En route to K2 Basecamp, with view of Broad Peak. Baltoro Glacier, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. 2019.

To me, K2, though a failure, was a glorious epiphany.

– Charles Houston, Brotherhood of the Rope

July 2019

Mountains are humbling; K2 is humiliating.

After a modest 10-day hike in Alta Via I in the beautiful Dolomites mountains in Italy three years ago, my son, P, said he would like to do a BIG trek.

The Karakoram! I said.

Where? he asked.

K2 base camp! I replied.

And that was that. A casual Sunday lunch chat in our cozy living room in Vancouver about our next summer vacation tens of thousands km away from our own Pacific North West mountains. In earnest, I began watching everything available on youtube on the K2 basecamp trek and the Gondogoro pass, and decided, since we wouldn’t so easily return to Pakistan, to go for the ambitious five 8000m peak base camp program, traversing some of the most magnificent mountain landscapes through the base camps of five of Pakistan’s 8000m peaks: K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Nanga Parbat! It would be a family summer trek of the highest order, off-the-grid living, an epic adventure of a lifetime…

We prepared for a full year, saving up money, doing a triathlon (C), training for endurance by walking for hours under tropical heat (J), doing plank and track and taking cold showers (P), breaking into new hiking boots, scouting for ultra-light down jacket and long johns at the Salvation Army, doing due diligence in choosing a reputable trekking agency, booking international flights into Pakistan when airspace closure complicated everything…

We felt physically and mentally ready to walk and sleep on ice, for 260km during three weeks, even though the whole idea remained a little abstract and the last time you did something similar was a quarter of a century ago when your muscles were a little firmer and the will stronger still…

Then, like everything else in life, nothing turned out the way you expected. No preparation was ever enough for K2, I mean, base camp, not the summit!

Getting the gear ready and still all smiles, before reality set in. Islamabad, Pakistan. 2019.
K2 base camp trek: from Islamabad to Skardu by jeep, then 26 days of trekking on the almighty Baltoro Glacier! Pakistan. 2019.
From Skardu to K2 base camp: twenty-six days of trekking on the almighty Baltoro Glacier! Pakistan. 2019.
Altitude gain during K2 base camp trek. Pakistan. 2019.

June 30: Day 0. Hot! Last member of our team arrives in Islamabad.

My daughter, C, and I have been in Lahore all of June, under 45C heat. It’s the first time P takes three flights spanning four continents – North America, Europe, Middle East, and finally Asia – over 30 hours all by himself. We walk him through each flight segment, terminal change, and connection through video chat, then wait for his text messages.

He leaves Vancouver, on time. His caring sister stays up till 11pm to see if he catches his Etihad flight from Paris to Abu Dhabi. Little brother finds Terminal 3 and has not fallen asleep somewhere in Charles de Gaulle. He’s at the gate.

Seven hours later, we are relieved to receive his second message: “In Abu Dhabi. Hungry.” Only one last flight to catch.

Meanwhile, C and I take the Daewoo bus from Lahore to Islamabad and arrive in a no-star hotel facing the ridiculously noisy IJP road. This is no way to welcome your clients coming from so far away, I fume and demand our trekking agency to change the hotel, not knowing what awaits us for our trek.

We head to the shiny Islamabad International airport. At 3:30am, the final member of Team Vivace (the name is chosen by musicians, not alpinists!) arrives. We are ready for the trek!

The final team member safely arrives! Islamabad, Pakistan. 2019.

July 1: Day 1. Sunny, hot, 35C. Islamabad: Welcome day & pre-trek briefing.

9am and no sign of trekking company! We have no idea who would show up, when, and for what. It’s supposed to be sightseeing and welcome day. Calls to the trekking agency go unanswered. Finally, at 1:30pm, Saeed, the manager, materializes with two other trekkers of another group – M from the US and Y from Sweden – who will start the trek at the same time. Together, we visit the Faisal Mosque, Saidpur village, Margalla Hills with a wonderful view of the capital city. Wake up call: 4am. P is jet lagged, sleeping only an hour and nursing a cold.

Faisal Mosque. Islamabad, Pakistan. 2019.
Photo time! Faisal Mosque. Islamabad, Pakistan. 2019.

July 2: Day 2. Sunny. Islamabad to Chilas, through the Karakoram and Naran highways, 15h. First glimpse of the Killer Mountain, Nanga Parbat. 

We choose not to fly because of PIA’s safety record. It would take us two (very scary) days to get to Skardu. First stop, 5am: Rawalpindi fruit market, to stock up Punjab mangoes, for a vitamin boost at the beginning of the trek (but they are too ripe and would go to waste fermenting on the trek!).

