I fall asleep by the shepard’s hut under the most wonderful stars and I wake a few hours later to… gusts of wind and a dusting of rain. Hoping it will blow over I pull out my zpacks tarp and cocoon myself innit. Sleep again for 20 minutes but weather picks up and transitions from hard rain to sleet and then snow with a hard gusting wind. Dang, this isn’t going to fly. Gotta leave my comfy bag.
Activate my red LED bike light (my flashlight) and it takes a moment to orient myself and find the hut. Stumble to the shepard’s hut carrying my sleep kit and have everything moved after a second trip, then back to fetch bike and lean it against the outside. Snow has already covered the ground and its surprisingly hard to see. Sleeping pads laid out the snow is still falling through the 4′ roof hole, I go out again and make a roof with the zpacks tarp.
Finally back into sleeping bag with clothes bag as pillow I’m surprisingly comfortable. Is great to be dry but not so great to contemplate what tomorrow will look like.
Light through the door at 5am but the tarp is dark with its layer of snow. Outside it is a moderate rain which should eat the snow. I’m not going out into that slush, best case it clears up with the sun, worst case I head back down to Zanskar Sumdo. I fall asleep again.
Rain stops at 6:30am, suddenly the sun is shining! Stumble outside and just small pockets of snow remain. Nice big morning shit, I lay everything out to dry while I eat my biscuits and tsampa. I’m nearly out of water but plan to fill at next stream.
I’m packed and riding at 7:15am. While I’ve made great time once the sun came out I’ve really hurt myself by starting so late. The upper part of shingo la will be snow and worst thing for me is travelling on soft snow. Hopefully the warm rain hasn’t hit the upper slopes!
I’m able to ride a few miles up valley from shepard’s hut but frequently interrupted by snow drifts and destroyed road. Several times I need to climb down near vertical 8′ wall of dirt, across a creek, then up the other side, with potential for a dangerous fall to the river far below.
I round a corner to see there is now just the mere-est edge of road, intermittent for miles ahead. My plan for noon at the pass is looking unlikely. And thus begins a Difficult Day. Walking bike sideways up steep snow one wheel at a time.
At one trecherous narrow section I startle a young cow who turns and scrambles back up the cliff to the road and trots away. I continue up the road and find him standing around every turn, each time she sees me she turns and flees. Until she doesn’t. At one of the few wide road sections she turns and faces me, waggles her head and starts to plod towards me. She’s 4′ at the shoulder but heavy. As she comes closer her plodding turns into a weird sort of sideways run and she lowers her head at me. Oh no! Attacked by a cow?! I yell and make scary sounds but she doesn’t care. I’ve got bike between me and cow but realize she’s going to trample right over me. I’m about to throw bike down and jump off the road when at the last moment (3′ away?) the cow turns away and trots past me. The whole thing was a ploy to get by. Whew! That got my heart rate up. Whats a cow doing up here anyway?
Progress is becoming more difficult. Usually steeep snow, then a short section of road, and then I encounter:
Switchbacks Part 2
I count 6 switchback corners on my phone map. The road is almost completely filled by 20-25 degree snow with just the very downhill road edge showing any dirt. Since the hill grade is steep the switchbacks are held by stone walls topped with a concrete barrier and its just the tops of these barriers that I’m seeing.
I estimate I’ll take 10 minutes per switchback, so an hour. There’s a longish road up high above me but looks like after that I’ll round the corner to the flat before shingo la pass.
The switchbacks are dasterdly. I can walk the concrete wall (postholing to get to the wall), then must posthole and carry bicycle up a steep snow bank to the next wall.
Postholing: My feet sink so I’m hip deep in snow, the bike sinks so its hub-deep in snow. I lift the front wheel and push it forward a foot, then lift the rear wheel and do the same. Then take a right foot step, then a left foot step. This is extremely slow and tiring.
Sometimes there is no wall to walk on so I must posthole around looking for harder snow.
I average 20 minutes per switchback, so 2 hours. I’m impressed that my arms and back haven’t given out. So much lifting! Above the final corner are several huge sections o fstep snow where road show be, so I posthole to flat snow above the road. Is difficult to go slow enough to control my breath. At this point it looks like 3 pm to the pass. Finally the climbing is over but…. road is totally gone.
Round the corner to see the flats before shingo la. I’ve got a gps map on my phone to explain where the road is. Using the map-indicated road route I stick to hard snow and avoid walking over the pale blue buried lakes and streams that are all around.
Finally after 1.5 miles of undulating postholing in snow I crest the final climb. 4pm! 16.5k feet. I feel great but need to get down. Weather is turning grey again and I don’t want to be here in any sort of weather.
Unfortunately the road down the far side is also completely missing. I follow the fall line and make good progress until bike tumbles and we fall and tumble. Bike pedal hits my knee which hurts!
As I descend the snow gets extremely soft. I’m postholing now to hips, bike is sunk to TOP of wheels and I’m concerned about bending my brake rotors and derailleur.
I know where road and old trail went: above a steep rock face then zig-zag down a steep rock slope. But snow has buried everything, there’s no sign of road, so instead I descend the fall line down near side of cliff. At bottom of cliff is an ominous pale lake buried under the snow. I definately don’t want to visit there.
One worst section was a steep traverse above that lake. The steep slope kept snow harder which meant I had to be really careful not to slip. I had to kick steps across and very carefully carry bicycle for each step. Once I was no longer over the lake I glissaded down with bike until slushing into very deep wet snow. I crossed snow bridges over the stream several times and very close to the edge of the tall red cliff on my left, then finally across the stream again (can hear it roaring under the snow) and out into the valley.
Another 30 minutes and I’ve postholed into the valley to the site where I remember the road crosses the stream. I’ve stayed to the right of stream for my descent.
It is 5:30pm. I can see a clear road on the ridge 2 miles away but in current conditions that will take another 2-3 hours to reach. Better by far to camp again and cross the snow in the morning when its frozen.
I setup tarp over a body-sized area of sand surrounded by boulders and 30′ from the stream. I’m very aware that water levels can change so pack everything so I can flee quickly in the night.
I change into wool tights, ibex wool top, down vest, raincoat, rainpants, waterproof socks. I walk to fetch watch and posthole to hips. Shoes are already full of ice water.
Finally into sleeping bag (15.5k feet.) Drink a little, eat a little, including a vanilla gel shot (yum) mostly I want to be warm. After 3 hours I can feel my toes (after a day immersed in ice water) but I’m still not warm. I dred the chill but get out Russ’ inflato pad (Half length Nemo tensor) and lay it over the foam pad. Almost instant relief and within 30 minutes I’m much warmer. Gound is cold!
I’ve got sleeping bag in full mummy mode and that lets me be actually warm. -5f rated bag. It is cold here! Stars are out again, maybe not as good as the night before but still terrific. Somehow on all my previous visits I’ve never seen good stars in Ladakh. Unlucky I guess. And this trip I’ve now had two nights in a row where the milky way is lighting up the whole valley.
The roar of 3 large waterfalls nearby, a rushing stream 30′ away and I’m surrounded by beautiful mountains. How nice is this!!
What a great way to spend the last day of June.