Mountain climbing: Gods awaiting pilgrims

Published: January 27, 2013

With towering peaks that even the Swiss would envy, Pakistan is a mountaineer’s paradise. If serious efforts are made to boost tourism in the Northern Areas, the destiny of the entire region could change for the better . PHOTO: VASIQ EQBAL

“Wake up, dude! It’s afternoon, you’re dreaming with your eyes open,” “You’ve never been beyond Murree and now you want to go to K-2? What are you smoking?” and “That’s lovely. Could you please pass the salt?”

These are some of the more printable replies I got when I declared, with much fanfare, that I was about to embark on an expedition to K-2. Of course, not all the replies were as demotivating as these, but even the somewhat supportive ones were laced with caution, sheer terror (for my expected fate) and had the ring of a final goodbye.

Going to K-2 had always been a dream of mine. Of course, it was a dream that I had seen while sitting in the comfort of my cozy drawing room, without really thinking it would happen — and that too so soon. So when the day finally arrived I blithely opted to fly to Skardu, treating myself to in-flight meals and a beautiful bird’s-eye view of the Karakorum. Little did I know that this would earn me the undying hatred of the expedition manager Fareed Gujjar. As it turned out, I was the only one lucky enough to bag a seat, while the others had to suffer through a 36-hour drive through the twists and turns of the Karakorum Highway (KKH). My attempts to pin this on the vagaries of the national carrier were to no avail, and for the rest of the trip, Mr Gujjar’s taunts were no less biting than the cold itself.  Before I go on about the expedition itself, I have to send a shout-out to Zahid Ali Khan aka ZAK, a humble and brilliant photographer who captured the stunning vistas you’re looking at here. Despite being 50 years old, overweight and diabetic, and having no mountaineering experience whatsoever, he took on the Karakorum where a lot of younger and healthier men faltered.

Ice 01

The first day started with a jeep ride from Skardu to Askoli Valley, our first camping site and the last human settlement in that area. The six-hour long, and very bumpy, ride was really tiring but I thought better of opening my mouth to complain when I saw that Gujjar’s anger over my plane ride had not yet subsided.

When we reached Askoli however, all the exhaustion was forgotten. A dazzling and awe inspiring valley, Askoli is a kaleidoscope of colours. Mountains of blinding white tower over fields of lush green grass; yellow sunflowers huddle around huge black rocks. From there we hopped from one camp to another, until the vast and terrifying wilderness of the Baltoro glacier stretched out before us. It’s long and dotted with ridges, crests and troughs, which made us rename it from bal-toro to haddi-toro (bonebreaker). The Karakorum range, also called the third pole, is one of the most heavily glaciated regions in the world and its 135 glaciers are a crucial water source for the arid low-lying areas.

Ice 02

After crossing Baltoro with our bones mostly intact, it was off to Concordia. On the way — through a cleavage between two smaller peaks — I caught a glimpse of Chogori, as K-2 is locally called. The first sight of my dream destination left me spellbound, but then a cloud descended, as if a veil had been lowered over the face of a blushing bride, and the moment passed. Not a veil, I thought again, but perhaps a crown for the King of the Karakorum.

And why not? K-2 — apart from being the world’s second highest peak — is also one of the three Pakistani ‘eight-thousanders’ (peaks over 8,000 metres in height) that remain unclimbed in winter. Gasherbrum II and I were recently climbed in the winters of 2011 and 2012, respectively, leaving only K-2, Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat in this exclusive club. None have successfully scaled their heights in winter, and these three remain an irresistible challenge to mountaineers everywhere.

Ice 03

And then there is Concordia. It got its name from European explorers, thanks to its similarity to another glacial confluence, know to the Swiss as Konkordiaplatz.

To me it was like a beautiful castle, the cornerstones of which are the Godwin-Austen and Baltoro glaciers where four towering eight-thousanders stand as if to defend it. The flanks of this natural fortification are secured by the Marbel and Mitre peaks.

Concordia is that bastion of mighty mountains which lures climbers from all over the world. Galen Avery Rowell, a noted wilderness photographer and climber termed Concordia “The Throne Room of The Mountain Gods”. A fitting title indeed.

But the Government of Pakistan has neglected these lonely gods for too long. To understand the level of this neglect, one must compare our eight-thousanders with those of other countries. There are only 14 eight-thousander peaks in the world, all of them located in South Asia.

India’s only eight-thousander, Kangchanjunga is shared with Nepal. In the same way, the four on the Nepal-China border — Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu are also shared.

Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna 1 (8,091m) are entirely in Nepal, whereas Shishapangma the shortest of eight-thousanders, is wholly in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China.

In a nutshell, six are divided between four countries, one is entirely in China, and Nepal has three. So with four of these giants (Gasherbrum I & II, Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat), Pakistan is in the lead. Even K-2, which borders China, is best accessed from Pakistan and is considered a more challenging climb than even Everest. Pakistan is a mountaineer’s paradise but no effort has been made to exploit this bounty of nature.

In fact, even the simple task of installing toilets here fell to an Italian NGO. When we arrived at Concordia, we found that they had installed eight eco-friendly toilets and had even devised a mecanism to dispose of human waste. They transport the excrement in drums via porters down to an earth incinerator, a process that takes three days. While the Pakistan government does lend its support, it was the Italians that took the initiative. They also carried out a K-2 cleanup operation, collecting 802 kg of disposed climbing gear.

When night falls in Concordia, the light from infinite stars travels down from the heavens to illuminate the ice under your feet. In the day, the practically unfiltered UV rays scorch your exposed skin and by night, the bitter cold makes you shiver.

From there we went off to try and get to the Gilkey memorial in the foothills of K-2. This is a cenotaph cairn erected and named after Art Gilkey, an American mountaineer who died at K-2 in 1953. The place is a memorial of those who have died while struggling with this savage mountain.

By this time, the whole group was so exhausted that only six out of the total 18 dared to go further. And out of those six, four decided to stay at K-2 base camp. Now it was just me and an ardent trekker named Dr Shahid, whose nightly snoring I felt sure would bring the mountains down upon our heads.

Creeping, crawling and sometimes crying with fear and exhaustion, we kept our spirits up by singing “ ” and somehow managed to cover a distance of four days in just 15 hours. After crossing a couple of hanging and hair-thin ice bridges with only the light of our headlamps to guide us, we made it back to Concordia with a light drizzle falling on us.

The trek to the memorial was terrifying and tiring but the view of all Concordia, the K-2 base camp, Angel Peak and a nearby lake was worth sacrificing our only Rest Day.

Ice 04

Photo credit: Zaigham Islam

Of course, nature then gave us not one but four rest days by stranding us at Ali camp, thanks to sudden snowstorms. Then came the zenith of our expedition: Gondogoro La, the world’s highest crossable (but very avalanche prone) mountain pass. It’s not just the height of it, a sickness-inflicting 5,940 meters that’s the problem, but the 50 degree slopes you have to ascend and descend as well.

Worse yet, an avalanche the night before had buried the defined path and it was nothing less than a miracle that we, who were mostly photographers and not professional climbers, made it through without injury.

Finally, there came our reward: the sight of all the 8,000m peaks of the Karakorum illuminated by the rosy-fingered dawn. No words can describe it. No picture can define it. And somehow, Pakistan cannot take advantage of the bounties nature and geography have bestowed on us.

What could we gain were we to fully tap into the mountaineering market? Let’s take the example of Switzerland — famous for its alpine sports and treks — where in 2011 tourism accounted for an estimated 2.9% of Switzerland’s gross domestic product. Tourism accounts for around 150,000 full time jobs in the country, the highest peak of which is barely 5,000 metres!

But perhaps Switzerland is too distant and developed to serve as a good comparison, so let’s look at India. Our neighbour-cum-foe has made tourism its largest service industry, and it now accounts for 6.23% of its GDP and 8.78% of its total employment.

