We get up early at 5.30 am, the plan being to start from Rumbak by 7.00 am last. We pack, tidy up the room and load ourselves with layers of clothing.
Starting off: It is very bright and very cold. The puddles which have frozen to ice at night are yet to thaw. I need to breathe with my mouth even though my throat seems to freeze with every gulp of air.
Pretty isolated scenes greet us. We see a well like structure across a flat area. It is for the nomads who will pitch their tents here when they pass. We keep walking and after about an hour the climb starts to become steeper. Tashi points towards Stok La-our destination. It is a ragged top of boulder stones very high up. I pause. We are climbing up there? Is he serious? I decide its best to concentrate on short targets-mine now being one step at a time. I realize that I am climbing better, having learnt from the last few hours.
Stok La: We approach Stok La at about noon, five hours after we left Rumbak. The last bit is almost vertical and I drop as we reach the top. The Stok La pass is about 5000m high and completely isolated. We all practically collapse and few minutes pass before we get up and notice our surroundings. There are mountains and valleys all around. And steep trails on either sides made by climbers. Tashi points out to Stok Kangri, the highest peak of the area at about 6,000m. Maybe one day. For now Stok La is my Mount Everest.
Downhill: A stop of half an hour and it is time for the descent. We can see the trail, round and round across mountains. It is a long way off to Stok village and we are unable to see our destination. We start downhill. The gravel is loose and my pace slows considerably. It is some time before I get a grip. I realize I must walk straight with one foot right behind the other as if on a tight rope. I can see Sanjay and Rajat speeding ahead excitedly. After about an hour and a half of walking we start becoming impatient. We still cannot see our destination. Tashi tells us it is behind the mountains. We are now in mid of gorge like mountains.
Pit-stop: At about 2.30 PM we site an orange tent and cheer up. It takes us another half an hour before we arrive there, crossing atleast 4 mountainsides. We make a stop of half an hour. It is maggi time again and some chilled sprite. I wash my face which is now covered with dust and grime. It is another 3 hours walk before we reach Stok. We pack up and move, our pace brisk. We are determined not to stop anywhere in between.
To Stok village: The trail from here is a large river bed. It is dried for now and we follow it. The mountains around are all brown with large rocks with few specks of green in between. Every now and then we spot a lizard. It is sunny and hot. At about 5.30 pm we sight the green trees of Stok village. It is encouraging that we can atleast see it now. The last bit takes almost about an hour, even though we are walking quite fast. We arrive at the Stok base camp and are glad to find the taxi waiting to take us back to Leh.
Back at Leh: We reach the guesthouse and I head off straight for a hot shower. It is only later, wrapped in warm clean clothes and with a mug of steaming chai that I am able to really think. I walked for over 12 hours on mountain terrain in sun and cold. I saw the most beautiful places- untouched by man and isolated. I did something I never thought I could.