K2 Gondogoro La Trek
I have been told by worldly and wise all that world's best mountains lie in Pakistan. The longest glaciers outside poles, the most 8000m peaks; K2 (8611m), Broad Peak (8047m), Gasherbrum I (8,068m), Gasherbrum II (8035m), Gasherbrum III (7952m), Gasherbrum IV (7924m), Masherbrum (7821m) and Chogolisa (7668m) can all be seen from the upper reaches of the Baltoro glacier as well as other countless peaks and natural wonders along the trail with some of the most unspoiled and remote wilderness. The grandeur of the mountains that surround this region is unparallel on this plant earth. These peaks have held a particular fascination for elite mountaineers since Godwin Austen became the first European to visit this part of the Karakoram in 1861.
In July, 2008, six of us went on a trek to the Baltoro glacier, K2 base camp Concordia and over the incredible Gondogoro La the highest mountain concentration of 8000 meter peaks on earth. This was a big adventure for us, but it is a quite popular adventure, as hundreds of people make the trek every year. We spent 15 days on the K2 Concordia Gondogoro La route. It is often done in only 14 days but we chose to take an extra day to help us adjust to the altitude better and increase our chances of making the Gondogoro successfully.
We organized our trek through Vertical Explorers
Expeditions Treks & Tours Pakistan. They were great to work with and very professional in all of their arrangements. For the 6 of us, they provided 35 porters, 2 sirdars, 1 cook and 1 guide. Our guide was Anwar. V E told us as part of their orientation that they make every possible effort to be sure that everyone that goes with them makes it to the top of Gondogoro La if they possibly can. If the trekkers get close to the top - they will strongly encourage and assist if needed to get them there. We found this to be true on our trip. We could not have done it without their great help from start to finish.
We spent the 1st day in briefing at Alpine club and sightseeing in the twin cities of Islamabad & Rawalpindi. After a sumptuous welcome dinner (local specialties)and sunset /evening view of twin cities from Islamabad's view point, Pir Sohawa, we went off to bed in Serena hotel for a good night sleep.
Next morning we took an internal flight to Skardu, passing close to Nanga Parbat and over hundreds of snow capped peaks and glaciers.
It took about 50 minutes and was the most spectacular flight I ever took.
Soon after arrival at Skardu we were taken for sightseeing to two famous lakes; Kachura and Frokso lakes, and a village. Late afternoon in Skardu we got time to explore Skardu bazaar, check our personal gears and afterwards relaxed in the picturesque Shangrilla Resorts garden overlooking the lake.
All ready to go. We got things packed up & had breakfast. Then the porters & guides started gathering for work out side VE office. They had already picked who they wanted to use but a crowd was outside hoping for a job. They assigned a guide & 35 porters to our party of 6. The head guide is Anwar & Aman is his assistant. The personal porter for my gear is Aslem. I would have thought they would try to get going earlier in the morning but their scheduled time to head out was not until 6 am. After almost half hour journey we took a brief stop to visit Shigar Fort and Khanqah Shigar, which were both quite old and worth visiting.
It took almost 5 hours in an exciting Land cruiser ride through the wheat fields and apricot orchards of the Shigar valley to the trail head at Askole.village of Braldo. Askole, is the traditional Balti mountain village and last habitation on our journey into the mountains, surrounded by green irrigated fields.
The last few km was pretty steep & rough. It was raining when we got there and there were a number of other groups ahead of us.
