Monday 30th July. The Zarlung Karpo La

Back: Nimaling to Zarlung Karpo base camp

Next: The Sorra Gorge

Out of our tents at 6am, the moon has dropped below the horizon but beautifully illuminates the tops of the mountains behind camp. The sun rises and warms us during breakfast; the horses also like the warmth, they stand together outside the mess tent, in a line facing the sun. Leaving camp the path rises gently by a a winding river, the Langtang Chu according to the map, the Zarlung Karpo Chu according to Stenzin. We pass the camp where the French stayed and see their ponies ahead of us. After 80 minutes we reach the Y fork in the river described by Charlie Loram in his book Trekking in Ladakh. We rest on soft grass by low honey coloured cairns of oddly lumpy rock. We will take the right fork but the view up the other valley to the left is a delight as it leads to the snow covered black peaks of the Kang Yatse range.

Our path enters a dry river valley where there is no sound but our footsteps. It’s a perfect V shaped valley with no sign of life, it’s eerily quiet and the crew want to pass through quickly. Emerging into a wider valley we realise that we’ve started the ascent of the Zarlung Karpo. The summit will be 5400 metres and we take our time. A series of short zig zags leads to a false summit where the horses pass, two hours since Charlie Loram’s junction. Stenzin has held back the horses by some cairns so we can unpack the prayer flags we want to place on the summit. Graham has summitted and calls back that we’ve seen nothing yet, even though the views to left, right and behind are already wonderful. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful location - long soft, curved ridges reach out to rounded mountain tops, pale colours dusted with white mineral deposits. 

The gradient flattens as we approach the line of prayer flags across the summit. As if a cinema curtain had lifted before the start of a film, suddenly we can see the incredible vista beyond the pass. It’s totally overwhelming, the most mind blowing view we’ve ever seen. Dawa and Thinless are sitting on the crest, grinning and joyous, arms raised in wonder, below them white stones have been placed to spell out Free Tibet. Super-real sharp edged pale ranges of mountain ridges descending to valleys ahead and to our left, the black and white Kang Yatse massif behind us, snow peaks of Kashmir in the distance to the right behind the deep brown grges of Zanskar. Stanzin is able to make out the twin peaks of Nun and Kun in far off Kashmir, he’s from Zanskar and has seen those mountains many times. Although there’s no wind here the high clouds are flying past, the colours of the mountains around us constantly changing with the passing of the shade and sun. We add three more strings of prayer flags, Bev and Stanzin light some earthy Tibetan incense. I’m swept away by emotion in this amazing place and hope that the photos will do it justice but they don’t!

The horses start down from the pass, the curve of the path makes them seem to fall away into an abyss. We don’t want to move but after an hour we must take our leave. The path descends parallel to the fine grey ridges to our right, steeply in hairpins through grey shale to the dry valley floor. It’s a four hour walk to our camp on a small grassy patch by a junction with a major stream, plenty of water for cooking and for washing. Our horses are 400 yards further downstream where there’s more grass. The camp is cosy and sheltered, the sun is hidden behind a stationary cloud that vanishes as the sun sets. Thinless has built a fine toilet tent with two stone footrests. I walk downstream to overlook the horses and pass small dry side valleys with mushroom pinnacles, large rocks perched precariously on thin cones of conglomerate. Geraniums and fragrant shrubs in the main riverbed. Chips, pakora and mixed veg curry. Fruit custard. Bed by 9.30. 

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