Long distance walking in Pakistan

“We take a picture with a zoom lens, and we try and zoom out – and zoom out and zoom out – and this way people get an idea of how small a person is against the mountain. But it is nothing compared to seeing it in real life.”
One of the biggest problems with walking in Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountain Range? Explaining to people how big the peaks actually are.

“That’s a huge problem with mountains,” explains Umer Latif. He is the founder of our specialist trekking partner in Pakistan, Beyond the Valley Adventures, which takes travellers on long distance treks to K2 base camp and Concordia. “We call them big faces – walls that are more than 2,000m from bottom to top. Doesn’t matter how many times you see them it still feels like a dream, they are hard to comprehend.”

K2, the second highest mountain in the world, is over 8,000m tall. On a trek to its base camp, you reach a point where you can see 4,000m of the mountain, straight up, coming out of a glaciated valley. The fact that everything around it is so flat makes its verticality all the more startling.

This area, known as Concordia, is where two glaciers meet. You have flat, glacier-carved plains, and then you have what was left behind: K2 – prominent, epic and deadly – the mountain that used to have a 25 percent fatality rate for those who attempted its summit. In total, a clear day will reveal ten of the world’s thirty highest peaks assembled around you including three other peaks over 8,000m tall. When you reach this amphitheatre, you can camp, laying your head at 4,600m above sea level.

The experience can have a profound effect on travellers. “When they see the peaks,” says Umer, “All they want to do is take the next holiday so they can go and be among those big faces again.”

What is it like trekking to K2?

How do you get to see K2 in real life? A hike to base camp is a remote expedition involving 12-14 days of trekking along the world’s fifth largest glacier, in temperatures that range from 40 degrees centigrade to minus figures.

Whilst it isn’t a technical trek, you’ll need sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare of the reflecting sun on the ice, and a change of shoes to cross rushing meltwater streams. This shouldn’t be your first long distance, high-altitude trek.

Unlike a trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, there are no villages along the route you’ll take to K2, so no stopping to get more provisions. There’s a camp where the porters will bake huge amounts of bread ready to use for the rest of the trip. There are no trees after day six. When you first see K2, perhaps if the visibility is good on your flight from Islamabad to Skardu, you’ll think it’s really close. It’s only after many more days of hiking that you realise it wasn’t close at all, just really, really big.

For most of the route, you are walking on a glacier. The Baltoro glacier is so big that it can be seen from space. There’s no trail, as such – this is living, shifting ice. It’s epic to experience, “Everyone who goes there feels like they are on Mars,” says Umer, describing the strange, treeless landscape. It’s a terrain that’s the firmest of firm going, and very hard on your feet.

The trek is so isolated and difficult that satellite phones must be carried, and you need six porters for every trekker.

Six? Surely not. “People expect one or two,” says Umer. “When you do long distance walking on a glacier, they are often surprised… We don’t have tea houses or hotels where you can stop – you have a lot of equipment – they have to carry your load, their own equipment, plus sleeping tents and the mess tent.”

No one comes to K2 alone. In the face of its deadly majesty, you need a team. Whilst you might struggle for words to convey the size, scale and beauty of what you’ve seen to people back home, you’ve got your trekking party with you, to share the experience.
That guy can somehow make a perfect baked cake at 4,000m – I have no idea how he does it!

Building a team

“I started my journey back in 1996 when I was a schoolboy.” Muneer Alam is lead guide for our Pakistan trekking partner Beyond The Valley. “When I was a child, I used to see the adventure guides going on expeditions. When I was in Grade Seven, I decided to become one myself.” He now has more than 20 years’ experience trekking in the area.

Experienced guides like Muneer are integral in a long distance trekking team. Assembling the rest of the team is a careful balancing act. You are going to a place without a community, and so it’s important to build your own. Locality is important. “If we are from Hunza region we won’t take a guide from another valley,” Umer explains. Everyone who goes on the trek becomes very close.

