Lost on a Glacier in Pakistan
Northern Pakistan is beautiful. Amazing mountain scenery, honest, friendly people and lots and lots of ice. We spent 18 days wandering up the biggest slab of ice outside of the polar regions and then got lost in a white-out on the top, surrounded by crevasses. More on that later.
From Delhi, we took a Pakistan International Airways flight to Lahore, and just managed to catch our connecting flight to Islamabad. Our contact from ,'Vertical Explorers' a well reputed, first rate highly professional outfitter in Pakistan, Syed met us at the airport and we checked into a hotel in Rawalpindi, Islamabad's older twin city. For 3 days, Syed and staff of V E went out of their way to help us and show us the sights. We visited the Shah Faisal mosque where we were photographed with various local people a total of 10 times. We had never been so popular. Men here like to hold hands. Especially, it seems when being photographed. Men and women however, never hold hands. Public displays of affection is not the done thing. The food has been good. We have eaten all sorts of curry - Qorma, Jalfrazwee, Masala etc. There is less Dahl that I had expected. I have eaten mutton testes and even pushed myself to try the plate of mashed brains. We have done some shopping and Kerry has got into the local fashion, sporting a brand new Shalmwar Kameez. One day Syed caught me photographing one of the brightly painted Bedford trucks that are used to transport goods up and down the Karakoram Highway (the old Silk route between Pakistan and China) - that was it. He took us to a place where there were loads of these trucks and we were shown around each, the proud owner looking on. It was a crazy day. We have photos of just about every part of these trucks. Us on the truck, us in the truck, us and the owner in the truck etc. We attracted a crowd of about 20 onlookers, who thought we were out of our trees.
Karakoram (or 'Khara-kherem' in Mongolian) means 'black barrier'. The great wall of China is called 'Tsagaan-Kherem', or 'white barrier'.
From Islamabad, we were trying to get to Skardu, the capital of the Baltistan region in Northern Pakistan. Baltistan means 'land of the Balti people' in Balti. This flight is weather dependent, and it was necessary for us to stay in Islamabad an extra day - the rains had started. Our hotel room that night was cold - 17 degrees according to the A/C. Each time we tried turning it down one of the hotel staff appeared outside the window to inspect the pipes. He then knocks on the door, comes in and turns it up again (the second time under the premise of checking the TV). He told me, in broken English that he is from Kashmir and had lost 2 of his brothers, 2 nephews and his mother in the recent earthquakes there. He was interested in knowing if the news of the devestation had reached us in England. That day, on a visit to the main bazaar with Syed, we drank some Lassi at a street stall. This was when Kerry drank EVIL LASSI. CURSE YOU EVIL LASSI.
The flight to Skardu the next morning was one of the most scenic I have ever been on. The plane came in low, soaring snow covered peaks on both sides.. The landing would not have been nice in low cloud. At the airport we met our mountain guide, Aliakbar - "Ali" (one of the other trekking agencies here was run by Simon Yates, of 'Touching the Void' fame) and were taken to our hotel.
The next day we took a white knuckle jeep ride to Askole village, following the Braldu river up the Shigar valley. This river comes directly from the glaciers and the volume of water it contains can swell by a factor of 12 or so. Our jeep had to stop and backtrack frequently due to landslides and river crossings. After a few hours, we came round one corner to find a newly created river had taken out a good 10 metre stretch of road altogether. It took 2 hours for us (our guide and porters) to dislodge enough rocks upstream to form a makeshift bridge, allowing the jeep to get across.. Kerry and I were all ready to wade across ourselves, but were picked up and carried across as if we were part of the luggage. At Thongol village we left the jeeps altogether and walked the last 2 hour stretch to Askole, due to another landslide.
