12 September 2011

Accident on Baltoro

How do you describe a trek through one of the more remote places on earth for 13 days; seeing the worlds 2nd highest mountain and 48 hours driving on a road that has been referred to as the 9th wonder of the world?  Awesome, amazing, awe-inspiring, an experience?  How would the description change if during the above experience 3 people died and another 2 were seriously injured?

This is the conversation that has been playing out in my mind since I returned after a 13 day trek up (and back) the Baltoro Glacier.  I had signed up to do the K2 & Gondogoro La trek in Pakistan.  It was billed as a strenuous hike and along with geo-political risks of travelling in Pakistan I knew that there were a number of risks (acute mountain sickness, stomach bugs, accidents) involved in the trip, but it wasn't the first time that I had ventured off the beaten track (although ensuring adequate insurance coverage was a non-negotiable).
The accident occurred while we were enjoying a rest day at Urdukas Camp (4,130m) on the 6th day of trekking.  Around 2:30pm we were playing cards in the mess tent while outside there was a light drizzle.  There was a loud crack, followed by a second at which we rushed out of the tent.  What we saw was surreal - a huge chunk of rock (the size of a truck) had broken off and made its way, seemingly in slow motion, down the slope.  A number of the porters of the two expeditions that were camped at Urdukas had set up their camps beneath the rock and were sheltering there from the rain.  We stood in shock as we watched the rock roll over and over down the hill, leaving in my mind an indelible memory the frightened faces of 3 people as they ran out from beneath it.  
After and a memorial to the right
Very quickly the group jumped into action as the injured were brought to safety and the mess tent was converted into a make-shift hospital.  We had a veterinarian, an ER nurse and a podiatrist in our group who took charge of caring for the injured, but the question remained - was everyone accounted for?  Initially we heard that 4 porters were missing, but it was finally determined that 3 had died.  Fortunately we were able to manage the injured, although 2 were assessed as serious and needed evacuation as soon as possible.  Our tour leader got in touch with the head-office in Islamabad via satellite phone and through them a helicopter evacuation for the injured was arranged (the first time this had ever been done for porters).  The bodies of the dead were also to be picked up by the helicopter and returned to their villages for burial, but first the helipad on the glacier had to be extended - the work that was done by the porters and members of our group.  
MI-17 helicopter landing
The day after the accident dawned bright and clear - it was the first cloudless day since we started walking - and the conditions were perfect for the helicopter to come.  We (westerners) expected it to arrive about an hour after sunrise, but various stories kept coming our way - the helicopter was coming from Islamabad (not Skardu - the nearest base); they were waiting for parts; another 2 hours - so we were taken a bit by surprise when around 11:30am we heard it coming up the valley.  The extended helipad was big enough (just) for the MI-17 and the injured and the dead were taken aboard the helicopter and we returned back to the camp for lunch, after which we would know whether or we would continue with the trip as a number of other porters had indicated their desire to return to the villages to be with the families.  A short while later we got the message - our trip was over - all the porters wanted to return home.  We would start walking back that afternoon, but then we started talking among ourselves - what options do we have as this is a long way to have come and the difficulties in arranging to do this sort of trip again.  How much of the gear that we had did we really need?  Mess tent, the tables and chairs, the wide range of food, single tents for some?  So we put our bags away and there was more negotiating with the porters.  Fortunately after an impassioned speech by one of the guides some porters changed their minds and agreed to an additional 4 days which allowed us to walk to Concordia camp before returning.  There was hope that once at Concordia they would agree to an additional day which would allow the group the opportunity to walk to K2 and Broad Peak base camps (which did happen), but along with the inclement weather that we'd experienced and spending an extra day at Urdukas it was extremely unlikely (although one member of the group wouldn't let this rest) that we would be able to go over the Gondogoro La and back via the Hushe Valley.  Most people seemed happy with the compromise and we started walking the next day.  The weather once again was cold and overcast and I was grateful for that one clear cloudless day that enabled the injured porters to be flown out the previous day.  
Baltoro Glacier
The rest of the trip passed uneventfully and a couple of days later the weather cleared completely and we were able to see the mountains along the Baltoro in all their glory (although another member of our group took some amazingly emotive pictures with the clouds.  You can check them out here).  I didn't make it over the Gondogoro La, neither did I make it all the way to K2 Base Camp (these are in opposite directions from Concordia camp), but it was the journey, while eventful and tragic, that was the important part of trip for me, and one that I'll remember for a long time - both the good and the bad.

The good news is that when we arrived back in Askole about 10 days after the accident we met one of the injured porters who'd been evacuated and got news that the 2 seriously injured porters were still in hospital, but were okay.

So, to answer the question I posed above - how does the description of the experience change when there is a tragic accident?  I still don't know the answer and that is after trying many variations on answering the question "how was your trip?".  My first message home was "safely back after an eventful trip".  I didn't want to raise unnecessary concerns before I had time to actually explain what happened, but "an amazing experience" just seemed wrong.  How would you answer the question?  Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Following the accident everyone in the group contributed what they could - jackets, shoes, t-shirts and other items were distributed to those who lost their belongings in the rock fall as well as monetary donations for the families of those porters who died, and other people who heard about the accident have also made contributions. You can read the official trip report here.

No comments: