Millicent Thapa - K2 Gondogoro La Trek Dairy August, 2002
Millicent Thapa Dairy – K2 Gondogoro La Trek August, 2002
Our trip of a lifetime, a trek from the Northern Pakistani town of Hushe over Gondogoro La to K2 base camp, began in Islamabad. We had planned to fly from there to Pakistan’s Northern Areas, but our flight to the town Skardu, the closest city to the trailhead, was cancelled, so we began our overland trip to Baltistan in the north the same morning. My Nepalese husband, Arjun, and I had done a lot of treks in Nepal and I’d also done numerous ones in the Andes of S. America, but getting to see K2 with my own eyes had been a longstanding dream for more than 14 years.
Days 1-3 As we traveled from Islamabad to the Northern Areas along the Karakoram highway, we saw a gradual but striking change in the landscape as the small, rolling hills near Islamabad gave way to increasingly higher and more barren hills. These in turn led to high cliff walls, and by the time we left Kohistan, which is about the half way point, we were following a road which passed below towering rocky peaks as it clung to the cliff sides above the turbulent Indus river. As one goes further north, the relative inhospitability and savage beauty of the land impresses. Approaching Skardu, we found ourselves in an area with huge rock walls and jagged peaks, and even glaciers were sometimes seen from the road. The Indus river, born of mighty glaciers in the Karakoram, thrashed and churned its way along the river valley below the road in all its fury. My husband, who had worked for years as a whitewater rafting guide, and I, had seen a lot of rivers in our time, but few that appeared to be so violent and menacing. The fate that would have followed if our vehicle had gone off the road was unthinkable. On the second day, we reached Skardu, which is nestled in a peaceful river valley surrounded by rocky mountains. It is overlooked by a fortress which sits atop a knoll near a tributary of the Indus. We spent a rest day there, enjoying the views, peace and quiet, and delicious Pakistani food as our trekking crew stocked up on supplies and got ready for our trek.
Days 4-5 The next day, we left Skardu en route to the Hushe valley, from whence we would start our approach to Gondogoro La. The jeep followed a rough track for most of the day, sometimes passing through villages with fields in bloom, where apricots were abundant. The apricots were different from what I expected; they were much smaller than the ones I’d seen in other countries, but delicious, and came in many varieties. In many places the villagers had set them out to dry. Sometimes the children from the villages approached us wanting to sell their fruit, and I wanted to sample them (apricots are one of my favorites) but I’d been warned that fresh apricots are notorious for giving one diarrhea, so I resisted the temptation. After many hours on the road, we finally arrived in the town of Hushe. It’s not so far away as the crow flies, but the difficult road conditions made the journey take a long time. Hushe is located within view of the Masherbrum range, which lies at the head of the valley, and is surrounded by impressive cliffs. We settled in at the campsite, met our crew of porters, and then started our trek up the valley the next day. First we headed in the direction of the Masherbrum massif before turning to the right and heading up another valley toward the campsite at Saicho. The further we went, the higher, more jagged, and more spectacular the nearby peaks and rock pinnacles became, and the views of the Masherbrum massif were spectacular when the clouds cleared enough to allow us to get some views. The first day’s walk was an easy one, but by the time we got to Saicho, we were already within view of a heavily crevassed glacier, which came down from the valley located up and to the left of us. Arjun was impressed; in Nepal, you have to walk for several days at least in order to get so close to a glacier, but here in the Karakoram, here we were already near the base of one on the first day. This was just a foretaste of what was to come, as the trek over Gondogoro La is far more difficult and technical than most of the treks in Nepal. Saicho was a pleasant campsite though, as there were wildflowers in bloom and it was within sight of K6 and K7. Another thing that was really pleasant was that it was quiet; there’s a small store for trekkers there and I had heard that the campsite was normally pretty crowded, but there was no one there except a few locals when we arrived, and the store was closed. Due to the terrorism scare and aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11 2001, many people mistakenly assumed that all of Pakistan was a haven for Osama bin Laden’s supporters and the like, and had been scared away.
Day 6 On this day, we continued trekking up the valley to the left, en route to the campsite called Dalsangpa. I’d been told that the name means “place of flowers”. The unseasonably cloudy and rainy weather that there had been in the area during the month of July finally began to break and the clouds began to clear, giving us beautiful views of the neighboring peaks at the head of the valley. We walked next to the glacier that we’d first seen the day before, before heading up to the campsite at about 4100m. We’d already entered a land where there were glaciers coming down from seemingly everywhere, evidence of the fact that we’d entered one of the most heavily glaciated areas on earth outside of the polar areas.
