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1 – About

In June 2007 I will be joining an expedition to climb Gasherbrum II, situated in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. At 8,035m/26,360ft, Gasherbrum II is one of the world’s highest mountains. Together with it’s sister peaks of Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak and the mighty K2, Gasherbrum II is one of the four great 8,000m peaks that stand sentinel in the ‘Throne Room of the Gods’ at the head of the giant Baltoro Glacier. This will be a ‘pure’ ascent without the use of supplementary oxygen.

My aim is to try and raise as much money as possible for Merlin – a specialist UK charity which responds worldwide with vital health care and medical relief for vulnerable people caught up in natural disasters, conflict, disease and health system collapse. Their work is based upon the humanitarian principle that all people, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation, are entitled to lifesaving care and medical assistance.

Merlin played a huge part in the relief effort in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005, and Merlin is continuing to provide health care for around 190,000 people in areas where many buildings, including health facilities were completely destroyed. Through mobile and static clinics, Merlin is now the only aid agency providing health services for people living in and around camps in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

As with all of Merlin’s programs, an important objective is to leave behind lasting improvements to the health system. “The needs here are just as great as ever,” says Merlin’s Country Director in Pakistan. “Merlin is continuing to strengthen health services in areas badly affected by the earthquake. Many agencies have pulled out, leaving a gap in health care services and the possibility of a second humanitarian crisis. Reconstruction of permanent health centres will take time, so thousands of people will be dependent on Merlin’s field clinics and mobile teams for medical care for some time to come”.

Climbing Gasherbrum II will be truly challenging, but with YOUR support I’ll know that with every step my efforts will be making a real difference to the lives of people still desperately in need after this terrible disaster. Merlin would be enormously grateful for anything that you can give to this most deserving cause.

Thankyou.

Ian Rogers

ian.rogers@climb4life.co.uk

2 – Islamabad

Salam Allaikum from Pakistan where it’s hot, damned hot! Thankfully it is much cooler, balmy even, in the evening. Islamabad , built in 1961 as the new capital, is a leafy, green and surprisingly spacious city with big broad avenues and plentiful parkland. But it’s hot, very hot. Did I mention that?

The team is all together now, and is a very eclectic mix of nationalities! The climbing team is comprised of Soren, a Dane living in Norway; Adrian from Birmingham; Kes, originally from Holland but now living in Tanzania; Dave, a Yorkshireman living in Wales; Tia, from Scotland but living in London; Catherine & Clive from Australia; and of course myself and Jamie, the expedition leader from New Zealand. We also have Humphrey, an independant climber from Ireland, with us too. Jamie seems a good guy, very easy going and down to earth. It’s a strong team too, with most having experience of climbing 8,000 metre peaks. Jamie, Soren and Humphrey have all summitted Everest (Jamie 3 times!). At one point Soren also held the record for the fastest ascent of the Seven Summits. So, all in all, a good balance I think. There is also quite a big trekking group (another 7 or 8 ) and they also seem a great bunch and everyone is getting along well.

Yesterday afternoon we went for a wander around and stopped to have a bit of lunch at the Kabul Restaurant which, as it’s name suggests, serves Afghani food. And very good it was too, with superb kebabs served from a flaming grill on the street front. It’s no surprise that this place is such a hit with the diplomatic and local community alike. As we continued our wander we came across a boisterous bunch of youths playing cricket on the pavement….a past-time that would surely never be allowed in nanny-state Britain, and especially not as the ball was frequently hit for six across the roadway, bouncing across several cars on the way! However, on the whole there were not many locals about (they clearly know better than to be out in the heat) and the phrase ‘only mad dogs and englishmen etc..’ very much came to mind!

After a welcome siesta from our earlier excursion, the evening was spent in the rather swish Wang-Fu chinese restaurant, right next next door to our hotel. It proved to be another excellent and very popular place, though it was a little surreal to see quite so many Pakistanis eating chinese food in the heart of Islamabad!

Today we did a spot of tourism and visited the Faisal Masjid, one the world’s largest mosques, gifted by the King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. It’s striking architecture, essentially built to resemble a huge tent in the desert, is very bold for such a conservative country. It’s massive minarets also have a rather bizarre similarity to space rockets!