DAY 1 (Askole to Namla)
Askole village is not a very nice place. The single toilet available to us was disgusting. In the morning we were glad to leave and start our trek proper, towards the start of the Biafo glacier. After a few hours walking on pebbly moraine we passed the turn off to the Baltoro glacier. Most trekers in Pakistan follow this route as it leads to K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum (means 'beautiful' in Urdu, apparently) II, III and IV. The Base Camp of K2 (the 2nd highest mountain in the world) is Pakistan's biggest tourist pull. Our guide, Ali has summited Broad Peak (8047m) a few times and says (at least, as far as we can make out) that it is not a technical climb, and we should come back to Pakistan next year to summit it...
After another hour or so we got our first views of the Biafo ('rooster') glacier and in another 2 we were walking on the ice. This glacier, along with the Hispar to the west form the largest continous stretch of ice in the Karakoram - 114km. The two are connected by the pass at 5151m, the Hispar La. This was our goal.
By this time Kerry was feeling unwell and was sick. We started out on the glacier, having to cross it a few times to avoid crevasses. The terrain was very unstable, on ice, scree and piles of large boulders (Talus). As we were walking Ali and the porters occasionally burst into song. Their singing is great, and reminds me of the Muezzin call to prayer we heard everywhere in Indonesia. Ali asked us if we 'spoke in song' - I was tempted to recite something by the Beatles, or even the Cure, but I'm sorry to say I declined - somehow it didn't seem appropriate! Ali is from Baltistan, and is Balti-pa, a culture originally from Tibet.
We eventually reached an oasis of green, a place called 'Namla' where we set up camp, started Kerry on a course of antibiotics and fell asleep.
DAY 2 - Namla to Mango
Kerry is still bad this morning (CURSE YOU EVIL LASSI), as we set off across the glacier once more. The going for the first few hours was very difficult, walking on unstable boulders and ice. After another hour or so we reached medial moraine (flatter stuff). The weather changes all the time here. We started out in hot sunshine, but around midday a strong wind started up and the heavens opened. We got soaked (no waterproofs handy!). At last we reached 'Mango', cold and wet. As if on cue, the sun came out and we dried off nicely. I think Kerry's antibiotics are beginning to work - she seems at last to be able to hold down food - famous last words! The rainwater streaming off the mountains onto the glacier below is causing many small waterfalls all around us. We set up camp for the night and dried out all our stuff (passports, flight tickets etc..)
DAY 3 - Mango I
We were up 3 times in the night, and Kerry is still very bad. We decided to stay put today to allow her to rest. Although we were up for sunrise this morning. It wasn't great as I was holding Kerry up over a rock. We had to negociate our porters, who had assembled in a line to pray. In the morning (proper) I walked up to the nearby glacier. The view down was spectacular.
DAY 4 - Mango to Baintha I
Up another 3 times last night. At 4am, holding Kerry over a rock (CURSE YOU EVIL LASSI), spurting liquid from both ends (Kerry, not the rock...) I began to think we would have to turn back. It would still be at least 3 more days before she could see a doctor, but it might be our best option. 2 hours later, after breakfast and some consultation with Ali, we decided to carry on and set off for the next camp. Kerry is being amazingly strong. She feels sick all the time and is having real trouble holding anything down. I'm not sure I would be doing so well if our roles were reversed.
Ayway, we set off (in the rain) across very unstable, black rubble covered ice until we hit a huge band of white ice after about an hour. As usual, our porters raced ahead of us - I really don't know how they do it - they carry upto 25kg each (in makeshift packs.
We hiked up this white motorway for about 3 hours, and then started to cross to the glaciers far side - a task which took about an hour. Each time we thought we had crossed the final medial moraine (as in, 'you're a right medial moraine') band, we discovered another white motorway on the other side. We had lunch on the glacier itself - biscuits, rock hard dried apricots (a Baltistan's Shigar valley speciality) - really tasty, and green tea. We have got to know 2 of our porters a little. Abudullaman, who we gave a few plasters to for a nasty cut on his hand, and 'Special porter' (Ali's nickname, not ours) who walks with us everyday, helping us with routefinding.
