June 12/15 – Coming Down

Mitre Peak through the flurry

I didn’t really sleep last night… I rested in my heavy down parka and snow pants while getting up frequently to check the view. Sometimes I could tell the weather was bad without looking outside just by the sound of snowflakes falling on our tent. There was no sign of a clearing and I finally gave in and dozed off for a couple hours before getting up for good at 5 am. As soon as I opened the tent door I saw a brief window of opportunity. Most of K2 was visible, with the exception of the peak.

The trail which I had pioneered through the snow pack was still in good shape and I grabbed the camera and tripod before racing down to the end of it. On the way there I needed to decide what should be done first. With so many different photo goals not yet accomplished, I settled on getting the time lapse photos first. With any luck I’d get to see K2 clear up during the 20 minutes needed to get enough photos for a decent video. After that I could try for a Panorama and HDR. As the camera was shooting and I was planning my next move, the weather took a turn for the worse. My photos would go from almost a clear view of K2 to a gray blur. Below is the draft outcome of this shoot, with the photos in reverse order because it’s less depressing that way.

It was sad to see the monster peak disappear, but it was a fitting conclusion. There was no reason for us to hang around any longer in these subzero temps with all the scenery hidden. We packed up our goods and took off by 6:30 am. We discussed the return trip quite a bit yesterday and were tempted to go all the way to Urdokas on the first day. The porters tried to discourage us from this long of a trip, but by now we had a good idea of what we were capable of. It was the Army soldiers we spoke to who convinced us the trek from Concordia to Urdokas was too long for a single day. They were usually very optimistic in their time projections, often unrealistic for us, so we relented and settled on Goro I for the night. Ignoring our instincts turned out to be a mistake because we reached our camp shortly after 2. We could have easily gone for a couple more hours to Urdokas after resting for a day. In fact, the 2 Canadians had done that and were now ahead of us.

Strapping up the gators

The next morning (June 13) was the only day of the trip that our porters were ready to go before we were. Temperatures were still freezing and I think they were looking forward to getting off this glacier even more than I was looking forward to a hot shower. Before 6 AM we were on the trail to Liligo. A light snow followed us for almost the entire day. It wasn’t until we took a break to eat lunch that the weather cleared up briefly before turning into a drizzle of rain. The long day spent hiking over rough terrain was wearing on our support team. Instead of pushing onto Liligo and getting camp set up ahead of our arrival, as they normally did, they stopped where we had lunch and wanted to know if we’d rather camp there. None of us considered that idea seriously, and I was still annoyed with giving in and stopping so early yesterday. I munched a sardine and passed the can around to the others before handing it off to our main porter (MH2) to polish off. He created a Pakistani fish burrito by wrapping the cold sardines in a greasy paratha before inhaling the meal. The man with the iron stomach then washed it down with some nearby stream water before lifting his 60 lb backpack in place for the last push of the day.

Masherbrum and Goro 1 camp at night

We arrived in camp about the same time as yesterday, but this time we beat our porters and had to sit around twiddling our thumbs until the gear arrived an hour later. While doing so I noticed that my my hands were about 6 shades darker than my arms, my skin was cracked and dry, and my nails were dirty and broken. The transition from modern day human being to caveman was rapidly progressing. Why hadn’t any of us brought a single pair of fingernail clippers?? I pondered how long the assimilation process would take once we returned to society. Normal discussions at dinnertime now included things like “I finally took a monster dump today”. It began to rain as soon as camp was set up and the storm only grew stronger throughout the evening. With the first of our 2 consecutive tough days over, we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags at 8 pm.

Stars above the Karakorum

When we woke up at 4 am the next morning (June 14th) there was a light frost covering the ground. I put on one of the 2 pairs of damp pants and a fleece which I had been wearing for the last couple weeks. Thank goodness we only had one more night in tents to look forward to. The cook was slow and held us up for over an hour while he prepared our boiled eggs and boxed lunches. Once we got going, MH1 led us over a well defined trail cutting across the Baltoro glacier. We asked him why we hadn’t taken this route the first time rather than stumbling randomly over loose piles of scree. After trying to deny it was different and claiming that the trail is constantly shifting, he admitted to being lost when we came across this portion on the way up. I was glad for the easy going morning and we ended up making it off the glacier by 8 am.

Crossing the Indus

When we landed up in Paiju I took advantage of the facilities to switch into a pair of clean cargo shorts. Walking in them with the cool air on my legs felt great after being bundled up in sweaty pants for so long. The rain finally stopped and the sun came out making me feel even smarter for the wardrobe change. The porters again tried to persuade us into stopping early at lunch. MH1 had 2 wives and 9 kids waiting for him at home, maybe he just wanted to savor the peace and quiet out here for an extra day. No such luck, however, as we told them to shuffle their stiff bodies to Jhula for the night. Our guide even tried to deter us by saying he heard that Jhula was full of tents already. The company of other trekkers actually sounded good to us so that plan ended up backfiring.

Wind whipping up dust on the riverbed

View from Jhula camp

A stiff wind kicked up during the afternoon session. Dust was picked up from the Indus river bottom and scoured my face. Some type of flying insect took advantage of the condition and used the gusts to propel their migration upstream. My focus shifted from managing fatigue to trying not to inhale any bugs. It turned out to be a good distraction because we rounded a bed and camp was right in front of our eyes. There were quite a few tents there, but the site had plenty of room for all. When we got there a storm shower kicked in and we dubbed ourselves to be “The Rain Bringers”. Every night since June 8th it had either rained or snowed on us.

The 3 other groups in camp were Pakistani, French, and Iranian. The rain kept everyone inside their tents for most the night and that prevented us from any real socializing. We were surprised to hear that the Canadian women already passed through camp. Our pace was intense over the last  couple days and I expected to catch those 2 here. Most healthy trekkers come down in five days compared the the 3 1/2 days we were shooting for. Everyone was stoked to be so close to the comforts we used to take for granted. While we were reminiscing about this grand achievement, MH2 poked his head inside the mess tent to lecture us about silly things we had brought or done. He laughed as he told us that our brain-dead guide and the well-meaning coordinator had combined to make us all crazy. It was clear that he understood more english than he had led us to believe, because he understood that we were constantly frustrated with these guys… maybe all our four-letter words were universal across languages.

