It is a very long ways up the Baltoro Glacier, just to Concordia.
Days and days of walking, where it is easy to trip, as looking down at the black rock covering the glacier is oft interrupted by having to look at the rocks above, the towering, glowing rocks of the Trango Towers 1,000’s of metres overhead.
The sun arcs though the Trangos, the clouds curl over the tops and the occasional rain storm scurries down. Looking up is far better than looking down in the Karakoram.
While the Trangos are the headline, it is the multitude of towers, mountains, avalanches, crashing streams and the nearby bray of an unsettled mule attempting to hold tight to the trail that intrudes, filling your eyes and ears.
Alongside the trail, the river rushes past in a maelstrom of gray glacial melt water that froths with a roar. Boulders bounce unseen in the depths, knocking together with dull thunks underwater, as they tumble downstream.
Our trail followed a thin slab of rock above the river with rather uneven footing, and across the river a drowned mule with a load of duffles bobbed next to the far shore. Best to not put a hoof astray.
The duffle owner turned around from the next camp and descended, climbing gear all lost to the river.
The Baltoro Glacier relaxes in its upper stretches after it passes Urdakas Camp, flattening at the center as it stretches up past Goro 1 and Goro 2, to Concordia. The confluence of a host of glaciers come together here, from snows that have fallen high on K2 and fed into the Godwin Austin Glacier, to the multitude ice streams descending down off Broad Peak.
Ice pours out of the Gasherbrums and down from Chogolisa hovering off to the East. The glaciers become a constant: walking on the ice, living on the ice, sleeping on the ice, until finally climbing up and off the ice into the heights.
At Concordia we turned right and moved onto the Upper Baltoro Glacier, then curved left onto the Abruzzi Glacier, went around the corner and finally onto the South Gasherbrum Glacier – no wonder that the other name for Gasherbrum 1 is Hidden Peak, tucked away as it is far back in the Karakoram.
It had been 10 incredible days of walking to Base Camp, moving past the Trango Towers, circling the black spire of Mitre Peak and listening to the endless roar of ice off of Masherbrum.
Along the way, business from afar intruded on Nick, one of our members, and after a few days of fine walking, he turned and reluctantly returned to life in the City.
At Base Camp the weather turned foul, we were reminded we were in the mountains, as it snowed by day and snowed by night.
Not unexpected, as the weather forecast had warned us, but the transition from sunny days of hiking to banging snow off the tent every night and wading down to breakfast under the clouds, shivering in the dampness of the air, for 5 long days, made for 5 very long days. It cleared just in time for our Sherpa Dorji to perform our Puja ceremony, and we could head up the hill properly.
But just as we had the bad weather, the good was coming, with 10 days now promised with smiling suns and low winds emanating karma-like from the Garmin InReach. We tightened up our crampons, we placed our ice axes photogenically at the doors of our tents, we packed snacks and sorted food, for our journey through the icefall.
There were now just the six of us, Dorji and Mani over from Nepal, Aga in from Switzerland, Andy along from Wales and Josephine and I just the short flight away from Thailand. Aga and Andy had been with me on Himlung Himal, such a perfect climb and we were all back to the mountains to go perhaps a bit higher. Mani had been with us on Himlung too and looked after us so well we were fortunate he could also climb with us in Pakistan, a first for him as well.
Josephine, having touched 7,000 metres and also climbed Denali, wanted to see how some rarer air would suit her. And I was along to return to the Karakoram, where I had trekked, but not climbed, and wanted to sample the mountains, the far away places, of Pakistan’s 8,000 metre peaks.
From Base Camp, the South Gasherbrum Glacier extended above us, curving up off the Abruzzi that we were camped on, and led up into the hidden reaches of the cirque of the Gasherbrum’s.
But first, pinched in between the behemoth of Gasherbrum 1 and the towering heights of 6,979 metre Gasherbrum 7, was the Icefall. It started gently, luring one in, but soon rose up and tumbled through the confines of the gorge. It was 1,000 vertical metres from Base Camp up to Advanced Base Camp, starting slowly and with only the early morning crunch of crampon on ice and ski poles skidding along in the snow.
