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Essays and Travelogs

Initial Impressions on the Trek to K2 by Khizer Usmani

Before every trip to the mountains, everyone seems to be the authority on trekking and contemplates how the trip will turn out. This one to Concordia, the heart of the Karakoram, was to be a trek of a lifetime. People started talking about it many weeks before it actually started and there was speculation about who would be fit enough and who wouldn’t. Preparations were in full swing: a menu, food supplies, number of porters and money matters were being decided over a mailing list. People were being told what to bring and how much weight to carry. Supposedly, night temperatures on the Baltoro glacier can reach minus 20 degrees Celsius. Concordia was the place from where we would see K2. Then we were to cross the Gondogro La pass at 5600m, an altitude many seasoned trekkers find hard to bear. The whole trek was scheduled and planned for 14 days. Surfing the web to view pictures of Concordia and K2 was a regular occurrence. Descriptions of treks over the Baltoro and back down into the Hushe valley over Gondogro La were read for almost a whole night with utmost concentration, while a final exam was scheduled the next day. The trip had become an obsession for some of us. Everything was very uncertain. Difficulties in convincing my parents to let me go, finding warm waterproof boots for the trek, getting equipment in order and meeting deadlines for initial payments were just some of the pre-trek tasks that made me wonder whether I really wanted to test my stamina (I jogged a grand total of 4 times before the trip) and mental strength up there. I decided to go for it. I had just graduated and wanted to go for one last trip (until god knows when) to the mountains with my South Side pals. Last minute backpack adjustments and a couple of goodbyes later, Wasif, Jeff, Sajjad and I boarded the Daewoo bus from Lahore to Islamabad on an early July morning. Excitement was at its highest level despite the fact that three of us had been up all night; the trip had started. No amount of discussion, brain wrenching thoughts or premeditation about this trip could come even remotely near to what I was to experience in the following weeks.

Islamabad and Skardu

Before proceeding, let me just briefly mention the group that went on this trip. Most of us were LUMS students or alumni, with the exception of a couple of teachers and a few non-LUMS friends. I apologize in advance for mentioning unknown names randomly throughout this write-up, but it had to be done; the people made up an integral part of the trip’s success.

Our time in Islamabad went by fast, too fast for my liking. After all, the comforts of life were going to be missed out on for at least two weeks and I wanted to relax as much as I could before the trek. We met up with some of our friends at our always hospitable and shaky pal Saqib’s place. The following night we reached Maheen’s house and got our first glimpse of LP, her younger brother. Okay, for many of you, he is Ali Piracha. But the name LP stuck to him like a fly on a piece of cow dung for reasons that I shall refrain from discussing here. We were there to help Maheen out in packing all the food and supplies for the porters to carry. As I entered the guest room I realized just how big this trip was. Food for 25 people (cook included) took the shape of numerous cans, packets, jars, sachets, sacks – you name it, and it was spread out on the bed and around the floor leaving very little space for one to sit down or walk around freely. Rabia and Faiza were picked by Mamoo (who unfortunately didn’t go with us on the trip) from the Daewoo station and they were at Maheens soon after we arrived. Moscow arrived early next day and after wrestling with the flour sacks and barrel lids, most of the food was packed. Nine people out of the group were ready to fly to Skardu that morning, the 12th of August, while the rest, some of whom were still in Karachi or Lahore or wherever, were to take the flight on the 14th. Atif, president of the LUMS Adventure Society and a licensed guide by now, was supposed to be with us but couldn’t make it due to some Ministry of Tourism briefings (Cassandra, an American colleague of Yasir’s, was part of the group) at the time of the flight. And much to his chagrin, the weather was on our side; we took off for Skardu.

Skardu was hot. And by hot I mean really hot. As we made our way out of the airport and then to the hotel by jeep, I realized that this wasn’t one of Pakistan’s typically beautiful Northern Area destinations. The town itself is extremely dusty with not many places to see, but the surrounding hills and peaks sort of made up for that and the lack of beauty. The manager at the Indus motel wasn’t very welcoming and my first impression of the people of Baltistan was a bad one. I was to find out later exactly how hospitable and friendly they are. The ladies, Rabia and Faiza, got a room to themselves. Wasif, Jeff, Sajjad, and I took up one room and were later subject to state-of-the-art swearing by Ali Moscow for abandoning him in another room with LP. So we decided to have a toss to determine which one of us would be shifting in with them, with the result that Wasif would do the honors. Very stupid and rude of us, I must say, as we were only staying there for three days and two people in one room and four in another didn’t make much sense. However, with the arrival of Shafiq bhai, our cook, the toss was declared void and Shafiq bhai was thrown in with them. With two days to go till the rest of the group arrived we had to do something or the other to keep us busy. In the lobby/dining area of the motel we met two British climbers, Mark and Michael, who were joining a French expedition to Broad Peak. They gave good company, with discussions on a variety of issues, ranging from mountaineering to Mark’s company’s online sales to religion and culture in Pakistan. It felt great to clear up some of the most absurd misconceptions the Western world has about Pakistan and its people. They left after 2 days; numbers and e-mails were exchanged and plans were made to meet them at Broad Peak base camp, something that never materialized.