Breakfast at a waterfall-cafe in Kiwai before continuing along the legendary Karakoram Highway, KKH, which is in relatively good condition. Our driver, Ehsan, optes for the newer, scenic Naran highway. Palpable excitement at the first glimpse of the killer mountain, Nanga Parbat (8126m).

Very late lunch/early dinner near the Barbusar Pass before finally arriving at the Fairy Meadows Hotel in Chilas at 8pm. The room is like an oven and the air-con the size of a generator which pumps out more hot air.

How long does it take to get to Skardu?

It depends… (we would come to understand fully this local expression only the following day!)

Rawalpindi fruit market at dawn. Rawalpindi, Pakistan. 2019.
Stocking up fresh mangoes for the trek! Rawalpindi, Pakistan. 2019.
A Balti girl. Karakoram Highway, Pakistan. 2019.
Balti children. Karakoram Highway, Pakistan. 2019.
Enjoy tea with locals. Along the Naran Highway, Pakistan. 2019.
Along the Naran highway, en route to Chilas. Pakistan. 2019.
School children along the Karakorum Highway. Pakistan. 2019.
Scenic Naran highway, en route to Chilas. Pakistan. 2019.
Scenic Naran highway, en route to Chilas. Pakistan. 2019.
Scenic Naran highway, en route to Chilas. Pakistan. 2019.
Scenic Naran highway, en route to Chilas. Pakistan. 2019.
Scenic Naran highway, en route to Chilas. Pakistan. 2019.
First view of the Killer Mountain, Nanga Parbat (8126m), from the Naran Highway, Pakistan. 2019.

July 3: Day 3Sunny. Chilas to Skardu, an ultra-scary ride, 14h.

Wake up call at 7am and we do not leave until 8:30am, not knowing what is in store for the day.

KKH is a grand highway compared to the Chilas-Skardu “road”:  river crossings, rock blasting, blind turns, rock falls, vertical drops into the might Indus River!

Finally, at 7pm, we are happy to see the approach bridge to Skardu, except that the road is blocked! The river has swollen so much that no car could cross, and all the bulldozers and workers have already gone home. We get mentally prepared to spend the night in our 4-wheel drive. The Baltis are an ingenious people though; driver-volunteers try to pull a several-ton truck stuck in the river, to no avail…

At 9pm, a bulldozer unblocks the road. We arrive in Skardu well after ten. No sight of our guides or manager. M, from another trekking party, is firm – angry – and demands a 7am meeting with guides and manager. Everyone is thoroughly exhausted even before the trek begins!

Along the KKH! Shiga Valley, en route to Chilas, Pakistan. 2019.
The highway is narrow! Shiga Valley, en route to Chilas, Pakistan. 2019.
Traffic jam along the Chilas-Skardu route due to rock blasting. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Typical river crossing. From Chilas to Skardu. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Typical river crossing. From Chilas to Skardu. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Prayers might be necessary here! From Chilas to Skardu. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Rock fall along the Chilas-Skardu road. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Along the Chilas-Skardu road. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Along the Chilas-Skardu road. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
School children along the Shigar Valley. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Shigar Valley. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Shigar Valley. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Shigar Valley. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Shigar Valley. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Stuck in the Chilas-Skardu road. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 4: Day 4. Sunny. Skardu, waiting all day for trekking permits.

We are supposed to head to Askole by jeep today, but our trekking permits are nowhere in sight. The agency has months to prepare for these and yet somehow nothing is ready. Last-minute passport photo taking, form-filling, in-person visit to the Ministry of Tourism (we are told Canadians would be better received than Americans and so off we go as representatives).

The morning goes by, then lunch… P is still shaken by the scary ride yesterday and would rather take chances with a PIA flight on the way back. That would mean skipping the trek to Nanga Parbat base camp in Fairy Meadows. First of the five 8000m peak base camp gone from our program! This will become the first of many disagreements to come along the trek. Oh well, I have to respect the majority position: my children think no mountain/base camp is ever worth the risk of dying by rock fall or plunging into the Indus River). I realize that others don’t necessarily take risks the same way I do…

At around 3pm, our jeeps arrive! OK, it’s a little late, but everyone is still hopeful to head to Askole to save a day. In high mountains, a day is a day! We loiter around the hotel entrance all afternoon, being antsy to leave. We ask to see our equipment as well as food lists which are in Urdu, of course. By 6pm, we know it simply would not happen; after the scary ride the day before, no one wants to be on the road in the dark! Only the agency manager is still in denial. You could still leave now and camp somewhere along the way, he says. We roll our eyes and head to bed without an update on our permit.

Are all trekking agencies like that, or did we pick the wrong one? 

Wake up call at 5am, pronto! Just in case our permits are ready.

