A young boy looks at, and a baby is held up to see, the fair haired lady wearing mens clothes sitting with the rest of the men in the Sirdars house, not a common occurrence in Arondo village.
The car thermometer read 35 degrees, it was the UK’s hottest day of the year so far, clear skies and bright sunshine made the climb out of Heathrow a visual treat. London sweltered below, the shard sparkled with post Brexit financial uncertainty, the well ordered fields designed for maximum yield from the avaliable ground slipped by below as we made our way out to the maritime borders.
By the time we were passing over Germany the well managed landscape was increasing broken up by increasingly bigger areas of forest, the order imposed by man upon the landscape appeared to be breaking down, nature had an appearance of reasserting itself.
We crossed Romania just as the sun was setting, the landscape was by now different, nature dominated in steep sided valleys, roads followed the contours, they were not carved in straight lines across them, gone was the order and humanities dominance.
The plane just made it to the Black sea as the light went, I settled back and switched on the in-flight entertainment, the Cohen brothers provided some laughs, Hail Caesar indeed. Doha came and went with an overpriced coffee, we landed in Islamabad next morning on schedule with our baggage ( Always the first worry )
Bob, Jane and I met Bernard at the airport, he had joined the expedition late, a recommendation from Hunza guides, our in-country agents. He looked strong and fit, and very young, compared to us anyway. A wildcard, taking on another member of the climbing team with no real knowledge of the individual, a real risk in this environment, one however that did not go awry.
We went to the hotel, met with the Pakistan alpine club who warned me not to take photographs of women or leave litter in the hills then we went to bed to mull over this advice, got up later to eat and then went back to bed.
The next morning we piled into a small bus type vehicle and left for Skardu, some 700K distant but some 20 hours of driving on the Karakoram Highway. The early morning was grey, we drove out of the reasonably well heeled residential district of Islamabad our hotel was situated in and made our way to the outskirts of the city. Mazoor, our fix it man, took a degree of pride in pointing out where we were, what district we were in, to me it was just one dirty area after another, the piles of garbage at the side of the road grew in size as we left the main shopping/financial areas behind. Discarded plastic, building materials, dead cars and the deitrius of an oil based disposable society took over the spaces between the small shops that were housed in wooden shacks along the side of the road, the third world at its most alluring.
The filth diminished as the rural countryside asserted itself, fields and forests took over from concrete tenements and wooden shanties draped with bill boards promising “A new dream” if you only chose something called Zong 4G.
The road started to climb into the foothills, we were not following the main KKH, it had been closed due to a landslide ( a common occurrence ) we were instead heading towards the Babusar pass, which in this instance was open and landslide free. This was not entirely a happy announcement, it meant that we were now uninsured as the FCO still put this area on the no-go list due to a sectarian shooting of 20+ Shia muslims some four years ago. There was however no real option and to be honest it was probably a lot safer than driving the main drag of the KKH out of Islamabad. Also lets face it the FCO does not exactly give up to date advice, its easier to leave a warning in place than to rescind it.
We stopped for a dodgy breakfast of bread and omelettes in the town where Usama BL had been captured ( or so Mazoor informed us ) making my feeling of overall discomfort rise just a little and then made our way north west circling around the Indian controlled area of Kashmir and climbing into the very alpine like area that leads up to the Babusar pass.
This is a big holiday area for the southern Pakistanis who want to escape the sweltering summer heat of the cities like Lahore and Karachi. Its completely over subscribed, the small town of Naran situated in the middle of this lovely environment is surrounded by what looks like a refuge camp of endless tents ( some of which still bear the UN emblem of humanitarian relief from the last earthquake that decimated the area ) to house the flow of upwardly mobile Pakistanis with disposable income who now vacation in the north. Naran is a jumble of hotels in various states of construction and is nothing more than a horrible mess in an otherwise lovely landscape. What it is going to look like in a few years time I can only imagine, like most third world financial success stories there is frantic urge to build but no apparent forward planning to cope with the resultant filth, I would imagine that the river does this at the moment.
