The Toughest Ride Of Our Lives
Breathing heavily, we have been struggling for hours now, trying to get up a steep, ice-covered cliff in the dark, holding tightly onto fixed ropes. Our crampons seem to be doing no more than scratching the stone, and it’s hard to get a foothold. At 5,500 meters (18,045 feet), it feels like our lungs are on fire, and with every step we need to stop for a breath. Our bikes, strapped to our backpacks, have increased the load we’re already carrying to over 20 kilograms (44 pounds). The trek itself is exhausting enough, never mind trying to fight the weight of our bikes and stay balanced. But, we haven’t given up our hopes of conquering the biggest obstacle on our route, the Gondogoro La.
When I started planning this trip two years ago, I had no idea how hard this ascent would be. Looking back, it’s probably a good thing. I wanted to fulfill one of my dreams—that of visiting Concordia in northern Pakistan. As the confluence of two mighty glaciers—the Godwin-Austen Glacier and the Baltoro Glacier—it is considered the heart of the Karakoram. Nowhere else on earth are there more 7,000-meter (22,966-foot) and 8,000-meter (26,247-foot) mountains in such close proximity. And, of course, this includes the mountain of all mountains, the K2.
Once I’d planned everything in detail, I started looking for travel companions. I found a motivated mountain biker in Jakob Breitwieser, and Martin Bissig was the ideal photographer and filmmaker. Back home, reactions to our travel destination were a mix of incredulity and misconceptions. Hardly surprising. Media coverage about Pakistan is often filled with stories of terror and fear, but those who had already visited the country had a different opinion. They were enthusiastic and spurred us on.
ARRIVING IN PAKISTAN
In mid-August, with mixed feelings, we landed in Skardu, the biggest city in the Baltistan region. Located at the confluence of the Shigar and Indus rivers, the source of the latter being the holy Mount Kailash in Tibet, the small city is the starting point for all mountaineering expeditions in the Karakoram. With our bikes, we were the source of much excitement on the city’s main street, which is lined with hundreds of shops. People everywhere waved at us, offered to take our photo, chatted with us, and invited us to tea. It seemed as though Pakistan and its citizens were as interested in us as we were in them. We did not expect this degree of friendliness and hospitality. It blew us away. After just a few short hours in Pakistan, our image of the country had transformed.
In Skardu, we met the person who would be our guide for the next two weeks: Isaak was 60 years old, with a magnificently full beard. We discussed the details of the trip with him. He had never seen cyclists on this trek. When we asked him if he thought it would be possible to do it on mountain bikes, he said, “Yes, it is possible. Inshallah!” In other words, “God willing.” We quickly grew accustomed to the devout Muslims and their reliance on God’s goodwill. It helps put into perspective things that are beyond your control, whose outcome you can’t predict. We also talked to tourists just returning from the mountains to get their impressions of the conditions. The answers we got crossed the spectrum. Everything from “The snow was waist-deep” to “You’ll be able to bike 70 percent of it.” What else could we say, but, “Inshallah!”
It was a journey of two days by jeep to reach the starting point of our mountain bike trek, a small village called Hushe. Unfortunately, when we got there, Jakob was afflicted with the stomach flu and was flat on his back. I rode through the village on my bike, and within minutes, I became the star attraction. The gaggle of kids following me inspired me to search through my bag of trail-riding tricks. When I started hopping on my front wheel and back wheel and jumping up and downstairs, the crowd became unstoppable. Applause, loud cheers and innumerable cell phones filming me. Rarely had I had such an enthusiastic audience.
We were happy that we could set up our tents in the garden of a so-called guest house. The house itself was extremely dirty, and we wouldn’t have wanted to spend the night there. We much preferred our own sleeping bags. That evening, in the densely planted garden, we met the rest of our team. Five additional people made up our little travel group: four porters and a cook. Overall, they appeared friendly and very fit. The gear was weighed and evenly distributed amongst everyone.
Luckily, Jakob was feeling better the next morning, so we were able to set off on the first leg of our expedition. We had planned to take five days to make it to the highest point of our trip, the Gondogoro La, a mountain pass located at 5,650 meters (18,537 feet). The primary concern I had when planning the trek was acclimatization. To be able to make it through the pass, we had to gradually adjust to the elevation and be in top shape before the big day. Knowing this, we set off at a leisurely pace, enjoying the first few meters on our bikes. Surprisingly, the route was flat and even seemed to have been partially cleared of stones. We were able to spend a lot of time in the saddle and bike uphill. Around us, the mountains rose skyward in majestic peaks. We had to strain our necks to be able to see the summits of these granite giants. Impressive!