Pakistan colors

We hit the trail at 5:30 am on the 15th and passed the Canadians after a couple hours. One of them had met up with her boyfriend who was going to climb a peak in the area. They were lounging by a stream as we blazed past them in a rush to get home. Knowing that we secured a first place finish in the race from Concordia was personally satisfying. I found that we were outpacing the porters at this stage which was reasonable since they had lugged around 50+ pounds on their back for the better part of 2 weeks… All for about 500 rupees ($5 US) per porter per day, by the way.

We reached Askole in 5 hours, dropped our packs by the jeep, and raced over to Korphe. When we visited the CAI school before, it had be closed for a Shia holiday. We wanted to see the children and take photos so that we could honestly support Greg Mortenson in the face of his recent detractors. I was already dying from the pace that we set and my wife wasn’t in any better shape. Despite the fatigue we forced ourselves to race over to the school before they got out at noon (Friday is a short day). We could hear the singing voices of kids before we were even within site of the building. As we opened the gate and entered the grounds I saw about 80 young boys in uniform facing their instructors. We begged them to continue their songs and asked permission to take a few quick photos. Just glancing in the girls classroom, I could see there was roughly half the number of girls than boys. They too were singing but were too shy to carry on while we were present. I thanked MH1 as we left… content that our support for CAI has been justified.

Korphe boys busting rhymes

Girls are always so shy and innocent (yeah right)

Loading the jeeps took way too long. It was the last thing between me and hot showers and cold drinks. Kacho suggested that we jump in the vehicle with him and that the other jeep with our supplies would follow behind. As tempting as this was, we had learnt not to trust the guide on the first day and decided to stick around for everything to be loaded. While waiting we tipped the 2 porters which had stuck with us throughout and essentially acted as our guide since Kacho was so incompetent. They quickly pocketed the 1000 rupees each. I asked MH1 how long he would be resting before heading off again and he stated that he’d go tomorrow if there is a group that needs him.

Twenty miles an hour in a jeep feels considerably faster after 2 weeks of struggling across riverbeds and glaciers. We were going to be home in less than 5 hours the way Kacho was driving. It was too bad the driver with our supplies couldn’t keep up. When we were nearing Shigar we forced Kacho to pull over and wait for his partner. As we were on hold, a feminine young guy came up to my open window and offered me some mulberries on a leaf. I repeatedly said “no thank you”, but he didn’t get the hint. The guy said something in Urdu which my sister-in-law said was a plea for me to get out and go eat in the shade with him. It was a relief to know that, despite my serious BO and desperate need of a shave, I was still attractive to someone. The others convinced my new friend to buzz off and we gave up waiting.

Bashed up bozos

We forced Kacho to turn back and find the other vehicle before they offloaded all our stuff somewhere. MH1 was in that other vehicle and I suspected he was involved in trying to scam us again. My brother-in-law and I were both looking forward to punching this guy in the face as soon as we found him. When we finally spotted their jeep putting along the windshield was missing and the front bumper was caved in. MH1 hopped out of the passenger seat grasping an already bloody nose. I laughed at the karma of it all and noticed that he also seemed to be nursing a new shoulder injury. The driver had been rounding a corner too fast at the same time another car was rounding the same corner too fast, but in the opposite direction. Their radiator was busted and it would be hours before they’d be able to make it to Skardu. At last, survival of the fittest mentality overruled our good sense to watch over our belongings. We took our personal bags with valuables and strapped them to the roof of the vehicle before leaving them to their misery.

Veni, vidi, vici

Tall-tales by the fire

Soon after dark we pulled into Shangrila where family and friends were waiting in anticipation. Despite our rough appearance and even rougher odor, they welcomed us with open arms and reluctantly gave us permission to take a quick shower before telling them all the stories… but, not before my mother-in-law snapped a photo of us in full-on grunge mode.

As the warm water washed away all the sweat and grime, I had no inclination to ever embark on the Concordia trip again. Without a doubt it was an amazing and a once in a lifetime experience. We came away with more stories than I ever wanted thanks to characters like Kacho and MH1. Rather than repeat the adventure, I’d rather go somewhere new because seeing anything for the second time doesn’t have the same impact. After a much needed shave I went out to join the others for a cold drink by the campfire. With each consecutive memory that we shared I felt the aversion towards another Concordia trip start to slowly fade. Perhaps in another decade or so I’ll be itching to lace up the hiking boots for one more expedition up the Baltoro glacier.

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June 11 – The Modest Mountain

Ice on the waiting room floor

The good news was that it felt great to take it easy after hiking 50 miles over rough terrain while gaining 5000 ft of elevation over the past 6 days. I woke up with another dull headache from sleeping at 15,000 ft, but a couple ibuprofen quickly made the pain fade away. The bad news was that it was snowing and completely overcast when we woke in the morning. Not only was the savage mountain covered up, but so were most of the surrounding monsters that helped to make the views from Concordia so famous. Six of the world’s 20 highest mountains surrounded our campsite and all I was looking at was a wall of gray.

We shifted into standby mode inside our mess tent. I drank coffee while catching up on journal entries and discussing the foods we’d eat once back to civilization. There was little doubt in my mind that we’d get a few opportunities for more photos today. Yesterday proved just how quickly the weather could transition from miserable to pristine.

Around lunch there appeared to be a break in the weather developing. The snow flurries had subsided and patches of blue sky were beginning to shine through the ceiling of dark clouds. I surveyed the area and decided upon the best spot to set up my tripod. Once I settled on the place, I had to carve a trail through the fresh snow pack. I took the large trekking poles we had and began using them and my hiking boots to compact a trail to the desired location. Walking on solid flat ground here was enough to take the wind out of a person, trudging through a 1/4 mile of knee-high snow would be exhausting and could prevent me from getting into position in time for an epic photo. There were several things still on my photography to-do list, like: 360 degree panorama of Concordia, an HDR of K2, and collecting a series of shots for compilation as a time-lapse video. If I was really lucky, I’d also get to do some night-time photography in clear weather. The North Star was positioned close to K2 and the combination of the 2 would make for an awesome star-trail shot.