We left it quickly behind and climbed up and over the ever increasing landslide and glacial debris that covered the road to the top of the Babusar pass, a view of the Karakoram greeted us, we didn’t stop other than to complete the police formalities, we had been in the vehicle for over 6 hours and just wanted to get to our hotel for the night. We dropped down the other side, decending quickly to rejoin the main KKH at Chillas and the Shangri-La hotel, our aptly named and most welcome bed for the night.
The Karakoram Highway
The next day things got really exciting as we drove north on the main KKH, its called the eighth wonder of the world and it deserves it hands down. The road follows the main Indus river valley to the point where it turns East towards Skardu, some of the time along wide open valleys with mind boggling panoramas of the Karakoram.
The other side to it is when the valley sides steepen and the road has been hewed and blasted out of sheer rock faces. These bits of the road cling to or are hacked into the vertical cliffs and are narrow and prone to rock fall and landslides and as such are not metalled but rock and gravel covered. Rivers flow over them and as a result the road is in some places badly eroded and in other places completely destroyed. There is a constant battle to keep it open with teams of heavy machinery strategically placed along the route to cope with the constant blockages.
Now add to this a never ending stream of lorries carrying goods up and down the length of the northern areas, mainly carrying an endless stream of tat from China ( who generally are responsible for keeping it open, no surprises there then ) on its way to the markets of SE Asia, the road is not generally wide enough to allow vehicles to pass each other without a degree of real concern. To top it all in these narrow areas the river lies a flick of the wheel or a moment of distraction some 20 to 300m (1000ft) below.
The Karakorum Highway
Rivers..forget your ideal of a nice blue body of water flowing peacefully through a patchwork of pleasant pastoral providing a home for ducks and frogs and imagine instead a 1km wide body of grey liquid mud flowing really aggressively through a wide valley, then imagine this 1km wide body of water compressed into a narrow slot some 100m across, same volume of water but now an insane screaming maelstrom as it is driven by gravity towards the sea, still some hundreds of kilometres distant. The water has a life of its own, it explodes upwards for tens of meters for no apparent reason, it claws at the rock on either side pulling anything loose down with it. It is a force of nature, it shapes the land, it cuts deep valleys in the granite, it pulls down whole cliff faces. It is beyond description, defies superlatives and the sheer scale and power can only be appreciated when seen for yourself.
Looking at the river is like standing on the edge of a high cliff with your toes over the edge, you know that falling over ( or into ) is the end, instantly, no second chance, yet it has a strange powerful magnetism, it pulls you in, you have to consciously avert your gaze, resist the urge to jump and end it all.
We pass a group of workmen building a platform of wood, Mazoor explained that two cars were involved in a collision the day before and fell into the river, the workmen are preparing to look for them. I would imagine the cars were in the Arabian sea, the workmen would be better in a submarine some 600 miles to the south in my opinion.
The nicely ordered fields and landscape of Europe have now gone, they are a dream, we are in a more elemental environment, man does not really control it, we try to do so but face a constant fight to maintain our presence, we are dwarfed and humbled by the incomprehensible scale and severity of the landscape. Ice and snow covered peaks of over 8000m rise above wide valleys and sheer cliff faces which plunge into insane raging torrents in deep dark chasms below yet through it all winds the KKH, one of the greatest journeys on the planet. We arrive in Skardu 11 hours later with a deep weariness borne out of constant concern.
Never assume your kids are too young to wash the dishes
Skardu, sits on the Indus in a wide alluvial valley, it is the place where all the big mountaineering expeditions start from, you can fly there from Islamabad but this time around I wanted to drive the KKH, just to experience it. The Concordia motel was full of southern Pakistani tourists ( some of them very badly mannered ) and foreign mountaineers. The buzz was not a positive one, camp three on K2 had been wiped out by an avalanche and the majority of the big peak expeditions had decided to withdraw due to there being too much snow and big crevasses, the majority of the teams were in the Hotel. Treks had suffered similarly with the ever popular snow lake being inaccessible to a bust glacial lake creating a huge crevasse and the GGL being considered too difficult by some due to the snow. The teams were all on their way home, we were heading in the opposite direction, hmmmmmmm.
