Snow Lake and Hispar La (5151m), August 2013 - Northern Areas of Pakistan
Sir Martin Conway (a British explorer who mapped 5000 sq.km of the Karakoram Range, the achievement for which he was knighted ) visited the place in 1892 and described it as “beyond all comparison the finest view of mountains it has ever been my lot to behold, nor do I believe the world can hold a finer”. He called it the Snow Lake. Seven years later in 1899, the American geographer and explorer husband-wife team of William Hunter and Fanny Bullock Workman came and speculated Snow Lake to be an ice-cap like those in the Polar Regions, from which glaciers flowed out in all directions . Later during 1937’s historic Shaksgam Expedition led by Eric Shipton, a distinguished British explorer and mountaineer, Major Bill Tilman made the first precise topographical survey that included crucial geographical bearings. He estimated the area of this vast basin of snow as around 80 sq km.
Biafo Glacier (60 km long) and Hispar Glacier (61 km long) meet at the 5151 m. Hispar Pass to form the longest glacial systems outside the polar regions. This 120km long highway of ice connects two ancient mountain kingdoms; Hunza in the west with Baltistan in the east. At the base of Hispar Pass on its eastern flank rests Snow Lake, or Lukpe Lawo as it is called in the local Balti language; a basin of ice 16 km wide and 1.6km thick, surrounded by granite pinnacles yet to be climbed.
The way to Snow Lake trek is from Skardu – a lovely town in Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan, surrounded by cloud-covered mountains, and inhabited by people with hearts of gold. From Skardu, an adrenaline-pumping jeep ride of around six hours leads to a small village called Askole. From Askole, the route becomes a walking trek that starts off very smoothly, but within hours it presents the gigantic Biafo– the world’s third largest glacier. From here onwards the path is a roller coaster ride along Biafo, going through lateral moraines and icy glaciers, over loose rocks and huge boulders, across crevices of varying sizes and with some unbelievably relaxing meadows. The terrain is vast, ruthless and unforgiving, yet immensely beautiful and serene at the same time. It is almost a fairy-tale walk on a huge royal corridor lined on both sides by sky-high icy pinnacles standing like grand castles. A tough trek of six days takes us to Snow Lake, a magical place whose first sight has an unexplainable impact: it is as if the time has become still, and we are wandering in a timeless wonderland in a state of dream. It is simply a place beyond any imagination, and no matter how many of its pictures we have seen, its mystical beauty has a spell-bounding effect. Suddenly, all the hardships of the past one week vanish, and all that remains is the astounding beauty of this remote, hidden place. Having passed the Snow Lake, the climb over Hispar La and walk down the Hispar glacier keep on throwing different landscapes in each of the remaining five 5 days, and maintain the excitement which one thought would be over after seeing the climax of the trek at Snow Lake. Finally, the trek comes down to the beautiful Hispar village, the first sight of proper human settlement in 13 days, and the end of walk. From here, there is another exciting jeep ride of almost half a day, which brings us to Hunza – a beautiful valley dominated by the magnificent white Rakaposhi (7788m), loaded with fresh fruits and most hospitable people, no less than a paradise after two weeks of battering trekking.
Both the Snow Lake and Concordia treks originate from the same point: Askole – a small village representing the last human settlements on the route that leads to the heart of the Karakorams. First couple of hours of walk is the same for both the treks, until the Snow Lake route turn left (or North-West) and come over Biafo Glacier, while the Concorida trek leads straight ahead Eastwards on to the Baltoro glacier. The Concordia trek over the Baltoro glacier offers beautiful sights of a wide variety of renowned peaks such as the Trango Towers, Cathedral Peaks, Broad Peak (12th highest in the world), Gasherbrum I or G1
(11th highest), Gasherbrum II or G2 (13th highest) and of course K2 – the 2nd highest mountain of the world. Furthermore, Concordia offers a panorama having no parallel in the world: view of 4 of the
world’s 14 peaks higher than 8000 meters (The Eight-Thousanders) – a wonderland of a place for trekkers and mountaineers. With Baltoro being such a home of eight-thousanders within the Karakorams, the Concordia trek receives large number of visitors. Snow Lake trek, on the other hand, has comparatively lesser known peaks along its way: the famous mountains seen on this route include Baintha group (with Ogre Peak, 7285m high), and Latok group with Latok I (7151m), Latok II (7145m), and several peaks of heights between 7200-7900m of Hispar-Muztagh sub-range of the Karakoram. As a result, the Snow Lake route is far less traversed than the Concordia trek, path is more obscure, wilderness is extreme with high sense of isolation and loneliness all along the route. However, the rewards are in proportion with the hardships: the beauty of the Snow Lake is supreme and untouched, almost unparalleled, and witnessed by very few – the sense of achievement in getting there is monumental, the memories brought back are for a lifetime, and it is arguably one of the best treks in the world.
