Trekking Series

to K2 Basecamp - Top Tips

There is a tiny spot in the north of Pakistan called Concordia. To stand there is to stand small, under the towering heights of rocky spires and icy mountains. Concordia is surrounded on three sides by some of the highest and most iconic peaks and climbing venues in the world. I had often dreamed of it, and finally I was there.

The mighty K2 from basecamp  © Andy Hindson
The mighty K2 from basecamp
© Andy Hindson

Bordered by China, Afghanistan, Iran and India, Pakistan is a young and unstable country and its landscape is no different. The mountains here are a true adventure travel destination - wild, untamed and very demanding.

The Karakoram is the most glaciated area outside of the polar regions, and the trekking here is rough. There are no maintained trails, just rubble and moraine. Rocks fall. Ice shifts. There is no shade and the sun beats down relentlessly. It rains a lot too. Rivers flood, bridges wash away. It is not for the faint of heart.

Combine all of this and you have the ingredients for a truly memorable trip of a lifetime.

Towering peaks vie for your attention. Trango Tower, Muztagh Tower, Masherbrum, the Gasherbrums, Broad Peak and K2. It is almost impossible to keep an eye on your feet as your gaze is drawn upwards

Falling rocks, running water, groaning ice - these are mountains on the move  © Natalie Wilson
Falling rocks, running water, groaning ice - these are mountains on the move
© Natalie Wilson

In July 2022 I set off to lead a group of trekkers to K2 basecamp. I was excited and a little apprehensive as over the years I had heard all sorts of worrying things about travelling in Pakistan. My fears were short lived. They usually are. I found only friendly solicitousness, respect and good humour.

What to expect

The trek to K2 basecamp is around 130 - 160km return depending on your chosen route, and including domestic travel you'll need at least 21 days. You'll have a local guide and crew.

The hiking is tough and often hot. Do your training and make sure you're fit enough but there's no need to push the pace. Instead, use your reserves to manage and look after yourself. Remember you are trekking at altitude and self-care is essential to stay in good shape.

You'll be sleeping in tents every night and camps are dictated by the availability of water and flat enough places to pitch. You will be eating simple cooked food and water needs to be boiled, filtered or purified.

View of Skardu  © Natalie Wilson
View of Skardu
© Natalie Wilson

Getting there

A short flight from Islamabad to Skardu marks the start of a long journey. Disembarking the plane at Skardu is an unforgettable experience - stepping out into a vast and unfamiliar landscape, surrounded by mountains with just the long strip of tarmac under your feet to remind you that you are at an airport.

The terminal is small, clean and efficient and in no time you'll be making the short taxi ride to the city of Skardu. If the weather is poor you may find that you cannot fly and instead you'll have to travel the legendary Karakoram Highway, a two-day journey. The highway has been improved in recent years but everything is relative and it will likely be a rugged experience.

Skardu is the place for your guide to sort your trek permits whilst you shop for last minute items. On our quest for more water bottles we were surprised to see the city polo team trotting across the road on their way to a tournament. We found ourselves attending, scarily running across the pitch to get to some seats as play suddenly headed our way, fast and furious. The whole town was out in force and the atmosphere was lively and friendly.

Road journeys can be adventurous - travelling by jeep to Askole  © Andy Hindson
Road journeys can be adventurous - travelling by jeep to Askole
© Andy Hindson

The powerful Indus River flows alongside the town and later that day I gazed at it as dusk fell and calls to prayer resounded around the valley. I thought of Dervla Murphy's walk along the Indus, almost 50 years ago, with her 6 year old daughter in tow and I wondered how much had changed. Everything and nothing.

Jeeps will take you to the village of Askole, at the foot of the mountains and the Baltoro Glacier. It is a long, uncomfortable and fascinating ride. Women dot the roadside sorting apricots whilst men tend crops and animals. We spotted distant figures up rocky hillsides, mine workers labouring to extract some of the many semi-precious stones to be found here.

Most bridges had been washed away the week before our arrival and as we got closer to Askole our journey slowed. The people of Baltistan are hardy and resourceful though and we crossed rivers on foot via makeshift bridges. Once on the other side we'd wait for a couple of landlocked jeeps to take us along the next stretch of road.

You might imagine Askole to be fairly large and progressive given it is the starting point for so much trekking and climbing, but it isn't. It is basic and the local people are living simple lives. I'd advise being respectful and following the cultural norms around dress and behaviour.