Headlamps were a flicker on the ice, high altitude air awoke the lungs quickly, gentle passage soon turned to crevasses, towers, tunnels and the occasional wand to mark the way.
But the crevasses were well behaved, the ice solid and a short, fun step of steep ice allowed us to test our front points.
There were no ladders, there were no lines. There were some big jumps and some holes that disappeared out of sight, with looming blue depths.
First it was cold and dark, then it was cold and windy, then it was dawn, then the sun came up, and we quickly roasted. Ice and snow, below, above and around created a reflector oven. At the top of the icefall we stepped out onto the plateau, a weaving, circuitous pathway that finished in the flats of Advanced Base Camp.
We shuffled into Advance Base Camp, quickly unfurled the sleeping bags and draped them over the tents and huddled in the shade.
At dusk we emerged and there were so many Gasherbrums towering overhead it was easy to get confused.
They all rose over 6,800 metres into the sky, with Gasherbrum 1 and 2, reaching over 8,000 meters.
And the other 6 Gasherbrums? Nestled between G1 and G2, sat Gasherbrum East, at a respectable 7,722 metres. Gasherbrum 4 we had made our acquaintance with already, and towered over Concordia at the confluence of the glaciers, one of the most striking peaks, rising dramatically at the head of the Baltoro Glacier to 7,925 metres. From this side, it was just part of the circle, nestled in amongst all the others.
Then there was the spire of Gasherbrum 3 at 7,925 metres, the pyramids of Gasherbrum 5 (7,147 metres) and 7 (6,894 metres), tucked together into the cirque above the Icefall. The numbers weren’t in order of appearance, futher confusing just what we were looking at.
They were simply a kaleidoscope of ice and rock and tumbling avalanches that in the afternoon heat roared down theatrically around us, rolling out harmlessly onto the glacier.
The Arrival of the Himalayan Hollywood
Into this cirque of towering peaks, the equivalent of the Himalayan Hollywood arrived, many climbers fresh out of Nepal. The King of the Mountains, Nims Dai, stomped up the Icefall, with his large entourage of Sherpas and a few select clients, straight from nearby Nanga Parbat.
Kristin Harila swept in with Seven Summits Treks, and in quick succession, polished off G2, and then G1, before moving over to Broad Peak and finishing up her 14 peak odyssey on K2.
Amidst this, a few real adventurers moved quietly, with Denis Ubruko and his wife seen flitting up and down from Advance Base and up G2 to acclimatize, before setting off on a new route on G1.
Chris Warner and his lone Sherpa, Chhiring, having warmed up on Nanga Parbat, had dinner one evening, set off up G2, summited just under 12 hours later and were back in Advanced Base for lunch the following day. After a quick rest, they then polished off G1 and headed for Broad Peak.
And while many others laboured up, the Polish extreme skier Andrzej Bargiel made tracks down between us, floating through Camps with a swish and a turn and the whine of a drone close behind him.
In the summer season, it seems the Karakoram has now become the place to be in the high mountains.
In the midst of this bevy of activity, we settled for one pure and simple objective, G2. The six of us on our climbing team, and our mostly merry band of High Altitude Porters. Mostly, because they would be carrying our stuff, and some days it was steep, and hot, and hard work. It was the same climbing for us, just not laden with the tents and bags and stoves and fuel and food which at altitude seems to get oh so heavy so quickly. Yet our HAP’s always arrived, they always smiled at end of day, they were always “ok”.
And they were all keen to summit, always a good thing.
We’d come up to Advanced Base for a look, a chance to climb higher, then planned a retreat to Base Camp.
But the Icefall was long and hot, Advanced Base was set at a mere 6,000 metres, and the route above went straight up the ridge, a beautiful, direct line with only a final traverse right and then back left to reach the summit.
All this up and down seemed redundant.
