The experience of seeing K2, savage mountain, has been described as surreal, bizarre and dreamlike. The trek to its base camp is challenging; physically, mentally and emotionally. The cost is substantial. But there may not be a better return on any other investment anywhere for an avid trekker. A journey worth 50 times the price. Experiences that leave you speechless. Memories that are priceless.

K2 has earned a parlous reputation like no other mountain in the world. It has been called the savage mountain and the world’s most dangerous. It has also been called serious. Bordering Pakistan and China, K2 stands tall in the Karakorum range at 28,251 feet making it the second tallest mountain in the world. Summiting K2 is widely considered the ultimate prize for elite mountaineers. For every four humans that stand on her summit, one dies during the attempt. With the exception of Annapurna, the challenges of K2 leave the other 8,000 meter peaks in the spindrift.

The question of how K2 got it’s name is of some interest. In 1856 a Lieutenant named T.G Montgomerie took his measuring tool, called a theodolite, to a lofty perch of 16,000 feet in Kashmir. Gazing 130 miles to the north, he took fixes on the two most prominent peaks labeling them K1 and K2 (K short for Karakorum). Eventually there would be 7 K’s and all would receive names except for the tallest. Attempts were made over the years to give K2 the powerful name it deserved, but none of them stuck. In time, K2 seemed to fit best; ambiguous, hard and cold.

It is possible to experience K2 without having to scale one of her death-defying flanks. The standard base camp approach, or trek, is in Pakistan. Described by Fosco Maraini as the greatest museum of shape and form, the Karakorum is Pakistan’s Himalaya. The approach to K2 from the Pakistani side really begins at the Baltoro glacier, a gigantic age-old river of ice. At 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), Concordia marks the spot where the Baltoro glacier splits off in opposite directions. To the south, the glacier climbs to the upper Baltoro glacier. To the north, it runs directly into K2. Trekking on a glacier comes with inherent risks. Although these rivers are frozen, they do move. Debris, including rocks, are loosened by glacier movement sending projectiles careening downstream at unpredictable intervals. Crevasses are often visible and can add breath-taking beauty to a glacial trek, but snow bridges across crevasses can collapse and smaller cracks in the ice can be covered by freshly fallen snow making the push upward precarious at best. The Pakistani trek usually returns by way of the Gondogoro La, a pass marking the highest point on the trek at 18,372 feet (5,600 meters). The amount of time one will spend on the snow and ice, coupled with the relatively high altitude on this trek, favors those with at least some high altitude trekking experience. From arrival in Islamabad to completion of the trek will last three weeks and cost approximately $3,800 (not including air travel to Pakistan).

Trekking Porters

But there is another path, a road less traveled. Trekking to K2 base camp from the Chinese side is unique, indeed. After arriving in Beijing, two more flights are required to get your boots on the ground heading toward K2. First a four-hour flight to Urumqi and the same day a shorter flight to Kashgar. From Kashgar a two day jeep excursion along the western edge of the Taklamakan desert is required. The jeep bounces through oasis-like villages including Kargilik which offers an authentic mix of Chinese tea houses, several local fruit and vegetable vendors and a large mosque. Eventually arriving in Yilik, camels and their drivers now become an intricate and essential part of the trek. Camels will hall gear and supplies for the approach, reducing your load to a day pack, and will be of paramount importance on multiple, dangerous deep-river crossings your team will incur. After camping one night in Yilik, the group is back on the trail for a leisurely five hour trek ending in the confluence of the Zug Shaksgam and Surukwat rivers. Setting up camp at the junction of these two rivers leaves time for a well-deserved half-day rest and acclimatization period. Already a week into the journey, the following day’s objective is the Aghil pass at 15,679 feet (4,779 meters). Rising to these heights is done slowly and carefully. Acclimatization is needed to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The seven hour trek eventually ends on the north side of the pass where camp is set up for the night. Clear weather that evening or the following morning will provide incredible views of Gasherbrum I and II in addition to Broad Peak, the eleventh, thirteenth and twelfth highest mountains in the world respectively. The trail winds all the way back down to the Shaksgam river, crossing a noticeably flimsy bridge and eventually ends at a beautiful camp site along the river. The Chinese base camp of K2 at 12,467 feet (3,800 meters) is a five hour trek away. This camp was not only used by Sir Francis Younghusband in 1887, but Eric Shipton’s expedition called the camp home as well.

The area is simply unspoiled, like the way it was found by Younghusband and Shipton. What an interesting place to be for the modern trekker. The following day presents a relatively long, 15 kilometer trek to Advanced Base Camp. This advanced camp, or ABC, is used by modern-day expeditions making attempts on K2 from the north side. ABC is located on the K2, or Qogir glacier at an elevation of 16,929 feet (5160 meters) marking the highest point on the trek. The north side of K2 is the steepest. It stands almost 10,000 feet above much of the glacial valley bottoms at its base. It is known to be the most difficult way to climb K2. Further study of the mountain from this vantage point reinforces the fact that very few people have summited K2 from the north.  It is here that presents the best views of K2 on the trek. The mountain rises up into the jet stream as a giant white pyramid. It simply looks unclimbable, if not the most beautifully awe-inspiring mountain on the planet.  Weather permitting, trekkers get the opportunity to spend the night at ABC, something unique to many other base camp treks.

With the general trend now downward and with no acclimatization time needed, the trek back to its starting point in Yilik takes only four days. This is where you say good-bye to your favorite camel and hop back on the jeeps which will leave the Karakorum behind you. A reverse repeat of the flights in to Kashgar will have you back in Beijing in two days time.

K2 base camp trek via China


Trekking days: 22 (including jeep time)

Hiking distance:  100 miles-160 Kilometers

Trek grade: Moderate-Difficult

Max Altitude: 16,929 feet 5160 meters

Trekking style: camping

Season: fall and late spring

Guide/porter: necessary

Cost: $3,900 plus airfare to Beijing

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