Finally we reached our camp in an ablation valley (side bit) on the opposite side of the ice. The camp is called 'Baintha', and is really nice and green. I'm so glad we made it today. At last I think Kerry is recovering. The glacier flows on, but Kerry's flow is receding (I should be a poet). It's still raining. We had a minor tip-giving ceremony as 5 of our porters are leaving us tomorrow - heading back to Askole (in a single day!). It's very hard to know what to give them (bearing in mind we now seem to have 12 porters, it could be an expensive business). We gave them 2000RP each. They seemed happy enough. I first went out holding a 10RP note and told them to share it amongst themselves. This was met with stoney silence. BAD JOKE.
DAY 5 (09/08/06)
Today was designated a rest day, and it was a welcome break for Kerry. I took a side trip with Ali to the Base Camp of the Latok peaks, some of the most technical in the world to summit. We set off up an east/west tributary glacier (the Bantha Lukpar), past the huge granite spear of the Orges Thumb - so far unclimbed. At the end of this valley are Latok I, II, III and IV. I met 2 Spanish blokes who had been camping there for the last month. They has summited Latok III 2 weeks ago (via the south east ridge) and were well chuffed. They are the 3rd recorded party to climb this peak. The other group there consisted of 3 Americans. I had a good chat with one of them, a larger than life guy called Steve Swanson. They are planning to attempt Latok III's west face (the one facing the camp). This face is so far unclimbed. They had a telescope, and were spending their time mapping out the face to find a route up. The summit is just under 7000m Latok I is very technical, and it's western face has only been climbed once - by a Japanese group on an expedition style assault (I gather some of them died in the attempt). 'Latok' is a Balti word, which I think means something like 'big pass'.
DAY 6 - Baintha I to Marpogoro
Up at 5.30am this morning for breakfast, and then set off up the valley for a half hour or so before crossing the moraine onto the glacier. We had good weather today, and easy walking on the upper section of the Biafo. Great views of the glacier behind us as we walked, and even took a few photos of the remaining porters. After about 4 hours we crossed back to the left side of the glacier and found the camp, Marpogoro ('red' in Balti) under a big red rock. It has been nice having Kerry back in the land of the living.
DAY 7 - Marpogoro to Snow Lake
I think I'm getting too old for this. Today was extremely tiring, but we eventually made it to the Snow Lake, a 9km bowl of ice and snow. For the final hike up the very top part of the glacier our party were roped together. Ali's 3 hour estimate turned out to be 4 and a half hours, hiking through deep snow and having to backtrack frequently to avoid the crevasses. Our roped procession started with a prayer to Allah, and was lead by Shereef, who seems pertty experienced in dealing with crevasses.
The scenery up here is something else. There is no sound, except the occasional rock fall. When we arrived we pitched the tent on the snow (no sign of 'Lowe Alpine' today) and made damn sure our therm-a-rests were fully inflated. I think we could be in for a cold night. It's incredibly isolated up here. Apart from at the Latok BC, we haven't seen another person for 7 days.
DAY 8 (12/08/06) - Snow Lake to Khani-Basa
We got up for breakfast at 4am today, ready to tackle the Hispar la pass before the sun started to melt the snow and expose the crevasses; we needn't have worried as we didn't see much of the sun all day. It rained constantly all night, and the rain turned to snow once we had started the long slog up the pass. On the top we experienced total white-out conditions. We were roped together with Shereef at the front and Ali at the back, occasionally shouting directions (On, on, on cried the leaders at the back). Well, we got hopelessly lost. We could see nothing except our tracks and even those disappeared pretty quickly in the falling snow. I thought we had become pretty good at crevasse jumping, but when they are snow covered the problem gets much worse. Off we trapsed once more, walking through knee deep snow. The crevasses on the far side of the pass were even more dangerous. Just after I had taken this photo (which turned out to be one of the many dead ends due to the huge crevasses - we had to backtrack for half an hour;
we almost lost 'Special porter'. One minute he was there, the next he had been swallowed by a crevasse. Thank god/Allah/whoever that the plastic barrel he had strapped to his back acted like a cork, stopping him from falling all the way through the ice so we were able to drag him out. The same happened again a little later to another porter. Again we managed to haul him out. At last (after a few more misadventures and lots of shouting) we located the pass and descended the Hispar glacier. By this time we had been walking for about 11 and a half hours and our legs were like jelly. (later, looking at our itinerary we found we had walked 2 'strenuous' days in one!). We reached the camp just as the sun was setting, at 6pm and pretty much fell asleep on the spot. The last section had taken 4 hours.