The walk to Satpara Lake and back was a good test of one’s stamina and the lake, which is the main source of water for the inhabitants of Skardu, was a beautiful sight. When we got back, we found Hasan and Yasir at the motel entrance; they had just returned from a trek in Shimshal and the evening was spent in the company of chappali kebabs and their stories of near death experiences. Hasan insisted we go and explore the Deosai plains by jeep the next day. And boy was the visit worth it; if I start writing about it here, it would take up too much of my time and space. In short, they were stunning with their serenity, greenery, surrounding peaks, cloud shadows and a picture perfect sky. After a short session of photography and video making we made our way back to the motel and found the rest of the group members there. The unfortunate second batch of 14 people could not fly out to Skardu because of bad weather and had to take the Karakoram highway. Not only was their journey long, they also faced the problem of crossing around a broken section of the highway. Yes, it was one tired bunch.

All hell broke loose the day before our jeep ride to Askole, from where we were to start our trek. Last minute preparations included talking to the porter sardars and deciding how many porters to take. Atif gave me the responsibility of buying kerosene supplies and food for the 44 porters we were taking with us. Everyone was making frantic trips to the bazaar to buy equipment they thought they might need. While some went and bought useless pieces of junk, more efficient people like Faiza and Rabia thought of buying things like sunglasses and a backpack on the last day. At the motel, the upstairs corridor was filled with people doing all sorts of things: porter loads were being made; ordered equipment was being distributed to everyone; people were packing their own things; a weighing scale was passed around so people could weigh their packs; intense discussions ensued about how heavy the packs had become, reducing weight was another problem; medical kits were being sort – the usually dull Indus Motel was the scene of intense excitement and commotion caused by our group. After things had settled down, Hasan and Atif gathered everyone on the roof of the motel late at night for a small pre-trek group meeting. Some very needed information and instructions were given by Hasan, Yasir, and Atif about the risks involved and other trekking matters such as handling the slower people and cooperation between group members. By the time a slight drizzle finally disrupted the meeting, I had it clear in my head – decisions made by Hasan and Atif would be final. Not because they were taking so many pains in organizing a 14-day trek for 24 people but that they were the most experienced trekkers in the group.

The Trek

Day 1 (Skardu to Thongol) The jeep ride was wonderful. Almost all of us were standing most of the way to Thongol, but the spectacular views of the peaks in Shigar valley left very little to complain about. Ducking under trees, screaming, singing and shouting along the way made the jeep ride feel short, and we found ourselves at Thongol instead of Askole (the jeep track to Askole was blocked), setting up camp and lazing around afterwards. The rest of the porters were picked up from here. The surroundings were green and water was abundant; no one could wait for the next day.

Day 2 (Thongol to Korophone) The actual trek started the next day; as soon as people were done with the morning chores, one by one everyone set out towards Askole, which was our first stop. On reaching Askole within a couple of hours, I was out of breath and I had this uneasy feeling that the following days would be horrible. A couple of cigs later we made our way towards Korophone, our next campsite. The trek that day didn’t turn out as bad as it had started for me. We crossed a relatively flat area with humongous boulders scattered all over the place until we came along to a rocky stretch full of ups and downs. There was an easy bridge crossing, some inclined areas to be crossed, and that was it. On reaching Korophone, Hasan’s remark summed it all up, ?This place is a fish market?. There was another large German trekking group camped there with tents and equipment spread out everywhere. The afternoon and evening were spent in the mess tent, with cards and music. The porters made their own music which went on till late in the night. 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.

