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GaliWalker
Have camera will use



Joined: 10 Dec 2007
Posts: 4445 | TRs | Pics
Location: Pittsburgh
GaliWalker
Have camera will use
PostMon Sep 06, 2021 3:49 am 
Tying up loose ends in the Karakorams (Aug 2021)

Part I: Insertion

In 2013 I made my first foray into the Karakorams and fell in love with the place. The mountains are stark and forbidding, the glaciers huge and intimidating, the air thin and intoxicating, and the hiking sublime. It is hands down the finest mountain scenery on the planet. That 2013 trip had been a trek to the basecamp of K2, for the most part along the massive Baltoro Glacier corridor. We had had to retrace our steps the way we came, because the traditional exit option, a crossing of the 18,325ft high Gondogora La, had been deemed out of bounds for trekkers that year.

In 2016 I made a second, no less rewarding, trip to Snow Lake, a bowl of snow-covered ice 1mi thick, ringed by mountains, and from whence flow numerous glaciers.

With all thoughts of a potential Nepal trip now banished from my thoughts, I was busy plotting another Karakorams trek when my father passed away. A couple of years later, my mother passed away. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. By now panic was beginning to set in, since I could feel my body protesting during longer hikes the way it had never done before. The clock was ticking.

Pandemic or no pandemic, I knew I had to pull the trigger on a final Karakorams trip this year. That 2013 trip had allowed me to catch sight of three of the five Pakistani 8000m peaks. Those remaining two – Gasherbrums I and II – had been tantalizingly close but hidden from view behind other mountains. If I were to repeat my 2013 trek, but this time with the Gondogoro La crossing, I'd be all set, since the wayward Gasherbrums would be laid out before me from the pass. Loose ends needed to be tied up.

Aug 10-12: Islamabad to Skardu – "Driving in"

One of the worst parts of a Karakorams trip is the road journey to and from Skardu. The scenery is great, but it's just so tiring. There is also danger from rockfall and landslides if one happens to encounter rain along some stretches of the Karakoram Highway.

For the third time, I'd booked my trip with the local Pakistani trekking company, Vertical Explorers. My previous two treks with them had gone extremely smoothly, so there was absolutely no reason for me to switch. They were responsible for the transportation to Skardu. Due to the somewhat late arrival of the other two members of my trekking party, a couple from Germany, we left Islamabad at the advanced hour of 5pm. It was nighttime before we staggered into our hotel in the town of Besham, in the Swat Valley. (On my previous two trips the Swat Valley had been a no-go zone due to a Pakistani Taliban infestation, but this had been dealt with by now.)

The next morning at 5am, we set off on our 19hr drive to Skardu (8,000ft). Yes, 19hrs! During the drive, one particularly lawless stretch had us provided with a police escort. Also during the drive, Nanga Parbat, the second highest of Pakistan's five 8000m peaks, made an appearance. I've blocked the rest of that exhausting drive from my memory.

1- Escort
1- Escort
2- Nanga Parbat from the road
2- Nanga Parbat from the road

We were supposed to leave Skardu on the 12th. Unfortunately, delays with getting the requisite trekking clearances sorted out meant that we were forced to spend this day sightseeing. Skardu isn't a bad place to be stuck in though. We began by visiting Sadpara Lake and the Manthal Buddha Rock, both of which I'd seen before on my previous trips. We followed that by hiking up to Kharphocho Fort (350ft elevation gain), situated on a hill overlooking Skardu and its surroundings. The view from the fort was great!

3- Sadpara Lake
3- Sadpara Lake
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6- Sadpara Lake inlet stream
6- Sadpara Lake inlet stream
7- Manthal Buddha Rock
7- Manthal Buddha Rock
8- Kharphocho Fort
8- Kharphocho Fort
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10- Skardu Valley from Kharphocho Fort
10- Skardu Valley from Kharphocho Fort
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A little tired from the hike up to Kharphocho Fort, we ended the day by having the most succulent chicken kebobs imaginable at the Mondoq Place restaurant.

Aug 13: Skardu to Jola – "Jeep journey"

On both of my previous trips the hike had begun from the charming, rustic town of Askole. No more. In the past 5yrs, the jeep road had been extended to Jola (10,250ft), which should have been the first day's hiking destination. I found this quite disheartening, because Askole is a lovely little town, and bypassing it just seemed wrong.

We left Skardu at 7:30am, now in a jeep. The vehicle was a full house, because in addition to the driver and us three trekkers was our guide, Ehsan, our cook Ehsan – yes, we would have two Ehsans on our team, both of whom would end up being great company – our assistant cook Nabi, one of our three porters and one of the two people in charge of the mules. Yes, we would have mules transport some of our stuff on the hike, and no, the mules did not accompany us in the jeep.

13- Loading up
13- Loading up

The jeep journey began by vending its way north through the pretty Shigar Valley. After an army checkpoint, where we registered, we took a right turn and headed east along the Braldu River. This little monster was being directly fed by the Baltoro Glacier, atop which we were to spend many days.

14- Shigar Valley
14- Shigar Valley

About halfway into our journey we came upon one of the multiple swaying rope bridges that we'd had to drive over. This particular one was being repaired due to some recent damage, so the passengers all piled out and crossed it on foot. Our driver then drove the jeep through the stream being spanned and rejoined us on the other side, where we all dutifully piled back in.

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Near the little settlement of Apiligon, a little before Askole, the Braldu River gorge narrows significantly. It makes for an incredible sight: seething water and geysers of spray, somehow tamed by a corridor of polished rock.

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We decompressed for a bit at Askole over lunch. I tried to let the peaceful surroundings soak into me, as much as was possible, but far too soon it was time to leave for Jola. It was weird to not have to hike this section, since the jeep road pretty much followed the path of the original trail.

21- Magpie at Askole
21- Magpie at Askole

Jola has a great view of 19,058ft tall Bakhor Das Peak. That evening's sunset was spectacular, the best of the entire trip, with lots of dramatic clouds swirling about Bakhor Das Peak.

