Biafo Hispar Trek Dairy 2003
Snow Lake/Biafo – Hispar Glacier Trek, July 2003
By Millicent Thapa
The trek to Snow Lake along the Biafo Glacier and over Hispar La (pass), down to the Nagar region of the Pakistani Karakorams was, I’d been told, one of the most beautiful in the world. It, like the K2 Gondogoro La trek, had been a long standing dream of mine, and the chance to go was a long awaited opportunity. I’d read a number of descriptions of the trek, but could barely imagine what it might be like in real life – until I set out to make my dream a reality…
Day 1 My friend/co-worker and I and our porters set off from the town of Skardu in Pakistan’s Northern Areas en route to the town of Askole, a village that is the normal starting point for treks to K2 base camp and Snow Lake. The road is quite scenic as it winds its way through valleys alongside turbulent rivers that flow from the Karakoram’s mighty glaciers along the bases of high, jagged cliffs. The town of Askole is nestled in a valley surrounded by cliffs and peaks, and is a verdant green due the locals’ agricultural activities, in contrast to the grey and brown of the nearby cliffs. After we arrived, we spent the afternoon strolling around, meeting the locals (especially women and children), and getting to see some aspects of their daily lives, from their work in the fields to a small, water powered mill which is used to make flour.
Day 2 On the second day, we set off up the valley toward the Biafo glacier with our porters. As we left the town, we passed numerous fields, which stood out against the backdrop of glaciated peaks above the town. The first part of the trek is the same as that which leads to K2 base camp, but the latter trail soon branched off to the right, toward the Baltoro glacier and Concordia. Shortly before that point, though, we rounded a corner and were presented with a spectacle that made all of us stop dead in our tracks – a view of glaciated pinnacles, shining in the morning sun, which jutted up above all of the other peaks at the head of the valley. It looked like an ice clad fairy castle in the sky, but was just the beginning of a number of impressive views we were to get on the trek. The challenges also started on the first day though, with a steep, tricky descent down to a trail above the Biafo glacier. The Biafo glacier, like the Baltoro, is an impressive sight. It looks like a wide, undulating highway of ice, with alternating stripes of brown rock debris and rubble covered glacier, which are flanked by white strips of exposed ice. We later descended to the glacier and spent some time walking over the rocky debris on its surface before reaching the campsite at Namla. We were able to see far down the glacier and see numerous snowy peaks lining its sides as we walked, as well as back part way up the valley that leads to Concordia.
Day 3 The next day, we descended to the glacier and continued our walk. The glacier itself presents a number of daily challenges, such as jumping over crevasses, avoiding ice bridges of questionable strength (they can be detected by the lighter, cleaner snow that covers these hidden crevasses, as compared to the darker, dirtier ice of the rest of the glacier), and leaping over the swift streams that coursed down the glacier; some of them disappeared into its depths, either plunging over waterfalls into crevasses or just flowing into large holes in its surface. I gazed at these with morbid fascination as we walked by. In other places, we sometimes had to cut steps in order to get up short, steep parts of the glacier, some of which were just on narrow ribs of ice. One such place stood between us and our campsite at Mango; reaching the camp was temporarily complicated by having to negotiate a short ascent up a narrow ridge of ice between 2 deep crevasses in order to reach the lateral moraine, which occasionally sent a stone crashing down just in order to keep us all on our toes. Fortunately, we all reached the campsite without any problems, and it, with its meadow of grass, flowers, and warm flowing spring water, seemed even more welcoming after our arrival. We took advantage of it to bathe and do laundry, which dried quickly in the blistering afternoon sun and dry air. A hillock near the camp provided nice views of the cliffs, mountains, and glaciers on the opposite side of the valley as well as further down the glacier.
