My last Indian trek of the Year - Rupshu Posted: Aug 21, 2003 11:49 PM
My final trek of my year was one I had been looking forward to for a long time. And, this was the one to the remote part of eastern Ladakh referred to as Rupshu or Changtang. In this area, there are very few villages. Instead, there are nomad settlements that shift as the goats, sheep and yaks' demand for grass require. The landscape is moonscape, like most of Ladakh, but with more gentle rolling terrain. This is in contrast to the rugged, jagged peaks of the Zanskar Range further west. These rolling peaks are snow-capped, and often top 20,000 feet in elevation. In between are grassy valleys, and a few lakes. This is about the only place in Ladakh with natural lakes, and both salt and fresh water lakes can be found. The terrain is very similar to Western Tibet, and many of the nomads are Tibetans that cross the border, rather than Ladakhis.

For this trek, my good friend Kurt Schneider came out and walked with me. He was my college roommate back in Wisconsin. Due to his flight schedule restrictions, and his request to climb a 20,000 foot peak enroute, we started near Leh, and first went through the Karnak area of the Zanskar Range. I knew of tall peaks back in there, and did not yet have the contraband (military-forbidden) map of the Changtang area near Tibet. Had I been able to secure the map earlier, our route might have been changed, and we would have had time for a more relaxed schedule within the time frame of our airline itineraries. I'll give a day by day update as to our trek highlights.

15 July: Kurt arrived at the airport in the morning. I showed him parts of Leh on the way home, and we had breakfast. Kurt then took a long nap to start acclimatizing to the 11,500 foot altitude. In the late afternoon, he watched me give some music lessons, and then we started ordering trekking food for our trek. I took Kurt to my favorite Kashmiri restaurant.

16 July: We did most of our preparations for the trek today. We started by meeting with our ponyman, Sinon Chostar. With his help, we ordered the rest of our main trekking food and supplies. After he left, we supplemented with other things that we wanted to add, such as concentrate juice, dried apricots, and stainless steel plates and cups, among other things. In the late afternoon, we walked up to the old Leh Fort and Palace, which give a great view of the city. At the palace, we were also fortunate enough to see a show of local dances and singing. Kurt was happy to see this program. We ate Tibetan this evening.

17 July: The start of our trek. We got up early, and had a driver take us to where we were meeting Sinon. In order to get a head start on the trek, Sinon convinced us to take the taxi up to Shang Sumdo, saving the first three hours of walking. This turned out to be a mistake, due to altitude. Sinon has 5 horses, but only 4 are loaded up. The 1st horse is the "old man." This horse is 30 years old, and has virtually no teeth left with which to eat grass. He got mush the whole time in the evening and morning. He was also the smallest horse. But, he knew the routes and led almost every day; without Sinon leading him. The 2nd horse is the big black one. This is the one that carried our two huge duffles almost every day. The weight didn't matter, as long as they were balanced. This is also the horse that Sinon rode across river fords. The 3rd horse is the white one that was always in the back and farted a lot. The 4th horse was gray, and I don't have anything to say about him. The last horse is only a year old. Next year, he will be broken in. The four horses had HEAVY loads. We walked for a couple hours to Chuskyermo, my intended campsite, and had lunch. At 4100 meters (13,500ft), it made good sense to camp there. But, Sinon and Kurt both wanted to walk further. So, we went up to base camp of Gongmaru La at 4650 meters (15,000 feet). We all felt good.

July 18: Kurt didn't sleep at all last night, and had a headache. So, I dug out my diamox and we took a layover day. We were behind schedule for a week after this. As this was on the "freeway" Markha Valley trekking route, lots of horses (with bells) and people (with LOUD talking) came by. I finally went out and convinced them to continue on, as they arrived, if they wanted to talk. In the afternoon, we ascended to the pass, and then returned to camp.

July 19: Kurt slept a little and felt some better, so we went over the pass. He wanted to climb a high peak in the area, so instead of going to the Nimaling campsite, we went upvalley closer to the target peak. We camped at 4890meters (16040feet) by lunch time, and relaxed the rest of the day. Kurt took a sponge bath near the creek, and I studied my Tibetan and worked on journal.

July 20: Our climb day. We went up-valley and ascended the ridge we thought led to the 20,000 foot peak. It turned out to be a false ridge, and we found a huge glacial tongue between us and the correct ridge, which had been hidden the day before from the pass. So, we compromised by climbing a 19,000 foot peak. On the descent, we had to go down snow (glacier) to the flat glacier at the bottom, which we then crossed. On the steep snow, I hit 2 crevasses which left a foot dangling over black nothing. After a long traverse around the hillside, we finally got to Sinon at the new camp he had established. But, we were on the wrong side of the high late-afternoon river. Rather than get boots wet, I opted to bivouac and cross in the morning when water levels were lower. But, Sinon rode over with the black horse and got me.

July 21. Not a good day. We took the shortcut trail over to the Karnak Valley, which involved an uphill travese, followed by a long descent into that valley. After lunch, Kurt was moving incredibly slow, as if he were looking for shells at the beach. I then found out that he was sick. To make matters worse, we had 6 stream crossings we hadn't been warned about. Kurt went through in his boots, as he had an extra pair. I opted for barefoot. After this, we always asked Sinon about river crossings for the day. One highlight was that we met up with another trekking party consisting of 2 girls from Switzerland, and one from Florida. We camped with them this evening, as well as the next 3 nights.

July 22: Kurt's worse day. Sinon has been giving him some home remedies, but we had to get Kurt over Zarlung Karpo La pass. What took everyone else 2 hours, took us 4. But, I kept him in sight, and assisted him on the descent. We camped at Zokra campsite.