Day3 (Korophone to Bardumal) The following morning, the trek went smoothly, walking on rocky terrain with the Braldu river flowing down on our left. The inclines and declines, however took a toll on my legs. After several stops for water and cigarettes we came to the cable bridge at Jola. Everyone was sitting on the opposite side and we decided to have lunch there and just spend some time relaxing, eating and ?drinking’. The surrounding views and the gushing river made this the perfect place to sit and fool around, and fool around we did for almost 2 hours, as the next campsite was supposedly close. Following the river, our path turned towards the left; trudging along the now sandy terrain and then crossing over narrow and rocky stretches, we reached a place we named the ?naked German’ camp. No prizes for guessing why; we stumbled upon a German trekker in the middle of his shower. Not that he seemed to mind too much. With the girls going red and the guys laughing their heads off, we made our way ten minutes further on where we found Zakaria, Hina and Mannan waiting for the rest of the group to catch up. I was under the impression that this was to be our camp but soon I realized that our porters were nowhere to be seen. They had probably gone on and with Fooki’s shoulder causing some problems and the tail behind us not yet in sight, we had reason to worry. Not to be bogged down by circumstances, everyone just repeated Jola until Atif arrived a while later. He came and went ahead to check out what was going on. In an hours time we were walking towards the next camp, most people without their packs as the porters had come back to get them. Yasir, Wasif, Jeff, and I offered to carry other people’s packs along with the porters; in fact Yasir was so excited that he tried to carry two at one go – that is just about what he did ? he tried. After about another hour we walked into the Bardumal campsite, tired and hungry. Sadaf was being treated for a bad knee in one of the female tents. Fooki was feeling only slightly better; most people opted to hit the sack early. The second day had been tough indeed.

Day 4 (Bardumal to Paiyu) By now an early morning pattern had set in; breakfast was either porridge or paratha; people were assigned to take care of the tail (in case you don’t know what this term means, it’s used for the slowest people in the group – and I mean slow) and once the tents and equipment were packed, one by one people started to leave. Making my way along the path with Wasif, I started noticing a change in our surroundings. Things became less ?sandy’ now, the terrain seemed ?rockier’ and a change in the weather was obvious. We were gaining altitude and inclines seemed tougher than ever before. The faster people had also been established by now, if the lead would get to a camp in say three hours, then it would take the tail six. 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. It was great. With my cargoes rolled up, I had to literally pull off some sort of a balancing act on the stones beneath the gushing knee-deep water. How Wasif managed to make a video while crossing it is something that I still don’t comprehend. Going on, we managed to get on to the wrong path, and after correcting our course we continued along an almost non-existent path with some areas that hardly had any place for our feet. Paiyu, our next campsite was supposed to be an hour away according to the porters, but it took us a good two hours. I suspect the term ?porter standard time’ was coined sometime around this day. 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. Paiyu was one of our best campsites. Situated in a peaceful grove of trees, it seemed full of life with expedition tents dotting the whole area. Everyone was in camp by three in the afternoon and we had plenty of time to spare. Atif, Hasan, Zakaria and Yasir were in high spirits (no pun intended), cards and music (a couple of us even started dancing with music on earphones) were being played everywhere, and the tuck shop provided some people the opportunity to buy over-priced coke and cigarettes before venturing onwards the next day. The shower that Fooki, Wasif and I took down in the stream is also one I’ll never forget. I’m glad Fooki made us take a dip into the ice-cold glacier water, a strange mixture of emotions followed: loud screams of pain and the luxurious feeling of being clean after four days of walking and sweating. Dinner as usual in the mess tent followed with the non-smokers secretly cursing smokers to get the hell out of the tent to smoke. The porters were at the peak of their creativity, belting out the latest Balti numbers and qawwalis to everyone around camp. It can become slightly annoying though when one is trying to sleep. I slept late that night, the clear sky and millions of stars kept me up for quite some time outside our tent.

