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Essays and Travelogs

Concordia 2013 – a return to Karakoram trekking

 

Photos from the trip: Concordia 2013-Rizwan Bajwa

Going back to the mountains to relive the passion is like meeting your ex after a decade. Initially you think of all the masterful moments and all the spectacular times that you had and how beautiful it was but shortly thereafter the bitter moments sink in and the pain starts to sting.  I had been planning a grand return to the Karakorum for some years now but on the other side of 30 it just gets tougher and tougher each summer. In 2011 it took a trip with someone special to break the ice with the Karakorum. In 2012 it took a 3 day jaunt with that someone special to really feel the groove and wonder why this wasn’t done for so many years. In the immediate aftermath of my 2012 trek across the Thalley la I started putting feelers out there to see who was up for something a bit longer, something like a Concordia. It turned out that not many of the old crowd had missed the widely acclaimed Concordia trip of 2001 and who ever had missed out had not wasted years in setting the record straight. I realized that everyone and their granny had been up the Baltoro and yawned while telling me about their experience. I chatted with Hasan Karrar sometime in early summer this year and he took me back to LAS’s first ever great traverse – the Biafo-Hisper Odyssey of 2000 and said that the toughest day on the Baltoro is the easiest day on the Biafo.

So Asad Farooq and I had been hatching this plan since January when Asad started showing off his expensive gear that he had collected over the course of the past year. I had also been piecing together things from here and there for some time now. Had an old school head lamp from 2002, my old friend Ali Moscow decided to sell me his sleeping bag which incidentally became my first down bag ever, coaxed another friend from Islamabad into selling his backpack and so the list went on. Come July and certain things were set in motion which resulted in the plan in almost being shelved and extremely pissed Asad for the rest of the year. We decided to jump the gun and pull the start date back and flew into skardu on the 5th of August, after going through the expected anguish of a flight cancellation on the 4th.

I had spent all winter rock climbing in the margalla’s in Islamabad. For those wanting to check out what rock climbing in Islamabad looks like, they need to google ‘monkey business Islamabad’ and download the pdf. Islamabad has got to be the rarest of capital cities in the world where you can get anything between a 5 to 7c grades of rock-climbing on a Sunday morning at a stone’s throw from a main urban artery. During these Sunday escapades I had met a guy from Gilgit called Jamshed and hence I got Asad to agree that Jamshed should be part of this trip of ours and we should rely on him to guide us to Concordia. I had pushed Jamshed on the KKH on the 3rd so that he could carry most of the gear and supplies along with 2 bottles of the good stuff.

“Be at the k-2 motel on the morning of the 5th so that if we are on that flight, then we can push off for askoli by noon”, I told Jamshed in earnest.

“Ok sir, done”

“Get all the porter rations, kerosene, rope, screws, jerry cans, drum etc by the 4th so that we waste NO TIME on the 5th ok?”

“Ok sir, done”

“Make sure you are in Skardu on the 4th so that a jeep ride can be arranged and find a decent porter sardar”

“Ok sir, done”

“And protect the good stuff with your life; I look forward to warming my bones at Concordia”

“Ok sir, done”

I should have known better I guess but come touchdown at Skardu airport; Jamshed was nowhere to be found. All cell numbers were unreachable. I finally reached his uncle who informed Jamshed that I was looking for him. I called his uncle again an hour later to discover that our friend had just departed from Gilgit since he had slept in that morning. There went the grand plan of leaving on the 5th. It is there when Asad started using the word ‘gimp’ quite liberally. I had other words in mind, tending more towards the expletive kinds. The remainder of the day was spent putting essential gear together and Jamshed who would be christened Jimmy soon thereafter, arrived late afternoon. I had decided that to beat the stress a bottle of the good stuff need be consumed and that is when Asad and I heard the obviously bullshit story about some expected police check post where there was massive checking going on and jimmy had been forced to stash the stuff at some hotel. He promised to have it picked up by some friends in Skardu and we could chill on the way out. Somehow I thought him having overslept earlier that day had a lot to do with our merchandise. The next morning we arranged for porter rations, rope, screws, jumars etc since we planned to be coming over the Gondogoro La.

