Trekking the Chantang Plateau and Climbing Mentok Kangri – Ladakh, India

After Markha, we decided it was time to tackle something bigger.  We decided on an 8-day trek across the Chantang Plateau, culminating in an attempt of Mentok Kangri (6250 m).

The Chantang is part of the Tibetan Plateau and includes the Northeastern corner of Ladakh, and a small part of southern Tibet.  It is home to Ladakh’s three biggest lakes, Pangong, Tso Moriri, and Tso Kar. The area is sparsely populated, but for a handful of small settlements, nomadic camps, and some army bases. Much of the Changtang is disputed territory, and was the site of conflict during the Indo-China War of 1962. Disputed borders continue to be a fact of life for people in the region.

In our planning, we budgeted for a guided trip, and accepted that other than airfare, this would be the most expensive part of our travels. So in Leh we arranged the trip through a local trekking outfit. We would start near Rumste on the Leh-Manali Rd, cross six 5000 meter passes, climb 6250m Mentok Kangri, and finish at Tso Moriri, one of the biggest lakes in Ladahk (tso=lake). We had a cook, guide, and pony man, as well as five ponies. They arranged the climbing permit and the inner line permits, which you need if visiting any areas near the disputed borders with China or Pakistan. I’ve done a couple short guided trips before, but nothing like this. We were treated very well; all our needs were met; everyone was friendly, despite language barriers. The ponies carried the heavy gear and were usually ahead of us, so we just had to carry daypacks. At 5000m that felt like money well spent….

Generally, the terrain was pretty easy, characterized mainly by high grasslands and gentle mountains, with a few rugged peaks poking up here and there. The biggest challenge for us was the elevation. The main routes in the Changtang have been traveled for hundreds of years by traders, travelers, Changpa nomads and, in more recent times, Tibetan exiles fleeing the oppressive Cultural Revolution imposed by the Chinese.  There are no permanent settlements directly on the route, but there are a number of seasonal nomadic camps used by herders. Most of the place names refer to a valley or camp, rather than to a settlement.

It rained most of our first day from Rumste to Kyamar. We camped in a long valley. A couple other trekking outfits were nearby, but it was definitely not crowded.
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On the next day, from Kyamar to Tisaling, we crossed our first two passes, the 5115m Kumar La and 5220 Mandalchan La. Weather continued to be unsettled.

As always, prayer flags greet travelers at the passes, and the occasional skull.  The photo below features a blue sheep skull.

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A few breaks in the cloud allowed for the odd picture.
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There are old camps scattered along the route. Litter seems to be a problem everywhere in India, even in some of the remotest corners.
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Sundown near camp. That evening we saw some foxes, the same red fox (Vulpes vulpes) that live in North America.
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Thankfully our outfitters supplied us with our own toilet tent so we didn’t have to use this one.
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Next morning we ascended Shibuk La and went up a small peak nearby.
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Carley and I on “Peak 5452”
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As we descend the ridge we got our first views of Tso Kar, or “white lake,” so named for the salt deposits that line the shores.
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We are all aghast at the trash left behind. The trekking company we used says they are eco-friendly (but don’t they all…). Our guide picked up one plastic bottle, and pretty soon we were all piling trash. Better to burn it than leave it…. Our guide Mingma packed out a pretty large bag that day.
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In Tso Kar basin. I saw a small hill I wanted to climb. Carley and Mingma continued to camp while I went for a walk.
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On various hilltops along the route are old army bunkers. I took refuge in this one to catch my breath away from the wind.
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On the 4950m summit, there were the usual prayer flags flapping away. It was a beautiful day and it was great to look over the huge basin. Between the flags is an army base.
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Next day we would head towards the two bumps near centre of photo below, following the jeep track that’s visible. Tso Kar is reachable by vehicle, and that night we camped near a tent-stay in Pongunabu. Being at Tso Kar was one of the highlights of the trip. It’s the third largest lake in Ladahk, after Pangong (partially in China) and Tso Moriri, where we would finish our trek.
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Day four was supposed to be an easy day, but due to the heat of the desert and lack of shade, it was pretty challenging. We started by walking the jeep track around Tso Kar. Much of the Changtang region is in a wildlife sanctuary, and this sign warns us to tread carefully.
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As we round the lake we take in the views and hope to spot some wildlife, especially the rare black-
We stop to check out the salt. It tasted…. very salty. For hundreds of years, the Changpa people would collect salt here to trade in other parts of Ladakh and Tibet. As with so many pastimes, modernization has made this practice basically obsolete.
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After a few hours, we left the lakeshore and headed to our next camp at Nuruchan. Along the way we passed seasonal dwellings belonging to Changpa nomads. It’s a harsh and desolate landscape.
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Here they have piled yak dung for use as fire fuel. With no trees anywhere, they use what they can to stay warm.
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Mingma tells us that under the yak fur is a 4 foot pit used to put baby goats in to stay warm during the winter.
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Of course, you can’t walk far in Ladahk without seeing a mani wall.
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Due to the dry climate, wildflowers are uncommon along the route. We were pleased to see this patch beside our tent on our fourth night.
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Camp at Nuruchan
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Day five was tough. Again, the terrain was not difficult, but we had to climb two passes and near the end of the day’s walk, we were pelted by a rain squall.

The first pass was the gentle 4956m Horlam Kongka La.
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From there we descended into a beautiful valley and crossed paths with a number of goat and yak herds. Displaced Tibetan nomad families use this valley during the summer months to herd yaks, sheep, and pashmina goats.
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Before we ascend the next big pass we stop for tea, as we’re all feeling pretty dogged. We watch herders at work and are approached by a couple young boys, twins apparently.
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From here it was a long slog up Kyamayuru La at 5424m. Out of the whole 10-day trip this is where I struggled the most. We sat for a break but I knew I’d better descend fast.

