It was a very restless night. As I lay on a glacier, in my warm sleeping bag, over a cold, hard, inhospitable and uneven surface. The silence of the wilderness was absolute and I was trying to get some sleep but the erratic and terrifying sounds of the heavy avalanches did not allow me to do so. To make it worse, the diluted oxygen level of the high altitude made it difficult to breathe. Thus, I spent the night tossing and turning in my constricted sleeping bag with some hope of catching much needed sleep.
It was still dark when I heard rain drops over my tent. And around 5:00 am, my tent lit up by the first light of the day. I inched forward to sneak out half way from my sleeping bag and unzipped my tent to catch a glimpse of the outside. The beauty of the scene had the celestial aura of a fantasy world! The sky all bright and clear, the camp site all carpeted with snow. Everything within my view was pure and white, surrounded by high grey mountains. A moment truly magical and of pure bliss!
I am at Concordia, ‘The Mountaineer’s Paradise’ in the extreme north of Pakistan along the borders of China.
Amongst the tallest 14 mountain peaks of the world that are above 8000 meters, Pakistan proudly bears five. And, of those, four peaks can easily be seen from the Concordia, a camp site at the elevation of 4600 meters. The tallest and most magical of the four is K-2 (8611m), the second highest mountain of the world, also known as ‘Choghori’ by the locals. The other three peaks are Gasherbrum I (8080m), Broad Peak (8051m) and Gasherbrum II (8035m). This is the very reason why Concordia has been labeled as “The Mountaineer’s Paradise.”
At Concordia, the Godwin Austen glacier from K-2 flows into the Baltoro glacier from the north. The name Concordia is of Latin origin, meaning ‘harmony with the heart’ and was first used by a British mountaineer, John Frederic Hardy for a place where two or more glaciers meet, thus the name was then adopted for this camp site in the Karakoram Range.
Other than the 14 above-8000-meter peaks, the landscape of Concordia is also distinguished by the recognisable silhouette of Mitre Peak’s remarkable elegance, despite the fact that it is “only” 6017 meters.
As I stood out of my tent, with the sun still behind the mountains, light rays broke through high peaks to present to me a remarkably spectacular view. To my east, shining brightly were Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II, whereas to my south was the majestic Mitre peak. To the west, were countless peaks all above 6000 and 7000 meters. While towards my north, proudly stood and stands still the breathtakingly beautiful, K-2, shining in front of my eyes in all its glory.
In late 19th century, the Englishman Sir Francis Younghusband, the first westerner to have witnessed the mountain up close, described K-2 as “A mountain of stunning dimensions. It seems to rise like a perfect cone, but incredibly tall” and he surely did justice to its brilliance.
It’s the same mountain that we see in our daily life on a 50 Rupee note.
I have always been befuddled by the coinage of the name K-2. “K” means Karakoram and rightfully, it should have been K-1, being the highest mountain in the range. But because of inattention of a British surveyor Thomas George Montgomerie who during the Great Trigonometric Survey in 1850s sketched the two most prominent peaks in Karakoram, labeling the 7280 meters Masherbrum (ranking 22nd highest in the world) as K1 and 8611 meters high Chogori as K2. The former came later during his journey hence, unfortunately the name was carried forward and the second highest mountain on earth became “K2”.
My initial motivation for going to Concordia was only to see the K-2 with my naked eye. That mountain has been haunting my imagination since childhood, a dream to fulfill. But I never knew I would come across such spectacular beauty along the way. Reaching there is a formidable feat. It took me a week’s trek to actually get to Concordia, another day’s wait to to get the mountain in my sights and descend back in four more days. The route that runs to the Concordia camp site is a remarkable journey of exploration and truly a mountaineer’s haven.
I had been yearning to visit that place and after years of vague planning right at the 11th hour, I started preparing for all the possible trekking gear I could get a hold of. In the mid summers when all of Pakistan suffers an infernal heat wave, I was shopping for warm clothes for extreme cold weather. Though I had a general idea of mountains and trekking equipment, breathing in low oxygen levels at such high altitudes never crossed my mind.
I flew off to Islamabad from Karachi and then to Skardu in the north of Pakistan and tagged along with a group of trekkers in there. The first day was an 8 hour bumpy jeep ride to Askole, the last village before the start of absolute wilderness. Our camps were based at an empty site in the village. The real trek on foot started the next day.
Due to lack of research about the trek, except for the type of gears and clothing I would need, I didn’t know about the terrain, or the difficulties involved in it. My whole idea of being there was to experience the great outdoors and treat myself to the experience of the second highest mountain on earth.
