Situated on the immediate outskirts of Central Karakoram National Park, the village of Hushe (part of Hushe Valley in the Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan) is the stopover point for treks to Mashabrum and Gondogoro La.
The latter is a high mountain pass (5,585 m) crossed by trekkers and mountaineers heading to/from the “8000ers” in the area (Pakistan has five in total)—including K2, the pinnacle of the Karakoram.
Although it’s the world’s second-highest peak (8,611 meters), ascending K2 is known to be a far riskier feat than Everest based mainly on the final 3,353 meters, which, unlike Everest, involves technical climbing on a mixture of rock, snow, and ice.
Grappling with this tough terrain along with altitude effects, extreme cold (even in the summer, it can be –50 °C at the summit), powerful wind gusts, the possibility of being steamrolled by an unexpected avalanche or falling serac (a giant block of ice)—not to mention the constant fear of imminent death by one tiny misstep—means far fewer mountaineers have attempted K2, and still fewer have successfully summited (and made it back down the mountain alive).
The cold, hard truth is that one in four who reach the summit of this cold, hard, granite peak die.
To maximize the adrenaline rush, some suicidal souls actually attempt to ski down the mountain from the summit, which, as a non-skier (and I’m sure to Olympians as well), seems quite fucking terrifying to me. It’s a different world up there, but the law of gravity still applies. The first full ski descent of K2 was accomplished in 2018 by Polish mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel, who was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year for his achievement. I would even call that an understatement.
Interestingly, although there have been a few strong attempts in recent years, no expedition has ever summited K2 in the winter. It’s tough to imagine a scarier scenario than the above description, but the conditions on K2 are considerably harsher in the winter than the summer.
Last year, a Kazakh-led expedition made it 7,634 meters up the mountain before having to retreat due to crazy-strong winds (as in, hurricane-force). This was the highest point reached during the winter season to date, and several more summit attempts will supposedly take place this year.
All this evidence leads me to one conclusion: mountaineers are a seriously hardcore bunch.
Slightly overshadowed by its taller counterparts of the Karakoram, Mashabrum—whose summit lies just below 8000 meters—is deceptively difficult to climb. Although the trek to base camp is a fairly easy undertaking on a well-established route, from what I’ve read, climbing further up the mountain is extremely challenging and rarely attempted—its mountaineering history is logged with failures. According to Red Bull, including its first ascent in 1960, the peak has only been reached four times, with the last attempt in 2014 being unsuccessful.
Mashabrum also has a somewhat mysterious name origin with no general consensus on its real meaning (aside from the brum part, which is “mountain” in Balti). Nevertheless, my favorite interpretation is “Queen of Peaks.” Since it was the first mountain within the Karakoram range to be mapped, it’s also known as “K1” (there are nine K’s). Mawish and I would be trekking to her majesty’s base camp at about 4,500 meters, which we aimed to do in a two-day roundtrip from Hushe.
The people of Hushe rely on subsistence farming and otherwise accommodate and assist trekkers, acting as porters, cooks, and guides on expeditions. Even with the steady stream of tourists (mainly during the summer season), it’s apparent that these villagers have only the most basic of amenities and no luxuries. Kids run around in the cold with runny noses and dirt-smeared, slightly tattered clothing—but all of them with genuine smiles.
Mawish and I later wished we had brought chocolate and sweets to share, which are rare and savored treats in these parts. Both kids and adults knew these words in English (likely from other foreigners who had stayed in the village and offered goodies), and some shyly asked us if we had any on hand. Mawish doled out squares of a German chocolate bar I had given her, but one small crowd of children quickly wiped out the very limited supply.
Finally, the morning after our long preliminary journey from Lahore, it was go time.
We ate a breakfast of eggs, roti, and chai with Hassan and Nic and quickly gathered our gear for the trek. Nic wouldn’t be joining us—he was getting ready to cross Deosai National Park in the next leg of his adventure, so we wished each other well and went our separate ways (at least for the time being).
As you exit the village and begin to walk through the fields towards the mountains, a small building comes into view. Already in my trekking trance, this inconspicuous building (which I later found out was the park registration office) barely registered on my peripheral radar. And since there was no gate or officer acting as a barrier, I simply bypassed it and walked on ahead of Mawish and Hassan.
Apparently, each visitor has to complete a registration form and pay an entrance fee (10 USD as a foreigner), which I honestly did not realize and obviously would have had no problem paying. I later found out that Hassan had secretly covered for me at the office, claiming that Mawish and I were his guests (meaning no one had to pay). Oops. Thanks, Hassan!
After several hours of walking mostly along a flat dirt path, I reached the first camp along with our two porters, Daniel and Ismail, who had left Hushe after us and quickly caught up despite carrying the bulk of our gear—including cooking supplies and kerosene—on their backs. They started a small fire to take care of the first order of business on a trekking break: chai. Hot, sweet, milky tea is one of the few comforts in the cold of the mountains, and I always welcomed it with half-frozen fingers.
