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Biafo Hispar and Snowlake

Been There, Done That.

Rizwan Bajwa

Rizwan Bajwa

The trip came to an exhaustive end. I don’t believe any one of us had done something this tough and excruciating before. One thing I am absolutely positive of is that I have managed to create moments for myself that will stay with me for a long time to come. I still dream of the things that I have seen and the moments that I have experienced. Hassan aptly calls it an Odyssey rather than a trek.

Well, the odyssey began from Skardu on the 10th of July at 5:30 in the morning as four porters and the six of us boarded a single cargo jeep. What followed was a 10-hour jeep ride to Askole village during which we experienced two hiccups in the form of roadblocks. Doing a virtual rock climb, which took the air out of most of us, we managed to cross the first one. The second was a 20 feet long crevice, which had to be crossed on a locally made bridge. The means of crossing were two logs of wood thrown across where a bridge should have been and hence the process of crossing was slightly out of the ordinary for me. On the other side, Hassan told me that I was to expect anything…”Anything can happen”. We reached Askole camp late in the afternoon and Yassir and Hassan were immediately off to take photographs, a ritual that they would religiously follow for the rest of the fortnight. We didn’t pitch tents and instead slept in a campground with a veranda. It was going to be our most comfortable night for a long time.

The Odyssey officially commenced the next morning and I dutifully managed to get myself stuck in the doorway of the campground – Hassan managed to get it on tape. Not the greatest start in the world but what can one do about situations like this except to try and not get photographed. Anyway, we trekked for four hours before we stopped at a place called ‘Kaiser”s polo ground’ and decided to make camp. The rest of the day was spent sunning ourselves or staring enviously at the camp of a couple of Germans. Apparently there were two of them and 20 porters – we were six in number and had only four porters. They also had a ‘mess tent’, which resulted in Khurram and me dishing out colloquial slang at the Germans. Later one of the Germans came up to us and from then on we called him the ‘mad’ German. After the mad German left we returned to our chat and petty philosophizing and Hassan declared himself a Purist. Khurram declared himself to be a purist and I followed in with my declaration of being a ‘Germanist’ while keeping a constant eye on the their camp and the luxurious activities that they indulged in such as the hot water bath that the second German took in a tub – his name, we later discovered, was Mr. Helmut. After a moment of silence, Atif Paracha had a declaration to make, “I am hungry”. This went down as one of the Golden Greats in our logbook. I can’t expect another person to understand but we would crack up every instance this line was repeated during the course of the Odyssey. Later Hassan and I climbed up a rock to take a look at the mighty Biafo glacier. I saw my very first glacier at that instant. That image is like a photograph in my head now – even at this very moment I can recall what Biafo’s snout looks like. That night Paracha and Hassan slept outside under the billions of stars that wished us luck.

The next day we were braving the Biafo by boulder, hopping and going up and down endless ravines. A very tiring process it turned out to be as we struggled on our first full day’s trek and attempted to reach Namla, a beautiful green campsite up on the ravine. Personally I was quite pleased with myself at pulling off a very tough day with no apparent problems and I thought that was as bad as it would get – I could handle the rest. It would take a couple of days for me to come to terms with exactly what kind of a test this whole trek was going to put me through.

Mango was the mission for the 13th of July. It would take us roughly an hour to get out on the glacier and then we would trek out till the point when we were supposed to cut across the glacier to get to next camp. Mango was on the same side as Namla, and we were out by nine – following our main porter, Mohammed Hussein, whose assistance throughout the trip was invaluable. We crossed over to the middle of the glacier and then moved down the Biafo only to be interrupted by ice crevices that blocked our path. At a certain point no path was visible so Hassan took his ice axe and made footholds for the rest of us to cross over an ice ridge. Seeing a certain amount of risk in it, we left our backpacks behind for Hassan to ferry over since he had a pair of crampons. We carried on through the ice field, and finally hit a ridge in the middle of the glacier upon which we could speed up considerably and hence we managed to make good time. It is here that Paracha slipped off a loose rock coming down on his knees and we suffered our first mishap of the trip. His knees swelled up with the result that he couldn’t walk when it was time to cut across the glacier to the campsite. Hassan stayed behind with Paracha and the rest of us went up ahead to get to camp as soon as possible so that we could send Ali and Azam, two of our porters, back to fetch them. It took us an hour and a half to get to Mango from where we left them and the terrain was very hard and I had a queasy feeling about the ground that I stood on. It had gotten much colder as it was evening by now and Hassan and Atif had started to move slowly. Hassan was ferrying two backpacks, as Atif needed serious help. We finally made to the camp and sent Azam and Ali running back down. Ali carried Paracha all the way back to camp. He was given pills and was forbidden from moving out of his tent – the doctor ordered complete rest.