An eventful jeep ride fraught with 3 roadblocks and one stretch which looked like it was about to become roadblock number 4, landed us in perhaps the most unpleasant settlement inhabited by the highest concentration of Asad’s ‘gimps’ to be found in Pakistan. There is a fair number of ‘gimps’ in my ancestral village in the central Punjab but Askoli has definitely taken the cake. Both on the way in and the way out we were being ripped off, ten rupee bank note by ten rupee bank note. I wished that they would just do it in one go but I was reminded again and again that we were amongst gimps. We arrived in the dark at the Askoli campsite and after breaking camp we proceeded to the so called restaurant.

It was by far the worst meal of Aloo Palak that I have ever eaten in my entire life and it was only to be topped off by the Omelet and Paratha prepared by some adolescent which was passed off as breakfast the next morning.

 

Positively delighted to put Askoli to heel we set out early the next morning cursing under our breath about how the residents of Askoli have evolved over the years but soon we were gunning it for lunch at Korophon. Everything was proceeding according to plan since it was a sweltering day and the crisp mountain air felt pleasant as it sneaked in to chill the perspiration between the back and the backpack. It was liberating to leave all the clutter behind and that put an extra skip in my step. a bit of the stretch around Korophon was passing bang in front of the snout of the Biafo which put a nostalgic twang or two in the air. In the summer of 2000 I had gotten interested in a trip to someplace called the deosai. A bunch of nut job students and similarly inclined faculty were involved in something called the LAS and were plotting to cross this Deosai place from Gilgit and land in Skardu. I had never been beyond Abbottabad in my life prior to that trip but upon completing the deaosai, one of the guys who was supposed to be on the next leg which was a 6 person-4 porter traverse across a place called snowlake, dropped out. I jumped at the opportunity to see this next leg through when Hasan offered me the spot. what happened can be found in another post listed under Biafo-Hisper but walking past Korophon that day, a lot of memories from that landmark trip came back. It was a great day, albeit the heat, but it couldn’t have been worse that Asad was struck by injury that very afternoon as he pulled his calf muscle and landed in obvious pain. This injury that was incurred on day one after lunch stayed with him till day last as we pulled into Askoli but i can’t think of an instance where he whined or complained the slightest. In retrospect I suppose I was pleased with Asad’s state of well-being since it meant that I was not be fazed about shoring up the tail for the  duration of the trek. As a result of his pulled calf, I found a trekking buddy who would more or less remain in sight over the next ten days, since I was cognizant of the fact that Asad was a super fit runner. It was the wrong muscles he had been working out. A backpack of weight and walking on heels was something his legs were not used to and in particular, his calf.

The days up to Concordia were extremely hot and it got painful at many points during the course of the trek up but it also meant that the views remained spectacular all day and night and got better with each passing day. We got an early start every day, which is an anomaly when it comes to old school LAS and I was reminded of what a porter sardar said to us over a decade ago: When others start pulling into camp you people are stretching out of your tents to get started. This time around, we were up and running by 7 am almost every morning and part of me was happy to do this since it would start getting oppressively hot by 11 am. The days to Paiju were very taxing on me and I even ran a slight fever upon reaching Paiju. The next day we thought of making a push for Urdukas which Asad positively mispronounced as Uskidaar and ended up christening Turkish camp. By the time we reached the break for lunch at the Liligo campsite which counted for a single stage that day, I was peeved to discover that due to the lack of water, no one from our party had bothered waiting. I ran off a rant and then proceeded to breakdown and committed myself to walking back out. Asad was patient and calmed me down but I was convinced that I would be putting an end to the torturously hot 8 hour days the very next day on my way down. I guess the feeling of dread when I thought of Askoli kept me in doubt since by then we were still sticking to a Gondogoro crossing into Hushe. Asad and I dragged ourselves into Khoburtse totally wasted by the heat. We requested a fellow trekking party to allow us to park our asses in their mess tent to beat the heat and they obliged.

