by Neelam Vaid
STOK EXPEDITION AND 72k KHARDUNGLA CHALLENGE – DON’T UNDERESTIMATE IT.
That’s exactly what I did!
I cannot speak about the Khardungla Challenege, without first talking about the Stok expedition, which I completed a mere two days before the Challenge. I wish that I could go back and tell myself not to set out on this crazy, wild journey, because, believe me, I would have appreciated all the guidance I could have gotten!
It all started back in 2018, when I was driving through Ladakh on a road trip. Through a random coincidence, it turned out that our travel dates coincided with the Khardungla Challenge. Being true to my madcap nature, I thought, “Why not give it a shot? I’ve run Comrades! It can’t be anywhere near as tough as that!” I have to thank my coach, Atul Godbole for dissuading me from that suicidal idea. I settled for simply running the Ladakh Half Marathon. But, the bug had bit…
Come 2019, after the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, I declared to my coach that I was prepared to do Khardungla this year. To put it mildly, he was not too happy about it, but gave in finally to my bullish demands. The plan Atul set up was tough and I hated him for it. Add to that, the blistering summer heat, and we have a recipe for disaster.
The training began – a lot of mileage, hills and strength training. At this point, I was blessed to interact with Ashish Kaskodekar, the ULTRA man and pick up a lot of tips from him. Most importantly, I had the chance to run Sinhagad with him. His advice on walking briskly up the slope and running down is something that I cannot thank him enough for (no matter how simple the advice, it made all the difference). I also had the opportunity to do these training runs with him. I was doing this training alone so it really helped to have some company to boost my morale.
28th August – Sanjay (my husband) and I had decided to fly into Leh this time due to time constraints. All our previous visits (three) were made by road, there so was a lot of anxiety regarding the acclimatisation. We reached Leh 10 days before the race. The first day we just rested at the hotel and met up with the other climbers for the Stok Expedition. In the evening, we walked to the market – a 3 km walk – and felt fine. Next day to our relief, we were joined by Anit Sah from Altitudes. I have never completed a single summit without this man by our side and was so relieved that he took the time to come for this expedition with us. That day passed by in checking our summit equipment and making other arrangements for the summit. All the logistics for this were provided by Vijay and Vishal from Manali.
30th August – We left for the Stok expedition. After reaching the roadhead, we trekked to Manokarma. After a night halt there, we reached the Stok base camp which was full of tents. I have never seen so many people at any of the summits I have done before. I was soon to realise that hardly any of them would make it to the summit. The reasons for this are so many and sad that both the companies who bring the climbers and the climbers themselves underestimate the difficulty of this peak. In the evening we took a small acclimatisation walk up.
1st September – The day was spent checking summit gear and resting as the summit attempt was scheduled for 9 pm. We ate an early dinner and tried to get some sleep, but to no avail. Finally, we were ready and left Base Camp at about 10 pm for our summit attempt. We were 7 climbers, Anit and 2 guides with us. Two hours later one of our team members decided to return to the camp. All peaks are unique and Stok Kangri, with its distance from the base camp, the climb to the shoulder, and the ridge from the shoulder to the summit, is extremely challenging. We would have almost lost one of our climbers on the ridge, if it had not been for Anit’s timely action that saved him and all the others in the team. In the process, a crampon entered his thigh and which needed suturing. Thanks to the blessings of the mountain gods, we summited Stok and then started the long walk back. Exhaustion and lack of water and nutrition made this one of my most painful memories. For the first time, I saw Sanjay not feeling well and the feeling of helplessness at not being able to do much hit me really hard psychologically and emotionally. We reached back at 16.30 hrs on 2nd September. It was the longest summit attempt we both have ever made, but we were just happy to be alive. The next time anyone tells you Stok Kangri is a simple and easy trekking peak, you can politely inform them at they are talking out of their hats.
3rd September – We had a long walk back to the road head in scorching heat and now arrived the realisation that the race was just 2 days away and I was bone-tired. We reached Le by about 3 pm and just crashed at the hotel. At night we had the customary summit party but I was already nervous, worrying about my ability to complete the race.
