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Sonia Peak: Our attempt to tire the mountain — Part II

"If it were not for the Divine Beauty everything that lay before my eyes would vanish in an instant."
Updated Jan 07, 2019 05:22pm

This is part two of a travelogue of a mountaineering expedition to summit Sonia Peak in the Karakoram Range. Read the first installment here.

A few dozen yaks were racing down the valley towards Dhee, as I peered out of the tent, dead straight in the direction of our base camp.

Dhee is at the head of the Dhee Dasth Valley where yaks are left to graze over the summer. Two of the porters who had came with us had the task of herding them back.

Male yaks, when they are brought together after having roamed freely for a few months, tend to be very aggressive. That aggression is directed towards yaks alone, to the relief of us humans lingering in the area.

Within minutes, most of them had their horns locked and were hurling each other in a vicious merry-go-round. Some ended up bruised before peace ensued.

Day 5: Yaks with their horns locked having descended from Dhee Dasth in the backdrop.—All photos by the author
Day 5: Yaks with their horns locked having descended from Dhee Dasth in the backdrop.—All photos by the author

Our real challenge was to begin now. So far, we had only trekked upon well-trodden paths and slopes. The mountain itself, however, seemed to lend no easy way up.

After consultation with Niamat, and estimating the 2,400m climb that remained, we decided to set up an Advanced Base Camp (ABC) and a High Camp before attempting to summit.

It was decided that Taimoor, Niamat, Jaffer ‘Jeff the chef’, Javaid ‘Bolt’ (for his lightning speed at climbing with more than 15kgs in his pack), Tafat (fondly called Chacha gee, the oldest member of our team and Niamat’s uncle) and I would go forward to the ABC for the summit bid.

Two of the strongest yaks were harnessed, a process that required utmost skill and tact to pin down the beast before getting the rope through his nostrils to control him, and haul some of the load up to the ABC at 4,500m.

Adult male yaks can go upto 5,000m altitude, I’m told.

Day 5: Yaks helping to cross the river rapids.
Day 5: Yaks helping to cross the river rapids.
Day 5: Taimoor sifting out the gear we will need for the summit attempt at Dhee base camp.
Day 5: Taimoor sifting out the gear we will need for the summit attempt at Dhee base camp.
Day 5: A view of Dhee from Thugeen after crossing the Gujerab River.
Day 5: A view of Dhee from Thugeen after crossing the Gujerab River.

Our party left late in the morning after a hearty breakfast and arrived at the site where we decided to set up our ABC with two hours of daylight still remaining.

Niamat, Javaid and Jeff showed remarkable skill when, in no time, they flattened and cleared a circular area of about 2-3m in circumference and got busy hauling big boulders to solidify the perimeter of our shelter.

Taimoor and I joined and, in less than 20 minutes, we had a solid and semi-windproof shelter with a transparent plastic-sheet roof ready.

The real appeal of this magnificent shelter dawned on us when the heavenly stars dazzled the night sky as we gazed up through the transparent roof, while the cooking cylinder kept the interior of our morcha (bunker) cosy.

Day 5: Advanced Base Camp at 4,556m.
Day 5: Advanced Base Camp at 4,556m.
Day 6: Tea on the way to High Camp at 4,803m.
Day 6: Tea on the way to High Camp at 4,803m.
Day 6: Setting up our High Camp at 5,315m.
Day 6: Setting up our High Camp at 5,315m.
Day 6: Inside the High Camp.
Day 6: Inside the High Camp.

The next morning, it was a hard push onwards from the ABC. Our progress was slow as the terrain was steep with numerous scree slopes, along with a section where we had to set up a protective rope for a grade 4+ rock climb.

We set up our High Camp at 5,300m after a full day of climbing, just a few hundred metres short of the ridge line from where we had planned to attempt the summit.

Javaid had an excellent eye for spotting the camp sites. Melting snow and ice had formed a small stream nearby that trickled down the mountain, making it a ideal spot.

A huge boulder had also made its mark on the 35-40 degree inclined slope. Flat ground was nowhere in sight at this altitude and the boulder seemed like a safe back rest against the gravitational pull.

We busied ourselves in levelling the area right in front of it using our hands, ice axes and the wooden sticks some of us had. It took us under 45 minutes to have our bunker ready.

With no spot to pitch a tent nor feeling like it was a safe option, we all decided to huddle together in our boulder-fortress for the night.

