Annabel Harris in Leh

Young Explorers' Trust

The expedition adventure began with an interview over the phone and then the process of fundraising began. Lots of paperwork later, buying of kit and the final double check that I had packed everything. The the real adventure could begin. On arrival at Heathrow airport the team amassed before group kit was allocated and we could head on our way.

The first flight to Dehli went smoothly. We were greeted by great humidity and heat on arrival. This meant an uncomfortable 17 hour layover, trying to catch up on sleep that we hadn’t got on the flight and our first taste of Indian curry. The next flight was much appreciated by all until we had to turn back just before landing in Leh due to the lack of visibility. Immediately the mood of the group changed from excitement to frustration, especially as the only food that we were given was some long life coleslaw sandwiches.

When we finally landed, we were greeted by the thin air and amazing views of the high mountains with many of them snow-capped. The process of getting all the kit on taxis was a slower process and more chaotic than before due to the altitude but also the general chaos of Leh airport.

On arrival at our hostel, we were welcomed by the advance party who became our porters, as any form of exertion however small caused you to be short of breath for a few minutes. Lunch, curry and rice, was starting to become the norm. The afternoon was spent in the hall trying to stay awake and reading my book. Supper again was curry and rice. The taste was becoming repetitive but each curry was slightly different. That night we were told to expect a rubbish night of sleep due to lack of oxygen. However, most of us slept really well. I think the lack of sleep the 48 hours previously helped.

Shanti Stupa, Leh

As part of our acclimatisation the next few days were spent exploring Leh and having various talks on group and personal kit and hygiene. We also ventured out for the first for a walk up to the Shanti Stupa, which was located just above our hostel. This was taken at a snail’s pace along the road but was appreciated by all. Having wandered around and had some obligatory photos we then descended down by a slightly more adventurous route down the scree cover slope. The afternoon was spent with a trip down to Leh in order to pick up any missing items before grabbing a slice of apple pie at one of the German bakeries in town. On our return the evening was spent watching a couple of documentaries on traditional Ladahki folk songs and the sustainability and Leh. It also happened that there was an ex YE from a previous trip who was there making a film and she gave us a talk on what she was up to and how her expedition impacted here.

Tanglang Young Explorers on the Main Bazar, Leh

The next day proved to be a bit rougher for me through lack of sleep and feeling the effects of the previous day’s adventures. As a result I spent the day doing not much. The following day we packed up our kit and set off on 4 days of gradual acclimatisation and travel towards our basecamp (BC) in the Zara Valley. Our accommodation from now on would be our trusty tents. On arrival at Hemis, we set up our camp before being introduced to the delights of ration packs. The afternoon was spent playing silly games as a Fire – our groups were called fires. The following morning the BC team made a good job of cooking pancakes for 45 people on a temperamental gas cookers. The day’s walk involved walking up to the Hemis monastery and having a potter around Karu. The following morning was an early wake up to decamp and we headed back towards Leh, with the rest of the surrounding area, so that we could hear the Dali Lama speak. This was an amazing experience even though we couldn’t understand what he was saying as we hadn’t got a FM radio with us to hear the translation of his speech. After an hour in the blazing heat, we continued in the bus on to the next camp site.

Dali Lama, Leh

The towns that we travelled through had a high military presence and the conditions of the roads varied from tarmac to bumpy, rocky roads. After 2 more camp sites, some more training and my first experience of AMS medication, we were a day’s drive away from the BC. To get to the BC we first had to go over the Tanglang La at 5328m. This was the highest altitude that many of us had been so far and we all bundled into the café at the top to celebrate with a chai tea, before jumping back in the bus to drive down to the last campsite. The afternoon was spent practicing river crossings and learning more about the John Muir award.

Tanglang La

The following morning, the camp was again packed up and loaded on to the trucks but this time we were to walk to the next camp, our fire’s BC. We finally arrived having walked alongside the river and met the Indian Army who requested many a photo. On our arrival we were greeted by our Chief Leader, who had just arrived back from the UK, and he handed out a white prayer scarves to each of us.

Tanglang mess tent at base camp

24 hours after arriving at our BC we set off on our 1st tour. After a slight amendment due to the team not feeling well, we camped 1km down stream of BC on our own little island and explored the other side of the river. The following morning the river had risen and was faster flowing so we had to change the tour and decided to try and summit 2 peaks either side of a ridge. The plan had to change again as getting to the first peak at 5308m took a lot longer than expected. So we walked along the ridge a bit before dropping down back to our camp.

Base Camp looking up the valley

On our return back to BC, we spent 2 days planning our next tour. We were lucky, as whilst we were there, the Perseids meteor shower was out so we spent an evening lying out under the stars. This was an amazing experience as we got to see quite a few meteors flying above our heads. The following evening was spent saying goodbye to the 4 members of the expedition group, as they were returning home the next day. The following day we set off up the valley to set up an advanced base camp (ABC). This ABC would allow us to try and summit Tanglang, the summit that our Fire was named after.

