Wheezing and gasping, I stopped in my tracks, and sat down, scrambling for my bottle of water. I was attempting to make my way up the first ascent from Tarashing village towards the campsite at Herrligkoffer which would give our group a breathtaking view of the Southern Rupal face of the Nanga Parbat. Honestly, though, at that point, I would’ve been perfectly happy to unroll my sleeping bag right where I sat. Thankfully, our trek leaders had dealt with such pansy-like behaviour before and they got me moving again.
Signing up for a 7-day trip through Gilgit-Baltistan up to Astore and then on to the base of the 8,126 metre Nanga Parbat had been a brilliant idea. Putting zero effort into getting in shape for the trek had been considerably less brilliant.
Our group of 29 adventurous souls had set out from Lahore on the morning of May 20th. We were joined by other buses on different journeys up north. All together, the buses for all the trips made up a convoy eight coasters long. We made our way North on the GT Road, stopping only for food, diesel and bathroom breaks. Come nightfall, we were well into the lesser mountains of the Hindu Kush.
Music in many different languages blared from each bus as we got acquainted with the dramatic change in landscape. Around 4 am, we pulled into the PTDC motel in Besham and the human cargo of eight coasters spilled out and took over the motel. We made ourselves right at home: some of us, including me, lay down in the motel gardens overlooking the Indus River and de-stressed to the endless rushing of the great river, while others slept indoors. We awakened in a few hours by calls to an early breakfast so we could hit the road and make good time on our second day of travelling.
While the second day’s journey had much more exquisite scenery, it also had much poorer roads. We kept going up the KKH and marvelling at the ruggedness of Gilgit’s valleys and mountainsides. We were now truly in a land of giants, where towering peaks were visible to us in every direction, with vast expanses of land stretching out from the edges of the Indus to the mountains’ rocky feet.
We turned off the KKH and onto the Astore Valley Road and by 10 pm we arrived at Astore itself. Here we ate a much welcome dinner and bid farewell to our faithful coaster and its fearless driver as the road ahead to Tarashing was only accessible by jeep.
Two hours later we had arrived at our motel in Tarashing and we were greeted by one of the most beautiful and eerie sights I have ever seen. The massive Nanga Parbat looms over Tarashing and that night the ice on the mountain was reflecting the faint starlight and moonlight so that the whole mountain seemed aglow.
In the morning we were ready to start our first day of trekking towards the Killer Mountain. We loaded up our backpacks and set off out of the village and straight into our first ascent; the one that ground me unceremoniously to a halt. From that point on, we were on the move during most of the daylight hours over the next 3 days. The simple pleasure of walking in the mountains and feeling your muscles working while breathing in the cool, thin and fresh air cannot be overstated. At the end of our first day’s trek, after crossing small villages, harassing goats, being harassed by each other and generally feeling like excitable little kids, we arrived at our first campsite at Herrligkoffer.
The view from Herrligkoffer is of the South or Rupal face of the mountain and it is truly magnificent. We set up camp and I crawled into the tent I would be sharing with 5 other boys to change out of my sweat-infused trekking clothes. While I was struggling with my thermal underwear in the tent I heard a few gasps and exclamations. I was curious but I didn’t think much of it until 30 seconds later when a gigantic gush of freezing air whipped through our camp. There had been an avalanche up on the Killer and we had felt the deceptively gentle result. I believe that was the mountain’s way of saying hello. It was both welcoming and warning us, a warning that we would heed since we had no intention of coming close to climbing that monster.
At night we sat around a blazing campfire eating instant noodles and soup with the cold air nipping at our backs. Some sang while the rest joked and laughed at whoever presented the most favourable target. When it got too cold to sit outside, I found my tent and burrowed into my sleeping bag for the night.
The next morning brilliant golden sunshine was bouncing off the highest parts of Nanga Parbat and illuminating our camp. We washed up in the icy stream flowing by our campsite and set out for the day’s trek. We were excited because that day we were to cross a large glacier in order to get to our second campsite at Shaigiri. The glacier crossing was something special; there were pools of icy water in nooks and the going was quite slippery. The scale of the glacier was quite staggering and it took us well over an hour just to cross it although the locals could do it twice as fast as us.
The terrain after the glacier was varied; initially we were following paths along the green mountainside which brought us down to a meadow peppered with dense grassy mounds. Immediately after the meadow we began walking through a sparse wood. Most jarringly, after crossing the wood we came to a sort of semi-desert wasteland filled with sand, rocks and coarse shrubbery.
Our third day of trekking was the longest as we had to retrace the journey of the past two days; we had to trek from Shaigiri back to Herrligkoffer where we would stop for lunch and then back to Tarashing. We all felt eager and battle-hardened by our two days of trekking and that confidence showed as we walked on with minimal breaks, completing our trek within 10 hours and arriving back at Tarashing well before sundown.
The feeling of elation and the intense sense of accomplishment when I stepped back into the motel at Tarashing made everything seem worthwhile. I could tell from the huge grins on my fellow trekkers faces that they felt exactly the same way.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 17th, 2011.
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"I believe that was the mountain’s way of saying hello" =) Brilliant work saad!