Day 7 – 8 The next day, we headed toward the left up the glacier into an uninhabited wilderness of peaks and glaciers. The glacier was mostly flat, with small undulations, and had several alternating stripes of rubble covered ice and ice which was nearly devoid of stones. As we continued up the glacier toward the next campsite, Khuspang, we saw the famous Laila peak, which is perhaps one of the most photogenic peaks in the Karakorams, and is known for its nearly perfect, symmetrical, shark’s tooth shape, which is topped by a needle sharp summit. Across from Laila peak, behind the camp, was an ampitheatre of glaciated summits which rose to more than 6000m. As I gazed at Laila peak, I felt that it was hard to believe that I was really there. We took the next day off for an acclimatization day, and spent part of the day roaming around near the camp enjoying the views and watching avalanches rumble down off the peaks across the glacier. We got a leisurely start the next day, which was O.K because we weren’t really going far, just up onto the moraines to the base of Gondogoro La at about 5000m. This would also help us acclimatize and would shorten the already long day that we had coming up the next day. We went up to the next camp in the afternoon, and our guide, Ali, went all the way up to Gondogoro La in order to fix ropes for our descent from the pass on the glacier the next day. Normally this is done by local men who stay at Khuspang all summer in order to assist groups of trekkers, but once again, due to the almost total lack of people crossing the pass that year, they didn’t bother to waste their time hanging around in Khuspang waiting for only 3 or 4 groups to show up over the course of the season. Therefore, our guide had the hard task of going up to the pass, fixing ropes, returning to camp for the night, and then accompanying us back up over the pass again the next day. We went to bed early that night in order to prepare for our pre-dawn wake up the next day.
Day 9 This day was to be the crux of the trek, the day we were to cross Gondogoro La. We were to do this in an unusual fashion, from Hushe to Askole instead of the other way around, which is the norm; this means that we’d have a steeper ascent from the start of the trek than if we’d come from the other side, but I prefer to have a steep ascent rather than a long, steep descent if I have the opportunity to acclimatize, so that was O.K. with me. The main thing was to arrive at the top of the pass and get over it before the full strength of the August sun began to weaken the glacier on the other side, increasing the possibility of avalanches and the likelihood that some of the large seracs located on that side might fall over on us, crushing us to death. We got up in the wee hours of the morning and had a hasty breakfast before heading up the moraine into the cold. First, we picked our way up along the steep hillside on shale and rock chips, using the light from our headlamps to navigate with. By the time the sun rose, we were most of the way up the pass, but were told to stop and wait a while for the porters to go past. The sunrise illuminated the sky beautifully over Laila peak and the other massifs near the Hushe valley. The morning sky was filled with rugged, snow clad peaks of incredible beauty as far as the eye could see, which stood out against the soft, rosy backdrop of the morning sky. After that, it was steep, but not that much farther to the top of the pass, which was covered in snow. The view from there is almost indescribable; we reached the crest of the pass, which was flanked by nearby glaciated summits, and the view from there was mostly clear across to the Gasherbrum massif, Broad Peak, and of course, mighty K2. One’s first view of K2, which cannot be seen from any inhabited areas, is one that is not to be forgotten, and when first seen from Gondogoro La is almost a moving experience. K2 is a peak that impresses by its height, bulk, and dangerously imposing appearance. It’s a peak that unconditionally demands respect and is considered by many climbers to be more difficult to climb than Everest, but is nonetheless one that has its own, albeit somewhat intimidating beauty. To me, K2 is not the most beautiful mountain in the world in the artistic or aesthetic sense, like in the way that graceful Laila peak or Fujiyama are renowned for their beauty, but it’s one that’s breathtaking and heart stopping nevertheless. This, combined with the sheer faces of the Gasherbrums and Broad Peak and the views back down the way we came toward the Hushe valley present a scene of heart aching beauty. Before I went to the Karakorams, I’d seen countless pictures of these same peaks, but no matter how many pictures you look at for how many years before you go there, nothing prepares you for the view that you behold with your own eyes from the top. All of us, the porters included, savored the views and bright sunshine at the top of the pass for a while before heading down the heavily glaciated side of Gondogoro La which leads to Ali camp. Here, elation partly gave way to wariness as we negotiated our way down the crevassed back of the pass. By that time, the sun was high and warm, and the nearby seracs started to look even more menacing. Now, it was time to stop gawking and dawdling and get down as quickly as possible. We saw the path along which another avalanche had fallen, and tried to take the safest route down. It was annoyingly hard to move quickly as we knew we had to, because the deep snow had become soft due to the heat of the morning sun. At one point, my foot got suck in the snow and I was unable to extricate it without help. “This”, I thought, “would be just the time for that wall of ice behind us to come crashing down, just when I’m trapped here on the glacier!” Fortunately though, all of us were able to get down safely to the bottom of the pass, where we had a much needed breather before heading across the next glacier and down its lateral moraine to Ali camp. With every step, this isolated wilderness never failed to impress. We finally made it down to Ali camp, exhausted, but after having one of the most rewarding days of my life.
