By NAVEED GILANI
On 21st July 2016 I set out to tick another one off my elusive bucket list. “Hazaaron khwahishein aisi kay har khwahish pe dum nikle, bahut nikle mere armaan magar phir bhi kam nikle” (a thousand desires such as these that each desire takes a lifetime. I have had many a desire, but they were all but few).
This time it was to pay my respects to the mighty K2, a trek that I should have done a long time ago but didn’t. Munir, my childhood friend and erstwhile trekking companion flew in from Houston, USA. We flew into Skardu, Pakistan, on this clear bright sunny day with childlike excitement and energy to hold us through the upcoming two weeks. We were checked into the popular Masherbrum hotel.
In the 500-kilometer long Karakorum range, Masherbrum is the mountain which was labelled as K1 along with this savage K2 by Lieutenant (later Lieutenant Colonel) Thomas Montgomerie, the British surveyor who participated in the Great Trigonometric Survey of British India in the 1850s. K stood for Karakorum. K1 was locally known as Masherbrum, however K2 did not have a local name probably because it was not visible from Ashkole, the northern most village before the Baltoro glacier. The K2 name stuck. Italian climber Fosco Mriani aptly referred to it, “just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss”.
At 7:45 am on 22nd July we were cramped in a rebuilt vintage 1972 Toyota Land Cruiser on our way to Ashkole. Munir sat in the front while I along with our guide and cook Ali Ahmed, and the head porter Dawood, sat in the back. The camping gear and the required food for the next two weeks was stuffed all around us. The poor chicken that, unbeknown to them, were destined to become our dinner were clucking in their coop tied to the back of the jeep. Another porter was in the rear holding tight the roll bars, standing one foot on the bumper and the other on footrest.
Unlike the road, scenery along the way was beautiful. Riding along the Shigar river we passed through the town of Shigar and the village of Dassu with its blossoming groves of fruit trees. Apricots and mulberries were laid for sun drying on top of the low stacked stone walls shouldering the road and marking orchards’ boundaries. Poplar, willow, apricot, apple, walnut trees, and understory potato and vegetable gardens could be seen. The rural setting was delightful.
We had to register with the army check post at Apolaigone where we were treated with a hot cup of tea, courtesy of the radio operator who was apparently starved for company of the civilians from the lowlands. We chatted a bit and then left off for our final leg of the trip to Ashkole. Arriving at 2:30, we had our lunch on the way under the shady trees adjoining the roadside Baltistani dhabba (café). The campsite at Ashkole was bustling with other trekkers, part of two other groups – one from China and the other from England with mixed nationalities. The government of Pakistan has relaxed the rules for the trekkers where they do not need to go through the long drawn process of approvals. For climbers, the process remains the same, long and drawn. Safety, I suppose, is the reason.
Quite coincidently Dawood, our head porter, was from Korphe situated across the river from Ashkole. Some of you may recollect Korphe, the village where Greg Mortensen, author of the bestseller ‘Three Cups of Tea’, built his first school. If you haven’t read the book, I will get back to it for now I need to capture the trek.
Our first let down of the trek was the size of our tent. While we knew that Munir and I would be sharing a tent but this one was just enough for two people to lie down straight with hardly any room to maneuver around. As they ask, ‘how small was it’? It was so small that to change your mind you had to step out. It was too late to do anything now. We should have checked this at Skurdu. This would remain our bitch for the next few days, though we did get used to it by the end of the trip.
Next morning, we had an early breakfast and left the camp around 6:30. The first day’s trek was quite moderate. Our destination was camp Jhola, located at the confluence of the Braldu and Dumordo Rivers. We took our first break under the shades of bush trees at a spot by the river. The temperature had started to rise; the sun was beaming down with no pollution to strew the heat waves. We got our first taste of moraine walking as was promised. For those who are not familiar with the term, moraine are the ridges of debris deposited along the sides of a glacier. Camp Jhola was unexpectedly well provided with water and we enjoyed the afternoon sitting under a grove of trees. Our porters did not arrive till much later as one of the suspended bridges over the river had lost its safety hand rope which had to be fixed. We waited patiently for our hot dinner, which, by the way was quite tasty, and went to bed soon after sunset.