DAY 9 - Well needed rest day
We both woke up in agony this morning, having both managed to severely burn our lips and the underside of our noses yesterday on the ice. Our lips have swelled up and it is very painful. Apparently I look like Mick Jagger. I'm getting a little sick of dishing out the contents of our first-aid kit to the porters.
We had the best lunch so far today. A gourmet meal of sausages and chips, fresh chapatti and fried tuna with lots of garlic, rounded off with tinned cherries - prepared by expert cook Ali. Cook has been out of the picture today ('stomach problems' - we gave him a course of antibiotics which I've no doubt he's stuck up his arse or similar). We have been filtering our drinking water for the last few days thanks to our Katadyn filter (thanks Sanger Centre). All that is available is glacial water and it is very hard to get all the silt out of it. I\m having to clean the filter element every half litre.
We both work up in pain again this morning. Kerry's face, especially her upper lip has swelled to extreme proportions. She looks like a cross between Bjork and a cabbage patch kid.
Pretty standard day of walking today. We had to cross another tributary glacier, passing Kanjut Sar (at 7760m it is the 29th highest mountain in the world). At 12.15 we stopped for lunch and discovered that Kerry's left hand has swelled up badly. We submerged it in cold water for a bit to hopefully allow the swelling to go down.
Next we had to negociate another river crossing. Shereef insisted on carring us both across on his back. He then went back for Ali! Shereef is like superman, except without the red pants on the outside of his trousers. From our lunch stop, Ali's estimation of 'another 20 minutes' turned out to be an hour. We setup camp in the rain. Also, forgot to mention that we have discovered who is responsible for the morning singing we wake upto each day. It is 'Special porter', and he has a great voice - kind of Tom Jones does Islamic singing. I am still trying to work out how our party knows which way to face with praying. Yesterday evening they were all facing the setting sun - was that a coincidence? Kerry says they face Mecca - it's in Saudi Arabia but how would they know where that is in relation to here? It's not like we have anything as sensible as a compass (or god forbid, a GPS) for this dangerous, high altitude trek!!
DAY 11 - Jutmal to Pumari
The glacier we are following down the valley, the Hispar is much more crevassed than the previous one. Because of this we are having hard walking days crossing difficult moraine and traversing hillsides. We stopped for tea around 11am today on a meadow where we were ushered uner a plastic sheet whilst Shereef prepared tea and biscuits in the rain. There was a grave at this site - Ali told us that a porter had died last season of 'head problems' - I assume he means AMS. The guy was 22 years old. As well as lots of blue and pink geraniums there was also wild rhubarb growing everywhere. We picked some and when we reached camp we showed cook and Ali how to prepare and stew it - in preparation for Rhubarb and custard tonight. Comedy moment.
DAY 12 - Pumari to Bitanmal
It rained all last night. Today was a pretty uneventful day traversing hillsides for 6 hours. 2 river crossings - both times Shereef insisted on carrying us. One dodgy rockslide which took half an hour to negotiate. More plasters dispensed from the 'group' first-aid kit. Everything is very green here.
DAY 13 - Bitanmal to Ghurbun
The last glacier crossing of our trek proved to be the worst. In Kerry's words, 'We crossed a bugger of a glacier in hot weather - gameover'. We saw some donkeys, a horse and some cows fighting. We arrived at a nice flat green campsite about 2 hours from Hispar village, the highest dwellings in the Nagar valley. 2 blokes approached and they argued for about 40 minutes with Ali whether we should pay a fee. We fell asleep. We have nearly finished our Mango pickle. I'm getting worried about what i'm going to eat with my rice. We got away with not paying. Imagine rolling up at a campsite in England and deciding not to pay. Shereef has gone ahead to the village. Apparently he is looking for another wife - Pakistani men are allowed to have upto 4.
