KAYAKING AND CLIMBING IN THE KARAKORAM
ANDREW EMBICK and GALEN A. ROWELL
1984 American Braldu River and Lukpilla Brakk Expedition
ON BOTH SIDES of the upper Biafo glacier is the greatest collection of granite spires in the entire Karakoram. The Braldu river is fed by the Biafo (halfway down its length) and Baltoro glaciers and is well known to those making the approach to the big peaks of the Baltoro. Unable to decide between climbing and river-running, I planned an expedition which would include both.
We reached Islamabad on 5 May. Though we avoided the days and days of waiting typical of attempts to fly to the northern areas, our two-day van ride was gruelling. Two days in Skardu completed our shopping and load packing. We then jeeped 47 miles up the Shigar valley to Dasso, our gear sent ahead on trailers. In addition to our three Pakistani members (Ashraf guiding us just to the end of the road) we now numbered eighty-four, including our 73 Balti porters and eight Americans.
The success of our attempt to run the Braldu, we knew, depended completely on our arriving before temperatures rose and water volume increased abruptly sometime in May. We drove ourselves close to exhaustion from our arrival in Pakistan, almost frantically rushing to get to the river. Eight days after arriving in Pakistan, after having hiked the initial day's stage up from Dasso, we put in at a flow of about one thousand cubic feet per second. The winter had been a dry one, and recent weather was cool and overcast. At this water level, the river was technically very demanding, and the rapids were complex mazes of steep, twisting, blind drops through large, jumbled boulders. But there were defined drops with pools separating them, and though the gradient averaged 60 ft per mile (and was as high as 90) it was possible to stop, scout, and (on 9 occasions) portage. The carries came to less than half a mile out of about 50 overall, or about one per cent; a far cry from what had confronted the ill-fated 1978 British team led by Dr Mike Jones. Making the mistake of attempting the Braldu at peak flow in August, Jones was swept away and drowned saving the life of a teammate, and was never seen again, though fragments of his boat - and a month later his helmet and a shoe - were eventually recovered. Mick Hopkinson, the strongest member of the 1978 team, had estimated to me that no more than five per cent of the Braldu was runnable, and had been vehemently negative about our chances.
With Balti porters eager and willing (for Rs 50 a day) to carry our kayaks upstream (or alternately, our gear and clothes downstream), we could hike with light loads and paddle empty boats. With a trail (albeit rough) along the river and (for its lower half) villages spaced a walking stage apart, we could run the river in a novel but necessary way: from the bottom up. Our most severe test would come in the Chokpo Chongo gorge, the fifth of six walking stages from the river's origin to its end. To be sure of completing this notorious section at low water, we planned to run the lower river below Askole first, then trek upstream again to run the upper half. We were thus obligated to walk twice as far (100 miles in all), but we also reduced as best we could the risk of being unable to run the river, either the upper half being too shallow above the inflow from the Biafo glacier, or the constricted lower half being too violent. The plan would also permit Galen to photograph us from the bank, getting far more and better shots than we could ever hope to get from river level.
The plan worked perfectly, to my considerable personal satisfaction and great relief. The kayakers (Kathy Blau, Rob Lesser, Bob McDougall, Bo Shelby and myself) ran first of all the lowest of the 6 stages (Chokpo to Dasso). Then, stages 4 and 5 (Askole to Chongo and the crux, Chongo to Chokpo) with Galen pounding the trail to keep up with us, at times being forced to climb and descend hundreds of feet of elevation where rock buttresses closed in on the river. We made use of the log bridges still in place from winter and criss-crossed from bank to bank. With just a dozen porters, a select group kept on after we had gotten all the loads to Askole, we had no organizational problems at all, our devoted group charging headlong down the trail to keep up or waiting patiently while we scouted. There was no hint of the resentment and distrust toward outsiders which expeditions to Baltistan had encountered just ten years ago. Our rugged, cheerful group was as proud of us for our (to them) astounding feat of kayaking the Braldu as we were pleased with their helping set up our tents, their carrying the awkward (up to 13 ft long) boats, and their solicitousness about our welfare.
The most spectacular kayaking photographs may be those Galen took dangling on a rope down inside the famed 'Narrows' of the Braldu. Cut deep down through sculpted granite, the entire river flows through a rock cleft almost narrow enough to jump across. Running one at a time, we even stopped in eerie swirling cave-like eddies 60 ft below the surface before emerging into daylight again.