At Khoburtse I went on to relive the breakdown suffered earlier at Liligo where Jimmy and particularly Asad went on to counter my seemingly rational arguments for calling it quits. I changed tactics by invoking Asad’s damaged calf and urged him to avoid a muscle tear.

“Dude I will never make that call”

I thought of the time when we ascended on to the Baltoro after leaving Paiju earlier that day. The Baltoro was a monster in size, although a lot gentler looking and behaving than the Biafo but something about it was very cold and impersonal. Years after having trekked the Biafo, there is a strong sense of affinity I feel with that glacier and with anyone who has trekked its endless moraines and negotiated its crevasses. With the Baltoro there is nothing like but a feeling of being distant. I suppose too many have staked a claim to the affections of the Baltoro and that this may have something to with the monetization of the Baltoro economy where the only talk is that of money and commodities, where one can forget of striking up genuine conversation with any porter. The jeep drivers want a track all the way to Paiju, the porters want to carry up a bottle of coke to Concordia where they try and sell it for PKR 2,000, the mule driver will charge you for every extra 100 grams and the MGPO campsite managers will try and bully out supplies from your rations. The Karakorums were never a friend to anyone but solitude is a hard commodity to come by on the Baltoro, especially amongst miles of mule dung and tons of used army canisters.

One of the positive aspects of the trip was meeting all sorts of interesting people from all over the world.  Some of the trekking tour operator guides were also great to talk to and jimmy was almost always found trying to confirm rumors of some Korean girls trekking party from the various tour operators. We quite enjoyed Greg, Sato and Toshi’s company who were part of 2 other trekking parties all the way to Concordia.

The day to Turkish camp was uneventful and short. I was glad to have a day to chill, swat away the swarms of flies, drink soup, look for rocks where safe haven could be found from the piercing rays of the sun, urge jimmy to not free climb on vertical rock faces and watch Asad and Greg take a shower-one after the other of course. I found the 4 wash basin’s to be quite a luxury and the incident of the rock boulders breaking apart and killing porters a few years back totally harrowing. Turkish camp was a comprehensive treat had it not been for the swarms of flies feasting on generous spattering of mule dung.  Another treat was the food. Gone were the years of maggi noodles and various concoctions that induce retching even from the sturdiest of guts. I believe that Freshmate which is a Pakistani company based out of Karachi has revolutionized trekking for us forever. I discovered them off the rack at my local Islamabad department store a couple of years back and tried it out on the thalley la crossing in august 2012 where my partner and I found food something to look forward to all day. Asad pointed out the serious lack of nutritious value in a 2 person pouch of food which is priced anywhere between 120-220 rupees. My take on this is that how else could one have lakhnaway kabab, shaami kabab, daal fry, palak paneer, mutton achari, chicken karahi, chicken ginger, chicken white haandi, mutton haandi, aloo qeema and the various other desi treats with fresh chappatti’s while watching the chaand raat crescent rise above the trango’s ?  I believe that Freshmate has revolutionized how we will think of food on self-organized treks since it is now possible to get great tasting desi meals which weigh next to nothing. We all know the value of such a meal after a rough day of trekking very well. Bye bye maggi noodles. You know it was brilliant while it lasted but it is mostly over baby.

 

Getting to Goro-2 was a lot easier, especially with the queen of the Karakorum, the Masherbrum in full and clear view for almost the entire day. This mountain has got to be the most spectacularly pretty mountain known to humans and was a welcome sight for sore eyes and feet. If at any point I felt tired of craning my neck to the right to catch the Masherbrum, i stretched it to the left to check out the Trango family or just look up straight and catch the Gasherbrums. Not a bad place to be in indeed, now if only something could be done about the endless trail of mule turd.