Lonesome frozen tripod

Sadly a real clearing never developed and I was forced back into the mess tent as the snow picked back up. At least I was able to complete my trail and even cleared a spot to place the tripod. We went back to drinking coffee and tea to stay warm. Soon our French neighbor, Christain stopped by to join in on the festivities. He didn’t show it, but he must have been a bit disappointed with our icy floors and drab interior after partying at the Canadian tent yesterday. Last night their tent was full of lively silhouettes and gave off a warm glow that made us envious as we tucked into our dark dome tents to sleep.

French Canadian party tent

Christian was definitely an interesting guy; one of the few foreigners I’ve met who have been to Pakistan more times that myself. This was his 10th time in the country. I glanced at his hands and then asked him if he lost any toes or suffered frostbite during either of his K2 expeditions. The likelihood of permanent bodily damage like that is a serious deterrent for me… in addition all the training and expenses involved with summiting the big peaks. He said he had always been very careful about those things and hadn’t suffered any loss of digits. His knowledge of Pakistan government and the people here was impressive, despite some confusion of associating all Pashtuns with Taliban culture. Needless to say, my Pashtun counterparts in the tent had to clear up that misguided generalization. Christian was curious about Greg Mortenson (or as he called him, “Mr. Mortimer”) since his organization was also involved with funding school projects in Pakistan. We let him know that we had toured the Korphe school and found it to be the real deal. The group he was involved with goes by the name of “Solidarity Kashmir” and the Frenchman mentioned several different schools that they helped fund. We shared contact information and agreed to try and stop by a few of those schools for him to make sure their money was being well spent.

Most of the day looked like this

After bidding adieu to our new friend, we headed over to the Canadian tent to see if we couldn’t make a few more buddies. When we peaked inside the Canucks were nowhere to be found, but the tour operator ushered us inside anyway. He offered us warm drinks and chatted up my sister-in-law. They were from the same area, Nagar, and he knew her family. My wife and I took advantage of the hospitality to help ourselves to hot chocolate. Pretty soon the Canadian women came in and introduced themselves. They were French  Canadians, but one of them spoke fluent english. It turns out that they had climbed Mt. Everest last summer. We were impressed by this, but also joked that climbing Everest must be about the same level of difficulty as getting to K2 basecamp. When I asked what they thought of their first trip to Pakistan, they both said that it’s been a blast and that everyone they’ve met has been especially friendly. The guides and the women in the tent also had a good laugh at the French team that stopped by yesterday and refused to leave until late at night. Their big plans to go back the scenic way, over Gondogoro La, were shot due to the nasty weather and they would be heading back the same way as us tomorrow. With that news, we decided not to impose any longer and said that maybe we’d see them on the trail home.

The crappy weather was unyielding. Since there was no clearing in sight, I went to bed soon after dark and set my alarm to go off in a couple hours. It was our last night here and I was going to wake up frequently overnight to make sure that I didn’t miss any last chance photo ops.

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Our easy stroll for the day and the planned 7 am start time suffered an immediate setback. Upon opening the tent flap in the morning I was greeted with a bright white landscape. A couple inches of snow covered everything in sight and the white stuff was still falling down. We huddled inside the mess tent for breakfast and MH2 recommended we wait out the storm before making a move. Since the snow was pretty light, I wasn’t worried and expected the storm to pass by pretty quickly. I started to get concerned when our little dusting turned into a mini-blizzard, forcing me to get up every once in awhile to shake the snow off the tent roof. The parallels between our situation and the Donner party were close enough to make us all jokingly plan for the worst. After all, those pioneers were also led into a wicked blizzard by an idiot who claimed to know the best route across the Sierra Nevada despite never following the route himself. Kacho had given us the same sense of confidence until we showed up and found out he hadn’t been to the area for a decade. Luckily, the weather cleared at 9:30 am… just as we had settled on eating my youngest brother-in-law first.

A winter’s morning in June

The skies cleared up nicely for us and I began to have high hopes (no pun intended) for the sights we’d see today. After hiking for an hour and a half, we sat down for a short breather. This is where I noticed a stiff breeze picking up and dark clouds moving our direction. The next 3 hours quickly evolved into a gusty blizzard with visibility dropping to less than 100 ft at times. Both of the girls put on gators to keep their feet dry as we trudged through fresh knee-high snow.

Final bathroom break at Goro

I didn’t understand why it was taking us so long to reach camp. The trek was only supposed to be 4 hours long today so I had just put my head down and tried to think happy thoughts. When we were an hour past the expected duration, MH1 admitted that he had gotten lost in the storm. All of his usual reference points were covered up as well as the trail. This turned our expected 9 km hike into a 13 km weave. Skies finally cleared again just in time for us to break for a lunch of boiled eggs and potatoes.

End of the blizzard

Camp came into sight soon after lunch and I began looking to my left as we approached the tents. K2 was over there somewhere and I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to get it on film… or some sort of digital media. I caught the peak right before the clouds rushed in. What really caught my interest was where our dream team had set up camp. It had to be the worst location possible and I wondered if it even counted as Concordia. Even in crystal clear weather, I’d have to hike another 45 minutes past camp just to get a good photograph of K2. There were a couple more groups currently at camp and they were all well beyond our site. I wasn’t the only one disappointed with the arrangement and we agreed to make the team pack up and move. We’d be here for 2 nights and the extra effort would be worth it.

While investigating the best place to relocate, we bumped into a team of Pakistanis. They were operating a tourism company and were here with a couple of Canadians. I didn’t get to meet the Canadians, but the guides were friendly. We listened to the gorgeous views they had earlier in the day with envy and pushed by to find a spot for ourselves. Just a few hundred feet past their tents we spotted a flat area of prime real estate. I helped the porters break apart the thin layer of ice where I wanted my tent and we smoothed out the ground. From the smell of ash and the garbage strewn about, I could tell this served as someone’s burn pile. Mule crap also littered the site, but we were all willing to suffer these small inconveniences for the prospect of such a promising view.