Spending time in the villages of the Braldu valley, we were able to visit with villagers in their homes, and learn the (oral) history of the area's settlement (over the Hispar la from Nagar in Hunza, some 400 years before). We tried to understand both the archaic Tibetan roots of the Balti tongue and the current Shiite Moslem influence of the Ayatollah Khomeni, whose baleful visage adorned the carved planks of the tiny mosque in Askole.
The completion by the kayakers of the river section below Askole coincided with the arrival of Jack Tackle and Gray Thompson, who were eager to climb. The paddlers headed up the river with ten porters, past Payu to the Baltoro glacier's snout at 11,220 ft where the Braldu emerges from the black hole in the ice. Altitude, exertion and heat combined to force Rob Lesser to recover for a day from dehydration but permitted the others to hike on the lower Baltoro glacier. I was, however, feeling urgently compelled ta complete the run of the Braldu quickly and reach base camp to join the climbers. So my two trusty porters, shouldered loads at 7 a.m. on 24 May and headed down from Payu at the same time as I headed up, a third porter carrying my orange Dancer, the last mile to the highest put-in. Solo, I then turned around and paddled the Braldu for 25 miles that day to Askole, rendezvousing with the porters once at Bardumal halfway down what was a triple stage for them and a seven-hour marathon for me. In places shallow and braided, in others very steep and rocky, the Braldu at one point essentially disappeared underneath huge boulders, compelling another portage.
The others followed the next day, taking two days to Askole and feeling the increasingly pushy character of the river as temperatures climbed to the hundred-degree mark and water levels rose. Rob Lesser and Bob McDougall on reaching Askole continued downstream, running (this time at a marginal and very exciting 3500 cfs) the entire lower Braldu again. Where we had initially spent long periods scouting especially complex rapid's,, Rob and Bob ran on sight and after what was for them the trip's high point, returned to the U.S. Because on our low water run technical difficulty reached V+, there doesn't seem much doubt that the Braldu by any definition can be considered a 'Class VF river. Though we avoided innumerable potential and dangerous pins, the rocky streambed took its toll in the form of two broken paddle blades (for Rob) and once an entire paddle jerked out of Bob's hands (though he proceeded to demonstrate his virtuosity by hands-rolling up and then reaching shore). Tough, plastic boats were a major key to our success, roto molded of cross-linked polyethylene plastic.
The same hot weather which began to render the Braldu un-runnable simultaneously made our climbing objectives possible. On 29 May after sitting out a seven-day storm, the climbers began to move. Base camp had been situated on the east side of the Biafo glacier a few miles up from the Baintha glacier, at 13,500 ft. Galen, along with Rob Milne, Jack Tackle, and Gray Thompson, located the same strikingly steep and dramatically beautiful red .granite tower he had photographed during his 1980 winter Karakoram ski traverse, and which we had selected as our prime objective from those photographs. Rising directly from the glacier, its base at 14,000 ft and summit at 17,650 ft, the spire had never previously been climbed or even attempted, though later we were to learn from our veteran Sirdar, Haji Ali, the peak was called 'Lukpilla Brakk'; ‘Brakk’ being Balti for rock tower.
In four days of perfect weather the team climbed and descended (by the same route) 34 rock pitches up to 5.10 in difficulty, alternately leading and hauling in teams of two. Because they wore light rock shoes, the entire route was done free except for two points of aid on the overhanging summit block. Even short sections of snow and ice didn't negate the advantage of smooth soled shoes, especially because the rock in places was so compact that in boots, to aid blank sections would have been horribly laborious. Abandoning gear on the way up to save weight during their headlong summit push and recovering it* on the descent, they wore T-shirts at almost 18,000 ft and all proclaimed the summit view the most breathtaking ever. Because the climb was done early in the Karakoram season (summit reached 2 June) objective danger was high as late winter snow and ice melted, releasing a barrage of falling rock. Rob Milne, an Eiger veteran, thought the Nordwand had felt safer and slept in his helmet. The only damage sustained was Galen's bashing his finger with a piton hammer, and the only time lost was to quickly tape that up.
In the meantime, Bo and Kathy arrived at base. Bo, Ghulam and myself attempted a route on the 19,000 ft peak behind camp, but the discovery of a huge, threatening cornice high up forced a retreat from 15,600 ft.
There was no lack of other climbing objectives on the Biafo, but now after successes on both the river and climb, the pressure was off. An experiment by Jack confirmed that 190-proof ethanol is nearly toxic at high altitude, and our momentum now carried us into smaller groups with multiple objectives. Kathy, Bo, Jack and Gray trekked 120 miles, without porters, over the Hispar la (16,900 ft) and down to Nagar, reaching Hunza. Galen and Barbara stalked wildlife in the form of bear tracks, herds of ibex, and the fresh skin of a young snow-leopard clubbed to death by villagers. In meetings with district and regional officials, Galen investigated what appears to be the failure of Pakistan to adequately protect its large mammals, primarily from village poachers. As a result, World Wildlife Fund is working with Pakistani officials to help solve the problem.
