I have been told by the adventurous and the wise that the world’s best mountains lie in Pakistan: the longest glaciers outside poles, the highest
8,000 meter peaks; K2 (8,611 meters), Broad Peak (8,047 meters), Gasherbrum I (8,068 meters), Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters), Gasherbrum III (7,952 meters), Gasherbrum IV (7 924 meters), Masherbrum (7 821 meters)
and Chogolisa ( 7,668 meters) 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 the 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 8,000 meter peaks on earth – a big adventure for us, and a quite popular one. 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 being succcessful.
We organized our trek through Vertical Explorers Expeditions Treks & Tours in Pakistan, great to work with and professional in all their arrangements.
For the 6 of us, we had 35 porters, 2 sirdars, 1 cook and 1 guide. Our guide was Anwar. As part of the orientation, every possible effort was made for everyone to get to the top of Gondogoro La, if at all possible. Trekkers who are close to the summit, are strongly encouraged and assisted to continue. We found this to be true, but we could not have done it without help,
from start to finish.
We spent the first day being briefed at Alpine Club and sightseeing in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. After a sumptuous welcome dinner (local
specialties) and sunset /evening view of the twin cities from Islamabad’s view point, Pir Sohawa, we went off to bed for a good night’s sleep.
We took an internal flight to Skardu, passing close to Nanga Parbat, over hundreds of snow capped peaks and glaciers. It took about 50 minutes, the most spectacular flight I have ever been on. Soon after arrival at Skardu, we were taken for sightseeing to two famous lakes, Kachura and Frokso, and
a village. Late afternoon in Skardu we explored the Skardu Bazaar, checked our personal gear, then relaxed in the picturesque Shangrilla Resorts Garden overlooking the lake.
All ready to go. After packing and breakfast, the porters and guides gathered for work outside the VE office. They had already picked
who they wanted to use, but a crowd was outside hoping for a job. They assigned a guide and 35 porters to our party of six. The head guide was Anwar and his assistant, Aman; personal porter for my gear was Aslem. Scheduled time to head
out was not until 6:00 am. After almost a half hour journey, we stopped briefly to visit Shigar Fort and Khanqah Shigar, both quite old and worth seeing.
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 of Askole Village, Braldo. Askole, is the traditional Balti mountain village and last habitation on our journey into the mountains, it’s surrounded by green irrigated fields. The last few kilometers were steep and rough. It was raining when we got there, a number of groups were ahead of us.
At 8:15 am we were ready to hit the trail. It was still raining, but my gaiters, rain pants and shell protected me. We were hiking through a rugged terrain with few flowers. Boulders were scattered all
over the place until we came along a rocky stretch full of ups and downs. We started off slowly, but I thought we
were too slow since we began at 3,000 meters. Several other groups passed us; we kept on. As the day went on, the trail got nastier. I fell
once when my stick slipped. I was using two walking sticks, grateful for them too because of the snow and it melting fast. Small streams became strong mountain rivers; we had difficulty crossing them, negotiating fragile wooden bridges
over raging torrents.
We went 20 kilometers, reached Jula and staggered into camp. The surrounding views and the gushing river
made this the perfect place to make camp. We unloaded our gear
in our tents, washed and were served tea and popcorn. Dinner consisted of soup, bread, potatoes, spaghetti, meat,
mango, bananas and dessert. We ate at a folding table, had cloth napkins with the silverware – quite elaborate – more
than I expected. I ate till I was stuffed, carbo loading for the next leg.
I was up at 6:00, packed my stuff so I would be ready
to go after breakfast. The sky was crystal clear. Breakfast was porridge, eggs, toast, jam, honey, sausage, tea. We were gaining altitude, inclines seemed tougher than ever. Approaching Paiyu, we could see the rising snout of the
Baltoro glacier in the distance, a grayish-black mound coming out of the earth, sign of what was to come. 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. It was one of our best campsites, full of life with expedition
tents dotting the whole area. We were camped almost at the snout of the Biafo Hispar Glacier. 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, into the Braldu. The porters had advised us to get there as
early as possible since it only became wider and faster flowing as the day went by.
Acclimatization day for us; bread making day for the porters for the rest of the trek. In the evening they played their own
music until late in the night.
We were on the trail by 6:30. We made slow and steady progress. Getting onto the glacier, we made our way over the twisting
and turning path to our right; the left one went towards the base of the Trango Towers. The trek to Urdukas took 3 hours. It’s a vantage point where one can gaze around at the beauty of the Karakoram Peaks. There were 6,000 to7,000 meter tops everywhere
around us. Urdukas is the last campsite with vegetation on the way to Concordia. 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 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 it has been designed
intricately by hand – countless ice walls, clear streams, a delight to trek on.