Day5 (Paiyu to Khobutse) The next morning Wasif, Jeff and I were given the responsibility of handling the tail. This day was going to be one I’ll never forget. It started off on a good note. Bilal and Sajjad decided to stay with us for company and we found ourselves lazing around under the early morning sun for 20 minutes at a time after spurts of ten minute trekking; we would let the tail go ahead and then catch up with them. By the time we crossed a narrow path, which led up to the start of the Baltoro glacier, it was just eleven in the morning and the tail was already busy tucking into their packed lunches; I started feeling uneasy as to the slow pace we were proceeding at. 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. This was my first time on a glacier after a long time, the last being on the trek to the South Side of Nanga Parbat two years ago. It was going to be different as the Baltoro stretches for over 60 km till Concordia. Stopping at a much welcome shaded area under a large overhanging rock, we started gobbling away at our parathas and canned tuna. Looking back we could still see the trees surrounding Paiyu; it had been five hours since we started out. Several porters passed by and left laughing after hearing how long we had taken to get to this point from Paiyu. ?We do this in 45 minutes? and ?you will reach next camp by 10 in the night hopefully? were hardly phrases that made any of us feel better. As I said, this day was going to be one I will never forget. During the course of the trek, I was alone for about an hour’s time with Sajjad and Wasif behind me and nowhere in sight, and the rest of the tail ahead. My stomach rejected the tuna soon after I had had it; I vomited at least 4-5 times and any sort of liquid I tried taking would just come out. With the afternoon sun beating heavily on me, nausea took complete control over me and I was dehydrated beyond belief. What was alarming me the most was the level of weakness I was feeling. I was literally on my knees, almost on all fours, each time I puked and the 15 kg pack seemed like a 100kg one at every step along the icy path. The fact that I was alone did not help either. I was out of breath every five minutes and the more I stopped for breaks, the harder it got to get up and start going again. There came a point when I almost gave up, thinking that someone would come and get me; my common sense got the better of me and I continued in agonizing mental and physical pain until I saw Jeff with the tail – they were just getting off the glacier onto a path which ran across the side of a mountain on our right. I guess seeing someone at that time after being alone for what seemed like forever was the biggest energy boost I could ask for. Catching up with them quickly, I related what I had gone through and we took another rest while waiting for Wasif and Sajjad to catch up. To make matters worse, we could not find water anywhere. Before the day ended, we trekked for two more hours before we got access to water, Jeff also vomited and passed out after going ahead to get water while I stayed with the tail; Rabia felt sick as well because of the tuna; Sajjad hurt his knee in a bad slip (that’s why Wasif and him were way behind me), and a rescue operation was carried out by Fooki and Rehma to get water to us as quickly as possible. The tuna combined with slow pace, afternoon sun and lack of water had taken its toll against all of us in some way or the other. Some porters then came back to the spot under the rock where Rehma had been resting all day (where Jeff had passed out and the rest were relaxing) to carry our packs to the camp of Khobutse. We reached camp after 7 in the evening, exactly 12 hours after we had started off. I felt fine by then as I greeted an angry yet worried Hasan asking me what had gone wrong. Everything had gone wrong, nothing seemed to have worked for us that day, but whenever I look back, I thank god for not letting it get worse. Anything could have resulted out of the circumstances that afternoon, disasters much worse than what we went through could have occurred. As they say, all’s well that ends well.

Day6 (Khobutse to Urdukas) Next day we set out for Urdukas, a camp situated at a vantage point where one can gaze around at the beauty of the Karakoram peaks. The trek till Urdukas took hardly 2 or 3 hours and everyone, after the previous day’s trek, welcomed the small distance. An army camp is set up below the camp and I was quite appalled by the amount of pollution it had caused in the area. Urdukas is where one finds the last remnants of greenery and flowers on the way to Concordia and the view from here is phenomenal. In the distance I could see the Trango Towers 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. Photography sessions went on throughout the day, music was being played in the mess tent as usual and 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 itself is as beautiful as a glacier can get. With numerous crevasses that seem like they’ve been designed intricately by hand, countless ice walls, and clear streams, the Baltoro is a delight to trek on. At night we noticed light being flashed somewhere in the middle of the right face of the Trango Towers and then at the base. Obviously someone was attempting to climb the towers; the flashes were signals. I tried imagining what it would be like to sleep hanging in midair with your life supported by a few ropes – you must really be in love with the mountain to do something like that; or be simply really crazy.
Day 7 (Urdukas to Biango) Well over 4000m by now, we set out the next day towards Goro II, but ended up reaching a place called Biango, situated between Goro I and II. We decided to camp here, as there were no signs of the tail catching up with us any time soon. We received some bad news, Maheen was having trouble walking and was suffering from altitude sickness; she had turned back towards Urdukas. Yasser Hashmi and LP stayed with her while Atif and Hasan decided on heading back to Urdukas the next day to bring her back later when she felt better. Seeing some ice walls around the area, Hasan decided on doing some ice climbing as we had the whole day to spare. The session went on brilliantly with people waiting patiently for their turns. Rehma in a hurry decided to climb the wall from another side (without ropes) while people like Moscow went on climbing till almost dark. 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. Khobutse 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 Masherbrum’s Yermenandu glacier, the cold seemed to creep into my bones no matter how much I tried keeping myself warm.

Day 8 (Biango to Goro II) We set out the next day (Atif and Hasan in the opposite direction) not deciding where to camp; the porters told us that Concordia would be a long but doable trek and Goro II would be close and a good spot to camp at. We found ourselves at the latter site after another small walk, probably the shortest trek of the trip. Yasser, Atif and LP met up with us late in the evening with the good news that maheen was feeling better; Hasan was still with her at Urdukas. The weather wasn’t particularly pleasant, looking back at where we had come from; I saw a massive buildup of dark clouds. After some time we were hit by strong winds and rain for a brief while. Despite the cold, the clouds and the rain, our surroundings were getting better in terms of views; Mitre was visible in the distance along with some of the other peaks surrounding Concordia. K2, however, was still hidden.

