I now sit in Islamabad awaiting the 03:50 am flight to Doha and finally London. I left K2BC at 09:15 on the 25th in a blaze of frenzied activity, helicopter churned dust and all too rushed handshakes. As the bottle green Army choppers prised themselves free of gravity my stomach sank twice – once in concert with the machine, but twice as the realization of what I had forgone screamed in my mind.
The twin helicopters, the other carrying a very badly injured Sherpa, flew in formation for the 90-minute flight to Skardu. The pair pirouetted between countless peaks and skimmed the tongue like glaciers with the pilots sucking feverishly on their own coveted supplies of bottled oxygen.
I sat shrunken, curled up on the back seats hemmed in by both my bags and stowed military equipment as the aircraft clattered towards Skardu. Finally the glaciers transitioned into vast river plains and this rather beautiful town hove into view, set as it is, within an oasis of poplar trees – a stark green smudge on an otherwise desert tan vista.
The Sherpa’s hideous injuries had prompted the flight to target the military hospital as its final destination, rather than the general military base, which was the norm. This, somewhat embarrassingly, prompted a frenzy of activity around me when, ridiculously, my helicopter landed first – the injured guy was in Chopper 2!
As formalities, the like of which one cannot begin to imagine, were completed by Army medical staff, I sat with the injured Sherpa. His injuries were staggering, but he sat silently and motionless. Even when ordered about during mid-examination, he didn’t utter a sound, instead keeping his eyes fixed on some distant point in space that only he could see.
It was obvious his colleagues, including members of Himex, had previously done all they could given the spartan BC circumstances. His rudimentary dressings and splints had the touch of professionals but now it was time to remove and examine. He didn’t flinch – his arm was in taters, broken in multiple places and severely dislocated. I could only marvel.
As the hours wore on we were treated to a steady procession of ever more important Pakistani military officials, each hell bent on introducing themselves, until finally, attired in full dress-uniform, the Base Commanding Officer appeared, with entourage and photographer. Suddenly, both the now semi-comatose pre-med Sherpa and I were posing, mid handshake for photos! It was totally surreal.
Formalities completed, I said my goodbyes to my injured friend, forced from my mind that this poor chap was about to go under the blunt knife in this austere military hospital, thanked my personal good fortune and left with my civilian liaison – a chap called Rhemet Ali – a Pakistani Bob Hoskins + moustache who drove me back to the Concordia Hotel – my starting point some 6-7 weeks ago.
Despite rudimentary rooms and negligible hot water, this was my first proper bed and shower in what was a long time. It was great to feel the tingle of cleanliness – until you have not washed for a month, you will never understand the pleasure of that first shower.
At 8 am the following morning Rhemet drove me to Skardu Airport in an attempt to secure a standby seat on the small Dornier turboprop flight to Islamabad. As we drove I enquired about marriage in his Skardu community and culture. I asked, seeing as there were so incredibly few women ‘on display” in their everyday life [99.9% entombed within the home], how did one find a bride.
He answered with a wry smile. Despite having improved a little over time, he said in his day his parent “sourced” him a bride who was delivered, sight unseen on the wedding day. I asked, had he had the chance to meet and see her in advance? He said that no, the first time he saw her was the first time he lifted her veil after their vows! He then said “it was the worst day of my life!” – I laughed, but then he turned to me sternly, and said ‘I’m totally serious, it was the worst day of my life – you haven’t seen her” – despite wanting to roll around on the floor with hysterics, I shut up.
Fortunately we were in good time, and while I lingered outside the small terminal being over-scrutinized by the inquisitive locals Rhemet charged himself with securing me a boarding card.
With the flight scheduled to depart at 10am we appeared to be all set, but as I sat amongst this chaotic, bustling melee and the minutes ticked by my confidence slowly evaporated. At 09:45 my phone buzzed with a Rhemet text requesting me to grab my bags, dodge past the entry door security and join him inside – things were “looking good”.
Twenty minutes later, somewhat stunned, we both walked from the Airport having been refused a seat on the plane owing to a power failure [which shut down the computerized booking system – despite a half dozen people desperate for 10 standby seats, none were allowed onboard. I was top of that days priority list, but to no avail. This intransigent, third world bureaucratic stupidity almost started a riot and it is this fear of using ones common sense and discretion that stains this culture I’m afraid. No one was “brave” enough to sanction carrying people and filling the empty seats.
Rhemet and I raced to the local PIA office [Pakistan Int Airways] where we were told that there were no free seats, over and above previous formal bookings, until the 8th August, some two weeks hence. With the imminent premature arrival of dozens of climbers this flight situation was looking messy to say the least.
Faced with no option other than to bite the bullet and drive to Islamabad, Rhemet drove to his local office, secured a driver and interpreter, handed over the car keys and we were off. This was 11 am on the 26th July.
Frankly the drive is worthy of its own separate dispatch, if not book, taking 22 hours to complete. There is one road from Skardu, and that single dirt/tarmac track is pitted with crevasse like holes, such that our average speed rarely got above 30mph. One fords rivers, crosses fields, dodges cows, children and other suicidal drivers. The road, etched into the side of the mountains built by the Army Corp of Engineers between 1967 and 1978 is a stunning feat of perseverance but has inexplicably been left to deteriorate ever since. The remnants of thousands of mud and rockslides litter the route, forcing nerve jangling driving gymnastics from the driver, with wheels never more than a few feet from the abyss alongside.
With the raging, brown Indus River for constant company on our left the first 150km finally evaporated – the Skardu road had ended and the KKH, Karakorum Highway had begun. Prior to my departure I had failed to obtain personal insurance from any company for this particular segment of the journey – and now it was clear why.
