Lost luggage, landslides and a failure to reach New Jersey

Travel woes delay start of K2 expedition for area climber Chris Warner

July 01, 2005|By Chris Warner | Chris Warner,SPECIAL TO BALTIMORESUN.COM

"A journey," the old saying goes, "should start with a first step," not a thunderstorm over New Jersey.

All the flights from Washington, D.C. to Newark (where I would connect with my Pakistan bound flight) were cancelled. I waited on six different lines for more than 5 hours. At the end of line number 7, I was asked to pay $739 to get a seat on the next available flight (departing from a different airport and two days later). To add to the misery, the employees of United Airlines somehow lost my baggage, despite the flight never departing. I spent the next day at the airport tracking down the bags. And then, as I was about to fly, I spent two more hours trying get my return ticket sorted out (which American Airlines somehow cancelled).

I eventually arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan on June 26, days behind schedule, and was whisked onto a 40-minute flight to Skardu, the gateway to the Karakorum Mountains. Despite the frustrations of dealing with the employees of airlines on the edge of bankruptcy, I was lucky.

Tao [Franken, my climbing partner] arrived in Islamabad, where the temperatures rose to 115 degrees on June 22. One of his duffels went missing. The agency failed to meet him at the airport. Angry cab drivers fought for his fare. And he was told there were no rooms at the hotel. Days later his duffel arrived. And he was lucky.

It was our 800 pounds of climbing gear, high altitude food, tents, sleeping bags, satellite communication equipment, trekking boots, solar panels and clean underwear that were unlucky. I shipped them on June 16th, and was told they would arrive in Islamabad on June 21. I got an e-mail from Tao, who had gone to Pakistan early to repack the gear into porter sized loads, stating that the gear had never arrived. The U.S. shipping agent tracked them down in Islamabad, while the customs agent in Islamabad claimed they were in Saudi Arabia. Days passed and they failed to arrive.

Finally, the packages were traced back to New York, where they sat for 10 days, before being passed on to Saudi Arabia for another few days. When they finally arrived in Islamabad late on the night of June 28th, more problems unfolded. On the morning of the 29th, our agent found out that the paperwork needed to get the packages was in a different city (Lahore). And the phone of the guy who had them? Well, it wasn't working. Calls to the U.S. agent weren't going to work, as noon in Pakistan is 3 a.m. in the U..S and the customs office closes at 3 p.m. (6 a.m. in the U.S.).

What a fiasco. In a country with a rich history of problems to be solved, our Pakistani agent called some friends in Lahore, who eventually tracked down the man with the papers. At 2 p.m., copies were faxed to Islamabad. The agent raced to the Customs depot, which closes at 3 p.m. Finally, the bags were free to begin a 24-hour non-stop race along the Karakorum Highway towards Skardu. And race it was, with three drivers swapping the duties, and the highway itself in constant danger of landslides. You see, the mountains of Pakistan received record snowfalls this year. Then Spring cast gloomy skies over the range slowing the snow melt. Just in the past few weeks, the river levels have been coming up with rivers rising far above their banks and villages being flooded and bridges nearing collapse. If one of these bridges were to be swept into the torrents of the Indus River, the road would be closed for more than six months.

Meanwhile, Tao and I have been passing our time in Skardu. Boredom stands watch at the doorstep of our hotel room. But we did manage to commandeer a jeep one day and try to head into the hills. As we climbed ever higher on a pitted dirt road a river rose over its banks and turned the road ahead into a major tributary, with depths over the hood of the car. We were lucky enough to turn back, but the villagers just below us braced for the worst. In hours, their stone and mud houses, lining this narrow road, would likely be flooded.

With the gear finally in our possession, we are now busy re-organizing the loads. We hope to finish by midnight and start the jeep journey to Askole, the last village before the trek begins, at 4 a.m. Yesterday, we met a team of Russian climbers, back from a reconnaissance of Masherbrum (K1). Landslides and raging rivers had cut the road from Skardu to Askole into three sections, taking them two days to complete what should have been a seven-hour journey.

Once we get to Askole, it will take us at least six days to reach base camp. Needless to say we are terribly delayed, but ever hopeful. At this rate, we may arrive at the base of K2 on July 7.

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