowed through security, informed that no carryon luggage was allowed out of Leh (due to its proximity to Kashmir's troubles), charged extra for checking too much baggage, and rushed into the next room to wait with everyone else. Ha! Frisked four more times (seriously), and finally allowed on the plane and out of Leh. Whew! I'm not sure which was more of an adventure - climbing or flying!

On return to Delhi, noticed that evening that my camera hadn't turned up. In rushedly checking my carryon, I hadn't thought to reposition my camera, and am fairly certain that someone in Delhi's luggage handling has a new black market item to sell. Talk about insult to injury...

So I have no pictures, but am hoping to collage one of the scenes that stuck in my head. For now, be glad that you can buy airline tickets online, have reliable electricity, and don't have politically unstable neighbors stealing your camera.

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