PASSAGE ACROSS THE KARAKORAM ON SKIS
Translated from the French by Nandita N. Chawalla
I LOVE THE KARAKORAM. I have already been there five times and I shall surely return. It began in 1982 with the expedition to Gasherbrum II during which I was to discover a large and savage country, the mountain people of Central Asia proud and welcoming despite their poverty and the raw light of a landscape shaped by an axe.
Having crossed the Alps on skis only a little while before, the idea came to me quite naturally to attempt the passage of the Karakoram in the same manner. This had been done only once before in 1980, by the American Galen Rowell. This was a project that required extensive planning and especially, the building up of a very strong team.
At the time of our arrival in Hunza and thereafter at Nagar on 10th March 1987 all seems to be well. I seek out my old companions; Ali Hayder. the Sirdar who hunted the bharal with a gun, his father-in-law Ramzan with whom I had made a discovery on the Hispar glacier in August 1985 and who unable to speak a word of English had begun teaching me Urdu, and our guide Ali who quite appreciated the 'French water'.
We climb the superb gorge of the Hispar river without a problem. There is not an iota of snow (and I thought that the road would be blocked with avalanches). At Hispar, village at the tip of the world (3100 m), they are not used to seeing many expeditions, especially during winter. Half of the male population escorts us to the edge of the village from where we leave with 15 porters. As there is not much snow they are to accompany us for another 2 days. I promise to pay them a sheep if they manage to reach the end of the rockless ice-tongue; the place from where we could pull pulkas (sledges) without any difficulty upto the foot of the 4000 m high Kunyang Khish glacier. The porters were to have their sheep ! After a moving incantation of the Gods on the part of the porters, asking them to protect the mad sahibs from the dangers of winter, here we are, all 6 of us, alone with our 35 kg pulkas on the Hispar glacier.
Photos 24 to 27
The 2nd day, 17 March, is a fine day. Our path serpents easily in the fresh scintillating snow through some large crevasses, there are icefalls all over the 6000 m expanse of the left bank of the glacier. We see Kunyang Khish (7800 m) disappear behind a passing cloud and we can vaguely spot the Hispar pass, 40 kms in front of us. There is the blast of aw avalanche of seracs all over the glacier. The ambience is grandiose. We have embarked upon a long journey which will lead us, we hope, to the Baltoro.
Evening the.sky gets overcast and the weather changes. It was only to worsen and hereafter, we do not see the sun for 3 weeks.
We reach the final plateau of the Hispar pass on 22 March. In thick fog we begin to climb groping between the crevasses and then the seracs. We are roped up and pulling our pulkas as we cross the progressively narrower snow bridges that dominate the bottomless crevasses. Nightfalls. We cannot remain here. We take the sinister labyrinth once again to regain the plateau where we were to camp. Time has flown by so swiftly. We are worried by the blast of a huge neighbouring avalanche.
Anxiety. This place is unsafe and we do not even know where exactly we are. It is not easy to find one's way wth the help of only a compass and a single 1:250,000 map (with a scale of a quarter of an inch for a mile). We have provisions for only 3 more days and we are not even sure of crossing the pass. Finally on the 24 March (we finally find the right path despite our mistakes) we find ourselves at the site where a stock of provisions had been hidden the previous summer. It is however, not to be found, buried as it is under metres and metres of snow. This really was the last straw and we climb down the Biafo glacier on empty stomachs and in bad weather. At least now we have the wind on our backs.
The first expedition left us with a bitter sense of failure. It was Claude Pastre who in 1989 initiated a new expedition.
A new team of 6 persons from the GUMS (Groupe Universitaire de Montagne et Ski) from Paris; Marc Breuil; an expert on the Arctic; Jean Pierre Canceill; the Yosemite king and a lover of chocolate biscuits; Antoine Melchior; a marathon and 100 kms runner; Bernard Odier; who would have liked to be an explorer like Conway or Duke of Spoleto; Claude Pastre; leader of the expedition and Jean - Luc Rudkiewicz; the sybarite who produced his own variety of mashed fruit dishes (first class - bravo Jean - Luc !)
It was now a question of completing our high route from the Biafo to the Baltoro glacier by skirting along the ridges - something that had never been done before on ski.
28 March 1990, after a great flight over a large group of Himalayan snow capped peaks we arrive at SkaYdu airport. Wiser through our experience we come this time at the end of the winter season. Good weather. I adjust the altimeter to the official altitude of 2320 m. Our morale is as high as the barometric pressure. The expedition begins with a journey through the villages just recovering from the long winter.
