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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 2, 2019

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Trek to K2 Base Camp: The Savage Mountain

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I wake in my minus 40-degree sleeping bag to the sound of our cook’s, “Good morning; tea or coffee?” As I sit up, reach for the coffee and peer out of my tent, my eyes settle on four of the earth’s 14 8,000-meter peaks standing tall in the Karakorum mountain range in remote Northeast Pakistan. 

I feel small amongst these giants, collectively nicknamed “The Throne of the Gods.” The grandest is K2. At 8,611 meters (over 28,000 feet), it ranks as the world’s second highest peak, and is known for good reason as the Savage Mountain. Only 300 mountaineers have summited K2 and there have been 77 lives lost – a 20% death rate. To visit this majestic place is an experience few pursue, but for those prepared to throw away the shackles of modern neurosurgery, a true mountaineering adventure awaits. 

Mountaineering

Mountaineering in remote locations of the globe is a long way from the day-to-day life of a neurosurgeon, but the traits required for success are common to both pursuits:

  • Passion
  • Resilience
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Flexibility and Teamwork
  • Research and Planning Skills

To continually grow my neurosurgical expertise, it is critical to reflect and re-examine these traits. Their transfer and development to mountaineering has helped me refocus on a fulfilling neurosurgery career.

Getting to K2

The K2 base camp adventure is planned with passion, research and a large dose of flexibility. The trip starts with an early morning bus ride to Islamabad Regional Airport for a flight to Skardu, Pakistan [2,230 meters]. Skardu’s airport is frequently engulfed in clouds and planes need visuals to land. If the weather is unkind, a 45-minute flight is swapped for a two-day rough jeep ride on the infamous Karakorum Highway. On this day, we are lucky and land in Skardu with clear blue skies. Before leaving Skardu, we must complete more paperwork for the Army. We wait patiently for final permission to leave. The eight-hour four-wheel drive trip takes us through villages, over corrugated roads and beside raging rivers to a small village called Askole [3,060 meters]. We arrive in the dark to organised chaos and find our camp area and the luggage. We pitch the tents. The night passes quickly and a new day begins.

The ability to move from chaos to coordinated teamwork is essential, both for a successful neurosurgical procedure and exploring high altitude mountain ranges. In the mountains, specialized neurosurgical staff are swapped for guides, porters and fellow trekkers. Success depends on strong teamwork. My wife and I are a strong team. We get to know the other members of the trek, their strengths and abilities and what each trekker brings to this adventure. The goal is for all team members to reach K2 base camp. Success depends on teamwork and support. 

On the Trail

When a raging river or melted glacier reroutes the trail, the team ascends a near vertical embankment of the grey rocky granite mountainside. The narrow path is only wide enough for one foot in front of the other, with the soaring mountain range on one side and a vertical descent into a rapidly flowing river on the other. 

Climbers constantly check their footing and the welfare of fellow trekkers. When you look into the eyes of a fellow trekker whose fear is paralysing as they slide toward the raging river, calming instructions and recovery skills take over. Areas of old and fresh avalanches are evident, and when the word RUN is yelled out, do not question – just breathe and move. 

Never Safe

On one section, luck runs out, as the path gives way under the feet of a loaded mule, resulting in the loss of the mule, food supplies and personal luggage. Stress and altitude results in increased emotional liability, but the death of the mule and the loss of supplies and possessions gives trekkers resolve to carry on. Resilience kicks in and yes, we can. The mule is critical to the livelihood of the mule man, and the money earned during the short trekking season supports his extended family during the harsh winter. This incident is a stark reminder of the dangers of high-altitude mountain trekking for clients and guides. Inscribed in metal plates attached to the rock face are the names of lost guides scattered along the trail, which act as reminders of this harsh, yet beautiful, landscape.  

The endeavors of the previous days prepare us for the trek over the Baltoro glacier to K2 base camp, which will dig deep into the internal resilience I have gained over decades. The challenge awaits in the cold dark morning – scanning for crevasses and glacial boulders with headlamps, long jumping over torrents of the melted glacier with backpacks and poles, leaping (not so gracefully) and sliding. With each ascent, with each step, one experiences the effect of altitude on the body. The climber’s legs burn, lungs and heart strain. Trekkers fall into line. The silent effects of cerebral edema emerge and some must descend. Six hours later, we reach our destination, mission complete, and the pain of the past hours is a mere memory. We have conquered another goal. But it is not over; – we must still successfully descend.

Neurosurgery is a microcosm of modern life, surrounded by complex technology and many demands. Remote trekking brings me great joy, not only for its reaffirmation of the importance of teamwork and resilience, but for the renewed appreciation of the basic needs of life: water, food, shelter and friendship. Complementing it all is the simple grandeur of nature of the Karakorum mountain range.

I acknowledge the editing of the paper by J. Knuckey, T. Kroemer and A. DeVos.

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