Soaring Ambitions

Described as the “throne room of the mountain gods”, Concordia – named after Place de La Concorde by Frenchman Martin Conway who was exploring the area in 1892 – is located near the border of Pakistan and China. Situated where the Baltoro Glacier and the Godwin Austen Glacier meet in a natural amphitheatre, it provides a 360° panorama view of four of the world’s 14 peaks above 8,000m within a radius of 21km.

Access to this chain of mountains is best done from Baltistan, a mountainous region with an average altitude of over 3,000m, on the border of Pakistan and India in the Karakoram mountains just south of K2 – Gilgit lies to the west, Xinjiang to the north, Ladakh on the southeast, and the Kashmir Valley on the southwest.

Baltistan was originally an ancient mountain kingdom inhabited by the Balti, a Tibetan people who converted to Islam in the 14th century. While a majority of the population follows Islam, millennia-old Tibetan culture, customs, and language still exist.

 

SKARDU TO SHIGAR VALLEY

The main staging point for expeditions to this part of the Karakorum Range is Skardu, capital of Baltistan and the place where the Shigar River meets the mighty Indus.

Although it’s an extremely mountainous area, it’s accessible via the famous Karakorum Highway (Pakistan’s N-35 or National Highway 35) which heads north via Chilas, or south from Xinjiang, China. There are also regular flights from Islamabad to Skardu.

The best way to get to Concordia is to hire a local guide, due to its remoteness and the ever-changing trail on the Baltoro Glacier. Plenty of operators are available from Skardu, although arrangements can also be made prior to arriving in Pakistan via most international operators.

From Skardu, it’s a 4WD ride through the Shigar Valley to the town of Shigar, where mobile reception – along with tarmac – disappear. From here on, it’s a bumpy and precarious dirt track through the Braldu Gorge all the way to the trailhead in the town of Askole. Depending on the current weather conditions, there may be flooding, rockfalls or washouts along the 6-hour journey.

Askole (3,000m) is the last settlement, with a population of 500, before a trail leads to an alpine paradise where four 8,000m peaks – including K2, Gasherbrum I and II and Broad Peak – stand proud alongside hundreds of unclimbed peaks ranging from 6,000-7,000m. From here, groups can hire porters and mules to move supplies for the next 2 weeks.

 

ASKOLE TO JOULA

From Askole, fully kitted-out teams trek up the valley, following the course of the Braldo River over several hours towards Korophon – a forested area and campsite at the terminus of the Biafo Glacier.

From there, the route meanders to the junction of the Dunlordo and Biaho rivers, passing through thick patches of edible sea-buckthorn berries growing wild along the path, before reaching Joula (3,190m), the first overnight halt. Like most campgrounds along the route, it’s easily identified by its sprawl of cubicle toilets.

 

JOULA TO PAJU

Being in the soaring Karakorum, one thing that becomes immediately obvious is that it messes with your sense of perspective, and merely going from one valley to another – despite how near it may look – requires a hard day’s hike.

Another oddity specific to this day’s hike is that a significant portion of the route is on fine white sand, which is not the easiest surface to trek. This is because from Joula you go through the valley carved by the Braldo river, fed by the Baltoro glacier and many other lateral glaciers. From here, you enter into thereal heart of Karakorum.

Another common sight from Day 2 onwards are the army outposts along the Concordia route, the first of which you pass on the way to Paju camp (3,380m), a tree-lined oasis that marks the next night’s halt.

 

PAJU TO KHORBUTSE/URDUKAS

The view from Paju takes in multiple peaks over 6,000m tall, while just an hour’s hike brings you to the base of the Baltoro Glacier.

Ascending the uneven moraine to one side you will traverse the glacier – with astounding views of the Baltoro pinnacles and Paiyu peak – before descending to the opposite valley wall with loose rocks where the glacier has pulled away in recent years.

This route brings you to Liligo, an open area that is safe from rock falls, where most groups will stop for lunch. Three hours from here, most groups choose to overnight at Khorbutse (3,930m) on the far side of a lateral glacier flowing into Baltoro – a spot with excellent views of Uli Biaho, a soaring pinnacle of stone over 6,000m high.

Alternatively, the next campsite is a 3-4 hour trek to Urdukas (4,050m) crossing 2 glaciers en route before ascending high above to a terraced campground overlooking the icefield.

This last campsite is not actually on the glacier itself; it’s a historical campsite – established by the Duke of Abruzzi in the beginning of the 20th century – located on a grassy slope high above the Baltoro and commands one of the most intense mountain views in this world: down the Baltoro and up the glacier towards Concordia.

 

URDUKAS TO GORO 2

Leaving Urdukas, you head towards Goro, or “little rocks” in Balti, an apt name for the glacial debris you must cross as you hike along the Baltoro. In the lead-up to Concordia, the summit of Gasherbrum IV (7,925m) grows on the horizon over successive days.

A good way to take reference of where  you are is to make use of the mountains to your left and right to identify how far you’ve come along the glacier, with Goro 1 and Goro 2 being the day’s lunch stop and overnight halt; at Goro 2 (4,250m) you’re camping on the glacier, so it’s a struggle to find a comfortable, or even level tent site among the moraine and ice. However, you are rewarded with excellent views of Masherbrum (7,821m), which was once thought to be the highest mountain in the Karakorum range, otherwise known as K1.

There’s also a good view of Muztagh Tower, an enormous rock tower with four sides stretching steeply into the sky; it’s perhaps the most difficult technical climb in the Karakoram.

 

GORO 2 TO CONCORDIA

From here, it’s an easy day’s hike to Concordia (4,650m), following the Baltoro to its confluence with the Godwin-Austen Glacier, where views open up with the final surprise being soaring K2 (8,611m) peeking out over Marble Peak (6,256m) on the left, just before reaching Concordia.

After 6-7 days’ hard hiking, you arrive at the “throne of the mountain gods”, with the reward being expansive views of four 8,000ers (Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I & II, and K2), as well as a view down the glacier at all that you have covered.

From here, there are a few optional day trips to K2 base camp (5,100m), Gasherbrum base camp (5,050m) or Broad Peak base camp (4,850m). On the return trek, there is the option of going over the Gondogoro La pass (5,940m) which brings you around to Hushe (however, there have been periodic restrictions on crossing this pass). Alternatively, you can return the way you came and experience the route back with a different perspective over 3-4 days.

 

THINGS TO NOTE

Trekking up to the base of the world’s second highest peak is physically demanding, and it’s best to have previous, high-altitude experience.

While the situation in Pakistan can be highly changeable, Baltistan is a surprisingly peaceful corner of the country, with the added advantage of its stunning views of Karakorum and the warm hospitality of the Balti people.

 

GETTING THERE

There are several airlines flying to Islamabad – the fastest connection is via Bangkok, with a flight time of around 10 hours. Visitors to Pakistan need to apply for a tourist visa prior to arrival and would require a letter of invitation from a Pakistani host or tour operator.

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