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A Pakistani woman's guide to trekking through the Karakoram

No men? No problem. Three friends talk about the liberating experience of travelling to the K2 base camp on their own.
Updated 14 Oct, 2021 03:11pm

Picture this — vast blue skies, breathtaking snowcapped mountains and a rush of cold wind swirling around you as you steadily make your way along a rocky trail, nearing the foot of one of the greatest mountains on Earth. That, ladies, is the thrill of trekking to the K2 base camp you've just imagined and the actual experience deserves to make it to the top of your bucket list. Traversing the Karakoram feels even more triumphant when you do it on your own — nothing beats the joy of overcoming sexist barriers that prevent women from moving freely in their own country.

The trek to the K2 base camp has been described as "one of the great hikes on Earth", a journey spread over many days if you start from the Jhula campsite and make your way through the Karakoram range. For the average Pakistani woman, this might seem daunting — after all, we aren't exactly raised in a culture that encourages women chasing the thrill of physically taxing adventures. We are either not strong enough or brave enough, and in case we're both, there's a good chance we won't make it onto the 'good girls' list. However, this hasn't stopped women from taking on the north over the years — there's an ever-growing community of female adventurers in Pakistan.

Many are eager to help you (yes YOU) with the the behemoth task of finding the right information to take the first step towards your K2 base camp trek. Enter Ramsha Ali, Saman Ali and Sara Khan, three women from Karachi and Islamabad who successfully trekked to K2 base camp and back in an effort to "move away from the comfort and familiarity of everyday life".

"We all took the trip because we were looking for a personal awakening," Ramsha shared. "[We wanted to] really challenge ourselves to explore our potential, our life’s calling."

For Ramsha and the others, the journey was truly "the stuff of books".

How to travel from Karachi to the Jhula Campsite

Ramsha and Saman began the journey by travelling from Karachi to Skardu by air. "We took a direct flight from Karachi to Skardu, with a layover in Islamabad," Ramsha said. "We met Sarah in Islamabad, after which the three of us reached Skardu together. We were welcomed by our tour company Apricot Tours and were driven through the Katpana desert to the main city centre. There we stayed at the Concordia Motel for two nights.

"The trek is aimed to be completed in 14 days, of which two days are meant for rest," she continued. "We began our journey from Skardu to Jhula, our first campsite. Previously. the village of Askole was the site from where you began your trek. However, over the years, the construction of roads has made Jhula more accessible as a starting point, reducing the number of days you trek overall."

What is the campsite at Jhula like?

For the three women, the campsite at Jhula was their first taste of what lay ahead of them. "Jhula was the first time we experienced the vastness of the mountains and the first time we experienced hard core camping during this journey," Ramsha shared. "There were portable bathrooms available but we struggled to use them due to hygiene issues. The first day was the most challenging in terms of adjusting ourselves but we were excited and pushed our way through.

"Apricot Tour’s team made it as easy for us as possible. The food was delicious and our campsite was beautiful, the raging river just a stone's throw away from us. There were two people in one tent. The accommodation was clean and comfortable, and our sleeping bags were excellent."

What is the trekking like from there on?

For the next few days, the three women and their group trekked for seven to eight hours each day before stopping to camp for the night and getting some shut eye. On day one, the women went past the raging Braldu River as they made their way over "dirt hills that snaked up and down". On day two, the group gained elevation and crossed a "freezing and raging glacier stream" barefoot with the assistance of their guide and team to get to the campsite.

"The campsite was surrounded by huge rock formations," Ramsha said. "It now started to feel like the terrain was getting serious. We were beginning to feel the challenging terrain in our body and spirit as well. Although none of us felt extreme altitude sickness at this point, the journey was affecting us in subtle ways when it came to our energy levels, appetite and sleep."

The group trekked upwards to Urdukus the next day, followed by a trek to the Goro II campsite on day four. "This is when we slept on a glacier and it was cold!" shared Ramsha. "But the views were breath taking. At sunrise, the tips of the snow-capped peaks glistened in the early morning orange light. Our spirits were high when we began our morning trek from Goro II towards Concordia where we would see the magnificent K2 mountain for the first time."

What's the campsite at Concordia like?

Concordia is a big deal for any trekker at this point. It's a campsite at an elevation of 4,600 metres located in the extreme north of Pakistan along the border with China. Pakistan proudly bears five of the 14 tallest mountains in the world above 8,000m and four of those can be viewed from Concordia. "Concordia provides you with splendid views of K2 and other peaks as opposed to the K2 base camp, hence the majority of us decided to spend our time there instead of trekking to the base camp and back like you can," Ramsha said. "We spent one day and two nights at Concordia."