No rest, next morning we are up, packed and into two small four wheel drive jeeps for the trip to the road head at Arundo. We wheeled out of Skardu on a wide metalled road, wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other without real concern. We crossed the Indus on a bridge which in the 1950’s had not been there and which had marked the start of the Italian ( Bonatti ) K2 expedition, they had crossed it by raft and then spent a further month trekking to Base Camp at the end of the Baltorro.
We crossed rather more easily on the nice new(ish) bridge, followed the Shigar valley road north then turned off, crossed the Shigar river on another good bridge and followed the road north for another 2 or 3K till the tarmac ran out. The road then becomes rural track which winds through lovely farming villages which live in the narrow fertile strip between the mountains and the wide braided river. Its peaceful and an agrarian ideal, we bounce about for another three hours watching the rural lifestyle of the Shigar valley unfold. The track becomes narrower, rougher and starts to climb alarmingly along the slope of the ever steepening mountain side, the river below turns nasty, another maelstrom, the track crosses side rivers, has hanging corners where rivers flow across the road and that sometimes require a two or three point turn to manoeuvre around and has back wheels just about hanging in mid air some 300m above the river. Bouncing bridges, small hamlets and landslides are encountered, forward speed slows to 10kph, this is maintained for the next three hours till the track just runs out at a big moraine and river.
We stop for the night with a degree of relief, pitch our tents and spend the first night under canvass. The roar from the river is an omnipresent companion, a million stars light the night sky, its too warm to be in sleeping bags, but we sleep anyway.
Threshing the Barley in the traditional way.
Next morning dawns bright and sunny, we pack up and the whole expedition starts to move, there are 40 plus porters with all our food and kit for the three weeks on the mountain. It is a logistical challenge that takes up the attention of our Sirdars. Jane and I start walking but are quickly left behind, we enter the small village of Arundo, take a wrong turn ( at the only path junction there is ) and find ourselves surrounded by small children in the compound of a tin roofed building.
Arundo is a village at the end of the line, electricity arrived only 4 or 5 years ago, about the same time as the “road”. It is medieval and agrarian, it is cut off by snow for 7 or 8 months of the year. The village does not get many visitors, maybe one or two foreign expeditions a year pass through it on their way to Spantik. Blonde haired, fair skinned women are a real novelty, especially ones that entertain like Jane does.
There are children of various ages all around us, Jane decides to entertain them by starting to throw up, she is violently sick, the kids all watch with no concern, maybe this is just another trick that these strange foreign people play. As we have no idea where the actual route goes and it is pointless blundering about with Jane ill we sit down in the shade and wait for one of the sirdars to notice we are not there. Sure enough the village drums beat and bring one of our expedition staff along to find us and put us on the right path.
Its 35 degrees, the sun is merciless, the rough path, as it leaves the village, starts to climb steeply along the side of the lateral moraine, we are in a steep east/west facing valley on the south facing slope of the mountain, there is little if any shade, Jane is violently sick again, and again, she is slow and the heat is further dehydrating her, there is no real option, we decide to stop early and let her rest up. She sleeps all afternoon in the shade of some trees, wakes to drink and then sleeps again. The porters are all a bit pissed, it has turned the three day trek to base camp into a four day one, they do not get paid by the day but by the distance. However thats as it may be, our almost idylic campsite is next to a river that falls in cascading waterfalls down sheer granite cliffs from the towering mountains above us, the setting sun starts to bring all the features of the valley sides into relief, its soon dark and none of us ( the expedition team) are really upset about the short day, we have not stopped since we left the UK five days ago.
Evening light on the valley sides.
Next day Jane looks a bit brighter, the porters are in a rush to get packed up, we are away by 0630 to try and avoid the heat of the day. We continue along the side of the lateral moraine climbing gently but steadily. Its generally an easy path but every now and again it has been washed away by landslides, deep, steep sided ravines carved by fast flowing rivers cross the path at right angles, a slip and a tumble down any of these would not be pleasant, they are quite challenging to cross. The mainly animal created path at other times winds through fields of wildflowers and shade giving trees, there is very little evidence of human intrusion, there is no mobile phone signal, we left that behind over 60K ago. All of a sudden we turn north around the shoulder of a hill and we are greeted with a view of our mountain.