In Nepal, Pakistan’s strongest competitor in terms of eight-thousanders, tourism is the largest industry, so big that it’s divided into three sections: culture, adventure and ecotourism. Nepal considers the tourist industry key to alleviating poverty and to achieve greater social equity.

Another contender in the race of eight-thousanders, China — possessor of half of K-2 and half of Mount Everest — is the third most visited country in the world, despite the language barrier. China’s tourism revenue reached $185 billion in 2009.

Then there’s Pakistan. Last year, 18 climbing and mountaineering expeditions — a total of 120 climbers — were likely to visit Pakistan. According to an unofficial account, just 30 climbers summited the K-2 this year. In an interview one of them said “Karakoram puts the rest of the world’s mountain ranges to shame.” We are sitting on a gold mine of mountains but getting only 120 explorers a year. Now that’s a real shame.  9/11, Talibanisation and terror brought Pakistan’s tourism industry to its knees, but the recent crises and sectarian massacres have truly put it on the mat. After the 2005 earthquake, Lonely Planet called Pakistani tourism ‘The next big thing’. The Guardian even released a list of “Top Five Tourist Sites in Pakistan”, but none of this promotion was effectively used by the government. By 2008, the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report (TTCR) ranked Pakistan at a dismal 103 out of 124 countries to visit. Now, the number of tourists falls every year due to a lack of security and infrastructure. Even the step of waiving royalty charges for peaks up to 6,500m, and giving large discounts for other peaks had little effect. In my opinion, it’s not the discount that’s the problem but the utter lack of security that keeps foreign climbers away. Adventure tourists, trekkers and climbers are a hardy lot who can do without spas and hotels. But they can’t do without security.

Last August, a bus full of passengers was massacred at the Babusar pass, compelling security forces to close down the KKH, the only ground link of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) with the rest of the country. More than 120 stranded foreigners were then airlifted from G-B to Islamabad. Assuming  that those 120 foreigners will only sing praises of G-B’s landscape (if they were lucky enough to have had a glimpse before the tragedy), would be a cardinal mistake. It is after all a marketing maxim that a happy customer tells three people while an unhappy customer tells 300!!

Porterage is the life blood of the people of the mountainous regions. That is how local breadwinners manage to feed their families. A porter in the Northern areas of Pakistan earns less than $5 a day for carrying heavy loads 25kg across treacherous terrain and deadly paths, wearing only one layer of clothing and plastic chappals. If the number of tourists declines further, these people will be pushed to the brink. And desperate people are dangerous people.

Writer Harvey Voge once said that “The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure that you are too”. Yes, the mountains will always be there, but that doesn’t mean we can wait around forever before taking the needed steps to make sure that others can get there too!

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 27th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Nabeel
    Jan 27, 2013 - 12:35PM

    Perfect! We definitely need to overhaul our tourism. Not just G-B, Azad Kasmir, Chitral & Swat valleys are also full of dying-for scenic beauties. I appreciate your endeavour and courage to go up there, K2 has also been my dream and surely one day I’ll also stand infornt of it Insha Allah :)

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  • Jan 27, 2013 - 12:52PM

    cherished the article! wonderful. i am also loosing my age and yet to visit this place and view of k2 infront of me.

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  • salu
    Jan 27, 2013 - 2:14PM

    i will read this in an undisturbed time, may be later tonight. i am also K2 dreamer like you and planning to go there this summer.

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  • Ali S
    Jan 27, 2013 - 2:30PM

    The only problem in these areas is sectarian/religious violence, otherwise most of KP, G-B and Azad Kashmir are a goldmine for tourists and trekkers – we have been blessed with some of the most scenic places on Earth. Most developing countries are able to add significantly to their economies from low-cost tourism, but our government and military really needs to do something about the threats of violence in these areas before this opportunity goes wasted.

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  • Queen
    Jan 27, 2013 - 2:59PM

    Beautiful Pakistan :)

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  • Jan 27, 2013 - 11:08PM

    @Nabeel
    My prayers and best wishes are with you. I hope and pray that you would get the best weather and team leader as well …

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  • Fatima Sharif
    Jan 27, 2013 - 11:11PM

    Well written article. Interesting points raised. All in all, a very nice read.

