It’s a long journey to the new ski ‘resort’. From Karachi you first take a flight to Islamabad (elevation: 1,770m). From the capital there is another one-hour flight or 20-22 hour car ride to Hunza (where you must acclimatise to the 2,500m altitude by spending the night) a further four-hour jeep ride to Shimshal — at 3,100m — requiring another overnight acclimatisation. But that’s not where the journey ends: you still have a four to six hour uphill hike ahead of you until you’ll reach your destination — at approximately 4,000m halfway between Shimshal and Shimshal Pass.
It’s halfway through the same route that the shepherds take to drive the yak from Shimshal to the pasturelands (pamirs) close to the Shimshal Pass on the Pakistan-China border. It’s not a place that you would imagine as ideal for a commercial ski resort — especially considering its remote and difficult-to-reach location but the locals don’t seem to think so.
A Spanish mountaineer who frequents Pakistan for climbing once said the country is 200 years behind when it comes to developing any form of infrastructure for alpinism or winter sports. But this lack of development and access to comfort is also what gives Pakistan its charm; there is an untamed wilderness in its mountains that encourages only the most adventurous of explorers and sportsmen to make their way to this part of the world. Ignoring the travel warnings issued by their government, they risk it all to experience the north in a manner that might be considered more ‘authentic’.
It is this wilderness that beckoned professional skiers and ski instructors Stefan Ager and Andreas Gumpenberger all the way from Austria to the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan earlier this year to conduct a ski camp and to do a ‘first descent’ from its virgin slopes.
Their students were from different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. Some were even as young as eight. They were subjected to a 10-day ski workshop organised by Mirza Baig from Karakorum Expeditions during which there was no going home. Mirza’s sister, Samina Baig, who is the first Pakistani woman to climb Everest, was also present to learn as well as lend a bit of encouragement to the students.
Mirza has big plans for sports in Gilgit-Baltistan. “People can ski wherever there is snow,” he said. “They can ski in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and here in Gilgit-Baltistan.” The government has ski resorts in Swat, Naltar and Kalabagh, but except for the one in Malam Jabba in Swat, they’re not being used as such or the public is denied access to them. Therefore he hopes that the slopes he’s ‘building’ in Shimshal will fill the gap these resorts have left behind.
Along with the potential for skiing, ice climbing and ice-skating, for Mirza winter is no reason why people should stop going to the Northern Areas. The Austrian instructors seem to agree.
You had to climb rocks and inclines between the mountains for several hours carrying your entire luggage on your back. “That’s something we do for fun back home!” laughed Andreas.
How does the terrain compare to that in Europe? “It’s stunning,” said Stefan, “The climate is similar but everything else is at least 10 times bigger.”
“The mountains are more dry,” observed Andreas.
As beautiful as the terrain is, it needed some work to make it ‘suitable’. “The area is not good for skiing,” said Stefan. “There is heavy wind. The snow is hard-packed on top but there is powder snow underneath.”
What are the chances of this becoming a future destination for skiers? According to the instructors, the place definitely has potential, but abroad they have machines that consistently turn the snow to powder. Other than that there are lifts that take you up the mountain saving you the effort of a strenuous climb — often with the help of a guide or assistance by a mountain porter to carry your luggage.
As for their students, perhaps the current ski programme can be expanded to include travel to destinations where skiing is considered a major sport. “Maybe in the future we can bring them to Austria,” said Andreas.
“In Austria you start young and do it every year,” said Stefan. “There are schools that train you from the time you are five or six years old for the Olympics.”
Mirza plans to groom his eight-year-old nephew Zarrar for the 2022 Winter Olymipics. Zarrar who climbs steep trails effortlessly took to skiing like a duck to water. He could be seen whizzing down baby slopes with his other young cousins displaying ease the ‘adults’ struggled with.
“Austria is a whole different story,” added Andreas. “The goal of the winter Olympics in 2022 is not entirely out of reach — maybe not to win gold, but to qualify for them. Mirza’s nephew is eight years old. That’s the perfect age to start.”
Learning from the workshop earlier this year, the drilling of rocks to create ‘smoother’ slopes has already begun in anticipation of the upcoming ski season later this year. There may not be a machine to powder the snow yet or a lift to take the students up the mountains yet, so it won’t be an easy journey for the students but it’ll definitely be a rewarding one. This might just be the beginning of a wider interest in winter sports in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 10th, 2016