Mango is a slightly prettier version of Namla, but Mohammad Hussein kept on tempting us with the beauty of Biantha – so we decided to take a rest day at Biantha. It would do Paracha good to rest and the rest of us could use a day off as well. The next morning, after Mohammad Hussein’s newly adopted ritual of jamming porridge plates with tea mugs inside our tent the instant we managed to groan and get up, we broke camp and were on our way. Crossing the moraine took us an hour as usual to get to the center of the glacier, and then it was dodging stones jumping over boulders and treading on ice till we managed to tire ourselves out…again. After a short rest and wheat biscuits we crossed the moraine again to get on the opposite side of the glacier. Mohammad Hussein promised us lunch at every bend, every corner, behind every boulder – he promised us that Ali, Azam and Ahmad would be sitting with our lunch but when I saw him perched on top of a 200 feet vertical wall I just blew it. Hassan, Kami and Khokhar recorded nervous breakdown number one of Snowlake 2000 amongst fits of laughter. We scaled the wall and were entertained to a panoramic view of the Biafo – Red Stone Mountains on our side of the glacier and Black Rock Mountains on the opposite side. We finally hit the lunch point when I was about to collapse, and were yet again promised by Mohammedd Hussein that the Biantha campsite was no more than an hour away. We should have known better than to trust him so blindly because in the three hours that followed Khokhar’s shoulder strap snapped and he suffered nervous breakdown number two of Snowlake expedition 2000. It was starting to rain as the drizzle was constantly building up. Paracha sped ahead like a rocket showing no mercy to his injured kneecap, and I suspected that his impatience with not arriving at camp was unofficial nervous breakdown number three but the sly fox never let us know. Anyway, Hassan and I were following Mohd Hussein as the shower continued and guess what? Hassan suffers his breakdown and refuses to budge an inch. At that exact moment, when all of us had hell going on in our heads, the rain stopped, the sky cleared up, the sun shone through and out came the most beautiful, vivid, bright and enchanting rainbow I have ever seen. The day was complete.

We camped at Biantha an additional day, resting, lounging around on our mats, listening to music, reading the trekking guide of Pakistan although Khurram found “Seneca” much more interesting. Biscuits and jam was standard diet apart from the regular meals and then something terrible happened. I felt cramps in my stomach and then I came down with a case of severe diarrhea. I spent the remainder of the day frantically applying every medication available in our ambulance but it was an infection so no commendable improvement took place. I got weaker and weaker as I could not digest either food or water. We packed up and left the next morning, and my condition wasn’t improving. Kami and Yasir came through for me and told me to keep pushing and it was Yasir’s pep talk that kept my motor running despite the fact that I had no food or drink for a whole night. Thankfully, we stopped after three hours of trekking at a campsite called Marfogoro, meaning Red Rock because a tower of red rock shot straight above the campsite for at least 700 feet. There were two other German trekking parties camped at the same place, and one of the Germans happened to be a doctor and he gave me “magic capsules” which fixed me up in a matter of hours. Finally Yasir exclaimed “shukar hai Bajwa ki awaz aiee”. I felt much better and was able to digest dinner that night. Another mishap that happened was since our decision to camp at Marfogoro was unexpected three of our porters sped ahead to the last camp before Snowlake. So basically, we were without our food supplies, but a friend of Hassan’s from Hunza was a member of one of the German teams and served us dinner that night. My first encounter with Shahdeville led me to form a highly rated opinion of people from the northern areas as Hassan had been harping on and on throughout the trek.

