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Beyond breaking point: Trekking the formidable Zartghurben

Published Mar 12, 2016 02:35pm

This is the second installment of a two-part travel blog. Read the first one here.


No matter how much you plan a trip, you never really know how it’s going to go. In this case, I put my trust in my host Mirza and was going with the flow.

I was told we were going off on a relatively easy trek to Zartghurben — a skiing spot which is a four-hour trek from Shimshal Valley. It was staked out for a ski workshop by two Austrian skiers and a German photographer at approximately 4,000m.

Turns out, it was anything but ‘easy’.

Take a look: Youth skiing camp

Skipping over rocks, our boots crunching over frozen bits of mud and snow, we left Mirza’s home in Shimshal and made our way towards the mountains. We came to a river where I saw two young shepherdesses tending to their goats.

Henriette crossing the bridge over the river. — Photo by author
Henriette crossing the bridge over the river. — Photo by author

They wore down jackets over their shalwar kameez and had tiny scarves tied over their heads. Like most people in Shimshal, their cheeks were a bright red as if someone had taken a brush and painted them.

Mirza had to stop and have a small polite conversation with every single person we passed by. The community is small, close-knit and everyone knows each other here.

Mirza's rosy-cheeked nephews. — Photo by author
Mirza's rosy-cheeked nephews. — Photo by author

Over the bridge and into the mountains

The bridge over the river is made of metal rods and wooden planks — the planks are set far apart from each other and I could see the river underneath my shoes.

Arshad and I take a step on the bridge and we can see the river flowing underneath. — Photo by author
Arshad and I take a step on the bridge and we can see the river flowing underneath. — Photo by author

If we tried to cross it swiftly, the bridge would begin to sway, undoubtedly bringing us closer to falling into the freezing, death-by-hypothermia water.

Rocky bridge over the river. — Photo by author
Rocky bridge over the river. — Photo by author

There was a narrow pathway running across the first mountain we came across.

Shimshal has an otherworldly kind of beauty in the winter. — Photo by author
Shimshal has an otherworldly kind of beauty in the winter. — Photo by author

I was told it was called Put Put (round, round!) in Wakhi and we had to climb up these giant rocks to get to it.

Rock and snowy slopes of Zartghurben. — Photo by author
Rock and snowy slopes of Zartghurben. — Photo by author

Mirza hopped along the edge — which didn't have space for more than two feet at the same time — while I waddled behind slowly and carefully.

I could see that we were climbing slowly and the ground was a worrying distance away but when I looked up, the view made it all worth it. Running beside us was a massive mountain known as the Dastagir Sar, which is 7,885m, facing a half-frozen river.

See: Pakistan: A paradise for mountaineers

Ahead of us was the end of the Malangoti Glacier, seemingly isolated from non-native human contact and discovery.

Malangoti Glacier is in the distance. This photo doesn’t do justice to its beauty. — Photo by author
Malangoti Glacier is in the distance. This photo doesn’t do justice to its beauty. — Photo by author

"That is where I conduct my mountaineering workshops," said Mirza, pointing to the glacier. "We camp out there in the snow and teach students basic mountaineering skills."

Not content with climbing mountains himself and harbouring a vision to make winter sports the norm and more accessible in this part of the country, Mirza launched the Karakoram Expeditions.

Camping in the snow and skiing at 4,000m in Pakistan. — Photo by author
Camping in the snow and skiing at 4,000m in Pakistan. — Photo by author

Along with his brothers, they not only guide mountaineers on difficult climbs, organise treks and conduct mountaineering workshops, but more recently, have been working to introduce ice skating at the Borith Lake and skiing at Zartghurben in the region.

A spiritual well in Shimshal. — Photo by author
A spiritual well in Shimshal. — Photo by author

An hour into what seemed to be a very precarious trek albeit with a breathtaking view, we came across a lone hut on the mountain where Mirza’s eight-year-old nephew and cousins, along with our goats, were expecting us.

Mirza and Samina’s nephews in Shimshal. They were playing football when we got back to the village. — Photo by author
Mirza and Samina’s nephews in Shimshal. They were playing football when we got back to the village. — Photo by author

This was to be our chai pit stop.

I couldn't help but think that this hut had the most beautiful view in the valley and what a treat it must be to wake up to it everyday.

This is how Henriette displays her happiness on reaching camp. — Photo by author
This is how Henriette displays her happiness on reaching camp. — Photo by author

The place was called Ban Sar and the hut belonged to one of Mirza’s employees. We were invited inside to have tea.

Big mountains, big hearts

Pakistanis are hospitable by nature and as a Pakistani who likes to backpack, I know I will be taken care of wherever I go. But it’s one thing to be subjected to the hospitality of someone who has a lot to offer, it’s another thing altogether when they don’t have much and yet generously share from whatever little they have with you.

The chai was more milk than tea and we were supposed to have a whole pot full of it. — Photo by author
The chai was more milk than tea and we were supposed to have a whole pot full of it. — Photo by author

That was the case here. This was a very modest one-room hut where an entire family of five lived.

