Russ Tong, Head of Outdoor Activities, offers a personal reflection on July’s OA Department expedition to K2 Base Camp and crossing the Gondogora La in Pakistan…
I feel I hold a privileged position as Head of the Outdoor Activity Department and invariably I am asked numerous questions about my role and more specifically about our overseas expeditions. Very often I am asked ‘what is your favourite mountain range, what is the hardest trip you have led and why do you go on expedition?’
Our recent expedition to the Karakoram in Pakistan with the aim of visiting K2’s Base Camp and crossing the notorious Gondogoro La Pass at 5,578m has prompted me to ask myself the same questions once again. I have acknowledged that I probably thrive by seeking adventure (less extreme adventure with age) and I passionately believe in encouraging our pupils to do the same. I am a strong advocate of ‘adventure’ but what is real adventure? The dictionary definition states that it is a dangerous or exciting activity or experience.
What do we as individuals gain from adventure? All those who have experienced genuine adventure will probably have their own views and an appropriate answer. For me, adventures allow opportunities to show and improve resilience, demonstrate robustness, seek reward and finally, the hope we find a sense of accomplishment.
Everything about Pakistan is different from our own modern and comfortable environment. On day four of the expedition, we travelled in three jeeps from Skardu to Askole. The sharp intakes of breath as one looked to the side of the road at the sheer drops confirmed this road journey was the start of our ‘adventure’.
Having left the UK on Tuesday 4th July, some four days later we were in Skardu preparing for our early jeep departure to Askole. By 3.50am. 40 minutes prior to the planned departure, seemingly no one was awake! Final packing by head torch as we were experiencing a power cut did not help speed up the process. Everything, everyone was late! In fairness to our local guide, Jameel, he had been up most of the night finalising the collection and details regarding Freddie’s Visa who, as the only OM at the time of booking the trip, was also the only one to apply and be granted the wrong category of Visa.
Our ‘road’ to Askole soon became ‘interesting’, single track, unsurfaced, rutted and very often with huge drops to the side. The driving style was also very ‘interesting’. In our jeep, the windscreen wiper motor control knob fell from the dashboard and despite several attempts, the driver was unable to fix it back in place. Clearly concerned his windscreen motor would burn out he devised an interesting coping strategy – remove the wiper blades form the windscreen, thus reducing friction and, sadly, visibility as it was pouring down with rain!
During our trek, we were accompanied by our guide, two assistant guides, a cook, two assistant cooks and initially 44 porters. In addition, 24 chickens and a goat, although they were on a one-way journey. Unsurprisingly then, all our campsites seemed busy, congested and anything but quiet.
We often talk about ‘being resilient’ which the dictionary defines as quick to recover. Ask Hugo and Alexander how long it took them to recover from a bout of early sickness that threatened to initially incapacitate them. Neither of them had the option of just quietly recovering in the sterile surrounds of a comfortable western home or the College medical centre. They had little option but find the resolve and firm determination to carry on trekking for up to eight hours a day, at significant altitude whilst ascending the Baltoro glacier.
After six days of trekking, having already seen the iconic Trango Towers (first climbed in 1976 by a party which included British climber and mountaineer Joe Brown) we arrived at Concordia, a significant place in that it is the point of convergence of numerous glaciers and where we had unobstructed magnificent views of K2. ‘Reward’; something offered or given in return for service or merit.
From here, it was possible to make the five-hour trek, across difficult terrain, to K2 Base camp, with the caveat being only if you were robust, strong and vigorous enough to trek the five hours there and then back to camp, a 10-hour round trip ascending to 5,100m. Whilst none of us in our team were feeling the ill effects of the altitude, half our team were feeling the consequences of general hygiene levels way below western standards. Many of us were feeling far less than 100% and very conscious the toughest part of our expedition, the crossing of the Gondogora La Pass was yet to come.
Congratulations to Freddie, Ned, Josh, Alexander and Hugo, who were led by Alex Langdon and our local guides on reaching K2 Base Camp. They also shared a sombre moment at Gilkey Memorial, a stark reminder of the dangers of climbing the world’s second highest mountain. (The Gilkey Memorial is a memorial and tomb named after Art Gilkey who died on the mountain in 1953 and to all those who have died while climbing K2).
Thankfully, the time at Concordia allowed for a period of rest and enough energy, strength and motivation was restored to continue our journey and cross the Gondogora La Pass (5,578m) the high point of the expedition. This required an 11.00pm start, and an initial two-hour trek across the glacier to reach the fixed lines. Once at the ropes, we attached ourselves using the ascenders and started the zigzag climb. It took at least three hours of climbing before we reached the top of the Gondogoro La (5,578m), still in darkness but with the sun just visible, rising on the horizon. Exhausting! The top of the pass was quite windy but there was no intention of waiting for the sun, or the views, as we were acutely aware of the risks associated with the descent: primarily stone and rock fall. ‘Adventure’; a dangerous or exciting activity or experience.
Our descent on the other side seemed to take an age, but we were aided by the recent snowfall that not only helped bind rock and stones together but also made for a slightly easier descent on the upper slope. Thankfully, the team soon became apt at walking in crampons across mixed terrain!
It is probably fair to write that all three of the leaders, myself, Alex Langdon and Jonny Newman, let out a quiet sigh of relief when we all eventually arrived safely at our campsite, Khuispang (4,695m) at about 08.00 the following morning. It was also green; we had not seen vegetation in quite some time!
The following day did not start peacefully. From about 05.00 our tents were surrounded by Porters, there was clearly some kind of commotion. We later learnt that there had been a fight between a couple of Porters after one had discovered an extra 5kg had been placed in his pack for the crossing of the Gondogoro La!
After 13 days trekking, 13 nights camping in a beautiful but harsh environment, climbing to over 5,500m we finally had our first lukewarm shower back at Skardu. Quietly, we all shared a huge sense of ‘accomplishment’; something achieved. Charlie summed up our expedition with the quote; ‘It’s been quite a tiring couple of weeks, I feel honoured that I’ve made it’.
Trip members: Jules C-A, Hugo P, Alexander T, Charlie Henderson (C1 2018-23), Freddie Moorhead (TU 2013-18), Josh Renton (C1 2018-23), John Tidmarsh (C1 2018-23), Ned Wolfe (C3 2018-23), Russ Tong (Head of OA), Jonny Newman (OA Instructor), Alex Langdon (OA Instructor), Dave Madden (CR).