By Mir Areeb Ali with Aqeel Ahmed
I never thought of myself as a desk-job guy but like most of us, I’ve been one. However, even though I could never become a professional explorer, the desire never died. And the story of my Concordia trip begins with the reactivation of that very same backpacking bug.
Having explored most of the northern Pakistan multiple times with friends and family, I wanted a new challenge. That’s when the idea of mountaineering occurred to me. I was working in Dubai but the cost of learning was lower in Pakistan and the mountains were so much more exciting and picturesque.
Tentatively, I set myself the challenge of conquering K2.
Each journey begins with a single step so I figured I’d visit the base camp first.
I began to search for climbing and trekking groups in Pakistan and found a K2 Base Camp Trek event.
I wasted no time in booking my place.
While I prepared for the trip, I downloaded the Concordia trekking map and started listing all the campsites, trying to memorize all the names and their altitudes by heart.
Skardu – The Journey Begins
Our group of 15 people was to meet at a local hotel in Skardu. The flight to the beautiful city was, as usual, a stunning one with scenery that’s simply jaw-dropping. We met at dinner and discussed the logistics as we were to leave early the next morning.
This is when I realized how little prepared I was for the trip. I had no sleeping bag, walking stick, or gloves. Plus, my jacket and shoes were also not waterproof. While some of these items were arranged by my tour guide, I bought the rest myself in the morning as some permit issues gave us some extra hours in Skardu.
At 12 pm, we left for Askole, the last stop any vehicle can reach. Beyond that, it’s all back-breaking trekking, either on foot or horseback.
Askole – The First Campsite
It was a 5-hour jeep ride from Skardu to Askole – about 115 kilometers – on a bumpy and sometimes very dangerous route. When we reached Askole, it was already dark and the campsite presented a bustling sight.
To my joy, Eva Zubeck – a famous polish travel vlogger – was also camped there. While it was our first campsite en route to Concordia, it was Eva’s last as she was returning.
The next morning, we were to leave for the next campsite called ‘Jola’. That night, we got a chance to mingle with the group mates and get introduced with other support people like our chef who were to accompany us on the trip ahead.
I wished to talk to Eva about her experience and if she had any tips for us before we left, a chance that I got in the morning when we shared some thoughts about K2 and its hardships. The benefit of talking to her was that I decided to go with all my gear that my tour guide had asked me to drop because of extra weight – I was carrying a 14 KG backpack that had my laptop, drone, DSLR, clothes, shoes, and chocolates.
But Eva said that I could carry all that if I could manage to. So I did!
Jola – The Real Challenges Begin
Our very first trekking started at 7 am.
Our guides had hired Hasan Jaan, a well-known mountaineer, for something really advanced that I had no idea about. He has summited many mountains including few of the 14 mighty eight-thousanders around the world, and is among the top mountaineering stars of Pakistan. Hasan had lost two of his fingers during his summit to Naga Parbat, one of the deadliest mountains in the world.
After a half-hour walk, we stopped at the Karakoram National Park registration office and signed the contracts. After nearly 2-3 hours of walk-in Shigar valley, we stopped at some spot for our lunch and rest. The Braldu River was following us all the way and we had a shade of trees.
After an hour of resting, we started walking again. Around 2-3 hours later, we sighted some camps and felt relaxed to see the sight of Jola but we were unaware of the fact that just before the Jola site camp, there’s a huge river and we had to take a long detour to cross that river from the over-head bridge. This detour almost broke our backs.
Exhausted, we had finally reached Jola where we ate some light food and lay on the ground while the camps were readied. I wondered at the strength of my tour guides who were always way ahead of us and were sticking to the schedule. The night we spent there was potentially the best of the whole adventure.
It was a magnificent starry night that looked like an illustration straight out of a child’s fairytale book. There were no roads, no infrastructure, and no connectivity – it was just mountains, glaciers, unending wilderness, twinkling and shooting stars, and us.
Paij’u – The Acclimatization Dream
The next morning, we had to leave for Piaj’u – a relatively shorter and smoother trek, which came with the challenge of high altitude. I felt sick but we had to continue to walk so we did. With every step, I felt sicker as the altitude rose; I was light-headed and had symptoms of flu.
The relief was the knowledge that we were going to stay at Piaj’u for two days to acclimatize our bodies to a high altitude. The night we spent at Paij’u couldn’t be more amazing.
All the porters, climbers who were staying at Piaj’u gathered in one place and we sang songs, danced, and did stargazing the whole night.
The next day, we woke up late and I went for a small walk with a groupmate to explore the surroundings of Paij’u. We took a long walk over the dry river bank. That day, we had an early dinner and decided to wake up at 4:30 am and leave Piaj’u for Urdukas by 5:30 am.
The next day was going to be the toughest day of this whole trek and our tour guide prepared us mentally for it: there was no turning back, there was no Plan B. We were in the middle of towering mountains with no transport and no connectivity of any sort.
Urdukas – A Test of Nerves and Physical Strength
As per plan, we woke up on time and left Paij’u at 5:30 am. We were stepping on the mighty Baltoro Glacier now. This route was much tougher than the ones before. It was full of small river crossings and ups and downs. But the passing views were incredible and we had glimpses of the spectacular Trango and Lobsang mountains.
The paths were so messed up that we lost track and wandered around the glacier for hours until I flew my drone and spotted our way. Soon after, we had to cross this huge freezing river. The tour guide asked us to take off our shoes and prepare to cross the river. He held our hands very tightly and we slowly started to cross it.