This time around I had decided not to take diomox, the preventive medicine for altitude sickness. Had the usual headache but not severe. Apparently, the acclimatization of a day in Skurdu and then Ashkole helped. Still, had slight headache as I woke up in Jhola but by the end of the day it was all gone. I was very happy.
As per plan, we left Jhola at 6:30. The second trekking day was not to be as moderate as the first. The sun was beating down hard and contrary to what one would expect at high altitudes the temperatures were making the trek under full sun difficult. We walked along the riverside switching up and down according to the water level in the Braldu river, running in quite a spate at the time. The last leg of the trek, just before arriving at the Payu was particularly steep, gaining 1000 ft. in a mile and a half. Took us about 9 hours for the day’s trek.
In most of the itineraries sent by tour groups it is recommended to have a rest day at Payu but we had decided not to rest here. We started our following day’s trek at our usual time heading to Kuburse. It was to be a grueling day. After about 3 hours we hit the boltoro glacier, the great expanse of ice which is one of the longest glaciers outside of the polar regions. This is where the Braldu river originates. Cliffs tower more than 200 feet above the turbulent waters. The difficulty in walking on the glacial moraine is that it is constantly changing and one has to very careful each step of the way. On many places I had to use both hands to climb up a crevice or going over boulders. Munir and I were separated during the early part of the day’s trek. Our guide was with him and I was trekking along with the British group. We helped each other wherever we needed to be pulled up.
The last leg was the toughest as the energy was all depleted for the day and the camp was turning into a mirage. We could see it from many vantage points along the way but somehow it was not getting any closer. How tough was it? It was so tough that even goats, not the mountain variety, couldn’t make it. The anecdote here is that earlier in the day I saw one of the porters herding two goats. Upon my asking he said that they were the dinner for the Chinese group, easy to herd them and kill them on the night of rather than carrying meat. I thought, this was smart. Well, somewhere close to the camp one of the goats gave up and couldn’t go any further. I saw the porter waiting, with the poor goat, for a knife he sent for from the camp. That was the end of the line for the poor goat and the Chinese group were going to enjoy fresh meat for their dinner that night. As for me, I had not fared much better than the goat. Rated the day tougher than the treks during Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp.
I have had issues during earlier treks when I get dehydrated due to lack of water. And the reason I get dehydrated is that I don’t drink because my body starts shutting down to water and even food despite the various tricks of adding flavors, electrolytes, etc. to the water. Today, was the first day showing the symptoms which was to sap my energies much faster than I would like it to.
Arrived at Kuburse after a 9-hour day. Crashed upon arrival. Tents were like greenhouses with sun beaming down viciously without any shade in the campsite. No respite till much later when the sun started to go down behind the spired collection of mountains.
Our next trek to Urdukas was only 4 hours away. It was an uphill trek, nevertheless. What a welcome feeling. In Balti language Urdu means big rocks and kas means cracks and that is what it was; big mountains with cracks. An army camp is situated near the Urdukas camp. At a little distance to this camp there was a huge inventory of jerry-cans in military green with fuel that, I presume, is the staging ground for fuel supply to the army positions near the disputed Kashmir territory. By 11 am we were nicely recuperating in our tents regenerating our energies for the upcoming days. Whoever laid out the Urdukas camp had teasingly placed the toilet area up high at a little distance. I suppose, he didn’t want us to get comfortable after the short trek of the day.
On our 5th trekking day we were to gain about 1000 feet to arrive at Goro II. It was supposed to be an easy trek but I found it equally tough as compared to the day before. My appetite had gone for a six and with little hydration I was feeling quite weary. Upon consulting, I was advised by one of the senior guides with one of the other groups that I should slow down my pace. I did. I would never know the outcome had I not heeded the advice. Going over the vast glacial highway we stopped at Goro I where we had our lunch. It started to rain then and we did the balance of the day’s trek in rain. My parka came in quite handy. Upon arriving, enjoyed the rain from the kitchen tent as they took some time to set up our sleeping tent.