Team descending from 5308m

The day of the summit, I had volunteered to lead the group. The challenge was made greater as the route we were climbing up was filled with scree and had a river running through it. This meant a lot of forward thought had to go in to the path that I was taking to make sure that it was safe. The long slog up this valley was finally rewarded at lunch when it opened up in to a massive Col covered in snowpack and more scree up to the ridge. However this time the scree was covered snow which made it incredibly slippy and unstable. When we reached the top of the ridge we saw that Tanglang was in fact much further around and a couple of hours away on a return journey. The decision was then made to reach the closest peak to us and return back to ABC. This decision provided to be very sensible as one member of the team had to descend back to ABC and then BC very quickly as they became unwell on the ridge. As a result we only had time for a quick celebration and photo on the summit at 5817m before descending back down the scree as quickly as we could. Our sleeping bags that night were very much appreciated allowing us to rest our tired bodies. The following day we went further up the valley, on a recce for our next tour. Having walked up to a flat lake a skimming competition soon formed. On the way up someone found a bird’s nest that had been hidden on the floor with day old chicks in it. On our return to ABC, we were greeted by the rest of the expedition team who were setting off on their respective 2nd tours. That evening we were told that there had been a footprint of a wolf by the river and from now on we were to walk around in pairs. This had little effect on our group as we were often found together. The following morning we loaded our kit on to the 4×4 and walked back down to BC. As we approached BC, we spotted a herd of Yaks. At which point cameras were found as we watched them cross the river before grazing on our side of the river. Fortunately the herd didn’t continue down on this side of the river otherwise our BC would have been at risk.

Tanglang story time under the Perseids meteor shower (photo by Shaun Mitchell)

After regrouping with our medic and spending 24 hours at BC getting all the food ready. We set off for our 3rd Tour, with 9 days worth of food, for our valley camp at 5111m. The following day, after another medic evacuation, we set off for a loaded acclimatisation walk up a valley to set up a High Camp at 5500m. Having left a tent and 4 days worth of food at the high camp, we returned back to the valley camp for a night. The following morning our departure was delayed as one of the team developed had developed AMS which had got worse overnight. As a result we spent the morning sorting out our personal kit making sure that we were only taking the bare minimum. When one of our Adventure Leaders returned after the medevac, we headed back up the valley to the High Camp in preparation for a summit at 6000m+. Having pitched 2 tents on the only large enough flat surface in the hanging valley. We woke up the following morning to find out that we were not allowed to ascend any higher than where we were. Disappointment and frustration were emotions that flew around the group.

The rock that we slept on at our High Camp

Communication via a yellow brick message of only 60 characters that only receives messages every 30 minutes meant that any more information/explanation was hard to get. The morning was spent playing cards and reading. Not long after lunch, we received another yellow brick message requesting a medical evacuation and that we should bring only the essentials. The fire packed up our personal kit in under 15 minutes before setting back of down the valley back to BC. After descending 1500m and walking 16km we made it back to BC, just before it got dark. On our return we were greeted with cheesy pasta and an explanation of what had occurred. The next 24 hours were spent at BC whilst we waited for the return of a vehicle and a medic who had been down in Leh.

View of the Salt Lake

The following morning we then set off back up to the High Camp in a bid to try and reach the 6000m+ peak. Having physically exerted myself the previous day and then spending 24 hours at 4860m my body then struggled to reacclimatise to 5500m. As a result the morning of the summit push I returned a couple of hours in as my body was feeling the effects of the high altitude. The rest of the team then went to have a successful summit of 6090m, coming back completely shattered. The following morning we return back to ABC, before the team split of with some staying behind to have a go on a snow pack whilst 4 returned back to BC.

Not long after we had returned we received a yellow brick message from one of the fires saying that they had a serious case of AMS and that they were descending. The Chief Leader then requested that we get a day pack ready in case we were needed for a stretcher carry. After a very quiet supper and hot drinks later we then got told that we weren’t needed and we could go to sleep. The following morning everyone who was out on tour returned having packed away ABC.

The Dali Lama’s Winter Palace, Leh

As a team we had one final trip that we had been eye balling since the Briefing Weekend, a trip to a nearby Salt Lake. After an incredibly bumpy ride to the lake and no major injuries sustained, we stepped out of the van to hear absolutely nothing. Having spent the last 4 and half weeks with loads of background noise, from the river, it was absolutely blissful to hear nothing. The next couple of hours were spent wandering around the lake learning about the different features of rocks and the creation of the lake. Before stopping at a shop on the way back to pick food that wasn’t ration packs or tinned. The next few days involved making sure that all the group kit was there before packing it away and tidying the BC up. A few team photos later on the last night we were all ready to come back to civilisation but were going to miss the mountains.

View of Leh from the Dali Lama’s Winter Palace

Having arrived back in Leh, kit was once again unloaded from the trucks before we descended into Leh for lunch. The taste of properly cooked food has never tasted so great. On our return back to the hostel the repacking of bags had started, resulting in kit being all over the place in our room. The following morning a group of us had to go to the expedition store to sort out all of the remaining kit before handing it back to Rimo. After zipping and unzipping all the tents to check that they were all working we were finally released and allowed to meet up with the rest of the fire in Leh. The rest of the day was spent eating pizza and cake in between further exploration of the city. The following day we headed up to the Dali Lama’s winter palace, which had amazing views looking down over Leh. That evening the whole expedition team went out for one final Indian Curry, expedition badges were handed out all and many stories and jokes were had before we returned back to the hostel to sit around a fire ahead of mornings flights back to the UK.

End of expedition team photo

The 5 week trip was both emotionally and physically challenging but it is definitely a challenge that I would jump at the chance to do again. Societal pressures meant that everyone is becoming more materialistic and sucked into the social media bubble. Having spent the whole trip with just 2 pairs of clothes and no access to the outside world, I realised very quickly that there is so much more to life just by looking up and out in the world and experiencing what it has to offer. I don’t think that there was anyone at the end of the trip who wanted to leave or who had missed technology. Coming back home was very much a culture shock, almost like when we first arrived in India, as many of the experiences whilst out in the wilderness aren’t comparable to everyday life. The trip has also confirmed that I would like to participate in another expedition and gain some outdoor qualifications such as the Mountain Leaders award so that I can go on and share my love of the outdoors with others.