K2: The Long and Winding Road
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 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 at the foot of K2 and so dog tired that I simply wrap my big down bag around me and fall asleep. If the Earth wants to open up and swallow me whole, she’ll get me without a struggle tonight.
When Fredrik and I finally arrived at K2 base camp, we dropped our packs and high-fived as if we’d summited. We may not have a cook tent, medical bag, food, fuel, or a stove, but we 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. 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 a plan to have it brought on a subsequent carry.
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. We were reassured that our gear would follow right along behind us, so we set off for Huspang under a darkening sky. Sure enough, as soon as we 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 porters behind us in 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.
We started off at 6 a.m. Green Teeth drank tea and scanned the heavens for any kind of sign that would cancel our mission. As the day dawned, 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. The Safety Team deemed the avalanche risk too high to continue and called for a retreat. After the difficult approach, I was tired, hot, and fuming about having to retreat. Nice days are rare in the Karakorum, and if we didn’t fix the route right then, 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 he agreed the avalanche risk was too high, but we could return at midnight when conditions should be 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 a junk-show recipe, but I had no better plan 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, not our deadlines.
That night, we were up at 11:00, packed, fed, and ready to roll by midnight, only to discover that two of our porters had decided the avalanches, deep snow, and thousand-meter pass (3,281 feet) ahead wasn’t worth their $27 a day compensation. They had snuck off during the night. With the Safety Team waiting on us, we had to repack our gear and leave behind one 20-kilo (44-lb) bag at Huspang, to be gathered up later. We shed all non-essential climbing gear–books, extra clothing, meds, shampoo. 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, 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 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) of hardened avalanche debris. Halfway through, we saw the lights from the porters’ headlamps in the distance. Proving that the Safety Team was 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.
We topped out at 5,500 meters (18,045 feet) on Gondogoro-la. 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 8,000-meter peaks: K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I, and Gasherbrum II–as well as Gasherbrums III and IV, which are just a hair below 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). This area of the Karakorum mountains has the world's highest concentration of 8,000-meter peaks, 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, 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 they weren’t 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 three-hour, downhill, open-glacier walk. I say relatively because they were wearing plastic sneakers with holey socks and carrying 30-kilo (66-lb) loads on a glacier above 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). But 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, giving 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.
What the porters didn’t realize was that this was not Fredrik Ericsson’s first rodeo. Following his passion to ski 8,000-meter 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. He's had enough experience to know how to keep the ball rolling: “We go all the way to K2, or no tips for anyone,” he told them. The tent fell silent and we left them to consider the options.
By the time we departed Ali Camp at 2 a.m.–so that we could catch the snow when it was frozen hard and before the sun softened it into a slushy quagmire–they were still undecided. We wouldn’t know 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 moving down the Vigne glacier. We saw falling stars and flashes of light on the horizon that in west Texas we know of as the miracle of heat lightning. But here, near Kashmir and the disputed border with India, it could've been something else.
We arrived at Concordia by 5 a.m., with an icy wind blowing in our faces. The Baltoro clean-up 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 fundamental in Islamic culture. The porters dropped their loads, and in no time a cook tent of their own had gone up with a stove going 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 clean-up crew, about their efforts to educate both climbers and porters on the horrific pollution in the Baltoro glacier. In the past few weeks, the crew had removed 1,200 kilos (2,646 lb) of garbage, and by the end of the summer, he anticipated 22,000 kilos (48,502 lb) would have to be carried out of K2, Broad Peak, and Gasherbrum base camps. You can learn more about the effort at evk2cnr.org.
Fredrik and I thanked the crew for their hospitality and wished them luck in their valiant endeavor. If we were going to make it to K2, it was time to get moving. As Fredrik exited the tent, the porters outside rushed into their own cook tent and we could hear an enthusiastic discussion. Before long, several of the younger porters emerged and began breaking down the cook tent. They decided to come after all.
So that's how we ended up at K2 BC, readying 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, 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, go to FredrikEricsson.com.