ISLAMABAD, June 30: In the past, Gondogoro La, a roughly 6,000 metres high pass, offering the finest mountain panorama in the world, had been shut for natural reasons such as avalanches and rock falls.
But last month it was suddenly closed to all trekking expeditions by the army.
“The army asked the Gilgit-Baltistan Council not to issue permits to adventure tourists or trekking groups for the Gondogoro La in the Baltoro region after May 23, 2013,” said a senior official in the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, Islamabad, on the condition of anonymity.
He said in their communication with the GB Council, the army described Gondogoro La Pass as ‘prohibited’ to adventure travelers.
“They did not elaborate why the pass was being closed,” said the official. The army did, however, identify alternative routes for the trekkers.
The Council forwarded documentations/passport details/nature of visit of all climbing and trekking expeditions to the military. It did not issue climbing or trekking permits until intelligence agencies gave clearances. The process could take between a week or as long as two months. Climbing and trekking expeditions had to apply six months or even a year for clearance before arriving in Pakistan.
Nonetheless, the closure of the Gondogoro La hurt adventure tourists, the 100-plus tour operators in Gilgit-Baltistan, the Alpine Club of Pakistan (ACP) and the GB Council. The pass separated the Baltoro Glacier from one of the last human settlements in the Hushe Valley.
“Trekkers enter Boltoro through Ashkole village (longer route) but prefer returning through Gondogoro La because it saves them two to three days hike. But that is not why Gondogoro La is famous. The 60 degree snow and ice slopes of the pass also offer a climbing experience with ropes, crampons, ice axes, harnesses and helmets – something trekkers particularly pay for. At the top, one of the most awe-inspiring views unfolds before you,” said a mountaineer at the ACP.
Col Manzoor Hussain, the president of the ACP, lamented that the pass was suddenly closed without any reason and that the move only damaged Pakistan’s image in the world.
“Gondogor La is a spectacle. K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrums, Trinity Peak, Laila Peak and numerous of the lesser pinnacles touch the heavens all around.” He seemed lost for words why Gondogoro La was closed, especially when there were no security concerns at or around the pass. He corrected the conjectures that Pakistani military checkposts bordering India were visible from the top of the Gondogoro La.
“It is not possible to see India clearly let alone the Pakistan army checkposts. They are another few days walk away. It would take experienced climbers to pass over several high peaks and a lot of gear to cross the border into India or China,” Col Hussain explained.
About the possible reason for the closure of the pass, the senior official at the GB Council said: “There have been times when trekkers had deviated from the track and wandered off in violation of the law. It is clearly explained in rules of the GB Council that all trekking and climbing expeditions are to enter and exit from the identified locations.”
He added: “It has been reported to us quite a few times that foreign trekkers had paid extra dollars to tour guides that accompanied them to access different locations.” As corrective measure, he said, the GB Council had recently started taking undertakings from tour operators who would now have to guarantee departures of their expeditions from the country and report to the council.
Although the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) did not confirm that Gondogoro La was off limits but it conceded that adventure tourists in the Baltoro region had been deviating from the identified trekking routes.
“Some adventure tourists come for reasons other than trekking and climbing. The trekking routes have been established and set by adventure tourists themselves and they should stick to them,” said a senior official with the ISPR who had served in the Baltoro region for two years.
He explained how last winter a journalist accompanying an Italian climbing expedition was caught interviewing the Shia residents of Gilgit without permission from the government of Pakistan.
“Above all, it is important that trekkers and climbing expeditions alike stick to their plans for their own safety. The walk on the 70-kilometre-long Baltoro Glacier can be dangerous, especially because of the deep crevasses,” said the ISPR official. He added that his office was trying to get in touch with the department concerned to understand exactly why security agencies had declared Gondogoro La off limits for trekkers.
Amjad Ayub, the president of Pakistan Tour Operators Association, said the move would impact activities associated with adventure and climbing tourism.
“Besides guides, porters, craftsmen and transport, so many people in the area depend on income from adventure tourism. We respect the law as Pakistani citizens. It is not true that trekking groups deviate from routes,” said Mr Ayub, lamenting that sudden closure of the Gondogoro La would affect trekking groups who had already been issued permits.
Unlike the Nanga Parbat, which was located in the ‘open zone’, the Baltoro Glacier and all the four peaks around it – K2, GI and GII and Broak Peak, including the Gondogoro La Pass - fell in the ‘restricted area’ because of proximity with the Chinese and Indian borders.