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Aug 14: Jola to Paiyu – "Let's start hiking"

Finally! It was time to begin hiking. We had shared our campsite with a number of other trekking groups, two of whom were quite large (16 and 18 trekkers!), but by the time we left at 7:45am, everyone else had already cleared out.

25- My tent is the yellow/red one
25- My tent is the yellow/red one

On my 2013 trip, this particular day had been one of my toughest ones, mainly due to its length and 90°F heat, so I was a bit nervous. My fears about the heat ended up being unfounded since the day was cool, overcast, and spitting rain. Unfortunately, it was also extremely windy. A 50-60mph gale force wind, fanged with sand and rain, blasted my back. It was strong enough that I was pushed along even while leaning backwards. Basically, it was the polar opposite of 2013.

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2hr 50min after starting I was at our lunch spot, the campsite of Bardumal, complete with a hut in which to take shelter from the still brutal wind.

28- Porter
28- Porter

The final 2.5hrs to Paiyu was quite exhausting. Particularly cruel was the finish: a never-ending series of ups and downs, some of which were quite steep.

29- Paiyu is the splash of green at center
29- Paiyu is the splash of green at center
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Stats: 13.7mi, 1,900ft gain, ending elevation 11,200ft

Aug 15: Paiyu to Kho-Burse – "Atop the Baltoro"

On another dreary, overcast morning we set off from Paiyu at the relatively late hour of 7:45am. I prefer earlier starts to my day, but on this trip would end up having to settle for maddeningly lazier departure times. That morning, I spent the extra time taking photographs of the gorgeous peaks that were on display. While the light was monochromatic, the clouds swirling around the peaks had made for great theater.

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33- Cathedral and Shipton Spire
33- Cathedral and Shipton Spire

After an hours or so of hiking, we were at the snout of the Baltoro Glacier. The Braldu River gushed out of a mud-encrusted icy maw, with little streams spewing out to the sides. We spent a bit of time taking in this sight, before beginning the climb up to the deck of the glacier. The glacier's entire surface sported a patina of scree and talus, which had an alarming tendency to move, since the layer wasn't deep enough to allow the rocks to interlock.

34- The Baltoro Glacier wall
34- The Baltoro Glacier wall
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37- Checking out the maw (selfie)
37- Checking out the maw (selfie)

Once atop the Baltoro Glacier, the Trango Towers took center stage. The slightly lesser monolith of Cathedral bulked large to their right, while further right Shipton Spire lay wrapped up in cottonwool clouds. We angled away from these guardians, towards the southern edge of the glacier. It was mostly smooth going, despite the rocky nature of the hiking. Lunch was taken at 12:15pm near Liligo, on the edge of the glacier and just before our climb up onto the lateral moraine.

38- On the Baltoro
38- On the Baltoro
39- Nameless Tower (aka Trango Tower)
39- Nameless Tower (aka Trango Tower)
40- Trangos, Cathedral and Shipton Spire
40- Trangos, Cathedral and Shipton Spire
41- Shipton Spire
41- Shipton Spire
42- Trango Towers
42- Trango Towers
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The Liligo to Kho-Burse section was on a tiring up and down trail along the lateral moraine. Views of the Baltoro Glacier were quite interesting. I got a shock just before Kho-Burse, where I recalled having to cross a troublesome side glacier. That side glacier had been cleaved by a stream, which meant that said stream needed to be crossed. By now it had become quite cool and had begun to rain. By the time I was done taking off my boots I was downright miserable. The stream crossing didn't look very appetizing either: it was long, and the water looked frigid and fast. Our porters, who'd preceded us, had already run a handline across for safety. We watched one of them cross, and then it was our turn. It ended up being a bit better than I'd anticipated, but only because the water was just over knee height. Anymore and it could have been a real problem. In all the detour added an additional mile to our day. We reached Kho-Burse at 4pm.

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49- Stream replaces glacier
49- Stream replaces glacier

Kho-Burse was a cold and inhospitable place, much less welcoming than what I'd experienced on my first trip. The weather cleared a bit for a while, but then went back into sulk mode.

50- Pulpit Trango
50- Pulpit Trango
51- Uli Biaho Tower
51- Uli Biaho Tower

Stats: 10.5mi, 2,500ft gain, ending elevation 12,300ft

Aug 16-17: Kho-Burse to Urdukas – "Along the lateral moraine"

When I woke up the next morning, I thought I might be coming down with something, since I felt unusually cold. I then realized that it was snowing lightly, and it was in fact cold. Thankfully, by the time we started hiking the snow had stopped and bright sunshine had begun to play amongst the otherwise thick cloudscape.

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53- Cathedral
53- Cathedral
54- Pulpit and Castle Trango
54- Pulpit and Castle Trango
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It ended up being a short 3hr walk from Kho-Burse to Urdukas, once again along the lateral moraine. We did have to cross a couple of side glaciers as we approached our campsite at Urdukas, but nothing too difficult.

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Urdukas is one of my favorite campsites on the trek. The views are fantastic up and down the Baltoro. The slopes are a soothing green; the last greenery one sees for a while. I was surprised to see that a multitude of new glacial lakes had sprung up in the surface of the Baltoro Glacier, a sad testament to this age we are living through.

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62- Great Trango and Nameless Tower
62- Great Trango and Nameless Tower
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Stats: 6mi, 1,300ft gain, ending elevation 13,500ft

We ended up taking one of our three rest days at Urdukas, to help our acclimatization efforts. (One member of our party would begin taking Diamox from this point on.) I spent the day having pushup competitions with our porters and exploring all the new lakes in the Baltoro Glacier. I even managed to convince our guide that it would make for some nice photography if he could possibly work his way down to the lakes, while I shot from high above.

