We knew we were in for a tough trek, but our eight-day journey into the Sham region of the Indian Himalayas presented challenges even our guides couldn’t handle.
By Jennifer & Dennis Harrison
We had just hit 14,000 feet when the unimaginable happened. We were pushing for our highest pass, three days of walking to an airport, several days of bus time to Delhi. We had worried about a twisted ankle, an intractable kid, a bout of stomach or altitude sickness, and, most obviously, a slip and fall, but we did not foresee the most vexing problem that would befall our trek.
We had always wanted to trek in Ladakh. East of Pakistan and south of China, north of the Himalayas and south of the Karakorums, trekkers descend on the Indian Himalayan region in the summer and head into the mountains along ancient trading routes where yaks and ponies carried silk, pashmina wool, spices and turquoise between Kashmir, Tibet, India, and Kashgar for centuries – and still carry goods to outer villages today.
Picking a guide and a route from halfway around the world hadn’t been easy – especially in an area like Ladakh where tourism and options are limited. We read a lot of trekkers’ blogs and researched the guides they recommended, then cross-referenced those referrals with Trip Advisor reviews, guide book entries, and more online research.
“Ladhaki Women’s Travel Company” came up often in our research, but the outfitter was obviously local and small; its web site was old and only had a few reviews. But after interacting with several tour guides, LWTC was the only one that could deliver a custom, off-track experience and be flexible enough to work with our family.
The outfitter is run entirely by women – even the porters who were training to be guides – which we loved. They specialize in homestays in the remote villages. Because the men of Ladakh often leave the village for work, the women stay behind to tend the fields and care for the family. The LWTC puts real money in the pockets of the locals – and who better to watch over our family than the women who raised their own kids in the mountains?
We’d actually asked for a tough trek. One that would push us – but not too far. We had trekked the Annapurna Sanctuary with our kids a few years ago, so we thought we had an idea of what to expect. In the end, we decided on a remote route – an 8-day journey away from the touristed tracks and into the Sham region – one that would cross several passes, including one upwards of 16,000 and one above 17,000 feet.
Landing in Leh
“It’s like a planet out of Star Wars,” our 15-year-old daughter said when we landed in Leh, Ladakh’s capital, and laid eyes on the barren alpine landscape. It was nothing like the rest of India at all. It reminded us of an exaggerated version of California’s Eastern Sierra Nevadas, a place we go mountain biking every summer.
We had skipped the notoriously harrowing 33-hour bus ride and flew direct from Delhi. Leh’s patchwork of green barley and vegetable fields stood out against the bone-dry hills. Most of its 30,000 people are Tibetan Buddhist – in fact, the Dalai Lama had been there the day before we arrived – but many Kashmiri Muslims call the town home, as well. The streets’ mud-brick buildings were striped with prayer flags. The only dodgy thing in town were the street dogs that howled and partied all night.
We spent a few nights at the 11,500 foot-altitude to acclimatize. We read, relaxed and devoured the healthy food: Veggies, dhal, chapati, and eggs. One trip to the Thiksay monastery reminded us of Nepal and Bhutan, and reminded the kids that one monastery in the Himalayas is like one cathedral in Italy – just about enough.
But a twenty-minute walk across town and up the steps to the King’s Palace gave us the first inkling of concern about what we’d signed up for: We were already winded. The magnification of the high-altitude sun… The unquenchable thirst… This trek was not going to be easy.
Into the Mountains
The three Ladakhi women – one guide and two porters – who picked us up were all pals who had guided together before. Our four-hour drive on hair-raising roads took us along the Indus River and up through the moonscape to 12,000 feet, Lamayuru, the most famous monastery in Ladakh, and the beginning of our trek.
After twenty minutes of what we expected would be 50 or 60 hours on the trail, the heat and dryness and exhaustion were intense. Yet up we went. Up and up and up. A shepherd passed us heading to his yaks. Then more up and up and up. When we got to the first pass at 12,500 feet after three hours, we felt our first sense of accomplishment. Looking down the other side, the wind gusted across expansive views of 20,000-plus-foot peaks and glaciers.
That night, our homestay had a daughter and son almost exactly the age of our kids, not to mention, lambs! The villagers take turns housing trekkers so that the revenue is shared fairly.
Each night, our guide consulted the list of hosts to see who’s turn it was. We’d go to that person’s house and they’d serve tea and biscuits. Someone would go to the field and come back with a basket of veggies and cook up a beautiful meal with leftovers packed into tiffins for the next day’s lunch.
We slept on mats on the floor, and used the outhouse in the ground-floor barn, next to where the livestock live. Everyone lives a life very similar to that of 500 years ago – aside from the satellite dishes that top the homes. Few villagers spoke English, but occasionally Jen would find a student visiting home from university who she would have an endless chat with.
