Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Karakoram - Trek to K2 Base Camp

(from my book Akyat)
K2 (2nd highest mountain) behind me, at Concordia camp, on the way to the basecamp.  2001

Godwin-Austen Peak, locally known as “Chogri” - popularly known as “K2”, is the 2nd highest mountain in the world (8611m) but the toughest mountain to climb.  It is said that the death rate of K2 is 1 death for every 3 who made it on top - a lot more than Everest in terms of Death-to-Summit ratio. Everest used to have 1:6 but greatly improved over the years now I think 1:10.  Still scary - but better.  Anyway, I think K2 got its name from the old survey and expedition map with numbered peaks.  The Map of course covers Karakoram (“K”) and the peaks where numbered 1,2,3… so on.  Godwin-Austen was marked “K2” (Karakoram #2 peak), and so the name.   Movies such as “K2” and “Vertical Limits” popularized this mountain.  It’s the most dreadful peak, an extreme challenge to the most elite of mountaineers. Since I was only a tadpole-class mountaineer then, my plan was to do K2 half-half --  Hit the basecamp, and dream the rest. :) 

Karakoram Pre-trip
Pakistan is to the northwest of India and to the east of Afghanistan. The country is a part of the Indian subcontinent, which slammed into the Asia mainland (and still moving north) forming the greatest mountain range of our planet, the Himalaya.  Everest is in the Eastern Himalaya, and K2 is in Karakoram mountain range of Western Himalaya.  A few of the total fourteen (14) 8000-meter peaks on this planet are here in Karakoram,  8000m is the ‘death zone’ altitude, it means humans literally die slowly given the lack of oxygen hence the need for supplemental bottled oxygen to survive.

Flying from Philippines via PIA (Pakistan Intl) should be easy as I’d only have one stop-over in Karachi, south of Pakistan.  My target city was Islamabad up north, and Karakoram is further on north. Due to some schedule conflict, I have to fly Sing-Air coming in, and Cathay Pacific ‘escaping’ back home.  Why escaping? Note that I was traveling during the “9/11” terrorist attack – September of 2001, but more on this later. Due to the long distance from home, I had to fly and land, fly and land just to haul myself to Islamabad.  I flew to Bangkok, then Karachi, then Lahore (in East Pakistan), then on to Islamabad.   Four stop-overs meant more chance of losing baggage and the much needed patience.

Karachi and Lahore were scary by normal standards, security personnel in the airport all carried auto-sub machine guns, and the locals looked like your regular movie villain: hairy faces, piercing looks from sunken eyes, long hawkish noses, all wearing the traditional kamis shalwal attire. Throw in the strange language and noises and an overactive imagination and you’re all set to think you’re about to be mugged and hit. Of course that was just my imagination. In reality, there’s probably not much of a danger but being in this strange land for the first time, and admittedly conditioned by Hollywood action movies made me and the other tourists and travelers feel this way. 

My own safety measures?  I’ve grown my beard and moustache to a pathetic 1cm long, like a young Indonesian or Malaysian muslim visiting this remote area, I could probably blend in.  Besides, I can speak a bit of bahasa Indonesia to complete my 'disguise'.

Trekking parts of the Karakoram is not as easy as the trekking village in Nepal Himalaya like the Annapurna or Khumbu.  All climbing trips here are “expedition style” - one has to carry all his or her supplies and equipment with him or her given the absence of villages where one can re-supply.  We’re talking about 16 days or so of outdoor activity, so a big support team is needed.  Less if one is willing to carry 50+kg of weight in his or her backpack.  We were a team of four according to our Pakistani guide - one British, an American, and a French. (Somehow, I couldn’t recall all their names).  The fifth member – Mr. Australian apparently missed his connecting flight from Bangkok to Karachi.  Yeah right! Ko Phuket and Samui are irresistible temptation-islands, we understand. We in fact, envied him after a few days of miserable hike. 

I met up with Mr. France in Islamabad and flown with him north, to Skardu, our jump-off town.  We saw a group of UN volunteers loading medic supplies in their plane. They were on their way to then-Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. I didn’t see one smiling face, probably just a job that needs to be done.  I hoped those guys made it back safely.

Our plane was just a small twin-engine 40-seater version.  We took the starboard seats to hopefully have a good glimpse of the peaks including that of K2.  We stayed one night in a camping resort to acclimatize to 3000m altitude and walked around the village to pass the time. We enjoyed stories of the Great Killer Yeti slaughtering Ibex and Yaks.  It's “common belief” in that place that the abominable snowman does exist and a native there, for they have found its footprints somewhere around Karakoram. Even the great mountaineer -Reinhold Messner dedicated 12 years of his life looking for Yetis.

We observed and sampled the local culture and traditional village life, we tried socializing with the locals, which was really limited to a few words of Urdu, and a lot of nodding and smiling. We were discouraged to speak and take pictures of the women though, even if they’re wrapped up like suman from head to toe.  When we tried they just hid theirs and their kids’ faces as if we were witches about to cast a bad spell on them.  