70- Trango Towers from the Baltoro Glacier
70- Trango Towers from the Baltoro Glacier
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77- Bial Peak
77- Bial Peak
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88- Alpine chough
88- Alpine chough
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--------------
'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani

reststep, fffej50, Slim, day_hike_mike, Dave Weyrick, IanB, Pef, hapemask, zimmertr, Josh Lewis, Hesman, SeanSullivan86, RichP, Nancyann, RAW-dad, jstern, half fast, KJR, Alpine Pedestrian  geyer, JimK, Eric, Tom, seawallrunner, Gil
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GaliWalker
Have camera will use



Joined: 10 Dec 2007
Posts: 4445 | TRs | Pics
Location: Pittsburgh
GaliWalker
Have camera will use
PostMon Sep 06, 2021 3:50 am 
Part II: Big mountains

Aug 18: Urdukas to Goro II – "The Baltoro is my home from now on"

"The colorful rocks of the Baltoro around glacial streams were like jewels strewn across white satin."
I wrote these words in my journal the evening of the 18th, in the hope that I would remember the amazing scenery we encountered. This was the day when we returned to the surface of the Baltoro Glacier, after having spent the past three days on the lateral moraine. This would also be the day when we would start to see the really big peaks of the Karakoram Range.

We began the day with a relatively straightforward drop down onto the surface of the Baltoro Glacier. Just before this drop we got a good view of Broad Peak (8,047m), far off in the distance. As we moved into the middle of the Baltoro, the going got easier, and I began to motor along. I felt great. I unconsciously picked up the pace and was soon racing past other hikers. Not much later though, my progress came to an abrupt halt. Right before me lay a huge lake, of which there had been no sign just 8yrs back. For a number of years, the Baltoro Glacier had seemed impervious to Global Warming. The speculation had been that all the rock covering the surface was protecting the ice. Well, no longer. The lower Baltoro was melting fast. As I stood gazing at the lake, Ehsan and my partners turned up. I joked with Ehsan that pretty soon he would be leading kayak trips rather than trekking trips, but this was only to cover up the concern that all of us were feeling.

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As we moved further along the Baltoro Glacier, Masherbrum (7,821m), a huge presence to our right, took our breaths away. The triangular shape of Gasherbrum IV (7,925m), one of the most beautiful mountains you could possibly see, glimmered like a lodestone dead ahead, and would continue to do so until we reached the end of the Baltoro Glacier at Concordia. Now in the middle of the glacier, the going was easy, all the way to Goro I, where we had lunch.

85- Gasherbrum IV
85- Gasherbrum IV
86- Masherbrum and Urdukas Peak
86- Masherbrum and Urdukas Peak
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After a leisurely lunch, we moseyed along. I was in no mood to hurry, since my camera was out and clicking away, but the others were equally content with the relaxed pace and to let me do my thing. It was a fun time. We even took the time to climb a huge serac, just for the heck of it.

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Just before Goro II, we encountered a complex of glacial streams and pools amidst a cluster of seracs. The colorful rock of the Baltoro glittered atop the white ice. I was struck by the scene and would have composed a poem or two, if I had been a poet. I contented myself with taking pictures.

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Goro II is a spectacular campsite. Situated in the middle of the glacier, the views in all directions are amazing. You could even see a sliver of Gasherbrum II (8,035m), just to the right of Gasherbrum IV. Ehsan and I had a lively debate on whether that was Gasherbrum III or Gasherbrum II. At the time, we both thought that it was Gasherbrum III, which isn't an 8,000m peak, but after having examined various maps and now seen the summit of Gasherbrum II, I'm convinced that it is indeed Gasherbrum II.

95- Gasherbrum IV
95- Gasherbrum IV
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101- Paiyu Peak
101- Paiyu Peak

The night was relatively clear, with a full moon a bright searchlight in the sky.

102- Moonlit Gasherbrum IV
102- Moonlit Gasherbrum IV

Stats: 7.5mi, 1,100ft elevation gain, ending elevation 14,100ft

Aug 19: Goro II to Concordia – "We finally see K2 and settle in at Concordia"

Our customary relaxed start to the day meant that I had plenty of time to wander around and take some pictures around Goro II. I wasn't complaining. Masherbrum, which had been disappointingly covered by clouds the evening before, looked lovely that morning.

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105- GaliWalker and Masherbrum (selfie)
105- GaliWalker and Masherbrum (selfie)

The hike began by vending our way past a bunch of huge seracs. This section of the Baltoro Glacier seemed to be in better shape, snowmelt wise, than the lower end, and more similar to what I remembered from 8yrs ago. Yes, there was the odd glacial pool, but at least these weren't full-fledged lakes.

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109- Mitre Peak
109- Mitre Peak
110- Broad Peak (left) and Gasherbrum IV (right)
110- Broad Peak (left) and Gasherbrum IV (right)
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114- Mitre Peak
114- Mitre Peak

As we passed through the huge gateway of Mitre Peak and Marble Peak, all eyes swung left. K2 (8,611m), the king of mountains, was finally in view. Clouds cloaked most of its bulk, but the summit was clear! We spent the rest of that day with our heads on a swivel: K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum IV, Mitre Peak, Baltoro Kangri, Golden Throne, etc. were all right there. Can there be a more magical viewpoint than Concordia?

115- K2
115- K2
116- Broad Peak
116- Broad Peak
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118- Concordia and Mitre Peak
118- Concordia and Mitre Peak
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Stats: 7.5mi, 1,000ft elevation gain, ending elevation 15,100ft

Altitude effects: Some amongst us were suffering the effects of altitude, nothing major, just headaches which were being treated with Ibuprofen. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be mostly unaffected. The only impact I could tell was a slightly elevated resting pulse in the mid-60s. The expected shortness of breath due to the lack of oxygen manifested itself in a weird way: while scooting in and out of my tent I would forget to breathe and then get winded after the ordeal. After noticing this, I made sure to deliberately take breaths during such mundane tasks, when my unconscious might forget to kick in.

The outside world: We'd been cut-off from the news for a few days. At Concordia, however, a cellphone tower has been set up, so we were able to get some spotty coverage. Imagine our surprise when we learnt that Kabul had already fallen to the Taliban. I stopped checking the news after this.