The excitement of the summit lying just a few hundred metres above us, along with the night sky glimmering through the transparent roof-sheet, kept us awake in our sleeping bags till midnight.

Day 7: A steep and rocky section just before the summit.
Day 7: A steep and rocky section just before the summit.

It was 6am by the time we had breakfast, packed up our High Camp and switched into our gear for the summit attempt.

That morning was terribly cold. The wind swept down the north-west face, cooled by the snow and ice, and pierced through the multiple layers of our clothing.

As we stared the ascent, we could feel the heaviness in our breathing. One step and three breaths was the regimen. While we had almost emptied our backpacks at the High Camp, it still required a lot more effort at that altitude to climb with the thinning oxygen in the air..

We had managed to avoid the snow and ice till now, however, at 5,600m, we hit the snowy ridge line from where we roped up and put our crampons and ice axes on.

The first few metres were relatively easy but then the gradient took a sharp ascent. Crampons provided a solid footing at that angle as the virgin snow crushed under our weight.

The fear of not knowing enough about avalanche conditions and what triggers one started to play on our minds. Thankfully, Niamat and Chacha seemed to have enough knowledge about the terrain to allay our concerns.

The last seven days we had been on the mountains, it had snowed only on one night, with clear blue skies and the glorious sunshine on all other days. However, as we approached the summit, dark and grey clouds closed in on us from all directions.

We knew we had a short window to summit before the winds would pick up followed by snowfall. We had to move fast and tactfully so as not to disturb the packed snow and trigger any unintended avalanches.

Day 7: At the summit of Thugeen Sar (Sonia Peak).
Day 7: At the summit of Thugeen Sar (Sonia Peak).
Day 7: As the clouds closed in on us, we took a quick customary selfie on the summit before descending all the way down to Dhee in the backdrop.
Day 7: As the clouds closed in on us, we took a quick customary selfie on the summit before descending all the way down to Dhee in the backdrop.
Day 7: A sigh of relief as we descend from the summit to cross the snow line back onto the rocky terrain.
Day 7: A sigh of relief as we descend from the summit to cross the snow line back onto the rocky terrain.

At 11:42am, we reached the summit, almost six hours after we had set out from our High Camp. The sweeping winds had formed a huge serac close to the summit.

After taking in the breathtaking views — the surrounding summits of jagged peaks appeared like menacing shark jaws — and a few customary selfies and team photos, we immediately started our descent.

On a clear day from the summit of Thugeen Sar, you can see K-2 jutting out on the eastern horizon.

Fourteen hours after we had left the High Camp, we reached all the way back down to Dhee, the base camp that we had left three days earlier, where we were greeted by the rest of our team.

My body had been sapped of all the energy and after some celebration and a lot of food, we settled down for the revitalising mountain tea that had featured as a prominent source of nourishment for us in the last four days. .

This tea is made from a flower called bozlunge that we handpicked on the way to Dhee thanks to Chacha who, despite approaching his late 60s, still has a sharp eye and a wealth of knowledge about the area’s flora and fauna.

Bozlunge is meant to have therapeutic properties and is supposed to be good for people who suffer from high blood pressure and obesity. I bet a hike up alone — a good few hundred metres that is — to collect these flowers will cure anyone of obesity. Not to mention the fresh air, stunning landscape and being surrounded by nature is a remedy for most spiritual and physical ailments.

Day 8: Team photo at Zartgorbin.
Day 8: Team photo at Zartgorbin.
Ibex horns. Trophy hunting licenses should be banned altogether with the ever-declining population of ibex, markhors and blue sheep in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Ibex horns. Trophy hunting licenses should be banned altogether with the ever-declining population of ibex, markhors and blue sheep in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Every day, as I was greeted by the mountains and virgin nature that surrounded us, I was reminded of the saying of one of the most profound and prolific writers of our century, Shaykh Abu Bakr Sirajdin (Dr Martin Lings):

“Once in a setting of unsurpassable grandeur one of the Shaikh’s disciples said to me, with a movement of his hand towards mountains towering with pine-forested slopes and summits white with snow, and blue sky with white clouds and half hidden sunlight; ‘God is like that;’ and I understood in that moment with far more than mere mental understanding, that if it were not for the Divine Beauty everything that lay before my eyes would vanish in an instant.”

Base camp to summit route.
Base camp to summit route.


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