Rural scene.  Traditional houses built by traditional way. The last village before our long trek to K2 base camp

The other two members of the team caught up with us in the camp.  They’ve just finished a short acclimatizing trip in Fairy Meadows. It offers an outstanding view of the killer mountain Nanga Parbat (another popular 8000m peak).  The new guys look pretty fit and they were very lively, which was good for much needed morale boost. One said they have been to Kilimanjaro a year ago, and that they were planning for another trip to this place and that.  And one being overly talkative – he just went on and on and on until I zoned out for just a little bit.  I later learned that the British guy was a marathoner of the grueling Des Sables in Sahara, and that he finished 80th out of 700 participants – Wow!  Imagine, that was 147mile marathon in the steaming desert of Sahara versus the normal marathon length of just 26miles. One tough hombre indeed!
Dry, arid, most lifeless. Trekking along/near Baltro glacier area.
Time for equipments check.  We went over our checklist like old Santa checking for the naughty and nice.  Nice list includes all the proper gear and supplies, and we dumped off the ‘naughty’ or unnecessary ones like shavers, excess clothing and cd players. We assembled two sets of packs, one for our porters to carry and the 12-kg something for ourselves.   We needed to reserve the energy and strength for the basecamp and the high-pass crossing, so why punish ourselves carrying everything? Food supplies and equipment were carried by porters, each carrying at least 30kg of weight.  That’s easy for a 3-4 day trip, but not on a trip that extends to 10 days or more.  The Pakistani government has a 25-kg load restriction for porters (not including their personal stuffs), for health reasons.  It’s funny that in Nepal, I saw porters carrying loads of about 120kg. I even saw a group of porters carrying four pieces of 4-meter LOG each!!! Now call that sheer superhuman strength! 

We checked harnesses and biners.  Then we fitted rental crampons.  Mine was the standard no-class and rusted 10-point crampon, full strap-type.  My worn-out non-insulated brought-only-from-Cartimar boots was not clamp-type compatible so this suits me fine.  We acquired an ice axe each and mine was a short and straight hybrid type, not too techy as we’d only need this for the difficult high pass over steep snow and ice. And so we were set…

We loaded our stuff in the rusting jeep, hauled ourselves over desert and mountains and miles and miles of dirt road,  towards the last livable settlement,  the start of our trek,  the start of our much-anticipated misery - Askoli.

We set camp past 3pm, overlooking a river.   It was not an ideal place to relax, just a place to stay for the night, a place to psyche up for the next 14 days of communing with the spirits of Karakoram.

I saw how our cook prepared the meal, and realized that locals don’t eat chicken skin.  They just remove the whole bunch of it with the feathers, just like skinning a mammal.  Not sure if it was something cultural, or lack of dressing technique. Oh well, save the arteries from bad cholesterol, I guess.  It was not too cold in this place anyway, just probably 3 or 5C above zero - - not cold enough to burn those fatty skins.
Home away from home.  And very near rolling rocks :) 
On the way to the campsite, we stopped at one village to buy a goat for food.  This surprised me a bit but recognized that it was a better way than carrying dead meat on your back. Yep, no need to refrigerate or pre-cook; bring it alive, and slaughter it later for food!  Sounds barbaric?! Yeah it is, but I eat goat neat and they’re good.  No pork in this country, remember?!  What’s even weirder was the fact that the Japanese platoon bought a whole Yak for them, must be good for Yak-I-Sushi.

Day 1:  Askoli -  Korophone
Well, talk about the well-pampered lazy tourists, we were them.  That was my first experience of an expedition tour. We have a dedicated cook who does the chores for us and so we were like hotel guests.  When we woke up the next morning, warm water was waiting for us, then we crashed into the mess tent and spend our so-called outdoor life eating hot porridge, omelette, chipati, and hot coffee and tea.  O-ha!   Sosyal !!  

Hike has started and soon I realized we were in a big caravan.  There are only four of us ‘clients’ but with a support crew of 16 porters, 1 cook and 1 guide.  I heard the Japanese team of 20 had 90 porters!   Amazing as you see them stroll like ants from afar, all carrying their tidbits of something for the rainy day ahead.

The Australian team, 6 of them, had 3 porters each and 1 guide.   They’d do the cooking, and the difficult part of managing porters.  I heard stories that those who didn’t utilize an outfitter service ended up being abandoned by porters when the going gets tough. Independent tourists have less control over these guys than the local operators who could penalize them by not hiring them on future trips.  That was September, and winter will start soon, more chance of early winter snow and blizzard - - and more chance of being abandoned by much needed support crew.
Happy and vibrant - at least in the early part of the trip.  

It was hot and cold in this arid land, and it took us five hours of ‘warm-up’ hike before reaching the camp.  I tried to adjust my pace several times, and I ended up being faster than I should and I immediately felt the physical fatigue forcing me to punch myself up with paracetamol pills.  It was a bit of a high-altitude problem I guess. I realized that the pace of both the American and Brit were fast for me,  and Mr. French guy’s walk was too relaxed on the other hand, so I have to be somewhere in the middle along the long line of hikers.  Probably just behind our beloved walking kebab - the Goat.  I’m talking about ~160km of long walk here, finding the right pace is critical so as not to injure, or exhaust myself too soon.

The campsite was ideal, it was nestled between the Indus river fork, it was on a marsh land, with plenty of water supply, nice baby pine trees, green and clean, and some good view of the nearby mountains.