The moment we’ve all been waiting for

I tried unsuccessfully to nap until 6 pm. Shouts and excitement brought me out of my lethargic trance and I looked outside and was welcomed to a crisp-clear 360 degree view of Concordia. Our brain-dead cook was suddenly struck with a bout of perfect english and began to name every single peak in sight. Another one of our porters admitted that this was his first trip to Concordia and just kept repeating K2 while pointing in its direction. Before I could get the tripod set up, a group of 3 french mountaineers came by and introduced themselves. They were the friends of the other frenchmen we met yesterday… I forget all of their names, but the one who spoke for the group said his name was Christain. We told him that we were just ameteurs here for the view while he explained that they were going to be there for another month before attempting to summit G4. At the instant they pointed at G4, an avalanche was triggered and a massive cloud of snow rushed down the steep slope. We all watched the scene unfold from a safe distance before returning our attention to K2 and photography.Christain had tried twice before to summit the monster without success.

Left to right: K2, Broad Peak, French guys

The temperature began to drop before the sun even ducked behind the Karakorum for the night. Before saying goodbye, Christain had told us it was already -10 degrees celsius. Thank goodness the coordinator insisted we bring the heavy down snow gear despite my reluctance at first. I would have survived with my regular snow jacket, but I would have been miserable at night. Having taken a few good photos of the mountain, we ducked into the shelter of our mess tent for the evening. Everyone was thrilled to have seen K2 on the first night, but we were also exhausted from pushing through the blizzard. The 15,000 ft elevation of camp added to our exhaustion. Maybe that’s why I stayed inside and ignored my instinct to take advantage of the clear skies for some nighttime photography. Kacho somehow made us tasty goat curry even though the animal was sacrificed days ago. We gobbled up the steaming meal while revelling in our good fortune to have already seen the 2nd highest peak in the world.

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June 9 – Goro (Gore II)

Graves of 3 porters killed in rock slide

The cold temperatures and snow flurries drove everyone to bed early last night. I woke up feeling 100% again, but the girls were both suffering from stomach problems. It was a good thing we brought a fully stocked first aid kit with plenty of medicines for whatever ailed us.

On the way out of Urdokas we passed by 3 marked graves of porters killed by a rock slide at camp. MH2 pointed out the huge rock that crushed them and gave more gruesome details about the tragedy than I care to repeat. As many hurdles as we had faced so far, I was thankful that we were all in fairly good health. An injury could prematurely end our adventure at any moment. We were looking forward to hot showers, but not at the expense of turning back early.

We descended back onto the glacier and started burning off a few calories again. Conditions were mostly the same as yesterday, maybe worse since more of the hike was on scree. Plus, we were a 1000′ higher now with even less oxygen in the air. A team of Pakistani soldiers crossed paths with us around lunchtime and offered us a cool drink of something like gatorade. They were coming down from a  high elevation camp and seemed excited to see some Pakistanis making the Concordia trek. Most teams are composed of foreigners like me or Pakistanis from big cities like Lahore or Karachi… which might as well be a foreign country to many of the troops posted here.

After lunch we ran into a group of Frenchmen and Pakistani friend coming down from Concordia. They went up with some other friends who were preparing to summit Broad Peak or one of the Gasherbrums, I forget which. I was happy that they spoke english well and I could actually communicate without a translator. The only time their French accents were noticeable was when they spotted my trekking pole which doubles as an ice axe. Admittedly, it’s pretty cool and lighter than it sounds since the handle is made of bamboo.

The weather was beautiful for us, especially in the latter half of the day. Masherbrum was almost fully visible to our right, and Gasherbrum IV (G4) towered ahead of us. I wished we were already in Concordia taking advantage of this weather and posing next to K2. My worst fear at this stage was to land up there and not get a single photo of K2 due to a shift in weather. A news network in Pakistan had recently spent an entire week in Concordia waiting for a series of storms to pass by. They ended up leaving without ever getting a clear shot of “The Savage Mountain”.

Goro camp with Masherbrum in the distance

We landed up at Goro camp around 2:30 after hiking 12 km. The porters had everything all set up by the time we got to the campsite and I was happy to see a couple outhouses maintained by a Keep K2 Clean organization. My GPS showed that we would be sleeping and pooping at an elevation of 14,100 ft tonight. With clear skies it was likely to be another cold evening so we asked Kacho to prepare soup for us. He then told us he had left our entire stock of soup packets behind. By now this didn’t surprise me and I had already given up trying to understand how we found this fool anyway. All I knew was that we were a single day away from Concordia. Our goal was just a few kilometers away with only a short hike between us and what is referred to as “The throne room of the mountain gods”.

Gasherbrum IV punching through the clouds

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June 8 – Urdokas

Waking up night after night in a damp tent was already becoming tiresome and we still had 10 more days to look forward to on the trail before returning to the creature comforts of modern life. I was convinced that most of the moisture in our tent was due to our breathing and perspiration, but it was cold enough outside to prevent me from leaving the doors and windows open to test the theory. I chose warmth over dryness.

Crossing a sand dune early in the day

We did well to leave camp at 5:30 after eating a simple breakfast of boiled eggs and parathas: of course I abstained from the flat little grease cakes. Actually, I did try to force one down but quickly gave up after noticing that the cook had somehow got sand in the flour. The gritty texture of dirt between my teeth not only made the paratha inedible, but nearly caused me to bring up the egg I just devoured. More and more of our discussions revolved around hot showers and sleeping in real beds. Meanwhile, the effects of my cold weren’t helping my morale today.

As our porter liked to say “rest karo”

This section had a reputation for being rough and I could see why. The trail over the glacier was better defined than yesterday, yet stumbling over the rocks and ice was tiresome at such a high elevation. It was good that we knew what to expect because we were all prepared for a long day. Weather was also on our side with overcast skies and little to no precipitation. Something else may have helped as well… the porters and mule drivers had recently carved long portions of the trail into the mountainside next to the glacier which made for much smoother walking conditions.

Weaving through a glacial maze

After about 6 hours of trekking we spotted the campsite off in the distance. We may not have literally high-fived, but we did all breathe a sigh of relief to see our tents in sight. This turned out to be a mistake because we still had plenty of ups and downs before stopping for the day. Best of all was the nearly vertical climb that we faced at the foot of camp. Oh well, with the end so near, we just grinned and beared it (with a couple of breathers along the way).

Urdokas was situated strategically above the glacier and had the same fiberglass outhouses we used at Jhula camp. The difference was the quality of maintenance between the two spots. The bathrooms with toilets were so poorly taken care of that we all used the outhouses reserved for porters. Later on it became clear why the porters toilets were so much cleaner. They’d rather take care of business right next to our tents than use these fancy contraptions on the hill. Of course, the mules and donkeys couldn’t help themselves and their waste added to the fumes wafting around the site.