Much talk, little action! Awaiting our trekking permit. Skardu, Shigar Valley, Pakistan. 2019.
Our food list, in Urdu: Impossible to cross check what we will be having during our 26-day trek! Skardu, Pakistan. 2019.

July 5: Day 5. Sunny. Skardu to Askole, by jeep. Even more terrifying ride, 6h.  

Our permits were apparently ready at midnight (really?), but the military police opens only at 9am. By ten, we are finally on our way, for yet another day of an even more terrifying ride…

The first two hours along the idyllic Shigar valley are more or less fine. We stop at an orchard to pick cherries. Another guide brings us mulberries from his cousin’s garden. We even enjoy a slow, tasty curry mutton lunch before the “road” narrows into a mountain path with the same kind of bad surprises of blind turns, rock falls, river crossing, and vertical drops…

It is a relief to finally arrive in Askole, after days of long drive and Pakistani bureaucracy. Everyone is ready to trek, yeh!

Yummy lunch en route to Askole. Shigar Valley, Pakistan. 2019.
Do not look to the side! The Skardu-Askole road. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019 .
An adrenaline-filled ride from Skardu to Askole. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019 .
An adrenaline-filled ride from Skardu to Askole. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019 .
Charging ahead! The Skardu-Askole road. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019 .
Wait a minute, let me check if there’s any car coming! Skardu-Askole road. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Edenic Askole! Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Our Italian-looking chef! Askole, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
First camp dinner. Askole, Pakistan. 2019.

July 6: Day 6. Sunny. Trek day 1: Askole to Jula, 20 km plus, 8h.

Our first trek day unfortunately begins with really bad runs. C and I didn’t sleep a wink. Food poisoning. We trace the culprit to the ultra-sweet mulberries likely washed with contaminated water. We had been so careful all month of June in Lahore not to touch salads and fruits, only to let down our guard the day before our trek! First instant noodle lunch in a scenic spot by the river, but I am too wiped out to remember anything. It’s a long first day, 20km plus. The other trekking party must have wondered what this family is doing in the Karakoram!

I sleep like a log and have zero recollection of the beautiful Jula camp!

First day of trek, from Askole to Jula, with bad runs! Askole, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
From Askole to Jula. Askole, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
First day of trek, from Askole to Jula, Askole, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
First day of trek, from Askole to Jula, Askole, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
What a relief to arrive in Jula camp! Jula, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 7: Day 7. Sunny. Trek day 2: Jula to Paiu, 27km, 9h.

Cipro works wonder and we both feel better on Day 2, but now P’s cold is getting worse. He stops every half an hour, napping here and there, before and during lunch, stretching the 9-hour hike into an 11-hour ordeal. Luck has it that an army doctor is trekking that day and gives him some meds. Whoever designed these stages probably were thinking of professional alpinists rather than the average trekker. We just ran a marathon in 2 days! J from the another trekking party says. Everyone is thoroughly wiped out by trek Day 2, and we are still in terra firma and low altitude. Fear has no place in the Karakoram. You just crawl into your tiny tent, hoping tomorrow would be a better day!

Trek day 2: from Jula to Paiu, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Tough going already in Day 2! From Jula to Paiu, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Army training in the Karakoram! En route to Paiu. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Army Dr. Ali taking P’s pulse. En route to Paiu Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
C & P with Hameed, our guide. En route to Paiu Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Not exactly a minimalist expedition! Hameed, with our gear. En route to Paiu Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Exhausted Claire, happily arriving in Paiu Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 8: Day 8. Sunny. Trek day 3: Paiu. Rest day.

All three of us are trying to recuperate in the much welcome first rest day in Paiu when a perfect storm starts brewing in the other trekking group.

Their young, “strongest” guide does not speak a word of English except “Slow travel!” and has actually never crossed the 5600m Gondogoro pass! Y from Sweden and G from California also find M from Denver too slow and are eager to leave her behind (with our group!).

Egos don’t get left behind when you come to the Karakoram. If anything, they get magnified by the mountain walls. Everyone is driven by his/her personal goal and schedule. In any trekking party, there’re always the fastest and slowest hikers, and everyone else somewhere in the middle. Actually, the pecking order is soon established, pretty much by end of day 1. Thankfully, we are a little family group of three and are not competing with anyone else (the three other trekkers who were supposed to be in our group dropped out due to airspace closure). Frustrated Y & G decide to charge ahead with their non-English-speaking guide and without M. We inherite a trek orphan, M, and would pay a dear price for their decision.

In our program, we are supposed to head to the Trango Tower base camp tomorrow. It’s a little frequented route and Ali, our guide, says it is a bit technical, on a glacier full of crevasses! We unanimously vote NO for this diversion.

Second base camp zapped. Only three to go!

Camp time! Paul juggling. Paiu Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Porters trying to repair a stove. Paiu Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 9: Day 9. Sunny. Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse. 11h trek, getting lost on the mighty Baltoro!

Wake up call at 5am and departure at six. We each begin taking Diamox as a prophylaxis against altitude sickness, just in case (a wise decision, but not enough!).

Today, we would see the impressive Baltoro glacier for the first time and would be from this point on walking and sleeping on the massive moraines and/or ice for the next ten days. None of us has glacier trekking experience and are naturally a bit apprehensive, especially about the crevasses. We are happy to have Hameed, the first and original guide from the Shigar valley since 1987! We are now hiking close to 4000m in a spectacular landscape with grandiose vista after vista…

Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse along the Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The almighty Baltoro! Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse along the Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse along the Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Excited to be on the Baltoro! Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
A Baltis porter. Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse along the Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Baltis porters along the Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Baltis porters along the Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
C & P waiting for us. Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
C & P. Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 4: Paiu to Khoburtse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

It’s supposed to be a short day trek, about six hours. The sun beats early in the Karakoram. At 8am, M, who’s now trekking with us, is already panting and moving slowly. During the entire day, our guide, Hameed, would be attending to her overheating problem by sourcing glacial water, wetting her cap and tank top, and even carrying a piece of ice for her to suck on to prevent a heat stroke…!

Meanwhile, my kids go ahead of us, arriving at the river crossing just shy of reaching the Khoburtse camp at around 3:30pm. Our porters see them and come down to help, but the water level is chest deep. So they all have to retrace their steps and take a new, higher route.

Our guide with M. Baltoro glacier, Pakistan. 2019.
Porters Abuzzer and Mohammed crossing the river with a rope to help C and P. Near Khoburtse Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Hameed and I assume the kids have safely arrived at camp. Realizing the river is no longer crossable in late afternoon, Hameed has to find the longer, higher new route created by the army that day to reach camp. He runs up and down the Baltoro like an ibex, and we follow him, hors-piste, meeting each time only dead ends…

Do you think Hameed knows how parsed we are? M asks, when we are lost on the Baltoro, waiting for Hameed’s directions. She complains incessantly of the heat, then falls, snapping her knee and “breaking her finger.” When she gives out a loud scream, I thought she must have fallen off the cliff. When I see her sitting on a narrow edge, crying, I turn in the direction of Hameed instead.

Panic is not the right word to describe how I feel, as our guide is still with us. It’s now 4pm and we still have three to four hours more of daylight. We have walked for ten hours nonstop without lunch. At one point, Hameed, panting, sits down on a rock, trying to find a route to reach the high stonemen with his eagle eyes. It is not a reassuring sight. I make a mental check of my day pack: I have my down jacket, a bit of water, and snacks. I could spend a night here in the open on the Baltoro if need be…

Our lost guide scanning for the new, higher route to reach camp, to no avail. Baltoro glacier, Pakistan. 2019.

All of a sudden, I see my children on a moraine ridge across from us. They come to rescue us! I am so sure of that, until I see their day packs and walking sticks and realize they have not reached camp either. We are all happy to see our two porters, the most reliable guides on the Baltoro. I whistle my kids, and the porters show Hameed the way to cross the glacier!

By the time we reach them on a steep slope, I am a total wreck, drained and angry. It takes one last hour – and a kind porter’s hand – to finally reach camp at 5pm. When another trekking party that did reach Khoburtse at 1pm as planned via the river crossing – asks what happened, I just lose it. How can the most experienced guide get lost on the Baltoro? We are still far from K2 base camp and the high pass! I tell Hameed in no uncertain way: M could no longer stay in our group because she makes glacial progress, no pun intended!

Khoburtse, our camp, means flies in Balti. P does not like Khoburtse!

Our porters come to our rescue: being lost on the Baltoro on Day 4. En route to Khoburtse, Karakoram. Pakistan. 2019.
Exhausted in Khoburtse Camp! Khoburtse, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Beautiful Khoburtse Camp. Khoburtse, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 10: Day 10. Sunny and evening rain. Trek day 5: Khoburtse to Urdukas, 4h.

Things would be better from now on, I tell myself at breakfast. Then my daughter complains of chest pains.

Chest pains? Are you sure it’s not your growling tummy or stomach pain? 

Ma, I am sufficiently educated to distinguish between chest pains and growling stomach…! My daughter is visibly upset that her mom is not taking her health issues seriously in the high mountains.

Headaches, colds, altitude-related issues, yes. Those are to be expected. Chest pains? Where the hell does that come from?