Day 2:   Korophone – Skam Tsok
This was probably the easiest day.  Just ~4 hours, still hot and sunny but my sunglasses and wide-brim desert hat provided artificial shade and comfort.  Not so much altitude gain, and the walk along the river bank was actually a bit boring as you see the same thing again and again….  brown arid mountains to the left (north),  river to the right,  goats and porters everywhere!  We were heading East towards the end of the river, along Baltoro, past the glacier,  and to the ‘glacier intersection’  where the fearsome ghosts of 8000-meter peaks of Karakoram hunt for the weary and weakling climbers.

It was amazing to witness how the local Balti people (-all of our porters were Balti) live in this great outdoors - no tents!  They build this ‘Sheppard huts’ which were nothing but piles of stones, about 3 feet high,  4 walls, with a gap in 1 wall for the invisible door.  At night they build fire, and cover the whole thing with big waterproof plastic or vinyl material, and that’s it.   Using tarp is something I learned in survival training,  but I’m not about to spend my next 10 days or so living in a windy place, on a cold hard ground… We have mats and sleeping bags and a four-letter magic word… t-e-n-t!

Day 3:  Skam Tsok - Paiju
It was another uneventful, long, hot, sunny, and goaty day.  “ Mwe-e-e-e-e..”  said the goat,  thankful that the long hike was over, and probably anticipating its demise. Just around 5 hours of hiking, not bad I guess.  Campsite is huge, there’s a river 20mins down where we could bathe (sure, with that temp?) and wash clothes.  We normally just carry 2 trekking shirts, 2 shorts or trek-pants and wash the used one every 3 or 4 days (when possible).   I don’t have rubbing alcohol that we normally use to mask the bad smell,  so sometimes I used minty Bengay or alcologne, with a nice and cool scent, works best for the smelly foot after wearing the same double-layered socks everyday,  for 3 or 4 days. That’s life in the great outdoors.  Well here, I bathed, with my ice-hard and ice-cold Ivory soap.  I hoped it was really bio-degradable, as I used it both for bathing and washing (didn’t bother bringing two sets of soaps, that would be an extra gram of weight).
After Paiju, weather was still nice.  Sunny hot is better than windy cold.

There were 2 sets of hole-in-the-ground type of toilet, far from the campsite.  And a big signage begging porters to use those latrines.   It was probably because - these guys seem to take a dump invariably anywhere. 

Paiju was a party place.  Teams stay here for at least 1 day to rest.  Big crowd, hundreds of porters everywhere, big tents for the big groups with big cooking tents that came with big stoves and big pots on it!  Well, if they were planning to cook the whole Yak in there, it was no surprise.  I wish I could mingle and sample the diverse delicacies.  Food smells good as you pass by each mess tents.  And I miss seeing female tourists. Among the hundred or so crowd, I only saw two women and five elderly Japanese women.  This is a testosterone-dominated country if you recall.

There were singing and partying below our campsite.  Some groups who were on their way back were of course, celebrating, especially the porters as it was near pay and baksheesh time.  We of course tried to get as much info as possible - was it already snowing in Gondogora La? Was there any danger of avalanches? And so on.

We didn’t hear too many good news as one group stayed for several days in Concordia and didn’t even have one good glimpse of K2.  Spending so much for the vacation without meeting the objective, well that’s life.   We also heard rumors that thick snow clouds has started gathering south of Concordia, not good news either as my team was planning to cross the Gondogoro La  (traverse south), and then travel back west to our jump-off.   It’s not so interesting to walk the same place over again, so going back on a different route is a more ideal option.
With my guide (his name I can't recall)
Day 4:  Paiju 

Rest day.   Either you stay in the camp to mingle, or  “climb high and sleep low” - - an acclimatization technique that expedites adjustments of the body to thin air.  The idea is to breathe thinner air at higher altitude during daytime, and then sleep at a lower altitude, with a relatively thicker air.   Only the British guy and I did the acclimatization climb, we separately attempted to reach the ridge of Paiju, we gained +2000ft before realizing that we were so bold and crazy not to notice that the last section was a very technical climb, requiring proper ascending and safety devices.  The ground was loose, the slope very steep, and if you make just one slip,  you would be back in the campsite in about 2 minutes (and this was a 3+ hours of rock scrambling climb-up stunt).  I soon regretted not bringing my trekking poles or my knee braces. 

Since it was so steep,  my knees ached as it took all the toll of getting down safe,  so guess what - - I badly sprained both my knees! That was not very smart!   That was just day 4, and I just gave Mr. Murphy a chance to take me out of the playing court.  How could I be that stupid!  IIn a multi-day trip,   a simple injury (mine was not so simple, I could feel the pain when I bend my knees) could have exponential catastrophic effect as you walk and trek every single day of the remainder of your trip.  Should I quit?! Or risk being a liability to my team?  

