The worlds greatest mountain journey ( probably )
K2 and Angel Peak
As I approach my 6th decade on our continually shrinking and increasingly overpopulated and sanitised planet my focus on what I want to do and achieve in the active years I have left tightens considerably.
I was born in a year where there were still some real unknowns in the world, as a child Gerald Durrell spoke to me of distant lands, the dark corners and blank spaces on my school atlas fired my imagination and these stimuli ultimately led me to explore some of the more remote and really wild corners of our world through my ( generally part time ) life as a mountaineer and expedition leader.
I do not profess to have encyclopedic knowledge, there are still a multitude of places I have never been to, some I have no desire to go to, some that are currently not possible, some that have just not been high enough on my agenda to warrant my time and funds and some that are still on the “next year” list.
It was therefore a bit of a soul searching moment when Roland e-mailed me and asked me if I would like to lead the mountain companies K2 Basecamp and crossing of the Gondogora La “trek” in 2017.
On the Glacier looking towards Spantik
I was recently returned from an unsuccessful ( we had not summited ) attempt at Spantik ( also in Pakistan ) and I had also done this expedition before in 2012.
I thought for about 10 seconds really but took 2 days to answer his e-mail, of course I would do it.The question here is why, I had been planning to do other things, things I had not done before in the relatively short period I have free in between the peaks of frenetic activity in our own expedition business.
The answer is, in my opinion, fairly straightforward, this is probably the best mountain journey in the ( my known ) world and I wanted to do it again, this time with a more knowledgeable eye on the light and the landscape.
What is subjective here, is what makes this, in my opinion, such.
Everest from Kala Pathar.
The Himalayas are the biggest, highest, politically ( in the majority of areas ) most difficult to visit . They are spread across many different countries and climatic regions but the really big mountains are centered on two main areas, the Pakistan Karakorum and Nepal. The Khumbu ( Nepal ) is visually outstanding but it is tamed, you can buy a bottle of coke/beer and a packet of Pringles on every night of the trek to EBC, it is, and it feels like, a conveyer belt of mountain tourism. It is signposted, there are hotels and guest houses every hour or so, the paths are well constructed and bridges maintained, you are walking with a big cross section of society of all ages and abilities, it has been made accessible, a money spinner for the Nepalese, it has to be visited for sure, but not again.
There are other areas of the Himalayas but the majority of the really visually spectacular areas have been packaged up and sold off to an ever-increasing tourist base with more and more disposable income and time. Ladakh, Sikkim, the Himal Pradesh etc also provide some awesome journeys in really remote and wonderfully scenic environments but lack the real majesty of the 8000m plus peaks towering over the proceedings.
So what makes the Gondogora La/K2 Basecamp trek so good, for me the first thing is that feeling of uncertainty. Its Pakistan, sure it’s a pro western regime but it is still regarded as a bit of a wild card, especially in the north, it has an edge, it makes you feel just a tad unsure, you feel alive and it sharpens the senses. Nothing can/should be taken for granted, roads and bridges get washed away, weather is temperamental, its elemental, you are not in charge, and I like this feeling. It is also, believe it or not, much easier to get permission to climb in than the remote areas of India and this is a major bonus.
Leaving the westernized security of Islamabad on a small plane , if it flies, if not you drive for two days on the Karakorum highway, an adventure in itself, you arrive in Skardu. A frontier town, a long drive from anywhere else, encircled by mountains and girdled by the Indus. You are now in a Pakistani world of Islam and military control, bridges have armed checkpoints and you need permits to proceed, you stand out, you wear quite different clothing, you are a foreigner, a tourist but never ever hassled, politeness reigns supreme.
The barren landscape of the Indus which is in direct contrast to the Shiggar valley.
With this overriding feeling of, whats next, next morning, early, four wheelers are taken north over the Indus and then through the beautiful Shigger valley, an oasis of fertile terraces, wheat fields and apricot orchards, an agrarian paradise towered over by snow capped mountains which seem to rise to unimaginable heights, not what was expected, its easy on the eye and feels comfortable, however it does not last long, after a few hours the road deteriorates to a rough track in a much more arid landscape of rocks and scrub, dodgy bridges are crossed above a maelstrom of churning grey water, the jeeps then stop and you walk the rest of the way to the small traditional third world mountain village of Askole for your first night under canvas.
Shanks pony from here on in, what counted as “civilization” is being left further and further behind, the next couple of days take you up the steadily rising eastward facing valley following the Braldu river, its easy walking on fairly well worn paths, wet feet if the river is high are the most worrying aspect of this part, however temperatures can be brutal and there is no shade if the sun is out, the distant peaks however are pulling you forward with promises of splendor to come.
The unclimbed fang of Bakhur Das.
Camping overnight at the green oasis of Paiju which sits under the impressive and unclimbed peak of Bakhur Das you then enter the next phase, walking up the immense Baltoro glacier, in fact from here on in you are walking on one or another of the huge glaciers in this region.
Glaciers are of course constantly mobile, grinding their way downwards under the immense pressure of accumulating ice which courses down from the multitude of peaks surrounding them, paths are therefore constantly changing, riven by crevasses, obliterated by rockfalls and landslides. This again sets this journey aside from others, its not on well constructed paths, its not made too easy, it is tiring work as constant focus on your foot placements is required but the next three or four days take you through a breathtaking mountain landscape.