DAY 14 - Ghurbun to Hispar Village
Only 2 hours walking today before we reached Hispar village, situated right on the edge of the glacier. By the time we had crossed the dangerous bridge and scaled the steep slope upto the village we had picked up about 10 onlookers, all wondering what the strange foreigners might do. After lots of handshaking (done very gently here, almost a hand touch - very different from the strong western handshake) we met Syed at the top, which was a nice suprise. In the afternoon we were taken on a 'cultural tour' of the village by one of the elders. This started out with us all squatting around and eating a large pile of raw broad beans and turnips - some kind of warm up? Then we were walked around the wheat fields. Kerry was sent off to speak to the women (who were cutting large fields of long grass with tiny scythes), whilst us men stood around looking manly and discussing my possible marriage to one of the local girls. Then somebody suggested that we go and play volleyball, which we did. The visitors won 12-10 (we kind of gave up after that point). Volleyball at 3200m is pretty tiring. We have heard many heated discussions between Ali and some of the villagers - I think they are after more money! Shereef has promised some fresh apricots tomorrow. Can't wait!
It looks as though we have been very lucky to have been over the pass. Syed has been telling us that the weather has been very bad for the time of year and that 3 other groups, who set out from Askole after us had to turn back. 70 people have died in flooding in Islamabad, and our flight to Skardu was the last for 2 weeks. The Isralies have finally called a cease-fire.
After dinner a load of villagers joined our party for an 'evening of song and dance' - it was like a good night in the Hare Krishna tent at Glastonbury - amazing how much fun you can have with a plastic fuel container, a stick and a few voices..
After a breakfast of fresh eggs, we set off in a jeep for Karimabad. After an hour or so we stopped and a few of our party dissapeared by a nearby hillside to 'find someone' - we expected them to come back with Worzel Gummage, but instead they reappeared with Shereef cluching a large bad of apricots, which we enjoyed for the next few hours. The small shelled almonds we have been eating most lunchtimes are not almonds at all, but apricot kernels. The apricots here are great. The Shigar valley has 54 varieties!
We stayed 2 nights in Hunza/Karimabad. The Hunza valley was described as 'the ultimate manifestation of mountain grandeur' by Eric Shipton, the first European to 'discover' this region. It's a great place and well geared up for tourists; only 2 hours on the KKH to the Chinese border. On our last evening I went with Syed and Shereef to the 'Eagles Nest' for the sunset - this 'small walk' turned out to be a 3 hour hike up a cliff. The views from the top were great though. We could see back down the valley to the Hispar La (the pass we had crossed). Near the top we came across an apricot tree bursting with fruit. I feasted.
Fairy Meadows and Nanga ParbatThe next morning we left for Fairly Meadows, or Raikot Sarai, a beautiful high altitude meadow with swiss style cabins very near Nanga Parbat, the worlds 9th highest mountain and Pakistan's 2nd highest peak. For much of the 6 hour journey we had the edge of the Karakoram behind us, the Hindu Kush to out right and the beginnings of the Himalaya in front.
After 6 hours we changed vehicles to a jeep and started a long dangerous climb upwards. At 2000m we passed a jeep coming back down, containing about 10 locals and a very worried looking woman shaking her head at us. She told us that due to landslides we had a 7 hour walk in front of us. Sure enough, a few minutes later we had to abandon the jeep as a large part of the track had been washed away. Syed, never one to be disheartened told us with his usual happy smile that 'it would not take us 7 hours'. We did it in 6, and arrived at Fairy Meadows just after sunset, at 3300m with fantastic views of Nanga Parbat on the way up.
