In 2003 I crossed a bridge made of wooden planks and steel cables over the outwash stream of the Biafo Glacier enroute to K2. Wood is a rare commodity in the Karakoram and the steel cables seemed out of place (growing up in Pakistan I had never seen anything like them). At the time I had to pay 20 Rupees (USD 0.20) as toll to one of the brothers who made the bridge. Not a bad deal at all, the other option involved an extra hour-and-a-half hiking across glacial moraine. Turns out the brothers had salvaged what an Italian Expedition to K2 had left behind from the previous year. They carried the steel cables and wood from K2 base-camp to this spot and constructed the bridge. That was my first introduction to what purists have called a “siege-style” of approaching the mountains.
The average Italian or Korean expedition to an 8000 meter peak in Pakistan involves the hiring of between 100-300 porters (the most ridiculous ones hiring up to 600) to carry tons of gear up the Baltoro Glacier and to their basecamp. There you have everything: from giant kitchen tents that serve three course meals, a weather monitoring tent and an intricately designed system of metal cables and fixed ropes for hauling gear to higher camps. The spectacle resembles a military operation. The plan is to “march” in, and “conquer” the mountain by “attacking” the high camps. Thousands of followers worldwide are following the mountaineers by reading blogs and webcasts.
During all this hoo-ha no one will even notice the French couple that arrived with maybe a porter and a guide. They carried their own packs, cooked for themselves, got up and down the mountain before the siege-style expedition finished unpacking, and returned home to have a few beers in Chamonix. This is the antithesis to the traditional way of approaching Himalayan peaks. A light-weight and super-fast approach: the alpine style. Pioneered by mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner and perfected by Steve House and Vince Anderson’s week-long ascent of Nanga Parbat the style is as pure as it gets.
So the question is, if its so cool why isn’t everyone doing it?
Lots of reasons. Folks who make the rules, be it the Ministry of Tourism in Pakistan or the Indian Mountaineering Federation cant make as much money from alpine-style parties than siege-style parties (more people = more money). Between awarding a K2 permit to a party of 2 vs party of 30, you can bet that the alpine style party will lose out. Siege-style parties have a higher chance of success, not because of stronger or more skilled climbers but because they choose the easiest, most popular routes on mountains. In-case of emergency siege-style expeditions will probably have a doctor at base-camp, whereas if in an alpine-style party something goes wrong, chances are none of the climbers will make it out alive.
The alpine vs siege-style debate is nothing new, so why am I writing about it in 2017?
Every year more and more locals are approaching the Himalayas. Most of these people are either trained by, or led by someone who was in the military or part of a siege-style expedition at some point. Now you will see groups of 15 students, and 30 porters all hiking up a trail setting up campsites and leaving trash behind. Siege-style backpacking/trekking!
Some might argue that a large number of these trips are actually ‘clean-up operations’ – but guess what, if you throw in the students who are cleaning, plus guides and porters that’s a large number of people digging tent platforms and pooping in a fragile environment where the damage you cause will take decades to heal. The majority of these treks can be done as a single alpine-style push where you can start early morning and be back at your hotel before sundown. Its cheaper (no need to pay for porters) and uses less gear.
So think about it. The brothers who built the bridge sure did, when the next year’s siege-style expedition showed up with their 300 something porters their toll box was waiting.