Wow, just wow! I've reached the halfway point of the Lamayuru to Darcha trek. It follows and old trade route from India into China and is incredibly popular with European tourists who love to trek through the Himalayas; less so with Indian tourists. And I don't know why. It's one of the most beautiful landscapes I've experienced and something that more people should see if they get the opportunity.
The trek should take 21 days but my plans estimated we'd be able to cover it in 14. I'd extended a few days here and there to walk 9 - 10 hours rather than the usual 6 - 7 that the trekking companies account for. It shouldn't be too hard. However, what I hadn't accounted for was the volume of snow on the four 5,000m+ high passes that we'd be crossing. I'm here at least a month before the trail properly opens so there is far more snow than the mid-summer plans account for too. Given I'd been handed a pair of crampons as we left Lamayuru, I knew this was going to be harder than I'd imagined.
I hired a guide, Sangay, and some porters to help me on this leg of the journey given how early we are undertaking the route, as well as there being very few places to get food. The porters reluctantly took a few items of gear off me, leaving me with an almost full load; not quite how I'd imagined it. We set off, but within minutes the porters had caught a lift to the first campsite leaving Sangay and me to walk. But I wouldn't have missed that walk for the world. As we headed up the valley we followed a very narrow gorge, huge cliffs towering over us.
The sun lit up various faces of the rock, showing us every crag within its face. We followed the road that wound its way through the gorge as if we were in Indiana Jones territory. As the day drew to a close, I somewhat mistakenly followed the advice of the locals resulting in having to walk over an overhanging piece of ice and cross a river in order to reach the campsite. I turned up to camp with wet boots. Not how I'd hoped I'd start the trek. Little did I know that river crossings would become part of the norm.
The next few days felt slow. Porters in no particular rush to reach camp early and forced camp spots to time the snowy passes first thing in the morning frustrated me, but looking back made some sense.
Our first high pass, Singe-La, loomed over us for a night. We would start at 6 am in order to get up and over before the snow melted making it impassable. Two Europeans had been forced to turn back days earlier, but we were determined to make it. Crampons on, and off we went. The porters, however, were sliding about all over the place in their ill-fitting wellies. Sangay had been nervous about this pass, but we continued to move steadily up the snow. Within two hours we were celebrating as we reached the top. I handed my crampons to Sangay who went to help the porters up. The route down proved easier for the porters, being able to negotiate the shortcuts down the hill to where the road would be. Their light-footed approach mean they could practically run downhill. For me, it proved harder as I sank knee deep into the rapidly melting snow with every step.
This was going to be a long, tiring day. It was inevitable with the speed we were going but at one point I slipped and found myself careering 50 meters downhill on my back narrowly avoiding four large rocks sticking out of the snow before I came to a stop in a pile of stones. With only a bruised ego and a small tear in my Craghoppers jacket, I caught up with the guys who assumed I'd done that on purpose! An overnight stop in Stayangs village, and tea with a monk in Lingshed monastery and we were ready to tackle our next pass, Hanumala.
We'd seen Hanumala looming in the distance for most of the day as we edged our way around the bowl-shaped valley where Lingshed village sat. No matter which way we looked at it, it was steep, and completely covered in snow. I couldn't see any way up at all, and a local herdsman advised us to take a different, longer route around. I was nervous, as were the porters. None of us had done anything this steep before, particularly with so much snow. But Sangay was confident. He'd done passes like this, plus we had two pairs of crampons and a rope between us. In his view, what could go wrong?!
At 6 am the following morning the mountain looked very much the same. We were going to go for it no matter what. The porters led the way and quickly reached the snow line. And with no problem they worked their way up, zigzagging as they went. Sangay and I were a little way behind, but when we reached the top at 9 am we were handed a cup of tea and bowl of Maggi noodles by the somewhat speedy porters!
As before, I found the way down much harder. This time we were following a steep valley with a lot of "accumulated snow" as Sangay put it. I soon learned this meant a glacier! It was hard climbing over vast mounds of ice and rock, not knowing whether the ice would hold me or whether I'd sink to my knees again. There was no respite. And then Dzo, my bag decided to increase the challenge by shedding the stitching holding one of the shoulder straps in place. I walked for about a kilometer with only one strap until I found a safe spot to stop. A quick fix with yet more paracord and I was moving again. It took us another four hours to reach the next camp as we clambered down the melting glacier. The porters and I were relieved we'd survived while Sangay was somewhat shocked we'd actually made it across quite so early in the season. We took the opportunity to rest for the remainder of the day, though somewhat too close to a rising river resulting in a 10 pm move up the hill to ensure we had a dry night!
The final pass of this stretch didn't seem too bad. There was no signs of snow, and we were able to get up and over within a few hours. As the valley widened out we followed the trail to Pidmo where we were invited to join a party later that evening. With very little water in the village to freshen up, all I could manage was a change of clothes to get ready, while the porters just swapped clothes with each other. As it turned out, the party was actually for us and were plied with bottomless cups of Chang, the local Barley homebrew and copious amounts of tea. As the evening progressed we took to the floor, singing and dancing Ladakhi songs to the beat of a Jerry can. This continued for almost two and a half hours before we were given a plate of food, and the girls in the room took over the dancing. Come half midnight I called it a day, but Sangay and the porters lasted until 3 am!
Luckily for porters, I'd given them two days off to visit their families in the nearby villages and recover from the night's antics, but Sangay and I tackled the final, windy 38 kilometres to Padum. We both enjoyed a day off after that effort! What an incredible first part to the trek.