2004 Chogolisa

After two days in aeroplanes and airports we arrived in Islamabad on Sunday morning 4th July. Having taken ages to clear immigration, where each passenger was digitally photographed, we were surprised that we had to wait even longer in the sweltering heat for our luggage which had not yet been unloaded. The expedition consisted of ten members: Ulrike Kiefer, Linda Daffue, Andre Schoon, Fran Hunziker, Robert Zipplies, Cecelia Rademeyer, Ian Bailey and Anthony van Tonder from South Africa and Harry Kikstra and Marian Slot from Holland.

Monday was spent attending to climbing permit bureaucracy, then shopping for supplies in the hectic street bazaars of Rawalpindi. Two long days' bus journey, past Nanga Parbat (8125m), up the deep, precipitous and progressively more barren Indus River gorge took us to Skardu, situated where the gorge briefly broadens into a wide fertile valley, with poplar trees and lush green irrigated fields contrasting with the snowcapped barren mountainsides above. A "rest" day in Skardu was used for further shopping and sorting out our porter loads of equipment and supplies. Then another long day of jeep travel on a rough track up the Shigar and Braldu valleys, crossing several interesting suspension bridges, got us to the trailhead at Askole village.

Next morning, a week after leaving home, we started trekking up the Braldu river which then becomes the Biaho river, accompanied by porters carrying our kitchen tent, mess tent, equipment, food, climbing and camping gear, and more porters to carry food for those porters, and yet more porters to carry their food in turn. The result was a huge retinue of over a hundred porters. Trekking agents pay no attention to using lightweight camping equipment or food; they simply hire more porters to carry all the heavy stuff. With numerous other, mainly Italian, expeditions and trekking groups with their porters going to K2 (50th anniversary of the first ascent), there was a lot of foot traffic up and down the valley.

Two days trekking got us to Paiju, below Paiju Peak (6610m), where we rested another day camping under shady trees growing by a stream. From Paiju we climbed up over moraine rubble onto the enormous Baltoro glacier on which we trekked for three days to Concordia, passing along the way the Trango Towers (6286m), Masherbrum Peak(7821m), and Mustagh Tower (7273m) and others. The gravel and boulder covered surface of the glacier formed its own weird undulating landscape of hills and valleys with fast flowing streams of meltwater in deep channels, and punctuated by giant white seracs protruding in a neat row down the middle. Boulders were balanced like huge mushrooms on pedestals that formed in their shade as the ice around them melted away in the sun. We camped in tents, but the porters used the abundant rubble on the glacier to build low stone walls over which they spread plastic sheets to create simple shelters. Concordia is spectacularly situated at 4650m on the confluence of the Upper Baltoro, Godwen-Austen and Vigne Glaciers, below K2 (8611m), Broad Peak (8047m), Mitre Peak (6025m) and Gasherbrum IV (7925m) (among others), which conceals Hidden Peak (Gasherbrum I) (8068m) from view.

From Concordia a further day's walk up the Vigne Glacier took us to our base camp for the next 24 days. This was a rather bleak spot at 4950m in a patch of rocky rubble on the ice, but compensated by great views of the ever changing cloud and light effects on K2 and the other peaks around Concordia. Here below the very steep Vigne peaks we became accustomed to the ever present noise of avalanches, sounding like goods trains rumbling by, day and night. We fashioned flat spots for our tents by moving the bigger rocks aside and smoothing out the little ones. By the end of our stay the ice around our tents had melted back in the sun leaving our tents on raised platforms. The porters departed back down the glacier to get work with other expeditions while three kitchen staff remained with us.

Despite the assistance of two porters who stayed on with us, it took us another six days to establish advanced base camp (ABC) at the head of the Vigne Glacier below a steep rock spur up which we would climb. This delay was due to some bad weather days and to difficulties encountered in finding a safe route along the upper Vigne Glacier over numerous snow covered crevasses and skirting around a 150m high ice fall. Loads were initially ferried to a cache below the ice fall, then ferried to ABC from there. We nicknamed the area "Avalanche City" due to the continual avalanches, which were fortunately mostly across the glacier from us on the SW ridge of Chogolisa.