After a while, we put our shoes back on and started to climb again only to realize that we were just halfway through. This place called ‘Khoburshe’ was a brief resting place and there was a long way to go.
The route had made me weak both in mind and in body, but it did present a chance for me to test my survival instincts and I was glad to acknowledge that it was actually working and no matter what, I had to walk and walk until we reached Urdukas at 6:30 pm. Some group mates had to hire horses as they could walk no more.
Thirteen hours of the difficult walk made me repent my decision and I started cursing myself for coming on this trek. We had to climb up step by step to reach the campsite and the view from the top was simply breathtaking. Here, we would rest and chat while our chefs prepare delicious food for us.
Goro II – Dream of Sleeping Over the Glacier Comes True
Now, after reaching Urdukas, nothing seemed difficult to me anymore. I already had had all of those down moments and the only excitement left was to sleep over the glacier now. Goro II is around 15km trekking with 270 meters of elevation gain. It was the first stop to sleep over the Baltoro Glacier.
The views of the mountains were beautiful after Paij’u and we had left behind all the rocky, sandy mountains. Now, they were snowy and a sight for the sore eyes. Now we had the mesmerizing sights of Masherbrum (7821m), Gasherbrum-4 (7925m), and few other mighty mountains.
We arrived at Goro II at around 02 pm. It was a really easy and enjoyable trek but few of us, including myself, were affected by altitude sickness.
That was the point when the tour guide asked three people to go back from here because they were not able to walk as fast as others and it was becoming very difficult for tour guides to get them to follow up.
Just before reaching Concordia, we caught the mesmerizing glimpse of the mighty K2, surrounded by the clouds, hiding behind other mountains. It was an emotional moment for all of us and we expressed those emotions well.
Why wouldn’t we? The world’s second tallest mountain was right there before our eyes. It was something straight out of our wild dreams.
Concordia & In-Between – Spellbinding Sights
The next stop was Concordia from where we had to leave for the K2 Base Camp. An elevation of 4,600 meters made us breathless. Concordia was like a station point for numerous peaks and people would stay there and head to different mountains.
There were many camps. People from England, Russia, Lithuania, and so many other countries had flocked there. Now we were walking on the snow and at times we would sink 5-foot deep. We stayed at Concordia for two days. The nights were freezing and starry, the days were windy and soothing. We had seen the amazing Muztagh Tower (7273 meters) and Mitre Peak (6010m) on our way before sighting the mighty K2.
The next morning, a groupmate had this idea about doing a cleaning drive at Concordia and all of us started collecting trash. Foreigners also joined us in the cause and we collected almost 20 bags of trash from Concordia; we recorded our effort to raise awareness about keeping the mountains clean.
The Tough Choice – And the Bad News
We were told that the weather condition was really bad and it would be difficult to make a safe round trip to K2 base camp. He proposed another challenging option: go to Gondogoro La Pass which had a 900-meter ascent from Ali Camp (the next camping site) and a 1,100-meter descent.
We were supposed to climb at night and all the people had to rope-in together during the climb. Listening about Gondogoro La Pass gave me goosebumps and I felt really excited about it. Seven of us, including myself, decided to go for Gondogoro La, while two of us decided to attempt the K2 base camp – the rest decided to go back from Concordia the next day.
This night was not easy. We had to send back all the extra luggage before leaving for Ali Camp. So, packing, unpacking, repacking, we had to meet with all the people who were going back from Concordia and the most difficult task was to fall asleep and ignore all the excitement.
We had to leave at 6 am but we woke up late. Our breakfast was frozen and I was not able to eat anything at all. Four group mates had left early with the rescue team. I had a severe headache. The tour guide was shouting at us to leave – “You won’t be able to walk in this snow if the sun goes up,” he said.
So Close Yet So Far – The Sad Return
We followed him in these mountains. He was running on the mountains like a wizard and I was trying to follow-up with him as fast as I could with others following me. After a while, I was not able to see clearly and felt this transparent layer of black dots in my eyes. I was washing my eyes, cleaning my glasses, but these black dots just wouldn’t go away.
This made me feel uncomfortable to the point of fearing blindness. When I was trying to comprehend my situation, I heard the voice of a porter who was running after us to tell that a groupmate wants to go back; he was not able to walk and he would sink in 5 feet of snow after every fifth step and had decided to go back.
After hearing this news, I gave this final leg of the adventure a second thought and asked my guide if I should continue or quit. You must go back too, he said. After all this effort and anticipation, the retreat sounded like a terrible thing to do. But my health just didn’t allow me to go any further. So, with a heavy heart, I joined the groupmate to return. I rested for a while with him as he was breathless, and took my drone out and captured a few shots.
It kills you when you’re so close to your destination but cannot approach it for a reason. When you have a burning desire to be there but you simply cannot. I promised myself to come back and complete what was left in between. We lost all our energy in one-and-a-half hours and would sink in the snow every second step because the sun was up and the snow became really soft.
It took us more than three hours to crawl back to Concordia. A groupmate had left his energy bars in my bag which I shamelessly consumed – it was the best and probably most-needed of my guilty pleasures. After all, he was a wizard and he did not need any of these, I convinced myself while eating.
As I munched, I felt a wave of accomplishment running through my veins – I had reached where many couldn’t. I was already planning the next trip in my head with the wealth of knowledge that this trip had gifted me so far.
Areeb is a filmmaker and Digital Design Consultant based in Dubai. Adventure is one of his key attributes and helps him take risks and experiment with new things in design, technology, film, and life.