From Dust to Ice: Trekking in the Karakorams

I knew there was a reason why I didn’t pursue a career in law after finishing my LLB – I’m just not that great at reading fine print. It wasn’t until after entering this year’s Guardian travel writing competition that I noticed the competition was only open to UK residents. Ooops. Oh well, my entry was only 500 words long and didn’t take much in the way of mental effort so it could be worse. Maybe this start will provide me the motivation I need to write a longer piece.

View towards K2 (in background) from the Gondogoro Pass

“Good morning sirs.”

I wriggled my arm out of my sleeping bag to look at my watch: 11.30pm. Our guide Nabi was outside, waking us.

The watershed of our trek through Pakistan’s Karakoram range was at hand and the weather was critical. If fine we would cross the Gondogoro Pass from the upper Baltoro glacier into the Hushe valley. From there it was a short walk back to civilization. If not we would have to return along the 60 kilometre length of the Baltoro glacier. Most expeditions that season had turned back. To climb the fifty degree slopes in less than perfect conditions was too dangerous.

I tugged at the tent’s frozen zipper and poked my head out into the cold. From our perch on the moraine above the glacier I looked out over a monumental landscape painted in grey and white. A million stars pierced the dark of a clear night. It was decided: we would climb.

Trekkers are drawn here to walk among the world’s highest mountains. Fifteen days earlier a jeep had driven us to the road-end of the Indus valley. Brown replaced green after the last village. For days dust clogged everything: eyes and noses, clothing and pen tips. Heat radiated off the rock and we avoided walking after midday. After six days of acclimatising we reached the glacier; then we lived on ice. Either side of the valley mountains jutted abruptly upward like jagged molars. A landscape of granite and ice, on a scale to humble a human.

Our final camp was at 5000 metres. The pass lay nearly a vertical kilometre above us somewhere in the night.

We departed in silence. Walking in a single file our headlights bobbed in the night, a chain of lights making a long luminous worm. Then our eyes adjusted and we turned them off. There was nothing between the white snow and the dark night – a sensory vacuum in which time passed unnoticed. It was so still it felt like walking through a giant indoor film set, the distant silhouettes of mountains a painted backdrop. The only sounds were our laboured breathing and the snow crunching underfoot. The gradient increased and we hauled ourselves up on fixed ropes, grateful no new snow had fallen to further slow our progress.

The sky lightened in the east and I checked my watch: 3.45am. We reached the pass gasping in the cold air of a bruised dawn. Around us lay the highest concentration of 8000 metre peaks in the world; we were in the throne-room of the mountain gods. K2 blushed pink in the day’s first rays – no blanket of cloud shrouded it this morning. I took a photograph but then my hands and camera batteries froze. This was no place to linger, the risk of avalanche and rock-fall too great once the sun was up. Far below the first greenery for days beckoned and we began our descent.

Entering the Hushe Valley


8 Comments on “From Dust to Ice: Trekking in the Karakorams”

  1. pabloneco says:

    I like it. Very nice description of the night sounds when hiking in high altitude… No pain in the fingers? Sucks about the competition, though…

  2. pabloneco says:

    Oh. And I had not thought there would be dust in the himalayas… it looks so clean and rocky. Weird. It makes perfect sense though, and you get plenty of dust in the Andes valleys…

    • nzcampbell says:

      Oh man the dust was the worst – red eyes, bloody noses and sore throats for the first week. Not to mention the dust through the sleeping bag, clothes, even silt and grit in the water we were drinking and washing in.

  3. Chris says:

    Pretty spectacular and extreme place, to put it mildly. The photo looks worth the frozen hands. How were you finding the breathing and did you hire guides for this part?

    • nzcampbell says:

      I was ok with the breathing, we had acclimitized well. Some of the other guys found it pretty tough though. We had a guide, a HAP, cook and a lot of porters. The interesting part of the story is how the porters got on in plastic sandals, socks and cotton shalwar kameez. I am working on this story now.

  4. JP says:

    Very well written! Looking forward to making this trip one day as well,

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