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Ice and isolation in the Karakoram

By Matthew Green, Photographs: Alamy, Matthew Green

Ever alert to the risk that one of his guests might stray on to a trapdoor-like patch of ice, plunge into a hidden crevasse and never be seen again, Atta Khan gave the gleaming crust of the Biafo glacier another exploratory prod. A well-weathered guide, who had once rescued a man wedged 35m below the surface, he put aside his stick and uncoiled a yellow cord. “Better rope up,” he said. “I don’t trust this snow.”

The clink of metal striking metal pierced the thin air as our three-strong party snapped open carabiners and, one by one, clipped on to Atta’s line. His orders were strict: maintain single file and walk perpendicular to the chasms. Otherwise, if one should slip, the rope may drag everybody down.

It was day four of our attempt on the Hispar Pass, a 5,151m saddle deep in the Karakoram, an ethereal, granite-spired bastion in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of north-east Pakistan. Dominated by K2, the world’s second highest peak, the range began to lure a growing influx of trekkers in the early 1980s, but a surge in militant attacks in Pakistan after 9/11 has since deterred all but the most intrepid international tour companies and hit local operators hard. A further blow came on June 22, 2013, when gunmen entered the base camp of the 8,126m Nanga Parbat, killing 10 foreigners, among them Ukrainians, Slovakians and Chinese, as well as a local Pakistani cook.

Trekkers on the Biafo glacier©AlamyTrekkers on the Biafo glacier

Mercifully, the targeting of mountaineers appears to have been a one-off and some in the travel industry believe visitor numbers may be on the cusp of a revival, spurred by the British government earlier this year lifting its warning against visiting Gilgit-Baltistan. Tour operators in Pakistan and abroad hope other countries may reassess similar warnings, which are a big factor in deterring visitors. “The Pakistan government has to go out and approach other countries to relax the travel advisories,” says Nazir Sabir, a renowned Pakistani mountaineer, whose company Nazir Sabir Expeditions organised our trek. “I am one of those Pakistanis who feel guilty for not being able to present this wonderful piece of land — for all it has been blessed with — to the outside world.”

For those willing to make the trip, the Karakoram are getting easier to reach. In June, Pakistan International Airlines launched flights from Islamabad to Skardu, gateway to the region, using an Airbus A320 with three times the capacity of the turboprop that had previously served the route. Similar flights are planned for Gilgit and Chitral, while Chinese engineers have also greatly improved long stretches of the Karakoram Highway, the main artery leading to Islamabad, making for a smoother trip through the dizzying gorges cradling the road. Domestic tourism is also burgeoning in the Hunza Valley, another highlight of Gilgit-Baltistan, and it is hard to imagine that the Karakoram will remain on the outer rim of the global hiking circuit forever.

“My feeling — and I could easily be proved wrong on this — is that tourism in Pakistan will start to pick up,” says Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers, a British adventure tour operator, who has been visiting Pakistan since the 1990s, and led his latest tour to the north in May. “Pakistan really felt for me like it had changed. And I hope, if things stay OK, that 2017 could be a really good year for the country.”

While that prospect is still uncertain, one thing is not in doubt: in northern Pakistan, the line between tourism and genuine adventure can rapidly blur. Though we would not glimpse K2 on our route, reaching the Hispar Pass would take us across an extraordinary feature: a quasi-mythical plateau of deeply packed ice, christened the Snow Lake by the swashbuckling art historian Sir Martin Conway, who in 1892 became the first European to visit. It is almost 5,000m above sea level and nine miles wide; Conway 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”.

Known as Lukpe Lawo in Balti, Snow Lake held an irresistible fascination for the interwar mountaineers Eric Shipton and Harold Tilman, who crossed it and the pass in 1937. They subsequently spent years speculating — semi-seriously — over whether strange snowprints they had spotted might have belonged toHomo nivalis abominibalis, otherwise known as the yeti.

Though the Shipton-Tilman expedition debunked an earlier theory that the Snow Lake was a 300 sq mile “ice cap” — it is about a tenth that size — crossing it remains a formidable undertaking. After driving to the trailhead at Askole, our plan was to spend 11 days trekking to the village of Hispar, where jeeps would meet us for the drive to Gilgit. For almost all that time we would be following a highway of ice, ascending the Biafo glacier to the Snow Lake and Hispar Pass, then descending the Hispar glacier on the other side.