The terraces are not yet green as they are in summer and melt into the surrounding greyness. Over here, the winter of 1990 was a very snowy one and the peaks are all covered with snow beyond 4000 m or even 3500 m after a hailstorm. We climb along with the natives returning from Skardu market. They carry wheat grains or wooden ploughs on their backs. It is the beginning of harvesting and the spring ploughing season. We climb the steep paths on the right bank of the Braldu river. In front of us, the future tar road advances despite the landslides and the avalanches.
At the village Chakpo the gorge is completely blocked by a flood of mud and stone. The Braldu, a violent river in summer is now just a slim stream and is unable to clear the gorge from debris. We take the road along the new flood created lake on which happy ducks paddle.
After a brief stop at Askole, the last of the villages, where they had not seen a tourist for over 6 months, it begins to snow. 2 days later the porters leave us with our baggage on the Biafo glacier. This time we are absolutely prepared and self reliant with a supply of provisions and gas for 23 days and a minimum of equipment. Our pulkas weigh altogether 45 kgs.
We take off like rockets with our marathon man at the lead with stages of 13 to 14 kms. The ground is easy, the snow is hard and the weather is ideal. The panorama is superb. On the left bank, 2500 m above us are the south facing sides of the Latok peaks and of the Baintha Brakk (7285 m). The red ochre rock is beautiful and quite dry. On the right bank, between steep glacial vales full of seracs stand tall'the spectacular towers of Biafo with their huge sides and their vertical rocky buttresses which rise to 6000-6100 m. It is a compact dark rock often snow covered. Here, besides the few very difficult paths opened up by Stephan Venables in 1987 everything remains yet to be done. The Karakoram, excepting the Baltoro, is a complete desert.
As we climb the snow gets deeper, the weather worsens and our pace slows down.
We follow the same routine during the days that follow. We wake up at 5.30 a.m., leave at around 8.30 a.m., walk upto 12.30 p.m. when the snow begins to get sticky and time seems to stop. We take a long break for lunch and then we walk upto 3.30 p.m. after which we set up camp. We retire at around 7 p.m. We rarely walk for more than 5 hours excluding our stops. This may seem little, but we have to conserve and maintain our energy for 3 continuous weeks.
10 April, we are at the foot of our first pass, the Skam la around 5680 m high. The final slope is around 150 m at an angle of 50° and 55° in thetrniddle part. Antoine prepares the path. He has snow upto his chest and has to drag himself up on his skis which he places before him. The path is soon equipped with rope and slings and we make many trips across the slope to transport our equipment over to the top.
Around 7.30 p.m. I am still below with Marc preparing for the last trip across when the weather suddenly jets bad. We know that we shall never again see what we leave behind below. We divide between our heavy baggage, 1 pulka, 3 pairs of skis and sticks etc. and we begin to climb. It is pitch dark. A storm has begun and we feel the fresh snow running down our faces. We do not have ice axes, nor crampons, nor head-torches (frontrale), nor down jackets all that being already transported to the top. We thus had to climb to avoid the bivouac. We skid along the icy path holding on to a 4 mm sling. Fortunately, despite their great fatigue, Claude and Antoine after reaching the top and equipping themselves climb down to help us.
Two days later once the storm has stopped, we discover a magnilicent panorama from the top of the pass. On the west side are the large expanses of the Sim Gang and the Snow Lake glaciers from which rises a forest of 6000 m and taller peaks. On the east side are the gentle crevassed slopes of the Nobande-Sobande glaciers - our future stop. In the north and the south are thin towers of snow sculptured by wind into unbelievable shapes.
There is no question of returning for Jean Pierre's pulka left behind with 15 kgs of provisions and the precious chocolate biscuits.
Finally we can take off the adhesive skins and accelerate our pace. It is a pleasure to discover virgin unknown ground, new peaks and the numerous granite ridges. Towards the end of the glacier we admire in the southeast an impressive peak which must be over 6500 m tall. It is not even marked in our map. We reach the confluence with the Chiring glacier (4200 m). This is the lowest point of our itinerary.
Having 'filled up our oxygen' the next day we climb the Chiring glacier at a quick pace and we cover 600 m of uneven ground despite the snow and the fog. Through clearings in the fog we spot the ghostly peaks and the enormous ramparts of the ice covered left bank of the Chiring.
The next day is a day full of crevasses big, small and in all directions. In the fog we zigzag, roped up, across the crevassed glacier bumps. Sometimes on a bridge the skis sink in 20 to 30 cms deep. All this is quite impressive.
Towards a height of 5300 m the crevasses begun to disappear, the glacier is larger and the landscape is more spread out. We reach the top of the West Muztagh pass (5700 m altitude given erroneously as 5370 m on our map) easily and triumphantly, on our skis and pulling away at our pulkas.
