K2 Base Camp – 5020m/16,470 ft
I’m just about to fall asleep when I hear a sharp crack from the ice directly beneath me. I’m not a huge fan of crevasses and a something like this would normally send me flying from the tent like I was shot from a cannon. But tonight I’m just so happy to be here and so dog tired that I simply wrap my big down bag around me and fall asleep. After all we’ve been through to get here if the Earth wants to open up and swallow me whole then tonight she’s lucky because it’s perhaps the only time she’ll get me without a struggle.
When Fredrik and I finally arrived here at the foot of K2 we dropped our packs and high-fived as if we’d summitted. We may not have a cook tent, medical bag, food, fuel or a stove but we finally made it and we couldn’t be happier.
The whole ordeal started when we left Hushe bound for K2 via Gondogoro-la with a quick side trip to try to climb and ski Laila Peak along the way. Hushe is where the road ends and the trekking begins but we were unable to find enough porters to carry all our climbing and ski gear, food, fuel and other equipment needed for a three-month expedition. So we left most of the food and fuel at Hushe with the plan that it would be brought along on a subsequent carry. Too easy, right?
By the time, we had made our attempt on Laila and were ready to move on to K2 the missing gear still had not shown up although the 19 porters needed to get us and our existing gear to Huspang camp had. Again, we were reassured that our missing gear would follow right along behind us so under a darkening sky we set off for Huspang. Sure enough as soon as we had entered the middle of the glacier the clouds dropped and we found ourselves in a whiteout with a light snow falling, post-holing to our knees with a line of 19 porters behind us wearing standard-issue white plastic sneakers with holes in their socks.
Needless to say it took us a bit longer than anticipated but we finally arrived at a snow-covered Huspang for what we thought would be a short night before crossing the Gondogoro-la the next day. That was until a big man with green teeth told us that the fixed ropes the porters would require to cross the la had been avalanched. Then the porters demanded a rest day to dry their socks. So we made a plan to join the Gondogoro Safety Team (ol’ Green Teeth as it were) the next day to refix the ropes so that we could leave the following day. Why not.
What was planned for a 5am start turned out to be more like 6am as Green Teeth drank tea and scanned the heavens for any kind of sign that would cancel our mission. As the day dawned ever more clear we reluctantly left Hushpang. What was supposed to have taken 1.5 hours to get to the base of the ropes took us (primarily Fredric and I) three hours of breaking trail through deep snow while Green Teeth guided from behind. By the time we reached the ropes around 9 a.m. the sun was blazing. True to form the Safety Team deemed the avalanche risk too high to continue and called for a retreat. After the difficult approach I was tired, I was hot and after learning that all this was for nothing I was now fuming. Nice days are hard to come by in the Karakorum and if we didn’t fix the route that day we’d be wasting a gorgeous day and pushing our plans back yet another day. At this rate we’d never reach K2. In the end, Fredrik’s cool mountain sense intervened and agreed the avy risk was too high now but that we could return at midnight when conditions were more stable. The porters could follow two hours behind us which would give us time to fix the ropes. To me, this idea sounded like the recipe for junkshow soup but I had no better plan of my own and had to agree.
That afternoon we all sat at Huspang and watched in awe as an endless deluge of avalanches ripped down the faces of the mountains surrounding us. It was absolutely amazing and a strong reminder that progress in the mountains is dictated by the mountains themselves and deadlines and schedules are best left at home.
That night we were up at 11:00, packed up, fed and ready to roll by midnight only to find out that two of our porters, apparently decided the avalanches, the deep snow and the thousand-meter pass (3,281 ft) ahead of them wasn’t worth the 27 dollars a day they were being paid, and snuck off during the night. Go figure. With the Safety Team waiting on us we now had to repack our gear so that we could leave one 20-kilo (44 lbs) bag at Huspang which would be gathered up as our trailing gear caught up with us. Which would, of course, be any day now.
A quick reshuffling of gear placed all non-essential climbing gear—books, extra clothing, meds, shampoo—into the abandoned barrel and the remaining gear into our own packs. By midnight we were on the trail with the Safety Team following us into the cold, clear night.
After crossing six different avalanche debris paths that had crossed our trail since the previous day we made the base of the route in two hours. Actually, Frippe made it in 1.5 hours and the rest of us made it in two.
After a bit of searching we found the fixed lines still intact and it was just a matter of chopping the ropes and kicking steps out of 1000 meters (3,281 ft) of hardened avy debris. As we reached halfway we saw the lights from the porters’ headlamps in the distance. Proving that the Safety Team were far from the ignorant slackers I had pinned them for, the first of the porters reached us just as we reached the top of the la. Ol’ Green Teeth knew exactly what he was doing and had his timing down within minutes.
