Nine Foreign Tourists Killed In Pakistan

Gunmen stormed a Himalayan base camp in northern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 11 people, among them nine foreign climbers. The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The tourists were of Ukrainian, Russian and Chinese origin, according to Reuters. They were attacked at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world. The mountain is located in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan, an area where the Himalayas, the Hindu-Kush and the Karakoram mountain ranges collide in spectacular fashion. The area has heretofore been one of the more secure regions for tourists in the violence-plagued country.

Officials say that the attackers wore police uniforms and kidnapped two guides to lead them to the base camp, which is inaccessible by road. They then opened fire on the camp, killing the climbers and guides. One Chinese climber is alleged to have survived.

The Taliban claim the attack was in response to continued support of drone strikes by the international community.

Dozens of other climbers were evacuated from the mountain by helicopter following the assault. The mountain is a popular challenge for experienced mountaineers from around the world. Nanga Parbat is known as the “Killer Mountain” for its notoriously lethal difficulty level.

Two Mountain Climbers Die After Making First Winter Ascent Of Broad Peak

Triumph quickly turned to tragedy in the mountains of Pakistan last week when a team of climbers made the first winter ascent of the massive Broad Peak. The four climbers battled difficult conditions and extremely cold temperatures to reach the summit, but sadly two of the men died on the descent.

Last Tuesday, Maciej Berbeka, Adam Bielecki, Tomasz Kowalski and Artur Małek, climbing as part of an all-Polish mountaineering squad, reached the top of the 8051-meter (26,414-foot) Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet. The four men accomplished that feat after spending weeks on BP building high camps, fixing ropes and acclimatizing to the high altitude and inclement weather. In doing so, they became the first men to summit that incredibly difficult peak during the harshest and most unforgiving season of the year.

But experienced mountaineers will tell you that the summit is only half way to the goal and that climbers still need to safely get back down as well. After spending a short time on top of Broad Peak, the men began the long, slow and exhausting descent back to their highest camp where they could rest before proceeding down to Base Camp the following day. Unfortunately, two of the men would never make it to that point.

In the hours that followed the successful summit, Bielecki and Małek managed to stumble back to camp and climb inside their tents for a much needed rest. But Berbeka and Kowalski were both moving far too slowly to reach high camp that evening. As a result, they were forced to bivouac at 7900 meters (25,918 feet) without a tent, leaving them exposed to the harsh elements overnight.The following day the team leader spoke to Kowalski via satellite phone who told him he was simply too tired to go on. No matter how much he was encouraged or cojoled, the climber didn’t have the strength or energy to get on his feet and so he sat in place, waiting for the inevitable. There was no further contact with him by mid-morning.

As for Berbeka, he was climbing without a satellite phone but was reportedly on the move and attempting to descend the mountain. He was last seen coming down from the site of his overnight bivouac but what became of him after that remains a mystery. It is believed that he was simply so exhausted by the climb and exposure to the elements that he inadvertently slipped into a crevasse while descending.

Over the next couple of days, other members of the team climbed up the mountain to watch for their teammates and lend assistance as needed. Both Bielecki and Małek were able to safely descend back to base camp but their companions were never seen again. A massive storm moved into region over the weekend, effectively closing off all chances of survival.

With the successful summit of Broad Peak, 12 of the 14 8000-meter mountains have now been climbed during the winter. Only Nanga Parbat, which also claimed a life this winter, and the dreaded K2 remain unconquered during the colder months of the year.

[Photo Credit: Adam Bielecki]

A Long Lesson From A Short Walk On The Karakoram Highway

I’ve just come home from a whirlwind week in D.C. and L.A. Both trips were wonderful. In D.C. I had energizing meetings at National Geographic Traveler and hosted an exhilarating onstage conversation with the amazing Alexandra Fuller, author of (among other books) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an extraordinarily evocative and moving memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. In L.A. I gave a talk about Gadling at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show and shared memorable moments with Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Andrew McCarthy, and the Times’ terrific travel editor, Catharine Hamm, among many other notables of the travel world. I got back to the Bay Area just in time to emcee the February event in the wonderful new Weekday Wanderlust travel reading series in San Francisco, and then to teach a wanderful travel writing workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

I’m not complaining. I’m grateful beyond words for these opportunities — but now that they’re over, I realize that I’m also exhausted beyond words. (And yes, I know I probably shouldn’t have stayed up until closing time at the rooftop bar of the Standard Hotel in L.A. – but that was research!) And when I survey the Kilimanjaro of emails that need my slogging-up-the-scree responses and the queue of articles lined up like planes at O’Hare awaiting the fuel of my words for take-off – well, if the state of my metaphors is any metaphor for the state of my mind, I’m in big trouble.

At a moment like this, I know just what I need to do: take some deep breaths and transport myself back to an adventure I took three decades ago in northern Pakistan — specifically, to one afternoon on a stretch of the wild, gritty, avalanche-threatened, pothole-punctured Karakoram Highway between Hunza and Gulmit, not far from the Chinese border.

