The Jade Star Kingdom

A photo essay from Zanskar & Rupshu, the mountains of wind and fire

Feature type Photo Essay

Read time 9 min read

Published Dec 08, 2020

David Pickford Writer, editor, and photographer based in the UK, David is an expert climber and a pioneer of standup paddling as an expedition-distance watersport. He was previously editor-in-chief of Climb magazine and is editor emeritus of BASE magazine.
Two ridges highlighted by the falling sun, above Stok village, north Zanskar.

Two ridges highlighted by the falling sun, above Stok village, north Zanskar.

Past a narrow col at six thousand metres, the ridge sweeps northwards. From the 6,150m summit of Mentok II, it looks like the vapour trail of a banking plane: a thin white line stretched across the sky. To the west, the highest summits of the Indian Himalaya’s Zanskar range shimmer against the cold blue air. To the northeast, the bulk of Lungser Kangri (6,662m) looms vast and silent, an icy giant watching over the silent waters of Tso Mori lake 2000 metres below.

We’d been on the go since two in the morning. Endless moraine, steepening icefields, a rocky spur, and a final snowfield led us to the summit ridge. To descend, we must make a long traverse of the horseshoe-shaped ridge, two miles at over 6000 metres, before we can descend an easier angled spur to the moraine. The next few hours on the ridge are amongst the best I’ve ever spent in the mountains. The air is an impossible, crystalline blue. The upper world stretches beyond the horizon in every direction: north into the Chinese Karakoram, east to Himachal Pradesh, west north-west to the lonely summits of Kashmir. Like an early aviator, I trace the unknown liminal between the earth and the air.

Like the defensive structure of an ancient city on an unimaginable scale, the scree seems impregnable

It’s just after six in the evening before my team reaches the moraine. It’ll be dark in less than an hour. Here, at 5,800 metres, the temperature will drop like a stone. A series of colossal scree-spines extend out from the glacier for several miles, separating us from base camp. Like the defensive structure of an ancient city on an unimaginable scale, the scree seems impregnable.

Dark falls fast as we traverse the scree-spines; it’s like walking up and down several 200 metre hills covered in boulders the size of footballs. After two hours, the lights of base camp are still invisible. Finally, we reach a tiny stream I recognise by the light of my head torch from our ascent. After a while, lanterns and shadows appear. Like bright apparitions swaying on the black air, our base camp crew meet us on the terminal moraine with hot mugs of steaming chai and lemon squash. We’d been on the go for nineteen hours.

Some places inscribe themselves on memory more than others, and I’ve been fortunate to lead several mountaineering expeditions to Zanskar and Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya over the past fifteen years. During the past year of travel restrictions, it’s these mountains I’ve thought of more than almost anywhere else. Those endless interlocking ridges of black and orange rock against the gold-blue sky. The pale green poplar trees growing tall beside surging rivers of glacial meltwater. The ice-capped summits shining like polished marble in the morning sun, and beaming the moonlight back into the atmosphere at night. And, of course, the ultra tough, bright-faced locals.

As winter sets in, the mountains of Zanskar and Ladakh fall silent, the frozen domain of the bharal, the lammergeier, and the snow leopard. Yet when spring returns and the world reopens, they’ll still be there.

Descending the trail from the Zalung Karpo La (c5200 metres) into the uninhabited valley and massive limestone canyon system below, Rupshu region.

Descending the trail from the Zalung Karpo La (c5200 metres) into the uninhabited valley and massive limestone canyon system below, Rupshu region.

Many of the road signs in the region have an idiosyncratic quality.

Many of the road signs in the region have an idiosyncratic quality.

During the past year of travel restrictions, it’s these mountains I’ve thought of more than almost anywhere else.

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