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Scaling Pakistan's mountains: A tale of expedition resilience

Updated Aug 23, 2015 03:06pm

Climbing mountains is an annual ritual for me; sometimes it’s even bi-annual. My siblings inherited the travel bug from our father, but for me, the decisive year was 1996, when I took my first ski course with Adventure Foundation Pakistan (AFP).

For the next 10 years, a multitude of treks and adventure activities followed. Then, in 2006, my focus shifted to mountains.

What began with trekking peaks only in Shimshal, gradually expanded to other destinations. But I keep going back to Shimshal; it is, what I like to call, my training ground.

For people who are not familiar with Shimshal's location, it is a cluster of villages 55km off the Karakoram Highway (KKH) east of Passu (Gilgit Baltistan), accessible only through a narrow jeep road that runs through a rocky gorge perilously along a tumultuous river. It is from this cluster of villages that many major trekking trails and their variations sprout forth.

The road from Gulmit to Passu with Passu Cones (Tapapdunn) in the backdrop.
The road from Gulmit to Passu with Passu Cones (Tapapdunn) in the backdrop.
The wooden suspension bridge that connects Shimshal to all places beyond the mighty Shimshal River.
The wooden suspension bridge that connects Shimshal to all places beyond the mighty Shimshal River.

Mountaineering is a highly neglected sport in Pakistan. In mid-Ramazan, when all my sponsorship bids failed, I launched a Facebook event in the hopes of finding a couple of like-minded adventurers to share the expedition expense with. It was now going to be a budget expedition, but I was still ambitious – I wanted to attempt multiple peaks and the plan was to cross a high pass for pre-summit bid acclimatisation.

As the deadline approached for my fifth trip to Shimshal in nine years, I was able to find only one other travel partner able and willing to go with me. And that too, probably because he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

So on July 23, 2015, around 10pm, Shahzaib and I left from Pindi in a chartered Corolla with the intention of landing in Hunza via Babusar Pass around noon the next day. Naraan was a blitz of lights and empty cars parked to both sides of the road and every empty space possible – early next morning. We kept going and did not stop for breakfast until after we had crossed over to the KKH.

By 10am, we had bypassed Gilgit and were on our way to Hunza. In Hunza, we decided to keep going and took a drop to the Attaabad Lake around 1:30pm. We loaded our luggage onto a boat and were across the lake around 3pm.

The jeep road into Shimshal, at places, has been cut through solid rock.
The jeep road into Shimshal, at places, has been cut through solid rock.
There are quite a few hanging bridges on the Shimshal-Passu jeep road.
There are quite a few hanging bridges on the Shimshal-Passu jeep road.

The wait for a jeep bound for Shimshal, on the other side of the lake, was pretty long. Akhter from Aminabad Village in Shimshal was getting married, and all the transport (three 4x4s) meant for Shimshal had gone to Chapursan (another high altitude village cluster in Gojal - GB) for the baraat. This meant that despite our rapid progression, we’d be stuck in Gulmit or Passu for that night.

I used my connections and was eventually able to arrange a chartered jeep, for the price of an arm and a leg, for the rest of the journey.

By nightfall, we were in the vicinity of the first village, but could not cross the gushing glacial stream blocking our path. Thus, we had to spend the night at an abandoned roadside hut, which the road maintenance workers use occasionally when duty calls.

Somehow, we made the best of our circumstances. We dug into our food supplies and found some biryani masala to spice up the rice we cooked. It was not until the next morning that we arrived at our motel in Central Shimshal Village. The next day was spent arranging porters, acclimatising at 3,000m and trying to replenish our slightly depleted camp rations. Of the 24 eggs we needed, we managed to find only eight in all three nearby villages.

Passt Furzein Hut - the mud and stone shepherd's hut at Passt Furzein (lower clump of juniper trees) is not much to look at from the outside but is still a welcoming sight.
Passt Furzein Hut - the mud and stone shepherd's hut at Passt Furzein (lower clump of juniper trees) is not much to look at from the outside but is still a welcoming sight.
View of Central Shimshal and Khizerabad Village with the Sunrise Peak (Yeerghatak) in the backdrop. The small green patch across the Shimshal River is Band-e-Ser Village.
View of Central Shimshal and Khizerabad Village with the Sunrise Peak (Yeerghatak) in the backdrop. The small green patch across the Shimshal River is Band-e-Ser Village.
Life in Shimshal is tough and both the men and womenfolk tend to the herds.
Life in Shimshal is tough and both the men and womenfolk tend to the herds.
The Yak population in Shimshal has grown dramatically over the past few years. This particular specimen is an Alpha male.
The Yak population in Shimshal has grown dramatically over the past few years. This particular specimen is an Alpha male.

The first day’s trek was tough. It took us between six to seven hours to gain 900m up the very narrow gorge to Zarthgarbein. All day long, the sun scorched us, but by late evening, it started getting cloudy and by nightfall, it was drizzling heavily. In the morning, it was still raining and at around 9am, the low-hanging clouds had started to scatter, opening up vistas of the rock towers surrounding the breathtaking meadow.

The second day was relatively easier and we reached Shpoadeen (where there are lots of wild Rhubarbs) in less than four hours.

Zarthgarbein is an awesome campsite; it is ideal for Shimshali cricket, rock climbing and basic ski courses in winters.
Zarthgarbein is an awesome campsite; it is ideal for Shimshali cricket, rock climbing and basic ski courses in winters.
Looking back at Shimshal Valley a couple of hours into the trek.
Looking back at Shimshal Valley a couple of hours into the trek.
Resting before making the final push for Shpoadeen Pass.
Resting before making the final push for Shpoadeen Pass.
Light mood: Gup shup over a cup of black coffee before we start climbing the Shpoadeen Pass.
Light mood: Gup shup over a cup of black coffee before we start climbing the Shpoadeen Pass.

