K2 Base Camp Trek Report: Difficulty and Lessons Learned

k2 basecamp trek difficulty

When you tell people you’re about to head off to Pakistan the reaction is almost always the same… “Sorry, did you just say Pakistan!?” “yep” “why are you going there, isn’t that a super dangerous country!?” (accompanied by a mixture of confused, surprised and concerned looks).

When I followed this by saying I was going to go trekking for 2 weeks to the base camp of the most dangerous mountain in the world, those who didn’t know me well enough thought I was crazy, those that did, knew it was just another one of those Kate adventures.

My Journey to K2 base camp begins…

Sitting in the airport, waiting to board my flight out of Australia, many thoughts were running through my mind… Mainly, what on earth am I doing!? Continuously flicking between thinking “was everyone right? Is this a stupid thing to be doing alone?” to “oh well, it’s too late now, here we go!”

Once I finally arrived in Islamabad, driving through the streets of the city and feeling totally at home in the chaos, I knew I did the right thing. At that point I knew I was about to undertake one of the most crazy, intense and physically demanding adventures of my life this far….and love every minute of it!

Located in the Karakoram mountain range, a mountain know by the unassuming name of K2 towers above it’s fellow giants. At 8,611m, K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, yet visited by a fraction of the people that its Nepalese neighbour, Mt Everest attracts.

After exploring the nations capital for a few days, it was time to meet up with my fellow trekkers and fly up to Skardu, in the north of the country. For this leg of the journey you may prefer to take a few days to drive the Karakoram highway, known to have spectacular scenery and claims the title of the highest paved road in the world.

A word to the wise however, you will be spending a lot of time bumping around in jeeps over the next few weeks and road maintenance doesn’t seem to be of high importance to those in charge of the developing nation…

A mesmerizing 1 hour flight to Skardu

The alternative to the drive is a mesmerizing 1 hour flight, weaving in and out of snow-capped peaks, above and below the clouds and seemingly landing in the middle of a desert.

From the seat of your Pakistan airways flight, munching on a weird, complementary mayonnaise sandwich, you will get up close and personal with the likes of Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world.

Pro Tip: Snag a seat on the right hand side of the plane for the best views!

After meeting our guide Waheed and spending a night here in a hotel, it was time to take the 6 hour 4WD trip to the trail head, located just out of the small town of Askole.

Here, we spent our first and last night camping on the luxury of grass. Something we probably didn’t appreciate at the time as we were pretty oblivious of what was to come. In Askole we met the cook, Abdullah, and collected our team of porters, ready for the next few weeks of adventure!

Jhola Camp

Setting off to Jhola camp the next day we got our first taste of what was to come, heat, sun, dehydration and sand in everything! Shortly after departing from Askole with a spring in our step we arrived at the final check point. A trekkers registration office for everyone heading into the mountains.

After filling in some paperwork we said our final goodbye to civilisation and trekked on a further 20km up the valley over the next 6 hours.

The First 2 to 3 days are actually quite flat. But then…

Onwards from Skardu, the first 2-3 days of the trek are actually quite flat. Following the Braldu valley beside a river, you will cover quite a lot of distance daily. Watch out for the sand and heat! At times during this part of the trek you will feel like you are walking along a beach, beside the fact that it is physically exhausting, it is also extremely frustrating when it feels like you’re walking so slowly.

We were all somewhat unprepared for the intense temperatures and lack of shade we would experience here. By the time we got to our first camp for the trek, after 7 hard hours of hiking, I was the most dehydrated I have ever been in my whole life. Water is important folks, and I definitely learnt from my mistakes on that first day!

During those first few days of the trek you will already start to see the mountain giants to the likes of Mango Peak and the spectacular Trango Towers.

The most mentally challenging day of my life

Following this came the most mentally challenging day of my life. Climbing up to begin our new life walking/camping/living on the Baltoro glaciar was an exciting event of course. Not so exciting was the lack of trail on the moraine covered ice from here on out.

