Schoolchildren in Askole hold warm clothes donated by Alex Găvan Foundation. — Photo by author

A warm Christmas in Gilgit-Baltistan's Askole village

As a Christmas gift this year, the Alex Găvan Foundation donated warm clothes to all 312 students of the Askole school.
Published 26 Dec, 2021 07:48pm

Settled along the Braldo River in Shigar Valley at an altitude of 3,000m, Askole village is said to be the last settlement in Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan.

Askole’s claim to fame: it leads to an alpine paradise where four of the five 8,000m peaks in Pakistan — including K2, Gasherbrum I and II and Broad Peak — stand proudly, alongside hundreds of unclimbed 6,000m and 7,000m peaks.

Most expeditions stay at campsites for a night before leaving for wilderness and exploring Askole is not on the high priority list of many who want to rest their legs before the arduous trek on the Baltoro glacier. Stepping outside the campsite, you will see abject poverty being the most visible aspect of this deeply conservative place.

Read more: Dreaming big in Askole

You’d come across men, women and children in threadbare fleece and shabby jackets — the branded goods that once offered protection to travelers in below zero temperatures and long discarded — trying their best to stay warm.

The town relies heavily on visitors and 2020 proved to be a disastrous year as the Covid-19 pandemic led to expeditions cancelling their plans. The poverty-stricken village faced its harshest winters in years — both in terms of cold weather and lack of finances.

The local school — where 312 children study — was left reeling with a shortage of funds and was set to close down. The teachers, usually paid from funds gathered from parents, could not receive their salaries as the community was unable to raise funds.

Romanian climber Alex Găvan stepped in and covered the salaries of three teachers in Askole village, in the Gilgit–Baltistan region of Pakistan.

"Because of the coronavirus, no expeditions were organised in 2020; those three teachers were left without payment because the parents could not earn money. Being locals, the three volunteered," Găvan said.

Găvan is a high-altitude climber from Romania and has been coming to Pakistan for years. He was attempting to summit K2 this winter but gave up.

Earlier this year, he was also part of the search operation to locate Muhammad Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and Juam Pablo Mohr who went missing on K2.

As a Christmas gift this year, the Alex Găvan Foundation donated warm clothes to all 312 students of the Askole school.

Talking to Dawn.com, Găvan said: “Acting from the heart attracts more acting from the heart. Doing good attracts more doing good. I am beyond grateful that together with my wonderful friend and fellow climber Sofie Lenaerts and some compassionate people she brought along, all 312 children from the school of Askole got a complete new set of winter apparel, clothing and footwear, through the Alex Găvan Foundation.”

Sharing details, he said the project took several months to implement since the logistics of getting things done by supplying and then delivering such a wide arrange of sizes, ranging from kindergarten kids to teenagers, proved quite challenging in this remote village, the last one on the way to the ice world of the mighty K2.

“Muhammad Ali, the school principal, was pivotal in this and the passion he puts into the education and wellbeing of his pupils is aspirational. Sofie got inspired to get involved by seeing news of the foundation's supporting of three teachers' full-year salary payment that happened just after my K2 (8611m) winter expedition this year. Then she linked it with her own expedition on Broad Peak (8047m) last summer. I take a large bow and I am touched by her deep love for humanity,” the Romanian climber said.