The Trango towers and the Cathedral spires dominate the walk for a couple of days, these are peaks that are beyond the aspirations and ability of most, they are not mountains that can be summited 10 or 12 times by the same individual, some of them remain unclimbed and others only by one ( the easiest ) route.
The fingers of rock point heavenwards, their sheer rock faces drop from small snow capped plateaus for thousands of feet into a myriad of ice covered ledges which in turn plummet into a tangled mess of bergschrunds and crevasse tortured glaciers.
To summit these you cannot clip into a fixed rope and jumar your way to the top, neither can you pay a more experienced individual to pull you up, these peaks are for the most able and experienced mountaineers and climbers who have the ability. The naïve may dream and aspire, the actual summiteers are at the top of their game and have dedicated significant portions of their lives to have the time, fitness and the ability to succeed, even then a significant amount of luck is required, good weather, remaining healthy and your partners drive and support are all absolute prerequisites for the days spent on these rock faces to result in success.
This, again, is another aspect of this journey that sets it apart from many of the others I have undertaken, in the Khumbu, for example, the vast majority of the peaks have been climbed by a multitude of routes, there are generally multiple commercial teams on most of them at any given time in the climbing/trekking season. The circus that is Everest, Amadablam and Island peaks are testament to this.
The Trango Towers
On the K2 /GGL journey you are trekking up one of the mightiest glaciers there is on terrain that requires your constant attention whilst your eyes are being pulled away all the time to dwell on rock architecture that is just out of your frame of reference, even as an experienced mountaineer.
The biggest difficulty I have is either falling on my face through not watching where I am going or not stopping continually to take photographs of this breathtaking landscape as the light changes bringing different aspects of the landscape into relief.
The camps on the way up are generally well established sites just off the glacier but there are no small shops, no guest houses, there are toilets which have been built by NGO’s to stop accumulations of filth but that’s as far as the infrastructure goes.
The fairly demanding trek up the Baltoro culminates at Concordia which, without doubt, has the most magnificent 360 degree mountain panorama anywhere on this planet, no doubt, no argument.
Marble Peak, K2, Broadpeak and Gasherbrum.
The camp is situated right on the point where the Baltoro, Abruzzi and Godwin Austin glaciers converge, these glaciers are massive, they dominate the landscape for tens of miles in every direction, they make the glaciers of the Alps or the Andes seem miniscule. The three glaciers radiate out from this point from which, within a radius of 15Km, there are an incredible 41 peaks over 6500m and 4 over 8000m. To the north the GA glacier leads the eye to the sheer ice cliffs of K2 and its beautiful neighbor Angel peak, to the N/East Broadpeak dominates the landscape whilst to the east Gasherbrum and its four separate summits provide a foil to the rising sun warming the campsite early in the morning. The Abruzzi leads the eye South East towards the Siachen mountains and the disputed border with India, the reason that there is a constant military presence at Concordia. Mitre peak towers over the campsite to the south while to the west the Baltoro, that you have just spent a week walking up, leads the eye back down towards the setting sun and the magnificent Trango towers.
The scale is incomprehensible, the bones of the Karakorum geology lie exposed all around, it defies superlatives.
From here you can walk up, and back down again, the AG to K2 basecamp ( two days or one very very long day ) or set out to cross the Gondogora La which again makes this a much more satisfying trek than Everest Base Camp, you are not simply walking up the track ( or lack of it in this case ), simply to turn around and walk back down it.
To continue the trek, for this is what it has been so far, the route takes us out of Concordia towards and onto, the Abruzzi glacier before turning S/East under the very South American looking Vigne peaks ( they have similar snow flutings that dominate in their SA companions ) and climbing up the nice smooth white ice glacier to Ali camp which lies in a high cwm ( just short of 5000m ) underneath the Gondogora La pass.
On the way to Ali camp the view back towards K2 is simply stunning.
This is the technical aspect of the journey that makes it just a little bit more than a trek. Standing at the camp and looking around there appears to be no logical way to breach the snow covered slopes of the cwm, its steep, has overhanging seracs and big rock faces. As the sun sets the cwm echoes to the crash of avalanches and rock falls from the surrounding peaks, this just increases the degree of uncertainty about what is going to happen the next day, which starts around 0100 hrs in the dark and freezing temperatures.
I will not dwell on this part of the journey you can read about it in my blog from 2012 when I last crossed the GGL.
The view from the actual pass however is outstanding and provides a fitting reward for the steep ascent on snow covered slopes.
Dawn from the pass, Masherbrum on the right.
The descent on the other side is challenging and requires fitness, some technical abilities (guides help) and takes you down and off the glacier for the first time in over a week.
Looking down to the towards Laila peak ( centre left )
The (most welcome) campsite that night is situated under, quite probably; one of the most beautiful and impressive mountains anywhere in the world, Laila peak, and this angular and precipitous peak provides a fitting backdrop to the culmination of this hard day activities.
The journey has still to finish, the trek back down to more comfortable climes continues in continuing mountainous splendor, sometimes on pretty precipitous ground, sometimes following beautifully made paths through mountain woodlands, it never lets up, it just continues all the way till you get back to the road head in the Hushe valley.
Nothing can prepare you for this journey. no photographs can do it justice, no words can describe the emotion of it.
The only way to fully appreciate it is to get out there and do it, only then will you fully understand why it is the best journey out there.
“River running free, you know how I feel. Blossom on the tree, you know what I mean “