Jane looks to Spantik from the approach trek
Still some 30K distant it rises above the end of the valley and squats with a small hat of cloud sitting on its summit, it looks awesome, achievable, rather big. Bob and Bernard and I get excited, talk turns to ridges, the amount of snow, the positioning of various camps, we do not realise that Jane is now struggling again with the increasing heat and her wobbly legs caused by dehydration and lack of food. We again realise that we are going to have to stop short of our intended destination to allow her to rest.
At camp the hard decision is taken that Jane will have to go down, she is not improving and to go higher and more remote is too big a risk, she cannot eat due to her stomach issues and is becoming steadily weaker, the route ahead crosses a heavily crevassed glacier and is just too dangerous for her in her condition. I know I have to go down with her, I cannot abandon my wife in the middle of Pakistan and send her down with someone who speaks very limited English to an uncertain outcome. I am selfishly devastated, I know that doing this will put me at least five days behind Bob and Bernard in terms of acclimatisation and that my chances therefore of a summit are now really slim, however shit happens, its a no brainer.
Our camp that night is a beauty, a smooth wide piece of ground surrounded by towering mountains in the middle of nowhere, in fact I do not think you can really be in the middle of nowhere more effectively, the sky is clear and full of falling stars, the temperature is now low enough to make the sleeping bag a welcome refuge.
There are no drawn out goodbye’s next morning Jane and I depart downwards with four porters, Bob and Bernard are advised to continue as if I am not coming back, I have no idea how this is going to pan out.
I don’t look back, Jane is again brighter after a nights rest, we make good progress downwards, stopping to sleep for a couple of hours under the trees to avoid the heat of the day, we continue down and are back in Arundo by late afternoon where we are treated to lunch in the Sirdars house.
The village kids crowd round the door and climb onto the walls outside to get a view of the strange woman with blonde hair who is being allowed to sit with the men in the Sirdars house, maybe they expect her to start throwing up again and entertain them all. However not one of them dares to actually set foot into the room, it is not their place and they know this and respect it, one word from any of the men in the room and they are gone, instantly, no voices are raised, they stare in silence and awe.
On the way out the fields surrounding the village are in flood, the afternoon rivers are full of glacier melt water and this is diverted to irrigate the fields. Jane is carried over the rivers by the men of the village, an air of carnival is in the air, the village kids love it. We arrive at the road head to find our jeep waiting, summoned by our Sat phone, so we decide to head back to Skardu there and then, the track out is taken in the dark ( what you can’t see will not scare you ) and we are back in the Concordia motel by 0200 hrs.
It takes two days to sort out the issues and decide what to do, Jane decides to go up to Hunza province for some easy trekking, I decide to head back to base camp and try to catch up with the others.
The road to Arundo is taken for the third time, we ( me and my porters ) stop briefly in the village for lunch and then head straight out up the hill. I am feeling strong, two days of good food and rest in a comfortable ( if somewhat dubiously clean ) bed have benefitted me. We walk for four hours after the six hour jeep ride and make good progress. That night it rains really heavily, my four porters are sent scurrying for shelter in the small hours, my tent lets the water through and I am wet in the morning. We are away early and pass the spot at which I left the others by mid-day, we keep going and are in camp by 1600. The afternoon sun dries off sleeping bags and I am asleep by early evening, again it rains heavily during the night.
We had intended to leave early but it is still raining in the morning, by unspoken consent no one stirs till the rain ceases at around 0800. We continue along the side of the lateral moraine until it runs out. There is real confusion, the path just stops, runs out at the edge of a steep ( 70 degrees ) wall of dirt which falls some 60m into a big crevasse on the glacier below. It becomes apparent that the heavy rain has washed away the track down this wall of dirt. The porters are unhappy about this but gingerly make their way down and across this “death on a stick” slope. I am quite frankly scared shitless, one slip and its into a big crevasse some 120 feet below, there is no way to protect it, we have no ropes anyway, there is nothing to hold onto, its all as loose as a pile of ballbearings held together by custard. Never am I so glad to have my feet on solid ground at the bottom, we motor on up the side of the glacier till we are forced over a moraine and onto the ice proper.
The bare bones of the Karakoram lie exposed on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.
