In 2003 I was camped at Concordia at the Junction of the Baltoro and Godwin Austen glaciers. Besides one porter and myself, the entire team was planning on crossing the Gondoghoro La – a mountain pass at almost 20,000 feet (6000 meters) that leads into Hushe Valley. This is what most people do, they hike up the Baltoro, cross the pass and hike down into Hushe completing a circuit and getting a chance to photograph K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums in one picture.
To the surprise of my team mates I refused to cross the pass. Even now, thirteen years later when I tell people that I trekked all the way up the Baltoro and back down again without crossing the Gondoghoro La I get weird looks. At the time I was peer pressured to the point of being ridiculed “he’s probably too weak to do it anyways”, “he’s probably scared.”
The latter was true to a certain extent. I was scared. Scared of the fact that a mountain pass that is in avalanche terrain that claims a few lives every year has been designated to a handful of Hushe porters to “secure” for the season. These porters are not trained in glacier crevasse rescue, have no idea what a serac is and how often they move, don’t know what avalanche terrain is or how to read unstable snow, and cant even tie a safety knot. I was scared of the complacency that my teammates were showing. I knew I could return someday when I was competent enough to gauge avalanche conditions and travel in a roped party where each person was trained – the pass isn’t going anywhere.
So here are some fun facts for those who routinely visit these mountains or are planning on doing so:
1. Every season (June-Aug) at least 5 people will die on the Gondoghoro La. No one in Pakistan compiles statistics of mountaineering accidents so this number is from Heidi Howkins – a K2 climber who has monitored activity in that area for years.
Do you think the Hushe porters who you are paying per day will tell you this?
2. Every season, at least 5 people will go “missing” on the Biafo-Hispar Glacier. Missing is what the porters will tell you because they know what crevasses are and how people fall into them.
Over the past few years I have seen several videos and pictures of trekking parties from universities and adventure clubs in Pakistan on the Biafo-Hispar Glacier carrying ropes. Do you know how to rig 3:1 or 5:1 pulley system using that rope? It’s easy to tie oneself onto a rope and get a false sense of security, but do you know that the same rope can actually pull you into the crevasse and potentially kill you if the spacing between individuals is incorrect? I assure you that the local guides you are putting your trust in don’t know this.
3. Every summer, tourists will go sledding, hiking, and travel by jeep on “glaciers” in Naran on the way to lake Saif-ul-Muluk. Did you know these aren’t glaciers but avalanche debris? That means you are traveling in a spot frequented by avalanches.
I am not being critical of students who want to explore Pakistan’s northern areas or the tourist from Karachi who is in Naran to escape the heat. The purpose here is to make you aware of the inherent dangers that the mountains pose and the lack of technical know-how on part of the locals of these valleys. Anyone with connections (or who’s willing to pay a bribe) can become a “licensed tour operator”, “liason officer” or “mountain guide.” None of those translate into mountain sense. Even the most accomplished of these guides who have actually summited 8000 meter peaks were high-altitude porters on teams being led by someone who was trained. They were on fixed-ropes and ascenders under the close supervision of some European or Japanese party.
Stop, and think. That is what decision-making entails. Carefully plan your trip and constantly re-evaluate weather and terrain changes.
If you want to “do the Baltoro trek.” You should know that the Baltoro is a glacier. Look up glaciers on google, read up on how they’re formed, how they move and the 10 different ways that they can kill you. Reinhold Messner once said “the mountains have teeth” just to illustrate this point.
Read about glacier-travel crevasse rescue and avalanche terrain. Better still, take a course. Most courses in Pakistan are somehow linked with the Pakistani army – the same folks who lost 135 soldiers to an avalanche because they had done everything wrong in the book. The unfortunate soldiers were camped in an ice-fall, on a serac, right underneath unstable snow slopes in avalanche terrain. Every year the Pakistani army loses more soldiers to avalanches, crevasses, and altitude sickness than casualties caused by Indians. With all due respect to the Pakistani Army, are you sure you want to get your mountaineering training through them or their retirees (Alpine Club of Pakistan)?
If you happen to be in Pakistan, and training options are limited here are some useful links:
Mike Barter’s video channel on youtube (yes I know youtube isn’t working in Pakistan these days but hopefully it will be up and running in a few months):
Mike is a certified guide through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, and is a very good teacher.
Get these books and read them cover-to-cover, and when you’re done, go train these techniques over and over again till they are part of your muscle memory:
Rely on yourself. At the end of the day your safety is your own responsibility. You owe it to your family and loved ones to be safe. I will leave you with a quote by mountaineering legend Mark Twight: “the harder you are to kill, the longer you will last in the mountains.”