Seventh heaven as Borders plant man returns to the Himalayas

A view up the Shaksgam River valley
A view up the Shaksgam River valley

More than 20 years after visiting the south side of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, local horticulturist Dave Binns has managed to explore the northern area.

A five-and-a-half week trip took Dave, 60, from Bowden, and four friends to a stunning area of snow-covered mountains, glaciers and snow leopards last year.

Large cat prints in the dried mud of the river valley

Large cat prints in the dried mud of the river valley

Dave told us: “I’ve been to the Himalayas six times since 1978, even driving to Nepal in once from Edinburgh when I was a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

“When I worked for the Botanic Gardens I got a degree of funding to go on plant-finding trips, and in 1991 I went to the south side of K2. The mountain straddles the border between Pakistan and China, and it is very dangerous – much harder to climb than Everest.

“Climbers get intoxicated by it, obsessed by it, and even as a trekker it has got me to a degree, too, and I wanted to go back and go to the north side.”

The trip was also inspired by Eric Shipton’s book Blank of the Map, regarded as one of the most celebrated books on mountain exploration.

Dave takes in the stunning views

Dave takes in the stunning views

Dave, who led the trip in August, explained: “None of the group had been to the Himalayas before, other than me, and one had never camped before, until she borrowed my tent last February to try it out.

“We also had to get a letter from the Chinese Mountaineering Association inviting us to go and had to present that to the Chinese embassy to get permission for the trip.”

The group flew in to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and then had to travel for several days to reach the Chinese city of Kashgar.

Dave said: “Instead of spending a day having a look round the city, we wanted to have a look at the mountains and lakes in that area – the Karakol Lakes – and were completely blown away.

This photograph of Himalayan peaks is now the desktop background on Joanna Lumley's computer

This photograph of Himalayan peaks is now the desktop background on Joanna Lumley's computer

“We were surrounded by big white mountains and had perfect weather for the trip – we couldn’t stop taking pictures.”

A two-day journey from Kashgar round the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and over one of the highest roads in the world took the group to the village of Yilik, from where the trek would start.

Rather bizarrely, the first thing they found in this isolated village was a Chinese film crew, who were making a programme about remote communities and interviewed the group.

Along with nine camels, two camel-men, a cook and a guide, the five began their trek the following day.

A small lake within the Gasherbrum Glacier

A small lake within the Gasherbrum Glacier

Dave said: “We had two destinations, K2 and the glacier that comes from the Gasherbrum peaks.

“I had read so much about the glacier that I wanted to go there, so in some ways it was the main destination.”

However, the first day was a bit of a shock to the system.

“The first day we felt pretty rough, so the second day we had a day off and were thinking ‘what have we let ourselves in for!’,” Dave said.

“We followed the Surakwat River for three days and then climbed the Aghil Pass, at over 15,000ft.

“This took us in to the main Shaksgam River system, which we followed for the rest of the time.

Clouds roll across the peak of K2

Clouds roll across the peak of K2

“The timing of the trip was crucial to get minimal water in the valley. If we had gone in July the rivers would have been raging and we would never have got across them.

“We were following the river so it was only slightly uphill and wasn’t too arduous, but it did get very hot – some days it was up to about 35 degrees.”

At one point the group were able to see three of the world’s 14 highest mountains, all above 8,000m.

Dave commented: “I could never get used to the scale of our surroundings. It was just vast.

“You could look at a point ahead of you and think you would get there in an hour, but three hours later and you would still not be there.”

After a week of walking the group reached the glacier, which stretches for more than six miles, and spent a couple of days exploring it.

They then took the decision not to make for the actual base of K2 itself.

“It would have been a three-day trip, and we didn’t fancy going up to 17,000ft over rough glaciers,” Dave said.

“We were also quite happy to have already got the views we had.”

As well as managing to get some plant seeds along the trip, Dave and the group also had some fantastic wildlife sightings, including the very rare Asian wild ass and lammergeier.

Dave added: “We often came across prints in the mud – mainly cat prints. These were probably lynx, but some we saw were bigger, so were probably snow leopard.”

And whilst his wife, Liz Hanson, is a well-known local photographer, Dave can now boast that one of his images is the desktop background on Joanna Lumley’s computer, having promised to send her a picture when he met her at the Borders Book Festival.

On the trip with Dave were Helen Bell, from Lamancha, Dr Iain O’Brien, from Biggar, Paul Short, from Broughton, and Brian Clough, from Yorkshire.