If you haven’t already figured it out, la means ‘pass’ in Balti and topping out on the 5500m (18,045 ft) Gondogoro-la is worthy of a post by itself. Trekking from south to north you ascend the la with an amazing view of Masherbrum on your left and as you crest the saddle you are suddenly face-to-face with four 8000-meter peaks—K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum II and Gasherbrum I—as well as Gasherbrums III and IV which are just a hair below 8000m (26,247 ft). This area of the Karakorum mountains is the highest concentration of 8000m peaks in the world and seeing them from this altitude is a mind-blowing experience. We took advantage of the splitter morning weather to hang out at the top of the la for several hours taking pictures, eating a bite and generally just basking in the awesomeness of it all.
The descent from the la down the Vigne glacier was straightforward and we arrived at Ali Camp around noon, tired and happy after a magical night and day in the mountains. We were energized by the surroundings and with the thought of being just one day out of K2 base camp.
However, as we met with the porters to discuss the next day’s plan we learned that they weren’t as quite as excited to reach K2 as we were. They informed us that the next day they would only be going as far as Concordia, a relatively easy 3-hour, downhill open glacier walk. I say ‘relatively’ because you have to remember they’re wearing plastic sneakers with holey socks and carrying 30 kilo (66 lbs) loads on a glacier above 4000m (13,123 ft) . However, the trek to Concordia hardly constitutes a full day and it was only another four hours up the Godwin-Austen glacier to base camp. By leaving early we could easily be there before noon leaving them plenty of time to return to ‘porter party central’ at Concordia for the night. But they couldn’t be persuaded. Despite the rest day at Huspang, they told us they were too tired to make it all the way to K2 and that Concordia would be the next day’s final destination.
However, what the porters didn’t realize was that this was not Fredrik Ericsson’s first rodeo. Following his passion to ski 8000m peaks, Ericsson has navigated himself through a porter crisis or two. Like the time on Kangchenjunga when half the porters bailed as soon as they reached the glacier and the other half left when it started snowing. No, Fredrik has had enough experience in the porter game to know how to keep the ball rolling and after all the reasoning he could manage he was finally forced to show his hand.
“We go all the way to K2 or no tips for anyone.”
The tent fell silent and we left them to consider the options.
By the time we left Ali Camp at 2 a.m.—the early start was so that we could catch the snow when it was frozen hard and before the sun softened it into a slushy quagmire—a decision still hadn’t been made. We wouldn’t know the outcome until we reached Concordia. Despite the looming showdown, it was an amazing night, total silence except for the crunch of boots on hard snow and our own heavy breathing as we followed the line of headlamps as they moved down the Vigne glacier, miniscule points beneath a galaxy of stars on a moonless night. Falling stars and flashes of light on the horizon that in west Texas we know of as the miracle of heat lightning. Here, near Kashmir and the disputed border with India, it might simply be the beginning of nuclear holocaust.
We arrived at Concordia by 5 a.m. with an icy wind blowing in our faces. The Baltoro Cleanup crew welcomed us into their warm tent and thrust steaming cups of milk tea and fresh chapatis (Pakistani flour tortillas) into our hands—hospitality to strangers is a fundamentals of Islamic culture.
The porters dropped their loads and in no time a cook tent of their own had gone up with a stove fired up inside. It looked as though they were settling in.
The bitter wind shook the tent as we sipped tea and spoke with Raza, the personable leader of the Baltoro cleanup crew, about their efforts to educate both climbers and porters about the horrific pollution of the Baltoro glacier. In the past few weeks the crew had removed 1200 kilos (2,646 lbs)of garbage from the glacier and by the end of the summer he anticipated 22,000 kilos (48,502 lbs) would have to be carried out after a long-needed cleanup of K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum base camps. Learn more about their efforts at ev-k2-cnr.com.
Soon enough Fredrik and I stood to leave, thanked the crew for their hospitality and wished them luck in their valiant endeavor. We’d had time to rest and warm up but if we were going to make it to K2 then it was time to get moving. As Ericsson exited the tent the porters outside rushed into their own cook tent and we could hear an ‘enthusiastic’ discussion inside. Before long, several of the younger porters emerged and began breaking down the cook tent. K2 here we come!
K2 Base Camp
So here we are at K2 BC gearing up for our first trip up the mountain tomorrow. We’ll try to reach Camp 1 and perhaps spend a few nights there acclimatizing and scoping the route. We still don’t have a base camp cook tent, stove, food or fuel or the bag we left in Huspang but for now our focus is getting up the mountain and we’re hopeful that all those other minor details will work themselves out by the time we get back. Inshallah (God willing).
To learn more of Fredrik Ericsson’s past expeditions and about his quest to ski the world’s three highest mountains check out www.FredrikEricsson.com.