We left Ilik midmorning on June 21. A train of six donkeys and forty camels laden with potatoes, stove gas canisters, kitchen tents and tables, climbing ropes, 525 eggs, and countless other expedition stuff, is an impressive sight.
“Hiking with camels is very exciting,” said Darek. “They are so tall and they move so smoothly.”
We made four camps in all. Our second day of travel put us close to the top of Aghil Pass—15,900 feet (4,850 meters)—which was the high point of the trek in, and gave the team a chance to begin acclimatizing, and practice brushing snow off their tents.
We descended a rugged canyon that opened out onto the massive mile-wide valley of the Shaksgam River, which drains the Gasherbrum and Urdok glaciers. The river had many channels of silt-gray water—none particularly deep, but some moving with enough force to sweep the sturdy donkeys off their feet. They always seemed able to regain their footing and scramble out. We crossed many of the channels atop the camels, which was very exciting. At the driver’s command, the camels would lower their heads enough for you to put your foot on the back of their necks and then scramble up onto of the loads and hang on to a camel-hair rope for dear life. The train of camels then calmly marched into the torrent of gray water, and edged across, amazingly sure-footed. Unlike the climbing team, they do not need to look at the ground when they walk.
We hiked for two days on the Shaksgam floodplain. Temperatures were upwards of 40°C (104°F).
On our fifth day of walking we rounded a corner marked by a nameless dry brown 15,000-foot (4,570-meter) peak and entered the valley of the Kashmir River. Less than an hour into the hike, the magisterial outline of K2 loomed into view over the cobbles of the river valley and court of lesser mountain. For days it had seemed almost more of a fancy than a fact. Now here it was—28,251 feet (8,611 meters) shimmering in the blinding light of noon. Everyone stopped to talk pictures. “We are only seeing the upper 1,000 meters (3,280 feet),” Ralf said.
By 3 p.m., we had reached Sughet Jangl, also known as Chinese Base Camp. The trek was done, and the team members now turned to the job of moving their gear up K2 Glacier and the start of the climb itself.