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.