Aug 20: Godwin Austin Glacier – "Exploring seracs and finding the golden path"

From Concordia, hiking to K2's basecamp is a difficult 14mi roundtrip. It had easily been the toughest day on my first trip, and also somewhat unsatisfying. Due to the long day, I'd had no time to engage in thoughtful photography. Out of my two fellow trekkers, one was salivating at the mouth just thinking about the day, while the other was tired and just wanted to relax at Concordia. So, we made the following plan: Our guide, our assistant cook, and two of us trekkers would set off for K2. Halfway to basecamp, after which point K2's views become worse and worse due to the angle, I would strike off on my own and wander around the Godwin Austin Glacier taking photos. I'd already been to basecamp and was not wholly interested in a repeat.

We had an early start for once and were on our way by 6am. It was snowing lightly, but the weather had been so variable to-date that we were hopeful of clearer skies later on. The start is the most difficult part of the day, when one transitions from the Baltoro Glacier onto the Godwin Austin Glacier. There are four streams that have to be crossed, of which the first two are impassable unless you find a snowbridge. Each year this route changes, and there may be only a single way through, a "golden path" if you will.

122- A glimpse of Concordia
122- A glimpse of Concordia

We stuck to our guide and assistant cook who, in turn, followed one party just ahead of us. The route led up one scree covered ice dune after the other. It was tiring work. There wasn't much to see, at least early on, in the misty conditions, so I was a bit concerned about being able to find my way back on my own. I relaxed a bit when I saw that the route was marked by cairns. So, all I theoretically needed to do was to make note of the final one, and then pick that up on my return. Easy, right?

Mid-way through the glacier transition, we crossed the other party and struck off on our own. The going was a bit easier now, so we picked up the pace. Eventually, we gained the flat highway of the Godwin Austin glacier and began to motor along it.

123- On the Godwin Austin Glacier highway
123- On the Godwin Austin Glacier highway
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An hour or so later I said goodbye to my companions and exited stage right, off the rocky section we'd been hiking along, and onto smooth ice. Seracs and glacial streams surrounded me, and I spent a happy 1.5hrs just poking around. Around this time clouds began to gather, and K2 completely disappeared, so I decided to call it a day and head back.

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127- Looking back at Mitre Peak
127- Looking back at Mitre Peak
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I passed numerous other trekkers on my return, heading in either towards Broad Peak or K2 basecamp. I unerringly picked up the 'final' cairn that would mark the start of the golden path. In the far distance, two porters gestured that I was off the main route, but I ignored them. I struck off confidently along the cairned path, but then things began to look less certain. A half hour later I knew I wasn't on the golden path. What I hadn't realized was that while the route changes every year, or even every month, cairns constructed to mark previous paths persist. Yuck. For another hour I crisscrossed those dratted ice dunes and the two smaller streams, climbing up to one vantage point or the other, only to come up against some ice cliff. I realized that unless I found snowbridges across the final two streams I would remain trapped.

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Finally, I managed to get sight of Concordia from one of my vantage points and realized that I was searching in the wrong sections. I needed to proceed way over to my left, pretty much where those two porters had pointed me to. About a half hour more and I finally saw what looked like a more recent route. I'd found the golden path! Thereafter, it was plain sailing, and I was back at Concordia in another half hour. The funny thing was that this route was different from and way better than the one we'd taken on our way in. If we'd followed this one in, I'd have had no problems locating it and sticking to it on my return.

A couple of hours after my return the rest of our group made their way back from K2. From Concordia, it was easy to spot them, which probably meant that my embarrassing 2hr of aimless wandering had been on full display for all to marvel at. I saw with chagrin that our party also managed to pick up the golden path for their return, but they did it in minutes, not hours. I felt marginally better though, when I saw that the other returning groups did not fare that much better than me. For the next two hours I saw numerous trekkers wandering around that wasteland. In a couple of cases, when the hikers looked hopelessly trapped, porters were dispatched to guide them out. Unlike me, there wasn't enough daylight left to let them extricate themselves from the mess they were in.

131- Broad Peak
131- Broad Peak
132- Locating the golden path
132- Locating the golden path
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134- Porters
134- Porters

Aug 21: Concordia – "A fallen trekker"

After the shenanigans of the previous day, we took the second of our three rest days at Concordia. I felt that the K2 basecamp group needed a rest, since what was to follow would be much more strenuous, whereas I was content to spend another day in paradise.

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The previous day, we'd all observed an incredible glacial tunnel, quite close to Concordia. I hadn't photographed it then, because my nerves had been too fried from trying to thread the needle of the Godwin Austin – Baltoro Glacier transition and find my way home to Concordia. So, I was keen to return to it and take some pictures. Ehsan, our guide, who was also an avid photographer, and my German friends, were keen to join me. So, we all hiked the 200-300yds of scree slopes down to it.

After a few photos I thought it might be cool to have someone stand at the far end of the tunnel, while I took a photo from the end we were already at. We all walked down to the far end together, and then I returned on my own. During the walk over I noticed that one member of our party, the one who'd stayed at Concordia the day before, was a bit slower than usual. I didn't think too much of it at the time because she'd always been a little slower on tricky downhills. Anyway, as I was taking photos through the tunnel, I saw our slower hiker collapse. To me, from that distance, it looked like she'd slipped. I could see her being assisted by my comrades, but she seemed unresponsive.

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I raced back over and was pretty shocked at what I saw. She had fallen face first onto a rock; blood covered an ashen face. She was conscious but seemed unable to stand at the time. When I asked what happened, she said that everything just turned white. All I could think of was that if she'd fallen left, rather than right, she would have fallen into the fast-flowing glacial stream beside us, and it might have been curtains.

We were able to assist our friend back up to her tent, where further first aid was administered. Our first thoughts were for our friend, but as the day wore on, my thoughts turned to "what now?". I feared that my dream of a Gondogoro La crossing was now over. To me, it seemed apparent that the collapse was altitude related, and that the only remedy was to return to a lower elevation as quickly as possible. I began to mentally prepare myself for this eventuality.