Days 4 – 5 On the fourth day, we again descended to the glacier, and crossed it to reach our campsite on the opposite side. After we reached the right side of the glacier, we made a short, steep ascent to a narrow trail high above the edge of the glacier. From there, we could see enormous, gaping holes in the glacier and blocks of ice that looked like towers, partially separated from the rest of the glacier by huge, deep crevasses. By lunchtime, we had reached a small, sandy flat plain to the side of the glacier, which glowed in soft, surreal colors in the afternoon light as we looked back on it from further along the trail. It started to rain a bit before we reached our campsite at Baintha, but fortunately not too hard. We decided to take an acclimatization day at Baintha, so we spent some time the next day walking up to a place from whence we could see the Latok group (which includes the Ogre) from close up. The weather had cleared up somewhat by then, and we could see these awe inspiring rock towers between the clouds. After returning to the camp, I went up to the top of the lateral moraine and spent much of the time gazing at the panorama of peaks that stretched as far as the eye could see down the glacier almost as far as Snow Lake until it was time for dinner.
Day 6 This was a long, but beautiful day on the glacier, from Baintha to the edge of Snow Lake. All day, we witnessed a procession of majestic rock faces, towers, and pinnacles on our right, while the left was lined with jagged snow clad summits. The first, and perhaps the most famous of these that we saw was the Latok group which we had seen the day before, with the famous, and intimidating Ogre. Its sheer walls defied anyone who would even think about climbing it. Tucked into the valley to the back right of them was another cluster of peaks so beautiful as to seem magical – it was a secret valley begging to be explored, but countless other peaks, many of them unnamed, and finally Snow Lake, our long awaited destination, beckoned from afar. As we walked along the broad, flat Biafo glacier in this uninhabited wilderness, I felt as though we were walking along a royal corridor, lined with regal giants who looked on in eternal silence. After a 9 hour walk, complete with the usual crevasse hopping, we arrived at our camp at the edge of Snow Lake. At night, the moon rose over the peaks to the east, illuminating the glaciers and surrounding mountains in all their glory. The light of the full moon on mountains and glaciers at high altitude produces a magical effect; you can see them in just as great a degree of detail as during the day, and the glaciers reflect the moonlight with an enchanting glow. It’s almost bright enough for you to distinguish colors.
Day 7 The next day, I rose with the sun at 4 a.m. The day dawned clear and cold and the moon was setting over the towers and spires near Snow Lake as the sun rose in the opposite direction and bathed them in orange-yellow light. I just sat outside and beheld this scene, oblivious to the below freezing temperatures. Later, our entire crew roped up for the outing across Snow Lake, in order to protect ourselves from falls into hidden crevasses. We soon entered the large glacial basin of Snow Lake, which was surrounded by peaks of every description. According to the itinerary, we were supposed to spend a couple of days at Snow Lake, but the weather was so ideal that we pushed on to the top of Hispar La, negotiating our way around enormous crevasses of unimaginable depth. Hispar La fortunately proved to be very straightforward and moderately angled with a vertical altitude gain of only about 200m, and the view from the top encompassed all of Snow Lake’s surrounding peaks as well as views all the way down the Hispar glacier to the distant peaks of Nagar, several days walk away in the opposite direction. We couldn’t have asked for better weather; the sky was cloudless all day, and after lunch on top of Hispar La, we headed down the glacier. Near the base of the pass, I saw some of the most beautiful and intriguing mountain lakes I’ve ever seen. One was of a color I’d never seen before; it was an incredible greenish black, and there was no telling how deep it was. Another, a little further away, was a beautiful shade of light emerald. Not long thereafter, we moved onto the lateral moraine and set up camp. Within no time, the porters had erected shelters and our blue ribbon chef, Ali, had an awesome and much anticipated dinner ready. Our whole staff was great; the porters, who could carry 25 kg loads all day across glacial moraines and unstable rocky rubble that can give way underfoot, as well as our cook, who could also carry a load over the roughest terrain for hours and still prepare meals diverse enough to include pizza and creme brule at the day, in the middle of nowhere with a minimum of resources (just try making a pizza up at a glacial camp without an oven!! (Remember, altitude also throws off cooking times). We all settled in for the night for a well deserved rest.
