Concordia, here I come

March 7, 2021

There is nothing like an adventure in the mountains surrounded by the nature’s giants

It was the end of July 2020 and Covid-19 engulfed the earth. Lockdowns, travel restrictions and closure of public places were the order of the day. Grown bored with working from home in Lahore, I decided to head to my second home, in an Islamabad suburb.

I went for long walks in the Bani Gala hillocks and watched movies. One of those was Vertical Limit, a K-2 survival thriller. Watching the movie made me wonder about the depth of human determination. Exhilarated, I dropped a line to my motorbike pals on a social group about undertaking a trek in the north, if travel restrictions were lifted.

Some research on the internet and discussions with the potential trekkers led to the selection of Concordia, base camp for K-2, the second highest mountain peak in the world at 8,611 metres (28,251ft) above sea level.

K-2 is located in Baltistan on the China-Pakistan border. A British team first surveyed the mountain in 1856 and a team member, Thomas Montgomery, designated the mountain as K-2 for being the second highest peak and lying in the Karakoram Range. The peaks originally named K1, K3, K4, and K5 were eventually renamed Masherbrum, Gasherbrum IV, Gasherbrum II, and Gasherbrum I, respectively.

By early August, the government had relaxed some of the travel restrictions. We selected an experienced tour operator for the expedition. For an architect the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line; this does not hold for a mountain expedition organiser. The itinerary suggested by the organiser was finalised after some changes in view of the members’ age group - fifties and sixties.

The expedition spanned over two weeks. The distance covered in the Karakoram Range was 180 kilometres. The dates were finalised and airline bookings, from Islamabad to Skardu, requested. The group comprised five motorbike enthusiasts, three of them from the National College of Arts.

The flight to Skardu suffered a short delay but the panoramic view of the mountain ranges through the window was a treat. The commentary by the captain was very informative. Having seen K-2 from the sky, we landed in Skardu in the early afternoon. After checking in at our hotel, we headed for the town for some shopping for the trek. We also visited our tour operator’s office to review the preparation and meet with the staff members who were going to accompany us on the expedition. They were a friendly bunch from the Shigar valley.

The following day, jeeps arrived early in the morning at our hotel. Loading our luggage, we were off to Askole on a seven-hour journey. En route, we crossed the Katpana desert and Shigar valley. As soon as we arrived at Askole village, local porters reached our campsite to organise our luggage for the trek. They were a tough breed. In rudimentary clothing and gear, they could effortlessly carry up to 25 kilograms.

We carried small backpacks stuffed only with personal belongings and food for the trek. A team of five porters and seven mules carried the provisions. The trek started early in the morning from Askole — the last settlement before one enters the wilderness of the high Karakorum Range. Our destination was Jhula Camp.

The first day of the trek was tough. Everyone experienced pain. The remoteness and ruggedness of the area was overwhelming. The realisation that the rest of the journey would be a no-service time sank in.

On day two, the track became slightly more challenging and we decided to make a stopover at the Moon Camp for the night, next to the Braldo River. The spirits were still high though and everyone enjoyed the gup-shup in the tent in the evening over hot soup and fresh food. One was getting used to sleeping in the tents on a gravel-and-rock bed and to an early start to the day.

On day three, we reached Paiju Camp, trekking mostly along the crest of lateral moraine, with stunning views of Paiju Peak. We were looking forward to starting our trek on the Baltoro glacier, which at more than 63 kilometres long is one of the longest glaciers outside the polar regions. The glacier gives rise to the Braldo River, which is a tributary of Shigar River.

Urdukas is almost the mid-point of the expedition. It is a spectacular camping site on the way to Concordia. There we met with some trekkers in the evening and shared our tales and food.

The track was turning out to be more challenging. The air was thinner as we were now at over 4,000m (13,123ft) above the sea level. The landscape kept changing while we trekked over Baltoro glacier.

Our guide scouted the track and escorted us through water crossings and other hazards. For the next three days and camping at Goro-I and Goro-II, we sighted the incredible granite spires of the Trango Towers and the Cathedral. Once we were on Baltoro glacier, the first 7,000-metre (22,965 feet) peaks: the Masherbrum and Muztagh Tower appeared on the horizon.

It was not long before the first 8,000-metre (26,246ft) peaks emerged on the horizon. At the end of the Baltoro glacier stands the Gasherbrum Range, a chain of five peaks over 7,000-metre (22,965 feet), including two above 8,000 mtres. (26,246 feet).

The seventh day of the trek brought us to the huge rocky amphitheatre of Concordia base-camp at 4,691 metres (15,390 feet) above sea level that makes European mountains look feeble in comparison. The eye is immediately attracted from the Gasherbrums across the wide summit ridge of the Broad Peak to the sharp and abrupt pyramid of black rock ridges and sparkling snow gullies of K-2.

We pitched our tents at one of the finest campsites on the planet. Concordia is the name for the confluence of the mighty Baltoro glacier and the Godwin-Austen glacier in the heart of the Karakoram mountain range. The area serves as the base-camp for many an expedition to K-2 and other nearby peaks.

The view from Concordia is mesmerising. We took rest for a day just to absorb and enjoy the majesty of the surrounding mountains. The weather so far had been a mixed bag of sunshine and clouds with an occasional drizzle that made the track a bit precarious to walk on. At Concordia, the weather turned out to be more favourable. We enjoyed the rest day basking in the sun during the day and gazing at the stars at night. Until now, none of us had developed any symptoms of high altitude sickness or any other ailment.

Getting to the top of any mountain is optional but getting down is mandatory. The return journey started in the reverse order. Fatigue had kicked in for everyone. In four days we were back to the Paiju Camp. The return journey gives one an entirely different perspective.

A fellow trekker was finding it difficult to keep his balance. A horse was arranged at the Paiju Camp for him for the remaining two days of the journey. He was taken to a hospital the first thing on arriving in Skardu and was admitted and diagnosed with pulmonary oedema, often associated with an exposure to high altitude.

The following day, after a few more tests, he was declared Covid positive. Sadly, despite the doctors’ best efforts and support from the family and friends, he expired after a few days in Skardu. I too tested Covid positive. In spite of the precautions we took against Covid, we had contracted the virus.

Surprisingly, we did not experience any of the better known symptoms of Covid. We learnt later that the loss of balance and appetite are rare symptoms of Covid. We had both experienced these on the last days of the trek. His exposure to the virus was much more intense than mine and his symptoms had appeared earlier. Fortunately, the rest of the trekkers were unaffected by the deadly virus.

There is nothing like an adventure in the mountains surrounded by the nature’s giants. Apart from the achievement of reaching the crest, there are epic views along the trek and a sense of awe. The wilderness is engrossing. It is, therefore, no surprise that some people compare life - with its many ups and downs and challenges - to the mountains.

The trek to K-2 base-camp gave us a profound sense of achievement on one hand and a tremendous sense of loss on the other. It changed my perception of human existence. Che Guevara, I recall, once said about himself and his comrades: “Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome”.

I am not a rebel and life is not a war but it raises the inevitable question, “is there any other way one can deal with life?” I guess not. Come what may, you only live once.

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Concordia, here I come