It was raining pretty hard all this time. Finally at 8:15 we were ready to hit the trail. We had put on my gaiters, rain pants & shell so did not mind hiking in the rain. It started rising gently at first but occasionally got steep. We were hiking through a rugged terrain with few flowers and boulders scattered all over the place until we came along a rocky stretch full of ups and downs. We started off trying to follow the advice to take it slow and steady but I thought we were too slow since we started at about 3000 m. Several other groups passed us but we kept on. We ate our lunches about 2:00 with only a brief stop. Often it was Tom leading - I deliberately tried not to lead since I knew I would hit too fast a pace for some. As the day went on, the trail seemed to get nastier. I even fell once when my stick slipped. I was using two walking sticks and very grateful for them. Too much snow as predicted and it melts too fast. It couldn't come through some places after the midday - small streams became the strong mountain rivers and we had some difficulties crossing them and negotiating fragile wooden bridges over raging torrents. We have gone 20 km today and it was almost 3:45pm when we reached Jula and staggered into camp. The surrounding views and the gushing river made this the perfect place to sit and fool around. The cook tent & 3 sleeping tents were up & they were putting up a dining tent. After putting our gear in our tents they brought us hot water for washing. Then they served tea & popcorn in the dining tent. Then came dinner; soup, bread, potatoes, spaghetti, meat, mango, bananas and dessert. They had a folding table in the tent & chairs to sit on. They set out cloth napkins with the silverware - quite elaborate - more than I expected. I ate till I was stuffed - we were carbo loading for the next leg. Finally off to bed.
I slept well - awoke a few times but comfortable. It was zero deg in the tent in the morning. I got up about 6 and started off packing my stuff so we would be ready to go after breakfast. It did not rain over night and today it was a crystal clear sky. Breakfast was good - porridge, eggs, toast, jam, honey, sausage, tea etc. Just like at the hotel, but no omelet. We were gaining altitude and inclines seemed tougher than ever before. As we approached Paiyu, we could see the rising snout of the Baltoro glacier in the distance, a grayish-black mound rising out of the earth, sign of a foretaste of what is to come as the trail climbs onto the Baltoro glacier and heads east towards the snow capped peaks.
Paiyu is a beautiful green oasis at the river bank, situated in a peaceful grove of trees, was one of our best campsites which seemed full of life with expedition tents dotting the whole area. We were camped almost at the snout of the Biafo Hispar glacier and a stream from the glacier ran beside the camp; needless to say it was one chilly night.
The best part I remember from this day's trek was crossing the stream flowing down between two peaks and into the Braldu. The porters had advised us to get there as early as possible since it became wider and faster flowing as the day went by.
Today was the acclimatization day for us and food making day for porters. They were making breads for rest of the trek. In the evening the porters made their own music which went on till late in the night.
We were on the trail by 6:30. We made slow and steady progress. Joseph led much of the way and he really went slow and steady - I felt too slow. Dick & Julie seemed to be having trouble - feeling the altitude a bit. They made it but were always at the back. Getting onto the glacier, we slowly made our way over the twisting and turning path to our right; the left one apparently went towards the base of the Trango Towers.
The trek till Urdukas took hardly 3 hours. It is a vantage point where one can gaze around at the beauty of the Karakoram peaks, There are 6000-7000 m tops everywhere around us. Urdokas is the last campsite with any vegetation on the way to Concordia and the view from here is phenomenal. In the distance I could see some of the world's greatest rock faces: Lobsang, Trango Tower, Cathedral Spires and the Uli Biaho Towers jutting out of the earth like thick needles. Glaciers that separated each tower flowed into the Baltoro, creating a breathtaking mosaic of ice and rock. I spent a lot of the day just staring at the enormous snowy and rocky cones rising out in the horizon; shining in mind-blowing splendor under the afternoon sun. The Baltoro glacier with numerous crevasses seems like they've been designed intricately by hand, countless ice walls, and clear streams, is a delight to trek on.
We started at 6 a.m. and walked towards Goro. On the right side of the camp, the snow-covered Masherbrum provided to content the photographers later in the afternoon; it looked stunning with the clouds around it glowing in the setting sun. The night was unbearably cold as this was our first camp on top of the glacier itself. Khoburse and Urdukas were on land just off the glacier. But here we were literally sleeping on ice and combined with the icy winds coming down from Mashabrum's Yermenandu glacier.
We were experiencing each day better and more stunning vistas, from the Indus Valley and mountains at Skardu, to the Trango Towers, Mashabrum, and the wonderful glacial features on the Baltoro.