One member of the all-Australian team decided to go back with one porter so as not to slow down his group, but his injury was worse than mine – I heard his knee joint was badly damaged.  My worry was that, I wa not sure if I would be able to recover the bad knees before attempting Basecamp and Gondogoro La crossing, as both are very demanding tasks.   If I turn back at Concordia, I would be trekking extra 4-5 days (assuming I could walk properly) with probably just 1 porter.  Not a very pleasant thought.  I just hoped that the Pakistani Army have a standby helicopter,  assuming my Blue Cross Insurance works as I couldn’t afford a 3000-US$ chopper ride.  
Old-school 'bridge', keep your balance, don't look down (too much).

I didn’t want my teammates to worry, but I have to tell them about my ‘problem’ anyway – then shared with them that I’d do a ‘test hike’ for the next two days and see if it gets better, otherwise, sorry – I have to turn back.   They were a bit worried for me of course, but the Am-dude kept giving me encouraging remarks, which was good as I need to gain extra confidence to push further.  That’s the benefit you get of having a team with you, to give you the much needed morale boost.

Well, I only have the knees to worry about - - not like the goat and the yak, who both eventually ‘metamorphed’ to kebabs and sushi meals. =)

Day5:  Paiju – Urdukas

I strapped my knees with neoprene-made joint support, tightened them to maximum tolerable.  I was psyched up and very determined to reach Basecamp, I have trashed the turn-back option and pumped my adrenalin so hard to keep me on the go-go.   Good thing the Shaolin monks popularized the use of trekking stick, as I have to rely heavily on my poles to lessen the weight and torture on the knees.  I was way behind the team, and I was gaining altitude,  and the terrain was not as pleasant as the first three days.  It was rolling up, up and down, up, up and down.    We reached the “landslide-base” campsite, with big scary boulders clinging dangerously above our chosen campsite.  I resigned to the thought that the locals must know those rocks’ stability.

I was surprised that my knees did well.  Indeed, I trudged on slowly,  but my pace was just right.  I arrived a bit late, around 5:00 p.m.  Nonetheless, I was fine and could still walk for the next day.  Yey!

I enjoyed the small talk with one Balti staying near my tent, amazing they only ate Chapatti bread and curry sauce.  Just that, for the entire trip!  They usually just bring two sets of clothes, one extra thick jacket or blanket, salt, flour and curry powder.  That was all! 
Day 6: Urdukas – Goro II
Start of misery.   Moraine trails - - loose, gravel-ly, and difficult trails.  Too bad I was only wearing soft-soled boots, a cheap one in fact.   The Brit and the Am were already suffering from blisters even with the two layered socks. The trail was bound to spice those up some more.  Ouch! ouch!   We each have our own small world of worries.  The Frenchi has turned into a snail, inching his way to the next campsite, he didn’t expect the long hard walks of Baltoro. We probably both felt the slight effect of high altitude.  Hey I was also exhausted and my heart was pumping big time but I have the bonus of worrying about the knees.

On the bright side,  the trail to Goro II campsite offers a superb view of the Trango group of towers, and the glacier (since it’s constantly moving downward) has formed several interesting pop-up chunks of ice,  some as tall as us,  others stands 4-6 meters.   It was like a flat sea, with big jumping white dolphins - - that got stuck on the way up, frozen. Some trails have the small crevasses, scary but at least they were easy to spot, and evaded.

Goro II campsite has a splendid view of Gasherbrum to the East (another popular big mountain), and west of the campsite is an army base. I am not sure though, if the Indians or the Chinese will be interested to conquer this place.  It is just way too damn cold and inhospitable.

The campsite looks gray and moraine-ny, but I was surprised to find out that just 3 inches of scratching out ground and rocks, I found thick layer of ice!   The whole campsite is ICE with gravel and rock surface decoration.  Ahh, that is why they call it a glacier, silly!
Surrounded by giants!  (Goro? or Concordia camp)

Day 7:  Goro II – Concordia

Exciting day, we were told this was our first chance of a glimpse of K2.  Weather was very promising, clear blue sky, and I could see all the peaks around me.   Plus, my knees magically felt fine!   I have probably absorbed the Glucosamine Sulfate from the Brit just by talking to him about knee cure and joint strengthening tips he gave. 

Earlier in the day, we experienced a snowfall, but thankfully, it didn’t last for more than 30 minutes.  Bits of snow clouds appeared on the southeast.  Generally, it was a very promising clear blue sky.   I walked, avoiding the big chunks of glacier ice popping up like whales,   skirting crevasses,  and yes… kept looking North to hopefully see the most dreadful 8000-meter peak of all, with my very own eyes.

And they were right,  over there - K2!  K2 !!!!    I was panicking and jumping like a horny monkey, scrambling to get my camera off my top-load.   Ka-tsak !   Ka-tsak !   Hah!    Just seeing K2 already made my day, or my entire year, even!  I‘ve seen the same photos in several magazines, but the awe and aura of seeing the real thing was indescribable! Humbling!  Enchanting!  Powerful!   I stood there for about a million minutes - -  mesmerized and amazed!   Could I climb that thing ?! Dream on dude!

I didn’t quite rest the first few hours after arriving in Concordia,  as I have to cherish this rare moment of seeing K2 in full view, with very minimal, un-obstructing clouds near its peak. I could see the cloud jet-stream, probably it was 100knotts of wind up there, unforgiving condition indeed.  I could see smiles on each face, even the locals who have been here before.  I heard one local guide has been in that place five times and that was his first time to see K2 in its naked glory.  We were lucky!