The next four hours are spent picking our way through the heavily crevassed white ice glacier, this is not really too bad, the ice is rough and not too slippy and the crevasses generally easily jumped. The landscape is amazing, the bare bones of the Karakoram geology lie exposed around us, the scale is utterly incomprehensible, what looks like an hours walk takes us two or three times more. The problems start when we have to cross the black ice at the edge of the glacier. It is a tangle of twisted and tortured ice riven by deep crevasses and boulder and mud covered blue ice slopes. There is no clear way through it and it takes us well over an hour to cover the last few hundred meters. The altitude is kicking in on me as I have ascended from 2400m to 4300m in just three days, the final 300m of ascent to base camp is up a very steep grass and rock slope and I struggle to regulate my breathing.
Base Camp above the glacier
I arrive at base camp tired but happy, I stick up my tent and catch up with everything thats going on. We are not the only team on the mountain, there are two Pakistani climbers with their high altitude porters. They are out on the hill.
I am advised that Bob and Bernard have been up on the mountain for five days, they have established camp one and started the carry of kit to and establishment of camp two, they are currently at Camp 1. Unfortunately they have left the radios at base camp so I decide to get straight on with it and head up to camp one the next morning. That night it blows a hoolie and rains persistently, my thoughts are with those above, I get up, breakfast and go light, I just want to catch up with them and let them know I am back.
I am out of base by 0730, the 700m climb to camp one is just a tad aggressive, steep, loose and in places a nasty grade two scramble, there are sections of narrow ridges and steep gullies full of tottering piles of choss. I was now going to 5000m from 2400m in just four days, my head is bumming as a result and my throat sore from the thin air and rapid breathing but I am driven on by the need to catch up with my partners in crime.
I am just 100m below the camp when I see them heading out across the snow field above the tent. They are too far away to hear me shouting or whistling. I am gutted and sit down and curse them black and blue, bastards, why had they not taken the radios.
I continue up to camp one anyway just for the acclimatisation.
Camp one sits on a series of constructed ( by previous expeditions) ledges of rock where the snow starts, I cannot venture onto the snow as I had not brought an ice axe or crampons, I sit down and immerse myself in the view, there is nothing else to do. The glacier I have spent the last three days walking up leads the eye down south into mile upon mile of unnamed and unclimbed peaks, a vast unvisited wilderness, Snow Leopard and Ibex country, to the north some 12km distant, the summit of Spantik is intermittently free of cloud cover, its snow laden ridges and cliffs looking rather intimidating to say the least.
I head back to base and am back in time for lunch despite losing the route on the way down on more than one occasion. Back at base I learn that the PAK climbers have radios at camp two, I arrange to have a conversation with my partners that evening, whatever the outcome I know I have to have a days rest tomorrow, I cannot commit to continuing without proper acclimatisation and rest.
On the lower ridges heading to camp two
Bernards voice comes over the radio, his Italian accent a most welcome sound, I confirm that the snow ridge between camp one and camp two is “probably” doable without being roped up so I know I can join them in camp two. He asks me if I want them to wait for me, No is my immediate answer, I do not want to hold them back from any summit bid, we arrange to speak again the next morning. That night it again blows a hoolie and rains persistently, I lie in my tent and listen to the rather large rocks loosened by the rain bouncing down the slope at the back of base camp, I hope none of them are on a direct trajectory to my tent. Its not the safest base camp I have ever been in but there is little option, there is no real alternative to its position.
Next morning I learn from the PAK climbers that Bob and Bernard departed early for a carry to camp three, my spirits sink, they are now beyond my reach. I mooch about base camp, the weather seriously deteriorates and I hide in my tent from the rain which starts in the early afternoon and continues right through the night making any radio comms impossible. The weather is not good, its shit,the forecast had been for five clear days but it had rained persistently every night. The next morning I learn that everyone is coming down from camp two due to the poor weather and dangerously snow covered slopes. I am again selfishly glad, I have a chance again.
Bob and Bernard appear late in at the afternoon full of tales of heavy snow every night, cornices, crevasses and snow laden and avalanche prone slopes above camp two. It is not good news. The PAK climbers have decided to bin it, they have reached the conclusion that it is just too dangerous above camp two. The snow is deep and is unconsolidated, the crevasses are big but hidden by the unconsolidated snow, should they reach camp three and the weather craps out they will be stuck there with an impossible retreat. The forecast is not reliable enough to risk your life on.