Hiking from Paiju to Khobutse camp, think hours upon hours of frustrating walking, up, down and around the cracks and crevasses of the glacier when no one knows the way. Due to the shift in the ice, we were delayed a countless amount of time trying to find new ways across the surface.

Following this came a fun little side trip through giant sand dunes leading to an icy cold glacial river, with no bridge in sight as a final hurdle before camp. As I crossed the 20m wide river, my bare feet being smashed by both rocks and ice chunks alike, turning blue from the cold, I nearly cried. Despite all this, it was also one of my favourite days of the trek.

Nothing quite beats the feeling of overcoming those feelings and making it to the other side (literally). Whilst the porters danced in celebration and we all cheered on the remaining members of our team smiling through the pain, I knew that it was a day I will never forget.

Over the next 4-5 days we continued walking up the glacier, taking a rest day, and getting higher in altitude as the mountains got higher in height. We soon started feeling our place by the giants as we began to catch glimpses of peaks of over 7,000m such as the impressive Masherbrum mountain, followed quickly by the 8,000’s, namely Gasherbrum I and II (K4 and K5).

Possibly the most impressive camp site in all the world

In no time at all (just 8 intense days of trekking), we were walking into Concordia. Possibly the most impressive camp site in the entire world. Located at a glacial T intersection, we stood in awe of a 360 degree view of the mountain giants, and finally, staring straight down the adjacent valley into the soul of K2, the most dangerous mountain on this planet.

The next day we took off on a day trip to the k2 base camp itself. As there is obviously a camp here, some tours choose to actually spend a night here to avoid the long days walk. However, as you have no choice but to backtrack the way you came anyway, we chose a day trip.

Waking up and walking in, the views didn’t look promising. The first real clouds we had seen the whole trip coated the top of the giant. As we began to arrive at the base of K2, the clouds parted, slowly, then all at once. Just for us. After a prolonged visit, a long hike, partially in the dark, and a brief stint of being lost in the glacier, we made it back to camp exhausted but extremely satisfied.

But this wasn’t the end!

The next day we were off to Ali camp, our final resting spot before the daunting Gondogoro La. During our final rest day, the Guides went up to check the pass and confirm that it was still safe enough to cross. The rest of us spent the day sleeping, getting ready for our 10pm breakfast and our 11pm start.

Setting off with head torches to light the way, we headed for the base of the pass where we strapped on crampons and collected our ice axes. Attached to a fixed roped, we climbed as a team up and over the pass, crossing snow bridges across giant crevasses and watching the sun rise over the encircling peaks.

Eventually after a 9 hour push, we made it to the highest point of the pass at 5,585 meters (@18,320 feet!). After some snacks and a long pause to take in the view, we began down the other side. Don’t think it’s over yet! The opposite face is similar in difficulty, but rather than dense snow to dig your feet into, you find yourself nearly abseiling down steep scree.

After a few hours of this, plus walking along a precarious dirt ledge, descending further and following a path up and down mini moraine mountains, we walked through a flower filled meadow to our camp on the side of a lake.

Sweet relief after a 17 hour day of trekking

After 17 hours of walking, words can not describe how relieved I was to see those tents.

After all this, its an easy day and a half further of walking on a beautifully maintained path to the village of Hushe. Paradise! After lunch here, we all jumped in the jeeps and drove the 6 hours back to Skardu and a well-deserved hot shower.

Essential Gear For a K2 Base Camp Trek

Good gear is essential for this trek. As you really are out there in the middle of no where, you need to be prepared for the Karakorum’s harsh weather.

Sun and dust protection – For us, the first part of the trek was blisteringly hot and dusty. So remember a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and neck buff to keep the dust out.

Ability to cover up as a woman – When choosing clothing, remember that even in the mountains, Pakistan is quite a conservative country. For women, that means covering you knees and shoulders at all times. Although it is somewhat more relaxed in the mountains, I was still surrounded predominantly by men and didn’t feel comfortable wearing a singlet for example.