The third day, however, was grueling; we climbed 900m up the high pass and while the rest of the party descended towards Maidoor, I decided to solo Peer Peak (over 5,700m).

I had done it back in 2008, but this time, the snow condition was very different. I was also under-equipped for the task and had decided to climb it only in a spur-of-the-moment decision.

I had to abandon the attempt at around 5,600m and had a lot of catching up to do as the rest of the team had descended down rapidly. The attempt was, nevertheless, very good for acclimatisation. It took us a total of 13 hours that day, including my failed solo attempt, to get to Maidoor Camp. Both Shahzaib and I had heavily blistered feet and utilised a much needed rest day.

On top of Shpoadeen Pass 5,328m with Peer Peak 5,700m in the backdrop.
On top of Shpoadeen Pass 5,328m with Peer Peak 5,700m in the backdrop.
The rest of the day has its perks – like this mountain handi pizza.
The rest of the day has its perks – like this mountain handi pizza.
Nigoar Preiyn - the Juniper stairway to heaven. It is named after lady Nigar, which is pronounced "Nigoar" in local Wakhi dialect.
Nigoar Preiyn - the Juniper stairway to heaven. It is named after lady Nigar, which is pronounced "Nigoar" in local Wakhi dialect.
The Juniper staircase at Nigoar Preiyn is keeping the fragile mountainside intact despite the human traffic.
The Juniper staircase at Nigoar Preiyn is keeping the fragile mountainside intact despite the human traffic.

During the rest of the day I, Wazir (my friend and local guide) and High Altitude Porter (HAP) Izhar Ali, crossed a river and climbed a couple of hundred metres to get a better view of the virgin peaks that we intended to start climbing the following day. We discussed the route and decided to start climbing early next morning.

The next morning, I took off earlier than the guide and the HAP, but they caught up with me at the big yellow eroded rock. Shahzaib had decided to stay back and explore the Kachkaur Valley for wildlife sightings. We climbed almost 900m before we could find any snow for our hydration needs.

The trail is rugged, remote and as dry as a desert.
The trail is rugged, remote and as dry as a desert.
Purple marks the climbing route and green marks the descent route.
Purple marks the climbing route and green marks the descent route.

Contrary to the deeper valleys of Shimshal, Maidoor has seen very little snow fall during last winter/spring. The terrain was very hostile; the rocks, it was clear from their look, had borne the brunt of some very extreme weather. The ones still intact could hardly be called rocks; they were cracked up into paper thin wafers, which would disintegrate under mild pressure.

The mountainside was made up of mostly small and medium-sized rocks that resembled shards of broken glass and even sounded similar when stepped upon. I had experienced similar terrain on the way to Camp I of Spantik back in 2012.

Ice compression is a good remedy for blisters.
Ice compression is a good remedy for blisters.
Shards and paper thin wafers of rock close to 5,000m and above.
Shards and paper thin wafers of rock close to 5,000m and above.

At 5,160m, we established Aiza High Camp and I was very keen on getting some ice under my blistered feet. The view from the high camp was awesome. We could see the various seven thousand metre plus peaks of Shimshal, all lined up across the horizon to the South and South West.

These include the likes of Yazghil Dome, Kunyan Chish, Malanguti Ser, Yukshin Gerdan, Shisper Ser and the smaller but very striking Shimshal White Horn (6,400m), which looks like a mini Gasherbrum IV.

The view from the high camp was simply out of this world.
The view from the high camp was simply out of this world.
Panoramic views are a common sight here.
Panoramic views are a common sight here.

The next morning, 30th July 2015, all I could digest was a cup of instant coffee and by 6:30am, we had begun to climb. The first summit was reached at 08:30am and the three of us were ecstatic on having safely made it to the top. We took some photographs and started prepping for the other peak.

We roped up and descended onto the connecting ridge between the two mountains. The snow up there was old, and there was a small semi-frozen glacial pond in the centre of the ridge. The climb up the second summit was moderately technical, but the snow there was particularly bad; it was neither compact nor fully soft and had a thin layer of sleet all over.

On the summit of Moamee Mariya Kataria Ser - 5,457m.
On the summit of Moamee Mariya Kataria Ser - 5,457m.
Hunting for satellites on top of Moamee Mariya Kataria Ser at 5,457m.
Hunting for satellites on top of Moamee Mariya Kataria Ser at 5,457m.

I was not sure about roping up in such conditions on such a steep gradient, but I had to make do.

The second summit was reached at 10:40am. Thus, not only had we climbed the two virgin peaks but had also done them in alpine style and in tandem (traverse), which is an unheard of achievement in Pakistani mountaineering circles.

On the summit of Ra’na Kook Ser - 5,525m.
On the summit of Ra’na Kook Ser - 5,525m.

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of K2 from the summit, but the clouds on the horizon did not allow me to do so. We stayed on the summit for 20 minutes or so, and then started descending back towards high camp. On the way back we bypassed the summit of Moamee Mariya Katariya Ser and took a totally different route from the high camp back to Maidoor.

It took us another two days to get back to Shimshal Village and yet another two to get back to Rawalpindi. I was lucky to be able to shoot a lot of footage during the expedition and hope to produce an adventure docu-drama of the same.

— All photos by author