Day 10 The next day, we set off from Ali camp toward Concordia, which is the confluence of several large glaciers, including the Baltoro glacier and the Godwin Austen glacier, which flows down from K2. The glacier was like a broad highway of ice, which was in most places covered with rock debris and rubble and had numerous streams flowing down it. Ahead, we could see K2 and its neighbor Broad Peak clearly. We continued down the glacier along the side of Chogolisa until we reached the Baltoro Glacier proper, and continued to Concordia. From our campsite, the sheer, massive face of Gasherbrum 4 was directly in front of us, and the other Gasherbrums could be seen behind it, along with Marble peak to the left of K2 and numerous other towering giants nearby. This high altitude wilderness is a place which exceeds one’s imagination, and was made even more delightful due to the fact that it was so pristine; our group was the only one at Concordia at that time, so it was completely clean and quiet. As you gaze at the peaks, it seems that the Karakoram is timeless; I doubt that it would have been much different if we had been there 500 years ago, except, of course, that there were no Pakistani military camps on the glacier at that time. One or 2 friendly Pakistani soldiers stopped by to visit, but of course, that didn’t put a damper on the solitude.
Days 11 - 12 We continued to camp at Concordia the next day. I had been having a bout with intestinal problems and had been eating very poorly, even though the food, which was a mixture of Pakistani and western, was tasty; nonetheless, I decided to take the day off and just enjoy the views from Concordia and the porters’ Balti music and song, as Arjun, the guide, and a few of the porters made a day trip to K2 base camp and back. You can get good views of Chogolisa as you look back toward Concordia from the Godwin Austen glacier, and Broad Peak and K2 look impossibly large and even more imposing as you get closer. They returned in the evening, and the next day, we packed up and continued down the Baltoro glacier. Most trekking parties do this descent in 2 stages, but we decided to just make one stage of it all day. It was certainly worth it, because this was truly a day to savor; although K2 receeded out of sight and the Gasherbrums appeared a little smaller in the distance, we passed through a transition zone where massive, bulky peaks gave way to awe inspiring rock towers and spires. We came within sight of Masherbrum, which provided us with close up views, as well as Mustagh Tower and countless other stone monoliths. The glacier itself was interesting too, with a number of strangely shaped ice towers which jutted up above the surface of the glacier. Some of them were over 5 meters tall.
Day 12 On this day, we continued down from the Throne Room of the Gods toward Urdukas, along a corridor lined with famous rock towers; the Uli Biaho Group, Trango Tower, Nameless Tower, and others. By the time we got near Urdukas, we had entered a surreal high altitude, vertical desert; it was blisteringly hot and dry, yet there were countless tons of decades old ice locked up in the massive glacier which ran down the middle of the valley. If it melted, it would be enough to irrigate countless square kilometers of land, yet only a few meters away from the glacier, the soil and air were so dry that only the heartiest of shrubs and wildflowers could survive. The pink flowers that graced the valley looked delicate, but were tough enough to survive these extremes. Finally we arrived at the campsite at Urdukas, which was uncomfortably hot and infested with flies. The reward for this, though, was getting to watch the sunrise over the jagged cliffs and peaks on the other side of the valley.
Day 13 The next day, we continued down to the campsite at Paiju, which is situated at the base of the peak which bears the same name. Most of our walk was next to the Baltoro glacier, at the base of mountains which soared above us. At one point, we saw a rushing torrent of a river which had been flowing between us and the glacier disappear underneath the glacier’s surface. It was a very sobering sight; if anyone had fallen into the river at that time, they would have been immediately carried down into the bowels of the glacier, never to be seen again. Just another example of how nature reigns supreme in a place like that. Early in the afternoon, we reached the campsite at Paiju, which is a large place which can accommodate dozens of tents, but it was pleasantly quiet, with only 3 other trekkers there in addition to our group.
Days 14 – 15 For the next 2 days, we continued our descent toward the town of Askole. We finally reached the end of the Baltoro glacier, which ended abruptly as a large wall of ice from which a muddy, turbulent river emerged. It was at least as turbulent as the Indus river, with the current flowing as a furious, unforgiving torrent on its descent out of the Karakoram. Two of our porters slipped and fell into it at one point, but they fortunately fell into a very shallow section near the bank that was no more than knee deep, so they were able to get out without any problems. Before we reached Askole, we had to cross another river by a riding in what was basically a box that was suspended over the river by a pulley. We and all of our porters and gear crossed this way, and then continued along another valley into Askole. By this time, however, the weather had turned cloudy again, covering the peaks in the valley above the town. That was the end of our views of the Karakoram, but we were once again treated to greenery in the relatively lusher valley near the town. Our trek came to an end in Askole, but the adventure didn’t end there; the road back to Skardu was washed out in several places, making it necessary for us to take steep detours on foot above the raging river at the bottom of the valley. After the third detour, we were back on decent road again and were headed back to Islamabad, with our heads full of unforgettable memories.
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