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Essays and Travelogs

K2 or Bust by Ali Reza Jaffery

The trip hadn’t started with the best of spirits. My last exam at LUMS was on the 10th of July, a friend was visiting on the same day, I hadn’t even started packing, I hadn’t had enough sleep and by the time we got onto the Daewoo bus the next morning, we had forgotten a set of batteries, a tripod and a few other basic essentials. I have to admit at this point that preparing for the trek was about a third of the fun. I had bought new shoes, new extreme weather gear and gotten together a lot of camera film to try my hand at amateur photography. Apart from this, I had spent a few hours a week in training for what was to come.

We left for Skardu on the morning of the 12th; not knowing until the last minute whether or not the weather would clear up and we would be able to fly. We did fly in the end and arrived in Skardu after about a couple of hours. A completely new place to me, Skardu was definitely not what I thought it would be like. Our hotel didn’t have the nicest of views, but I had other things on my mind. This was going to be my toughest and definitely my longest trek and admittedly, I was rather nervous. While we spent the next three days lazing around in Skardu, Sadpara Lake and the Deosai Plains, I couldn’t shake off the thoughts that were going through my head: Would I be able to manage fourteen days of walking? Would I be able to carry my load?

A time from Skardu to Thongol seems to be a haze in my mind. All I remember is that my feelings were a blend of anxiety, excitement, fear and awe. I found the first day quite depressing being that I was exhausted by the time we reached Korophone and quite disheartened by the first day’s walk. The trek had been nothing like I imagined it. I can’t say that it was better or worse than I thought it would be, it was just very different from what I expected. As I sat in the mess tent at around four o’clock, writing my journal, which I have now lost, I promised myself that I would eat all the chocolates and drink all the ORS as soon as I could. This would definitely lighten my load and maybe even improve my pace I thought. The process of learning had begun with me from the outset. At Thongol, I had the chance to chat with two soldiers of the Pakistan army who had been posted on the Baltoro Glacier. Both, originally from Gilgit, could not comprehend why people like us would come to the mountains and ?suffer’ at the hands of Mother Nature. Their morale was low and they missed their respective homes. This however, was not my only interaction with the people on my first day. As I ran back to retrieve my hat from an army check-post that I had left behind ten minutes ago, I was stopped by a local porter who obviously noticed the my panic stricken strides (a hat is essential, I would have had second or maybe even third degree burns if I hadn’t worn one), stopped me and asked me what was wrong in a confused mixture of Urdu and sign language. I pointed to my head and signaled that I had misplaced my headgear. His response left me speechless. He simply smiled, pulled out a sweet from his pocket, handed it to me and patted me on the shoulder. I concluded my first evening by learning a few basic words in Balti and receiving an extremely valuable lecture on the lack of respect for human life (supported by Quranic verses) by an elderly porter. I also found out that Korophone meant a big bowl and the campsite was named so because it resembled a soup bowl.

The second day was no less eventful. After about three hours of walking, we reached a campsite called Jhola. Initially scheduled as a midway stop, we ended up spending a rather enjoyable two hours at the beautiful campsite. Somehow, all of us were quite unable to tear ourselves away from such tranquility. Hasan Karrar and Atif Paracha, among others, are my witnesses to this fact. Another important lesson was learnt on the second day. I would never again ask anyone to buy me trekking shoes. I realized that if the shoe is not a perfect fit, blisters caused by it could not only be painful, but also very distressing. Our stop at Baldumar on the second day was extremely tiring. I reached the campsite near ?Magrib’ time. It is also worth noticing at this point in time that the watch I had so carefully chosen for the trek had already given up on me. The walk to Paiyu was a rather leisurely one. I met a group of guides from Hunza who were not only very encouraging, but also offered to share their lunch with me while I waited for my feet to dry after crossing a stream. Paiyu, although slightly crowded, was a lovely campsite, arguably one of the most agreeable sites I saw on the trek. Not only did I wash my hair and socks that day, but I also got a gorgeous view of the Baltoro Glacier for the first time. Hasan also pointed out to a rather strange looking peak called Uli Biaho. Little did I know the close association that I was to have with this name.