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  • Jan 27, 2013 - 11:12PM

    @Nadeem Khan

    Its not about age, but making up your mind. I have seen young and physically fit people faltering there … as mentioned in the article. 50+, overweight and diabetics survived just because they were ready to endure and they did, ultimately they got the glory they deserved !

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  • Jan 27, 2013 - 11:24PM

    @Ali S

    Tourism industry is not alone to receive the negative impact of security situation, its other interlinked industries such as handicrafts, mining and etc. Just the loss of tourism industry is beyond calculations, especially when it comes to our national reputation. Military alone can do nothing, members and representative of the elected government should also play their role which is of paramount importance at district level.

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  • Jan 27, 2013 - 11:25PM

    @ Salu

    Wish you good luck and a safe journey.

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  • Haider Zaman
    Jan 28, 2013 - 12:01AM

    good job Mr. Vasiq
    … a very informative and motivational

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  • ali
    Jan 28, 2013 - 1:19AM

    amazing tour and nicely described story,,, i like the pic in which K-2 stands with its attitude affirm and a dare devil to conquer it at the base.. its like war begins

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  • Jan 28, 2013 - 11:17AM

    Great article Vasiq! It is too late but very good. I found you very energetic and brave throughout the expedition, you were the youngest climber of our team and now I testify that you were the the most literate climber too. I am seeing you as a great writer in the future, keep this talent up. ….. And thanks for mentioning me in your article. Actually I had no idea that this expedition could be so difficult since it was my first ever trek and climbing experience but few days before leaving to K2 I read a book ” Fearlessness the fiftieth law”, it helps me a lot to face the difficulties of the expedition, no doubt reaching k2 base camp and crossing Gondogoro La is world’s most difficult and deadly expedition but fearlessness is the only factor that take you to the hight of success in your life. Keep continue your trekking and climbing and provoke people of pakistan specially youngsters to go there and gain a lot of experience that they can not get in the universities even after the 16 years of their education.

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  • Fatima
    Jan 29, 2013 - 9:53AM

    well written!! energize me for the rest of day !!!
    Love these words “The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure that U R too”.
    but, whenever i look them they R simply challenging u like “Come and conquer us if U can”.

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  • Jan 31, 2013 - 6:43PM

    @ Haider Zaman

    Thanks Brother

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  • Jan 31, 2013 - 6:47PM

    @Haider Zaman

    Thanks Brother

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  • Jan 31, 2013 - 6:50PM

    @ Ali

    Brother its not about conquering but exploring, mountains and nature are to be loved not conquered.

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  • Jan 31, 2013 - 6:53PM

    @ Zahid Ali Khan

    It was not about mentioning, but reality and motivating other people as you motivated me during the expedition. Apart from all the difficulties and impossibilities, I had to admire your courage and valor. You did not falter where the people with much more experience and energy were expecting that you would not be able to accomplish. You did and they could not. Keep exploring and motivating others too. Good Luck

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  • Jan 31, 2013 - 6:58PM

    @ Fatima

    Not challenging, just inviting, “Gods Awaiting Pilgrims”.

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  • Jan 31, 2013 - 7:08PM

    @ Queen

    Indeed Pakistan is.

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  • Ghazi
    Jan 31, 2013 - 9:55PM

    Vistas and words, both are superb !

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  • kaalchakra
    Feb 1, 2013 - 2:55AM

    Very good. Hope lots of money can be made! It was not necessary to mention ‘Gods’. Please avoid such phrases in future.

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  • Naveed Ahmed
    Feb 17, 2013 - 4:43PM

    This is a perfect combo of such writers and tourism promoting paper. They both need to strive and survive and then the success will knock on our door. Pakistan is a heaven, an earthly paradise, people like this author that explore and then share with the masses, and the paper that promotes them by giving space and due coverage, both can bring change in terms of tourism and projecting Pakistan’s positive image.

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