Markha valley and ascent of Stok Kangri - August 2006
Day 7 - Skyu to Markha, aborted walk
We have a bit of a late start due to horse problems again (one horse has gone missing, can't be found and the loads have to be redistributed). Several groups are ahead of us and we are hearing that the conditions on the path are not very good for the horses: parts of the path are under water requiring some detours in steep places. OK for walkers but a little dangerous for fully loaded horses.
We wait for a while at a particularly difficult place to see if the horses will be able to pass at all. They get through OK but the river is rising fast and more and more of the path is disappearing under water.
At around mid-day we get to a point where we should cross the river and our guide is asking us if we want to go on or should go back. When he tells me that he reckons that we can get through to Markha but that tomorrow will be more difficult and the river (above Markha) probably impassable, he sort of makes the decision for us: what's the point in carrying on if we are going to get stuck further up? We decide to turn back and change the itinerary, returning to Skyu in order to walk up the Ganda La.
As it turned out later, we were incredibly lucky to leave late that morning. Several of the people who had left early went further up the valley (because water levels were not quite as high as they got when we came) and got stranded below Markha. They were not able to go on or turn back, ran out of food and drinking water. Luckily, nobody drowned because water levels didn't rise too much. But it took many days for the army to organize food drops (and in some cases rescue) by helicopter.
When we arrived back in Skyu we made our camp again by the river. In the afternoon I found out that 3 Indian trekkers had tried to walk up the Ganda La this morning and had to turn back because the ground was too soft and the pack horses could not carry on. They described the conditions as similar to quicksand. One small group of people came down the pass (the horses could walk down without sinking in too deep) but were also mentioning rising water and a dangerous path. By then it was clear that our only option was to go back to Chilling and from there back to Leh in order to reorganize the whole trip.
We sent a runner to Chilling (and Nimmu - 26 km away from Chilling and the first place where there is a phone) to phone RIMO (the company organizing our trek) and ask them to send a vehicle the next day.
In the mean time we spend the evening watching the river which has become a raging torrent of mud. There is also a second river running between the gompa and the few houses of the village, coming down from the side valley.
My son spends the afternoon digging rain channels around the tents (so that's what these ice axes where for?), fraternizing with the donkeys and watching the many partridges that run around in the adjoining field.
We decide to leave early tomorrow morning because as all the groups that are left in Skyu have to go back to Chilling (there is nowhere else left to go!) we don't want to have to wait ages for the cable box. Little did we know...
It rains again for the best part of the night.
Day 8 - Skyu to Chilling
The first news we get at dawn is that the path has collapsed and it is not possible for horses to go to Chilling. We will have to carry what we can and leave the rest in Skyu. Between ourselves and the staff we can carry all our bags but no tents, food or kitchen equipment. It doesn't really matter because we are going back to Leh anyway.
The walk back to Chilling is tiring with these heavy loads but the weather is grey and cool. We arrive fairly early at the crossing to see many other people already waiting. Bad news...the water levels of the Zanskar are too high and the cable box cannot cross loaded. Empty it barely clears the river. We need to wait until the river level drops. This could happen today or tomorrow or not at all. Apparently levels tend to drop in the morning and rise in the evening (something to do with snow melt higher up in the mountains) but of course it will also depend very much on whether it rains or not.
Needless to say, the morale of the crowd is not that good. Some have tents some don't, some have food some don't. Drinking water could become a problem as well (even though I have purifying tablets and can decant the mud of the river so I am not worried about that). Our ever resourceful guide manages to find a spare parachute and we erect a makeshift tent (we left ours in Skyu). I go and collect some grass up the hill (it gives me something to do apart from just sitting around and waiting) to make our new abode more comfortable.
In the evening, the water level of the river drops suddenly and some people manage to pass. The speed with which the water had dropped was pretty worrying because it had to come from a blockage further up. I decided not to try to cross in case a sudden break in some dam created a flood wave. As it happened, after about 20 minutes levels rose fast again accompanied by loads of driftwood and tree trunks (but luckily no wave) and they had to stop crossing.
In that time some supplies and messages were also passed from the other side. We now had water and food, knew that RIMO had been informed. We also knew that the road from Chilling to Nimmu had been cut by a landslide 6 km from Chilling.
We had an early night (what else was there to do?) on our grass floor tent. It rained again but to my surprise the parachute held the water more or less out and we stayed dry.
Day 9 - Waiting by the riverside
A day spent waiting. The water level is not dropping. We send a message to RIMO requesting a raft (the cable box will cross empty so we can send messages back and forth, they don't weigh a thing!).
In the meantime we hear bad stories about what is happening up the Markha valley. Fields flooded, drowned livestock. Some of the people waiting with us also get a little nervous and we experience some ugly scenes by people who are getting desperate to cross and want to force the locals manning the cable box to take some unnecessary risks. Nobody crosses the river today but food gets across (in 5 to 20 kg loads that are just clearing water level).
RIMO sends a message back that they will have a raft tomorrow morning and will evacuate everybody.
We get a few of our tents as well as some cooking gear brought from Skyu this afternoon by one of our guides Bayjung and our cook Sikari. These guys really have a great dedication.