I was fortunate to have a fast and fit team. We checked our pulses, we peered at our oxygen statistics. We opted for the rapid acclimatization plan, coupled with porridge, soup and a chapati or two and a good night’s sleep, we were soon ready for the heights.
For 11 fast-lived days we would camp at Advanced Base Camp or above. It would be a short, intense climb, with a day or two off, but otherwise just climbing and climbing, the way we liked it. And the smily sun weather report wasn’t going to last forever, ten days was about all I expected.
Above Advance Base Camp and across a 1/2 hour glacier stroll, the Banana Ridge loomed, starting with a mix of icy walls over the bergschrund.
We could see the entire route from Advanced Base Camp, weaving up the mountain on the very crest of the ridge, with tiny orange dots peeking out of the snow high overhead to show us the way to Camp 2 and then on up to Camp 3.
After the bergschrund, a short but distinctly tricky overhanging wall loomed, with a crevasse at its base to add to the drama. It was a very short climb but with a big hole to look into. The rope stretched a little too much, I rued not sharpening my front points. Technique was more of a heave and a ho than anything too stylish, but it worked and we all pulled over onto the slopes above.
Then we ascended up to a twisting ridge line, climbing a gauntlet of melting ice set atop a boot-wide track with a few 100 metres drop on both sides, unexpectedly fun, the reason to really climb a peak. Nims and his group clambered up as well, the acclimatization from Nanga Parbat speeding them along, a long line of Sherpa, with an occasional client sandwiched between them.
We said hi, we are breathing the same air. I recognized Dawa Yanzum and we had a two minute hello and the mandatory selfie, then Christine Vongondy, on her way to do all the Pakistani high peaks in 26 days. We were all very busy, or at least they were.
It was superb climbing; airy, surrounded by all the Gasherbrums (8 of them remember), with the clouds sliding in and off the ridge as we headed for the heights.
The ridge took us directly into the airy expanse of Camp 2 at 6,500 metres, ten tents perched above the rocky ridge, set below broader and more expansive slopes above. Below, the rocky ridge rolled out into the horizon, splitting the Karakoram mountains, with the distinctive straight down view unique to these mountains, looking right down into Advance Base Camp. We were feeling very high in the sky.
The sun faded, suitably magnificently, the lights went out, the tent frosted over for the first time.
We ate porridge at dawn, we felt fine, we were acclimatized.
The weaving twisting rope led us back down the hill to Advance Base Camp as the morning started. We were still on the edge of a long weather window that fortunately seemed to want to hold out for a few more days.
The Karakoram weather seems less uncertain than its reputation, more like an overblown Colorado, with big highs and lows, and then local storms rolling through that you just have to look up at the sky and judge what they are doing.
I felt the weather moving in, but slowly, and all we needed was a couple days more to summit. Holding at Advanced Base kept us close to the front line, all we needed to do now was scramble up to the top.
So after a day’s rest at Advanced Base, and with resupplies from Base Camp, we were set.
The clouds were coming and going, wind rising and falling. I had weather forecasts by the hour, half sun, half cloud. We would just have to make it work, we were climbing on the smiley-sun side of the forecast.
We headed back up the Banana Ridge, and the cirque below us opened out, cloud shadows played on the glacier that held Advance Base Camp. Avalanches poured off the sides of all the Gasherbrum’s as they heated up. They rolled down at such regular intervals we now hardly heard them, incessant roars notwithstanding.
The avalanches fell harmlessly well away from Camps or the route, gracing the peaks with cascades of ice and snow as they billowed down the multitude of faces.
We were suddenly back in Camp 2, just 2 days after we departed. The tents were familiar, the altitude now a bit friendlier. We curled up for the last real nights sleep. From here we get a nap, and no more, between us and the summit.
At Camp 2 Andy opted to retreat, the way ahead looming, moving back to Advanced Base in support.
Aga, Jo and I and our two Sherpas settled in, the camp now half empty. Another early morning, which of course in climbing terms means at night, in the dark, we headed up.