Days 9 (to Concordia) 10,11 (Concordia) The weather had cleared up considerably by the next morning, but as we trudged towards Concordia it started raining again and I wondered if the weather would ever permit us to get a good view of K2. The trek to Concordia was interesting; longer than any of the last three days while the path took us over hundreds of inclines, twists and turns under a drizzling sky. I met a foreigner on the way who was carrying a small rucksack with skis fastened to the sides. He asked me whether I was going to cross Gondogro La and after answering with a yes, I asked him whether he was just trekking or was part of a climbing expedition. ?I just summited K2,? came the answer. ?I’m going back now. Bye.? Talk about straight to the point, someone who can talk so calmly about just reaching the top of the second highest mountain in the world and then walk off as if he is strolling around in his garden would impress anyone. I hardly had the time to congratulate him properly; I was just too amazed to react. I found out later that he was Hans Kammerlander, a famous Italian climber who has climbed a zillion peaks with the likes of mountaineers such as Reinhold Messner. He had also just attempted to ski down K2 after reaching the top but stopped when he saw a Korean fall to his death. I lumbered on in awe and after about 20 minutes, I spotted familiar poncho-clad figures and tents in the distance, this was it; I had reached Concordia.

From the descriptions and discussions earlier, I had gathered that Concordia was known as the throne of the mountain gods. Now I could see why. As I passed by an army camp and into our own, I noticed how this place resembled a bowl, covered on all sides by mountains characterized by gigantic proportions and awe-inspiring beauty. I couldn’t figure out where K2 was, someone told me it’s on my right and so I peered towards my right. To my disappointment, it was covered with clouds and I could hardly make out the base of the mountain in the dim light caused by cloudy and over-cast weather. When I arrived at Concordia I poked fun at Wasif and Jeff, looking utterly stupid in their ponchos – 15 minutes later I was looking utterly stupid myself. The weather was horrible, it was drizzling continuously and it seemed that god had saved all the cold for the day that we were to reach Concordia; a poncho seemed like one of life’s necessities. The altitude took over me for the first time, I felt dizzy and experienced light- headedness for a while during the first day. Thankfully, that was all I felt. Soon after the rest of the group had arrived, we set about the task of getting the tents up. Our tent’s position was chosen quickly, with a good view of k2 (if the clouds ever budged) and on a relatively flat area. First toiling with the surface by covering it with flat stones and removing all the jagged ones, we did everything we could to keep the rain out. Stones were placed on all sides of the tent to keep the water out and we dumped all our stuff inside to prevent it from getting soaked. To my horror at night, my sleeping bag was drenched all the way to the inside padding and I ended up sleeping in the mess tent after Atif gave me a relatively dryer (but still wet) sleeping bag. Hasan and Maheen arrived later in the day, towards the evening in fact, with Maheen apparently suffering from hypothermia and Hasan extremely tired; they had walked the whole stretch from Urdukas to Concordia in one day. After a little rescue action by Moscow and Atif, Maheen was brought to camp and was made to rest in front of the gas stove in the kitchen tent for some time. Moods in the camp were solemn but as soon as she recovered, everyone was back to their cheerful selves again. The two days at Concordia were like a dream. I mean, here I am camped at 4800m, in the heart of the Karakoram, with people whose company I enjoy, what more could I ask for? The days were mostly spent gazing at the mountains. From Concordia one can see the majestic K2, Broad peak, Gasherbrums I, III and IV, Chogolisa, and Mitre peak among the main ones. Mitre is my favorite after K2, with its jagged edge features and being almost black in color, it resembles a mad scientist’s castle.