An interesting river crossing  © Natalie Wilson
An interesting river crossing
© Natalie Wilson

The trek

You may be able to jeep as far as Jhola, but we started walking from Askole. The gradient is gentle which is a relief given how hot it can be. After the recent rain, the skies are endless blue and the sun beats down relentlessly. The glacier is visible and once you leave the small, green and somewhat smelly camp at Paiju, you are on it.

Here everything moves - water rushes and trickles, stones roll and fall. The towering granite peaks of the Karakoram vie for your attention. Trango Tower, Muztagh Tower, Masherbrum, the Gasherbrums, Broad Peak and K2. It is almost impossible to keep an eye on your feet as your gaze is drawn upwards in wonder, over and over again. The further along you get the more unfamiliar the terrain becomes. Rock pedestals rise up, balanced unbelievably on ice and dazzling penitentes point and line the way. Icy crevasses need to be navigated, as do watercourses.

Sunset at Urdukas camp  © Natalie Wilson
Sunset at Urdukas camp
© Natalie Wilson

Don't underestimate the streams and rivers on this trek, they are glacially fed so they rise as the day goes on. The best time to cross them is early in the morning and this can be planned for. I saw some photos of a trek group who crossed a large river near Urdukas late in the afternoon. People were up to their chests in fast flowing water and I would say they had a very lucky escape.

At night the fascination doesn't end. Getting up for a midnight pee reveals the clearest, starriest skies. And that's not all. Once you reach Concordia, get your eye in and track the progress of headtorches, slowly inching their way up K2 and Broad Peak. If it wasn't so cold I'd have been out all night, willing the climbers on and putting faces to torchbeams.

Evening at Concordia  © Natalie Wilson
Evening at Concordia
© Natalie Wilson

In July 2022, a record 150 summits occurred in just 24 hours. Up until then it had taken 40 years for 100 summits to be claimed. This post pandemic explosion of climbers combined with exceptionally good weather to create a huge amount of activity. I met so many people along the way, all there for different reasons. Most memorable were the brothers and father (aged 70), from Spain who spent weeks on Trango Tower, battling snow and difficult conditions before making the second free ascent of Eternal Flame. Also the sponsored paragliders who soared above us for days on end and then flew all the way out to Skardu. What a view they must have had!

From Concordia, a long day will take you to K2 and Broad Peak basecamps. Various configurations are possible. We walked to Broad Peak basecamp for lunch then visited the sobering Gilkey memorial before finally stepping onto the snow at K2 basecamp. A severed yaks head greeted us and the camp was surprisingly quiet. People were either resting or on the mountain making the most of the settled weather. We spent that night at Broad Peak base camp.

K2 - the best tent door view  © Natalie Wilson
K2 - the best tent door view
© Natalie Wilson

The essential info

Pakistan is a challenging destination and you'll get the most out of your trek if you have already experienced some overseas trekking at altitude, for example Nepal.

Look at the Foreign Office travel advice relating to Pakistan, which is regularly updated. Trekking and tourism in the popular areas is generally deemed safe at the moment. We all have different thresholds of what we are comfortable with but being part of an organised trek and having local guides will give you a lot of reassurance. You can also manage your behaviour by being respectful.

Check out a number of tour operators. The price will vary but if you go too cheap you'll know about it. Look at reviews and understand what is included and what isn't.

Walking out at Goro  © Charlotte Logie
Walking out at Goro
© Charlotte Logie

The best time to trek in Pakistan is July and August. You will need a trekking and tourism visa and you can use the simple online system to get this. Your local tour operator will deal with permits on your behalf.

Do ensure you have adequate insurance. Helicopter evacuations are carried out by the Pakistani army and they always fly in pairs so be warned, it will cost many thousands of pounds.

Get your fit for travel check well in advance. Sometimes local GP surgeries and pharmacies experience a shortage of jabs, especially at peak times.

When I visited in July 2022 the trek to K2 basecamp was busy but manageable. Typically you return to Askole the same way you came in. If you do want something more technical and varied you can head to Ali camp before making a speedy and necky descent of the Gondogoro La. An early start bodes well as there is a high risk of rock fall, especially later in the day and it is a busy route. You will need a helmet as well as a harness and the confidence and skill to descend by abseiling fixed ropes.

There is no doubt that Pakistan is a tough trekking destination. I loved it but treated it with a lot of respect. I had only positive experiences and will definitely return.

For further information and top tips about trekking in Pakistan see my blog post:

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