Tough going for C due to chest pains. Baltoro Glacier, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

It is a short day hike and we reach camp for lunch. With C’s growing chest pains, the rest of the trek is up in the air. She is ready to head down, and her brother would go with her in an act of solidarity. I propose to have a rest day to monitor the situation, to by time…

Trek day 5: Khoburtse to Urdukas. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 5: Khoburtse to Urdukas. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 5: Khoburtse to Urdukas. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 5: Khoburtse to Urdukas. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 5: Khoburtse to Urdukas. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 5: Khoburtse to Urdukas. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Urdukas means split rocks in Balti. A few years ago, a giant rock did split and killed 5 porters. Overhanging boulders notwithstanding, at 4000m and with an unobstructed view of the majestic Trango Towers, it’s one of the most scenic and liveliest camps where porters sing every evening. We would come to know this beautiful camp particularly well due to the many rest days on our way up and down this trek.

Urdukas camp, with Trango Towers in the background. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas camp, with Trango Towers in the background. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas camp, with Trango Towers in the background. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas camp, with Trango Towers in the background. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Mess tent. Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Porters gathering for an evening of singing and dancing! Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
C & P in gorgeous Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

First rain in the evening and M’s tent is flooded. Little do we know that this random weather element would be a decisive factor for her.

July 11: Day 11. Sunny. Trek day 6: Urdukas: Rest day.

It is July 11 and my journal is completely empty! On a long trek like this, rest days are marvellous. Time for a glacial sponge bath, at 4000m, catch up on diary, and clear up a big pile of dirty laundry.

M leaves early, at 5:30am, solo with porters Abuzzer and Mohammed. She would have no cook, hot food, or mess tent for the rest of her trek.

My daughter’s chest pains has not eased. There is palpable tension within the family as to what to do next. Army folks say Dr. Ali would pass by tomorrow. One more rest day and we would then decide… I am desperately buying time.

Sunset on Trango Towers. Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

In the evening, C fumbles through our extensive meds list, and, lo and behold, finds an antibiotic against lung infection! The pill is the size of her thumb though and for someone with a massive pill phobia, taking the meds becomes a drama of its own.

Our trek is saved, at least for now!

A couple of cool Nepali dudes materialize out of thin air, running up the mountains and heading to K2 base camp the following day, or something crazy like that. They are part of an international team called Project Possible to summit all fourteen eight-thousanders within a single seven-month season. They just pocket the Killer Mountain, Nanga Parbat, and are now en route to climb K2, Broad Peak, G1 and G2! They are stopping in Urdukas because their porters are “too slow”! Oh, the ease, elegance, and joy with which they climb!

Sunset on Trango Towers. Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 12: Day 12. Sunny. Trek day 7: Urdukas. Rest day.

It is strange to feel “left behind” as groups leave early for the next camp each morning. There really isn’t much to do at camp for a second rest day. I feel rested and climatized enough to take my camera out and wander around, taking portraits of porters making kourba (local bread) or chapatti, attending their horses, washing, singing, and dancing. The Balti porters are really quite something, with so much strength, resilience, and grace!

Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

There is this 60-plus year-old legendary singer and porter, Ali, who sings the saddest love song in Balti (his wife left him and, having no children to depend on for his old age, he is still portering at his advanced age). It is the singularly most touching moment on the trek…

Porter Ali singing the saddest Balti love songs. Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Porter Ali singing the saddest Balti love songs. Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Porter Ali singing the saddest Balti love songs. Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Porter Ali singing the saddest Balti love songs. Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Porter Ali dancing. Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Porter Ali. Porter Urdukas camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Just before dinner, we see Abuzzer and Mohammed – M’s 2 porters – reaching camp. M is returning from Goro II! Something in her must have snapped for her to give up the trek. It’s freezing cold in Goro II, her coat and sleeping bag were wet, and her cough got worse. At three in the morning, she made the decision to turn back.

Meanwhile, the antibiotic does magic. C’s chest pain eases. We are going up…!

July 13: Day 13. Sunny. Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II, 8h.

5am wake up call. A long trek to Goro II. It is the most beautiful day so far, with the mighty Baltoro twisting and turning, forming surrealistic ice caps and islands along the way. First glimpse of magnificent Broad Peak finally! At 4000m plus altitude, each step is a little labor, but the landscape is so mesmerizing that you just keep plodding on!

Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
C admiring the panorama! Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Lunch stop before reaching Goro II. Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The most scenic lunch! Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The mighty Baltoro! Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Trek day 8: Urdukas to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

C’s chest pain is under control, but now she developes pounding headaches. We are one day away from Concordia – the confluence of four glaciers with the view of K2, Broad Peak, G1 and G2, plus so many more peaks – but all my daughter talks about is going down! P reminds us of our family agreement that if one gets sick, everyone goes down. He is thinking ahead about potential evacuation, by army helicopter!

