Sky High Treks and Tours
Markha Valley Winter Tour
By Rainer Schöffl   
We spent our Christmas Eve 2005 in Amdo’s Café & Restaurant at Leh, one of the few restaurants also open during the winter. After almost four days of acclimatization we felt quite well prepared for a wintery trekking tour through Markha valley together with Tsering Norboo, whom we discovered in Internet.

Acclimatization does not only mean to adjust to the altitude but also to the low temperatures which never were above 0°C during the whole stay. Even in our guesthouse, the room temperature was below zero! And the first time after the postwar era I had frostflowers on the window of my room during the whole day. The stay at Leh gave us enough time for visiting the town and the famous monasteries at Hemis, Thikse and Shey.

Our tour started on 25 December near Spituk, and we followed for half a day the river Indus. Then we turned into a valley and finally reached the campsite at Zinchen, where we met our horsemen with their horses and two donkeys. It was a quite large caravan, since also the feed for ten days for the animals had to be carried.

Norboo and his crew served a fine Christmas dinner including a Christmas cake in the decorated kitchen tent.

There were many “Whats” and “Ifs” when we planned this trekking tour, and still some “Whats” and “Ifs” were unanswered:
  • What if the thermo mattress does not isolate enough?
  • What if the sleeping bag is too thin?
  • What if our brand-new mountain tent is not suitable?
The first night was a good test for our equipment since the temperature fell down to -15°C at night, and we got the answers to our “Whats” and “Ifs”. None of us three tourists was freezing during the night and we started the new day quite confident.

During this new day, we had a nice hiking trip to Yurutse with a beautiful view to the mountains partly covered with fresh fallen snow.

The third day of our tour brought us all variations of winter weather: sunshine in the valley, wind and fog at Ganda La (Ganda pass) and finally snowfall at our next campsite at Shingo. Crossing Ganda La was rather exciting for us, since this pass with nearly 4900 m altitude is higher than Europe’s highest mountain - the Mont Blanc.
The morning sun at Shingo melted soon the fresh snow on our tent and travelling bags, and we entered the Markha valley in sunshine, however, the temperature remained always below freezing. It was surprising that the soil was not frozen but often rather dusty, since there was no humidity in the soil which could freeze it like we know it from Europe.

We had a nice campsite in the valley before we reached Markha village the following day.

Markha Gompa
Markha Gompa
We rested there for another day not only because this was the middle of our tour but also because there were two days of celebrations for the Buddhist New Year. These celebrations took place in the small gompa and outside in the village and on the fields. Many locals from all of the Markha valley and nearby joined the festivity, and we were the only foreigners among them.

Kids at Hankar
Kids at Hankar
Our (European) New Year was two days later with New Year’s Eve at upper Hankar. We managed to get up from our warm sleeping bags at midnight, shouting “Happy New Year” and creeping back immediately into the sleeping bags because it was again a very cold night.

The first day of the year 2006 took us to Nimaling at about 4700m altitude where the temperature fell down to -20°C, and it became windy and started to snow. Our horses had to return to Hankar because it was too cold for them. Only two ponies remained with us since they were small enough to find shelter in a sheep shed. We spent a quite restless night since the wind shook at our tent, and it was uncertain what the next day will bring to us. When laying on the back in our tent, the air one breathes froze immediately after breathing out and fell back on our faces as ice crystals.

Ponies crossing frozen river
Ponies crossing frozen river
The weather did not change the next day which turned out to become the most demanding and adventurous day of our trip. The two ponies carried our travelling bags up to the pass and returned with ice on their coat. The remaining tour equipment had to stay back except for the sleeping bags of our Ladakhi companions and some food and cooking equipment, since the descent from the pass was too icy for the horses. Norboo and his crew decided to carry our travelling bags, and we packed as much as possible into our rucksacks. The ascent to the 5150m high Konmaru La (Konmaru pass) was really tough not only because of the thin air but also due to the cold, the strong gusty wind and the light snowfall. We rested at the pass therefore only a few minutes and started then the descent. Through deep fresh snow we arrived at a narrow canyon with a frozen creek on which we walked for some distance. This wasn’t really a fun because we had to descend on small frozen waterfalls and rapids.

At twilight, we arrived at the first houses of a village, but they were uninhabited and locked. It was almost dark and it was snowing when we came luckily to a house with people in who offered us a room for the night.

Norboo managed the following morning to get a man with a horse which could carry our luggage. After a few hours hiking on a good trail we met our two jeeps which took us back to Leh, which we left 10 days ago.

During summer, the same tour can be done in 8 days, but in winter time, one has to consider the shorter days and has to plan for at least one additional day, if the weather conditions may enforce a change of the tour. Therefore, ten days as planned by Norboo, were quite adequate for our trip.

Lamayuru Monastery
Lamayuru Monastery
Since the flights from Leh to Delhi were cancelled for two days due to bad weather at Delhi, we conducted a tour to the monasteries of Alchi and Lamayuru, the latter you should not miss to visit when being in Ladakh.