Journey to K2 base camp

Special to SunSpot

Three of the team, Rod Richardson, Joby Ogwyn and I, all boarded the same flight from New York to Islamabad. Seventeen hours later, we arrived in a very hotand sticky city, and were met by Henry Todd, the expedition leader.

All ofour bags, except one of Joby's made all of the connections. (Incredibly,Joby's duffle actually met up with us at Concordia, 55 miles up the Baltoro Glacier).

We loaded in a van and sped across the city to our expedition's base ofoperations at the Shalimar Hotel. Nearly 100 barrels and duffleswere packed in the lobby, representing some of our gear.

Rod, Joby and I were among the last of the team to arrive (Simone Moro ofItaly is about a week behind us and will meet us in base camp. He summitedboth Everest and Cho Oyu and probably deserves a little rest). The rest of the team was already in Skardu, the last "city" enroute to K2.

On the flight to Skardu, the captain of the plane actually came down theaisle and asked if we wanted to join him in the cockpit for even betterviews of his country. We practically fell over the other passengers as we raced forward.

Crammed in the tiny space and a little careful not to lean on any levers or push any buttons, we snapped photos of Nanga Parbat (the 8thhighest peak in the world) and the Indus River Valley. This privilege was actually arranged for us by the Vice President of Passenger Services of PakistaniInternational Airlines, whom we had met on the flight from New York.

At the K2 Motel, the main team gathered. While I had heard of most of these folks, I had met few before. This is a very strong team, certainly thestrongest big group I ever climbed with. Everyone has been on manyexpeditions to 8,000-meter peaks. The climberscome from Australia, Italy, Basque( Spain), Scotland, Nepal and the US.Our fearless leader is Henry Todd, perhaps the best known big peak expedition organizer in the world.

Suffering from jet lag was hardly an excuse. Within 48 hours of leaving NewYork, we were loading the trucks and jeeps for the journey to the village of Askole. Here the road ends and the hiking begins.

Askole is spilt in two by the Braldu River. The local people subsist on farming, shepherding and portering loads for expeditions.

This year, withthe threat of war and nearby Afghanistan serving as the hiding ground of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban, there are few expeditions. The locals are rightfully afraid: of not earning the precious money needed for salt, sugar and medical care. They are far too removed from the world, in this dead-end valley, tocare much for international intrigue or yet another threatened border war with India.

By late afternoon, the fields around us filled with local men, hoping to be chosen to carry 70 pounds on a 65-mile journey up to the altitude of 17,200feet. They will earn about $1.60 per day and be paid for 10 days work.

As dawn arrived, the tents came down, the packs were shouldered and 200 lucky porters strapped sacks and crates to the woodens frames they carry.The first day we walked for nearly 13 miles under a blistering sun.

On the second day we stopped in a steeply-wooded place named Paiju. Here wewould take a rest day, allowing the porters to slaughter, butcher and cook a yak, the bulk of the food they would eat once we stepped onto the glacier.

On the fourth morning, we climbed on to the Baltoro Glacier. This river ofice is among the five largest glaciers outside of the polar regions. Often over a mile wide and many hundreds of feet thick, it has conspired with hundredsof smaller glaciers to carve the most amazing landscape I have ever seen.

Dozens of 20,000-foot tall spires of granite, needle sharp and oftenunclimbed, line the valley's sides. Side valleys reveal even more peaks,some more snow and ice, but none are gently sloped.

Only the tallest and the most creatively carved are given names. And to a climber, the names are steeped in history. At the head of the valley is G4, tothe sides are Masherbrum, the Trango Towers, Lobsang Spire and Uli Biaho.

Up side valleys are Chogolisa, G1 and G2, Mustagh Tower and Golden Throne. These are the little peaks. Towering above this orographic chaos are four ofthe tallest mountains in the world: Hidden Peak, Gasherbrum 2, Broad Peak and K2. We are here to climb both Broad Peak and K2, the two tallest.

We awoke on the morning of the trek's seventh day, to four inches of fresh snow. The wind-borne snow showed little signs of slowing. Temperatureshovered around 10 degrees. The climbing team and our Pakistani staff (cooks, etc.) could have comfortably passed another night at Concordia, the campsitewhich serves as the meeting ground of several glaciers. The porters, huddledby the dozen, under sheets of plastic, were anxious to get us to base camp, so they could race home.

Laden with their loads, the 200 porters inched up the glacier, like a giant caterpillar. The line bunched up as we navigated through crevasses andstretched as the terrain allowed. Wrapped in scarfs, wearing thin rubber shoes and sagging socks, they braved the weather and the icy trail. Nearly fivehours after starting the snowfall eased away and base camp was finally established.

Despite persistent fears of war and chaos, Pakistan has been nothing short of peaceful. While in Islamabad, the capital city, everyone was shocked bythe American media's converage of events. To paraphrase a number ofconversations I had with the locals:

- Of course there is a border strugglewith India, these seem to be an annual occurence.

- If India was to invadePakistan, it would have done so in the 80ss when the balance of power was tilted in its favor.

-President Pervez Musharraf is loved by the upper and middle classes. They were so frustrated with the democratically-elected governments thatpreceded the General, and allowed the Islamic extremist to have a disproportional say in national affairs.

- The educated in Pakistan is fullybehind Musharraf and his crackdown on the anti-development (pro-Western) minority.

The result of the "scare" has been horrible for the Balti people, who aredependent upon tourism for hard-earned cash. But for us climbers, it is wonderful. The campsites along the Baltoro were empty. For days, we hikedwithout seeing anyone else.

Currently there isn't a soul on Broad Peak, andonly three groups are attempting the Abruzzi Spur on K2. We have stepped back in time: there hasn't been this few people in the Karakorum since thelate 70s.

K2 rises 10,000 feet above our base camp and today we will wander to thebase of our route to check things out. Tomorrow, we will begin to ferry loads to Broad Peak, which we will climb first. This team's enthusiasm anddetermination will not allow for much rest.

Well, it is time to eat some breakfast and pack my pack. A long and exciting day awaits.

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