On Mountain Bikes Beneath K2
Written by Gerhard Czerner // Photography by Martin Bessig
Every breath fights in my throat. We have been struggling for hours now up a steep, ice-covered cliff at 5,500m, in the dark, holding tightly onto fixed ropes. Our bikes, strapped to our backpacks, have increased our individual loads to over 20kg.
Our crampons seem to achieve nothing more than scratching ineffectually at the stone. It’s hard to get a foothold as we scrabble around, every cell in our bodies labouring from the effort.
One step at a time.
My lungs are on fire. After every step we need to stop to gasp for another breath. The trek itself is exhausting enough, never mind trying to fight the weight of our bikes and stay balanced. But we haven’t given up hope of getting over the biggest obstacle on our route, the Gondogoro La. Ahead, faint still but just bright enough to bring out the tiniest spark of defiance in my exhausted body, I can see the glimmer of the approaching dawn.
I had no idea how hard this ascent would be when I started planning this trip two years ago. Looking back, that’s probably a good thing. I wanted to fulfil one of my dreams: visiting Concordia in northern Pakistan. As the confluence of two mighty glaciers, the Godwin-Austen and the Baltoro, it is considered the heart of the Karakoram. Nowhere else on Earth do more 7,000m and 8,000m mountains jostle in such close proximity, including the forbidding pyramid of K2, second-highest peak in the world.
I found a motivated mountain biker in Jakob Breitwieser. Martin Bissig was the ideal photographer and filmmaker. In mid-August, with mixed feelings, we landed in Skardu, the biggest city in the Baltistan region and the starting point for all mountaineering expeditions in the Karakoram. With our bikes, we were the source of much excitement on the city’s main street, which is lined with a jumble of hundreds of shops and colourful signs and telephone wires. Smiling faces, curious expressions, waves, greetings – we soon caught the attention of pedestrians and drivers alike, who sometimes drove past honking their horns. People everywhere offered to take our photo, chatted with us, and invited us to tea. We did not expect this degree of friendliness and hospitality. It blew us away.
In Skardu we met the person who would be our guide for the next two weeks: Isaak, 60 years old with a magnificently full beard and unexpectedly good English. When we discussed the details of the trip with him, a frown passed across his eyes, but only for a second. ‘I have never seen cyclists on this trek,’ he said. But when Jakob asked him if he thought it would be possible to do it on mountain bikes, Isaak paused for only a moment before he broke into a broad, easy grin: early evidence of a sense of humour that we would soon learn to appreciate. ‘Yes, it is possible. Inshallah!’ – in other words, ‘God willing’. We quickly grew accustomed to the devout Muslims and their reliance on God’s goodwill. It helps to put into perspective things that are beyond your control, whose outcome you can’t predict. We also talked to people just returning from the mountains, to get their impressions of the conditions. The answers we got ranged from ‘the snow was waist deep’ to ‘you’ll be able to bike 70 per cent of it’. What else could we say but ‘Inshallah’?
It took two days by jeep to reach the small village of Hushe, the starting point of our mountain bike trek. But Jakob had been quiet for the last few hours before arriving at Hushe. When we arrived he turned to me with a pale face and said, ‘I don’t feel good.’ Not long after this, he was flat on his back, then doubled over in pain. Stomach flu. After making sure Jakob was OK, I rode through the village on my bike, and, within minutes, became the star attraction. The gaggle of kids inspired me to search through my bag of trail-riding tricks. When I started hopping on my front and back wheels and jumping up and down stairs, the crowd became unstoppable: applause, loud cheers, and innumerable cell phones filming me. Rarely had I had such an enthusiastic audience.
After taking a look inside the guest house, which turned out to be extremely dirty, we decided to set up our tents in the garden instead. Five additional people made up our little travel group: four porters and a cook. The young men were incredibly fit, always cheerful, and ready to laugh at any joke. Though they barely spoke English, we were always able to communicate with them and have fun.
‘Yeah, I’m doing better today,’ Jakob told me the next morning, although he looked tired after his ordeal. The plan was to take five days to the highest point of our trip, the Gondogoro La, at 5,650m. Acclimatisation had been my primary concern when planning. To be able to make it through the pass, we had to gradually adjust to the elevation and be in top shape before the big day. Surprisingly, the route was flat under our bikes at first. Being able to spend more time than expected in the saddle helped to boost our motivation – and also helped Jakob to ease into the effort after his sickness. Around us, the glittering spires of mountains rose skyward, in a frieze of white against the blue, and we had to strain our necks to see the summits of these granite giants.
To get used to the elevation, we spent two nights at our first camp, located at 3,600m. This also gave Jakob more time to recover, but on the third day we began our next stretch, heading out at 5.30am to escape the heat. Cycling, I realised immediately, was now out of the question: the narrow path wound up a great mound of steep glacial moraine, all shattered rock. We strapped bikes to our backpacks. Immediately, the effort of making progress trebled, and I found myself hoping that we didn’t have to carry our bikes for too much of the technical terrain ahead. Luckily the path flattened out higher up. With shared grins, we hoisted our bikes back down again and began to inch our way forwards, pushing the bikes. We had known it wouldn’t be easy. This was what we had come for.
Ahead, Masherbrum’s 7,821m summit reached up into the deep blue sky. To our left, a sea of rubble coated the waves and crests of the glacier, hiding almost every trace of the ice beneath – it looked like some vast highway for giants. Our bright yellow tents awaited us at 4,100m. The porters had already set them up long before – they moved a lot more quickly than we did – and greeted us with warm smiles and hot drinks as we rode in to camp. ‘Will you teach me to ride a bike?’ one asked me, grinning, and soon they were all asking to be taught. I promised that we would before the expedition came to an end.
After a night beneath the stars, we were ready to set out early again the next morning. Our goal was the camp before the Gondogoro La. As we made our gear ready in the twilight, stoves hissing and a murmur of voices in the background, I turned to Isaak. ‘What’s the day ahead like? OK on bikes?’ His face creased into a wide grin and he gave us the same answer he’d given the day before: ‘Too easy. No problem. Little biking.’
But after about eight hours of struggling and pushing and carrying our bikes across a glacier, we reached our 4,600m camp feeling exhausted. Jakob, hauling his bike up the trail, was covered in rock dust and reddened by the sun. Isaak met us there, looking fresh; when we commented that the day hadn’t been that easy after all, he met us with another grin and the enlightening reply, ‘This is no city, this is mountain adventure.’ I looked at Jakob, whose expression betrayed surprise for an instant before he cracked up with a laugh. This became our mantra for the rest of the trip. We’re not in the city. This is a mountain adventure!
Isaak’s briefing before the Gondogoro La section surprised us. Instead of his usual cheerful ‘Too easy’, he uttered a serious ‘Not easy. Little hard. But, inshallah, you can do it.’ We looked at each other, feeling unnerved.
Thousands of stars looked down on us out of a black sky when we left camp at 9.00pm, bundled up against the cold. We’d trek through the night and reach the pass at about 5.00am, before the groups coming from the other side started to descend the fixed ropes, possibly showering us with falling rocks. Safety trumped sleep. Our equipment included clothing for down to -15°C, heavy climbing boots, crampons, hiking poles, head lamp, a climbing harness, and an ascender to clip onto the fixed rope to prevent a fall. When we strapped the bikes to our backpacks at midnight, we were each carrying a load of over 20kg.
By contrast, the gear our porters carried for themselves was only a fraction of what we thought we needed, and many wore nothing on their feet to cross glaciers but rubber clogs or gardening shoes. We’d come to respect them a great deal over the last few days. Without their strength, dedication, and warm smiles, we wouldn’t have had a hope of getting anywhere near this far. But, as I had discovered almost from the start, the respect – and the curiosity – went both ways. They’d taught us so much about the mountains, and they’d already learned much about bikes and riding from us. Our shared laughter in the evenings helped us to grow together as a team.
We trudged slowly through the night. Except for our own heavy breathing, growing more and more laboured as we gained height, total stillness surrounded us. The terrain grew steeper. Soon ice covered the ground, and we halted to put on our crampons. Then we reached the fixed ropes – a handrail snaking its way up, disappearing into the dark – and each clipped ourselves in. By the quick, tense look between the three of us, I knew that the others shared my relief at being attached firmly to the mountain.
The colossal, crushing weight on my back pulled me downwards, draining energy from my limbs, forcing the thin air out of my lungs.
With every step it seemed to be getting heavier.
Inshallah. You can do it.
We’re not in the city. This is a mountain adventure!
Vertical sections would have been impossible without the ropes. We struggled on. Soon there was no rock, only the hard crunch of snow beneath our crampons. It was an eternity until the horizon finally brightened and the route flattened out. When, finally, we met the first mountain climbers and porters descending towards us, they greeted us with questioning looks. Some of the porters, I noticed, did not wear crampons, but had instead pulled woollen socks over their simple shoes for grip on the ice.
5.00am came. Suddenly there was no more to climb. Gondogoro La, 5,650m.
Pain replaced by elation, we fell into each other’s arms. Ahead of us stretched the Gondogoro La in all its white splendour. The rising sun beat down more powerfully now and warmed up our frozen bodies. We poured ourselves a hot tea and enjoyed the magnificent view, overwhelmed. Four 8,000m mountains stood before us, resplendent in their snowy raiment: Gasherbrum 1 and 2, Broad Peak, and K2, at 8,611m the second-highest mountain on Earth. We’d actually made it.
The descent to Camp Ali was technical, pushing bikes through rapidly softening snow in the heat of the sun. When we arrived at 11.00am, Isaak and the porters were waiting with cups of noodle soup to revive us, and I asked Isaak about the final section to Concordia. His usual answer made us all happy: ‘Too easy. No problem! Biking!’
This time, he was right. We were able to ride along the huge Baltoro Glacier, a place of such immensity that we felt insignificant as ants. Bare, grippy ice, striated with gravel and riven by meltwater channels, sped our way towards Concordia. Up ahead the cloud-wreathed pyramid of K2 beckoned us on. At 7.00pm, after 22 hours underway and just a two-hour break down at the last camp, we reached Concordia: a vast rubble-covered glacial plateau where the Baltoro and Godwin-Austin glaciers meet. Our journey was complete. Almost.
Our tour was to end in a small mountain village called Askole. We needed four days to reach it. For three days, until the rock-strewn glacier came to an abrupt end, we stumbled along with our bikes, pushing them more than riding them. We’d hoped that we would encounter more ridable terrain when the path continued along the banks of the Braldu River, but countless millions of rocks made it impossible to ride for long – which made our happiness all the greater when we were able to bike for a few hundred metres here and there. It was on the very last stretch when our dreams came true and flowy singletrack opened out beneath our wheels, letting us ride once more. ‘Yeah!’ Jakob’s cry echoed as he sped down the trail in front of me.
Our farewell party in Askole was an emotional one. Each of our porters could ride by now – they’d taken to their lessons at the end of the trip well, and could now zip around the village’s dusty streets with laughter and hoots of joy – and everyone was happy with how smoothly the tour had gone. There was sadness, too, in seeing this shared time come to a close. Isaak’s smile seemed wistful. ‘It was a strange idea,’ he said, referring to the ambitious plan that we had now completed, ‘but you did it.’
Even if, in hindsight, our bikes spent more time on us than we spent on them, and even if this was the most strenuous bike tour we’d ever done, we wouldn’t have changed a thing. Many of our encounters would not have been the same without our bikes. A bike is like a magic wand that miraculously helps overcome language barriers and the fear of reaching out. Pakistan, we will be back – inshallah.
This story was first published in Sidetracked Volume 23