Dispatches from Karakoram
In July 2021, Grayl ambassadors Chris Lininger and Jackson Groves embarked on a three-week expedition trek to K2 Base Camp deep in the Karakoram Range of Northern Pakistan. Jackson is a world-renowned adventure travel blogger & photographer and Chris leads expeditions to Pakistan and Central Asia with his company, Epic Backpacker Tours while running his own adventure travel blog, Off The Atlas. Both Chris and Jackson are passionate about exploring the world's wild (and high altitude) places while minimizing their environmental footprint and reducing single-use plastic consumption around the world. Likewise, they are pretty much down for pushing their limits on crazy adventures in the mountains. This trip was the first large-scale field test of the new Grayl UltraPress in harsh, high-altitude conditions - with 14 members on the expedition team using GeoPress and UltraPress bottles on a daily basis. Words and images by Chris Lininger with additional images by Jackson Groves.
Video content by Andrea Cacciatori.
Shortly before the 2-way radio died, I started hearing broken chatter about one of our clients who was struggling with the intensity of Karakoram sun. Turns out we had two clients battling severe heat stroke and unable to continue with the trek. My staff at the back of the group had managed to secure a pair of mules to get them down to the nearest Pakistani Army check post. We were trekking in a sensitive border area between China and India, thus the military presence.
The natural world has a way of putting you in your place . . . Awesome experiences don’t often come without some struggle
The previous days of marching down the Baltoro Glacier had taken their toll. It was one of the hottest periods at altitude that I could remember, sweat beaded down my face and mixed with thick sunscreen and dust. The trail down from 15,000 feet is an undulating glacial rock, dirt, and ice maze that never lets you relax for a second. Before I got any more information on the afflicted clients, the radio on the other end went quiet and I had to carry on to get our other clients to camp.
Pre-Expedition and the Logistical Puzzle
Where do you begin when you start thinking about taking a group of 12 people deep into the mountains in a developing country? Based on my years of experience trekking in Pakistan, I know that absolutely nothing goes 100% according to plan here. There are many outside forces one can’t control such as bad weather, broken roads, police checkpoints, countless delays, cancelled flights, mystery stomach bugs, etc. These things are just facts of life that come with running serious adventure trips in a place like Pakistan.
Before the start of any trip, I map out the factors that are within our realm of control and plan around those. For months in advance, we prepare our clients with lengthy interviews, gear packing lists, and tips on how to physically prepare for a demanding 3-week adventure.
For any big expedition, having the right kit allows you to gain the upper hand in a struggle with harsh, unknown conditions. Your money's no good deep in the mountains and Mother Nature does not accept your Visa card. There are no gear shops or places to resupply. If you forgot something before departing on a serious expedition— well, that’s that.
There are no gear shops or places to resupply. If you forgot something before departing on a serious expedition - well, that’s that.
A major logistical concern while trekking in one of the most remote mountain ranges on earth is sourcing a daily necessity: clean drinking water.
Now, one would think that being in a remote alpine environment would automatically equal having access to water sources free of contaminants, pollution, and the waterborne pathogens. I’ll tell you right now, unless you were born in a small Pakistani village and have all of the internal bacteria-antibody-armies to battle localized contaminants, I can guarantee that at some point, the camp waterspout will give you a few days of frequent trips to the bathroom—most of the time much worse.
Along the trek to K2 Base Camp there are massive numbers of pack mules and other livestock living right alongside us for weeks. These animals carry our food, group gear, personal luggage, etc. We could not do such an intensive expedition without them. These animals also leave behind a huge mess wherever they go. Likewise, for the human participants in this adventure, there are often no proper toilets and many of the local porters seem not to be bothered by where they should go to the toilet—they just go and move on.
While we always do our best to find clean water sources away from animal and human waste, the heavy mineral content of the milky grey glacier water proves to be difficult to filter and to digest. It’s a strange feeling to observe water everywhere but know that very few sources are safe to drink from directly.