In the afternoon we braved the heat once more and took a walk around the old quarter of Rawalpindi, the older twin city of Islamabad. Here we found the crowded, narrow, winding mass of bazaars that you would have more come to expect. It was a melting pot of people from all corners of Pakistan and included many Afghans too. Certainly all seemed quite bemused by a group of Weserners suddenly appearing in their midst, especially the children! However, they were very friendly and quite happy for us to take photos. Of course, back in Islamabad we couldn’t help but have another marvellous dinner, this time a curry which cost us the princely sum of 1 pound each!!

Well, had better close for now. Tomorrow we start our two-day journey along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to Skardu, the last big town before the mountains. This should be a very interesting drive to say the least as it’s reputation goes before it. Not for the faint-hearted I believe! I’ll let you know!!!

3 – The Karakoram Highway

An encouraging road sign on the Karakoram Highway says ‘Better to arrive late than never’ and I guess that pretty much sums up this hairy scary road! No sooner out of Islamabad than our driver had to take evasive action as a big steel cage fell off the lorry in front and bounced right into our path! Mind you, our driver did at least have the decency to flag him down and let him know!

We made the 760kms journey from Islamabad to Skardu in two very long days with the journey split by an overnight stay in Chilas. One good thing to come from such a long journey was our Pakistani guide, Saddiq, giving us some rudimentary lessons in Urdu and our army liason officer, Captain Kamal, regailing us with tales of his more usual day job fighting the Taliban and insurgents on the Afghan border.  We initially passed through the city of Abbottabad – named after it’s founder, Major James Abbott and very much a city of the Raj. Today Abbottabad is renowned for the high standards of its many educational institutions and it’s large military establishment. Continuing northwards, we drove through Mansehra, Besham and Battagram – three of the towns devastated by the earthquake in October 2005. Many of the 75,000 killed came from these towns and the villages in and around them, and it was heartening to see the huge international aid and reconstruction projects that are clearly doing so much to help. It was also immensely rewarding to see at first hand the kind of relief effort that Merlin has been engaged in, and that you are now assisting through your sponsorship. It makes you believe again in humanity.

Eventually we entered into the impressive Indus river gorge. The road, or rather track, contours around deep inside, with vast rock walls towering 1000m+ above and fearsome drops down into the fast-flowing Indus way below. All very reassuring when your minibus is hurtling along inches from the edge and certain death! This is not a route for those faint of heart! Yet despite one’s vexation, it was impossible not to be awed by such incredible landscape. Similarly impressive, but in a very different way, were the trucks that trundle along this modern day Silk Route between China and Pakistan and beyond. With their cacophony of horns and highly decorated cabs, lovingly adorned with all sorts of paraphenalia, they are a sight and sound to behold – unless you happen to meet them on a particularly precipitous stretch of road! Yet despite our spectacular surroundings, I think we were all rather pleased when we finally escaped the claustrophobic confines of the gorge and headed onwards into Skardu.

 

4 – Skardu

As well as being a remote frontier town, Skardu is also one of the three main kingdoms of Baltistan, part of the Northern Areas. Rocky summits rise 3000m above the town, dramatically enclosing it like a huge bowl. It’s a dusty, dirty, windswept place, rather reminiscent of the Wild West. It’s also very, very hot – again!! Either side of the main road, hundreds of little shops offer a plentiful supply of goods and several bustling bazaars can be found in the older quarter. Wherever we have been so far the locals have all been incredibly friendly and hospitable and Skardu is no exception, especially if you attempt to speak the language, no matter how little – or badly! The crowded streets are filled with a surprisingly diverse mix of peoples, mostly Balti but Pashtuns and Punjabis are also to be found in large numbers here. Even my room-mate, an American, has had no problems – though we have agreed to offer him up as a sacrifice should we run into trouble with any of the more radicalised natives!

Tomorrow we head out to the road-head at Askole, another hard-core road journey in jeeps. From there we start the 100km trek to base camp – and the expedition begins!