At a combined length of more than 68 miles, the back-to-back Biafo-Hispar pairing forms the longest contiguous glacier complex outside Antarctica. Add in detours to avoid proliferating crevasses, and our route would be further still.

We had hoped to travel light and keep our headcount of porters to a minimum. In the event, our group of three trekkers ended up with a team of 42. The figure sounds absurd until you consider that there is no food or firewood on the glaciers; that three meals a day are cooked on temperamental kerosene stoves; and that the whole exercise is ruled by a mysterious algorithm which states that the more porters you hire, the more you need to carry the additional porters’ gear. The remainder of our party — two goats and some chickens — would be slaughtered en route.

Once we reached on the glacier, the sense of isolation was complete. In 11 days of trekking over mica-flecked moraine and sparkling ice, we had only two human encounters. The first was with a ruddy-cheeked German and his four porters, who had abandoned their attempt on the pass after sinking into impassable snow. The second was with an elderly shepherd named Shaban Ali, who was lamenting the death of his yak calf at the claws of a snow leopard the previous night. His loss was our porters’ gain — they bought the meat and ate it that evening.

We hiked for eight hours a day, the porters pressing on ahead to set up camp. Although it could be very cold at night, it was perfectly tolerable with a good sleeping bag and the extra inflatable mat I had brought, even when our tents were pitched on the glacier itself.

We had hoped to travel light; in the event, our group of three trekkers ended up with a team of 42 porters

We began our crossing of the Snow Lake and the ascent of the pass at 3am on July 5, trusting head torches to light a safe path. Atta had explained that the cold was our friend — the snowpack leading to the pass would stay crisp, carved into eerie ripples by the wind. Too much sun, and, like the German and his porters, we would flounder thigh-deep. Our luck — and the surface — held. First light gilded a ridge and drifts like huge sand dunes shone brilliant white.

One by one, dawn illuminated the cathedral peaks encircling Snow Lake, their summits piercing a dark blue sky. The immensity of the landscape and the depth of the stillness evoked a feeling of trespassing in a sacred realm. We were standing in the very spot that had so mesmerised Shipton when he had written his memorable sentence: “Across this blank space was written one challenging word, ‘Unexplored’.”

We made the final push up to the pass in bursts, walking sideways to avoid slipping, and pausing often to gulp the purest air. Though close to exhaustion, one of our party lifted an unexpectedly rousing cry of Pakistan Zindabad — “Long Live Pakistan” — and the porters waiting on the crest gave a hearty return cheer. Reaching the top, we drank in a panorama of sawtooth peaks marching in every direction, snow clinging to their flanks. The Victorian theory that this might have been a “third pole” no longer seemed quite so outlandish.

Some of the porters supporting Matthew Green’s group©Matthew GreenSome of the porters supporting Matthew Green’s group

The hardest part lay ahead. Smaller glaciers feeding the Hispar had shrunk since Atta’s last visit three years before, making crossing them far harder. One section that had previously been passed in an easy 45 minutes now took five hours of scrambling over colossal, slowly disintegrating ice blocks. Chunks sheared off without warning, splashing into turquoise pools or tumbling into crevasses with an unsettling crumping sound reminiscent of faraway artillery. Atta chopped steps with an ice-axe, or anchored ropes with screws so we could rappel down sheer faces. Once we had to jump from a crag — into the outstretched hands of porters gathered immediately below. “It looks dangerous, but it’s very easy,” Atta coached. “You just have to leap.”

The most unnerving challenge was a perilously narrow ice bridge, the depths of the crevasses on either side hidden in darkness. “Ride like a horse,” Atta shouted — meaning we should shuffle along on our backsides to lower our centre of gravity.

A tumbling boulder bent one of my walking poles, but we eventually escaped the snowline and descended through boulder-strewn vales speckled with wild rhubarb, which we peeled and ate raw. Finally, we spotted our goal: the village of Hispar, perched on a fortresslike cliff overlooking the snout of the glacier. A torrent swollen with meltwater whipped under a swaying bridge with storm force, yet the weather had been kind: we were the first to make it across the pass this year.

Shipton named his book recounting the journey in to the Karakoram Blank on the Map. Though the mountains keep fewer secrets than they did in the explorer’s day, and might soon welcome many more visitors, they still promise a true encounter with the wilderness. The days we spent among them felt like a journey through another dimension, a place that transcended human concerns. For me it was more than an adventure, it was medicine for the soul.


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