It was at Concordia that the mess tent culture in its true form came into being. Cards were played almost all the time, with a whole range of different games being played by almost everybody. Yasir’s speaker was very useful. Music, which somehow always sounds better in the mountains, was played all afternoon each of the three days, with requests ranging from Nusrat Fateh Ali and Junoon to Pink Floyd and U2. The ?Khizer-Mannan’ bathroom tent was set up with ingenious engineering, but failed as far as the flushing system was concerned. Shafiq bhai treated us to some of the finest cooking at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I say finest because the man actually made tinned and canned food taste nice, and kudos to him for putting up with impatient shouts of ?Shafiq bhai?foood!?. Bilal went on an overnight trip to G2 base camp to see some of his friends who were there with an expedition. On his return, he treated us to 1/20th of a slice of pizza each, a couple of sips of Pepsi and some pudding that he had taken from his gang at G2. The same day was spent ice-climbing on a nearby ice wall and although I didn’t go, I could feel the amount of fun the climbers had had on seeing their satisfied and smiling faces when they returned. We were visited by two army officers who were delighted by the fact that a Pakistani trekking group had made its way up there. Normally, not many Pakistanis trek in the Karakoram; they are missing out on one of the greatest opportunities in their own country to see places which foreigners pay thousands of dollars to visit. Photography sessions took place whenever the weather permitted. Actually, speaking of weather, let me just briefly mention how nature played havoc with us during our stay. It hardly ever stopped drizzling and even the times the sun decided to say hi (the rain and sun gave us one of the best sights on Concordia, a rainbow), the cloud cover would never permit us to get a good view of K2. We did, however, see all of it in parts, but never the whole thing all at once. The peak seemed to be playing hide and seek with the thick wisps of clouds coming in with the wind from lower Baltoro; war cries by Zakaria, Mannan and Rehma greeted the summit whenever it peered down on us at Concordia. No picture of K2 can do justice to what meets the naked eye when standing at this junction of the Godwin Austin and Baltoro glaciers; this massive beauty stands aloof from the rest of its neighboring peaks. The first obvious striking feature is its size, its sheer enormity is overwhelming and the colossal slopes on the sides of the mountain come together to form an almost perfect cone; the perfect shape is made not-so-perfect because of the famous shoulder on the right side. Rehma pointed out its clear silhouette under the moon one night when I ran out of the mess tent to answer the call of nature. I felt that the shoulder gives K2 a lot of character; the mountain seems to exude some sort of arrogance, attitude and style with it standing high and proud above everything else, yet slouching to one side in a calm and casual manner. From a distance, the rugged features are a delightful treat for the eye; with my earphones stuck firmly to the sides of my head, I spent many moments admiring and enjoying what has to be one of the greatest sights nature has to offer.

Day 12 (Concordia to Biango) The group was to make a decision at Concordia, whether we were going to cross the Gondogro la or not. It was obvious, given the events so far, that some people were most likely not going to make it over the 5600m pass unless they were prepared to go through agonizing pain. At the same time, slow people were likely to pose a danger to the other members of the group as the pass has to be crossed in a limited amount of time at night before the sun rises and the ice on the La starts melting. Hasan and Atif, whom everyone turned to as unofficial leaders of the group, were to make a decision based on the weather on the day we were to leave Concordia. The 3rd day dawned and we found ice covering the tents; it had snowed slightly the night before. So that was that, we weren’t going. Only Bilal and some porters belonging to the Hushe valley were going to cross the La; Bilal had to get off the Karakoram and back to Islamabad as early as possible to meet admission deadlines. As things were being packed, some people changed their minds; they wanted to cross G La. I was one of them initially, but on the last moment decided on a hunch not to go. The weather was worrying me and I wanted to be part of the larger group; ?the more the merrier’ seemed appropriate as I made the split second decision and started off back down the Baltoro. The plan was to try and camp at Goro I or if possible at Urdukas. On the way we stopped at the army camp at Goro II, being treated to much needed hot cups of tea and some stale biscuits. On reaching Biango, we set camp as the tail was apparently quite far away behind us; the prospect of reaching Urdukas after dark didn’t seem too promising. In fact this trend continued over the next two days, plan for Paiyu cut short to Khobutse and plan for Bardumal cut short to Paiyu, it was only on the fourth day that people were made to reach the planned destination of Korophone.

Day 13 (Biango to Khobutse) Next day, we made our way past the familiar surroundings, no less beautiful than when we went up the Baltoro, on towards Khobutse. It was this day that I lost my way. I was following a porter and he obviously deviated from the path on some sort of short cut. For almost an hour I was trying to keep up with him while at the same time walking on slippery ice, I fell a couple of times and then came onto an area which was covered with boulders. As the porter played hop-scotch on the bulky stones, I had a difficult time balancing myself, trying not to fall to a definite death and went on cursing myself for following the porter who had by now disappeared. The paths on the Baltoro change as the glacier melts and freezes and melts again day after day but even if a path disappears for a while, there is always some sort of indication (usually a few small stones piled up by porters) about which way to go and one is bound to stumble upon the path again after a short time. And here I was for two hours looking for a path or an indication that I thought I would never find. Eventually I did, and looking back at where it was coming from, I noticed that I had been a good 2-300 yards to the left of the actual path all this while. I trudged down a ridge on the side of another unnamed mountain to reach Khobutse, where I related my experience to Moscow, Jeff and Hasan. No wonder some of these porters seemed to move at lightening speed, probably strolling over short cuts that ordinary trekkers would find difficult to tread on. But these porters are definitely some of the fittest people I have met in my life. Carrying 25kg loads on their backs, they are known to cover the whole distance from Concordia to Askole within two days. The way they sleep on the glacier, inside makeshift stone structures a couple of feet high and with just a tarpaulin covering on top is testimony of the high degree of endurance they possess. 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. That’s all there is to life for the – and they are happy with it. At Khobutse we met a foreign trekking group led by a friend of Atif’s from Karavan Lahore (a company that organizes tours and treks around northern Pakistan, Bilal is part of the company). We were thrilled when they offered us French fries, mangos and dry fruit; apparently they had with them goats, chickens and something like 75kg of mangoes. They even had solar heated showers – and I thought we were trekking in luxury.