The nights had gradually gotten colder. This night was colder and wet too. Sleeping in our tents on top of the glacial scree wasn’t easy. The sound of the otherwise enjoyable pitter patter of rain drops on the tent nylon kept me up worrying about the next day and whether we would be able to go on if the rain persisted. By morning all our gear inside the tent was wet from the condensation of our breath. Wet or dry, we had no choice but to stay in our tents till the rain stopped. Luckily, the rain stopped around 8:30. We left soon after.
We trekked on to Concordia very slowly. Though the book says, it is fairly easy rolling slopes, I found it not that easy as my energy levels had diminished completely. We arrived at Concordia around 5 PM. The weather was still cloudy completely blocking the K2 view. For that matter we couldn’t see any of the other peaks that are visible there and along the way – the Baltoro Kangri, the Gasherbrum group, the Mitre, and of course the Broad peak. Concordia is at the junction point where four glaciers come together – the Baltoro, the Godwin Austen, the Gasherbrum, and the Vigne. Very few people are fortunate enough to witness this sight and thankfully, I was the fortunate one.
I hadn’t eaten much for the last three days, half a cup of porridge for breakfast and a handful of rice for dinner was all I could eat. Our cook had quite a talent, he baked us a pizza in a kitchen tent pitched on top of all this ice and scree. Munir had a belly full but I felt like throwing up at the sight of it. The next day was to be a rest day followed by a day trek to the K2 base camp and back to Concordia. We estimated that it would take us about 10 hours for the day trip. We had to decide whether to go forward to the base camp or return back from Concordia.
From the outset, our guide had been talking us out of doing this last leg. This was quite in contrast to the experience I have had with the Kilimanjaro or the Everest crew, who considered it a matter of pride to ensure that everyone in the group goes all the way. Much later, I figured out that there was nothing extra, financially, for Ali to do this last leg and pride, I suppose, was not a consideration. Munir and I debated whether to go forward or return.
Along the way we had also found that after we left Ashkole the road back to Skardu had been blocked because of a landslide. Availability of transport on the way back wasn’t certain. More uncertain was the timing of the availability so we had to budget more time for our return journey. Also heard the news of some weather related climbing accidents. Somewhere beyond camp 1 a couple of climbers attempting the K2 had gone missing. After considering everything, we decided to head back the following day instead of taking the rest day at Concordia. This would help us arrive back in Ashkole with a bit of a cushion to cater to any uncertainty of timing.
The next morning, we unzipped out of the tent into a bright and sunny day. The K2 and the other peaks were visible. It was a delightful scene all around. We took a lot of pictures and started our trek back descending about 1000 feet to Goro II. Intuitively, one would expect that going downhill should be much easier than the uphill trek. Endurance wise, it is, but hard on the knees and for me going down has always been a challenge. If I was to go by the orthopedic advice, then my knee replacement is not too far in the horizon. I tend not to look that far. Trekking poles are a blessing for me and keep some of the load off the knees.
Next morning, we left early, our final destination for the day was Kuburse. We stopped for lunch at Urdukas. On the way up we had broken this distance, Goro II to Urdukas, in two parts but the return trip was to be easier. Not quite. My food intake had still not recovered so with whatever muscle power I had left was getting depleted fast. We were still on the great Baltoro which seemed to be never ending. I saw a porter carrying up a small generator on his back for don’t know who. Was impressed with the strength of this young porter carrying about 70 Kgs on his back. Also came across two returning Iranian climbers who were doing about 28 kms in a day with still enough energy left in them to go on through the night if they had to.
Breakfast in Kuburse was good news as my appetite showed some signs of recovery. Food wasn’t as repulsive as it had been for the last many days. We took the day easy as we were not in any rush to get back, having built enough time cushion to return back in time for our flight back. We enjoyed the scenery and somewhere along the way said goodbye to Baltoro, the big and small boulders that make a significant part of it, and the accompanying scree. Usually, goodbyes are difficult but let me confess that this was a happy one, bordering on to good riddance. By 4 pm we were relaxing in Payu.