Challenges and Apprehensions
Snow Lake route comprises of around 2 weeks of trekking, with average 6 to 7 hours of walk each day. It is rated as a hard, strenuous trek, and its threats are very real and clear. It traverses full lengths of two huge glaciers: Biafo and Hispar glaciers, each around 60km long, with Hispar Pass at their junction requiring a gradual yet long ascent of around 400m. Although the trek presents very gradual ascent till the Snow Lake basecamp, the starting point of the trek – Askole village – itself is at an elevation of more than 3000m; therefore, acclimatization is a serious concern. The route over Biafo is almost completely glacier-walking, with several hours each day on moraine consisting of sharp, unstable rocks and boulders. The danger of crevices is very pertinent; during the initial days, there is a continuous series of large exposed crevices which require careful hoping or circumnavigation. Group roping up is unavoidable for safely crossing Snow Lake and the Hispar Pass – both locations infested with a lot of hidden crevices, and some exposed ones of huge dimensions. Similarly on the Hispar side, the challenges include crevices during glacier walking, climbing and descending very steep muddy ridges and crossing side glaciers. As the place is solated and with no cellular network coverage, contact in case of emergency or injury is difficult. Abrupt and unfavorable changes in weather with possibilities of continuing rain, dense fog and snow blizzards posed yet another threat. The road-route to Skardu was a long way on the Karakoram Highway, frequently obstructed by landslides. The security concerns were also quite disturbing; with recent mountaineers’ murder incidence of Nanga Parbat taking place near Chilas just a couple of months earlier. Then there was a mental challenge posed by the extreme wilderness and isolation of the whole area we were to walk
through for two weeks.
Having done the trek, I can only and simply say this: "Apprehensions are always worse than reality".
I found it worth all the efforts of 2 weeks' trekking in the merciless Karakorams. Snow Lake is indeed an out-worldly place, impossible to describe in words or pictures; the views are unforgettable. All the places around the trek from Skardu to Hunza are very peaceful, with extremely hospitable and helpful people. The security concerns along Karakoram Highway (KKH) from Islamabad to Skardu are not at all as bad as depicted in the news from a few isolated events; there is plenty of traffic along this route. Besides, alternative to road travel on KKH exists in the form of flights between Skardu and Islamabad - though often disrupted due to weather. Islamabad is a delightful town, while Lahore and Karachi depict the true cultural colors of Pakistan.
Completed Trek Summary
Day 01 Skurdu - Askole 11 hours Jeep (4 hour delay due to landslide blockade)
Day 02 Askole - Namla 7 hours trek (camp)
Day 03 Namla - Shafong 8 hours trek (camp)
Day 04 Mango - Biantha 2 hours trek (camp)
Day 05 Rest day at Biantha Rest Day (camp)
Day 06 Biantha - Marphogoro 6 hours trek (camp)
Day 07 Marphogoro - Karphogoro 5 hours trek (camp)
Day 08 Karphogoro - HisparLa Top 7 hours trek (camp)
Day 09 HisparLa Top - Khani Basa 9 hours trek (camp)
Day 10 Khani Basa - Yutmaru 8 hours trek (camp)
Day 11 Yutmaru - Bitanmal 6 hours trek (camp)
Day 12 Bitanmal – Ghurbin 5 hours trek (camp)
Day 13 Ghurbin - Hispar, Hunza 2 hours trek, 4 hours jeep (2 hour delay due to blockade)
Day 14 Free day in Hunza
Significant Mountains Along the Trek…
Mountain (Altitude) First View
Bakhor Das Peak (5809m) Soon after Askole (Day02)
Bullah Peak (5942m), Snout of Biafo (Day02)
Biantha Brakk (or the Ogre, 7285m), Namla Campsite (Day02)
Mango Brakk (5001m), On way to Shafong (Day03)
Gama Sokha Lumbu (5904m), On way to Shafong (Day03)
Uzum Brakk (Conway’s Ogre, 6422m), On way to Shafong (Day03)
Baintha and Latok groups, Soon after Baintha Campsite (Day06)
Lukpilla Brakk (~ 5600m), Marphogoro Campsite (Day06)
Sosbun Brakk (6413m), Karphogoro Campsite (Day07)
Solu Towers (5947m), Snow Lake (Day08)
Lukpe Lawo Brakk (6593m), Snow Lake (Day08)
Cornice Peak (5882m), Snow Lake (Day08)
Workman Peak (5745m), Hispar La Top (Day08)
Kunyang Chhish (7852m), Hispar La Top (Day08)
Pumari Chhish (7350m), Hispar La Top (Day08)
Makrong Chhish (6607m) Hispar La Top (Day08)
Hispar Sar (6395m), Hispar La Top (Day08)
Alchori Sar (6243m), Hispar La descend (Day9)
Tahu Rutum (6651m), Hispar La descend (Day9)
Kanjut Sar I (7760m), Hispar La descend (Day9)
Kanjut Sar II (6831m), Hispar La descend (Day9)
Yukshin Gardan Sar (7530m), Khani Basa Glacier (Day9)
Yutmaru Sar (7283m), Immediately after crossing Yutmaru Glacier (Day10)