The LWTC was honoring our desire to take the road-not-traveled by tons of tourists: After a day on the mountain, we had seen no other trekkers. Not a one. But after ten minutes of walking on the steep, narrow goat track of Day 2, we were second-guessing our desire to do a tough trek: We were moving in single file for hours, traversing a foot-wide ridge on the side of a gravel slope that headed down below us into a valley for hundreds, if not thousands of feet. If one kid – or anyone, actually – made one wrong step, they would be gone. Maybe the flat paths along the river promised by the other guides might not have been so bad…
The treacherousness of our situation was completely lost on the kids. They were obliviously chatting with the guides and each other – something that doesn’t happen as often at home anymore. But after our son slipped a bit and Dennis caught him by his pack, Jen had to move to the front of the line to keep from having an anxiety attack.
Worries swirled as Dennis brought up the rear, keeping one eye on his feet and one eye on his kids. Why did we have to go so big? We should have known better… But it is tough to describe how amazing it felt to be so far out there and to be experiencing this together with our kids. We were the first trekkers of the year to go from Wanla to Urtsi and it felt good to blaze that trail. By the end of the day, everyone was acclimatizing and chitchatting and feeling much better.
A New Path
Sleeplessly lying on our sleep mats with full bellies of chapati, the nervousness returned: We were heading far higher. The kids had no idea that a 16,000-foot monster was coming up – then an even bigger one. We decided to talk to the guides.
“Really, how tough will the next days be?” Dennis asked the next morning, scanning the map. The women talked amongst themselves in their language for a few minutes. The bottom line? On a scale of 1-10, our first few days had been sub-4s, the first pass day would be an 8, and the big pass day would be off-the-charts tough, with knife-like ridges and endless scree.
We knew we had to trust our guts and be flexible on this journey – and this was go-time – or actually, no-go time. Over the protests of our daughter who wanted to stick to our goal, and with the blessings of our son who was up for whatever, we worked with the LWTC to agree on a revised route: Leave most of our gear in the village, head to the 16,240-foot Konzke La pass on a day trek, skip the biggest pass, and complete the trek along more traveled trails. A wave of relief washed over us.
To the Pass
The sun and spirits were bright as we headed up and out of the village, beginning our 11-hour day of trekking to the pass. After an hour on the trail, our daughter took a sip of water from her bottle and spurted, “Uh, help…”
Sticking out of her mouth was what looked like a paper clip: A wire had popped off one of the spacers on her braces and was protruding uncomfortably from the side of her lips.
Orthodontia was a challenge the Ladakhi women had not faced. Our porter had an old pair of tiny scissors which proved no match for First World mouth metal. Now what? Walk two days back to Leh and fly back to Dehli? Our daughter was a trooper but the broken wire was causing her pain.
Looking down toward the village to see how far we’d come, we were shocked: A young French couple and their guide were approaching. We hadn’t seen a soul on the trail for days! They agreed to help us with the dental crisis. Our daughter laid down in the dirt, Dennis held her mouth open, the Frenchman’s Leatherman repeatedly grabbed at the wire, but it was too far in the back of her mouth. After a half hour of trying, we had to give up, let the couple continue (while taking our hopes of reaching the pass with them.)
But before we could even gather our gear to head down, miraculously, another trekker appeared: A tough old Frenchman walking alone – no guide – with a backpack full of gear. Even luckier? He had once studied to be an orthodontist.
Indeed, the travel gods had been watching over us all along. The second Frenchman snapped the wire in a snap and disappeared into the mountains as magically as he had appeared. We never saw another trekker until we reached Khanze La where our son taught the Ladakhi women to “floss” and they taught him a local dance. None of us had ever breathed harder or felt happier.
The ROAM Report: Ladakh, India
- Travelers: Jennifer & Dennis Harrison, plus daughter, 15 and son, 12
- Date: July 2018
- Itinerary: Three nights pre-trek in Leh, 8-night trek in the Sham region over Khoze La, plus 2 nights post-trek in Leh and a short stay in Dehli afterward
- Budget: Trek cost $1,500 for four people
Good to Know
Set expectations. The hard part about going on a trip like this is that you’re in never-never land: Even though we had had similar experiences, we couldn’t really tell the kids what to expect because we didn’t know, either. But by involving everyone in key decisions and getting group buy-in about next-steps at each stage of the journey, you proceed as a united team and face challenges together.
Stay flexible. Don’t feel like you have to be locked into a plan. Stay open-minded and accept that you have to trust your gut and go with the flow. Here’s where traveling with kids changes the game: If something feels wrong for any reason, change course. End of story.
Finding the right guide is key. During our initial contacts via email, we could tell by the responses which outfitter could provide a tailored experience and which one was going to treat our family like everyone else. The responsiveness of the LWTC made a huge difference for our family completing the trek in a safe and exciting way.
Jennifer & Dennis Harrison – May 2019
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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