All of our 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).
Rod, Joby and I were among the last of the team to arrive (Simone Moro of Italy is about a week behind us and will meet us in base camp. He summited both 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 the aisle and asked if we wanted to join him in the cockpit for even better views 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 8th highest peak in the world) and the Indus River Valley. This privilege was actually arranged for us by the Vice President of Passenger Services of Pakistani International 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 the strongest big group I ever climbed with. Everyone has been on many expeditions to 8,000-meter peaks. The climbers come 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 New York, 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, with the 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, to care 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 17,200 feet. 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 we would 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 of ice 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 hundreds of smaller glaciers to carve the most amazing landscape I have ever seen.
Dozens of 20,000-foot tall spires of granite, needle sharp and often unclimbed, 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, to the 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 of the 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. Temperatures hovered around 10 degrees. The climbing team and our Pakistani staff (cooks, etc.) could have comfortably passed another night at Concordia, the campsite which serves as the meeting ground of several glaciers. The porters, huddled by 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 and stretched as the terrain allowed. Wrapped in scarfs, wearing thin rubber shoes and sagging socks, they braved the weather and the icy trail. Nearly five hours 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 by the American media's converage of events. To paraphrase a number of conversations I had with the locals:
- Of course there is a border struggle with India, these seem to be an annual occurence.
- If India was to invade Pakistan, 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 that preceded the General, and allowed the Islamic extremist to have a disproportional say in national affairs.
- The educated in Pakistan is fully behind Musharraf and his crackdown on the anti-development (pro-Western) minority.
The result of the "scare" has been horrible for the Balti people, who are dependent upon tourism for hard-earned cash. But for us climbers, it is wonderful. The campsites along the Baltoro were empty. For days, we hiked without seeing anyone else.
Currently there isn't a soul on Broad Peak, and only 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 the late 70s.
K2 rises 10,000 feet above our base camp and today we will wander to the base 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 and determination will not allow for much rest.
Well, it is time to eat some breakfast and pack my pack. A long and exciting day awaits.