Goro to Concordia:There were few places of rocks that were a bit of a scramble. We were seeing Masherbrum dominating the southern horizon and the unmistakable shape of Gasherbrum IV appeared ahead. Finally Broad Peak and K2 come into view and surpass all that has gone before. At Concordia there were many tents and groups scattered all over a sort of meadow. We found ours and unloaded about 2:45 just over 6 hours. The weather was pretty pleasant even with the clouds up and down. After they brought out the washing water, they said they would be back shortly for the laundry. We had been joking earlier on the trail about the need to find a laundry but did not really expect to get this sort of service. All six of us were sitting in the tent with the view of K2, Broad peak and Gasherbrums, in Concordia at 4500 m.
Concordia is a remote ice basin encircled by the greatest concentration of 8,000m peaks. It is huge natural amphitheatre where the tributaries Vigne and Godwin Austen glaciers joins with the mainstream mighty Baltoro glacier, is an awe-inspiring site.
We were lucky: we had three perfect days at Concordia with views of crystal clarity of Broad Peak, K2 and the Gasherbrums looked close enough to touch. We stared and stared, by dawn's soft light, the brilliance of the day, the 'alpine glow' of evening and the millions of stars and dense Milky Way of perfect nights.
At here porters were at the peak of their creativity, belting out the Balti music to everyone around camp.
This morning the mountain came out briefly again - there was fresh snow up there. We were up & packed in time for breakfast at 7:30. The weather was OK and we set out for K 2. We started out ahead with Joseph while Frederick stayed behind. We went slowly and seemed to be passed by many people - esp. by lots of porters. We almost never passed anyone early in the day - but later we passed some that had gone on ahead.
Arrived at K2 base camp. We made a short climb up to see the memorial. Here are the plaques and mementoes for all the climbers who have died on K2 & Broad Peak. There is no doubt I had never walked (and probably never will walk again) through such a incredibly beautiful landscape...).
We were offered two options for the return journey to Skardu: we had to choose whether to return to Skardu by retracing the route down the Baltoro or opt instead to cross the 5585m Gondogoro Pass into the attractive Hushe valley. This flexibility enabled us to decide at Concordia which option to follow depending on our level of fitness and health. The La crossing was suitable for regular hill walkers with a reasonable standard of fitness. Those wishing to cross the Gondogoro pass should be familiar with mountain walking in winter conditions.
We opted to exit out via the Gondogoro La Pass. A steep climb up to 5600m, negating the long walk back to Askoli. Last year the pass was closed. A huge crevasse opened up which cannot be crossed. Whilst many groups were unable to cross Gondogoro La during this time, our team were able to make the gradual ascent up the Baltoro Glacier in enjoyable, cool walking conditions. While we were equipped with crampons, ice axes and are carrying relatively light loads.
We headed to the Gondogoro La Pass, the most technical and highest point of the trek at around 5600m. It's supposed to be one of the highest point you can reach on a trek anywhere in the world and involves several exposed climbs. Our excitement built during preparations, an early dinner and resting until midnight. We set off at 1 am to get to the pass for dawn, since it's so steep, that sunlight means a risk of avalanche and rock-fall. We were all well-acclimatized by now and the team topped out on the La by 6a.m The top of the pass does boast "The greatest view on Earth", apparently.
Four 8000m peaks are clearly visible to the north, and previously unseen mountain ranges to the south are revealed. It was a truly magical day with views of K2, Broad Peak, the six Gasherbrums, Masherbrum and the ethereal Chogolisa; Herman Buhl's last mountain.. Tom, who has climbed to the North Col of Everest, commented that the climb to the La is steeper than anything on the N. Col though 1,500m lower. Again we were lucky and the giants appeared through veils of gathering storm clouds, providing superb atmospheric shots for our cameras!
There are fixed ropes on this difficult part but we used a harness most of the time. We all got up and down the other side of the pass safely, enjoying the dry-glacial approach and perfect snow conditions of the climb, leaving behind the stark rock and ice features of the high peaks. We continued all the way down the valley for what ended up being 15 hours of walking. We were all exhausted but happy...