The initial trail from Askole that follows a sandy and rocky valley ends at a lovely green park of Paiju camp site that lies just before the Baltoro glacier. This place marks the beginning of the famous granite towers: the Cathedrals, Paiju peak (6600 meters) and the renowned and wild Trango Tower (6237 meters). The Baltoro glacier starts right after the Paiju camp site and goes all the way up till Concordia. Further along as I ventured up the glacier, I spotted the regular pyramid of K1 (Masherbrum). There only, did I realise why Thomas George named it K1, not K2. K2 was still far.
Baltoro glacier is claimed to be one of the longest glaciers outside of the polar region alongside the famous Siachin and Biafoh. I had always pictured and imagined glaciers to be very beautiful, pure and white, while growing up watching documentaries about Antarctica, on TV. The real scenario was totally the opposite. I found them as dark, rigid, with rubble of rocks all over it, slippery and not so appealing until the 3rd day, I finally saw some pure white, huge boulders of ice that gave a spectacular landscape to it. Only penguins were missing to add to their allure.
The glacier went all along up till Concordia, I reached there after a day in the jeep and 6 days on foot and in one piece, except with blisters on my feet and severely tanned skin.
We spent a spare day at Concordia enjoying the spectacular view. The time was spent playing volleyball, eating pakoras and drinking a lot of hot tea. By mid-day, K-2 was shrouded in clouds. It’s a shy mountain and likes being behind the clouds most of the time. The sunset over Concordia is undoubtedly one of the most wonderful moments in the trek as you tend to see last rays of light hitting some of the highest peaks of the world.
Now the joy of being at Concordia was over, but not the journey. We had to descend back then either by the same harsh route or through the dangerous top of 19,500 feet high Gondogoro La which was shorter but more difficult. Regardless of the difficulty, we all chose the shorter one as everyone was in favor of avoiding the path we came from. Those who wanted to challenge themselves were happy and those who didn’t want to had no other option. I was indifferent.
To reach the pass, we started early in the morning from Concordia, crossing through deep soft snow on Vigne glacier and reached “Ali Camp” after 6 hours for a stopover. Ali Camp is a stopover for trekkers to prepare themselves for their journey towards the pass. If the weather goes bad, they stay at the camp and wait. For us, the weather was clear and that meant no rest.
Gondogoro can only be crossed during night as it is more prone to avalanches during day time. We filled our stomachs, took a short nap and started preparing for our ascend during the night. The group left Ali Camp the same day around 10 pm, and all of us tried to pace up respectively in a hurry to cross the ‘La’ before daylight appeared.
The sky was shining bright with stars, snow capped peaks were lit up with the dim moon light and the sun started to appear as I reached the top. The sky was now turning from deep dark blue to bright orange and then light blue. A few of my trekking mates had already crossed over and most of them were still behind. I enjoyed the view from the top, of a world unknown to many. Especially the first rays of light on mountain peaks, a view that I will never be able to see down in the country where I dwell.
Luckily, everyone crossed the pass without injury, it was a difficult climb, however, much harder was its descent, which was longer and more prone to accidents. The path to the next camp site after the descent was again longer than expected. After falling countless times on melted snow and saving myself from stones falling from high mountains, I made it to the Khuspang camp site at 1 pm in the afternoon while most of my mates made it in the evening. For amateur trekkers, it was a difficult yet possible task. It was an achievement and we were proud of our selves.
Khuspang was the first camp site, dominated by the breathtaking, 6096 meters, Laila peak and a water stream. We stayed there during the night and trekked towards Siacho camp site the next morning.
Siacho is a summer settlement of shepherds coming up north from down country. This camp site has lush green pastures, surrounded predominantly by the willows, cedars and junipers. Reaching the camp site alive, it was a marked achievement for the whole group. We celebrated our success while cheering with expensive soft drinks and sacrificed a sheep for dinner – the first meal of fresh meat on our entire expedition.
Finally, the last day became the easiest day of the trek. Comprising of a very short hike of 3-4 hours to Hushe village, where we finally came across electricity, people and vehicles. We were to stay for a night at Hushe and leave for Skardu in the morning. Luckily, we got the jeeps ready therefore, we headed towards Skardu by road, the same day.
It felt rather odd then to travel in a jeep after trekking our ways through the rocky mountains for almost two weeks. Our feet had gotten used to those hard, rigid walks. No matter how hard and bumpy the jeep ride was, it was the most comfortable leg of the entire journey.
Eventually, from Skardu onwards, our expedition ended and everyone bid farewell and headed home, leaving the majestic K-2 far behind, to carry on playing its signature game of hide and seek with the clouds. I returned with the desire to revisit and experience this wonderful magical place.
The article was originally published in Dawn Blogs dated March 10, 2013