At this time, Ehsan appeared. It was evident that he too had been mulling the possibilities. He provided me with the following proposition: he would provide me with Nabi - our assistant cook, to be promoted to assistant guide – and Abbas – to be my personal porter. The three of us would split from the main group and continue the trek over Gondogoro La. The remaining group would stay in camp one more day, our third and final rest day, and evaluate how things unfolded. Then, they would either return via the approach route, or would follow us over Gondogoro La. I would be sent word via porter, as to whether I needed to wait for them in the next camp after Gondogoro La or not. Amazing! I grasped this lifeline with both hands. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I couldn't have imagined any other group/guide bending over backwards like this to make the trek a success.

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--------------
'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani

reststep, day_hike_mike, Dave Weyrick, Alpine Pedestrian
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GaliWalker
Have camera will use



Joined: 10 Dec 2007
Posts: 4445 | TRs | Pics
Location: Pittsburgh
GaliWalker
Have camera will use
PostMon Sep 06, 2021 3:50 am 
Part III: Over the Gondogoro La

Aug 22: Concordia to Ali Camp – "The Vigne Glacier"

I'm a solo hiker. I like talking with people, but I feel better when I'm hiking by myself. With our group now split in two, having a couple of superhuman hikers – Nabi, our erstwhile assistant cook, now promoted to assistant guide, and Abbas, my new personal porter – was almost like I was on my own. It helped that the three of us got along great, with enough of a comfort level that we could banter with each other.

Before I go on, let me say that the Balti porters are phenomenal hikers. They are born to this terrain and float across it as if it were pavement. Rock or ice, it doesn't matter. Pakistan does not have the same mountaineering infrastructure as Nepal, but with proper mountaineering training, I see no reason why the Balti HAP (high altitude porter) could not surpass the Nepali Sherpa, given the more difficult terrain. Right now, almost all of them learn on the job. Case in point: Ali Sadpara, the HAP with a first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, never received formal mountaineering training. Anyway, for me it's always been a privilege on my three Karakoram trips to watch our porters in action. Poetry in motion.

After yet another night where it snowed lightly and temperatures plummeted below freezing, I was up early. We were packed up and moving by 7am, our earliest start to-date, not counting the K2 basecamp day, when we didn't have to break camp. It felt great!

Similar to the K2 basecamp day, we began our day by transitioning off the Baltoro Glacier, and onto some mixture of the Upper Baltoro Glacier and the Vigne Glacier. At this time our direction of travel was directly away from the Godwin Austin Glacier and K2. The way was tricky, but Abbas was quite confident in his route-finding skills and led us unerringly through the maze of ice-dunes. There were a couple of difficult spots – a stream crossing and a precarious snowbridge – but it was smooth sailing thereafter.

140- Nabi, Abbas, Broad Peak and K2
140- Nabi, Abbas, Broad Peak and K2
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As we moved further and further away from K2, I began to get an even better sense of the area. At the far end stood the haughty K2, while to our right, all lined up, stood Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums. The analogy of a king presiding over his court was apparent.

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Gasherbrum IV also cut a striking figure. I'd got so used to seeing it head-on from the Baltoro Glacier, that this side-on view was quite unusual. Best of all, right behind it I could now see Gasherbrum III, and even the summit block of Gasherbrum II (8,035m), both of whom had not been visible from Concordia. One 8,000m peak down, one to go.

143- Gasherbrums IV, III and II
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143- Gasherbrums IV, III and II
144- Gasherbrum IV
144- Gasherbrum IV

A little further up-valley, we moved onto the smooth ice of the Vigne Glacier and progress got easier. We were about to make the turn to head into the side valley to our right. Just before the turn I finally got a view of Gasherbrum I (8,080m). It was only any itsy-bitsy view of the summit, but now I could say that I'd seen my fifth 8,000m peak, and that the main goal of my trek was complete. It didn't matter what happened on the Gondogoro La crossing the next day.

145- Gasherbrum I, summit glimpse
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145- Gasherbrum I, summit glimpse
146- GaliWalker on the Vigne (selfie)
146- GaliWalker on the Vigne (selfie)
147- Nabi and Broad Peak
147- Nabi and Broad Peak

We motored along the smooth ice of the Vigne Glacier, avoiding the occasional crevasse or rotten snow. Ali Camp was sited on a rocky eyrie, overlooking the Vigne Glacier. Right across from it was Bride Peak, behind which lay the basecamp of Chogolisa (7,668m).

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149- Abass on the Vigne
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149- Abass on the Vigne
150- View from Ali Camp
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150- View from Ali Camp
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We'd only taken 4.5hrs to get to Ali Camp. That left me nearly 13hrs to rest up for our 12:15am departure time for Gondogoro La.

Stats: 8.7mi, 1,100ft elevation gain, ending elevation 16,100ft

Aug 23: Ali Camp to Khuspang – "Gondogoro La, a broken camera and a broken man"

The climax of the trip was upon us. This was the day we would go over the dangerous 18,325ft high Gondogoro La. ("La" means pass in the local Balti language.) Well over 2000ft of elevation gain at high altitude, and a steep 35-40° climb on snow, all while clipped onto 700m of fixed ropes made the ascent an exhausting proposition. The descent was reputedly even worse.

After surprisingly managing to get 4hrs of refreshing sleep, I was up at 11:30pm. I quickly got ready, even managing to force down some Balti bread and tea. There were three groups preparing to go over the pass this day. The coordination of the climb was under the supervision of "The Rescue People", a group from the town of Hushe, who had fixed the ropes. The slowest hikers were to leave first, while the quicker hikers would leave later. I was to be in the latter group, so was not expecting my name to be called until 1am. Somehow, I got the go ahead signal at 12:15am.

One of the Hushe guides led the way. Behind him and just ahead of me were a slightly older couple from Spain. They struck a painfully slow pace, but I dutifully remained behind them. The darkness pressed down on us, and all I could hear was the clacking of trekking poles on rock. At this time, we were making our way along a talus slope above the Vigne Glacier. About an hour later we began to transition onto the glacier. Nabi and Addas were right behind me and one of them took this moment to point out the snow slopes leading up to Gondogoro La, diagonally across from us on the other side of the glacier.