“The local porters are with you throughout the journey. They are also on a transformational journey,” says Umer, “They are asking you about your life. You are asking about theirs. The bond becomes strong.”

Porters’ rights are a hot topic as the popularity of long distance high-altitude trekking continues. Pakistan has regulations about the wages porters should earn and the maximum weights they should bear. Beyond The Valley observes these, pays porters and sardars (lead porters) above the minimum wage, and makes sure they are medically insured and fully equipped for the trek. After, or just before some expeditions, they will run a medical camp. “Many porters have long-term dentistry issues,” Umer explains.

The team also has a skilled chef. Useful on long distance treks, when there’s plenty of time to celebrate special occasions, “You will always have someone who has a birthday or a wedding anniversary,” says Umer. “One of the great things about the crew is your chef. That guy can somehow make a perfect baked cake at 4,000m – I have no idea how he does it!”

Every trek has its own story

When you go on a long distance trek like this, you are becoming a character in your own epic narrative. After all, you are walking in the footsteps of historic expeditions, through a land formerly only crossed by the odd ibex hunter. Your trek lives on long after it’s over, in the tales you’ll tell people back home.

“Every trek has its own story,” Umer says. For Muneer, one of his best involves an American group in Concordia. “One sat and just started crying,” he says. “When I asked him why, he told me – “I couldn’t imagine that I could come here and see all this mountain beauty.””

Omer’s best story involves bumping into the Canadian High Commissioner on a trail, “That was a very memorable moment – and we were both very sunburnt!”
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Tourism is coming to every corner of the world, but this corner is still pristine for now.

Why go now?

“What Karakoram is today is what Nepal was in the 1960s – undiscovered, secluded, with an agricultural economy. You feel like you are travelling back in time,” says Umer.

Tourism in Pakistan suffered after 2001 and the 9/11 terror attacks in America. The K2 trek receives tiny numbers of visitors compared to the tens of thousands that arrive in the Everest region.

“I think it will stay this way for another five to ten years,” says Umer. “Tourism is coming to every corner of the world, but this corner is still pristine for now.”

What do I need to prepare?

This is a walking holiday, so no specialist kit is required, but there are some essential everyday items that you’ll want. Clothing layers are essential to deal with the temperature fluctuation; it can be 30 degrees, easily, in the first few days of the walk, before the temperature starts to plummet with the rising altitude.

As you get higher, sun protection is key. There are no trees and no shade, and the glacier’s reflective power is beaming sun into your face from below. Hats, suncream, glacier goggles or sunglasses, and lip balm all help protect you.

Walking poles are optional but very useful. You’ll also need a pair of old trainers to put on for river crossings. The most important item on your kit list is for your feet: you’ll want shoes or boots that you know won’t let you down after multiple days’ walking on very hard ice.

This shouldn’t be your first walking holiday, and not your first long distance trek. You need to be fit, and also used to walking on uneven, rocky, hard surfaces, for up to seven hours a day.

High-altitude walking

Taking the altitude seriously is very important indeed when you go into the Pakistan mountains. When you’re camping at Concordia, you are sleeping at altitudes of around 4,000m above sea level. Adjusting takes time; it’s best not to increase your altitude by too much each day. Beyond The Valley’s trips don’t ascend more than 500m a day once they’re up in the mountains. Umer urges travellers to look carefully at trip itineraries before you book, “If you see all of a sudden a jump from 3,000m altitude to 4,000m altitude the next day, it’s a big no.” This is a very remote area of the world; helicopter rescue is complicated to procure, and expensive. Having a good guide who takes your welfare seriously, slowing the trip down when necessary, and ensuring everyone is adequately acclimatised, is the safest way to do things.

Best time to go

Trips into the mountains run in summer, when the routes are fully opened up and snow-free. It means you’ll go from 30-degree heat in the Skradu Valley, to single figures over the course of a trek, so prepare accordingly. You don’t want to meet those big faces with a sunburnt face, after all.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tariqsulemani] [Intro: Furqanlw] [Building a team: Ialica90] [Why go now?: Murtaza Mahmud]