The fixed ropes were intermittent, we got to pull out our ice axes, we got to stomp up the hill unfettered by the dreaded fixed ropes, at least for awhile. Then we welcomed the ropes back as withering crevasses appeared, cutting the slope in front of us and showing off their icy depths.
Camp 3 is like a mini Camp 2, a few tents dug into the slope, an extra airy view, a vague trail leads up and out towards the ridge. We are now 3 to a tent, saving weight and only there for lunch, a long nap, and dinner, and off we go.
We don’t want to think about it, we just need to climb.
Then it is back into the double boots, the crampons – as the sun sets, the wind swirled and off into the night we set, headlamps leading the way.
Straight out of Camp we headed up an indistinct ridge, over rock cliffs and boulders, through scrabbly rocks, then into the location of an old and rarely used Camp 4 clinging to the side of the mountain.
The weather held, the stars were out. Far off to our right, Nims and his climbing team formed a ghostly line of headlamps as they paralleled us up G1, weaving up the face of the cliffs directly across from us.
Climbing all night inevitably feels hard, ranging from good hard to not so good hard. Aga and Jo pulled away in front of me and I realize that the stomach challenges I’ve faced off and on since Skardu are back. I’m slow and going nowhere slowly, not a great option at this altitude.
At 7,500 metres, I turn in the dark and retreat, my less than happy stomach sending me back to earth. Mani doesn’t hesitate and turns around with me. Two hours and a host of rope sliding later we are back in Camp 3 before the sun comes up.
For Aga, Jo and Dorji, the long snow traverse stretched out to a final steep section leading up to the summit ridge, with a single bright star luring them on. A col on the ridge allowed the only real respite in the nights climb, a welcome and flat place to pause, but also where the wind whistled across, chilling, for the final 300 metres of vertical.
Then it is simply up and up the final ridge, a thin rope taking them up the last steps to the summit crest of Gasherbrum 2. Aga, Jo and Dorje sneak up through the cloudy halo and on up to the summit, followed closely by our High Altitude Porters, Ali, Delwar, Mehdi and Akhbar.
They are above the clouds, the earth obscured below, in a world of their own. Only Gasherbrum 1 hovers alongside them, also piercing the clouds.
With building clouds and wind they snap a few photos and head down the mountain.
The views were only from on high and higher, the land below was wreathed in clouds.
Ascending the Baltoro – part 1. The climb – part 2. And now, like the other high peaks of the Baltoro, part 3.
The best escape from the Karakoram, is not the long walk back down the Baltoro glacier, but over the high and snowy pass of the Gondogoro La, at 5,400 metres.
So after a few days of showers, packing and finding some clean socks, we traversed the Upper Baltoro Glacier and headed up the Vigne Glacier, hopping from one ice stream to the next, crossing waterspouts, rushing glacial rivers, rivulets and blue ice lakes.
At dusk we crawled into Ali Camp, and huddled in the comfy and well padded mess tent for dinner and a rest. Some of our High Altitude Porters were from Hushe, their cousin-brothers ran the Camp: so hot soups, rice and endless cups of tea flow in and we don’t bother to leave; simply curling up in our sleeping bags for a quick sleep.
At midnight it is back up and out in the dark, traversing from thigh-deep holes of snow, to rocky moraine, to finally reach the fixed ropes leading up the pass. The snow intensifies, visibility is a few metres, the views from the top are nonexistent.
But we are rewarded with a slippery, slide down the other side, an area often running with rolling rocks and unstable scree. As we move down into the valley, the sun appears, illuminating what feels like Shangra-la, climbing off the ice and out of the snow for the first time in a month.
The green is very green, rocks behave themselves, anchored as they are on the ground, and we drop into alpine meadows of grass and flowers.
The Hushe Valley has herds of goat and sheep, an idyllic trail weaving between the rocks, small seasonal villages selling large bottles of coke; civilization personified.
The Baltoro Glacier seems many eons away, the summit climb wreathed behind us in clouds.
The trail into Hushe is sandy and flat, warm air flows through the trees and most importantly, the company is good.