While they were there, Sara went ice climbing at a nearby site while Saman and Ramsha chose to sunbathe with a great view of the mountains. "The return trek was similar to the trek upwards, aside from the fact that we took no rest days like we did at Concordia."

Does the trek need mountaineering know-how?

It all sounds pretty magnificent but does the trek require women to have prior mountaineering knowledge? Ramsha doesn't think so. "You do not require any prior technical knowledge to do the trek until the base camp, but prior trekking experience is needed."

What is the camping experience like, especially for women?

"We got acquainted with many trekkers and climbers from all over the world, including Pakistan," Ramsha shared. "The camp life was engaging and inspiring. At night we were entertained by the porters and the camp people joined in to play some light music to uplift everyone's tired spirits."

As a woman, the experience was absolutely liberating. "Living in Pakistan, a woman doesn't have many opportunities to walk or trek in the wilderness while feeling safe," she explained. "This provided us with a sense of freedom and empowerment. We did not feel discriminated against because of our gender at all, though we did feel that the staff requires a little getting used to local women doing the trek."

And it isn't just the locals who need getting used to. "The foreigners at the campsite were pleasantly surprised as well," Ramsha said. "They had only seen the [foreign] media’s version of a Pakistani woman so far and it was refreshing to see them realise we are independent women too."

How physically fit should you be before you attempt the trek?

Quite a bit, according to the ladies. " We highly recommend you train before you tackle this trek," they said. "Work on endurance, cardio and agility. A strong core will prevent injuries and if you have weak knees then strength training should be helpful. One of our companions suffered from asthma and had severe congestion but trooped on. Another one developed serious knee pain from the challenging terrain but also trooped on.

"In the end, mental zeal and physical competence go hand in hand. It is very difficult to go on without both," they emphasised.

Wait, how do deal with periods while trekking?

Getting your period becomes quite the challenge for women trekkers. "We met two more women trekkers along the way and they, including one from our own group, were visited by unannounced periods," Ramsha shared. "If you do not carry your sanitary equipment with you, you won't be able to purchase it at any local shops. Even pills meant to restrict periods may not work because of the high altitude, so be prepared for periods no matter what.

"There is no disposal method for sanitary pads, therefore menstrual cups are most advised. They are eco-friendly and the waste can be organically disposed of. However, washing the cup can be a bit of a challenge," she explained.

How safe is the trekking journey for Pakistani women?

According to the women, it is quite safe. "Word in the mountains travels fast since it is a small community and incidents against women are [usually] unheard of," they said. "We were never treated with disrespect and didn't hear any other female trekker complain either, so we would say the journey is safe for women."

What should a female trekker’s bag include?

"Pretty much the same stuff as any other trekker," Ramsha said. "A list is shared with you when you sign up for the trek via a tour company and it details everything when it comes to clothing, medicines and equipment. Just be extra prepared for your periods as a female trekker."

It is useful to have a first aid kit handy as well. In fact, tour companies require you to carry one and provide you with a list of must-haves for it. The women bought everything on the list and more, leaving nothing to chance.

"We took just about everything, from antibiotics to stomach flu pills and salves," they said. "We really used painkillers, upset stomach medication, hydration salts, salves, blister tapes and talcum powder. This was the stuff we especially couldn't get enough of."

Any special considerations to keep in mind when travelling from Karachi?

The distance between Karachi and Skardu is quite a lot. Women travelling from the city might need to go the extra mile to prepare for the trip, as opposed to women from cities like Islamabad and Lahore. "Karachi doesn’t really have any outdoor equipment shops so be prepared to buy stuff online from shops in Islamabad and Lahore," Ramsha advised. "You can also reach Skardu earlier to do your shopping. Personally, we didn't want to risk doing the shopping at the last moment so we bought used trekking boots from Lighthouse Market in Karachi and bought the rest of our stuff online from stores in Islamabad and Lahore."

What are your top tips for women travelling solo for this trek?

Research is key ladies, especially when it comes to finding the perfect tour company. "Pray you find great team-mates as well," Ramsha said. "Keep an open mind. This is a life changing experience and most of such experiences are never comfortable. So be mentally prepared to be out of your comfort zone. As city girls, our expectations and realities are different from what we actually experience in the mountains, be prepared for that."

The K2 base camp trek is best made from July till September, which is the perfect time to take in the breathtaking landscape without facing the dangers brought on by extreme weather conditions. We've got a fair few months to go before trekking season begins, leaving us plenty of time to plan the trip and shop for boots. Come next July, we'll race you to the top!

All photos by Ramsha Ali.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly mentioned that the group crossed the Indus River. The error has been fixed.