Baltistan,

Baltoro Glacier

Duration 15 days
Distance 143.6km
Standard demanding
Season June-September
Start/Finish Thungol
Zone and Permit restricted, US$50 permit
Public Transport no
Summary The world-renowned Baltoro Glacier has some of the planet’s most amazing scenery. In a procession of mind-blowing rock towers and shining peaks all the way to K2 Base Camp.

 

The route up the Baltoro Glacier to Concordia, where the Godwin-Austen, upper Baltoro and Vigne glaciers all converge, is indeed a trek into the throne room of the mountain gods, as photographer Galen Rowell proclaimed. The 62Km- long Baltoro Glacier, the Karakoram’s third longest, is Pakistan’s number one trekking destination. Nearly 70% of the trekking and mountaineering permits issued each year are for the Baltoro. Along the lower Baltoro are amazing granite towers and sheer walls-Uli Biaho, the Trangos, the Cathedrals. These monsters of rock yield above Concordia to the incomparable snow-clad giants. Seven of the world’s 25 highest peaks rise above the glacier. Within 25km of one another are the Gasherbrums, Broad Peak and K2 (8611m), so massive yet so ethereal, the ultimate mountain of mountains.

Completion of the road up the Braldu Valley to Thungol in 1992 and to Askole in 1993 and improved trail conditions beyond, both results of the Pakistan Army’s year-round deployment along the glacier, have shortened this trek by more than a week from its original length. Today, it takes only eight days to cover the 72km one way to Concordia. Half of the trekking distance and only two camp sites, Goro II and Concordia, are actually on glacier, and all of it’s nontechnical. By Karakoram standards, it’s gentle glacier travel at its best.

PLANNING

When to Trek      

Most expeditions travel up the Baltoro Glacier in June and return in August, making these crowded months on the trail. River crossings along the trail, however, are easier before July when water levels rise dramatically.

Maps and Books

The Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research 1:250,000 orographical map Karakoram (Sheet 1) and Karakoram (Sheet 2) cover the trek. Thungol, Jula, Skam Tsok and Khoburtse aren’t labeled. Gasherbrum IV is mislabeled as Gasherbrum VI (6706m) at the West Gasherbrum Glacier’s head.

Other maps feature the Baltoro Glacier and surrounding peaks, but none detail the area south of the Baltoro Glacier. The beautifully coloured 1:100,000 Ghiacciaio Baltoro map (US$70) published by the Italian dai tipi dell’ instituto Geografico Militare (IGM) in 1969, and reprinted in 1977, is based on Italian 1929 and 1954 K2 Expeditions. The Xi’ an Cartographic publishing House published the 1:100,000 (Mount Qogori) map (US$18) with 40m contour intervals, but it doesn’t show international borders. The Eight-Thousand Metre Peaks of the Karakoram is a 1:50,000 orographical sketch map (US$14) prepared by Jerzy Wala.

Two classic books on the Baltoro Glacier are Climbing and Exploration in the Karakoram-Himalayas (hardcover) by William M Conway, which describes the first expedition to the Baltoro Glacier, and Karakoram and Western Himalaya (hardcover), the most sought-after rare book on Himalayan exploration, by Filippo de Filippi who recounts the Duke of the Abruzzi’s 1909 Baltoro Glacier expedition with Vittorio Sella’s incredible photographs. In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods by Galen Rowell recounts the 1975 American expedition with the best history of Baltoro Glacier exploration and superb photographs (hardcover). K2: Triumph and Tragedy by Jim Curran recounts the 1986 season when K2 claimed 13 lives.

Permits and Regulations

This trek is in a restricted zone where a permit and licensed guide are required (see trekking Permits,).

Guides and Porters 

Every licensed trekking company has experienced guides and cooks who know the route well. Porters are essential on this route and it’s difficult to deviate from the expeditionary-style trekking that has developed. The ratio of porters to trekkers typically varies from 3:1 (for small-scale lower-budget treks) to 6:1 (for trekking parties outfitted by a trekking company). Frustrated budget- conscious trekkers with lightweight gear and freeze-dried food who plan to backpack often wonder why they need so many porters. They’re usually unsuccessful in negotiating (with their guide or porters) to significantly reduce the number of porters’ loads. Because a guide is required, you usually have to hire a cook since guides don’t cook. Then you need a porter to carry the kitchen, a porter for the Kerosene, porters for the guide’s and cook’s food and porters to carry the food for those porters. It all adds up. Try to find a cook who also carries a full porter’s load.

Porters are responsible for paying for their own transport to Thungol. Some confusing exceptions to standard porters’ wages apply to this trek. Porters bring their own food for the first four stages to Paiju. For these four stages, pay a flat rate per stage. For the remaining stages from Paiju to Concordia and back, provide all food and fuel for porters and pay a flat rate per stage. It’s customary for porters to butcher animals at Paiju. Small parties can pay each porter a one-time meat ration in Lieu of buying an animal. Porters expect to receive either clothing and equipment as per Tourism Division guidelines or to be paid the allowance. It’s cheaper to buy all of the required items in Skardu. Although it takes extra effort, you then know your porters have adequate gear. Whether they bring their own gear or you provide it for them, keep in mind that they will be walking and sleeping on snow and ice for many days.

A shop in Paiju sells basic supplies (flour, sugar and kerosene). Unfortunately, beverages in plastic bottles and aluminum cans have made their way here, adding to the rubbish problem. Buying supplies here is more expensive than buying them in Skardu and paying porters to carry them up. However, it provides an option to resupply or to supply porters with food above Paiju, which can reduce the number of porters’ loads to Paiju. Porters going down can buy food here to get back to Askole.

Stages       

It’s 19 stages total round trip. It’s one stage round trip (ie, half a stage in each direction) between Thungol and Askole, plus these 18 stages from Askole: (1) Korophon; (2) Jula; (3) Bardumal; (4) Paiju; (5) Liligo; (6) Urdukas; (7) Goro I; (8) Goro II; and (9) Concordia; and (10-18) nine stages to return via the same route.

NEAREST FACILITES

See Thungol (p).

GETTING TO/FROM THE TREK

See Thungol (p).

THE TREK

Day 1 : Thungol to Korophon

4-5 hours, 12.6km, 150m ascent

See Day 1 of the Hispar La trek (p) for a description from Thungol to the trail junction beyond Kesar Shaguran. From the junction, the trail to the Baltoro Glacier continues east below the rock buttress. Thirty minutes past the junction reach large rocks and climbs 15 minutes onto the Biafo Glacier’s terminal moraine. Cross the glacier in 45 minutes on an easy, obvious trail passing above its mouth. Korophon (3000m) is a huge plain on the Biafo Glacier’s north-east margin with dusty camp sites amid a few willows. The area was more heavily wooded, but is suffering from the many porters chopping wood to cock. Water flows from the glacier and becomes silty in the afternoon. Twenty minutes beyond the camp site is a spring and an enormous boulder called Korophon (bowl-shaped rock).

A Fragile Glacier

The Baltoro Glacier is a fragile ecosystem whose carrying capacity is overextended. Fewer than 1000 trekker and mountaineers make their way up the glacier each year, but the many thousands of porters and staff accompanying them amplify the impact. When you look up, you see beautiful mountain scenery in every direction, but when you look down it’s another matter. Rubbish indiscriminately thrown along the way and around camp sites doesn’t go away in this frozen landscape. Human faeces are both an eyesore and a health hazard, even though non-government organisations have built pit toilets at many camp sites.

The impact of trekkers, climbers and porters is most concentrated at camp sites. On the glacier, however, the continuing military presence remains the major environment problem. Rubbish pits announce each army post as you approach. A telegraph wire links all the army camps. Overhead, daily good-weather helicopter flights serve to remind visitors of the long-simmering confrontation between Pakistan and India over the adjacent Siachen Glacier.

 

Day 2 : Korophon to Skam Tsok

4½-5½ hours, 13.4km, 300m ascent

Pass the boulder on a good trail and in one hour reach a spring at the river’s edge. Walk along the sandy river bed and then climb 15 minutes to a cairn. Here the trail turns east-north-east towards the Dumordo River coming from the Panmah Glacier.

The Dumordo River was once a formidable obstacle, necessitating a tedious cable crossing in low water or, in high water, a half-day detour along an exposed cliffside trail. Now a footbridge, built in 1998, is just 15 minutes upvalley. Villagers charge a bridge toll, but it’s worth it for the convenience. Across the footbridge is Jula (Urdu for ‘swing’, referring to the former cable crossing), a broad plain at the confluence of the Dumordo and Biaho Rivers. Jula’s exposed location and silty water from the distant river make it an undesirable camp site.

Follow the trail along the Biaho River’s true right bank through fragrant tamarisks and ephedra two hours to a side stream with clear water. This is a good lunch spot called Chobrok. Continue 15 minutes to the confluence of the Ching Kang and Biaho rivers, where the Biaho bends east. Beyond the bend is Bardumal, an abandoned camp site with a porter’s grave. The preferred camp site, Skam Tsok (3300m; skam means dry; tsok, a thorny bush), is 30 to 45 minutes farther amid tamarisks at the first clear side stream. Between Jula and Skam Tsok are several sections with low-water and high-water trails. The low-water trail is quicker and easier with less climbing.

Days 3-4 : Skam Tsok to Paiju  

3-3½ hours, 8.6km, 150m ascent

The trail alternates between the river bed and terraces above, crossing boulder fields and side streams until coming to the Paiju Glacier’s outwash stream. It’s easy to ford when the water is low, but when the water is high, you may need a rope for safety. The first glimpse of Paiju Peak (6610m) and Cathedral Towers are from here. Continue around a rocky cliff and drop to the low-water trail along the river; the high-water trail stays high. From the riverside, ascend to the terrace and pass through groves of trees to Paiju (3450m), one to 1½ hours from the ford. A small tree- lined stream passes through Paiju, and tent platforms are carved out all over the hillside. Paiju is often crowded and noisy, and always dirty. The tent platforms higher along the stream are quieter with good views. The entire dry area across the stream has become an open toilet.

Some parties reach Paiju in two days, camping at Jula en route. The camp sites, however, are better when taking three days. Regardless, almost all parties take an extra day in Paiju for acclimatization. Paiju is the last source of wood. Despite kerosene and stoves, and signs urging porters not to cut wood, they do so in order to bake bread for the coming days.

Day 5 : Paiju to Khoburtse

4½-5½ hours, 10.8km, 480m ascent

Walk one hour towards the Baltoro Glacier’s terminus where an obvious trail leads up the terminal moraine. The trail crosses the glacier angling gently 3.5km to the south-east margin in 2½ hours. Continue up the ablation valley 15 minutes to Liligo. The original camp site with a clear stream below a grassy hillside was wiped out long ago by rock fall. Just around the bend is the newer Liligo camp site with stone shelters cramped into a boulder field. Water comes from the moraine lake below. Ibex still wander the grassy slopes above. The incredibly sheer granite towers of the Baltoro’s northern wall, separated by steep, broken ice floes, dominate the view. Across the Baltoro along the Dunge Glacier are the base camps (3900-4150m) for Nameless Tower, Great Trango Tower and the Cathedrals.

For the next 1½ hours the trail alternates between the trail moraine and glacier, finally heading out on the glacier to avoid the Liligo Glacier’s outwash stream, which periodically surges to form a lake. Khoburtse (3930m), an alternative camp site to Liligo with clear water and a few level tent sites, lies just past the Liligo Glacier. Khoburtse is a bitter but edible fragrant green sage. The tent sites nearest the toilets are subject to rock fall, so pitch tents on the opposite side of the ridge away from the hillside. From the flower-covered hillsides are extraordinary views of Paiju Peak, Uli Biaho (6417m), Great Trango Tower (6286m), Lobsang Spire (5707m) and Cathedral Towers. The scenery is so magnificent, it’s worthwhile to walk shorter days and enjoy the views from this and the next camp site.

Day 6 : Khoburtse to Urdukas     

2-3 hours, 5.1km, 120m ascent

Between Khoburtse and Urdukas, two glaciers from the south-east join the Baltoro. The trail along the lateral moraine moves onto the glacier to skirt these side glaciers. Continue 30 minutes more on moraine to an army camp with a large moraine lake below. On the grassy boulder-strewn hillside 50m above is Urdukas (4050m), named for the obvious cracked (kas) boulder (urdwa) above camp. Two small streams provide water at Urdukas, the lower (west) one is more frequently used (and polluted), the higher (east) one a few minutes beyond camp is better. The trail between Paiju and Urdukas is now so improved that what was always a two-day walk now can be done by acclimatized trekkers in one day. Heavily used Urdukas is much larger than Paiju. The meadows above Urdukas offer one of the Karakoram’s finest panoramas.  All the Trango Towers are visible, including Nameless Tower, which has the world’s longest granite face.

Day 7 : Urdukas to Goro II

6-7 hours, 12.1km, 330m ascent

Head north passing several porters’ graves. The trail descends and goes straight out to the glacier’s middle. The trail from here to Concordia, although still obvious, is less of a highway, and remains on the glacier. Masherbrum’s sheer granite north face and snow-crowned summit (7821m) comes into view as you walk east up the Baltoro Glacier. After 3½ to four hours, stop for lunch near the little-used camp sites of Shakspoon, the big pile (spoon) of little stones (shak). Towering white seracs rise to the right of the trail, which is marked by occasional cairns. This section is more rugged with occasional jumps over small streams.  Goro II (4380m), 2½ to three hours farther, is just beyond an army camp in the glacier’s middle. Tent platforms and porters’ circles are fashioned on the ice and rock. Here in mid-glacier, wind blows from the Biange Glacier and Muztagh Tower (7273m). Water comes from the glacier just north of camp. Gasherbrum IV’s (7925m) unique squared-off summit beckons towards Concordia and Masherbrum’s dramatic summit cap soars behind.

Days 8-10 : Goro II to Concordia

5-6 hours, 9.2km, 270m ascent

Follow the black medial moraine up the glacier’s centre. The trail marches steadily towards Concordia, working right and close to the Biarchedi Glacier, bounded by a sheer wall of fluted snow. As you approach Concordia, the immense bulk of triple-headed Broad Peak (8047m) emerges. Concordia (4650m) where the Godwin-Austen Glacier meets the upper Baltoro and Vigne glaciers, has an army camp. Beyond the army camp 10 minutes is a large level area with many porters’ shelters and superb views of the colossal pyramid of K2 (8611m). Mitre Peak (6025m) to the south stands watch over this place of sublime and awesome beauty. Concordia, exposed as it is, receives strong winds and is the Baltoro’s coldest camp site. Most trekkers spend three nights to savour its majesty.

Side Trip : Broad Peak and K2 Base Camps

6-8 hours, 20km, 485m ascent, 485m descent

The route to K2 Base Camp and back to Concordia can be covered in one long, tiring day. Most trekkers take a more leisurely pace and move camp from Concordia to K2 Base Camp for one or more nights. As you walk towards K2, and it grows even larger, its incredible size becomes apparent. Leave the Concordia trail 10 minutes beyond (east of) the army camp. Head north, cross a snow bridge, and follow a faint trail through jumbled moraine onto the large light brown medial moraine of the Godwin-Austen Glacier. This moraine runs straight towards K2 with occasional cairns marking the route. It takes 2½ to 3 hours to reach Broad Peak Base Camp (5000m), which extends 30 minutes up the moraine. It’s easy to tell when you’re there by the rubbish. Fifteen minutes after the highest base camp, leave the moraine, as it’s easier to walk on the white ice to the west (left). Follow this one hour, then pass through broken glacier and moraine 15 minutes to K2 Base Camp (5135m). Here, directly below K2’s immense bulk, the mountain appears strongly foreshortened, yet completely fills your view. Camps are on either side of the broken glacier, though most are on its east side. The Gilkey memorial, named for geologist Arthur Gilkey who disappeared on K2 in 1953, lies 100m up the rock slope at the very base of K2. Names of climbers who died on the mountain have been inscribed on steel dinner plates with some more ornate plaques. A few bodies are also interred here. It’s four stages total round trip from Concordia: (1) Broad Peak Base Camp; (2) K2 Base Camp; and (3-4) two stages to return via the same route.

Side Trip : Gasherbrum I Base Camp      

2 days, 500m ascent 500m descent

The base camp (5150m) for Gasherbrum I, first designated as K5 and later dubbed hidden Peak by Conway, is at the confluence of the Abruzzi and South Gasherbrum glaciers. From Concordia, follow the upper Baltoro Glacier to the south-east, skirting the base of Gasherbrums IV, V and VI, then head north-east up the Abruzzi Glacier to camp. This is too far for a day hike, so plan on spending at least one night. It totals two stages round trip- one up, one back. The mountaineering route continues up the South Gasherbrum Glacier to Camp 1 (5943m).

Days 11-15 : Concordia to Thungol

5 days, 71.8km, 1800m descent

Most trekkers retrace their route in five days, camping at Goro II, Urdukas, Paiju and Korophon en route to Thungol.

 

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