Headaches are normal, I try to reassure my daughter. Neither of my kids have been to that kind of altitude; I understand why she quietly panics.

We go to bed – on ice – not knowing whether we would continue or return. On K2 base camp trek, each day is a test of will and is almost always filled with little, if not big, drama.

Sleeping on ice! Goro II Camp. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 14: Day 14. Sunny. Trek day 9: Goro II – Concordia – Goro II, on horses!

Neither Advil nor ibuprofen works; C awakes with severe headaches. All of our oxygen level remains normal, so I am not alarmed yet. But it has become amply clear that we would never make it to the Gondogoro pass, or even K2 base camp. The question is whether we would head back down now, or find a way to Concordia. Hameed proposes an ingenious horse-riding day trip. We would be able to see everything, without jeopardizing my daughter’s health, since we would be descending immediately afterwards!

The view from Goro II! Goro II Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Getting the horses ready to head up to Concordia. Goro II Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

And so thanks to my daughter, we enjoy a splendid, effortless, memorable July 14, surrounded by 7000m and 8000m peaks in one of the most remote and majestic mountain ranges in the world!

Just a little family outing to Concordia to see K2 and four of the biggest glaciers in the world!

Concordia, here we come! Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
En route to Concordia. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
En route to Concordia. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
En route to Concordia. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
En route to Concordia. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Imagine our joy when we finally have our first glimpse of K2 – so inaccessible and well hidden till the very end – this mountain of all mountains that has drawn the best climbers from all over the world since the first expedition by Duke Abruzzi in 1920 and first successful summit by Italians Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni in 1954…

Finnally, the view of K2! Concordia, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
View of K2! Concordia, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
View of K2! Concordia, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
P juggling in front of K2! Concordia, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Concordia, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Concordia, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The trek back to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The trek back to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

On our way down, we see Y and M from the other trekking party. They look exhausted from their day trek to K2 BC and are not continuing to Gondogoro-la, not for the lack of will or strength, but their guide said he had no “rescue team money” (not true) and their porters refused to go. Seeing us riding horses with big smiles, M says, I would not take a picture with you, cheaters!

Hameed gives us the warmest welcome upon our return to Goro II Camp. It’s a freezing cold night sleeping on ice. I catch a cold that would plague me the whole way down!

The trek back to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The trek back to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The trek back to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The trek back to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
The trek back to Goro II. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Welcome back! Goro II Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 15: Day 15. Sunny. Trek day 10: Goro II to Urdukas, 6.5h.

There’s something about coming down a mountain. The drive, competition, and tension are gone. You’re heading home. Even the muscles seem to know and relax a little. I slept badly due to the cold and hike like a snail, which annoy my children a great deal. We are back to Urdukas and are happy to no longer sleep on ice. C’s headache is gone! Climb up, sleep down…

C to me: Why are you doing P’s laundry?

P to C: Why are you picking on me all day?

C to P: What are you talking about?

P to me: She didn’t even apologize. We couldn’t go to K2 BC because she has been sick the whole time!

C: I didn’t choose to be sick…

Time to get all the pent-up frustration out. I already accepted the fact that we were not going to cross the Gondogoro or head to K2 base camp or any other base camp. We did our best and that is good enough. I’m pretty certain I would never return to do this trek a second time. P says he might. C mentions about returning as a summer medic, based out of Concordia. She would have to overcome her massive pill phobia though…

Chef Nabi prepares us a feast: corn and egg soup, potato wedges, and curry rice, our little pleasures on the Baltoro glacier!

The luxury of having a glacial sponge bath! Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 16: Day 16. Sunny. Trek day 11: Urdukas: Rest day!  

Since we are not trekking to any base camp or crossing the high pass, we have plenty of time to kill. The Urdukas Camp is bustling all day; porters always arrive first, followed by the trekkers. Each time, we are asked how far we went.

Concordia? No K2? No Gondogoro? 

Because my daughter was sick. 

I remember what the French climber, Maurice Herzog, said, a few hundred feet shy of reaching Annapurna, It’s more important to be true than to be strong. But then I wasn’t the one being blamed for…!

From Urdukas to Khorbutse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Claire happily descending! From Urdukas to Khorbutse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

July 17: Day 17. Sunny. Trek day 12: Urdukas to Khorbutse, 4h.

Yeh, we spent the last cold night at 4000m! 6am wake up call and 7:30am departure for the flies-infested camp.

This is a particularly rocky stretch. If you have never stared at rocks for an extended period of time – and have to find your footing on each step – let me tell you that it’s an exhausting enterprise. After an hour or two of nonstop boulder-stepping, with a moving glacier underneath, your legs no longer obey you!