The crossing of the Vigne Glacier went relatively smoothly. I could periodically see wands stuck in the ice, leading us away from crevasses, either exposed or covered under rotten snow. There was one stream crossing which required a running start followed by a jump. Abbas went first and I followed right behind him. By now I'd done such jumps plenty of times before but, for some reason, doing this by headlamp got the heart racing.

152- Porters, with Gondogoro La at far left (Ehsan's photo)
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152- Porters, with Gondogoro La at far left (Ehsan's photo)

It took us 2hr to reach the base of the climb up Gondogoro La. We had maintained that painfully slow pace throughout. I suddenly realized that, despite the elevation, I wasn't even breathing hard, and what I'd thought had been a crawl had actually been a masterful display of pacing. Later on, I learnt that one of the two Spaniards had significant high altitude mountaineering experience.

At this point, Nabi, Abbas and I struck off on our own. We were still some distance away from the fixed ropes, but it was still relatively low-angle stuff and the frozen snow actually made for great traction. I deliberately shortened my steps until I was satisfied that I could maintain my pace. Unfortunately, the gradient steepened significantly, and shorter steps were no longer an option, so I resorted to slowing my pace down. I kept fiddling about with my steps, trying to see what worked best, and before I knew it, Nabi and I were far above the rest of the group. It was an amazing sight to see a line of headlamps stretching down the slopes and then all the way across the Vigne Glacier.

The gradient increased significantly once again, but by now we'd reached the fixed ropes. I paused to put on helmet, microspikes and harness, and then clipped onto the ropes. The rest of the climb was an interminable slog. I shut out all thoughts of reaching the top and just focused on taking the next step, and then the next. Nabi kept muttering encouragement, and how we were so close to the top, until I told him to shut up and stop lying. 50yds up...gasp for 1-2min until I'd regained my breath...repeat. 1.5hr after reaching the base of the climb, and twice as quickly as I'd expected, we were up top. Other than Abbas and a couple of other porters everyone else was far below.

The problem was that I'd woefully underestimated how quickly I'd get up top. Now, I had a 1.5hr wait to first light. I'd eschewed all photography in the dark, but I needed to take some photos from the pass. I could see that Nabi was cold, and keen for us to get off the frigid pass, but he could also see that I wasn't ready to budge. Abbas was feeling a bit dizzy from the altitude, so I told him he should head on down to Khuspang. Nabi and I stamped around in the snow trying to stay warm. We were careful not to wander too far off the main route due to potential danger from crevasses. 20min later the Spaniards arrived and then quite a bit after them other hikers began to trickle in.

As the light brightened, I could tell that clouds obscured K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums. Thankfully, at least the peaks of the lovely Gondogoro La valley on the other side of the pass remained just below the cloud deck. Gorgeous Laila Peak glittered off in the distance, halfway down the valley. I'd been dreaming about photographing this peak from Gondogoro La, as well as from down in the valley, since before my first Karakorams trip.

153- Overcast to the east
153- Overcast to the east
154- Gondogoro La valley
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154- Gondogoro La valley

After snapping off a few photos, it was time to embark on the difficult and dangerous descent. Our ascent had been steep, but the snow had made for good traction. The descent was steeper, longer, and the surface a mix of rock and hard ice. 800m of fixed rope led down the steepest, iciest parts. Some people used crampons, but I felt that microspikes were a better option, especially due to the mix of rock and ice. The porters used neither! Here's what they had: Some type of rubber/plastic shoe. They had used fire to melt the soles and then roughed these up somehow. On top of the shoes, they wore thick socks. I can't say I thought this contraption sufficient, but I never saw any of them slip. I couldn't tell whether this was because they are supermen or because their footwear actually worked.

155- Getting set for the descent
155- Getting set for the descent

I'd boasted earlier in the trip that I was only really concerned about getting up Gondogoro La. The descent, while steep, wouldn't be a problem. Oh, how wrong was I! The start was at least 40°. I began with using the fixed rope more than I should have, because I wasn't totally sure if my microspikes would sink into the ice. When my forearms started to burn, I realized my stupidity, and began to use the rope more as support mechanism.

156- Steeper than it appears
156- Steeper than it appears

The greatest danger of the entire Gondogoro La crossing is from rockfall on the descent. As soon as the sun hits the slope rocks begin to loosen from the ice in which they are embedded. This is the reason for the early start. One needs to be on the descent before or around sunrise. And one needs to move quickly, albeit carefully. A helmet is essential. Not only that, it's easy to dislodge rocks as you descend, because the entire slope is loose. There were two pairs of hikers below us, so we were extremely careful not to knock any rocks onto them. I thought that another problem was that the rope pitches were too long. Hikers at the top of a pitch could, and would, easily pull those below off route. And if you waited for a group to get onto the next pitch before beginning your descent, then it could take too long; plus, you invoked the ire of those above you who were also anxious to get down quickly.

Nabi and I worked our way down the interminable descent. It was extremely nerve-wracking, especially at the start when it was really steep. The slope eased up about a third of the way down, but we still needed to concentrate due to the icy footing. Twice, I was pulled off my feet by others above me, but there was nothing I could do about this. I didn't even yell at them; what was the point? I was glad though, that I was clipped-in to the rope.

After, what felt like forever, we reached the end of the roped section. Our ordeal was only beginning though. We were done with the ice for the most part, but the dirt and scree slope was still relatively steep, and quite difficult to stay upright on. And if you slipped, you took a ride for a while. We kept descending...and descending. Finally, the angle mellowed, and we began to traverse across the slopes. Nabi kept muttering that we mustn't stop moving because the danger from rockfall was still present.

Eventually, we came upon an overhang under which we could rest, safe from rockfall. In order to remove my extra layers and harness, I took off my pack and placed my camera bag on the ground, making sure the latter was properly wedged in amidst some rocks. As I turned away to take off my jacket, I realized that my camera bag was bounding down the steep slope. Nabi and I watched it in horror, as it came to a sickening halt about 30ft below us. I was in shock, as Nabi gingerly climbed down to it and brought it up. I knew it would be bad, and it was. The polarizing filter on the lens was smashed, and while the lens looked intact, when I turned on the camera, I would hear a whirring sound coming from it. I knew that either the camera was broken or the lens. My only hope was that it was the lens because I still had my 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens in the bag Abbas was carrying. It wouldn't help me document the journey from this point to our campsite at Khuspang, but at least I would be able to take some photos afterwards.

