Base camp. It seemed as though it took us forever but we’re finally here. Two days ago we followed a line of 23 porters as they left the terraced fields of Hushe behind and headed into the magnificent Karakorum mountains. Smiling children followed us out of town chanting the little English that they knew, “Hello.” “Hello.” “Hello.” It would have been a scene from a movie if it hadn’t been for the big black clouds in front of us.
As we moved steadily upward the clouds ghosted among the peaks keeping us hopeful we would make it to that night’s camp without getting christened. However, about 20 minutes out of camp our luck ran out and we finally got nailed. Thankfully, Shaischo camp has two rock shelters with a covered area between them that enabled us to wait out the rain before setting up our tents.
After a bowl of hot soup (ramen noodles taste so much better when you’re cold and wet), the rain finally ended and the porters began to get restless. It wasn’t long before a campfire was blazing and the entire group had gathered around. Blue expedition barrels were tested for tonality and the best of the lot was handed over to one of the older porters sitting front and center before the fire. He began to beat a rhythm with one hand while tapping with a stick in the other. One of the crew busted out a song with all the others immediately joining in for the chorus. There were clearly plenty of jokes in the lyrics because a few lines would be sung by one man before the others would roll over laughing and join in for the chorus.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before the dancing started and the whole thing—the uproarious laughter, the solo dancing, the rowdy songs—would normally have made you think this group of men gathered around a campfire in the middle of the mountains was completely loaded. Except that we’re in the Baltistan region of Pakistan and these men are Muslim and alcohol is strictly forbidden.
The next morning we once again fell in line behind the porters. As we ascended between the freshly dusted peaks above our guide, Ali Mohammed—whose job it was to get us from Islamabad to base camp—told us that in the fifteen years he’s been guiding this route this is the most snow he’s ever seen. This information had started early in the trip and was now arriving with increased regularity and apprehension. As if on que, snow began to fall.
By the time we arrived at base camp, the porters had dropped their loads and there was a small army of them waiting to be treated for everything from blisters to headaches to splinters. We broke out the First Aid kit and began handing out prescriptions. With their wounds patched and their wages in hand the porters headed back down to Hushe, hopeful that the next expedition would be along soon.
With the porters gone it was time to set up camp, which meant that after two days of trekking to over 4000m (13,123 ft) our work was not yet over. It was time to bust out the shovels and start digging tent platforms. We managed to get enough snow moved to hold us until we could put finishing touches on the next day before we closed shop and sat down for dinner. It was over a nice hot meal that we learned what had been bothering Ali about all the snow. “I don’t think we’ll be able to cross the Gondogoro-la. There’s too much snow.”
What!? If this were true it would change our plans dramatically. It would mean that after skiing Laila Peak we would have to turn back and retrace our steps all the way back to Skardu, take the jeep trail to Askole that had been washed out a few days before, and trek six days days to K2 base camp. This would be huge waste of time and energy. After the end of a long, hard day this was about the only news we could hear that would keep us up that night.