Another year, another mountain. I had always wanted to visit the Karakorum and decided that now, while I still had all the kit from Everest, would be a good time. Also, I had been told while on Everest that your body somehow remembers an experience of very high altitude for a year or two, and copes with it much better with it  in that period. So if I wanted to take advantage of that, now was the time. There was no way that I was willing or able to attempt K2, but a mountain called Gasherbrum II, the thirteenth highest in the world,  looked quite an appealing prospect. Not too dangerous, and at just over 8,000 metres, still a very impressive height. So I looked around on the Internet for an expedition. There were quite a few from operators all around the world, but one thing I don't like about booking expeditions like this is that you can rarely pay by credit card, so it's a bit of a risk sending your money off to a bank account in Australia or wherever. There was one British company offering an expedition, but a significantly cheaper option was to go with Amical Alpin, a German operation. I didn't mind sending my money to Germany too much. And I concluded that my 'O' level German would just about see me through, and it would be a good opportunity to improve my German. So, after a short visit to the Black Forest to meet some of them for the weekend, I booked.

The expedition began in mid June in Islamabad, where I met the remaining members. Unfortunately what I hadn't taken into consideration was that a lot of people on a German expedition might be Austrian or Swiss. Most of them in fact were. This meant two problems. Firstly they had such strong accents that, at least when I first met them, some of them might have been speaking Finnish for all I could tell.  And living in the Alps meant that they had been climbing since they were children, and climbed almost every weekend, so they were much much more experienced than me, even if only a few of them had climbed as high before.  But anyway, they were friendly enough for the most part, and my ability to understand alpine accents slowly improved, as did my technical climbing knowledge, so things mostly worked out.

After a couple of days in Islamabad, we spent two days driving up theKarakorum Highway to Skardu. The Karakorum Highway sounds very romantic, but I have to say that I found driving along it a little bit boring. The first day we drove for fifteen hours, mostly along the side of the Indus river, through bone dry mountains,  with very little variety, and just occasional bridge crossings allowing you to swap a view of the rock face out of which the road was cut for a view of the seething brown river below. The second day, however, was more interesting, with great views of Nanga Parbat and the Skardu Valley as we approached our destination, Skardu.

After two nights in Skardu we drove for a further day by jeep up to the last village, Askole. The next day we began our walk in. This took seven days, including one rest day, and the scenery, as you'd expect, was spectacular. It's very different from the Himalayas in that there's not much greenery - it's largely rock and ice, but as such it's much wilder and indeed there's a greater concentration of mountains above 7,000 metres here than in the Himalayas.

So after seven days we reached Base Camp, situated on a moraine at about 4,800 metres and surrounded by ice.  We spent a couple of days there before making a start for Camp I. This was in a wonderfully located spot, high up on the glacier adjacent to Base Camp. However to get there we had to set off at two in the morning to cross the horribly crevassed icefall. The first time it was quite daunting, but we gradually got more accustomed to it. We returned directly from Camp I that same day, so that we were descending the icefall in the early morning. Then, after a day's rest, we went up again, this time spending the night at Camp I before coming back down. And then again, for a third acclimatisation climb, we climbed up to spend a night at Camp II, at around 6400 metres.  After that we all were ready for a rest at Base Camp while we waited for a good weather window. We had about three weeks available in which to make our summit bid, so we were all in quite a relaxed frame of mind.  However, shortly after returning to Base Camp, we were sitting having lunch and  Michi, one of the two expedition leaders, announced that the weather forecast for the next five days was very good, and that tomorrow we would go back up to commence the summit bid. This was quite daunting since we were all still quite tired from the last few days, and also we were not yet as acclimatised as we would have liked. But I think it was definitely the right decision since in some years there is no weather window at all, and we could have found ourselves very frustrated sitting around for weeks in bad weather knowing that we had missed an early opportunity to climb the mountain.

So, early the next morning, feeling a little shell-shocked, we set off for the fourth and final time up the icefall. We spent the night at Camp I, and then headed up early the next day for Camp III, bypassing Camp II, to spend the night at just under 7,000 metres.  And at this point it started to become clear that the prediction which I had been given on Everest about being better able to cope with altitude a second time around, simply wasn't coming true. I felt just the same here as I had at a similar height on Everest, at the North Col. I didn't feel ill, and mentally I felt very alert, but any movement was just such an effort. I was continuously out of breath, and it was as if my lungs simply couldn't get enough oxygen to my legs for me to move them. As a result I arrived at the camp quite a while after the others, and David, the other leader warned me that if I was to have a hope of reaching the summit I would need to climb significantly faster during the next two days.

The next day we got up early to climb to Camp IV, at around 7,400 metres.  The weather remained good, and at this height the views really were spectacular - you could see a vast stretch of mountains and back down to the Baltoro Glacier which we had previously walked up.  But my pace was no better, worse in fact.  Even a short stretch of slope became daunting. I got to Camp IV at about 4 p.m.  and after a short discussion with Michi agreed that I would not attempt the summit. There would be no way that I could keep up with the other expedition members, and I would end up high on the mountain, very late in the day,  not a good idea. Also, I'm afraid, motivation rather left me.  It was now getting cold, with a strong wind, and I was tired. The idea of standing on top of the mountain seemed less appealing. My mind told me that I had come here to see the Karakorum, and I had done that.

So the next morning I came back down while the other members climbed on further up. Eventually a total of nine out of fourteen members reached the summit, plus the two leaders and two high altitude porters, an extremely impressive success rate for an 8,000 metre peak.  I stopped at Camp III and waited for the others to come down. Grigor, another expedition member, reached me, feeling unwell after summitting, and I agreed to stay with him for the night at Camp III, something I was happy to do, since it would give me the chance to spend some time appreciating the views more. The next day I went back down with Grigor to Base Camp.

 After that we still had two weeks before our flights home.  According to the expedition brochure we were to return by a four day walk crossing a high pass to reach a village from where we could get jeeps to Skardu, which was something to look forward to. However, it began to snow, and apparently porters do not like to cross the pass when it's snowing. So we were given no choice but to go back the way we had come.  We completed this 100km walk in three days (two full days and two half days) which I considered a bit ridiculous given that we had taken seven days coming up the same way, and descending did not make it any faster, since the gradient was so gentle (you only drop 1,500m in that distance). Even though we had already been this way, I would have enjoyed being able to stop and take in the scenery a bit more. Anyway, we all made it back to Askole somehow.

 After returning to Skardu, most of the expedition members continued their breakneck return to Europe by driving straight back down the Karakorum Highway and taking a flight early the next morning. Clearly they had seen enough of the country.  However six of us, including me, took a short tour up to the Hunza Valley.  This is quite interesting, with lots of orchards fed by impressively built irrigation canals coming down from the glaciers.  And it has more mountains, so we did a day trek, but it did seem rather tame after the Karakorum.

After two days in the Hunza we drove back down to Islamabad from where the remaining five expedition members flew home. Unable to change my ticket, I visited Lahore and the remarkable Taxila for a few days before flying home at the end of July.


Posted on Monday, December 30, 2013 at 11:13 by Registered CommenterRobert Ulph | CommentsPost a Comment