I'm usually a chatty person, but after the camera mishap I was too preoccupied to offer up more than token conversation. So, Nabi and I proceeded along the slope in almost total silence. Around this time, we came upon a smallish icy snow slope. The runout was bad – 500ft down onto the crevassed surface of the Gondogoro La Glacier – so I put on my microspikes to cross. Nabi, floated across without any issues, obviously, and I could feel that he thought the microspikes were unnecessary.

A little further on, we came upon yet another icy snow slope, this time much longer and with an equally bad runout. Before the slope there was an extremely steep dirt slope to descend. Right at the base of the dirt slope, just beside the snow slope, sat a hiker who'd obviously slipped on the dirt. He seemed shaken up. Assisting him was another hiker and their guide. I again pulled out my microspikes, but before putting them on, waited to see how the trio before us would fare on the snow slope. None of them were bothering with crampons or microspikes. The first one went across safely, slipping twice but managing to keep his footing. Watching the slips, my fears about the slope were confirmed, so it was with some anxiety that I watched the second guy cross. This was the same person who'd slipped on the dirt and was already shaken up. He took two steps and then he was sliding down the snow slope. I thought he was a goner, but somehow fortune was with him and he came to a stop on a down-sloping ledge, maybe 40ft below us. Nabi and the other guide carefully made their way down to him, relying on their plastic, sock-covered shoes for grip. There was no way that hiker was going to make it up under his own power. I threw my microspikes down to them and with the improved traction, Nabi and the other guide were able to help the fallen hiker back up.

The guy's nerves were completely fried by now. He couldn't even walk under his own power on level ground; his legs were jelly. With Nabi and the other guide holding him up, we all somehow inched our way along the trail. This led us downwards, all the way to the surface of the Gondogoro La Glacier. At this point we came upon some others that were from the same trekking group as the fallen hiker, so Nabi and I bid our farewells.

Since I was unable to take any photographs, we made fast progress. We soon worked our way onto the lateral moraine of the Gondogoro La glacier, where an undulating trail took us past a gorgeous lake – sorry, no photos – and on to Khuspang, elevation 15,300ft. It was only 9:00am.

I quickly made my way to my second bag, the one Abbas had carried, and dug out my 70-200mm lens. A huge weight lifted off my chest when I screwed it on the camera and found that it worked. I was back in business, even if severely limited as to the type of photo I could take.

What words can I use to describe Khuspang? Situated at the toe-end of a grassy rib, on either side of which flow glaciers, the location was simply delightful. All around the campsite, up and down the grassy slopes, were gorgeous flowers. Burbling streams meandered right below the campsite. But oh, the backdrop...the stunning spear of the magnificent Laila Peak.

In the 7th century, Nizami Gangavi, the Persian poet, wrote a poem about the lovers Qas and Laila. Qas loved Laila so much that he was nicknamed Majnun, or crazy one. As the two lovers grew older, Laila's father forbade a marriage between the two, because the love-sick Qas was deemed mentally unstable. Laila was married off to a rich nobleman, which caused Majnun to flee into the woods, reciting poetry to himself or scribbling it into the sand. Laila died of heartbreak, while Majnun was found dead in the forest. Lord Byron deemed the poem the East's version of Romeo and Juliet. Laila Peak is named for the unattainable love, Laila, of the poem.

157- Laila Peak
157- Laila Peak
158- Khuspang
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158- Khuspang
159
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Stats: 6.2mi, 2,350ft elevation gain / 3,150ft elevation loss, highest elevation 18,325ft, ending elevation 15,300ft

Aug 24: Khuspang – "The group is whole again"

When our group split in two at Concordia, I was informed by Ehsan that I should wait until 9am on the 24th, before departing for Saicho. If the group was going to attempt the Gondogoro La crossing, one of the porters would be in Khuspang before then. Around 7am that morning, I heard a commotion outside my tent, and I knew that the rest of my group would be arriving in Khuspang that day. Even though I'd thoroughly enjoyed my solo stint, it felt great that the group would be whole again. Plus, I'd always wanted to spend my third and final rest day in Khuspang. The only pity was that I only had a 70-200mm lens to do photography with.

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161

After the happy reunion of the group, while the others rested in camp, I climbed atop the grassy rib above camp, for about 600ft of elevation gain. The views from the flowery slopes were superb.

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163- Looking back at Gondogoro La
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163- Looking back at Gondogoro La
164
164
165- Laila Peak (the money shot)
165- Laila Peak (the money shot)

The rest of the day was spent conducting a photo-session with our porters and the caretakers at Khuspang.

166- Hakim Iqbal, the caretaker of Khuspang
166- Hakim Iqbal, the caretaker of Khuspang

Aug 25: Khuspang to Saicho – "Down we go"

While Khuspang was at a higher elevation than Concordia, I was surprised to find that my resting pulse that morning was back down to its usual 50. (It had been 68 in Concordia.) It was nearly all downhill from now and the extra oxygen felt great.

We left Khuspang around 8am. Once again Abbas, Nabi and I, plus a couple of other porters, pulled ahead and cantered along the smooth ice of the Gondogoro La Glacier. This flowed into the Masherbrum La Glacier, which flowed down from the south face of Masherbrum. During our trek, we had swung all the way over from the north side of Masherbrum to its south. Just before the intersection of the two glaciers, we transitioned off the Gondogoro La Glacier and onto the grassy hillside to our left. Soon thereafter, we swung left and were now hiking alongside the Masherbrum La Glacier, still on grassy slopes.

The view of the icefall of Masherbrum La was extremely impressive. Masherbrum itself, however, wasn't nearly as beautiful as from the north. We put our backs to this icefall and began to head down the trail. We hiked past a couple of beautiful meadows, and then past one with a shallow lake. I was informed by Nabi and Abbas that the local people herd dzo on these meadows. A dzo is a cross between a yak and domestic cattle. The resultant animal is bigger and sturdier than either a yak or a cow. It can also be quite aggressive.