5 – Concordia

Askole is a small remote village located in the impressive Braldu Valley and is the gateway to the Karakoram. It’s reached by way of a rough road (er, well more off-road really) in old jeep-style Toyota Landcruisers, and higher up the route is often blocked by landslide or rock-fall. Initially our journey took us through some remarkably lush and verdant pastures, the result of the fertile flood plains, and drove through many tiny hamlets and villages. These were surprisingly prosperous, despite their remoteness, and there has clearly been much investment in the area, particularly in building schools. The villagers were also by far the friendliest people we’ve met to date, especially the children, and even the women waved and said hello rather than run away or stay hidden (so long as their men-folk were not around). Why, we even got to meet our driver’s family along the way!

On arrival in Askole it was soon evident that our anticipated head-start to the trek was not going to happen. We had intended to begin the trek straight away and get ahead of some of the other expeditions that were also trekking into the Karakoram, the idea being to get the best tent sites at the various camps along the way. Alas nobody had told the porters, and after several hours of argument and confusion we decided to stay put for the night!

No matter. By dawn an air of calm efficiency had descended about the place. The porters quickly sorted their loads and with much relief we were finally off – the expedition had begun at last!! The relief, however, was somewhat short-lived. Early on we averaged some 20kms a day over 8 or 9 hours, but in the searing heat (35C-40C) and desert-like conditions it was pretty brutal. It was a struggle to stay hydrated and we often arrived at camp totally exhausted. “Anyone for fried brain?” asked Jamie, our leader, after one hideously hot day. This was trekking at the extreme! Mercifully, we had the forethought to buy some umbrellas in Skardu, and whilst we may have looked a little silly they at least provided some vestige of shelter from the sun. On occasion we braved the raging Braldu river and managed to scoop some water over our heads, but it was quite an unnerving exercise.

As we slowly made our way up onto the giant Baltoro Glacier so we had shorter days, the heat relented, and a gentle breeze even cooled the air. And with every step the views became evermore spectacular. On our left were the Trango Towers, their sheer granite spires soaring skywards for over 6000m, and on our right the fearsome peak of Masherbrum. Eventually, after nearly a week of hard trekking, we arrived at Concordia, that great confluence of glaciers and mountains, but alas saw little of our surroundings. Ominous black clouds now loomed large in the sky, and by nightfall heavy rain had arrived with a vengeance.

The next 48hrs were cold, wet, and thoroughly miserable. We mostly hid in the mess tent, periodically peering out in the forlorn hope that the weather might miraculously be about to clear. It didn’t. And people’s spirits were beginning to wane. We rallied briefly when Ashraf, our cook, suddenly produced a cake in celebration of Catherine’s birthday. It tasted fantastic and was a welcome distraction from the rain lashing down outside. Then WOW! We finally awoke to a brighter day – no rain – and as the clouds began to clear so the spectacular panorama of Concordia opened up before us: the iconic Mitre Peak and the stupendous ‘Shining Wall’ of Gasherbrum IV; the imposing massive of Broad Peak, another of the great 8000m mountains, so named because of its mile long summit ridge; and there, at last, the mighty K2 – massive, monumental, and utterly magnificent. Be in no doubt that this, the second highest mountain on earth, is the mountain of mountains. Then late that night, amidst a crystal clear sky sparkling with millions of stars and Venus shining bright, came a truly wonderous sight to behold; the awesome majesty of K2, bathed in the ethereal light of the full-moon rising over Concordia. A moment of breathtaking beauty, and one that will stay with me forever.

6 – Base Camp

Hello at last from Gasherbrum Base Camp! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write but unfortunately one cannot account for technology and Pakistani porters!

In Nepal and Tibet the Sherpas seem to rise to the challenge, it doesn’t matter how late, how cold, how hard the work is, they just get stuck in and get on; it’s both inspiring and heartening in equal measure. Alas, our Pakistani porters don’t appear to have quite the same mentality. As individuals they are wonderful people and you can’t help but warm to them; collectively however, they’re a nightmare and seem well versed in the old English school of striking! The upshot is chaos, with personal gear and vital expedition equipment strung out along the trail several days behind us. Indeed we’ve no idea if it’ll even turn up at all! Crucially, our high altitude tents are amongst the gear that is missing. The trouble is, many of the other expeditions are experiencing similar problems and there is a high risk of everything becoming mixed up or going to the wrong Base Camp. (Concordia is a cross-roads from where you can head off to either Gasherbrum, K2 or Broad Peak Base Camp). Still, at least we now have communication!