The answer to navigating sweltering days at low altitude, mule waste runoff, invisible bacteria, and heavy mineral glacier . . . Grayl GeoPress and UltraPress bottles.
When you have 12 paying clients and a whole team of porters, cooks, and mule handlers depending on your ability to think of all the small details to ensure the best chance for group success, you better not f*** it up— otherwise there could be potentially life threatening implications or at least a bunch of bad days.
Just one day before setting off for Pakistan, I picked up two dented packages from a European customs office and was relieved to know at least one major part of our logistical puzzle was sorted. These packages contained the answer to navigating the sweltering days at low altitude, mule waste runoff, invisible bacteria, and heavy mineral glacier water: an assortment of Grayl Geopress and Ultralight bottles for the entire expedition, including our local Pakistani staff.
It was a close—the boxes arrived literally with no time left. I chucked the whole lot into a large North Face duffel and headed for the airport in Athens the next day. Even now, the whole expedition party does not know how close we came to not having the tools to purify water for this trip!
24 hours later, once the wheels of the plane finally touched down, a quick thought ran through my mind:
Welcome back to Pakistan.
A few days later we picked up all of our clients in Islamabad and took a questionable plane to the tiny Skardu airport in the mountains of Gilgit Baltistan. Then it was game on. All the food shopping for a 2-week expedition was done, duffel bags were packed, jeeps loaded, and the permits and army clearance was secured, the team was ready to roll.
The Journey Begins
The trek to K2 Base Camp can be summed up like this: In the course of two weeks, our diverse crew of participants will experience four seasons of weather and trek a total of 9,000 meters in altitude gain as, day-by-day, the world’s biggest mountains reveal themselves.
As the trip leader, it is my job to ensure my team has the best chance for completing this demanding expedition.
I had not previously met most of the clients who signed up for this trip, and it took me some time to get to know everyone’s personalities, their strengths and weaknesses. I do my best to get to know the participants before the start of the trip; however, there is only so much one can glean from a 45 minute Skype call, especially when it comes to physical fitness and the odd idiosyncrasies most people possess. These things don’t start to become obvious until a few days into an expedition.
Luckily, two of my good friends, Jackson and Joao had decided to come on this adventure, which was great for me as the leader to have some familiar faces around whose abilities and character I knew and trusted. This was the first time either had come to this part of the world and I was pretty stoked to show them around as we had been discussing this trip for the better part of a year.
The first night at camp a bottle of good whiskey was produced and we shared a couple glasses as the sun went down to celebrate the proper start of this adventure. The team was in bed by 9 and up again at dawn.
As the team discovered during our journey, campsites along the way sometimes give off the unfortunate vibe of a garbage dump. Litter from both the army camp nearby and trekkers, cooks, and porters of expeditions past is strewn about. Even though a fraction of the people who visit Everest come through this valley, trash and human impact can be felt everywhere.
We decided to do something about it at Goro 2 Camp. After trekking under the skin-searing sun all day, some of the crew and porters still found the energy to pick up rubbish for an hour. After, it was time to have a coffee and take in the mountains once more.
The team reached Concordia a day later, which, for those of you who don’t know, is one hell of a spot. Concordia is the confluence of the Baltoro and Austen Godwin Glaciers where four 8,000 meter peaks come into view. The weather was perfect upon our arrival. At the far end of the valley stood mighty K2, the world’s second tallest mountain as clear as is possible for the classically moody mountain to be. This was a special moment for me as I got to observe the smiles and the supreme stoke felt by the team members as they took in the powerful scene before us.
The next day it was time to make the 35 kilometer round trip trek to K2 Base Camp. We arrived in the heat of a scorching sun despite the base camp altitude of 5,000 meters. At the camp, expedition teams were preparing for their various summit bids; Nepali Sherpas and world-class climbers came and went as camp kitchen staff boiled water for tea and instant noodle soup.