Paul descending on the interminable Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Claire descending on the interminable Baltoro glacier. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Hameed showing us how to lean on. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Army helicopters shuffle along the valley. We heard that it would be K2 summit night and that several teams are already at Camp 4. Perfect blue sky.

Two weeks ago, an avalanche hit the Khorbutse Camp and a Polish trekking party was completely shaken by the experience. No more Gondogoro after that!

Chefs Nabi and Essa prepare us another feast for lunch: samosas and chai. No spice on the way up for fear of upset stomach, but now we could eat to our hearts’ content, except that I customarily expire after 6pm.

From Urdukas to Khorbutse. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Army helicopter along the Karakoram. Pakistan. 2019.

July 18: Day 18. Sunny. Trek day 13: Khorbutse to Paiu, 8h.

5am wake up call. Sweet porridge, egg, and paratha bread. 6:15am departure.

The excitement of today is to find out if anyone summited K2 last night. No news so far… We gladly say goodbye to the Baltoro monster. It never feels this good to be back to terra firma!

Goat slaughter and distribution in Paiu Camp today! Porters are entitled a portion of goat every week (so twice on a typical trek program), or you can cash in that money. It is an elaborate and meticulous exercise in order to be fair. Hameed failed to secure us a chicken on the way in and so no one on our team including our hardworking porters has had any meat so far. His buddies pass on a few pieces of fresh goat though and Nabi excitedly roasts them in a big pot of oil.

Goat slaughtering and distribution for porters at Paiu Camp. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Back to Paiu Camp. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

For some unknown reason – probably to cut costs! – our guide decided in Askole to carry only one mess tent which has been used by the chef. At 4000m plus, we had 6am breakfast in the cold, lunch with direct hi-altitude sun, and shivering dinners. Two weeks into our trek, we finally have our own mess tent (the kitchen team retreats to stone houses). It feels good to be able to relax and journal there. Unfortunately, this might also be where we catch our first flea bites!

July 19: Day 19. Overcast, then sunny. Trek day 14: Paiu to Bardumal, 3.5h.

6am wake up call and departure at eight. It is a relaxing, short trek today to a mid-camp in Bardumal. Our porter-horsemen want to return to Askole asap because they are paid by stages, but our guide and chef are paid by days. We are definitely taking our time to go down the Karakoram.

The porters arrive at camp in the morning, looking utterly bored. Essa captures a lizard and ties him on a leash. Then the kids and the porters spend the entire afternoon exercising, doing splits and long jumps, magic, singing etc. with roaring laughter. It is our best day with the porters…

Essa might be strong, but C is more flexible! Bardumal Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Long jump: our porter Pidarli wins. Bardumal Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019
Essa weighing P. Bardumal Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Bardumal Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Until a dozen of Pakistani men arrive late at camp, planting themselves right in front of our tents with no guide, porters, or camping equipment. They ask our porters where we are from: Canada. As night falls, my anxiety gets worse. Bardumal is a mid-camp unfrequented by trekking parties; we are the only foreign tourists. Hameed, always sleeping in the open, moves his sleeping bag in front of our tents, but remembering the massacre of trekkers in Fairy Meadows a few years back, I imagine the worse…

July 20: Day 20. Sunny. Trek day 15: Baldumal to Korophong via Jula, 7h.

Morning finally comes! Nothing happened: no slit throats or kidnapping!

We walk all morning along the river until we reach the Jula camp (where I was so sick on the way in). Lunch is hot potato, boiled egg, tuna (gift of porter Akbar), and Maggie noodle soup. C and P try Essa’s 30kg load, for a fraction of a second, and are instantly disqualified as porters!

C trying Essa’s load. Jula Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
P trying Essa’s load. Jula Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Shortly before arriving at mid-camp Korophong, we see the Hispar glacier, the start of the famous Snow Lake trek (not for the faint-hearted). We met a young Australian couple in Urdukas who were doing the K2 BC trek AND then the Snow Lake trek. Now, that’s ambitious!

This is one of the most enjoyable trek days: no more moving, menacing glacier or interminable boulders. The sandy path literally feels carpeted!