What followed the next day, I can classify as the worst day of my life. It all began with the news that Wasif, Khizer and myself were to take charge of the tail. I wasn’t extremely uncomfortable with the idea initially, however as we encountered the blazing afternoon sun and a rather unpleasant can of tuna, I began to regret being at the end of the group. We had walked for several hours and still gotten nowhere. It was extremely tiresome for us not to walk at our own pace with the weight that we were carrying. Nevertheless, just as I thought that things couldn’t possibly get worse – they did. We had run out of water while Wasif and Sajjad had managed to trail behind out of sight and were nowhere to be seen on the glacier. Khizer was almost completely dehydrated and the girls didn’t seem to be doing much better. I wasn’t well either. The long walk and lack of water had taken everything out of me. I remember a rather unpleasant incident of throwing up ORS, getting a considerable amount on Rabia and falling on my face onto the ground. My recovery that day I owe to Rabia.

Our problem was clear from that day. We had a weak tail and the faster ones would have to slow their pace from that day onwards to keep the group together. The next day’s trek was hardly considerable. It took me about two hours to get from Khobutse to Urdukas. Urdukas was again a place that, with my limited grasp of the English Language, I am unable to explain the beauty of. Perched above the Baltoro at just over 4000 meters, we had an exquisite view of the Trango Towers, Great Trango and Nameless Tower. It took us another three eventful days for us to reach Concordia.

I then realized something that had been lingering at the back of my mind for a very long time. Some relationships cannot really be given a name. My relationship, however superficial and short with the mountains is much the same and for this very reason, I cannot explain why I keep going back. All I know is that each time I go there, I leave behind a piece of me that I must return for. The Concordia trek, much like all the other treks that I have been on, taught me something. Something that is not so vivid within city limits but becomes extremely apparent in the wilderness. Having heard a lot about Concordia, read a lot of literature on the trek and seen countless documentaries, I had sketched a mental picture of the area. I imagined that all of a sudden I would be surrounded by mountains, five of which turn heads when named among a group of mountaineers. I imagined Gasherbrum IV in the East, Gasherbrum I and II to its right, Broad Peak towards North East and finally the mighty K2 towards the north. But that was not be all. I would also see Mitre, Chogolisa, Gasherbrum III and the Trango Towers in the far distance behind me. However, the reality was much different. It was terribly cold, having reached about 4700 meters I was out of breath and I was sweating under the many layers that I was wearing. Absolutely nothing was visible and it had only been about thirty minutes since I’d reached Concordia when it began to rain.

To add to the misery of exhaustion and the cold, setting up our tent on the Baltoro was by no means an easy task. We had to look for a flat area on the rocks and then set flat rocks in such a way that we were above the level of water and the ground was relatively smooth. I was disheartened but by no means upset. I knew that K2 would show itself at some point. After all, this was our eighth day of walking and lady luck wasn’t about to let me down, I had done too much to be on Concordia. The subsequent days gave me a chance to reflect on what had happened to me in the past week. I had already given up writing my journal due to the lack of originality of the idea. Even though I had managed to reach an altitude of 4700 meters without but once a sense of regret, I never actually thought that one day, I would be standing in one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. However, the sense of vanity drifted slowly as news of death approached us. We learnt that a Korean climber and plunged to his death from camp IV on K2, a French climber had suffered a fatal attack of cerebral edema and that a Belgian climber had died half was up on G2. Above all though, things were not all too well at our camp either. Our trek leader, Hasan, had stayed behind with one of our weaker members and somehow managed to get her to Concordia in a semi-unconscious state. She suffered from severe exhaustion and probable hypothermia.

I was overcome with a sense of humility at this point. After all, it was only 4 days ago when I had been in a similar situation, put in my place as it were, by nature. Respect is a key factor on a trek, and I am reminded of this each time I embark on a journey. Absolutely nothing can and should be taken for granted. Many have not been so lucky as we had been so far. We had escaped with only minor injuries where death would have been certain. This was not only true for our Concordia expedition but also for most of the treks since the beginning of LAS. I find it rather just, as well as interesting, how the mountains have a way of giving one a sense of insignificance. The terrain commands respect and punishes those who take it for granted. Surrounding natures system of justice is the humanity that is so clearly visible in the local people. Possibly one of the few characteristics that keeps this nation within a nation alive. They have little else to offer except their kindness. It is this kindness that seems to have fueled the prevalent eco-system in Baltistan in the past centuries and dare I say it will for many more centuries to come.

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