It started to lightly snow as we rested here. With the sunlight filtering through the falling flakes, it was a beautiful, serene scene, and I was beyond content. Mawish, who had started to feel the effects of altitude sickness, had been walking slowly since our departure from Hushe, and Hassan accompanied her at her own pace. They joined us at the camp while Daniel, Ismail, and I were already sipping from our steaming cups of chai, and I was glad to see that Mawish also had a smile on her face despite her suffering.
Another few hours up the mountain led us through several rocky, steep sections, but it was still relatively straightforward trekking. Again, I went ahead with the porters while Mawish and Hassan took their time. We passed scattered signs of fall, which diminished into exclusively rocky terrain as we climbed higher in altitude, eventually reaching a cold, damp, and windy plain for our second chai and snack break.
Although it was possible to camp at this location overnight, given the unfavorable conditions, we opted to go a bit higher, to “lower base camp.” This second location was drier, more sheltered from the cold wind, and housed a stone hut.
These huts are normally meant for sheltering livestock, but we weren’t exactly picky about our makeshift digs, eager to escape the plummeting temperatures as the evening approached (I didn’t smell anything fecal or dead, so I was happy to crawl right on in).
Daniel and Ismail efficiently set up shop, including Mawish’s tent outside and the “kitchen” inside the hut, while I warmed my hands and feet by the fire they built outside (and sitting rather comfortably on a scrap piece of yak hide—a throne fit for a mountain queen).
Once Mawish and Hassan joined us (it was late afternoon by this point), we loitered around the fire (with chai, of course) until supper was ready (dal and rice), congregating inside the hut under blankets in front of the fire. Hassan proposed that Mawish and I sleep in the hut and the porters take the tent, obviously the less luxurious option for them. It was already effing cold and would be below freezing overnight, so I definitely didn’t complain about this impromptu sleeping arrangement.
Although I bundled myself up in a sleeping bag under a few thick blankets, wearing all my outerwear, I just could not sleep that night. The hard ground undoubtedly contributed to my sleeplessness, but I was also buzzing with a bit of adrenaline, excited to be up here in the vast remoteness, isolated from reality below.
I ruminated on Mashabrum and the epic 8000ers, wondering how mountaineers summit these peaks in much harsher conditions than our current (relatively cozy) situation and if I could eventually do it, too (and not die in the process).
The trio of us set out for base camp at 6 am the next morning: Hassan, the vision of a snow wizard with his wooden walking stick; Mawish, with some renewed strength and optimism; and me, somehow not really feeling the physical or mental effects of no sleep (not that I was complaining). We planned to turn back around at base camp more or less immediately, so Daniel and Ismail would stay behind and hold down the fort. We would have to survive without chai for a few hours.
It had snowed the night before and was still snowing when we walked away from the comfort of our little hut as the sun started to rise. At first, we gradually ascended over loose rocks barely dusted in snow, making me think we’d be in for this type of terrain the entire way to base camp.
But nope, that would be just too easy.
Almost suddenly, the scene changed drastically. The cold, biting wind picked up and the snow deepened, at times coming up to our knees. As we trudged forward, I could make out no perceptible route ahead of us. None of us were wearing gaiters, and the mounds of loose snow forced us to slow down significantly (for the uninitiated: trekking in freshly fallen snow is no cakewalk).
I admit that a moment of doubt ran through my mind at this point. I had been trekking at even higher altitude before (in Ladakh), but the conditions were never this rough at any point of the trek. We were now outside the normal trekking season and approaching winter, hence the ample snow instead of the greener landscape you’d likely encounter in the summertime at this altitude.
As my hands and feet started to freeze (even through my wool mittens and solid boots—curse my poor circulation), I was mainly worried about frostbite (not so much dying). Meanwhile, Mawish didn’t even have waterproof boots on, so she was also starting to go numb.
But, lucky for us, Hassan—a snow wizard among men (well, women in this case)—saved the day. He confidently navigated our way through the thick blanket of snow, shuttling us down slippery hills one by one, and intermittently warming our hands and feet (only wizardry can explain how the hell his hands were warm despite not wearing gloves on the entire trek).
Determined to meet our goal, we slogged onwards, skirting around a glacier and finally reaching a flat, open stretch that Hassan proudly declared base camp, a two-hour trek from our overnight camp.
After basking in the glory of our efforts and taking our hands out of our gloves to capture our victory moment in a photoshoot (momentarily forgetting about the cold), it was time to go back. But fueled by our success, we plowed through the snow more easily this time and returned to lower base camp by 10 am.
Best morning stroll ever.
We lingered at the campsite for a hot meal with Daniel and Ismail before starting back down the hill, again separating into two groups. The porters and I practically raced down it, reaching the foot of the hill in only three hours.
By the time we arrived back to Hassan’s guesthouse, my right knee had started to hurt a little, and I was exhausted. The adrenaline had finally worn off.
It was good timing to crash, and so I napped, still in the bulk of my trekking clothes (which I had no intention of removing until we were back to Skardu). Eventually, Mawish came through the door, echoing my state of exhaustion.
I’m coming back for you, K2.