We camp just under the pass on the east side. There is no wind and the temperature is - 30°C. A pale rnoon shines over the neighbouring 7000 m peaks and the black sky is etched with shooting stars.
The following day, 19 August, we climb down with ease a majestic glacier which should normally lead us to the Sarpo Laggo glacier which we were to climb in the southwesterly direction. Everything suddenly seems strange to us as the direction from which we come is the southwest.
Each one of us has a solution and we realize the importance of studying the problem seriously. We are in the most desired part of the itinerary facing north of the Karakoram. In any case we must retrace over all the neighbouring passes at 5500 m in order to get back to Baltoro glacier!
We take out our compasses and compare our maps. We take a whole afternoon to decide to rely on the Japanese map.
In reality we are in a valley on the Karpogang glacier - farther than where we had planned to go. I convince the team quite easily to attempt the East Muztagh pass which is closeby but which is reputed to be difficult. According to the legend caravans of yaks coming from the Sinkiang used to travel across this pass to get to Baltistan. In 1887 it was crossed quite easily by a British officer, Sir Francis Younghusband. who was sent by Her Majesty the Queen to deal with the Baltistan and Hunza bandits who attacked these caravans on the route.
On reaching the pass, we are stunned by the sight of the north side of the nearby Biale; 2000 m of wall at an altitude of more than 6700 m. In the west, the Karpogang (6000 m) peak is unfortunately covered by the clouds thus hiding a magnificent view. We try to descend but since the time of Francis Younghusband huge seracs have risen all along the pass. We are forced to use a very narrow west side corridor between the seracs and a rocky buttress; 200 m at 45° with small nearly .vertical passages, this is hardly the ideal path for skiers. Fortunately despite our misfortunes we are at the bottom before nightfall. We are improving and I am proud of the idea I had.
While descending through some clearings we were able to admire the superb ledges and granite sides on the right bank which separate the Biale from the Lobsang Spire.
Finally, on 22 April, the Baltoro, our promised land, appears to us in an opening in the distance as an ocean of white dunes-surrounded by high totally snow covered peaks.
From here onwards we know the way and we feel that like we have already 'arrived,'. The snow is once again hard and there are no more crevasses. We untie ourselves.
It is at this point that Jean Luc pauses on a fragile snow - bridge and falls into a small crevasse head first and followed by his pulka.
It takes us 45 minutes to heave out first his skisticks, then the skis, the pulka and finally an unperturbed, calm Jean Luc.
The weather turns fine again and from the Baltoro we admire the familiar heavily snow covered silhouttes of Masherbrum, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum IV.
It is a good reward for having attempted an unplanned route. One day I shall return to cross the Conway Saddle and the Siachen glacier up to Leh at the gates of the Ladakh.
Right now - we must descend.
Soon after the snow disappears and we continue walking with our heavy bags over the rocky hills at the foot of the glacier. I wonder how the poor porters do this regularly all through summer.
Right then, we meet up with Hussein and company who reach Paiju at the same time as us. They take our baggage and then begins a mad race to Dassu. We barely even slow down to waddle across the streams of the Panmah and Biafo rivers.
Hussein tells me that in the summer of 1989 he had carried skis over the Snow Lake for an expedition of Canadian geologists.
We soon reach the villages where the agricultural activity has increased a lot since our previous visit. A beautiful light falls on the fields in which buffaloes pull wooden ploughs before flowering apricot trees.
Peaceful pictures of another season and we relish them as much as we relish the sweet taste of our success.
'Achievement is the aim of a dream' said the Danish Knud Rasmussen after his expedition to Greenland.
We still have much to dream of at the feet of these high peaks of the Karakoram.
The Glaciers of the Karakoram
The glaciers of the Karakoram are the biggest in the world (along with the Fedchenko glacier in the Pamir and excluding those of the Polar regions such as Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska etc.)
Their movements are very irregular. In the past the snout of many of them has lengthened or shortened by many metres per year, thus blocking roads, irrigation canals and rivers. For proof one has to take a look at the scientific surveys carried out at the time of the construction of the Karakoram highway on the Hassanabad and Ghulkin glaciers in the Hunza.
In order of importance, the glaciers of the Karakoram are :
|Biafo (and Snow Lake)
|Baltoro (and Abruzzi)
Traverse of the Karakoram glaciers on skis in winter undertaken by a French team in April 1990.
Skiing on the Biafo glacier. Article 15 (Bernard Odier)
Snow peaks on the Nobande-Sobande glacier.
Peaks on the left of Biafo glacier. L t r; Baintha Brakk, Latok I and Latok II Article 15 (Bernard Odier)
Leila peak (6900 m) on the Chogolungma glacier. Article 15 (Bernard Odier)