Two things amazed me at this point. One was how even going down a little ways can help mitigate altitude sickness. The other was how pathetic I was compared to people from this area who can run up and down these hills with ease.

Anyway, our camp that night was at 5230m. This was good acclimatization for our attempt of Mentok Kangri in a few days. A few kyang (wild ass) trotted by as we neared camp at Gyamar Barma. They were the most common wildlife we saw.
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Our pony man at Gyamar Barma camp
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On our sixth day, we again had to climb over two passes. This was a rewarding day because we would get our first glimpse of Tso Moriri, the second biggest lake in Ladahk, and the finishing point of our trek at the lakeside village of Korzok. The first pass is the 5395m Kartse La. From there we descended to the valley of Gyamar, then up and over the high point of the trek, Yalung Nyaulung La at 5450m. From here we saw Tso Moriri, and descended to camp in Korzok Phu, a summer pasture of the Korzok people.

Some of these high peaks would be pretty easy to climb. The problem, though, is how slow we move at this elevation. We simply didn’t have time or energy to climb every nice peak along the way.

A herd of goats at 5400m. I admired the way the herder kept pace with his flock—amazing!
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Korzok Phu is the green meadow down below. The big peaks across the lakes are 6600m and off-limits to foreigners due to their proximity to the line of control with China.
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Finally down in the valley we settle into camp not far from where herders have their seasonal camps. But our closest neighbours were yak and donkeys….
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Day seven was a relatively short one as we pass through Korzok Phu and climb to 5300m base camp on the west side of Tso Moriri. Our guide led a couple interactions with the locals.

Seasonal dwellings and 6000m peaks behind
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This sheep is getting a free ride. Apparently, it was being returned to its owner…
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These dwellings are called “rebos”. They look like a tarp, but they are made of woven yak hair. They apparently even protect from snow and rain. Inside they would have a stove where they burn yak dung, as well as blankets and other basic items.
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These ladies and girls are milking their goats. They have paint streaks on them to distinguish ownership. (By the way, we always asked permission when taking pictures that contained someone’s face…)
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We leave the valley and head up into the hills, our pack train leading the way.
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Mentok Kangri, or “flower mountain,” sees lots of ascents every year, though nowhere near the number as Stok Kangri and other peaks closer to Leh. In fact, we had base camp all to ourselves. There is no infrastructure like tea stalls or outhouses. Groups must be fully self-sufficient. It was one of the coolest places I’ve camped.

A few shots from base camp…

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We have lots of time to lay around and rest, saving energy for our 11:30pm start up Mentok Kangri.

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We had hardly slept when Mingma rattles our tent with his, “Morneeng. Time for tea. Time get up.” I now knew that alpine starts at elevation suck, but our cook was up too, making us one of his stellar breakfasts. It was a beautiful night. We left camp, Mingma setting a westerners pace (ie. slow) as we rock hopped our way to the glacier. We had some tea, roped up, and continued. Like all mountains, there’s more than one way to climb Mentok. We planned for an ascent that crossed a glacier then went up a steep pitch of icy snow, then up a steep talus laden spur to the sub-peak. From a technical standpoint, this wasn’t the hardest route I’ve ever climbed. But doing so in the dark with very little sleep at 6000m was challenge in itself. As for Carley, this was the most challenging mountaineering she’d ever done, and she frickin’ rocked it! I was so proud of her.

The sun rose just as we gained the spur that leads to the subpeak. We were treated to an amazing sunrise!
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Glacier capped Yalung Nong
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Towards the north end of Tso Moriri
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It’s now a steep loosey-goosey scramble to the subpeak.
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The view over to Mentok I
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We finally reach the subpeak, and as we rest Mingma gets to work replacing some of the tattered flags.
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A fun summit pic at 6160
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After some time resting, we head up to the summit of Mentok Kangri at 6290m.

Looking toward the southern end of Tso Moriri and into Tibet

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Eventually we needed to head down, so we retraced our steps back to the subpeak and to the top of the steep snow/ice pitch

Carley’s ready to go over…
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Once we’re back on the flat glacier we can pause for some fun in the sun
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Can’t recall if I was praying or about to pass out…
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We were back at camp before noon, had some tea and food, and crashed out the best we could. That night our cook made us a feast, which included this cake!
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There’s no respite for the weary, however, so next day we were back up at 6 am and heading towards our camp at Korzok, the small settlement near the shore of Tso Moriri. We had walked somewhere around 125 kilometres. At 4550m Korzok is one of India’s highest year-round settlements. Except for an army base up-lake on the opposite shore, it is the only village near Tso Moriri. We have time that afternoon to visit the monastery and walk to the shore of Tso Moriri. The monks were having a water fight…

Korzok
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Like Pangong Lake, Tso Moriri is said to be sacred. The lamas have forbidden fishing. We saw no water recreation like swimming or boating on any of the lakes we visited. The water is really cold for one thing… but it’s also just not part of Ladahki culture.
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Finally on our next day we had our last breakfast before getting picked up for the ride back to Leh.
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We said goodbye to our second pony man.
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Of course, in India car trips almost never go as planned. When we got to the Indus River at Mahe, we learned it had flooded the road. We had to back track, and after crossing the bumpy Polo Kongka at 4929m we were back at Tso Kar. We drove out to the Leh-Manali road, crossed the 5350m Tanglang La for the second time, and dropped back into the Indus Valley, retracing part of the drive we’d taken 3 weeks earlier.

All in all, the Rumste to Tso Moriri trek was a great experience for us. While the weather could have been better, the scenery was beautiful and the people in our company truly respectful and friendly. After a couple days rest back in Leh, Carley and I would head out on a trip to Skok Kangri. 

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