We spent two nights at our first camp, located at 3,600 meters (11,811 feet), to get used to the elevation. This also gave Jakob some more time to recover. During the day, it was unexpectedly hot and the air was extremely dry. Even at this elevation, vegetation grew thick and there were trees. To escape the heat, we headed out at 5:30 a.m. on the third day to cover our next stretch. Cycling was now out of the question. We strapped our bikes to our backpacks.
The path started out going up a steep glacial moraine. When we got higher up, it flattened out, and we were able to inch our way forward, pushing our bikes. Masherbrum lay ahead, its 7,800-meter (25,591-foot) peak reaching up into the deep, blue sky. To our left was the rubble-strewn glacier. The bright yellow tents awaited us at 4,100 meters (13,451 feet), already set up, and we were greeted warmly. The porters moved a lot quicker than we did; on average, they only needed half the time. The young men were incredibly fit, always cheerful and ready to laugh at any joke. Though they barely spoke English, we were always able to communicate with them and have fun, as we did on this particular evening.
The next morning, we once again set out early to make it to the camp before the pass. In response to our question about the trail, Isaak, grinning widely, gave us the same answer he’d given the day before: “Too easy. No problem. Little biking.” But after about eight hours of pushing and carrying our bikes across a glacier, we reached our 4,600-meter (15,092-feet) camp feeling pretty tired. We looked at Isaak, exhausted. When we commented that the route that day hadn’t been that easy, we were met with another grin and the enlightening reply, “This is no city; this is mountain adventure.” We couldn’t help but laugh. This became our mantra for the rest of the trip—we’re not in the city. This is a mountain adventure! After all, that’s what we came for.
All that stood between us and the pass was an elevation gain of 1,000 meters (3,281 feet). So that we wouldn’t have to do the entire ascent carrying the extra weight of our bikes strapped to our backpacks, we took the next day to carry them up to 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) so we could pick them up on our way up. We made it back to the tents that afternoon, feeling pretty exhausted. Tension was high. Would we be able to make it to the pass the next day with our bikes? At that particular moment, we didn’t think we had it in us.
THE PLAN TO REACH THE PASS
The next day, filled with euphoria, we packed our equipment and devised a plan. Start time that evening: 9 p.m. Trek through the night and reach the pass at about 5 a.m. before the groups coming from the other side started descending on the fixed ropes, possibly showering us with falling rocks. Safety trumped sleep. We calculated four hours to reach the next encampment. Our equipment was above standard compared to a traditional mountain biking tour: warm clothing for up to -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), heavy climbing boots, crampons, hiking poles, headlamps, a climbing belt and an ascender to clip onto the fixed rope so we wouldn’t fall. The briefing Isaak gave us about the stretch ahead surprised us. Instead of his usual cheerful “Too easy,” he uttered a serious “Not easy. Little hard. But, inshallah, you can do it.” We looked at each other, feeling unnerved.
We left at the predetermined time, bundled up against the cold, with thousands of stars in the sky looking down on us. When we strapped the bikes to our backpacks at midnight, we were each carrying a load of over 20 kilograms (44 pounds). We trudged through the night, moving slowly and breathing heavily. Except for the sounds we made, we were surrounded by total stillness. The terrain got steeper. Soon the substrate was covered in ice. We pulled out our crampons. Shortly after, we reached the fixed ropes. Like a handrail, they snaked their way up, disappearing into the dark of the night. We were relieved to be able to fasten ourselves to them.
We strapped on our climbing harnesses, attached our crampons, and continued on. One step at a time. Slowly. Very slowly. Here and there we were up against vertical sections that we would not have been able to manage without the ropes. The weight of the bikes on our shoulders seemed to be getting heavier. It became more and more strenuous, but we continued to pull ourselves up. It seemed an eternity until the horizon finally brightened and the route flattened out. Finally, we met the first mountain climbers and porters on the descent. We were met with questioning looks.
At 5 a.m. we reached the pass summit at an elevation of 5,650 meters. We fell into each other’s arms. Ahead of us stretched the Gondogoro La in all its white splendor. We’d actually made it! The rising sun shone more strongly and warmed our frozen bodies. We poured ourselves a hot tea and enjoyed the magnificent view, overwhelmed. Four of the 14 over-8,000-meter (26,247 foot) mountains stood before us, resplendent in their white, snow-covered peaks Gasherbrum 1 and 2, Broad Peak and K2.
STOP AND GO
Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop for long, because we had a long ascent ahead. We climbed onto our bikes and headed off. Three hundred meters (984 feet) and that was it for the downhill ride. More fixed ropes. The path snaked its way through crevasses, secured by ropes, making its way down the mountain to a glacier basin. We carefully descended, pushing our bikes. By the time we reached Camp Ali at 11 a.m., we still hadn’t gotten back on our bikes. The snow had become too soft in the heat of the day. Here and there, we sunk in up to our hips. Advancing was sheer torture.