The entire hike took us 7 hours. My trip computer said it was only 10 km long, and brought us to an elevation of 13,300 ft. Much of the gorgeous scenery was tucked safely behind cloud cover throughout the day. All of our porters were still in a good mood despite their efforts and sang together under their tarp again as the rain began to come down around us. The rain turned to snow later on and I dismissed myself after eating a bowl of hot soup early in the evening. I said goodnight to everyone at around 6:30 to sleep off my cold symptoms and ensure I would be strong for another tough effort tomorrow.

Desperately seeking satellite phone reception

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June 7 – Paiju to Liligo

The glacial fun begins

I had a miserable time last night. My body was exhausted after the 32 km hike, yet the pakoras I stuffed for lunch refused to stay down. Topping them off with a greasy paratha may not have helped things either. At about midnight it all came out in a slow, greasy, and intense series of convulsions. From this day forward I refused to eat another paratha despite them being the main source of calories for lunch. In between my bouts of nausea, I sat outside the tent in my heavy long johns and took in the scenery. It was a few nights after the full moon, yet there was plenty of moonlight to illuminate the steep snow covered peaks around camp. Wispy clouds blew across the peaks at a rapid rate. More than once I thought I was gazing at the top of a mountain only for the cloud cover to shift and reveal a couple more thousand feet of rock above.

Our alarm went off at 5 am and we laid around for about half an hour before getting up. Nobody had slept well and we were all still suffering from some fatigue. At he same time, we weren’t excited about losing a whole day by sitting around and resting. An agreement was made to push onto Liligo since none of us were actually sore or injured. It was only a few hours away (6 km) and making the hike would lessen the difficulty of tomorrow’s trek to Urdokas. The porters would also be happy to have an easy day after being worn ragged yesterday.

We took it easy and didn’t leave camp until 8:30. It didn’t take long for us to be greeted by the huge pile of rock and ice known as the Baltoro Glacier. Our porter showed us the way and I followed him onto the loose scree covered slope. I had spotted this monster from the distance and wasn’t looking forward to scrambling across it for the rest of the trek. Fortunately the loose cobble was mixed together with smaller rocks and sand. This mixture of different sized rock stabilized the slope a bit and it didn’t slip as much under my foot as the scree I suffered through on Mount Shasta.

Hiking between icy pools and through scree covered slopes

Moving over the glacier felt slow and tedious with endless ups and downs. This frozen sea of endless proportions kept us on our toes with several spots that only had a few inches of rock covering the slick layer of ice beneath. We had a couple close calls with slips near steep slopes and nothing but a frozen-over glacial pool at the bottom to break your fall. The weather began to turn on us midway through the hike and we were thankful that we sorted through the gear earlier. We showed the rain gear bag to Kacho and made sure to have him send it with one of the 2 porters accompanying us. To no avail, when we opened the bag, our genius of a guide had given us the snow gear instead. Thankfully the rain was never intense and it let up after a short while.

We arrived at camp around noon with plenty of time to rest before embarking on tomorrows trek to Urdokas, which my trail map describes as the hardest segment of the entire journey. Even though it seemed like we were moving at a snail’s pace, we beat our porters to camp by a couple of hours. This meant sitting around and telling tall tales while we picked apart our lunches. I devoured my boiled egg and boiled potato and offered my paratha to the porters. Meanwhile it began to rain again and we were forced to put on the snow gear to stay dry. We were now at 12,200 ft at a flat landing perched slightly above the Glacier. This gave us the advantage of spotting our support team coming from a good distance.

Liligo camp

Our guide came into camp with the goat limping in tow. We gave him an earful for the rain gear screw-up and then really let him have it after he told us he sent a couple porters back. The porters told us he’d been overloading them and we already had to leave some supplies behind yesterday. With each successive day spent on the trail with this guy I became more convinced that he’s completely incompetent. We would ask him to prepare us something for dinner and he couldn’t even remember the order long enough to tell our cook… who by the way was suffering from some kind of epic tooth ache and kept raiding our first aid kit. We laughed about this all-star team we assembled while the goat was finally sacrificed. This sent the porters into celebration mode since they got to chow down on the meat. They broke out into song while sitting on the ground under a rough tarp-covered shelter.  After 2 nights of my wife coughing and sneezing on me I began to feel the onset of cold symptoms. We hit the sack soon after dark since we got to camp so early, but I woke up in the middle of the night again with a slight headache, probably due to the high elevation we were sleeping at. I stepped out into the cold, took a few photos, and quickly jumped back into the warmth of my sleeping bag. FYI: This Liligo sight was supposedly named after a trekker (Lily) who wandered off and died somewhere, hence “Lily Go”.

A shot in the dark

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June 6th – Thirteen hours to Paiju

The winding trail

With a big day planned, we woke up early at 5 am so we could be on the trail by 6. Our guide couldn’t get his act straight and it ended up delaying our start to 6:45. For the rest of our trip we agreed to tell this guy to have breakfast ready by an hour earlier than we actually planned to eat. When I looked through our old maps and trail info, I calculated that today’s trip to Paiju would be about 25 km. Yesterday there was something mentioned about an extra segment so the hike would probably be even longer than I was estimating. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law seemed to be feeling better, but my wife was coming down with the symptoms of their cold. I pushed the idea of her contaminating me to the back of my mind as we set out.

Although we’d be covering a lot of distance today, I took comfort in knowing the terrain wasn’t supposed to be too rough. We rounded a bend after about an hour of trekking and I saw where people used to ford the river. The advantage of crossing here was obvious because the bridge we would now be using wasn’t even within sight. We ended up walking about an hour up a side valley to the suspension bridge and another hour back to the point I had spotted from the other side of the river. Jhula camp, where we should have camped last night, was in between these points. An NGO (Mountain & Glacier Protection Organization) maintained this camp an they had several fiberglass outhouses with real toilets rather than a hole. I took full advantage of these accommodations since I wasn’t sure when I’d see luxury like this again.

Jhula camp with running water and TOILETS!

Weather conditions were perfect for a long hike through this not-so-scenic section. It was overcast with a cool breeze and no rain, yet we still were getting a bit winded by lunch. Surprisingly our water reinforcements caught up with us at lunchtime and all the sudden we had a different predicament. Now that we had all this water, we needed people to carry it. We refilled our CamelBaks and dumped things that we didn’t need… like much of the 60 liters of juice our coordinator sent with us. Sadly the porter with the mango juice had already gone by and we actually had to leave good stuff like orange and grape juice behind. The nearby army camp was more than thankful to take the extra supplies off of our hands, they even shared their pakoras and french fries with us.

While eating we began to bug MH2 about how much longer we had to go before reaching Paiju. It was already 1:30 pm by the time we got going again and he said it would take us about 5 more hours.

Girls & their fierce scarves

Much of the rest of the trek was over loose river cobble with brief climbs and descents along the base of the mountain. We followed the Indus river and our boots kicked up a cloud of dust as the sun came out from behind the clouds. The Trango Towers came into sight and gave us a glimpse of the type of scenery we’d experience in upcoming days. I took frequent breaks to take photos here, at the expense of irritating my wife who was concerned our battery would die before reaching Concordia. She meant well, but we had an extra battery and I had read way too many stories about how the weather changes in the blink of an eye. I was determined to take advantage of clear skies when we were lucky enough to have them. Photography also helped keep my mind of the exhaustion I was feeling after 12 hours of hiking with 20 pounds on my back.

Trango Towers on horizon

We limped into camp at about 7:30 at night. Everyone was beat… according to my GPS we had covered about 32 km of trail (20 miles) and were now at an elevation of 11,000 ft. I was happy with my own efforts, but was especially proud of my wife who did the whole hike while suffering through her cold symptoms. My youngest brother-in-law was hardly responsive and looked completely worn out. As beat up as he seemed, our porters were in worse shape. I think most of them were out of shape since it was early June and likely their first trip of the season. We discussed our options for the next day while we ate our dinner of chicken curry, rice, and roti. I proposed that we keep all options open and decide in the morning. We could take a rest day since we covered so much ground today, or push onto Urdokas. My own legs began to stiffen up at the table as we were having this discussion. Hopefully they’d be revitalized after a good night’s rest.

Pushing closer to the Trango Towers

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June 5th – Team Jackass

Sacrificial goat

All of us made an effort to wake up late despite the bright sun trying to prod us from our tents. We ate the cold eggs which were prepared ahead of time so that the team could pack everything up and split the weight among porters. Our genius of a cook toasted up an entire loaf of bread for the 5 of us. That means the other 4 loaves would have to last us for the entire trek. We noted that we’ll have to closely monitor and ration our own food with helpful guys like this around. When I looked at the men who would be carrying at least 50 lb on their backs over the next couple weeks, I couldn’t help but notice their weather-worn faces. There were a few younger men standing around, even some children, but most of our porters looked to be well beyond their prime and shuffled about with a rigid gait. Earlier we had stressed that we didn’t want any mules or donkeys because we heard that they are poorly cared for and often overloaded, so I was glad to see about 25 guys in camp waiting to pick up their loads. This was within norms of 25 to 30 that we expected and we were happy that MH1 was able to round up enough human bodies at the last minute.

We departed Askole around 9:45… after everything was divided up among the men. It was already getting late and we didn’t wait around for them to load the stuff onto their rough backpack frames. The trek started off on an easy downhill stretch of dirt road where we didn’t walk for long before coming across a couple mule carcasses left to rot. Soon we were beyond the small farms around town and the trail became narrow and dusty in the midday heat. The Indus river was running strong to our right and a steep slope bordered the path on the other side. Our porter, MH2 pointed out the mountain pass that trekkers used to come through before there was dependable jeep road built to Askole. Back in the 1980’s this trek we were on would have been 6 days longer.

Porters pretending to load up (before leaving to get their mules)

On the trail

MH2 and the other porter acting as our guide called for a break after we crossed a rickety footbridge. They dropped their super-sized loads and ducked inside an old hut for some shade. We sat outside on some rocks to catch our breath and take in some fluids. None of us were very tired at this point so we decided to push on. The porters could definitely catch us slowpoke,s plus we’d rather rest when we got to camp in a couple hours. Hopefully we’d have some shade over there.

When a few mules caught up to us from the back, I had to do a double-take. At first I assumed they must belong to another group of trekkers, but I couldn’t help but notice our gear strapped to their backs. MH1 and the porters had pulled a switcharoo on us as soon as we had gotten out of sight from Askole. Many of the guys we saw with packs either took off or just carried their stuff away and loaded it onto their mule/donkey. We weren’t off to a good start with this team and I became even more frustrated when 1 of the overloaded mules fell down under it’s load and couldn’t get back up without the aid of its handler.

Overloaded mule taking a breather

We stopped after an easy 3 1/2 hike and my GPS said we tallied about 12 km for the day. We were still at an elevation of 10,000 and had the team set up camp next to a slow trickling stream. For some reason the porter with our chairs and mess tent was nowhere to be found so we parked our butts on some rocks while eating our boxed lunch of paratha and a chicken piece. I counted about 12 porters, 4 mules, and 3 donkeys. Each pack animal appeared to be carrying at least 3 times the load of each porter.

After belittling the guide for the latest bout of trickery, we shared with him our plan to hike all the way to Paiju tomorrow. He insisted that the camp was out of range, but we told him that we’re running the program now that he’s proven himself incompetent once again.  We also called the porter who walked with us most the day and let him know the plan. He approved as long as we’d be leaving first thing in the morning. Unlike Kacho, who hadn’t been in the area for a decade, MH2 seemed to know his way around and we were thankful he wasn’t too concerned about the length of out planned hike. He was mentioning how it’s longer now that the river is too dangerous to cross when Kacho turned up and told us we were out of water. None of us could believe our drinking water was entirely gone after 1 day of trekking so we walked over and looked through the supplies ourselves. It turned out that we did have water for the next day or two, but we did use the Sat phone to ask for more water to be brought to us before we ran dry. We weren’t sure if we could get restocked, so I took out my water purifier and made sure all the pieces were there just in case. As the sun set, we filled our CamelBaks with water and went to bed early to rest for tomorrow’s big day.

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June 4th – A Fourth Cup of Tea

Even though it was our first night in tents, we slept like babies after an eventful day of travel. The sunlight made sure we were all up bright and early.