July 23: Kurt wasn't feeling well yet, but we had little elevation gain or loss. And, we walked through a spectacular gorge that resembled something in Zion National Park. Kurt loved that area, as he likes to rock climb. I've got to get over to Zion, as I've not done much over there yet other than Kolob Arch. We camped near Dat village, and walked in to that village in the early evening. This village, like Sorra this morning, was completely empty, save for one monk at the gompa. In winter, the Ladakhi nomads pull back into these villages. Many houses had padlocks, solar panels and prayer flags like the family was away on a picnic for the day. Kurt and I surprised the girls by singing a good-night song to them in English, German and French. As Kurt knows all 3 languages, he adapted the song for this.

July 24: Today started our long mileage days, as we shifted from the Zanskar Mountains to the Changtang area. Walking was easier, and we moved quickly across the map. We set off across the plains, and then ascended Yar La, which was easier than the other passes we'd done. We camped for the last time with the girls near Lungmuche Village (also deserted). To celebrate, we had both our ponymen cook up a couple dishes each and all shared the food.

July 25: Kurt slept well for the first time in days. We separated from the girls and set out to the north on an uneventful day that gave us one river crossing, and an early campsite at Zara, which I kind of liked. About the only other event, was that we saw a Tibetan Wild Ass. Kurt had an appetite tonight, which was good.

July 26: A LONG day today. We crossed the paved road to Manali and entered the nomad area, again moving quite a ways across the map. By lunch, we were at the Tso Kar area (Salt Lake), where we ate at a permanent nomad headquarters. After lunch, we continued another hour to a beautiful campsite (but by the dirt road) near the lake. Saw many bar-headed geese at the lakeshore.

July 27: Another LONG day. But, these two days put us back on schedule. With the scarcity of both grass and water, camping sites are far between, and we had to do 3 days' walking in 2 days in order to get back on schedule in order to finish the trek on time in order for Kurt to catch his plane flight out. It was either this or scrap the entire trek. But, it was not fun. The morning had us going 2 hours on an incline on soft sand. We then hit the jeep road and followed that over a small pass. The afternoon was in and out of 3 gorges before finally reaching our campsite at Nakpo Gozing. This was at 5000 meters, or 16,410 feet, and was our highest one yet. Kurt was exhausted, of course, but recovered at dinner. His appetite is back, which is an answer to prayer.

July 28: We moved across the map today. But it was almost all downhill, after the initial 100 meters over the pass. We ended up at Tso Moriri lake, and had most of the afternoon to relax. Kurt and I walked to the lakeshore and watched birds, read, and other things. Besides the geese, there were black-necked cranes and some kind of kingfisher there, as well as smaller birds that I didn't know.

July 29: We followed the road around to Korzok Village, the only inhabited village that we passed through since the first day of the trek, with the exception of the nomad camp at the salt lake that had some permanent residents. At Korzok, we looked at the gompa, which was being spruced up in anticipation of the upcoming festival. We also had a 2nd breakfast at a restaurant there. Believe it or not, I passed up a coke, which is unlike me. Not warm enough for me to be thirsty. But, Kurt had the cup of coffee he'd been talking about! After our stop in Korzok, we went up-valley to the base camp to the next pass and camped at 5100 meters, which is about 16,800 feet. We were at this elevation both tonight and tomorrow night, and it was the highest we slept at. On the way to the camp, we walked around a huge nomad camp.

July 30: We ascended the 5400meter (17,800 feet) pass, and I found on my contraband map that there was a 20,000 footer up the ridge to the right. It turned out to be an easy dome-shaped peak as easy as Mt. Sherman in Colorado - as long as we avoided the snow on the northeast side. So, I got Kurt up to 20,000 feet anyhow, even though it wasn't the peak I had intended. We descended a gully to Sinon's tent down by the stream that we could see from above.

July 31: We went over 2 fairly easy passes today. The second one was also at 5400 meters. But, as we had camped at 5100 meters, we had only a thousand foot gradual ascent. From the top, we could see the way back to our high peak, as well as forward to the Tso Kar. Camp tonight was in the midst of more nomads. We met a monk from Dharmsala who invited us to his sister's tent for curds (yogurt made in a sheepskin). This was a treat I had been hoping to show Kurt. We spent 2 hours in that nomad tent, and were treated like kings. In the evening, we again played cards with Sinon.

August 1: Last full day of the trek. We went over one pass from camp, and descended to our only river crossing, where we had lunch on the other side near many wildflowers. We then had one short hour to our campsite near the top of the 2nd pass. I got some good pictures of "old man" horse sticking his head into the teepee tent of Sinon's right at 6:00 when it was his dinner time. Sinon surprised us with mutton meat tonight that he had gotten at the nomad camp. He made our favorite Ladakhi dish: skew. It is like stew, but with homemade bits of dough boiled in water for the pasta. Excellent!

August 2: Today was a 2-hour downhill to the Manali road. The first vehicle that we flagged down turned out to be a Tata truck that took us back to Leh. But, it was painful on the backside, and incredibly slow. We had to go over Taglang La pass and everyone, including other trucks were passing us. Then we had a flat tire on the other side of the pass. Then, we had to stop for load checks several times with the military. Finally, we had a meal stop in Upshi Village. We got back to Leh and home by 7:30 PM, when I had been hoping for 3:00. Still, we cleaned up and got most of Kurt's "to do" list done.

August 3: Before Kurt's flight, we had a sunrise walk back up to the old Leh fort. Good views, and this was also my last trail mileage of the year in Leh for me.

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