Day 14 (Khobutse to Paiyu) The next day we crossed the last bit of the Baltoro en route to Bardumal. We got a scare very early into the trek; most of the group was crossing a rocky section in one line when someone realized that we were right under a slope that was very obviously a landslide area. Very calmly but nervously we made our way across while keeping an even more nervous eye on the rocks and boulders above us, we didn’t turn back since we had already traversed more than half the dangerous path. The relief on everyone’s face was written in capital letters, as we gathered our nerves and went on ahead on the glacier. We were caught in a mad sand storm just as we were getting off the glacier and marched into Paiyu to wait for the tail to catch up. As I looked back at the Baltoro, a dozen thoughts crossed my head. I was already missing walking on the slippery and rocky paths it has to offer, jumping over gaping crevasses, the stupendous views of the surrounding mountains and the unpredictable weather. It had undeniably been a great experience to walk up and down the 62 km long glacier. As had happened the day before, we had to cut short the planned trek for the day and camp at Paiyu. The trek from Khobutse to Paiyu is long and exhausting; it was reasonable to stop where we were instead of heading further even though Bardumal wasn’t too far off. Smokers were thankful to god for reaching Paiyu for another reason. Cigarettes were available at the shop here and the fact that the price of a pack of gold leaf was twice the normal price hardly mattered. During the trek, some people must have smoked at least six or seven different brands as most ran out of cigarettes by the time we started back from Concordia and started borrowing fags from the porters. Rather unfortunately, we could not camp at the spot where we initially had on our way up; there were just too many trekking groups and most of the space had been taken up. We found a spot just outside the patch of trees beside flat ground that has been turned into a volleyball court of sorts. Setting up the mess tent here involved a lot of manpower, the strong winds seemed to punch the tent down whenever it was put up and in the end at least three dozen heavy stones were put on the sides and insides of the tent to keep it from falling. Even then it seemed as if the tent would be blown away; it was as if someone had placed 1000 pedestal fans on high speed all around the tent. Everyone then just collapsed into the tent, into the familiar coziness of mess tent culture. By now the routine was set. Set up the mess tent, lay the mattresses inside, put all the backpacks on the sides to be used as pillows in the night and then get the sleeping bags out. Everyone more or less had a ?spot’ inside the tent and after getting comfortable; the most active of all souls would make a 360-degree turn to laziness of the highest order. As Jeff pointed out, ?handy’ was a very common term used in the tent. Most people would not bother moving even a few inches to get something they needed. ?Have u got this handy?, ?Have u got that handy? etc. were phrases I heard till the last camp every day at least ten times. The mess tent was the scene of intense discussions and arguments as well as mindless ?taking’ sessions (the best one unarguably being the coooonkie series). And everyone seemed to be doing their own thing, whether people were writing their daily dear diary bulls#!t or playing cards or listening to music or just plain relaxing; it was all done under one roof. Dinner would be served inside the tent and as soon as everyone had eaten, lights off, sweet dreams. Without a doubt, the mess tent played an important role in the interaction of people with each other, developing the needed sense of comradeship in the group.