Concordia is the vortex of the great glaciers and like the midpoint of several  majestic 8000m peaks in the Karakoram….  Gasherbrum I, II to the northeast,   Broad Peak to north-northeast,  K2 to my north  and some similarly humbling 7000m peaks  (Mitre peak to the southwest, Snow Dome in southeast).  This place is a jaw-dropping big WOW!  

There was one bad news though, we were just told that there was an avalanche in Gondogora La two (2) days earlier.  And all standby rescue and government support teams were already pulled out - - it was an early winter shutdown, and nobody was allowed to cross the high Pass.  Oh crap!   We just lost one of the two major challenges of this trip,   we all felt bombed, while all the porters were smiling big time.   O well, that’s life, at least we can still go to Basecamp.  It was a just hard to accept that we would be going back the same way and not able to traverse and see new places.

The next day was a big day,  we were supposed to rest but given the deteriorating weather conditions, we had to grab every good opportunity to hit basecamp.   At late afternoon though, snow came in.  Then blizzard, and howling wind.  In an instant, all the colorful array of tents and tarps had metamorphed into white cotton.  

“This is NOT good, at all!!” We just hoped and prayed it would be a clear day tomorrow.   Meanwhile, we partied and eat popcorns, exchanged bullshit stories, and psyched ourselves up for the hike next day.   Our French teammate decided to give himself the much needed rest and forgo basecamp.

Day 8:  Concordia (5300m)

“I’m…. drea-ming of a white….Christmaaaaasss….”    I woke up from my dream, checked my watch;  06:15 a.m. I unzipped my Down sleeping bag, openned the tent door hoping for the good news. White-out!  Shet!   Today is no-good day,   we couldn’t even see 100 meters ahead,   no K2 view,  NADA !    It was just all white.

We just shouted at each other to confirm that we’d stay put, must be –15C outside,  everybody just wanted to stay with their beloved wives (aka - sleeping bags) and grab more sleep. Why wake up early, today is No-Go day anyway.
Eager but nowhere to go!  Thick snow blanketed our campsite.
I devoured two energy bars, the special items I have been saving for the toughest day. I checked the labels and ingredients before I packed them.  It didn’t say ‘milk’ or ‘lactose’.   But after 2 hours, I already felt the dreadful reaction. I re-checked the packaging, and was shocked to see ‘Whey’ in the ingredient list.  Oh doom-on-me time again!!  How could I’ve missed that!    I have very high intolerance to lactose, milk, dairies, whey or whatever you call them.  I was in the middle of a cold hell, and was about to hike towards the Basecamp, and the last thing I want to do was to weaken and punish myself.   I just gave myself a dose of poison - - and a diarrhea.   Can you imagine doing a dump in a cold late-September time with steady freezing wind. In Concordia, there’s no toilet huts around, just big rocks and ice where you can hide your butt cheeks. I felt there were icicles already forming on my butt as I do my energy bar business.  And I have to do it three times at least, and imagine one at night around 10pm… Brrrrrrr.   It led me to think – Can I sue those companies manufacturing these goods, for not properly labeling their products with something like “Not for the lactose-intolerant whiners?!”

Day 9:   K2 Basecamp (5400m) – back to Concordia

“Wake up, Wake up,   klang klang klang klang !!!”    It was the cook, banging a pot by his head while shouting at us to get up.   At least that was how I imagined him doing it.  We all unzipped our bivys and tents and found out what the good news was - we could see a third of K2 and there was no snowfall!!

We already decided the day earlier to hit the trail even with this not-so-clear view.  We would just hope for a better weather as we walk.  We scrambled hurriedly to prepare ourselves for the big hike, this was adrenalin pumping - - out of excitement, out of fear losing an opportunity to reach basecamp.

This was just a day assault, so we carried very minimal supplies.  Just biscuits and tuna for lunch, one litter of water.  There should be flowing streams along the way,  hopefully not frozen-over yet.  I thought, it should be warm as I trekked so I only wore double-thermals and thin fleece and my M-dry Millet Shell jacket. I didn’t have Goretex yet in those days.

Of course I brought along balaclava or ski mask and thick gloves, had my shades on so as not to acquire snow blindness, and the fun part, I donned only a quick-dry thin cotton trekking pants which is not even windproof. Haha!  Well, at least I have gaiters over my boots. 

Shunning standard practices, I brought significantly less-than-required winter clothing.  - So what?! I’ll only have mild hypothermia anyway. ;) Well, big lesson learned.  I also should have been fine had I consumed some amount of calorie-rich chow.  Although it has always been my problem, I find it difficult to eat at high altitudes. I should been a lot better had I swallowed chunks of butter to fight cold. (Assuming I can tolerate the milk in it). In Greenland, I read somewhere that expedition members consume ~100g of butter everyday to generate enough energy and heat to survive - something that I could not possibly do, or even imagine to do.