The next day, 22nd August
Kerry is sick again. At breakfast I heard a tiny murmur of 'I think i'm going to pass out', and sure enough, she did. Before I knew it we had a small crowd of concerned locals around us, 2 of whom had already whipped off Kerry's sandles and were rubbing her feet. A boiled egg was brought out and she was spoon-fed salted egg and honey. One guy brought over two huge slices of honeydew melon, and a few minutes later he returned with another 2 and some great homemade bread/cake things. I had a fantastic breakfast but Kerry couldn't eat too much.
Over the next couple of days Kerry recovered and we hiked up to the Nanga Parbat Base Camp, and then BC1. We managed to get a lunch that didn't consist of rice and dahl - we had chip/chapatti butties and soup. The North face of NP, the one facing us is rarely climbed these days as it is too dangerous. It's known as the 'Killer Mountain' locally and has taken many lives.
Chilas, 25th August
I'm writing this from the Stifling heat of Chilas. I'm sitting on the step outside our room waiting for the temperature to drop below 36 degrees, amusing myself by trying to understand what the Spanish group on the lawn are talking about. I'm not doing very well. Kerry is asleep in the room. We have A/C, but there has been a power cut for the last 3 hours. I'm trying to abstain from reading any more of the book I pinched from our Hunza hotel ('Complicity' by Iain Banks) as I think we have a 12+ hour bus ride back to Islamabad tomorrow and i'll need something to keep me amused. Syed has just phoned and told me he misses me (he had to leave us a few days ago to meet up with another group). I think that's nice. I think Shereef is out in the village, probably looking for a wife.
Shereef left us this morning to go back to his family. He wouldn't except our tip, which I had to stuff into his top pocket and tell him it was for cigarettes. He gave me his address. Must remember to send him some photos. Syed has booked us some tickets on a NATCO VIP bus, seats 11 and 12, leaving at 1pm.
1pm. no bus.
2pm. no bus.
3pm. Back to the hotel. We are hot. Staff try phoning all the contact numbers I have
3.40pm. Hotel man tells me NATCO are cheats. At last NATCO bus pulls up outside. We get on. I climb up onto the roof with our bag. I nearly fall off and kill myself. When I try to get off I find I am now the bag man, and have to help everybody else with their suitcases. Seats 11 and 12 are taken. The driver shouts at the Chinese looking people in our seats, and eventually resorts to physically pulling them up and sending them to the back of the bus. They simply come back. Driver brings on burly man from outside, to the amusement of all the other passengers. We end up in different seats. A/C vents are set to blow cold coldish air 3 inches above our heads. This bus is shit. The only indication of it being 'VIP' are the VIP letters tipexed on the armrest of the front seat. We bought lots of exotic sweets for the journey, most of which turned out to be horrible (especially the Fanta flavoured bettel nuts. 1 hour into the journey we need our passports for a police checkpoint. They are at the bottom of our bag, on the roof. Almost all the other passengers are Chineese looking. I hope we are not going to China! This bus wins a prize for the worst sound system ever. I can't even make out any individual sounds. Just an incredible concophony of white noise (with the occasional cat-like wail) 3 inches from my ear. Imagine a drum and bass remix of an Elvis song, played incredibly loudly on a phone, in a metal bucket, 10 miles away. Our driver seems to delight in taking corners at full speed, sounding the horn at the very last second to give any oncoming vehicle a small chance to get out of our way. I spent much of the journey praying that a) our tyres were good (although given the state of all the others I have seen in Pakistan, I doubt it), b) that we would be lucky on the corners, and c) that we didn't come across any fresh rockfalls. Whilst it was light we passed through many areas where huge rockfalls had cut off all but just enough room to squeeze past, with a 500m plunge into the river on the other side. We stopped for a cup of Chai and got chatting to the driver. He couldn't believe that we have been married for 4 years and no kids. Any self respecting Pakistani would have had at least 12 by now.
The first thing we did in Islamabad was to track down a ATM which took visa (very few seem to). We then indulged in pizza and zinger burgers (copyright is slack here). The next day we took a 6 hour bus ride to Lahore (at 175RP-about 1.50 pounds each, possibly the cheapest bus ride ever- definately breaks my 1 pound per hour