Karfogoro – Black Rock was our next campsite and took us the whole day, as usual, to get to it. The Biafo became a white sheet of ice, having a striking resembling with the motorway, only being hundreds of times wider. A certain feeling overtook us and we all fell to taking pictures, Hassan and Khokhar leading the way in that department. We carried on after a snack and hit the campsite, which can be better described as a rock and boulder site. Karfogoro was basically a whole bunch of rocks thrown together and the art was to find the flattest possible space where to set up tent. The Germans got there before us hence they got the best spots therefore leaving Khurram and myself to set up tent in the last possible space available. Our tent had its back to a wall but the other three sides were supported by nothing at all. Sharp drops meant that during the night if we moved around too much, we probably would end up smashing ourselves. I didn’t sleep much that night, and we had to be up early the next morning as Snowlake had to be crossed before the sun got too strong and the snow became too soft to tread upon. All of us were excited and very anxious. It snowed the whole night and we wondered if we would be able to cross it all, but at first light Kami’s beautiful voice cried out “Guys get up! There’s not a cloud in the sky” and behold, there is a God.

All packed and set we roped ourselves up to each other and I fought last minute bouts with my persistent problem of digestion, but I was really excited. I had never seen a photograph, but only heard about it – I had let my mind imagine what the place would look like and not even in my wildest dream had I pictured something so serene, so beautiful, so “mind blowing”. In Hassan words, “divine”. It cannot be explained or described. I will dwell on it later when in an article just on Snowlake itself because honestly I can’t do it justice here. Anyway, we walked on the white ocean till 2:00 PM, till we reached Hisper Pass at 17,000 feet above sea level. We had been thoroughly burned, were hot because of the sun and cold because of the snow all around us and somehow had managed to forget all about something called “water”. Sucking on snowballs all day only made it worse and I already was in bad shape. Hassan, Kami, Khokhar and Paracha decided to camp at Hisper Pass while Khurram and I opted to come down with the porters. Now I only have one regret and that is that I should have stayed at the top because firstly it took us another five hours to get to the camp site which was promised to be only two hours away. We should have learned by then to never take the word of a local where time is concerned. I almost died that day as Khurram dived full length after me to give me support as I rolled out of the crevice that was gaping with it’s mouth wide open at me. It took me a while to get my act together and move on, but when we did move on it turned out to be a nightmare. We ended up crossing a crevice field where on every step that I took I had a fifty-fifty chance of dying or surviving, but at the end of the day Khurram and I pulled through and were safe in our tent eating aloo qeema with Shahdeville as our guest that night. Now I was only worried about the rest of the gang arriving safely tomorrow.

They did make it – all in one piece. The trek was halfway through but it felt like it was going to be over soon. It was a mad dash down the Hisper glacier from here on as we zoomed past the Germans without looking back. We stayed off the glacier and walked on the endless moraine, which was interrupted by five killer glaciers we thought were going to be easy but turned out to be very grueling. We literally trekked like “dogs” and I felt slightly felt bad since the Hisper side was much more beautiful than the Biafo side and it deserved more time. We passed beautiful lakes as the sunlight reflected off their waters, and the green vales carpeted with flowers all making for breathtaking scenery. We had no choice but to keep on going because our kerosene oil supply and food supply had hit an all time low. Our last camp was at a place called “Juthmiol” where our food ran out and kerosene dried up. Mohd Hussein proved himself to be the gem of a man that he is by giving us dinner from his own rations and then gracing us with his presence at the final party. Khurram went around collecting cow dung and made a three feet high pile, which we lit up at sunset. We played “Night Songs” by Nusrat Fateh Ali, lounged around by the fire, ate the last two cans of our fruit, smoked cigarettes (for the first time I wished that I could smoke!) and listened to some beautiful Balti songs that were sung by our porters. On one danceable number Khokhar and I got up and did a little shake around the fire. Later we went back to Night Songs and stared up at the sky and I was reminded of the wide Deosai sky. What in the world was I thinking when I let Hassan talk me into going! I must have been mad – I could have actually died a few days back, why don’t I ever listen to my parents!

But then I realized that there is no other place in the world that I would rather be. July of 2000 turned out to be the most mind-blowing time of my life. I learnt to see the other side of life, I learnt of my insignificance in the face of the mighty giant called Nature. What is my life? It is there one moment and then gone the next. We go through entire lifetimes without realizing our very selves. Deosai and especially Snowlake taught me how to breathe, smell, taste and feel. I can’t wait for Hassan to get back next year.

Last but not the least I would like to thank Khurram for diving after me, Khokhar and Kami for being the inhabitants of the common-room-tent. Paracha for being hungry and the malang that he is. I admire you man. And most of all I would like to thank Hassan for honouring me by inviting me to the trek and for giving me the pleasure of making his acquaintance.

It’s finally starting to sink in, what the hell did we do!!


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