Chatting about Balti porter politics with Hameed. Korophong Camp. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Over afternoon snacks of pakoras and chai, Hameed and I discuss about Balti porter politics. Balti guides are not unionized (why not? The famous Chamonix guides come to mind!) but the porters are. Unfortunately, due to corruption, the porter union is not really functional. Wages are more or less regulated: 1500 rupees (US$10) per stage (about 12 stages from Askole to Concordia). So, on average, a porter would earn something like USD240 for a round trip. Guides’ wages vary from 1500 to 4000R/day, depending on age and experience. Government regulations mandate 1000R for shoes for porters for each trek, but we see them wear slippers, sandals, or basic plastic shoes, often without socks…

There’s no question about the poverty level of Balti porters who have to make their seasonal earnings from June to October to last the whole year. There are few alternative employment along the Shigar Valley. Would a micro-credit program work here? How about sustainable, co-op agriculture and handicraft trade, like some entrepreneurial Hunza villagers have done? And healthcare? There are only two dispensaries and one medical officer along the entire Shigar Valley, I am told. To access care, villagers have to head to the hospitals in Shigar or Skardu… Poverty always looks similar worldwide; it’s a bundle of problems from un/der-employment to sanitation, schooling, healthcare, and gender equality. Yes, all the guides and porters are men; Balti women are confined to housekeeping and agricultural work.

July 21: Day 21. Sunny. Trek day 16: Korophong to Askole, 3h.

Last trek morning begins with gifts: we give everything we no longer need to our team: a down jacket, fleece sweater, hiking pants, wool undershirt and socks, headlamps, camp shoes…

An extremely pleasant stroll along a sandy path. Signing out of the trekking office. Arriving at camp early and not tired. Hameed celebrates the occasion by buying a chicken, and apprentice chef Nabi makes it 3 ways: roast in deep oil, boil, and biryani.

We have our first shower since we don’t remember when!

At the Askole general store: celebrating end of trek with a chicken feast. Askole, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan.

July 22: Day 22. Sunny. Askole to Skardu, by jeep.

Our driver-guide, Ehsan, drove on the scary Skardu-Askole road from 5pm till midnight (that sounds like a suicide mission to us) so that he could come pick us up early in the morning! Last camp breakfast of porridge, eggs, paratha, and tea.

We say goodbye to the Karakoram and are happy to visit the families of our guide, porters, and driver. On the trek, we forget that they are fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles. It is wonderful to see them in their element, surrounded by their families.

Chez Essa. Youno village, Shigar Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. 2019.
Chez Hameed. Shigar Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. 2019.
With Hameed’s large family. Shigar Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. 2019.

July 23: Day 23. Sunny. Skardu.

Back to a hotel in Skardu. Long (still cold) shower, massive washing, good food, last-minute souvenir hunting… all the comforts of civilization!

P with Guide Ehsan’s father and cap maker. Skardu, Pakistan. 2019.

Day 24, July 24. Skardu to Islamabad, PIA flight.

PIA flight feels safer than the road (well, it’s all relative!). Bonus: an above-the-cloud view of Nanga Parbat!

Braving the PIA! Back to Islamabad. Skardu, Pakistan. 2019.
View of Nanga Parbat (8126m). Pakistan. 2019.

July 25: Day 25. Islamabad.

Long (hot) shower. Emails, whatsapp, IG, blog, last biryani!

July 26: Day 26. Islamabad.

An afternoon expedition to the Pakistani Post to ship our duffels back to Canada. The customs officer examines each item with microscopic precision.

Watching K2: Siren of the mountain and K2: The Killer Summit. The name K2 now means something to us!

July 27: Day 27. Islamabad. 

Our trekking agency has not settled our hotel bill fully and we wait till 11pm for our airport pick up. Trekking agency: Vertical Explorers. Rating: Zero. Absolutely NOT recommended.

We say goodbye to Pakistan. Our thanks to the entire team who made this trek possible!

Our team, from right to left – Hameed, Essa, Nabi, and Pidarli – at Urdukas Camp. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Driver-guide, Ehsan. Naran highway, Pakistan. 2019.
Porter-horseman Akbar. Urdukas Camp, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Our favourite porter, Essa. Baltoro Glaicer, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
C in Urdukas Camp. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
P, the juggler and vlogger. Goro II, Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

As well as all the donors who supported our peace trek to raise funds for Syrian and Palestinian refugee families living in camps in Lebanon!

So our five 8000m peak base camp trek – K2, Broad Peak, G1, G2, and Nanga Parbat – ends up being a ZERO 8000m peak base camp trek! But like Charles Houston said, To me, K2, though a failure, was a glorious epiphany. It is all about the process and experience, and not giving up!

I dedicate this blog post to Balti guides and porters without whom no one could see these absolutely awe-inspiring and life-changing mountains.

Balti porter. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Balti poter. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Balti porter. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Balti porter. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Balti porters. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Balti porters. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.
Balti porters. Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

Postscript: In 2021, the story of Project Possible is documented in 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible, directed by Torquil Jones.

If you set your mind to something

you can achieve it

– no matter who you are and where you come from.

– Nimsdai, Nepali Sherpa who summited all 14 peaks above 8000m within 7 months

C & P admiring Broad Peak! Karakoram, Pakistan. 2019.

All Content © 2022 by Jennifer Chan