My tour group had been bumping by van along the Karakoram for a few hours when we came to a road-closing avalanche about 15 minutes from Gulmit. Our guide set out to walk to Gulmit to get another van to pick us up, and told us to wait in the van.

We waited, and waited.After a while, waiting for another avalanche or rock slide to sweep us into oblivion seemed pretty silly, so I decided to set out on foot for Gulmit, too. There wasn’t much chance of making a wrong turn — the next intersection was four hours away.

And so I walked, as alone as I have ever been, into an awesomely uncompromising landscape: a rocky, gray-brown world of sere, monumental mountains, boulders looming by the side of the road, and — whenever I stopped to listen — absolute, ear-ringing silence.

As I walked, my footsteps feebly scrunch-scrunch-scrunching into the implacable air, I imagined the traders, missionaries and adventurers who had wandered that same trail before me, and wondered what dreams and doubts had filled their heads.

I thought too about the companionable people back in the van and about the warm food that awaited at the Silk Route Lodge, but most of all I thought about nature and time, about how my life was like one grain of sand on the slopes of one of those mountains.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I imagined straying off the path and scrambling crazily up a scree-slippery peak; I tried to absorb the silence; I strained a handful of pebbles through my fingers.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I considered the clouds, a scraggly tree, a boulder twice as big as me.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I listened to my own breath coming in and going out; I listened to the pounding of my frail and all-too-human heart.

In one sense, nothing much happened: Eventually I reached the warm waiting room at the Silk Route Lodge, and the others arrived by van a half-hour later.

But in another sense, everything had changed: I had seen the strangeness of the world, the rawness and beauty and sheerness of it; the age of the Earth; and our essential solitude — how we are born and die alone. I had seen the smallness of man and the largeness of the human spirit that dares to create and to love.

I had realized just what a precious gift life is, as are the people with whom we share it; and I knew that one day in the future, when life seemed about to avalanche out of control, I would stop and say: “Savor the world one step at a time, just like you did on the Karakoram Highway.”

[Flickr image via Marc van der Chijs]

28 Climbers Summit K2 In One Day

Standing 8611 meters (28,251 feet) in height, K2 is the second tallest mountain on the planet behind Everest. It also happens to be one of the most difficult and deadliest peaks as well, which has earned it nicknames such as the “Savage Mountain” and the “Mountaineer’s Mountain.” But last week the savage was tamed when a record-setting 28 people managed to successfully summit on a single day.

Located in a remote region of Pakistan’s Karakoram range, K2 is only accessible for a brief period of time each year during the summer. Climbers usually arrive in Base Camp around mid- to late-July with the hope of taking advantage of a narrow weather window to reach the summit. In years past Mother Nature has not been so cooperative, often keeping anyone from reaching the top. Last year, only four climbers managed to climb the mountain and they were the first since 2008 when 11 people were killed in a tragic accident.

2012 has not been a particularly good year for climbers in Pakistan, as unusually cold and wet weather prevented many teams from achieving their goals. But for those climbing on K2 last week the conditions were nearly perfect for making an ascent. As a result, a record number of mountaineers were able to reach the second-highest point on Earth and add one of the toughest mountains in the world to their resume.

So far this season there have been 30 total summits of K2 with a few climbers still hoping to top out in the next few days. To put that in perspective, there were nearly 500 successful summits of Everest this past spring, which is an indication of the difference in difficulty between the two peaks. Everest may be 237 meters (777 feet) taller but K2 is orders of magnitude more challenging.

[Photo credit: Kevin Mayea via WikiMedia]

Karakoram Glaciers Defy Trends, Actually Grow In Size

Scientists are once again demonstrating that we actually don’t really have a clue about how our planet works. A team of researchers from the University of Grenoble in France has released a new report that indicates that glaciers in the Karakoram mountain range are actually growing in size. This is, of course, counter to what is being observed elsewhere across the planet and defies the theories behind global warming.

The scientists who conducted the study used satellite imagery collected from 1999 through 2008 to compare the land surface elevation over that period of time. Their observations indicate that the mass of the glaciers in the Karakoram continues to grow, even as others in the nearby Himalaya Mountains and around the world are actually in retreat.

Critics of the study are quick to point out that this method of research hasn’t proven to be reliable just yet. There are a number of factors that can interfere with the imagery including cloud cover and the amount of snow on the ground. They say that the only way to be sure that the glaciers are growing is to visit them in person and take measurements by hand. That isn’t easy in a place like the Karakoram, which is amongst the most remote and unexplored regions on the planet.

Located along the borders of China, India and Pakistan, the Karakoram runs about 310 miles in length and features some of the tallest mountains on the planet, including the infamous K2, which is second only to Everest in height. The high concentration of peaks in a relatively small area has made the mountain range nearly impassable at points and has hindered exploration over the years. That rugged terrain would make it very challenging to get an accurate measure of the glaciers there, which is necessary in order to verify the findings in this study.

[Photo credit: Guilhem Vellut via WikiMedia Common]