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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.