Earlier that day we started out and took the first turn which was wrong and ended up lost until porters shouted us on track from the middle of the Baltoro. After getting on track we proceeded to do good time and well Masherbrum kept things bright and spectacularly spellbinding for us. I was now on my fifth day of trekking and altitude had been a constant niggle from the night at Paiju and it had gotten a lot more exacerbated. In Concordia I was thoroughly breathless, only to feel better on the descent. I suppose all those years of not staying fit, letting the paunch develop and simply missing out on treks to the mountains was exerting its toll on my body. Aching, bruised and blistered feet stayed with me throughout the trip and reaching Concordia on the sixth day of trekking was a relief of sorts. The excruciatingly hot sun vanished that day and swirls of clouds moved on Concordia from down the Baltoro and started sporadic showers on our approach to the Baltoro. Asad and I were peeved to notice that the King was through clouded over along with broad peak and the rest of the peaks but we had nothing to do that but to crane our necks upwards and wait for a sneak peek. We moved up the mound where the weather station is placed and plotted ourselves on a boulder each with our cameras. Jimmy ferried over soup and other eatables all day but we stayed put up there. All day we kept our eyes on the summits and managed to end with great shots. Throughout the trek we had been in an ambiguous state about the Gondogoro La crossing. Apparently the pass had been closed due to ‘security concerns’ but no one could put their finger on it. I think some army officer had managed to get atop the La and ‘see’ India. On his return at a random meet up with fellow men in uniform during an inane evening at the Skardu officers mess he had just yapped how people could easily see the unholy land of India and that our eyes need be spared the sight. Soon word must have gotten to some brigadier who dropped it in some general’s ears and that was that. With the La, officially closed to foreigners and we knew that no Hushe rope team would be there either. This development spells disaster for the livelihoods of the people of Hushe and I don’t know quite what to do about it. Along the way we met a couple of army liaison officers and the most we could do is make emphatic appeals for the opening of the La but I think that these young warriors were more interested in the 15 bucks a day bonus they get and in chasing whatever skirt they can find in various trekking parties. The La also has a nasty reputation for rock fall and slippery slopes so we had prepared well by carrying rope and other essential gear. However with the weather copping out on us so dramatically the nail was already in the coffin and I urged Asad for a return the next morning.

At the break of dawn I stepped out in the chill to relieve myself and witnessed the view of a lifetime.  The King was fully visible pasted on to a dull blue sky, minutes away from being set alight by the first rays of the sun. Breathless from the effects of altitude, I crawled back into my sleeping bag letting Asad know of the show that the King was putting on outside. I don’t know how he did it but he hauled himself out to snap away memorable pictures of the king in the pre-morning light. What he got was a swathe of cloud shrouding the center of the mountain just short of the north east shoulder. Otherwise the King was in full element. After a quick breakfast we began the descent and I thought of the eeriness of Concordia amongst the dozens of trekking parties that were camped there dotting the rocky and mule dung covered stench infused atmosphere. It had been a bloody year at the base camps around Concordia with just over 10 mountaineering related deaths.

The heat of the previous 6 days was a distant memory as a bone chill descended over Concordia which was carried up by a weather system that was seemingly choking the Baltoro below. It didn’t look good and Asad I decided to make a push straight down to Turkish camp. Somehow our perception of distance and time didn’t quite tally very well with the experience of the ascent up to Concordia and we found the trek to be a far more elongated than perceived earlier. Moreover, we ran short on drinking water after lunch which can be attributed to a general sense of disdain and laziness towards collecting a healthy amount of water to carry with us that day. It took us almost 11 hours but by the end of it we were parched and horribly dehydrated and completely wasted. The only positive aspect was that there was no sun and the looming cloud cover that was choking Concordia re-assured us that we had made the right choice in deciding to push out. The treks from Turkish camp to Paiju and onward to Jhola were very wet days as the weather system that had been threatening us for 3 days, opened up and relieved itself upon us. We reached Askoli by noon on the 15th having come full circle within 10 days and wasted no time in walking down to the first roadblock where jimmy had arranged a jeep. It was a 3 and half day descent. We reached the K-2 motel by dinner and were pretty pleased with the way things had gone. Feeling thoroughly beat, and sporting a swollen right ankle upon which I had almost limped on into Askoli, I thought, why I do this to myself. As we drove through the lower Shigar valley which was basking in the late afternoon sun, Asad and I were already engaged in conversation about what to cook up for next year.