4th September – I went and collected the bib and made last minute arrangements like procuring a sleeping bag, etc. In the evening the Organisers had a briefing for all the runners and took them through the route in the city i.e. the last 5 kms. Some enthusiastic runners ran, most of us walked.
5th September – I said bye to Sanju and left for the road trip to Khardungla village with the other runners. For the first time, I had tears in my eyes while leaving… first signs of menopause, I would like to think. The road journey was spent chatting, sleeping and thinking…Oh God! I have to run back this way tomorrow. Dinesh Heda and Bhagwan made it less stressful with their tips and anecdotes of previous experiences. At Khardungla Village, shared a home stay with three lovely Ultra women runners and the jokes, gossip(what else do you expect with 4 women in a room) really helped soothe the nerves. There was a cultural show put up by the villagers in the evening and then a medical check-up. The doctor in me could not help but offer assistance. Early dinner and off to try and sleep. I did not sleep a wink and finally got up at 1.30 am and started to get ready.
6th September – RACE DAY. Getting ready was a challenge by itself. 3 layers on the top and 2 at the bottom, preparing the drop bags, putting on head gear, headlight, gloves…uffff, I was tired before the start. We reached the start point, dropped the bags in the respective buses, tried to eat something – barely managed 2 spoons of oats, roll call and before you knew it…the countdown began and the race had started.
Initially I thought a run-walk would be possible…after about 3 kms, I realised that there was no way that that was going to happen. What the training does not prepare you for is the low oxygen at that altitude. However, since I had climbed a couple of 6000 metres plus peaks I was not worried about that initially. Big, big mistake.
I decided to walk. The target to North Pullu set by Kalyani (another athlete from Team Motiv8 doing the Khardungla challenge) was 3 hrs…here I must mention that this girl did not leave my side and really pushed me when I was almost giving up…Thank you for being there Kalyani.
We reached North Pullu in a little over 3 hrs and got rid of our reflector jackets as the sun was just rising. The encouragement from the army jawans here gave us another boost and we set off toward the Khardungla pass. This part from North Pullu to the pass is tough, both physically and mentally, and I almost gave up here. I knew I was slowing Kalyani down so asked her to go ahead, and after lot of convincing she finally relented. I was now doing what I do on my summit attempts –walk a few steps and then stop and catch my breath and continue. This helped – at no point did I have any altitude issues.
I reached Khardungla pass after 7:01 hrs. Even though the sun was up, it was very cold and windy here so did not layer off. I had a bit of garlic soup and set out. (The one thing I learnt in this race is that I could piddle on the side of the road without a care as to who is watching – both male and female runners just looked the other way!)
Khardungla pass to South Pullu – thought this was downhill now so would attempt a run walk but the road had other plans. The non-existent road made it impossible to run to had to brisk walk this entire section. I met Kulwinder Singh from Gurgaon here and he really kept the pace up for the walk. A few kilometres before South Pullu where the tar road started I began a run walk…initially 50 steps of both and then increased the running to 80 steps and walking 40 steps. I reached South Pullu at 12.55pm (Cut off 1330 hrs). I removed some upper layers here. By now I had caught up with Kalyani and we decided to run together again.
The next cut was Meindak Mod which was at 1500 hrs and we had 12 to 14 km to cover. Each volunteer gave us a different distance. This was the most stressful part of the race as we definitely thought we are not going to make the cut off. The last 1.5 km we ran at a tempo pace of 5.20 to make it to the cut off with about 10 mins to spare…almost collapsed here. (I have never in my life looked out so eagerly to see a FROG). After that it was 13 kms in 2 hours…mentally for the first time felt that I will finish this race. I crossed the finish at 1343 hrs and felt emotionally drained. I sobbed when Sanjay hugged me…the relief that I had completed the Khardungla challenge was overwhelming.
For me, what really kept me going was that I cannot let myself and my family down. At that time, with the long, unending roads ahead of me, the only beacon of hope is what is waiting for you at the finish line. My husband, my kids, waiting eagerly for updates in Pune, my parents and in-laws. And whenever I felt like giving up this was what kept me running and walking, running and walking, running and walking. Through all the effort, exhaustion and training, they are the ones pulling me through always and forever.