Interesting to have observed was how ice have formed inside my Nalgene water bottle, even if it was shaking and bumping as I move.  And every time I took a gulp, some of the ice that has formed on the sides and top seemed to lacerate my mouth and throat.
After the first hour of laborious hiking on thick snow, it started to snow hard. Visibility dropped to 50 meters (and getting worse), and K2 has disappeared from site.  A few million ticks after, the British chap who was leading our pack, just stopped on his track, looked up, silently cursed on something, then turned back without saying a single word.   We all looked dumbstruck at each other, shrugged, and moved on.  That left me, the Am-dude, and 2 Pakistanis in the assault.
Slow-going to base camp on a not so friendly terrain.  I was the most exhausted!
Long sections of Godwin-Austin Glacier were immaculate-white with no moraine-dirt.  I actually enjoyed walking along this thick ice, and from time to time I would step into thin ice sinking my boots and leg to as deep as 1.5 feet.   At least it was not a crevasse.
I was the weakling snail in this group, the American was probably 1 to 1.5 hours ahead.

We reached basecamp early afternoon, no welcoming trumpet sound, just howling wind and Christmas snow.  It was not like what I have expected;  I thought basecamps have prayer flags or remnants of them, scattered everywhere, and trash from past expeditions - - in K2 basecamp, it was gloomy and deserted, as if no one has been there for decades.  It did have etched-slabs near the base-wall, to honor and respect the dead climbers – something I didn’t bother to see as I simply stayed clutching myself near some rocks to eat and rest and hide from the biting wind.

Walking slowly back from the basecamp -  my whole body was stiff and frozen as I walked blindly in the unforgiving blizzard.  Visibility dropped to 5 meters, sometimes we got lucky at 15, and my eyeglasses kept on fogging so I couldn’t see properly!  Hypothermia seems to be my Murphy twin brother that day, and I felt that, if I trip and fall, I’d probably just stay down and sleep and rest …. Or maybe rest in peace - if I didn’t sort myself out and mentally fight the physical strain!  Thoughts of regret on my decision to join the assault team flashed on my mind.  The British guy, our strongest member, decided to turn back after less than two hours of hiking.  My French teammate also decided to stay camped since the day before. Only the four of us, the very bold ones had pursued.  I decided that I needed to take some risk and finish this thing and hopefully find some worth in this endeavor. 

At any rate, my three assault teammates had gone ahead of me,  much way ahead,  heading South to first base-camp,  where  paradise is - hot drinks, hot food,  sleeping bag, warmer clothes.  Yep, I was dead tired and wrecked and frozen as a popsicle,  but luck seems to favor the good boys that day as in the 11th hour of walking, I saw clearing sky to where I was heading.  And yes,no more blizzard,  just snow-covered trail. Adrenalin pumped and went to full power as I saw red and yellow objects -  “Yes,  Yep, Yeah … those are TENTS,  hooorraaay !!!  huhuhu,  hahaha,  I’m alive, I’m safe,  I’ll make it back after all,  it’s the end of my misery!”  I finally made it back to Concordia - my home sweet home in this God-forsaken place.”

As I went near our camp, I saw the big smiling face of the Brit guy then he gave me heavy pats on my back. Then I was greeted by a warm hug from one of the porters who didn’t seem to have taken a bath for the last 3 seasons.  The Brit, I guess, was somehow envious and regretful for not reaching the Basecamp even with nothing-to-see weather condition.  After all, we were there to do something, not just to see something.   If you may remember, there was this blind mountaineer, Erik, who reached the top of Everest (and eventually completed 7 Summits), one of his greatest accomplishment and fulfillment in life… and he obviously didn’t see the magnificent view, but he has been there, to ‘feel’ and experience it.  There’s a lot more in life, than just seeing things.

I was sick when I reached Concordia, gulped two paracetamol tabs, drunk lots of hot fluids,  and rested like there’s no tomorrow.   Funny that the French guy who was sharing my tent, gave me a hard elbow strike in my ribs after his middle-of-the-night pee-break. “Ooouucch! What the F***!” He actually thought I was cold dead and just hit me to check, he said my whole face has turned blue.  Maybe some Smurfs just played a joke on me.

Day 10:  Back to Urdukas

I was still feeling a bit sick so I decided to reduce my load to a few kilograms and hired one porter for the day which entails an extra pay for doing that, or for being lazy. It was relatively easier going back as you reduce altitude.  It was actually the usual favorite -- as you have done what you came in for,  and that you’re anticipating rest and celebration. Typically, you just want to get this thing done and over with.  We’ve decided to skip one camp to save one day.  Not good for our sick team member, it took him all day and finally arrived in our camp at 8:00 p.m.   

Weather has improved though with a clear sky on the horizon and many visible stars.   To top it off,  I felt that my strength was finally coming back.   I wasn’t able to train properly for this trip (as if I train)  and with the hike that lasted several days,  my body has quite adapted.   Checklist: Cardio - ok,  knees - ok,  morale - very high.

I later learned that the two buddies, the American and the Briton, had some small disagreement over some stupid thing – this is not unusual to happen during long trips.  Initially, I did not notice why they became suddenly over talkative with me.  Well, it is simply because they didn’t want to talk to each other. Hahaha, funny dudes!    Imagine we’re talking about big macho, tough guys, and they were acting like kids. 
Rugged tents with rugged crew in a rugged terrain.  
Day 11:  Back to Paiju

We were soon back to the boring up-and -down trails to Paiju.   At least I was able to regain my strength, was carrying full-load, and had even started running trails.   The two strong hombres were still ahead but not very far ahead, though. Somehow I missed the goat,  I started getting bored seeing only dirty people. But, it won’t be long, there are hundreds of goats and yaks and ponies beyond Paiju. 

