Trek to K2 base camp continues

Annapolis resident Chris Warner prepares to summit dangerous mountain


K2 expedition

July 05, 2005|By Chris Warner | Chris Warner,Special to

Trekking to K2 base camp is magical.

The journey begins at the village of Askole, travels along the raging Braldu River, past the snout of the Biafo Glacier and eventually onto the top of the Baltoro and Savoy Glaciers.

Towering above the valley floor are dozens of mountains, growing bigger, and more dramatic each day. Like the Himalayas, the Karakorum Mountains were violently thrust upwards as the Indian and the Tibetan plates collided. Both ranges are continuing to grow taller. But here, the peaks seem sculpted by more demonic gods. While Everest is a giant pyramid, the Trango Towers, Cathedral Peak, Paiju, and others are granite totems, or tombstones. They rise from the glaciers in 7,000-9,000 foot, nearly vertical (and sometimes overhanging) sweeps of reddish granite.

It takes an expedition at least six days to reach base camp, but weather delays and portering traditions may stretch the trip into as many as eight or nine days. Despite the almost daily storms, we are at the 4th camp, and the porters are anxious to get us to base camp in two days. The storms have been mild, leaving only the peaks coated in ice and snow. The granite spires are encrusted, while the snowier peaks are streaked by point release avalanches.

Tao and I have a small staff: Query Khan, my cook from Nanga Parbat last year, has brought along some relatives, one to serve as a cook boy and one as a "personal " porter. Leading our merry band is Nazir Karim, our guide. He will deposit us in base camp and return to civilization with our 40 porters. The staff is from Hunza, an area historically connected to Tibet and inhabited by Ishmaeli Muslims. The Ishmaelis practice a reform version of Islam with their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, living in Geneva. In Hunza, all the girls go to school and women do not wear the burkas and headscarves as they do in much of the Shia and Sunni parts of Pakistan.

Our porters are Baltis and practice to what ever degree they choose the Shia version of Islam. Only a handful make the call to prayers, their beautiful chants echoing across the valley. Most seem to be enjoying the carefree life of a porter too much to ponder the existence of God.

A porter's job in Pakistan is very different from Nepal. There are no professional porters here, carrying loads to distant villages for a price. Portering in this part of Pakistan exists only because of expeditions and trekking groups. It is an opportunity for local men, employed in subsistence level agriculture to earn money for their families. Some will carry for four groups a season, earning $5 to $7 a day. The most ambitious will earn about $260 a year, well below the average Pakistani, but well above their non-portering mountain neighbors.

The porters carry 55 pounds of expedition equipment, with their personal gear bundled on top. They use either handmade wooden pack frames or the more elaborate welded steel ones. None have padding, nor a waist belt. The burdens are not only heavy, but also uncomfortable.

Each day we walk about 10 miles. The luckiest of the porters have shoes that can be laced but most have cheap Chinese molded plastic shoes. They save their socks for camp. Each night they huddle behind three-foot high rock walls, which they cover with a plastic sheet, often 10 men to a make shift shelter. For warmth, they huddle together, wrapped in thin blankets and woolen shawls. When the wind blows, snow falls or rain drops, these shelters become scant protection from the weather.

But the porters never stop laughing, except to argue with their bosses about the weight of their loads. Each day starts with these arguments, a bit of portering tradition. These traditions date back to the earliest of expeditions. Each hike is split into stages, apparently camps once used by early expeditions. We hike much faster than our predecessors, knocking off two stages each day. The porter tradition, though, is to be paid by stages, not by days. They will be paid 12 stages for this trip to K2, not six days.

Our porters are pleased that we are in a rush to get to base camp. They will make the same from us as they would a group of trekkers taking 10 days. Despite starting in the snow this morning, they were anxious to get going (of course after first arguing about the weight of their load).

Our little team is encamped at 14,000 feet on a slab of ice 800 feet thick. Surrounding us are peaks rising up to 26,000 feet. Tomorrow we will move upwards, to the famed Concordia camp where we will get our first view of K2 and Broad Peak. The next day, the porters will drop us in base camp, transforming our team of 46 into a team of four. We'll miss the antics, the smiles and the hospitality of the porters, exchanging it for the savage humor of the mountains.

As you might gather, we love this part of the trip.

Originally published July 5, 2005, 3:52 PM EDT

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