Hemmed by a precipitous drop, cars and literally hundreds of heavily laden multi-coloured Cantiner trucks jostle, sometimes inches apart, for space on this essentially single lane. For the most part it has no finished surface, the road alternating between, dust, mud, rock, scree and free flowing rivers that cross the path flowing down from the mountain above.
As darkness fell I started to feel distinctly nervous. Not only was it becoming increasingly hard to see the pits and holes in the road, but also newly falling rain and the blinding headlights of the approaching Cantiners made a head-on collision something to truly fear.
However, we soldiered on, our young driver doing a quite spectacular job. At 12:30 am, some 13 hours and a minimum of twenty police checkpoints later the car suddenly made a disturbing noise. First a light clanging, then suddenly the brakes failed. The driver hauled the car to an unsteady halt and we all exited.
As a Westerner, suffering what appeared to be a pretty terminal breakdown, in pitch black, hundreds of miles from help prompted the prerequisite despair, but my driver and interpreter simply shrugged, jacked the car up and disappeared underneath – despite the mud. Bemused I called Vanessa on the Sat Phone at this point and asked her to move my flight back a day – there was no way I was going to see Islamabad on what was a new day, the 27th.
The clanging noise was diagnosed as a broken brake shoe/pad and the decision was taken to limp the car to Bashem, the next town enroute – every fast approaching, pitch dark, precipitous corner turned my bowels to water – but at 1:30 am we collapsed into guest house beds – alive.
By 9:30 am on the 27th our trusty driver had engineered a repair and we were off yet again. The early morning sun made this early stage almost enjoyable, especially in contrast to the previous night’s misery. Our driver had driven 14 hours straight the previous day with nothing for sustenance bar a packet of TUC biscuits and 70 cigarettes – a remarkable feat considering the effort and concentration he had to put in on such a tortured road.
Once again the Pakistani summer heat grew and before long we were all sweltering in the non-air conditioned interior of the Land Cruiser. I became convinced the heater was jammed in the “on” position, such was the blast-furnace temperature, but no, this was Pakistan business as usual.
As the hours passed and civilization crept up on us, so our speed fell and the heat seemed to increase. Bottle after bottle of water was drunk and countless cigarettes smoked until finally at 5pm we joined the M2 motorway that leads to Islamabad. After 30 minutes of weaving wildly amongst trucks, cars, bikes, horse and carts and the occasional cold drink seller pushing his trolley in the outside lane, we finally arrived at the offices of Nazir Sabir expeditions, our destination. We had driven the Karakorum highway and survived! I recommend everyone to do this just once – its hellish, but one sees Pakistan from its most rudimental to its most sophisticated in one go – I would not want to suffer such a drive again, but I am now very glad I missed out on the plane seat back in Skardu.
I am now sitting on the plane from Islamabad to Doha enroute London and home.
Five times in the past I have sat on planes from Kathmandu to Doha enroute London and home with a hugely excited and satisfied feeling in my heart and pit of my stomach. Every second of this trip has previously been an intense pleasure. I have had to deal with an intense fear that my flight may be cancelled, depriving me of that enveloping euphoria that comes with heady success and the expectation of seeing family after such a painfully long time. I have even previously concentrated on the aircraft engine note in the past, so desperate at that time to get home carrying my success, and “not die at the last minute” before that happened.
This time is very different. There is success, but no climbing success. The feeling in the pit of my stomach is very different – instead of thoughts provoking a warm embrace, now I just feels leaden. I was so looking forward to this feeling once again, but it was not to be.
I understand that in the dying moments of what has been a dire K2 expedition season, of the remaining Himex team have turned their attention to Broad Peak. As I ground along the KKH yesterday I heard that they had bullied their way to C3 and God willing were to attempt to summit – I wish them all every success in the deep snow – they deserve consolation.
I was and never will be interested in climbing Broad Peak or any other mountain that frankly doesn’t capture the imagination of people who donate to my charity. Not to belittle Broad Peak but it’s only as high as Everest Camp 4 [not that height is everything]. That’s why I have climbed Everest 5 times; not because I like climbing the same mountain, but because people know of it and after a while understand that I use it as a vehicle - K2 was and is a worthy substitute to this end – It was/is the greatest mountaineering challenge and despite my charitable backdrop, I would have personally loved to have summited.
Russ’s decision to withdraw from K2 is not one I would or could question. The conditions were unusual and extreme and not limited to our Cesen route. The Abruzzi route suffered identical issues, largely dictated by the ultra warm weather. I don’t think I will ever get over the painful irony that we were forced off the mountain by “great weather” – but there it is. Russ is a consummate professional and took the unpalatable truth by the horns and delivered a decision that was not liked by all. His decision not to send the Sherpas into harms way again closed K2 on me – it’s was over and time to go home.
In many ways the expedition has been a great success – through the generosity of many I have raised a lot of money for the Nspcc and the thousands of children who so badly need it. The only person who has lost out has been me, who didn’t get the opportunity to attempt a summit – but this must surely be considered trivial when contrasted with the overall good.
The emotional rape of the last few weeks has left me resolute that despite the deep disappointment I will try and be a better husband and father to my Vanessa and kids. As the altitude and isolation inevitably strips the pompous facade and self-importance from you it is important to absorb the lesson – not just temporarily. I have failed many times in the past, in many ways, but I pray I have the spine to remember and act upon the faults brought into stark relief by this experience.
I would have loved [more than any alive realize] to summit K2. I have been robbed by nature and nature will not hear my screams of frustration no matter how desperate or loud.
My summit now lies elsewhere – much closer to home.