One photographer’s carbon-negative, high altitude expedition to the heart of Ladakh.
The scent of incense fills the dark chamber...
...of the Buddhist monastery as wisps of smoke drift up and dissipate in front of faded frescoes.
A monk sits in front of me, chanting to the beat of a drum and the ring of a prayer bell, eyes rolling back in his head. He’s praying for good fortune and health on our upcoming expedition—tomorrow we’re venturing on foot into the heart of Ladakh, gateway to the Tibetan Plateau.
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We touched down three days ago, flying in from Delhi to land at the small dusty airport just outside of Leh. The old city feels like a forgotten quarter of Kathmandu has been lifted up and dropped onto the slopes of Annapurna. The surrounding peaks of the Indus Valley are crowned with icy spires, while nearer to hand foreboding military compounds line the motorways—a reminder of the geopolitical border tensions between China and India.
I’m on the ground with Paras Loomba, electrical engineer and founder of Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE). After a transformative experience in Antarctica, Paras was inspired to create a company at the intersection of engineering and tourism, enlisting travellers to provide solutions to the climate crisis. The result? Over 200 communities in India now have electricity, thanks to GHE, including the monastery we’re sitting in.
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Crossing the kingdom with cigarettes and carrot cake.
With three days of acclimatisation under our belts, we finally set out for the vast Hemis National Park. It’s a six-day expedition and we’re supported by a small crew, plus our baggage horses—all seventeen of them. The landscape here is arid, dotted with simple villages and solitary stupas set against cracked and crumbling mountains. Under a warm winter sun, we splash our way barefoot across a brilliant blue river that carves a path through a valley rife with groves of golden poplars, cries of “jullay!”(hello) ringing out from villagers and homesteaders as we make our way.
I’m unused to trekking in such luxury. Our crew organises and breaks camp, serving tea and coffee to our tents each morning. Our Nepali cooks are surprisingly unhindered by the lack of facilities—preparing everything from pizza to carrot cake out of the magical mystery mess tent.
The pampering, though, is much appreciated as the trek itself is gruelling. By the second day, we’re already plodding breathlessly upward to the 4,900 metre Ganda La pass. A 69-year-old Austrian trekker on our team, Horst, gratefully accepts a lift to the top on the back of one of the horses that we unanimously nickname ‘Hero’. My nickname for Horst is ‘Horizontal Horst’ due to his penchant for casting his pack on the ground at every break and lying on his side, Titanic-style, to smoke a handful of cigarettes. Not that I’m in great shape myself. My last Himalayan trek was almost a year ago, and already my calves and quads feel like they’ve been sliced to ribbons from the inside.
Tent mates and altitude epiphanies
The complete lack of mobile reception is as invigorating as the lofty altitude is debilitating. I spend any downtime we have in my tent, bundled up in either meditation or engrossed in a book, trying to fight the creeping lethargy. Our fifth night finds us camped at 4,700 metres—the highest point I’ve ever braved in a tent—on a plateau under starlit skies. It truly feels like the edge of civilization as we know it.
During the night, my tentmate Gunter Mussnig—another Austrian—and I struggle to exist, let alone sleep, as each breath becomes a battle. Outside, a wild dog barks with ceaseless endurance. Gunter is the founder of Trail Angels, an Austrian sustainable tourism developer, and the reason I’m here photographing this expedition.
The next morning as we push onward up to Kongmaru La (5,236 metres), I reflect on what has drawn me here, to this journey. Was it an unexplainable longing for Tibet, or perhaps to answer the question of whether travel can serve a purpose outside of myself? While gasping for air at the top of the pass, prayer flags rippling in the wind around me, I remember something Gunter said that struck a chord: “I would not like to live in a world without travel. That’s why we are doing this, to make travel possible in times of climate crisis”.
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A warming experience, literally
The climate impact project for our expedition is to subsidise the cost of 17 solar water heaters for Boorma, a remote village in the Nubra Valley, where the Himalayas meet the Karakorum. As we walk into the village, a sandstorm grows in the grey distance. Closer by, young children scurry with excitement back to whitewashed dwellings to announce our arrival. We are welcomed wholeheartedly under a colourful nomad pavilion by smiling villagers in traditional maroon woollen garments.
Together, we work to install the solar heaters. Each heater will not only provide hot water for bathing and cooking during the harsh Ladakhi winters, but will also replace 2.3 tonnes of carbon over the course of its lifetime. More than offsetting the footprint of our trip. In fact, even when accounting for international flights, our trip is totally carbon-negative. Every expedition with GHE is slightly different, as each one paves—as Paras puts it—“inroads to new [eco-friendly] destinations”. The beauty of expeditions like this is that previously unreached communities can partner with GHE to develop sustainable livelihood opportunities.
After a shared meal, coated with a light dusting from the sandstorm raging outside, we’re invited to don local garb and join the villagers in a traditional dance. We dance, and we laugh, and we exchange gifts—school supplies and sweets for the children—who accept them with gusto. Almost in a trance, I manage to take the group’s photo before the teary goodbyes begin. As our van wheels around, the villagers climb the rock wall parallel to the road and wave goodbye as we bounce off into a dusty Karakoram haze.
Hours later, our tires spinning in the accumulating snow at Kardung La—the world’s second-highest motorable pass—I slide open the frosted window and stick my head out into the white void. Dusk has set in and the temperature is plummeting, but my heart is full. In that quiet moment, I recall the whispers of a prayer, from a monk in my not-so-distant past, and I finally understand its significance. And I know, without any doubt, that this won’t be my last time in Ladakh.
Direct flights to Ladakh are only offered from a handful of cities, with New Delhi having the most availability. Vistara Airlines is our preferred airline to Leh, Ladakh.
For those with extra time and flexibility on their hands, the motorway from Manali to Leh is considered one of the most stunning drives in the world, and crosses several of the world’s highest motorable passes. The drive also allows more time for acclimatization to the dizzyingly high altitude of Leh (3,500 meters). If you desire to have mobile data access in Ladakh, you will need to purchase a local SIM in Leh. Because of the heightened security in the region, international SIM’s or Indian ones purchased outside of Ladakh will not actually function in Ladakh.
There is a wide array of accomodation options in and around Leh, from remote luxury nature resorts like Indus River Camp, boutique hotels — Padma Ladakh, hostels — Lehostel, and family run guesthouses — Jullay Guesthouse, with room cozy rooms available (depending on your negotiation skills) for under $10 per night. Sustainability-minded travelers can find carbon-neutral homestays powered by GHE in almost every corner of Ladakh via mountainhomestays.com.
Located between the Dras and Suru rivers and originally used by the military to migrate quickly through the rivers during wartime, the Bailey Bridge in Ladakh is the highest in the world.
Climate impact expeditions like the one mentioned in this article are offered several times annually by Global Himalayan Expeditions. They accept applications for these tours on their website, ghe.co.in. Many other operators are active in Leh, however, and offer everything from trekking to wildlife to spiritual and cultural heritage tours.