• Brian D. Hinson

Stok Kangri, India, 20,187 ft

Excerpt from my journal, July 14, 2009: The Indian Himalaya

Camp is at 5200 m, and it was getting crowded with hopefuls wanting the summit. Met Forrest from Montana, who's doing this all by himself. Also Justine from Australia, who's with a group that attempted the summit the previous night but was thwarted by severe weather -- snow.

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As the day wore on the skies gradually cleared. At five in the afternoon we got fitted for crampons by Andy, a local who has summited Everest. After dinner we all retired, knowing that we would be awakened at 11 PM for our assault on Stok Kangri. Yes. 11 PM, at night.

I was awake at 10 PM, after perhaps three hours of sleep. I was excited, getting my stuff together for the most daring thing I've ever done. Forrest and Justin were now officially part of our assault team, so along with myself, Tom and Martin, plus Eshay and Andy, there would be seven making the summit bid. We all set off with our headlamps leading the way at 11:55 PM. Eshay was leading the way for the first while -- quickly. Andy replaced him as the vanguard so we could make a slower pace as to increase our chances.

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I knew we had 1000 vertical meters to overcome and that by sunrise we should be celebrating at the summit. The night was partly cloudy with a half moon high in the sky. Sometimes the trail was a ribbon-thin mark through the snow along a mountainside. Constantly I was looking down at the trail and my marching boots. Not a scenic trek. By the time we reached the bottom of the snow-covered glacier we could see ridges in the distance illuminated by the moonlight. Here is where we put on our crampons and began the endless switchbacks up toward the peak. It started to get grueling as we ascended -- I could only make two or three steps and move my trekking pole. Step. Step. Pole. Step. Step. Pole. Rest for a few breaths. Repeat. Justin and Tom were getting really far behind, their lights bobbing way in the distance way down the glacier. As we climbed the sky gradually brightened with dawn. We at last reached the first ridge. Here is where Tom split from the group to take a different route alone.

This was taxing beyond belief. It had grown much colder -- I now had everything on -- a T-shirt, a long-sleeve hiking shirt, my fleece jacket and my down parka. I had three layers on my legs, too: snowboarding thermals, hiking pants and an outer layer of wind/water-proof pants. My gloves were getting wet from trying to maintain my balance, which was getting trickier with the altitude. Despite all my clothes, I was getting cold -- icy needles stung my toes and fingers.

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We reached the mountains' shoulder after daybreak. It was a tremendous view on the other side, it looked like we were above all the other Himalayan peaks. It seriously lifted my low spirits. I suddenly felt recharged. The whole way up I had kept repeating to myself: "I can do this, I will do this, nothing can stop me." The mantra got me this far, less than 200m from the peak. I kept it up again: "Nothing can stop me -- not this headache, not the spots I see every time I blink. Not my exhaustion, not the deep cold."

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Tom and Justin eventually made it to this point as I rested with Martin and Andy, growing colder. They both looked like hell. Justin had black lips, Tom was ashen gray. Tom wanted to give up. I told him that as long as he could put one foot in front of the other, he should continue. As I was telling him this, I began to see just how gray his face was. He looked really, really bad. Eshay took Tom down.

Andy roped me, Martin, Justin and himself together. We had to constantly stop our ascent over the dangerously steep and rocky terrain because of Justin. It felt more dangerous than safe. Martin and I untethered ourselves.

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It was precarious negotiating over the ridges of scree, especially with visibility dropping as we ascended into a cloud, but we made it to the prayer-flag draped summit. Martin was sitting against the stone wall. I vaulted the last five steps and sat against my backpack really hard, nearly collapsing against that wall. I felt relieved and victorious. Alas, it was not the life-affirming or life-changing experience that I had anticipated. It was simply too much torture for too little return. After all that I had endured I could claim a 6153 meter peak, but the cloud that enveloped the peak obscured any hint at what lay beyond. We all took photos of ourselves and of the prayer-flags that we hung according to Buddhist tradition. All of us experienced a short-lived rapturous joy. But it cost too much to last. We had a long trek back down to look forward to, and we all felt that we had sapped the last of our energy.

The author with Andy at the summit.

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