Leaving base early as runner to send up porters, I descended to Askole. The Braldu had by now, in the second week of June, be-come more than what is normally known as a river, rather an awesome natural force unleashed, with nightmarish power and violence. Its flow had multiplied twenty-five times and now the truck-size boulders which we had paddled around were themselves rolling down the river's bed. Bridges (except for a swinging vine rope jhula) were gone as well as was all semblance of being kayakable or survivable. This was the Braldu we had been warned of, as brown as Karakoram rock and as cold as glacial ice, the Braldu river was the embodiment of death immediate and irrevocable. Now for the fourth time I travelled the Braldu gorge: hiking, not kayaking. Only at Chokpo did the gradient begin to decrease and permit tentative, brief and very nervous excursions along the bank, high-velocity seconds of terror punctuated by tedious and fatiguing scouting and portaging in ninety-plus degree weather in a wetsuit.
Once, standing awed on the bank, I watched an entire rapid move 50 yards down-stream and felt through the earth the reverberation of the rolling boulders. To venture, even briefly, out into the probably 30 mph current was to court instant disaster - which I courted - and narrowly escaped.
American expeditions (and Aleister Crowley) in the past made use of 'zahks', rafts of inflated goatskins, to descend from Dasso to Skardu, where the Shigar (formed of the Braldu and Basra rivers) joins the Indus. I kayaked the braided though fast Shigar 47 miles through a wide, mountain-rimmed valley where emerald terraced fields rose steeply up hillsides toward any available water sources. Villages were perched below nalas bearing snow-melt from high above, the apricots were beginning to ripen, and dust storms alternated with sunshine. In the river, huge symmetrical sand waves provided sublime kayak surfing.
A quick jeep ride up to Khapalu while waiting for the base camp group to arrive permitted my solo first descent of the Shyok river's 45 miles. The four portages were made easier by the eagerness of villagers to help carry my boat, and much was enjoyable Class IV kayaking. From Gol, the Shyok-Indus confluence, I sneaked 25 miles of the huge (100,000 cfs) Indus (in two hours) as it rolled out of Tibet toward its encounter with the Rondu gorges.
We rendezvoused in Karimabad, capital of Hunza. Luckily, Jack didn't come down with malaria until completing his trek. Just as luckily, I had my tropical-medicine notes and a supply of chloro-quine.
Jack was weak but clearly improving a couple of days later, and the Hunza river had looked to me (on the 70 mile jeep ride from Gilgit) to be pleasant Class IV. But the clear air and the size of neighboring peaks (like Rakaposhi) make errors of scale inevitable as Bo and I discovered. Though of continuous gradient rather than pool-drop, the 30,000 cfs of the Hunza did drop 30 ft per mile. We didn't feel completely in control in water of that awesome power and speed, and great care was required to avoid being pushed into gigantic holes by powerful breaking diagonal waves. However, hundred-degree air temperatures did help make possible this first run of the glacial Hunza at high water.
From Gilgit, Jack and I did a 'dying man and doctor' imitation (which wasn't that hard) and got on the aircraft which flies past Nanga Parbat en route to Islamabad. In several cases members were already making plans to return to Pakistan. Tremendous opportunities exist for first ascents of spectacular rock peaks especially on the Biafo, though some are potentially so difficult that success may not be within the grasp of this generation of climbers.
Ascent: Lukpilla Brakk (5380 m - 17,650 ft), summit reached 2 June, 1984. (Milne, G. Rowell, Tackle, Thompson).
River Descents: Braldu (V+/VI-) (Blau, Embick, Lesser,. McDougall, Shelby), Shigar (III), Shyok (Khapalu to Gol) (IV+), Indus (Gol to Skardu) (V) (Embick); Hunza (Ganesh Bridge to Gilgit) (V+) (Embick and Shelby).
Trek: Biafo glacier - Hispar la - Hispar glacier - Hispar-Nagar (Blau, Shelby, Tackle, Thompson).
Members: Kathy Blau, Andrew Embick (leader), Rob Lesser, Bob McDougall, Rob Milne, Barbara Rowell, Galen Rowell, Bo Shelby, Jack Tackle, Gray Thompson (Americans); Navy Lt Hamid Khwaja, Pervez Khan (Pakistanis).