On the way to the campsite, some porters started shouting some news that was broadcasted over the radio.  Apparently, there were some terrible bombings in the US killing 10,000 people.   Of course we didn’t believe it as it was unthinkable to have that big number of casualties unless somebody used a small nuclear or bio-chemical bombs.

But there was more excitement in the campsite in Paiju.  People were talking about the tragedy although unsure what it was.  A guide who was able to talk to an Army officer, mentioned that some “terrorist bomb-planes” were dropped in New York, Washington, Philadelpia, and another city.   He said around 5000 people were killed.   We still found it hard to believe. I was even telling the folks that it was impossible not to have been prevented by the Federal Agencies of the US namely CIA, FBI, and others.    So we all ‘held off our acceptance’,  just hoping it was just some bad rumor. 

The Brit was very disturbed though, he wanted to finish the last 3 or 4 sections in 1 or 2 days.   We decided to walk as far and as fast as we could - no real rush and panic for now.   Little that we know that US and British governments have already sent military special forces on Afghan soil including Northern Pakistan as early as September 13 for Intelligence and Recon.
Donkeys in a barren land.
I believe it was September 15 when we reached Paiju.   And of course we were in Northern Territory of Pakistan.  The northwestern part was where the Talibans and their ally clans roam around freely, it’s where they get guns and ammo supplies, and rumor has it that training camps and hiding places are everywhere.  Even with the ‘rumor-status’ of the news, we were already reconsidering our plans to visit Peshawar (clan-controlled, northwest of Pakistan, few klicks to border), and especially the plan to visit the famous Kybher Pass  - - The Afghan border.  Kybher is where the great explorers and conquerors passed to enter the Greater Indian and Central Asian territories … Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.  It looked like Osama and Omar might cross it anytime soon.
There was no immediate threat in Baltoro, so we thought we should be fine,   although it was a bit disturbing to see Army helicopters flying overhead occasionally.

Day 12,13:  back to Skam Tsok, Korophone, Askoli

We half walked and half ran on these days.   One memorable part was the crossing of the river - - just me and some porters.  The 2 strong dudes went ahead as usual,  I was behind them by about an hour. Luckily, we saw 3 crazy porters trying to cross the cold rushing river.  The most challenging gut-wrenching cross-section of the river was a convergence which was probably doing a 4-5-knott current.   You make one wrong footing, and you’d probably end up in Northern India.  And the water was cold, you could numb yourself to death in less than 30min.  But one brave soul, unwilling and not-so-ready to go to hell or heaven, managed to cut across the stream and was able to cross the convergence. 

The rest who just stood, watched and prayed for the safe passage gave a loud cheer. It is easy and safer for the rest to cross when there is somebody on the other side, we can throw the rope, anchor it, and cross the stream while holding it for safety.  Being able to cross the river would mean saving two hours - - read  T-W-O   H-O-U-R-S   of  walking!!  That’s a lot of time and distance on flat-ground hike.   Since the two dudes already went ahead, I have the only privilege of doing the short-cut.
Crossing this river meant cutting hike time by 2 hours!  Numb and cold afterwards, but happy for the 'short cut'.
The locals were worried, of course as I was a tourist and not ‘allowed’ to be swept away to eternity.  They probably didn’t know that there are lots of rivers in East Asia and moderately strong rivers are not in my worry list.  Yes, the water was numbing-cold as I have to rub and massage my legs after just less than 10 minutes in the water.   It was a bit challenging but not too difficult.  Whew!

The two dudes were very surprised and shocked; and somehow irked to have seen me in the campsite, fully rested, with big broad smile on my face.  “Sorry guys, it is just my lucky day!”

We reached Askoli, and set camp.  Baksheesh time, we were four so it was easy to just share the burden of giving tips.  Not so difficult since we just gave everything to the guide, his own tip would be much later.  The burden of dividing and sharing of the anticipated with our weary support crews was on the guide’s shoulders.  You could see the smile and the sense of contentment as the guide announced their add-on wages.  Yes, even a Peso salary goes a long way in this part of the world - - of course, after exchanging it to dollars then Rupees.

We received the unfortunate confirmation that there really was a terrorist attack in the US.   And all the embassies have advised all foreign nationals in both Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan to leave the country, ASAP!

Back to Skardu

We hauled back our stuff and weary bodies and worries, over mountains and stream.   It was a bumpy, half-a-day or so Jeep ride.  It reminded me of some trips up north in Cordillera.  We arrived later, confirmed our flights, grabbed newspapers and for the first time  - - saw the picture of a plane crashing through the WTC buildings in New York.   “Now, this was damn serious offense!” I thought.  Retaliation has to come anytime soon.