Prepared for freezing nights – After the first few days you begin to spend your days trekking and sleeping on the Baltoro glacier. Although it can still be quite warm during the day at the start, at night, this means cold. Freezing cold. So make sure you have thermal layers, a good puffer jacket, windbreaker/shell, warm socks and a beanie.

Sleeping bag – If you have to supply your own sleeping bag I would recommend having one that is at least -20 Celsius comfort rating. Although it didn’t get this cold, the cold that radiated up through the ice of the glacier on which we slept, chilled me to the bone. My -10 Celsius bag was not sufficient and lead to an uncomfortable 2 weeks!

Hiking boots – In terms of other gear make sure you have sturdy, worn in hiking boots. Hiking boots are essential! Do not think that trail runners or any other variation of sneakers will be sufficient because you will probably finish the trek barefoot. This terrain is harsh and you will spend A LOT of hours climbing over boulders and walking on sharp ice.

My trusty old boots even got a bit shredded over the time but one of our fellow trekkers trainers were held together by 2 strands each by the end. Not only do boots withstand wear and tear better, they will also protect your ankles. There were plenty of times where I could have sprained an ankle with the twists and falls they endured.

Glacier/Ice equipment – If you’re planning on doing Gondogoro La, remember that you will be wearing crampons. Although most companies will give you strap on ones that can theoretically go on any type of shoe, they will fall off if you don’t have a stiff sole to your shoe. So low-key mountaineering/hiking hybrid boots are ideal.

Backpack – Your backpack should also be your best friend. Make sure it fits correctly and is comfortable with a heavy load for a long period of time. Trust me, you’ll thank me later when even after a hard 7 hour hike, you take off your shoes before your pack!

Trekking poles – Often underrated but super helpful, particularly on this trek as the majority of it is not on solid ground. They also help you balance better with a full pack as you can spread the weight whilst going up or down steep hills. Also read: Are Trekking Poles Worth It?

Hydration – Water bladder/water bottle. Water is quite scarce on this trek, so it’s vital to be able to carry enough water for your entire day. I was drinking on average 3L a day whilst walking, plus more at camp. I took along a 2L water bladder plus my 1L Nalgene bottle with hydralyte tablets. Different companies deal with water management differently. However, most often the means of purification is by boiling.

This means it will both take time, and your water will be warm. Our cook boiled large batches of water each night and we were able to fill up all our bottles for the trek the next morning. This means we had no other access to clean water throughout the day until we reached camp at night. For this reason, it’s also advisable to bring along your own steripen, life straw or water purification tablets as a back up also.

Sleeping pad – Lastly, a good, insulated sleeping mat. All companies should provide a pad. However, it is a good idea to clarify exactly what type of padding you will have to sleep on. We were told we were being supplied with “mattresses” and thus I didn’t pack my own nice, self inflating, sleeping mat that I usually use on all my hikes. This was actually my biggest regret of the trip.

As I previously mentioned, when spending nights on the glacier, the cold seeps through the bottom of your tent and right into your bones. The yoga style mats we were provided defiantly weren’t sufficient but we all survived. Just another one of those cross cultural, misunderstandings to laugh about later.

“So Chalo! (let’s go). Pack that bag, buy that flight and go and visit some of the highest mountains on earth!”

FAQs

What time of year should I go?

If you wish to complete the trek via the high Gondogoro pass, most trekking companies will only take you during the months of July and August. This is because it is only during these months that there is a rescue team present in the area. This team is responsible for fixing the ropes for all trekking groups and guiding them across the pass.

We actually completed the pass after the rescue team had left the area. In this instance, our guide brought along our own ropes, stakes and other gear required, themselves. Whilst we had a rest day at Ali Camp, the final camp site before the pass, our guide went up to the pass to do a final safety check.

Coming back with optimistic attitudes, they gave us the all clear and excitedly showed us photos of the first rope they had already placed.

However, if you do choose to do this, make sure to vet your trekking company thoroughly. I joined a group after they had already chosen the company and was assured that they had gone to all lengths to verify them. We found out the day before arriving at Ali Camp, that our guide had never actually fixed the ropes whilst crossing the pass before.

Although he had guided over 20 groups across, the rescue team had always been there.

In the end it was all fine, everyone made it across safely, albeit exhausted. The pass did take us a lot longer than it should have due to this inexperience and I would have much preferred to have had the mental comfort of the rescue team.

K2 base camp trek difficulty – How fit do I need to be?

I’m not going to lie, this was the most difficult 159 km I have ever walked. That is not to say that you have to be a professional athlete to do this hike. It was actually much more mentally draining than physical at times, and the trek can always be modified to suit less experienced trekkers. I saw a group of 60+ year olds, Japanese trekkers which featured a lady who was 81 years old in the lead!

As long as you are of reasonable fitness and not afraid of heights or rugged terrain, you should be capable of completing the hike. If you are not overly experienced in long distance hiking, make sure you communicate this with your trekking company. They should be able to customize your trip as to have shorter days walking and extra rest days.

Can I do the trek solo/do I need a guide?

In order to hike in the K2 region you need a special permit that can only be obtained by an officially registered trekking company. So no, unfortunately you can’t just pack your tent and go. Although you do need a trekking company, this does not mean you can’t just hire the guide from the company and carry your own pack.

If you wish to go bare bones and unassisted, chat to any reputable trekking company and see what they can organize. I assure you, by the end of it, it’ll just feel like you’re trekking with an old friend!

What’s the food like?

Incredible! Of course, this depends on the company you go with and I’ve heard some pretty ordinary reviews, but our cook was amazing! He made us such a variety of different dishes including local cuisine and some more western style meals. We couldn’t believe our eyes when every day we were served something made from scratch with extremely detailed processes…. in the middle of the mountains.

Expect lots of curry, dal and rice for main meals. Eggs for breakfast and snack foods on the trail. Remember that later on in the trek and the higher you go in altitude; the meals will start to become more basic as stocks run out or become too heavy to carry. Don’t worry, it’ll make that first meal in civilisation taste all the more divine!

How much to tip the guide team?

Tipping is an extremely difficult one and not widely discussed in Pakistan. Remember that you will be spending a lot more on tips on this trek than you would on the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal for example. This is because of a number of factors, including the larger quantity of people involved in supporting your trek, extra complicated logistics, more gear, and last by not least, the sheer difficulty of the hike.

To calculate your tip, first count the amount of people you will be tipping. Don’t forget the porters, horse handlers and drivers!
The drivers get tipped on the spot and we gave them 3,000 R each drive of approximately 5 hours duration.

In general, the porters/horse handlers get the least, the cook gets more, and then the guide substantially more again.

To give you an idea, we decided to tip $200 USD per person on the trek. This was a contribution by 7 trekkers split between 1 guide, 1 cook and around 15 porters. Rather than handing out cash ourselves, we chose to give it all to our guide, whom we trusted to divide it fairly between his team. This was on the more generous side of the spectrum however I defiantly felt that it was earned.

I have never seen a team work so hard both physically and emotionally, to ensure we all had the most enjoyable time possible and in such a harsh environment.

Do I need a visa to visit Pakistan?

Yes! Most nationalities currently require a visa to visit Pakistan. However, with the new e-visa system, 175 different countries are eligible to apply online. With all the correct documents, it is a super quick process and took just 2 days to be approved for me.

The easiest way to get the visa is to have a letter of invitation. If you are planning on trekking to K2, your trekking company will provide you with this.

What is the altitude of K2 Base camp?

K2 base camp sits at 16,400 feet. We didn’t actually do much forced acclimatization such as higher altitude day hikes but we did have 3 rest days on days 3, 7 and 11 of hiking at 3,383m, 4250m and 5,000m respectively. The altitude change over the trek is spread out quite a lot as in the beginning it is slow going, walking up the valley and gaining height gradually. I didn’t actually even notice the altitude at all over the trek although a couple of members of our group did struggle a little crossing the Gondogoro pass where you go from 5,000m to 5,560m and then down to 3,330m over a 18 hour day of hiking.

 

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