We started at 6:00 am and walked towards Goro. On the right side of the camp, the snow-covered Masherbrum contented the photographers, stunning with the clouds around it glowing in the setting sun. The night was unbearably cold, our first camp on top of the glacier itself.
Khoburse and Urdukas were on land just off the glacier. Here we were literally sleeping on ice, combined with the icy winds coming down from Mashabrum’s
Each day we were seeing 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. The rocks made for a bit of a scramble. Masherbrum dominated the southern horizon and the unmistakable
shape of Gasherbrum IV appeared ahead. Finally Broad Peak and K2 came into view. They surpassed everything. There were many tents and
groups scattered all over a sort of meadow. The weather was pleasant even with the clouds. We were asked to gather our laundry. We had been joking earlier on the trail about the
need to do laundry, but we did not really expect to get this sort of service. We were sitting in the tent with a view of K2,
Concordia is a remote ice basin encircled by the greatest concentration of 8,000 meter high peaks. It is a huge natural amphitheatre where the tributaries, Vigne and Godwin Austen Glaciers, join with the mainstream mighty Baltoro Glacier – 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. We stared and
stared at what we were seeing: 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.
Here the porters were at the peak of their creativity, belting out the Balti music to everyone around camp.
The mountain came out briefly again in the morning, fresh snow up there. We were up and packed in time for breakfast at 7:30. We
set out for K 2. We went slowly, passed by many people, especially porters.
We arrived at K2 base camp and did a short climb to see the memorial – plaques and mementoes of all the climbers who have died on K2 and Broad Peak.
I have never walked (and probably will never again) through such an incredibly beautiful landscape.
We were offered two options for the return journey to Skardu: retrace the route down the Baltoro or cross the 5,585 meter Gondogoro Pass into Hushe Valley. Our choice depended on our level of
fitness and health. The first crossing was suitable for regular hill walkers with reasonable standard of fitness; the second for those familiar with mountain walking in winter conditions.
We opted to exit via the Gondogoro La Pass, a steep climb up to 5,600 meters, negating the long walk back to Askoli. Last year the pass was closed. A huge crevasse
opened which couldn’t be crossed. Whilst many groups were unable to cross Gondogoro La during this time, our team made the gradual ascent up the
Baltoro Glacier in enjoyable, cool walking conditions. We were equipped with crampons, ice axes and carried relatively light loads.
We headed to the Gondogoro La Pass, the most technical and highest point of the trek at around 5,600 meters, supposed to be one of the highest points you can reach
on a trek anywhere in the world, involves several exposed climbs. Our excitement built during our preparation. We had an early dinner and rested until midnight. At 1:00 am, we set off to get to the pass in time for dawn. Since it’s so steep, sunlight means a risk of avalanche and rock-fall. We were well-acclimatized by then and the
team topped out on the La by 6:00 am. The top of the pass boasts, "The greatest view on Earth".
Four 8,000 meter peaks are clearly visible to the
north, 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 1,500 meters lower. We were lucky. The giants appeared through veils of gathering storm clouds, providing superb atmospheric
shots for our cameras!
There are fixed ropes on this difficult part; we used a harness most of the time. We 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 exhausted but happy. We sort of whiled away the afternoon with relaxing, taking pictures, etc. There was a bit of a brief sunset while we ate dinner, more the sun setting below the clouds rather than the horizon.
I got up once during the night; the view was great. I could see the lights from the stars, the moon and the surrounding area as well as the mountain. I got up after 6 to
see the sunrise – astounding.
The Final Stretch
We then had a 4-day trek 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.
Tired but feeling
the "heavy air" of lower reaches, we celebrated with our superb staff and porters. These porters are definitely some of the fittest people. They are known to cover the whole distance from Concordia to Askole within two days. To top it off, they do it with smiles on their faces! Our porters were most hospitable and helpful. Listening to their stories on climbing and trekking expeditions was an experience
in itself. 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 a few days chatting with the porters, learning about their culture. They are all Balti, the local ethnic group, directly related to the
Tibetan people, converted to Islam a few centuries ago.
At the end we got together for mutual thanks and presentations. A couple of songs were sung in local Balti. We gave each porter a $60 dollar tip. $100 for Aman and $200 for Anwar. After dinner, we partied. Stars were in in the sky and on the dance floor. Our handsome porters danced with pride, dignity and grace. 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; we met warm and generouslocals who offered us delicious fresh yoghurt, butter and bread.
We were able to relax in Hushe Village, a welcome end to our journey on the trail, before our jeep ride back to Skardu. After signing in and looking at the souvenir shop, we went to our accommodation and to well earned showers.
There were too many special experiences to recount here. Suffice it to say that we grew closer and closer as a group and shared "a trip of a lifetime".