It was winter, so there were no crops to be harvested, just what they had saved for themselves.

We had chai in a modest, single-room with the same kind of wooden ceiling most homes in Shimshal had. — Photo by author
We had chai in a modest, single-room with the same kind of wooden ceiling most homes in Shimshal had. — Photo by author

The pot of milk tea kept boiling away and our cups would keep getting refilled, until all the chai had finished.

The only food they had was qamachdoon — bread made out of sprouted grain and stored away— that was generously broken down into little pieces for us.

Our hosts shared with us whatever they had — Qamachdoon from their winter store. — Photo by author
Our hosts shared with us whatever they had — Qamachdoon from their winter store. — Photo by author

Seeing their meagre belongings and yet the love with which the host family was intent on stuffing us with chai and bread completely blew me away.

Between a rock and a hard place

We stepped out of the hut and continued our trek, navigating our way through a flock of very frisky mountain goats and sheep.

Catching our dinner that got away. Goats may be fast and nimble on the mountains but they were no match for these Shimshali men. — Photo by author
Catching our dinner that got away. Goats may be fast and nimble on the mountains but they were no match for these Shimshali men. — Photo by author

Zarrar, cousins and dinner goats were up ahead and walking fast. We turned into a crevice between two mountains (Put Put, where we came from and XX, the one next to it) and continued walking through it — up rocks of a river that probably ran in the summer and dried up in the winter with a few frozen patches here and there.

Shimshal tales: taking a little yak off to their home.— Photo by author
Shimshal tales: taking a little yak off to their home.— Photo by author

We continued this way for the next couple of hours. Our climb over the rocks was slow but constant. At some point, I looked back and realised how far and how high we had climbed.

Toong Toong or as I’d like to call it the rock fall of death.— Photo by author
Toong Toong or as I’d like to call it the rock fall of death.— Photo by author

I gazed ahead and there was still a long way to go before these mountains would end.

Catching our dinner

"Don’t let them get away!" I heard Mirza yell from behind me. I looked up and saw one of our goats scampering in my direction.

I did what any normal city-bred person would do who doesn't want to get jabbed by a mountain goat’s mighty horns. I found a rock and took cover.

What followed was a coordinated effort by Mirza, his cousins and little Zarrar whereby they whistled to the goats, hopped on rocks and scaled steep inclines, without breaking a sweat, to catch our equally fast and nimble dinner that was trying to get away.

Baby yaks are adorable. — Photo by author
Baby yaks are adorable. — Photo by author

Standing behind the rock, I was bewildered. What they were doing was nearly impossible or ridiculously difficult for a "normal" person and it actually seemed like they were enjoying themselves.

But no matter how fast they are and how easily they tackle rough terrain, mountain goats are no match for Shimshali men and was eventually caught — ensuring that we weren't going to starve that night at camp.

Fresh high-altitude, high-protein dinner being prepared. — Photo by author
Fresh high-altitude, high-protein dinner being prepared. — Photo by author

High altitude reunion

After about a million promises from Mirza assuring me that we were almost there, I heard excited shouts coming from the direction we were headed towards.

Two men were running down towards us. Seeing them, Mirza became equally excited and rushed to meet them.

"These are my childhood friends!" he said excitedly. It looked like they had reunited after a very long time when, in fact, I found out later that it had only been a few days.

Mountain guides without whom we would never be able to reach this place. — Photo by author
Mountain guides without whom we would never be able to reach this place. — Photo by author

The friends turned out to be ace mountaineering guides, Arshad and Wazir.

Hot on their heels was a man carrying a large backpack full of biscuits and a large thermos of chai — fresh from the camp.

As we sat enjoying our break, I looked up at the side of the mountain facing us. There was a massive rock fall that covered its entire face.

An old man carrying supplies for Zartghurben scales the rock fall. I slipped and fell somewhere at this point. — Photo by author
An old man carrying supplies for Zartghurben scales the rock fall. I slipped and fell somewhere at this point. — Photo by author

Suddenly, I noticed some movement on it. A tiny speck and I realised it was one of our goats; up ahead was Mirza’s cousin trying to catch it again.

The face of the mountain with the rockfall was at least at 70 degrees; it looked dangerous and impossible for anyone wanting to scale it.

In fact, any attempt to do so seemed downright stupid and suicidal.

"What the hell is he doing up there?!" I asked, completely shocked.

Take a look: Take me back to Nagar

"That’s where we’re headed," responded Mirza.

"You've got to be kidding me," I said, laughing.

Selfie with Austrian skiing instructors Stefan and Andreas, Henriette from Norway, German photographer and filmmaker Jan. — Photo by author
Selfie with Austrian skiing instructors Stefan and Andreas, Henriette from Norway, German photographer and filmmaker Jan. — Photo by author

"That’s why Arshad and Wazir are here, they’re going to help you through it," he responded, while Arshad and Wazir nodded in agreement.

Slip and fall on the rockfall

I like mountains, but I wasn't very fond of heights. As a child, I missed many an opportunity for adventures just because of that reason.