Day 15 (Paiyu to Korophone) My sleep was disturbed the next morning by the shrilling sound of a whistle. Startled, I looked at my watch and discovered that it was earlier than usual to be getting up but we had to this day. We were supposed to reach as far as Korophone, at least, and it was being made sure that people leave early to achieve that target. Coming from a higher altitude, I seldom found myself out of breath during this day’s trek, except of course on killer inclines, and hiked along the rough path with relative ease. As the day went by, a lot of people were met with a tragedy of a different kind. The parathas we had eaten earlier for breakfast staged a battle with some stomach linings and emerged victorious; the runs took over and many stopped numerous times during the day to relieve themselves. Poor Rabia had problems of her own, her lowers were smiling from behind (read torn at the seam) for almost the whole morning before she realized it and displaced some resting porters from a relatively covered spot to change. On the way we stopped once in between at yet another army camp to wait for Maheen, apparently she was missing and Moscow and Atif were frantically running back and forth between the lead and the tail to figure out where she was. Thankfully, they found her. The army people offered us some sherbet; very hospitable these guys I must say, and like I said before, they are delighted to meet Pakistanis in the region. But it can get irritating as well when the poor guys start whining, ?I vaant ta go to laaore?. Can’t blame them really, spending 3-6 months at a stretch in the company of donkeys would drive anyone mad. We had lunch at Jola and before letting anyone get too lazy, Hasan made us start off again. Making our way back along the Braldu river, we reached Korophone a couple of hours before dark and set up what was to be our last camp of the trip. Sajjad was in bad shape, his leg had been giving him a lot of trouble all the while since his slip on the glacier. His extra warm army boots added to the sorry state of affairs as he showed me the shriveled soles of his feet; the poor guy’s trip had almost turned into a nightmare. On reaching Lahore after the trip his doctor informed him that he had torn a ligament. Physical pain had been common throughout. First came Sadaf’s knee and Fooki’s shoulder. Then Jeff and I had suffered from dehydration on that unforgettable day from Paiyu to Khobutse. Maheen went through what people said was hypothermia and Rabia suffered from severe stomach cramps on one of the days on the way back. On the last day as I hiked with Atif, he mentioned a twisted ankle and I admitted to him how much my back had been hurting the last couple of days. Almost everyone had painful blisters on their feet; the trip went well but not without the injuries.

Day 16 (Korophone to Thongol and then Skardu) Next day we dashed from Korophone to Thongol to get the jeeps as early as possible. The trek seemed trouble-free and I could sense that my stamina had improved tremendously after so many days of walking long distances; Atif and I were literally jogging by the end of the 4-hour trek. The valleys had turned green with streams flowing all over the landscape and I stopped several times to look back and marvel at the surroundings that god knows when I’ll ever see again. As we rounded a last bend and trod up a small incline, we entered Thongol where we found a waiting and smiling Hasan sitting under a tree sucking contentedly at a cigarette. As soon as the rest of the bunch arrived, we stocked up on rations for the jeep ride back to Skardu and took some victory photographs; the thought of chapli kebabs and a hot shower was going to turn into reality in a few hours. God knows how 15 of us managed to stuff into that jeep for the ride back, the way some of us twisted and turned our bodies to fit in would have turned any acrobat green with envy. The ride back to civilization passed by even faster than the ride to Thongol 15 days earlier; songs were not being sung but screamed with joy and the town of Skardu witnessed a noisy and jubilant bunch of trekkers pass by Yadgar Chowk (with a brief stop to order 50 kebabs) and halt in front of Indus motel just after dark. In the lobby we met 3 people from the G La gang, the rest had gone off to Hunza earlier in the morning. Everything had gone well and everyone had done well, except for Rehma who had apparently been carried on a stretcher for more than 10 hours. Although we had to catch an early coaster to Gilgit, most people were up till the wee hours of the morning discussing the trek. As I went to bed that night, a sense of emptiness came over me. There was no sleeping bag to snuggle into. We were supposed to get up early not for a trek but to get onto a coaster. There was going to be no weight on my back and no mess tent. There was going to be no stopping and gazing at peaks and admiring their beauty. Yes sir, the last two weeks had been unbelievable.

The last little bit

The coaster ride was around 6-8 hours long, the road from Skardu first hits the Karakoram Highway and then once on the KKH, we headed towards Gilgit. By the time we reached there, Fooki had convinced everyone not to go to Hunza as had been planned initially. Like dominos, one after another, everyone fell prey to a strong desire to get home quickly. Only some people were going to Islamabad initially but now most were. Hiring another coaster, we set out on the KKH at mid-afternoon towards Rawalpindi. I stared at Nanga Parbat in the setting sun as it passed by along with several other peaks; I was already deciding when my next visit to the north would be. Dinner at Chilas and then a long and terrible drive (the driver insisted on playing the cheapest of cheap Indian songs at full blast) through the night found us at Rawalpindi in the morning where I was immediately reminded of the sad state of urban Pakistan; the noise and pollution was almost unbearable after so much peace and quiet in the mountains. We went and crashed at old Saqib’s, had two trip dinners with other members of the group before people finally started heading home towards their respective cities in a couple of days. The trip of a lifetime had ended.

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