Conditions made themselves felt last night.  Everyone turned in early, around 9pm, and I drifted off quite quickly before waking up again an hour later ready for a restless night.  We’re staying at a hostel (the LEDeG Ecology Hostel) in Leh, but not the kind familiar to backpackers travelling in Europe.  Around half of the expedition party (so about 35 people) are staying in a single room, and there are no beds so we have our roll mats and sleeping bags spread out on the floor.  Leh is hot, and this combined with the warmth of 35 bodies and the noise of their requisite snoring and shuffling meant I pretty quickly turned into an uncomfortable sweaty mess.

On top of the heat, the altitude really kicked in.  Everyone expects an elevated heart rate and possibly an inability to walk properly up a flight of stairs during the day, but during the night you really suffer.  Breathing is laboured, the dry air gives you a blocked nose and your lips get chapped within minutes from all the mouth-breathing.  I was bleeding from mouth and nose by the morning.  The worst part, however, is the delirious semi-consciousness in which you spend the whole night, half-waking every few minutes as your body fights to get enough oxygen in.  I finally drifted off at around 1am, but didn’t really sleep and felt like death on waking up.

My altitude-hangover was somewhat made better by the view that greeted me out of the window as I first opened my eyes.  The brilliant white peak of Stok Kangri could be seen towering in the distance, jutting 6,100m up into the heavens.  Contrasted against an almost turquoise sky, it was both awe inspiring and formidable, and as I sat panting in the thin air I struggled to imagine the efforts required to reach such a summit.  The morning’s view only slightly outdid that of the sky the previous evening, with the Milky Way glowing against the deep black of space.  Leh is as large town, with a population similar to that of Loughborough where I went to university, but due to its remoteness and the absence of overdevelopment light pollution isn’t nearly so much of a problem.

We spent most of this morning on some easy training for when we’re up in the mountains, refreshing knowledge on rope drill, knots, and first aid.  I also got to experience first-hand why it’s not a good idea to get altitude sickness, as the guinea pig for a test of one of our emergency Gammo bags.  A Gammo bag is essentially a long, air-tight cylinder made out of tough plastic, with a valve at one end and a window and lockable zip at the other.  The idea is that the casualty gets in, and the thing is gradually pumped up, which increases air pressure to above that of the surrounding atmosphere and makes more oxygen available to breathe.  As the bag was pumped up it was amazing how quickly the effective altitude dropped (as shown by our team leader Tom’s Garmin).  I actually had to get out at 1300m above sea level when the popping of my ears became unbearable.  Honestly it felt like laying in a coffin, and I will be doing my best not to get sick just to avoid a repeat of the experience!

On British Exploring expeditions each team is called a ‘Fire’, and contains 8 to 12 people, including an adventure leader, science leader, and trainee leader.  Traditionally, this was the number who could practically fit round a camp fire, and is small enough to be agile without being so small that we would all drive each other insane!  Most of us had only met for a weekend and a gentle walk in the Staffordshire countryside before flying out, so it was good to get to know each other a bit better by doing some roped walking.  Rope-drill such as this shows how important effective communication is in a team – pacing must be perfect to avoid a slackening of the rope (if not under tension it would be useless in the event of a fall), and the rope-leader needs constant feedback from behind.  It was nice to practice in the stress-free conditions of a hillside near the hostel first, as nailing this communication is going to be so important down the line.

I was a little nervous about this trip to start with – it’s a daunting prospect to spend five weeks living in a tent with a group of total strangers - but we’re getting on well as a group and I’m looking forward to things more and more.  We’re heading for a ‘light walk’ to one of Leh’s main tourist attractions in a bit, the Shanti Stupa.  Effectively a giant Buddhist shrine, the stupa looks out across the whole of Leh, and is on all the lists of things to see in the area.  As the crow flies it’s no more than 300m from our hostel, so wouldn’t take long to get to on the road leading to the top.  The plan, however, is to scramble directly up the scree slope leading to it, which might be a little tougher.  The view looks incredible though, and I’m excited to get some good pictures.

Published by Sam Nunn