In pursuit of the K2: My journey towards the throne of the mountains

Everything they tell you about the journey being more important is untrue. It is all about crossing that finish line.

The first thing that strikes you as other-worldly is the silence.

Then there are the occasional rumbles and the splash of baby-blue glaciers rushing into charging aqua blue rivers. The lakes are every shade of green and neon blue. They shouldn’t be there; the mountain glaciers are melting too fast, because we consume too much.

You see a smoke cloud on the north-east of a mountain. It is there one minute, so you squint your eyes, but gone the next. An avalanche.

You learn to read trails. You learn how to read contour lines. You learn to not rely on your eyes. You know pebbles can kill you. You learn to respect shrubs and rocks and shadows even. You learn kings and dollar rates are not going to save you. You learn to read the weather. You learn to observe without your tongue wagging.

The human mind against the mountains

Samina Baig will be soon summiting the K2. I count that as a blessing. This is up there with the invention of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Another Pakistani woman, permitting me to be someone other than what they say I am.

A woman in Askole village letting her daughter peekaboo

I see a black bull, glorious and dare I say, unconcerned about its own BBQ fate walking up ahead of us to be feasted upon if Samina Baig summits and comes down, all limbs intact. There will be a carnivorous party.

She is as stupendous as these mountains — refusal is her motto.

The blindness was only temporary. I pour an oral rehydration salt sachet in my water bottle and sip, slowly opening my eyes and peering to see if I will ever get to see my daughters’ faces again — my older one has porcelain skin and the younger one’s eyelashes are a flower arrangement. I can, I can see them again.

I get over such fears and walk out of the tent. I need to eat.

The mountains have the innate ability to allow yourself to not be taken seriously. You are just carbon molecules seeking to join other carbon molecules. You are on your way to becoming landscape, no matter how important your ego or identity. So you may as well tend to your next five needs — food, water, shelter, excretion, sleep. There is a sixth need: friendship.

The people I am with form a bond. Trauma helps. Someone needs a Ventolin puffer. Someone needs a shoulder rub. Someone needs a sleeping pill. Others play Uno mercilessly with the cooks and guides. We basically fit into each other like enzymes.

There are also those that we would rather not fit into. I’m here to escape oppression of all kinds, but I’m still seeing civilisation’s stratification show up here at almost 16,000 feet — bad manners that impose themselves at the hierarchy of oppressions — white men, white women, white men from shit-hole countries, white women from shit-hole countries, brown men from shit-hole countries, brown women and so on.

I’m such a brown woman and I’m noting that someone is taking up more of the mountain non-air based on a sliding scale. I note that a porter, close to me in arbitrary status, has shattered his shin in a glacial river crossing and a kind geologist on our group has healed him by what can only be described as parental care. What if there was no kind, wise geologist to give this Shakoor Bhai with his cowboy hat and his DHL shirt the medical care he needed?

The same geologist followed me around and plastered my feet to help with blisters. I wouldn’t walk if he didn’t do that.

I note that some people have no hierarchy and operate with the blindfold I had on — everyone gets care and kindness.

I do what is the next right thing to do when survival is important — I ignore the self-important dweebs and smile internally at the kindness that I receive, that others receive. Everyone is saving everyone’s life. The savage mountain is so indifferent to human issues — it busies itself with the ferociousness of its own defiance.

Wild flowers everywhere.

I see signs, but almost all of them are unintentional — the Nike tick, the peace sign, the trishul. I read scripture, I read birds, I see wings and cherubic kids and I see Thor’s hammer on these mountains. I see my daughters. Maybe I did listen to too much sufi music on the way, but I saw and moved on.

The mountains are finally passing by faster than one mountain a day. Maybe we are walking faster.

The bag pack I was holding had to be handed over to the tail guide, Aslam — the guide responsible for making sure no one is left behind. For the duration of the trip, I was that person. Plodding along. Crying. Plodding. Sometimes I would have a good lung hour and I would walk fast, which meant I was walking normally and not at the pace of one step per exhale. On those good lung moments, I did deliriously joyous things like open my arms wide and fan around like a paper airplane.

I would soon oscillate into a hiding under a cool rock and say with my snot running down my face: Leave me alone here to die.

The tail guide, evidently aware of such city-girl drama, would use the opportunity to smoke a Marlboro, and at his last puff, I would have gotten the rest I needed to be able to walk again.

I realise almost anything can be endured with rest.

Like all women on the trek alone, I am asked which man I belonged to and where was he and why would my man send me off alone on this extreme trek. Another episode of crying would follow, and another recovery. Almost as soon as they are felt, big emotions dissipate.

The half-way point