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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Trip report for K2 Base Camp & Gondogoro La led by Roland Hunter in August 2011

Photo: rockfall at Urdukas camp

This year’s K2 trek started on an inauspicious note when I found out the evening before flying to Pakistan there had been a landslide on the train line from London to Gatwick…landslides are not common in London however I gather this incident was caused by a burst water pipe. I only found out about this by chance while reading BBC website so then arranged a minicab to airport- if I had not read this on evening before I would have probably missed my flight!

The Mountain Company's K2 Base Camp & Gondogoro La group met up in Islamabad on August 6th and next morning as planned we went to the airport for the flight to Skardu in northern Pakistan. We were informed by airline around midday this flight was cancelled due to bad weather in Skardu valley. After reviewing the weather forecasts for next few days the chances of flying looked low so we decided start driving on early morning 8th along the infamous Karakoram Highway (KKH), we decided to take the road over Babusar Pass (4,200m) rather than following KKH through Besham in Kohistan region.

The drive went well and after spending a night in Chilas at Shangri La hotel we continued onto Skardu and along the way we only encountered two small landslides on KKH resulting in a slight delay. This was the first time that I had driven over the Babusar Pass I can highly recommend this road as not only is it shorter than going through Besham it also passes through a beautiful valley. There is less risk of landslides blocking this road and also this Babusar valley has better security than Kohistan along KKH.

On morning of August 9th we took jeeps from Skardu to Askole, this village is the starting point for K2 Base Camp trek. For our first five days on the trek we experienced cloudy conditions and most days we got some rain by late afternoon or evening. Based on my previous six treks to K2 this amount of precipitation was unusual. My concern at this stage was the amount of fresh snow falling on the Gondogoro La pass increasing the risk of avalanche on Concordia side and also rockfall/ mudslides on Hushe side. In fact there had already been one incident earlier in the summer when one porter had been killed and also a number of others injured as a result of a rock slide near Gondogoro La pass.

On August 16th we had a rest day at Urdukas camp at an altitude of 4,130m, Urdukas is known as a good campsite located off the glacier so much warmer for the crew and also has fixed facilities such as toilets and washbasins provided by an NGO called Mountain Glacier Pakistan. Urdukas is a fine place for a rest day as at 4,100m it is helpful for acclimatising before continuing onto Concordia. On our rest day all of the Mountain Co groups are given mountaineering training with demonstration and practice sessions for the techniques required for crossing the Gondogoro La pass.

At 2pm while I was instructing one of our team members I was shocked to feel the ground shaking and then heard the dreaded rumbling noise of rockfall, immediately I ran over to the top of the hill overlooking camp to see how much rock had fallen. My worst fears had come true as it was apparent that the large rock above Urdukas had fallen and then crashed down through camp to the glacier below destroying everything in its path. There was much confusion over the next hour as we attempted to check all of our trek crew however luckily we knew early on that all of our trekking group were fine.

Sadly it became apparent that three of our porters had been killed in this rockfall and one porter had sustained a shoulder injury and there were also three other porters from another group that had been injured. In fact there were eight porters camped directly under the rock and when this fell luckily for them the rock bounced over their heads and continued down the slope. Fortunately in our group we had a veterinary doctor and a nurse, they performed a superb job turning our mess tent into a field hospital and immediately started to provide medical assistance. At this point I was in touch via satellite phone with our Pakistan ground operator in Islamabad to explain the situation and request an immediate helicopter evacuation. From our initial assessment it became apparent that two injured porters from the other group needed to be flown to hospital as soon as possible.

As I explained the situation to our local agent they immediately started to set in motion the organisation of a helicopter rescue by contacting all of their connections. As a result of their impressive efforts Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan approved a humanitarian mission by helicopter to evacuate the bodies and injured porters. The next day at 11am a Russian helicopter (MI 17) landed at Urdukas and in fact this was only possible due to the work from members of our group who set to work extending the helipad to enable a large helicopter to land. And even after all of their work there was barely sufficient room for landing and at the time I was worried the helicopter might abort and fly back to Skardu! I gather this was the first time in history of the Baltoro that a helicopter had been used for the emergency evacuation of porters (rather than foreigners), so many thanks to Pakistan Army and all involved for arranging this.

After the helicopter had taken off flying back to Skardu we had a meeting with our porters to figure out plans for the rest of the trek. Initially all of the porters made the decision to return to their villages and of course while the group was disappointed we accepted bearing in mind what happened and of course understanding their shock after this sad event. Following the porters’ initial decision however after an hour or so it became clear some porters were keen to proceed with trek. After protracted discussions a deal was struck where we would stay at Concordia for two nights although the porters made it clear that they did not want to cross the Gondogoro La pass. In the end half or our porters decided to leave to return to their villages and we continued on with the trek with the remaining porters.

As the group trekked to Concordia on August 19th the weather started to clear and we were lucky to get fine views of Gasherbrun IV at head of the valley. On the next day during our walk to K2 Base Camp and Gilkey memorial the views of K2, Broad Peak and other surrounding mountains were superb. The weather stayed fine for the rest of the walk down the Baltoro so we were lucky to get fine views of Masherbrum, Mustagh Tower, Broad Peak, Gasherbrums, the rock spires of Trango, Cathedral, Lobsang etc.

The porter tragedy at Urdukas was an incredibly sad day for everyone however at least we know that we did everything possible in the situation by providing medical assistance and arranging helicopter evacuation back to Skardu. Everyone in our group pitched in any way they could to help out so I would like to thank everyone very much for their efforts.

The camping terraces at Urdukas campsite were first cut out by Duke of Abruzzi and Vittorio Sella's 1909 expedition to K2 over 100 years ago and since then this place has been used by every trekking and expedition group visiting the Baltoro on their way to Concordia. Therefore we were simply incredibly unlucky for this sad event to have happened while we were camping at Urdukas.

As anyone who has spent time in the mountains knows there is always a degree of objective risk associated with travelling in these areas especially Karakoram range where rock is loose and mountains steep so the resulting risk of rockfall and landslides is relatively high. Of course for the Balti people of Braldu and Hushe valleys this risk is even experienced in their villages and was brought home last year when a number lost their lives due to flash flooding in Skardu and Talis village.

Several members of our K2 group and also The Mountain Company have donated funds to the family of dead porters, this contribution will help until their insurance claim is processed and their money received in 5 to 6 months time. If anyone reading this blog feels like they would like to help contribute to these families then please get in touch with us and we can help arrange this for you.

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company