167
167
168- Porters and meadows
168- Porters and meadows
169- Porters and lake
169- Porters and lake
170- Masherbrum La ice fall
170- Masherbrum La ice fall
171- Nabi on an actual trail
171- Nabi on an actual trail
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The next meadow over had a herd of dzo grazing placidly. I mentioned to the porters that I'd once seen a dzo raking up dirt as an intimidatory tactic, upon which one of them said, "Like that one?" Yikes! A powerful silver haired bull was doing exactly that. The next thing I know, the porters had all disappeared, scampering down the trail. I decided that it was probably prudent that I pack my camera away and follow them.

174- Don't mess with the dzo
174- Don't mess with the dzo

After a leisurely lunch, came the most difficult part of the day. A swiftly flowing stream had to be forded. The water was thigh deep and powerful, but thankfully the crossing was relatively short.

The rest of the journey along the Masherbrum La Glacier was extremely fast for me. Ehsan, our cook not our guide, accompanied me on this speedy descent. Despite his bulk, he was a like a jackrabbit, haring down the trail, and it was all I could do to keep up with him. We would end up reaching Saicho a full hour ahead of the rest.

Saicho was located just past the mouth of the Gondogoro La Glacier. The lush green surroundings – there were trees! – were a sight for sore eyes. Just before we approached it, a herd of baaing goats trotted across our path. I can't describe how that sound felt. Civilization!

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174

Stats: 11.2mi, 400ft elevation gain, ending elevation 11,000ft

Aug 26: Saicho to Hushe to Skardu – "End of the trek"

The final day's trek was a straightforward trail hike down to Hushe, beside a river. We took our time, although I would have preferred a faster pace. I wanted a hot bath! Hushe was a really pretty village, somewhat similar to Askole, but more established. It also sported a great view of the southwest face of Masherbrum.

175- Masherbrum
175- Masherbrum

Stats: 6.2mi, 50ft elevation gain, ending elevation 10,000ft

After lunch in an actual hotel, we piled into our jeep for the cramped 4hr journey back to Skardu. That evening, with all of us – trekkers, porters, and support staff - bathed and clad once more in street clothes, were hosted by Ehsan to a scrumptious dinner. It would be the last time we'd all be together. Bittersweet.

Aug 27-29: Skardu to Islamabad – "The end...and nearly the very end"

We had one day in Skardu, before our flight back to Islamabad on the 28th. This was spent visiting Katpanna Lake, where we had tea – the lake itself was a dry marshland – followed by the Shigar Cold Desert, which was amazing even though we got a flat tire there, and finished off with a visit to Blind Lake, right beside the Shigar River.

176- Shigar Cold Desert
176- Shigar Cold Desert
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It was raining on the 28th, the day of our flight. Oh oh. The airport at Skardu is too small for jet aircraft to land. And when the weather is bad, the propeller driven planes don't fly since they don't have the oomph to fly over the mountains. Yup, our flight was cancelled. This meant that we would have to repeat that exhausting drive to Islamabad.

There's not much more to say, except for this: There is a section of the Karakoram Highway, which is highly prone to rockfall and landslides, especially during bad weather. As we were going through this part, around 8pm, we got hit by rockfall. A few smaller rocks, then a big one on the roof and then another big one on the rear windshield. Our entire windshield simply disintegrated. If that had hit the front windshield, it might have been curtains for the driver, and hence us, since there was a steep drop into the Indus River on our right. The rest of our drive was without a rear windshield.

And that is pretty much that.

--------------
'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani

day_hike_mike, reststep, Alpine Pedestrian
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graywolf
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 6:29 am 
Wow!

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The only easy day was yesterday...
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Gil
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 8:01 am 
Ohmigosh what an adventure! Can't wait for the next two parts!

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Friends help the miles go easier.
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zephyr
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 9:56 am 
Wow.  So many dramatic images.   Such an other worldly environment.  Wondering if it would be unsettling to be in such a place.  I guess you must have no problem with it.  You keep going back.  wink.gif   A geologist's dream.  So many rocks to pick up and examine.   ~z

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GaliWalker
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 10:47 am 
zephyr wrote:
A geologist's dream.  So many rocks to pick up and examine.

Indeed, although if I'd picked up every rock to examine I would have got nowhere.  lol.gif Thankfully, I'm no geologist. biggrin.gif

I trust you know about the dangerous high altitude gemstone mining that occurs around the Skardu area?

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'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani
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Navy salad
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 12:18 pm 
Now THAT is what I call a trip report!! Awesome! I am also eagerly awaiting parts 2 & 3! (But no pressure!)

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Matt Lemke
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 8:20 pm 
Thoise mountains are freaking insane

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The Pacific coast to the Great Plains = my playground!!!
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See my website at:
http://www.lemkeclimbs.com

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JimL
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 8:23 pm 
Fantastic pictures as always, with great commentary.  They should be published in a book.

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Josh Lewis
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 8:40 pm 
What an inspiring collection of amazing scenes!  up.gif  up.gif Especially those misty towers of old.

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· TrailTopo

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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 9:35 pm 
I’ve been fascinated by this area ever since reading “In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods” years ago. I remember your previous reports and was thrilled to see you made another trip. Stellar photos and a great write up. Looking forward to the other parts!

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There's time to conceive in
and time to expire
though the time twixt the two
tells the tale that transpires - "Time Waits For No One", Ambrosia

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iron
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 9:53 pm 
nothing like a GW TR to set the bar.

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cascadetraverser
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PostMon Sep 06, 2021 10:52 pm 
Wow....unbelievable photos....and I thought Nepal beautiful.

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PostTue Sep 07, 2021 6:59 am 
Part II is now up.

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'Gali'Walker => 'Mountain-pass' walker
bobbi: "...don't you ever forget your camera!"
Photography: flickr.com/photos/shahiddurrani
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