The campground owner, let’s call him MH1 for short, showed up during breakfast and became increasingly interested in us when he noticed us writing in our journals. At one point he asked us to say good things about him when we get home and began calling my wife “his sister”. We quizzed him about the school built nearby by the Central Asia Institute (CAI). He didn’t recognize the organization title, so we asked him if he had heard of anyone by the name of Greg Mortenson. MH1 immediately lit up and went on and on about the famous “Dr. Girig”. He told us a tale about how Greg was going to build a school for kids in Askole, but the town leader tried to swindle him… thus the plan was ruined. Judging by my own brief experience here, that story seemed entirely feasible.

MH2 points out the new structure and the old bridge supports

A porter, MH2, was assigned to guide us to the Korphe school so we could check the place out for ourselves. My wife knows Greg Mortenson from meeting him at a book signing and he had welcomed us to visit CAI institutions during our trip. We began walking down the same path that the kid took us on yesterday and carried on past the army camp. A few minutes later we descended down the slope a bit further to find ourselves at a suspension bridge. This bridge wasn’t the original built with Mortenson’s fundraising. MH2 explained that the old bridge was removed and the deck was shifted to a crossing downstream when this new vehicle bridge was constructed a few years back. The concrete supports for the 1st structure were left in place.

CAI Korphe School

We cut through a few fields and shuffled back up the slope on the opposite bank after crossing the river. The few hundred feet climb knocked the wind out of us, but we were rewarded with a close up view of the Korphe school. With cream colored walls and red trim, the building stood out like a sore thumb from the poorly kept homes nearby. Due to a Shia holiday there were no students present. Thankfully one of the teachers, MH3 was around and showed us inside the gates for a quick tour.

There were a handful of classrooms cluttered by desks and I enjoyed looking at the lessons scribbled out on the chalkboards and whiteboards… one board had a math problem about how much it would cost to buy so many items given a certain price of each. MH3 showed us to his desk after the short tour and asked someone to bring us tea. This gave us a good opportunity to have a lengthy conversation. Due to recent bad press surrounding Mortenson, we all had a few questions and were thankful for being able to meet in person. MH3 is the only teacher at this school who is paid by CAI, but there are several other teachers there who are either funded by other NGO’s or the Pakistan Government. We listened to how the original school’s foundation was poorly constructed meaning that they had to tear the 1st school down and rebuild everything. Now they have plans to add more classrooms later on this year. Our tea came while MH3 and a couple other residents in the room reminisced about Mortenson stumbling into their village with torn clothes and looking completely exhausted. They laugh about it now, but he was apparently in rough shape when he reached Korphe.

The road back to Askole

Soon the tea was finished and we thanked MH3 for his time and hospitality. Before taking off we gave him the 30 packs of colored pencils we brought for the young students. As we were walking home, MH2 pointed out the house that a German teacher was building for herself. According to him, she had came to the area on a hike and fell in love with her porter. They married and are now settling down together.

Gratefully most of the streets of Askole were empty when we rolled back into town. I was already tired of demands for sweeties and chip-chips. It was a good day, but we mostly focused our discussion on the upcoming adventure as we ate a light lunch back at camp.

Everyone was in good spirits despite the onset of cold symptoms among my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. I took a break from the chatter to catch up with journal entries inside my tent. A few minutes after I ducked my head inside, I looked up and our coordinator from Skardu was walking through camp. Apparently his flight to Pindi was cancelled and he was concerned enough about our situation to take the 12 hr round trip drive from Skardu to Askole and back. He called our guide and the camp-site owner over to set everything straight. We felt like we had everything settled yesterday, but it quickly became apparent that these clowns still had a few surprises up their grubby sleeves.

Despite having an agreement with us to go to Concordia and back in 12 days, the guide was already making plans to take 9 days to reach Concordia. Overall he would have extended our journey to at least 15 days. Kacho also used this meeting to mention increased fees for porters, which he was trying to claim were higher than the standard rate set by the Government. He was quickly ignored when MH1 mentioned that no porters had actually been arranged for yet… something else that Kacho had swore to god was already taken care of. MH1 agreed to take over the duty of rounding up enough porters for us, but said it would take some time and likely delay our departure to at least 9:30 tomorrow morning. The late start wasn’t how we wanted to begin our trek, but the sick party members could probably do with a little extra sleep. We thanked our coordinator and gave him a cup of tea before sending him off for the long drive to Skardu. We discussed our apprehensions about Kacho’s guide abilities throughout the moonlit evening before retiring for a good night’s rest. Tomorrow the real work would begin.

Evening at Askole camp

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June 3rd – Askole Feeding Frenzy

Our coordinator in Skardu wanted us to leave at 6 AM. We were tired and told him to make it 7 instead. All we could do was laugh when none of them showed up till 8:30.  We then drove to the gas station and fueled up the jeep… which really should have been done last evening. Our team wasn’t off to an impressive start.

Before even leaving the limits of Skardu, our guide met up with a guy on the street who supposedly told him that our cook was sick and in the hospital. We were warned that Kacho may try this move since he used to be a camp cook and would rather keep the cook’s pay for himself. Since there would be no cook, it was made clear that there would no longer be money provided for a cook… Kacho then swore to god he’d find a replacement cook in Askole.

Pray your paths never cross this “Kacho”

Along the way we crossed a couple Military Police check posts, both insisting I provide identification. I’m not used to be pestered by police and my passport was well out of reach so I told them it was in my bag in another vehicle. They eventually settled for my name and contact information with a promise to provide my passport number when the other jeep returned.  I later found out that this is standard procedure and decent guides prepare their clients by asking them to bring 10 copies of their passport and visa.

Whitey registrars… “Identification please”

The drive itself was gorgeous, with steep snow covered ridges on both sides with the narrow dirt jeep track parallel to the Indus River. I lost count of how many wooden deck suspension bridges we crossed throughout the 6 hour drive. At first glance the structures look like they were built pre-partition and left to rot for the next 70 years. By closer inspection, however, it was clear that wooden planks were constantly being replaced and some newer cables stood out from their rusted counterparts. I also noticed new bridges being built using the same design.