I’ve read in some Special Operations story book that the US and Brits have conducted a police operations 2 or 3 years before in Afghan soil, it was big scale operation employing support aircrafts flying over Pakistan (wherein 2 fighter planes have shot down 2 Afghan Fighter Migs), tons of payloads of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from Navy ships stationed in the Indian ocean, and cruised over Pakistan, helicopter gunship fire support, and several squads of Delta Force units from US and SAS from Britain.  If they’ve extended the ground operation to +10minutes versus just 30 minutes, they probably would have solved the labyrinth puzzle of the underground escape route of Osama and the ‘war’ was probably over then. 
Anyway, it was a good thing nobody attack Afghanistan sooner, otherwise Taliban-allies in Northern Pakistan may have harmed foreign nationals, especially my western teammates. Of course we saw later that the Afghan assault was a big-scale war and necessitated more planning and careful movement – hence enough time for travelers to leave.
A decade later, exactly on May 2, 2011 – Osama Bin Laden will be killed in a joint CIA-US Navy Seals Operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, some 61km north of Islamabad.
Glacier 'magic', ice popping up - on the way to the higher camps.

Luck didn’t seem to favor the weary and worried boys, as all the planes from Skardu were all grounded for the past 3 days due to bad wind conditions.   We incidentally stumbled with the 10-man Dutch team.  They just spent 2 days in Skardu and they were so worried to stay and continue with their trip, as rumors abound that some Taliban-ally clans (in this city) would snatch white western tourists.  They’ve decided to fly out to Gilgit (west of Skardu), said it was safer there.  That’s actually farther west and closer to the border - I didn’t know where they get that idea, but I guessed they left the country with no further hiccups.

The American dude was pretty relaxed, he seemed to be used to such 'chaos'. Well, he has spent 10 years in the Soviet, and was in Central America when some tourist bus was hit by a gang of no-goodnik terrorists - so he was probably a secret agent.   He said that his close friends also have the same hunch but denied it.  The Briton was a lot more worried and close to panic, the French didn’t give a damn on what was happening and announced that he’d continue his trip to Lahore; it’s in the East anyway.  The Brit didn’t want to wait for the good wind for us to fly out, so we rented a jeep to take us to Islamabad.  That was 18 hours of jeep ride across rough road,  and hanging bridges and landslide-prone mountain zig-zags.   Moi? I wasn’t too worried as I am Asian and very much Asian-looking, and probably can safely pass as an Indonesian or Malaysian muslim studying geology in Karakoram.  Sure...   Except that I looked like the regular tourist (with colorful jackets and fleece, boots, pants).  Some said any tourist were potential target of the hard-core fundamentalists although I thought that I could always wear kamis shalwal to pass for a local look-alike.

We arrived in Islamabad the next night.  Then flight re-arrangement time, it was not easy to book and re-book flights as this was exodus time for tourists and visiting time for journalists).   We have no choice but to cut our trips short (I still have 1 week of vacation),  too bad for those who arrived only few days earlier, they might have to go back home earlier if they wanted to live a healthier or even longer life.

The 2 dudes decided to fly British Air, (man, they’d fly absolutely ANY airline going out of Pakistan).   We said our good-byes in one of the hotels after our last breakfast together.   It was a fascinating experience to be in a hotel lobby, full of foreigners -- 70% of them were media teams (just arrived to cover the upcoming and much-anticipated war and chaos),   Television sets all tuned in to CNN showing clips and bits of the Terror attack,  US military Armada,  riots, and all other spices that could change the course of your day from boredom to near-panic.  

Flying back, I have to make another stop-over, in Karachi this time.   There were more vocal Osama supporters there than in Islamabad.  But at least it’s further from the border.   The prince of chaos probably wanted me to stay and watch some street violence, as I attempted to check in,  I was shocked not to see my flight number on the screen (Karachi to Hong-kong).  Cathay Pacific just decided to cancel the flight.   WHAT ?!?!  They want me to stay in this place?   Do you have boats, by any chance … going to Bombay?  I already felt fidgety and uncomfortable with this whole thing.   I was expecting the US to strike fast and hard anytime soon.   Finally, Cathay rebooked my flight; it would however take me another two days to set foot in Manila again. 

The Philippines is just in Southeast Asia and it would take me two days?! Actually it would be a total of three days including that day in Islamabad.   I was told that I have to stay one night in Karachi, then another night in HongKong.  Options were not many which left me wth no choice at all.  So like the good dog I was,  I got out and rode my bus to our hotel.

The flight was rescheduled the next day, we had free hotel stay and food for the next day, and there was TV in the room anyway.  I missed watching TV.  Such small joy in life.  I didn’t dare go out of the hotel, as we were strictly advised to stay in-doors.

Finally, we were heading home. Upon entering the departure area, I thought the smell of war was heavy in the air.  Security was tripled, more automatic weapons at every corner.  Like that scene from Ben Affleck’s ARGO movie when his group was about to board the aircraft. Some mean-looking security dude asked me to remove my boots so they could check it out.  Told them I just finished my long trek, they might conclude that the bad smell is a bio-chemical agent.  Imagine the headline:  “Tourist shot dead due to foot-based bio-chemical agent”.  Hahaha!  I have to amuse myself.  And so being a good boy, I complied but covered my nose in a comic gesture, but it was actually not that bad. 

Although security was tighter, I relatively breezed through and was able to make my way out of harms way - - Out of Pakistan!   

No comments: