After eight days of wiping sweat off my brows, I finally reached Concordia, a bleak collection of tents in the Karakoram. I was hoping for a life-defining view of K2, the remote, savage, second highest peak on the planet. Instead I encountered an uncaring, enveloping cloud and a frosty wind. The rocks on the glacier were too cold to sit on, but neither our porters nor our tents were visible. So, with the crack and rumble from avalanches on 8,000m peaks hidden by clouds, I waited.
The odds were against a trek to K2 Base Camp. As a US citizen, I expected to circumvent Pakistan&rsquos mortal fear of an Indian walking around on the wrong side of the Siachen Glacier. However, after SEAL Team Six dispatched Abbottabad&rsquos infamous resident in 2011, US citizens applying for visas were being treated with even more suspicion.
There were logistical deterrents to the trip too&mdasha notoriously unpredictable 45-minute flight from Islamabad to Skardu, having a jeep on standby for the 20-hour road journey instead, and finding a trustworthy team of porters who would be our only source of food, water and safety for two weeks. There were also crucial psychological deterrents was it safe to travel to northern Pakistan Could I really take three weeks off from workCould I even do it Who would join me on my decades-long dream to see K2
Early explorations in the Western Ghats had led to treks in the Himalaya, walking through rhododendron forests along well-trodden trails. Due to its inaccessibility, fierce reputation, and the landmark-studded route, K2 Base Camp had always felt like the pinnacle of trekking achievement.
After a jeep-trek to Hunza in northern Pakistan, Hilla (my wife) threw me a challenge &ldquoIf you&rsquore serious about training, and I don&rsquot mean just lying in a swimming pool, I&rsquoll come with you.&rdquo
With this conditional green light, plans began to creak into reality. I began to run up and down the stairs. Somehow, the Pakistani consulate in New York gave me a visa. Bari, a guide we befriended in Hunza, assured me in a most unassuring manner that willpower mattered more than physical fitness on the Baltoro. Ambition overcoming capability, I emailed my boss and booked our tickets Dubai -Islamabad-Skardu.
Six weeks later, in July 2012, we landed in Skardu. Numbed by years of anticipation and the shock of being propelled by just a few keystrokes into the heart of the Karakoram, the next two days passed with just one reflection. We were in the garden of Shigar Fort, a restored palace hotel overlooking a grassy valley off the Indus. Drinking a glass of thick apricot juice muddled with Hendrick&rsquos gin, smuggled into Pakistan amidst the chaos of our bags, Hilla observed, &ldquoWe&rsquore screwed.&rdquo
It took two whole hours of walking on the first day for me to realise she had a point. We had set out from Askole, the last human settlement for two weeks. I had already fallen far behind Hilla and Bari. With them were the cook, his assistant, two porters, a muleteer and a mule laden with gas cylinders, food, cooking gear, cutlery, a live hen, tents, sleeping bags, our bags and supplies for themselves.
I carried water for the day, dried fruit from Chhappan Bhog and a windcheater in case it rained. It should have been beautiful dramatic, snowy peaks piercing the ridgeline no distracting WhatsApps an indigo sky, a thundering river the dream at last.
But my boots had transformed into leaden weights. My headband was sodden with accumulated sweat. Each dusty, stamina-draining step forward was committing me to more of it. There was no going back, and the only way to let Hilla know of my retreat was to catch up with her. And lose credibility forever. I felt a terrible affinity for limbo.
I stumbled on till I reached a meadow on the delta. Dried fruits had never tasted better. I numbed my feet in icy meltwater and washed my headband. My endorphins surged. My boots began to feel lighter. I decided to aim for lunch.
The sine curve of survival became the pattern of my days, varying only in increasing cold, altitude, and shortening of breath. Despite my unexpected resilience, I was to be thoroughly humbled on the trail. Elderly, perfectly dressed Japanese passed me by, stereotypically focussed, pointing and shooting their way up. And so did a 9-year-old American boy, skipping past in a disgusting display of vitality.
I arrived at camp that afternoon to find noises of industry in the mess tent and a surreal banquet of icy fruit, biscuits, tea, cold water and spicy french fries laid out on a pink foam mat. Hilla waved me over to her watercolour of the Uli Biaho peak. After a few hours of nursing our blisters, reading, sketching and exploring, we ate a three-course meal of soup and croutons, chicken with rice, and fruits, which were later replaced by jelly, frozen directly on the glacier. We played cards with Bari and Haider (the cook), stargazed, and read by our headlamps. That night, I slept dreamlessly to sounds of the river tumbling.
The next day we rounded a spur and saw the Baltoro Glacier, emerging between the mountains like the swollen, grey tongue of an enormous, prehistoric lizard. A river shot out of its yawning mouth. To the left were a set of majestic granite spires and pyramids rising thousands of feet from the glacier, too steep to retain snow. These were the lowest of the Baltoro aristocracy, which boasted of the greatest concentration of 7,000 and 8,000m peaks anywhere.
It took nearly 30 minutes on a narrow vertical trail to ascend the glacier, dodging rockfall into the roiling water below. Gaining the crest, we looked over a sea of rock and ice waves, made featureless by endless repetition. Our campsite was three terraced clearings on a cliff side speckled with truck-sized boulders. The panoramic view from the Trango Towers to Muztagh Tower was stupendous, enhanced by the banality of wet gear drying at our feet.
Two days later, Hilla&rsquos metronomic progress was halted by a piercing headache. I reached as she was curled up in pain on a hastily arranged mattress of jackets. We made the excruciating decision to descend to the previous camp, erasing several hours of labour. There, an aspirin helped thin her blood. Our imposed rest day was alleviated by views of Gasherbrum IV, an almost-8,000er dominating the head of the valley. Strange ice floes sat on the rocks like an armada. Hilla sketched a portrait for Haider.
We were now pitching tents directly on the glacier. At night, scurrying into the tent to preserve body-heat, we would inflate our mattresses. These kept us an inch above the ice floe, which radiated cold. This meant holding a book with just one hand exposed at any time going to the toilet at night was particularly excruciating. The glacier made terrifying primordial groans as great blocks of ice shifted on their way down. Exhausted, we slept.
Back at Concordia, the clouds finally cleared at sunset. Highways of ice converged from every direction, tributaries to the Baltoro. A crown of peaks rose high above the snow line. Gasherbrum IV was right before us, its ridges flowing down like robes on the outstretched arms of a benevolent god. Broad Peak rose higher, stretching for a mile across the sky, living up to its unimaginative name.
Above the remaining cloud streams and subordinate peaks defending it from view, in its own side valley, on the continental divide, rose the canonical black pyramid of K2. We gaped, stomping our feet for warmth and willing a clear photograph that never came. I tried to imagine being on its flank, climbing, carrying loads, pitching tents, cooking, digging a hole in the ice and squatting over it, and failed. We belonged down here.
We saw K2 briefly while roping up to cross the seracs en route to Base Camp. By the time we reached, clouds had again descended. An impregnable icy wall remained, stretching across our entire field of view. Ten days later, we saw K2 for the last time. As the airplane banked, we looked back a blanket of clouds spread to the horizon, obscuring everything except for the four 8,000ers of the Baltoro. K2&rsquos summit soared above the others. Cameras clicked. I felt a melancholy satisfaction, having once been there, in the throne room of the mountain gods.
Getting there There are daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Islamabad (via Lahore or Karachi) on Pakistan International Airlines for about Rs 30,000. Onward flights from Islamabad to Skardu are available on PIA.
Where to stay Sometimes, an overnight stay at Islamabad can&rsquot be avoided. We stayed at the homey Avari Express Bungalow ($80 doubles, www.avari.com). In Skardu, your guide will take over arrangements and get you to the roadhead at Askole to begin the trek. The K2 Motel (from $20 doubles www.facebook.com/PTDC.K2.MOTEL) is a government-run chain. Check out the Italian museum commemorating their first ascent of K2 and the rose garden overlooking the Indus. You could also stay at the restored Shigar Fort Hotel (from Rs 10,000 doubles www.serenahotels.com) on your way out.
Visas & permits You can apply for visas at your local Pakistani High Commission. A non-reporting visa is best, do include Skardu under destinations.