Next day’s trek to Jhola was nice with a stiff breeze which took the sting off the blazing sun overhead. As soon as we arrived in the camp at Jhola I asked Ali to make some Pakoras (fried snack), a sure sign that my appetite was heading back.
Last day’s trek to Ashkole was easier than it was when we were going up. The final few kilometers are a clearly marked dirt road. About half a kilometer short of Ashkole we found Ali’s brother waiting for us in his jeep. He had been stuck on this side of the landslide past Ashkole and had among the few jeeps that were plying back and forth from Ashkole to the landslide point.
Ride back into Ashkole was quite a treat after having trekked over 150 kms on treacherous terrain. The small green fields terraced around the area were a delight for the eyes. Entering into the village the dirt road narrows, bounded by stone walls topped with thorn bush. Munir and I, snugly sitting, not comfortable though, in the front seat of the jeep were greeted by children running alongside the jeep as it splashed through the many water puddles in the dirt road. It was a relief to be back at 9000+ feet. I can assure you that unless you have spent some time above the tree line you cannot appreciate the pleasure of sea level.
We had planned to use the afternoon to visit Korphe which was across the river. We were in no mood to trek to Korphe so we hired Ali’s brother’s jeep. As I said earlier, I will have to give you a little background on Korphe, Greg Mortensen, and the book ‘Three Cups of Tea’.
In 1993, mountaineer Greg Mortensen attempted to climb K2 in memory of his deceased sister, Christa. After more than 70 days on the mountain, Mortenson and his co-climbers could not complete the climb. Greg got lost during his descent, alone, he became weak and exhausted. Instead of arriving in Ashkole, where his porters awaited, he came across Korphe, a small village then and still. He was taken in by the village’s respected elder and chief, Haji Ali. For the next few months, Haji Ali and his family nursed Greg back to health in their humble home. Greg spent much of the extreme winter of the Karakorums in the lower ground portion which is the all-in-one living space, kitchen on one side and sleeping area in the other.
Mortenson soon found out that the village had no school. To repay the remote community for their hospitality, Greg, after raising funds in USA, returned to Korphe and built the first school in the area. He co-founded a non-profit, Central Asia Institute (CAI), and continued to build many more schools in the remote areas of Baltistan. His book, ‘Three Cups of Tea’ became a bestseller. The book’s title comes from a quote by Haji Ali, said to Mortenson: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family…” In 2011Greg came under a lot of criticism, leading to lawsuits, for misrepresenting the truth. He is no longer associated with the CAI.
Back to the visit to Korphe. The jeep crossed the Braldu river between Ashkole and Korphe over a bridge which did not exit at the time when Greg stayed in Korphe. He had to build a footbridge to complete the promised school. We visited the school, which was closed at the time but the arrival of two out of town trekkers attracted a multitude of children and the village imam (priest) to the school. The school is named “Haji Ali Memorial School”. I was surprised to see no trace of Greg Mortenson’s name anywhere. Dawood, our head porter, gave a little insight, telling that his efforts were tarnished by the scandal of his misrepresenting the truth and the ensuing criticism. Some had felt that his outwardly good efforts were motivated by personal gain. My take; who can tell the real motivation, Greg was a means to bring education to this most remote region of the Karakorums. Kudos to him!We visited Dawood’s house and also visited the final resting place of Haji Ali, overlooking the fields jutting over the Braldu river flowing hundreds of feet underneath.
Next day we travelled back to Skardu, it was a long jeep ride with a changeover of the jeep at the landslide point. The landslide had wiped out the entire dirt road and there was barely room enough to walk by foot. One wrong step and the drop into the river a couple of thousand feet below could be fatal.
Flew out of Skardu the following day with no intention of making it back to the snow lake that was next on my list. The trek to the snow lake, I was told, was tougher than the one we just did. Well, after a couple of months later and muscles all recuperated I have changed my mind.