Our driver/guide seemed to run across several buddies during our drive. We’d make brief stops while our jeeps pulled up beside one another. This is where I discovered my advantage of being with native urdu speakers was beginning to dwindle. All these dudes were speaking to each other in Balti so none of us could understand what the heck they were saying.

Bathroom break in Dassu

We took a brief break in Dassu where there was an Army check post. The ladies used the bathroom while I stood outside and took a few photos of towering landscapes. Meanwhile a couple Officers came out and greeted us. They had just returned from a month-long stint at a camp well above 20,000 ft and looked pretty rough-for-wear. Nonetheless, they were in good spirits and obviously happy to be back to an oxygen rich elevation. From their point of view, only morons would willingly subject themselves to the trek we were embarking upon. I would probably have a similar opinion if put in their shoes. Two of their troops had perished during their stay, thus making our vacation trek seem even more absurd to them. Before I knew it, we said our farewells, and were back on the road again.

It was surprising how many villages with terraced farms and mud-brick huts we passed along the way. I had expected a mostly untouched frontier for most of the jeep ride. One group of kids we passed shouted “Ay USA!” when they spotted me in the passenger seat. My American-ness must be much more evident than I realize.

At last we rolled into Askole. Every one of us was thrilled to be done with the butt-tenderizing 6 hour jeep ride… although the sense of relief didn’t last very long. As soon as we came to a stop near the campsite, the vehicle was surrounded by interested onlookers. A 2-story pink building next to us looked to be a hotel which was still under construction. The guide confirmed this would be where we would be making camp and stepped out to talk to the property owner, Muhammed Hussain. By the way, Muhammed Hussain was the name of 3 out of 4 guys I met in Askole. Later I’ll just refer to them as MH1, MH2, etc. While the guide was trying to sort things out, the swarm around us continued to grow and began to buzz in excited Balti. One kid actually stuck his head inside our jeep window in an effort to take in every detail of our faces.

Welcoming committee engulfs jeep

Our driver returned and said it would cost us 500 rupees per night to stay at the residence campground. This was a surprise to all of us since we were assured that everything was taken care of ahead of time and in painstaking detail. I was instantly convinced that our guide and the land owner were in cahoots and were taking advantage of our being out of contact with the coordinator. We were warned ahead of time that our guide may try to squeeze extra money out of us, and I wasn’t about to start out getting screwed like this. I wanted to set the trend right now that we wouldn’t be taking any crap.

Perhaps my previous dealings with locals in Kyrgyzstan and Honduras tainted my views of these simple villagers, but we all agreed that now was not the time to seem weak. The discussion between us, the guide, and the land owner grew more and more heated yet we refused to buckle. The guide gave an impressive performance of dumbfounded-ness, and the campsite owner looked way too conniving to trust. These folks thought they had us and they were going straight for the jugular. At one point, some comedian got up in front of the masses and began a Balti standup routine. Although I didn’t understand a word, he was apparently pretty funny since the crowd laughed out in loud bursts. These a-holes didn’t even offer us the courtesy of using the bathroom before attacking. In fact, they said it would cost us 200 rupees if we wanted to use the outhouse. I remember telling the others that if we let them bend us over like this right now, we’ll be setting the trend for the next 2 weeks. My brother-in-law eventually resorted to pulling out our satellite phone to make our guide speak with our coordinator. They had been working together for last few days and should have had this settled. At this point the land owner’s eyes doubled in size and he asked why we would spend so much just to make the call. Why not just give him 200 rupees for a campsite instead? As dumb as he had been trying to act, he recognized the sat-phone by brand and knew how expensive they were to use. He reduced his asking price to roughly the cost per minute to make a phone call.

Thankfully we were able to make contact with our coordinator who straightaway asked for Kacho the useless guide. I don’t know what exactly was said, but it was loud enough for me to hear about 10 ft away. All of the sudden Kacho reached in his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. It was a receipt stating that our fee was already paid for the campsites. He handed it over to the land owner who in-turn acted aloof and wondered why we didn’t just give this to him in the first place.

We had stood firm and it paid off. The jeep pulled into the parking lot and our stuff was offloaded for our stay. It took a good hour and many more heated confrontations with these clowns before tempers began to cool off. I used the crude outhouse which had no window and consisted of basically a hole in the ground. After this I was able to appreciate the gorgeous scenery around us and didn’t pay much more attention to the people who inhabited the town.

We ate our boxed lunch of barbequed chicken and parathas and then headed out to the nearby army post to make contact with some reasonable people. Along the way we ran into a man with a guest registry. He asked us to sign and invited us into his office for a cup of tea. I saw no harm in it and asked how many others had come through this season. Since it was early June I expected us to be among the first trekkers to arrive.  He then showed us his log which only had about 50 other names on it, mostly European, and no other Americans. When we asked for directions to the Army camp, he called out to a nearby runt playing in the street to show us the way.

The kid took off like a dart and guided us through farms and eventually down a set of steep switchbacks. As we turned a corner we were faced with a bare-bones encampment with a few soldiers sitting outside drinking tea. We tipped the kid and had a short conversation with the soldiers before heading back up the trail for our first real test of cardio endurance at 10,000 ft.  We did well considering the events of the day and made it to the top of the hill with only a few short breathers.  Soon a soldier caught up with us and said that we made it back quicker than he expected. He was in town when he heard we were coming to visit the camp and tried to meet us down there with soda and cookies for a tea break. We said thank you and he gave us the goodies he bought before bounding down the hill.

Muhammed Hussain, Askole campsite crook

On the way home it was time for the Askole children  and women to accost us. The kids had worked out a 3 step approach… “HELLO! WHAT IS YOUR NAME? SWEETIE?” It was their bad luck that we didn’t have any candy on hand and I just motioned with a set of empty hands. The women wanted hair clips which they called “chip chips”. One woman actually tried to pull the clip out of my sister-in-law’s hair. Tourists had definitely created a few monsters here by giving handouts in the past.

We relaxed once we were back inside the confined walls of camp. After downing a couple jugs of tea together I broke out the camera for a few pictures. The rest of the evening was calm. The property owner did stop by during diner and sort of apologized for being such a jerk at first. In Urdu he said something about making mistakes, and us also making mistakes. He was sorry for his part. We decided to let it go and allow bygones to be bygones. Hopefully our guide would be straight with us for the rest of the journey after being put in his place today.

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