Climbing the mountain had been on my mind for almost all my life, particularly ever since I did a course in Rock Repelling and trekked some softer mountains up in the North. Let me hasten to add that yet I have not climbed K 2 or Nanga Parbat — icons of Pakistani climbing, as identifiable and as famous as the Mount Everest. But I have been pretty close to them, at the distance that seemed nearly close enough to touch their summits. As a mountain lover, I had lived some of my life in the base camps of these majestic mountains and some others in Northern Pakistan; with some famous mountaineers, explorers and adventurers from all over the world or alone.
People living in the Northern Areas are some of the best guides and porters in the world. Though the travel to Pakistan has declined, but adventure travel has boomed in last few years. As a result the number of local coordinators, guides and porters has also increased proportionately. Reasons: Guided climbers have a better shot at reaching the summit. And most important, guided climbs dramatically reduce the odds of losing digits or dying. Which is why mountaineers rely on local guides and porters?
Experienced guides and even porters from Pakistan are believed to be the best. They know where the crevasses and icefalls are, how to acclimate, how much food and fuel to haul up the hill, when to push on, when to rest. Sitting in the base camps, I have seen determined, committed and sponsored climbers arrive at base camps; some less savvy teams taking a look around and going back. Some staying and waiting for the weather breaks that do not come; some even taking a start only to abort and some conquering the mighty mountains. Staying in base camps is important for climbers to give their bodies more time to acclimate to the elevations.
Life at all base camps is almost the same. Mess tents are the best places in the base camps where every one huddles like a living rooms. It usually is a hole climbers dig in the snow or rocks and cover it with tarp or it is a natural cubby hole behind and in between rocks. “You eat and drink (hot tea, coffee) your way to the top,” is a way of life with climbers. Climbers get up early in the morning because moving early in the morning is essential for crossing snow bridges that melt in the midday sun.
While in a camp in the foot of K 2, during the night, cold sometime turns the interior of the tents into a freezer in need of defrosting. Once I sat up, I brushed against the side of the tent and snow fell down the back of my jacket. During day it is quiet and beautiful but lonely because most inhabitants go out.
My longest and unique experience in the base camp has been with an expedition to Nanga Parbat. Most major expedition going for Nanga Parbat stay at the Letabo Base Camp, also known as Herligcoffer base camp (named after a German climber and expedition organizer under the shadow of the great mountain). A Koreans expedition was already camped alongside the fresh water stream in Letabo when we arrived there. They greeted us warmly. We stayed the night at Letabo, decided to set a camp further ahead, and early morning set off for final leg of trek to our base camp. This site was suggested by one of the team member who had come here a few years ago to climb with another expedition. We climbed up through the narrow gorge, which opens into a relatively flat bowl shaped feature that is approximately 1000 meters higher then the Letabo Base Camp and much cooler and windy due to narrow tunnel effect of the valley.
This was the place where I was to spend rest of the period while the others were to attempt climbing Nanga Parbat. Misri Khan, a middle aged and very lively man from Hunza with local anecdote for every occasion, was the cook (and he was good at his job). He had told me to suck on lemon while walking long and hard on hills. “It quenches thrust and gives energy,” he had said. I am reminded of the folk axiom every time I walk on mountains. He quickly established the kitchen behind a big boulder. Climbers began their work: reconnaissance, studying weather and establishing advance camps. In the base, I spent most of my time exploring nearby features and contemplating matters of life.
One early morning, when the climbers were going out for reconnaissance, I also got up to see the famous sunrise in the Valley. I donned my high altitude outfit, carried necessary gears and sat on a nearby spur looking towards the resplendent peak. At this time the morning sky is like a jet-black canopy, pierced randomly by the light of a myriad of stars. In the crisp morning air and backed by a tone of purest yellow, where you least expect it, the rosy rays of dawn start colouring the sky. Ahead to the east, nothing seems to be happening. A deep silence shrouds the Valley. Then suddenly it is there, the highest slant of the sun breaching the horizon like a diamond, its light coming from across the sea of cloud like a shining sword blade. Within seconds, the full orb is in view, splendid and serene, like a king arriving in dignity to repossess once again his control from the rule of night. The seen seems to be different in the valley. One sees mountains constantly changing colours with the rising sun. Orange, green, rust, turquoise and blue are only some of the shades one witnesses while the sun is committed to its journey westwards and the morning ripens ever so slowly over the sleeping landscape.
The area as a whole is a hymn to the morning. From when the stars begin to fade long before sunrise to the strong glow of noon, the valley is at its best. Freshness and newness are morning’s hallmarks, and at a high altitude, unpolluted atmosphere such as found in the valley is felt in all its original purity in a way that cannot easily be matched at lower elevations. Witnessing transformation of the valley into splendid natural artefact is a unique experience, still etched in my mind.
The last thing that always happens to the non climber people in the base camps is this: They feel part of the expedition. They are happy on the success and sad if the team does not make it for any reasons. Also there is lot cultural fusion takes place in these camps – new friends are made. They all see different dawns every morning.
Dawns that I have seen up in the mountains have been some of the most awe inspiring things in my life.