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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Trip report for K2 Base Camp & Gondogoro in Pakistan during July/ August 2017

Photo: K2, second highest mountain in the world, in Pakistan

Like in 2016, this year we also decided to run two treks to K2 Base Camp in Pakistan at the same time: our K2 Base Camp & Concordia and our K2 Base Camp & Gondogoro La. The plan was for both groups to walk together to K2 Base Camp then one group would return back down Baltoro and the second group from Concordia would follow Vigne glacier and ascend over the Gondogoro La pass to Hushe village. After the trek both groups were scheduled to meet back up again in Skardu then travel together back to Islamabad. These K2 Base Camp treks were led by Chris Horobin and supported by Pakistan guides Zahid and Manzoor.

In 2017 we started our K2 Base Camp treks 10 days earlier than in 2016 as we felt the weather tends to be better in July given the poor conditions experienced by our 2016 group. Clearly the weather in Karakoram varies year to year however our 2017 K2 Base Camp groups were lucky to experience excellent weather with fine views of the mountains and good conditions for crossing Gondogoro la high pass. Chris summarised the weather in his post trip report as follows “Excellent, hot, generally sunny (a couple of overcast days), no rain. Could not have been better really.”

Our K2 Base Camp groups arrived to Islamabad on July 22nd and took the Pakistan International Airways ("PIA") flight as scheduled to Skardu on 23rd. In the past the PIA flight to Skardu has been unreliable and if cancelled then the group has to undertake a two day bus drive along the Karakoram Highway (“KKH”). However as mentioned in our trip report for 2016 K2 Base Camp treks the flight to Skardu has become more reliable over last few years as there are more planes flying the route from Islamabad to Skardu so the chances of having to drive KKH are reduced (although of course still possible).

Photo: Gilkey memorial near K2 Base Camp

The other advantage of flying to Skardu rather than driving KKH is that the group has two nights at the hotel in Skardu before the drive to Askole where the trek starts from. This means the group had the day of July 24th to relax and explore Skardu town, this also gives time for our leaders to do last minute checks and organisation before heading off.

For 2017 we made changes with the hotels used for our K2 Base Camp treks, in Islamabad we now use Hotel Hillview as this is higher standard than Chancery Guesthouse used in previous years. In Skardu we have been using K2 Motel for many years in fact since my first visit to Pakistan in 2005 when I organised an expedition to climb Broad Peak. Over the last few years we received some poor feedback on K2 Motel and so for 2017 we switched to Concordia Motel. The feedback from the group on both Hotel Hillview and Concordia Motel has so far been positive so we plan to use again for 2018 treks.

On July 25th the group drove in local jeeps along the rough and exposed jeep track to the roadhead at the village of Askole. On July 26th they started their trek following the fast flowing Braldu river. We have carefully designed our K2 Base Camp itinerary for gradual acclimatisation and unlike most other companies we decide not have two nights in Paiju (3,383m) as this is too low to benefit from acclimatisation. Instead we continue onto Urdukas camp (4,130m) where we have two nights as this more beneficial at this altitude and also the views from this camp over to Trango Towers are spectacular!

Photo: Choire's tent with view of K2 (credit: Choire Horobin)

At The Mountain Company we have a procedure where we carefully vet and screen all applications to ensure the trip is an appropriate objective for that person and we are especially careful for treks in Pakistan. There are a number of factors that make treks in Pakistan more challenging than in other Himalayan trekking destinations such as Nepal or Bhutan including the very hot weather conditions, a very rough jeep ride along an exposed track between Skardu and Askole, rugged trails along loose & rocky moraine while on Baltoro glacier, the risk of rockfall and landslides, no villages with facilities after Askole and river crossings as often there are no bridges etc etc.

The other consideration is the difficulty of getting helicopters for medical evacuation. It is worth pointing out that unlike Nepal there are no commercial helicopter operators in Pakistan instead we have to rely on the use of army helicopters. Many people have got used in Nepal to having quick and efficient evacuations by helicopter. Whereas in Pakistan for serious medical situations it is possible to arrange helicopter evacuations however this process takes longer, it is not straightforward and also depends on availability of helicopters. For example if helicopters are busy on training exercises or other military commitments then it may take longer to arrange and the protocol in Pakistan is for helicopters to always fly in pairs. Therefore if this is a non urgent medical evacuation the most likely mode of extraction is by horse and this is not a very comfortable ride!

Our leader Chris comments on his group’s experience for K2 Base Camp trek as follows:

“Overall I would sum it up by advising that of this group most thoroughly “enjoyed” it but thought it was the hardest thing they had ever done. K2 Base Camp remains a very challenging expedition and whilst no one advised that they had been ill advised prior to the expedition it is important that the Mountain Company keep its vigorous vetting procedure as to previous experience and fitness levels required. It is a mix of heat, difficult terrain, dirt and dust, altitude that wears people down and this should not be underestimated. Whilst the Gondogoro La section of the trip has now been equipped with new ropes the decent is still dangerous, steep and loose and requires a mix of rope skills to be safely undertaken.”

Photo: climbing up Gondogoro La

On August 3rd the group successfully walked up to K2 Base Camp and Gilkey memorial then after sleeping a night at Broad Peak Base Camp on evening of 3rd they awoke to glorious views of the majestic K2 mountain. After breakfast the group walked back down to Concordia and after group discussions the decision was made by Chris for the Gondogoro La group to head to Ali Camp towards the pass. As planned on August these two groups split with Chris and Zahid leading their group over Gondogoro La and Manzoor leading the K2 Base Camp group back down the Baltoro glacier to Askole.

Well done to both groups for achieving their objectives with the Gondogoro La group successfully crossing this technical high pass 5,500m+ and for K2 Base Camp group for walking up to Gilkey memorial and to the Base Camp for second highest mountain in the world. Both of our K2 Base Camp groups arrived safely back to Skardu on August 10th and then flew back to Islamabad on 11th.

It is important that people who sign up for K2 Base Camp trek understand the risks involved and are prepared and ready to accept these uncertainties. For many people who have successfully trekked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal they will find K2 Base Camp a far more challenging objective. Having said this the feedback from the seven K2 Base Camp groups organised by The Mountain Company since 2008 has been very positive. I think this trek is rightly included in Lonely Planet's article The 10 Best Treks in the World.

The mountain scenery on K2 Base Camp trek has no doubt some of the best views anywhere in the world with a series of impressive mountains getting progressively larger as one ascends Baltoro and Godwin Austen glaciers towards K2 Base Camp. The crossing of Gondogoro La is a classic high pass with views of Leila Peak from the top and a challenging ascent down loose scree to the lovely grassy camp at Khuspang. The advantage of crossing Gondogoro La pass is that this completes a circuit trek and once over the pass you walk down a new valley to Hushe village.

We used SPOT gps tracker for this group, for each night on trek Chris checked in sending a gps signal to us so we could track this group's progress ---> K2 Base Camp GPS map

Thanks very much to Chris, Zahid and Manzoor plus the rest of the Pakistan team for their hard work in leading this trek.

The Mountain Company is promoting both our K2 Base Camp & Concordia and K2 Base Camp & Gondogoro La for July 2018.

Please get in touch with us if you have any questions on K2 Base Camp trek and if you would like to discuss your suitability or additional training required to join this trek in the future.

Roland Hunter

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