Days 8 and 9 Now we got to see how wise our decision had been to cross Hispar La the day before; the sky was mostly cloudy, but still allowed us to see the nearby summits. We had a short day today to make up for the 2 long days we’d just had back to back. The weather was as bad the next day as it had been good when we were at Snow Lake and Hispar La; it was cloudy all day and it rained and snowed off and on, although the snow on the ground melted almost right away. We entertained ourselves by reading, and the porters serenaded us with Balti music and song in the evening.
Day 10 The next day, the weather was beautiful again. We continued our descent toward Nagar, staying mostly on trails in the ablation valleys next to the Hispar Glacier. We crossed a side glacier en route, which was quite straightforward, but the going got trickier and sometimes even life threatening as we ended up having to cut steps into long stretches of eroded dirt cliffs above the glacier, where any indication of a trail had been thoroughly wiped out by erosion. The vertical nature of the landscape meant that everything was moving – avalanches, landslides, erosion, glacial ice flows, turbulent streams and rivers, and even the slow but steady upward thrust of the Karakorams and Himalaya themselves. This made it seem that the land was alive, with a mind of its own, sometimes malevolent, sometimes kind. No wonder many ancient and indigenous people thought that mountains were inhabited by the gods, or at least by spirits. Nonetheless, these traverses required utmost caution; the steps were only as wide as your foot, and the crumbly cliff wall next to you offered nothing to hang onto. You dared not try to support your weight on one of the rocks embedded in it for fear that it would break off in your hand and send you plunging down to the glacier below. With no medical facilities and without the $6000 advance deposit required for a helicopter rescue, there was absolutely no room for error. These nerve racking stretches were made up for by the variety of spectacular landscapes. At one point, we briefly went down to the glacier, skirted a glacial pond, and saw 2 large ice caves with a column of ice in between, supporting their common roof. Each ablation valley was ablaze with a riot of colors, due to the presence of wildflowers of every shape and hue imaginable. I’d seen quite a few flowers on the land next to the Biafo and Baltoro glaciers, but the diversity of species that carpeted the meadows here was unparalleled. I’d never seen such a wide range of flowers in such a small area before. They and the grassy meadows they grew in provided a delightful contrast to the harsh and inhospitable environment all around them. Finally we arrived at camp, from whence we could see all of the way back to Hispar La as well as far down the glacier. I watched as the sunset cast a yellow glow on the surrounding peaks before going into the dining tent for a good dinner. At night, the highlight was stepping outside of the tent for views of the moonlit summits across the valley.
Day 11 We had another long day today, with about 10 hours of walking. There were more potentially dangerous traverses, which were interspersed with crossings of side glaciers and stunning views of peaks tucked away up the side valleys. As with every day of this trek, the way the mountains seem to change as they’re seen from different angles and in different light never ceases to amaze, delight, and fascinate. It’s one of the true joys of trekking in these areas. Our campsite, although nearly devoid of drinking water, presented us with a welcoming sight – a meadow of countless dark pink flowers in front of a prominent glaciated peak which rose on the opposite side of the valley.
Day 12 The next day was to be the last day of the trek, our descent to Hispar village. It was blisteringly hot as the full strength of the summer sun beat down on us in this shadeless valley. Nonetheless, the spectacular views continued until the end, as did nature’s obstacle course; after we’d crossed the last of the side glaciers, which really hadn’t presented any problems at all, we had to cross a muddy torrent that descended steeply from the mountain’s upper slopes. Once again, it was one slip and down you’d go, taking a battering on the stony bottom of the streambed, so we used a rope to facilitate our river crossing. The current was strong and cold, and was a force to be reckoned with. We all got across safely though, and that was our last hurdle on what was now an easy stroll down to Hispar village. We camped in a grassy meadow near the village and gazed back at the peaks that flanked Hispar La, our minds filled with the adventures of the last 2 weeks in this magnificent, untamed, and untamable wilderness. The next day, we took jeeps down the long, hot, dry road to Hunza and Karimabad, stopping to enjoy fresh apricots on the way. An unforgettable experience!