Base Camp is situated on a thin, rocky, strip of moraine that divides the South Gasherbrum Glacier in two and is dominated by the huge peak of Gasherbrum I. As one of the last teams to arrive (some have been here two weeks or more) we are camped at the lower end of Base Camp, with just the Hungarians below us, and from here our objective, Gasherbrum II, remains hidden from view. Above us are the Czechs, Germans, Austrians, Chinese/Tibetans, Spanish and Australians, amongst others – so a real international mix of expeditions. All in all it takes about 30 minutes to walk from one end of Base Camp to the other.

The bad news is that the mountain is proving to be very difficult to climb this year. The three days of rain we experienced at Concordia translated into several metres of snow dumped higher up and the snow conditions are now less than ideal. An overhanging ice cliff also blocks the way to Camp 2 and only a handful of tough Czechs and hardened mountaineers have made it beyond Camp 1 let alone to Camp 2. So much for Gasherbrum II being one of the easier 8000m peaks! Nevertheless, conditions are improving and it’s hoped that in the next few days the route will be opened up by a couple of other teams and all being well they will make the first summits.

On a sadder note, a young woman from the German Amical team has died at Base Camp. We all watched in stunned silence as a giant russian MI-17 helicopter from the Pakistan Army flew in and airlifted her body out. A rather timely reminder, if ever we needed it, of the very real dangers of being at high altitude.

7 – Camp 1

Well, after a few days rest getting used to the altitude, we finally made our first foray up into the icefall. And what a nightmare it was too! The fixed ropes turned out to be, well er, not fixed at all with ice-screws falling out and snow stakes flapping in mid-air! As we topped out above the icefall, we paused briefly on a large flat platform, flanked on either side by huge crevasses. No sooner had we thought about taking a short rest than we we heard this dull ‘whumpf’ accompanied by a short sharp shudder deep beneath our feet. We all looked at each other, momentarily transfixed in fear like startled rabbits, and then got the hell out of there!

Another day or two’s rest in Base Camp saw us at last head up head up to Camp 1. We slowly made our way through the icefall and stopped overnight at Intermediate Camp, established earlier in the day by our High Altitude Porters (HAP’s). It was a pretty cold night and we were thankful for the warmth of a new dawn. We continued on, following the wands and red flags that marked the tortuous route through the maze of crevasses that criss-crossed the vast plateau, on the far side of which was our destination, Camp 1.

Several hours later, we arrived exhausted and rather non-plussed that the HAPs had placed our tents away from the main camp, on the opposite side of a large crevasse. Somewhat anti-social perhaps! Never mind. it was the least of our worries. The weather closed in fast, and initial flurries of snow soon gave way to a whiteout and a full-on snowstorm. We hid away in our tents, cocooned from the elements, and tried to get some rest, but it proved a sleepless night. By morning the tents were half-buried in snow, though a brief lull did at least enable us to sort ourselves out and get ready for the next storm which we knew was surely on its way. We could do nothing else but sit it out – thank heavens for the ipod!!

It was another night of heavy snowfall, but this time we emerged in the morning to blue skies and sunshine. Bliss! So it was all the more maddening that we had no choice but to go down. We had run out of supplies and the recent snow meant that any possibility of reaching Camp 2 would be pretty remote anyway. Nevertheless, the irony of now descending in perfectly good weather certainly wasn’t lost! And By the time we came to retrace our steps across the plateau it was hideously hot, the snow now acting as a huge solar reflector for the sun blazing overhead. I felt like I was in a giant oven! As we threaded our way back through the labyrinth of crevasses we were suddenly stopped in our tracks – the route had abruptly disappeared into a huge hole! Not only that, we realised that this was the same spot we had run away from the other day! The whole thing had collapsed, and we now had to abseil down and rather nervously wend our way through the massive jumble of ice, with broken blocks as big as houses towering above us. By the time we staggered back into Base Camp we could do no more than to woof down some food and crash out in our tents!