We sort of whiled away the afternoon with relaxing, taking pictures, etc. Tom set up a basin and shaved and then washed his hair. The sun came out here while the Gondogoro peak was still mostly in clouds but seemed to be tempting us.
There was a bit of a brief sunset while we ate dinner. It was more the sun setting below the clouds rather than the horizon. Dinner was served at 6, which was too early since it was only 3 hrs since we had a big lunch. The meal looked was chicken, rice, sauce, cabbage. I tried to eat but did not have much appetite.
In the night, I got up once and the view was great. I could see the lights of stars and Moon and the surrounding area as well as the mountain. I got up after 6 to see what the sunrise was and it was astounding. Breakfast was about the same.
We then had a lovely 4 day walk down the Hushe valley, and from there, back to civilization (well, sort of...). - The descent down the green pastures and wild flower meadows of the Hushe Valley provided a spectacular contrast to the stark, barren landscape of rock and ice on the Baltoro, with the welcoming sight and rich aroma of grass, wildflowers and juniper trees. These lush green valleys provide summer pastures for the sheep and cattle of Hushe Village. Tired but feeling the 'heavy air' of lower reaches, we celebrated with our superb staff and amazing porters. These porters are definitely some of the fittest people I have met in my life. The porters through drumming, clapping, singing and dancing away the night was the way to relax after carrying 25kg and their personal stuff all day. They are known to cover the whole distance from Concordia to Askole within two days. And to top it all off, they do it with smiles on their faces! Our porter sardars, Ali Hasan and Ali Muhammad were extremely hospitable and helpful. Listening to their stories on both climbing and trekking expeditions was an experience in itself. It's amazing how these humble people are so content making a living out of guiding people around Baltistan and taking care of them at the same time. It was also great to have few days chatting with the porters and learning about their culture. They are all Balti, the local ethnic group, directly related to the Tibetan people but converted to Islam a few
Hushe: At 5 pm, the porters and guides were gathered and we finally all got together for mutual thanks and presentations etc. They sang a couple of songs - all in local Balti. Our tips for them were $60 for each porter, $100 for Aman and $200 for Anwar. After dinner everyone was ready for party. The sky was again filled with stars at the lovely camp of Hushe. Stars also appeared on the dance floor. The male members of our team admired and were envious and the female members were open-mouthed as our handsome porters danced with pride, dignity and grace. Rob also astounded with his particular brand of expressionism, while Bonny and Porter Sirdar Mohammed Hussain were accorded the accolade of notes of money being tucked into their hats by the porters when each of us danced! (My money was given to the drummers). This night and many others, the sight and sound of these special and hardy men unreservedly rejoicing in song brought tears to many eyes. It's a sound that will always take us back to this place. Our successful crossing of Ghondokoro La also gave us time to explore the Hushe area, and we met hospitable friendly locals who offered us delicious fresh yoghurt, butter and bread.
We were able to relax in Hushe Village, a welcome end to our journey on trail, before our jeep ride back to Skardu.
After signing in and looking at the souvenir shop, we got our ride to the hotel. We got our stuff and went to our rooms and hit the showers. My first action was actually to start transferring my digital pics to the laptop to be able to do a show for the guide and few porters.
They did a great job of giving us too much really good food to eat and keeping us (more or less) healthy. Sanitation and hygiene are a constant issue on these popular treks and although toilets and water supplies and education and awareness are being developed, it is still very easy to get sick. Regular hand washing and popping Cipro prevented anyone becoming a miserable casualty of the dreaded D & V.
As the road to Gilgit was broken in several places, we took Jeeps and drove on tracks over the National Park of the Deosai Plains (highest point 4,000m) and under Nanga Parbat, the wild, beautiful alpine valley of Astor to arrive in Chilas. After a stay of a local inn at Chilas. We drove on Karakoram Highway, ( KKH ) to Islamabad.
The tiredness and challenges were accepted in the spirit of adventure and brought the team members together.
There were too many other very special experiences to recount here. Suffice to say that we grew closer and closer as a group and shared 'a trip of a lifetime'.