That night a heavy snow opened up and we awoke to a Karakoram winter wonderland. The Balti porters sat around and sang traditional songs, dancing and beating old petrol drums as percussion instruments. Balti songs are at once beautiful and haunting—the kind of tunes that make the hair on your arms stand up.
By this point, it was day 8 of the trek and the crew was in full mountain mode. Work emails, car payments, and hell, even the Covid 19 pandemic were temporarily forgotten in the presence of the mountains, in the grip of this wild place. Nothing seemed to matter but the present moment and what was on the schedule for the next days’ hike. What mattered most was right in front of us—a concept that is often lost in the shuffle of fast paced western life.
A week later the whole team was back in Skardu—the mountain gateway town— having completed the 165 kilometer trek to K2 Base Camp and back. Our flights back to Islamabad were canceled due to bad weather and after some searching, we secured an old bus to drive us overland across the rugged interior of Pakistan along the great Karakoram Highway. Nobody was a fan of that drive but we all had to roll with the punches. This is what an expedition is all about.
Through the daily struggles and rewards, the boiling dusty days on trail, frigid temps, upset bellies, and hot soups, this expedition was a step into an alternate reality on many levels. The experience expands personal limits and leaves images of raw beauty burned deeply into the minds of the participants—both will stay with them for the foreseeable future, and likely a whole lot longer than that.
The Karakoram range tends to do that to people.
5 Tips and Lessons for Expedition Success
Thinking about going on your own adventure? Here are five things I tell my clients before setting off into one of the wildest areas on earth.
1. Never trust a water source: The daily demands of an expedition are hard enough. There is a reason it’s mandatory for all of our clients to bring a Grayl GeoPress or equivalent water purifier.
Give yourself the best chance of success for your project by not taking risks drinking questionable water sources. Always purify your water and enjoy the adventure of it. You will pend less time with stomach cramps, looking for a toilet.
2. Take care of your feet: Your feet are your vehicle. Without proper maintenance including breaking your boots in before starting to hike, you are likely to suffer. A foot full of blisters is not fun to hike on.
Take the time to clean your feet daily when possible and tape up any hot spots before they turn into a full on raging blister.
3. Sun Protection: Weeks out in exposed conditions open your body up to all sorts of potential ailments and suffering. Cracked bleeding lips, peeling skin, roasted ears and noses, serious dehydration, etc. These are all issues from overexposure to the sun. Wear sunscreen and spf lip balm, fill up your bottle at every opportunity, wear a Buff over your neck and mouth when appropriate, and take breaks in the shade every few hours when possible.
4. Bring Entertainment: The wild natural landscapes offer up plenty of awesome stuff to look at, of course. But let’s be honest: when the end of the day comes (and it comes early when camping), it is super nice to be able to unwind with a podcast, a book, music, a game, whatever.
When out on a multi-week expedition, you will be happy to be able to retreat from the group and space out to a good podcast in your tent. Also bring a way to charge these devices, a portable solar charger like the Goal Zero Nomad or similar will go a long way to keeping your smaller electronics running. Or at least bring a set of UNO cards!
5. Read the packing list (!): Without fail someone turns up on one of my trips without the right gear. This is beyond frustrating. Take the time to read the packing list and bring the required kit if you want to get the most out of your adventure. Packing lists are not suggestions.
They are crafted to ensure maximum safety, comfort, and possibility for success. Don’t be that person who shows up on the first day of the trip missing key pieces of gear; your trip leader will be less than pleased by your stupidity. Showing up prepared means that you have respect for the mountains and the hostile environment. Give respect to the mountains and send your project— seems like a simple ethos!
Interested in joining a K2 Base Camp trek in the future? Check out the expedition’s Chris runs at epicbackpackertours.com.
Check out Jackson Groves’ full K2 Base Camp Trek guide and photo gallery.
Chris Lininger, @off_the_atlas.
Jackson Groves, @jackson.groves.