However, after a cup of noodle soup and a short nap, we decided to take advantage of the day and continue on towards Concordia. As usual, we asked Isaak about the route, and we were happy to hear his usual answer: “Too easy. No problem! Biking!” This time, he was right. We were able to bike on the huge Baltoro Glacier. Its immensity made us feel small and insignificant. Pretty much all the mountains around us were higher than 6,500 meters (21,325 feet). Towering before us was K2 at 8,611 meters (28,251 feet), a truly colossal mountain.
At its feet was Concordia, dubbed the “throne room of the mountain gods” by an American journalist. We made it there by 7 p.m. We had been underway for 22 hours, stopping for just two hours. This had been one of the longest, most strenuous days for any of us, ever! But it had also been one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring.
The local porters had our full respect; without them, tourists would not be able to survive treks like this. The gear they carried for themselves was just a small portion of what we thought we needed. Many wore nothing on their feet but rubber clog-type gardening shoes to cross glaciers. Even when they traveled along the steep, icy passages on the Gondogoro La, they didn’t wear hiking boots or crampons like we did. They merely pulled woolen socks over their rubber shoes, so they wouldn’t slip on the ice!
After just one day of rest, we continued on. We may have reached our big destination, Concordia, but we were still on the glacier in the midst of the giant mountains. Our tour was to end in a small mountain village called Askole. We needed four days to reach it. For three days, we stumbled along with our bikes, pushing them more than riding them across the rubble-strewn glacier before it came to an abrupt end. From there, the path continued along the banks of a glacial river, Braldu. The constant clambering up and scrambling back down, and the millions of rocks covering the entire surface of the ice for long stretches, making it impossible to ride. We had fervently hoped that we would encounter more ridable terrain here; however, we still enjoyed the privilege of being able to travel through this impressive world of granite and ice, and our happiness was all the greater when we were able to bike for a few 100 meters here and there. Fortunately, the final stretch turned out to be almost fully ridable. Evenings were spent helping our porters fulfill a wish: T They wanted to learn how to ride a bike. Everyone had so much fun with this! And in fact, by the end of our tour, each of them was actually able to bike.
Hiking up the steep glacier walls of Gondogor La, some 5600 meters (about 18,400 feet) above sea level. We can only imagine how cold the winter gets here. Pakistan is about 27% bigger than Texas and lies at roughly the same distance north of the equator.
Our farewell party in Askole was an emotional one. Everyone was happy about how smoothly the tour had gone but also a bit sad about seeing this shared time come to a close. We had the feeling that our team had taken a shine to us and our unusual idea of attempting the big Karakoram circuit on mountain bikes. And of course, they were totally thrilled with cycling.
Even if, in hindsight, our bikes spent more time on us than we spent on them, and even if this was the most strenuous bike tour we’d ever done, we wouldn’t have changed a thing. We are certain that many of our encounters would not have been so profound if we hadn’t had our bikes with us. Sometimes, I have the feeling that a bike is like a magic wand that miraculously helps overcome language barriers and the fear of reaching out. Pakistan, we will be back, inshallah.
General: The three largest mountain ranges in the world—the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas—come together in northernmost Pakistan. K2, Pakistan’s highest mountain and the second-highest peak in the world at 28,251 feet (8,611 meters), is located in the Karakoram, an area covered in glaciers. Five of the world’s 14 mountains higher than 8,000 meters (or 26,247 feet) are located in Pakistan-controlled territory. The literal translation of the Turkic term “karakoram” is “black gravel.”
Language: More than 50 different languages are spoken in Pakistan. Urdu is the constitutionally declared national language. In tourist areas and cities, many people speak English.
Best time to travel: If your plan is to do some trekking or mountaineering in Pakistan’s mountain regions, the best time is during the warm summer months, from June to September. The daytime temperatures are nice, but in June and July it can get very hot and dry.
Money/credit cards: The currency is the Pakistan rupee (PKR). There are some bank machines to withdraw cash using your bank card or credit card; however, some bank machines won’t accept European bank or credit cards. For more remote areas, it is therefore recommended that you take cash in euros or U.S. dollars. Paying in cash is commonplace.
Behavior: With respect to clothing (e.g., no shorts or sleeveless tops) and general behavior, respect local customs and traditions. While more tolerance is shown towards foreign practices in the bigger cities, it is important to dress and act appropriately when traveling across the country to accommodate the inhabitants’ widespread religious-conservative attitudes. Make taking photos low-key and ask for permission first.
Karakoram tours: Great service; agents and guides speak English well.
Adventure Tours Pakistan
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