ABC (5500m) was in a bowl surrounded by snow slopes which acted like a parabolic reflector focussing the sun's rays on us, forcing us to shelter during the daytime in the tents from the intense heat radiation. Then in the evenings as soon as the sun sank behind the ridges it became intensely cold forcing us into our sleeping bags in the tents. Some days of snowing weather also forced us into our tents. Thus except when climbing the spur or ferrying loads up to ABC we were tediously tent bound.

In between the bad weather days we took turns fixing ropes and carrying tents, food and gear up the rock spur. We climbed the steep snow slopes next to the rock fixing the ropes with pitons. The rock was rotten however so that the piton anchors were all dubious. A tent was pitched at 5800m (Camp 1) on a platform dug into the snow, and ropes, equipment, more tents and food were carried up to 6000m. In the daytime the heat of the sun rapidly softened the snow until we floundered in it, so that we could climb only in the early hours of the morning. As a result progress was slow. Sometimes the snow remained soft overnight. Intermittent days of fresh snowfall compounded the problem. Eventually we realised that we were running out of time to continue climbing by fixing ropes and equipping higher camps expedition style. We decided that after a rest day a small party of two or three would attempt a fast alpine style summit bid from Camp 1.

A few of us returned to base camp for a few days rest from the high altitude rigours of ABC. These were discomforts like insomnia, Cheyne Stokes breathing, painful throats from the dry cold air, intense daytime heat, intense night time cold and the tedium of confinement in a small tent for most of the day. Base camp although also at quite a high altitude was cooler in the day, warmer at night, had a large mess tent to escape into, kitchen staff to cook for us and tastier food.

Our intended alpine style summit bid was thwarted by a further five day period of bad weather at the end of which there was only enough time left to ferry all our stuff back down to base camp before the porters arrived to fetch us. We sent as much climbing gear, spare tents, excess food etc as possible with the main group of porters back down the Baltoro Glacier.

To avoid retracing our trek in, we would instead cross the Gondogoro La (5600m) with a small group of porters and descend the Gondogoro glacier and Hushe valley. This is an established but tough trekking route. The route ascends a crevassed pass very steeply from the western branch of the Vigne Glacier and is subject to danger of falling seracs and avalanches. A very steep descent on the far side is subject to rockfall. Fixed ropes are maintained on both sides by a team of villagers from Hushe.

We rose at midnight, packed and set off by 1.00am and reached the top of the pass at dawn when the snow was firm thereby minimising the dangers. The view from the top was spectacular but the descent on the far side was awful, four hours down very steep loose scree and rock and along the tops of moraines to Xhuspang camp. The campsite in the ablation valley next to the glacier was overlooked by meadows. The sight of green vegetation though sparse, was almost startling to our eyes which had become accustomed to the colourless world of rock and ice and the scents from the plants were wonderful to our unaccustomed noses. Another day's walk took us to Shaishcho where we camped under Tamarisk trees, the first shade we had in four weeks. That night our porters entertained us with singing and dancing. The last day's walk ended at Hushe village with its bright green terraced wheat fields, groups of bearded old men sitting on the verandas of the two small shops, and begging children: "hallo, one photo, one chocolate!"

From Hushe next day we rode on jeeps to Kande where the road bridge had washed away four years ago. We carried our luggage over a pole bridge to more jeeps across the river. As we continued down the valleys to Skardu the wheat fields were ripe and the villagers were harvesting it by hand, carrying in the sheaves, threshing and winnowing it as in ancient times.

In Skardu we relished the civilised pleasures of hot showers and comfortable beds. Two days by bus, jostling past the ridiculously over-decorated ancient Bedford trucks that dominate these mountain roads, saw us back in Islamabad whence we flew back to our normal lives.

Anthony van Tonder.