Bob and Bernard decide to have a rest day, I decide to carry my kit to camp one as no matter what happens I will be able to help with a summit bid or a strategic withdrawal from camp two. Upon my return to base I learn that B&B have decided to bin it in keeping with the decision that the PAK climbers have made. Bernard is pissed, he feels he has given in too easily, Bob is ambivalent, he knows its not worth the risk, I am both relieved and disappointed, I know I would not have been able to match their speed over the steep ground due to acclimatisation, I would have tried but would probably have had to give up. I had done too much too quickly.
The next day dawned bright and clear, sods law, once you make the decision to bin it the weather gets better, we waited till late afternoon then made our way up to camp one. It was a magnificent evening, clear and still, I lie in my tent and read with the door wide open and a view over the Karakoram to die for. The stars came out and meteorites criss cross the sky. The only issue was a constant drip all night from the snow behind my tent, it was warm, well above freezing.
Gathering the winter feed for the cattle
By 0700 we were on the snow heading to camp two, it was not firm and going was tough, constantly falling through the crust into bottomless porridgy snow is hard work, at 5300m it is exhausting. I made it about half way to camp two and gave up, I couldn’t keep up with the others. I sat in the sun and watched them make their way along the ridge till they disappeared from sight. I laboriously made my way back to camp one, constantly disappearing up to my waist in deep snow. I got back, stripped my tent and took as much kit from the others as I could manage and made my way back to base camp. B&B appeared heavily laden later on in the afternoon with tales of ever widening crevasses and deep unconsolidated snow, it would appear the decision had been a good one.
There was still one more trip to camp one required to bring everything down which Bob and I accomplished the next day, we got back just before the weather totally crapped out and torrential rain started to lash the tents which lasted all through the night. Had we gone for camp three we would now have been stuck there, we lay and reflected on our wisdom from the security of our sleeping bags.
Moving to camp two
As it was the next day we had to walk down the glacier, the amount of rain during the night had polished the ice, the going was dreadful, I struggled to keep my feet on the level ice, the steep sided crevasses were a nightmare, I was really glad to reach the firmer ground on the lateral moraine, it took over 6 hours to get there and I was absolutely exhausted. The rest of the retreat went according to plan, to cut a long story short, back into Skardu and down the KKH to Islamabad.
Why Spantik ?
This mountain used to be part of the Adventure Peaks and Jagged Globe book of dreams, AP withdrew it and JG no longer go to Pakistan. Whilst I was working as a leader for both the companies this hill was one of my aspirations. It is not a honeypot hill anymore, in fact I do not think it ever was and as such it appeals to my sense of isolation and challenge. We also decided to try it without high altitude porters which is not a decision I regret, it made no difference in the end and would not have either if the conditions had been more amenable, it would have given us a much greater sense of satisfaction had we succeeded on our own steam.
Was it a success ? I am reminded now of an e-mail I got from a good friend whilst I was in Skardu reminding me that “The summit is only a small part of the journey”, sounds glib but never was a more needed bit of advice received. I was considering going home just because I saw the summit slipping from my grasp, had I done so I would have missed out on such a wonderful experience. Success ? absolutely.
Pakistan.. What a place, such fantastic people, such a great adventure, its raw, the edges are rough, you never feel in total control but you never feel unsafe due to human issues. The vast majority, not all of course, of other mountain environments have been carved up into manageable chunks/areas and sold to an ever hungry public, they have been sanitised, paths have been built and you can be sure of a bottle of coke most nights on your trek. Pakistan and its northern environs still defy this, people are still wary of its image and stay away, long may this continue to be so, thats my selfish attitude. However if you want to take the plunge and have a real adventure then Pakistan will not dissapoint.
This however will probably not continue for ever, the writing is on the wall, the southern Pakistanis are increasingly upwardly mobile and heading into their own hills, something that a few years ago would have been considered unthinkable. The hotels in Skardu and Hunza are oversubscribed and some of the manners on display leave a bit to be desired, however, for the time being, Shangri-La for like minded people still exists.