But I was ready to confront my fear. Plus, if eight-year-old Zarrar, even though he is a mountain child, can do this, I could too, I reassured myself.

Massive mountains, tiny us. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig
Massive mountains, tiny us. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig

Wazir firmly gripped one hand, Arshad the other and between them, I started scaling the rockfall.

The key was to step where Wazir would keep my face towards the mountain and under no circumstances look down.

Mountaineering guides Arshad and Wazir making sure I climb this tricky rockfall. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig
Mountaineering guides Arshad and Wazir making sure I climb this tricky rockfall. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig

The problem was that this climbing-the-rockfall business had to be done rapidly. There was only enough space for one foot at a time and the rocks would move between each step.

Final leg of the rockfall and I am hanging on to my guides for dear life. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig
Final leg of the rockfall and I am hanging on to my guides for dear life. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig

Mirza just hopped across and shouted words of encouragement from the other end.

I had never been more terrified in my life.

Stunningly beautiful landscape but absolutely terrifying to climb. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig
Stunningly beautiful landscape but absolutely terrifying to climb. — Photo by Mirza Ali Baig

But if there is one thing I know it’s this: it’s good to be aware of the risks you’re taking, but if you give into fear, you will never be able to move forward.

You either freeze or freak out — both are not an option. Not at that moment.

On the way back, with Arshad as my lone mountain escort, I slipped and fell.

As I lay flat against the rocks wondering how painful it would be to simply slide down (if possible) and whether I would survive, he held on to my hand and told me not to worry, and that he would pull me up.

I had to dig my feet into the rocks and trust him. He did. It was only when we stopped to rest behind a massive rock that I fully realised what had happened. And every time we would come across loose rocks on our trail, I'd hesitate.

Mirza told me later that the rockfall is called Toong Toong (difficult, difficult) in Wakhi and once we’re past it, that place is called Toong Sar (on top of ‘difficult’).

Even the rocks are beautifully placed. — Photo by author
Even the rocks are beautifully placed. — Photo by author

Now I had three men promising me that the camp was close by and they were quite right: there wasn't sand between these rocks that we climbed, there was snow.

Snow, safety and Samina

After about 30 minutes of climbing with many breaks — I became very tired. Climbing is as much about being absolutely focused and determined as it is about being physically fit.

They pointed into the distance and we could see colourful tents set in snow. Before that a little wooden gate signalling that we were officially entering Zartghurben.

Out of nowhere, one of Mirza’s older brothers who was stationed at the camp showed up and the two brothers exchanged a warm embrace.

When we finally arrived at the camp, Samina Baig, Pakistan's first woman to climb all seven highest peaks in the world and Mirza's sister, was standing right in front waiting to greet us.

I don't think I'll ever be able to forget seeing her standing there in her purple jacket.

Selfie with Mirza and Samina Baig, their brother in the mountains and their uncle. — Photo by author
Selfie with Mirza and Samina Baig, their brother in the mountains and their uncle. — Photo by author

There was a sense of relief because seeing her meant our journey had ended but I was also a little starstruck (trying really hard to act cool on the outside).

This wasn't the first time I was meeting her.

I had met her earlier at a dinner hosted by another dear friend and traveller Naveed Khan (founder of the travel group Hunza on Foot, and also the man who showed Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York around) in Karachi, when Samina came to seek treatment for injuries she sustained while attempting to climb the K2.

But it was another thing altogether to see her in her native environment: the mountains.

Breaking point

After seeing the camp, meeting the instructors, being shown the most important tent of all (the mess tent) and having the goats that travelled with us for dinner, I was ready to sleep.

Climbing into my high-altitude sleeping bag in my high-altitude tent in my high-altitude PJs, I looked at my water bottle and noticed the water in it was frozen.

In fact, everything was cold and frozen, even my sleeping bag.

I hadn’t done much prior to going to bed but I was gasping for air and my heart was beating rapidly.

As a Karachiite, I’m used to the sun, sand and sea. I was a fish out of water in the cold, snow and mountains.

At that point, I had enough of "being brave" and pushing my boundaries — both emotionally and physically.

And there just didn't seem to be an end to the cold. Most importantly, I was far away from home.

The journey back would include that awful rockfall. All of that hit me at the same time and I burst into tears.

Zipping up the tent and curling up like a bug in a cocoon, I wasn't aware when I stopped gasping, or when my heart started beating normally but when I awoke, the sun was out and it was warm again.

The water in my bottle, however, was still frozen.

Skiing grounds of Zartghurben. — Photo by author
Skiing grounds of Zartghurben. — Photo by author

On my way back to Karachi, I was so sore and stiff that I could barely move.

Every muscle in my body hurt. I had muscles in places I didn’t know I had muscles — and they all hurt together.

I was so tired that I could barely talk or share my experience.

Would I do it again? Absolutely!

There’s something addictive about confronting your fears, pushing yourself to the breaking point and most of all, surviving it.