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Essays and Travelogs

Trek to the South Face of Nanga Parbat by Hasan Karrar


On Monday, May 16th 1999, our rag-tag team of 24 heading to the southern base camps of Nanga Parbat (8125 meters) bid farewell to our friends, most of whom were trekking north to Fairy Meadows, and some of whom were spending a week traveling the breadth of the Karakoram, visiting Naltar valley, Nagar, and the Khunjerab Pass. Some of the members of the southern team I had known well from courses taught at LUMS, others only looked vaguely familiar at the time. Looking at them quickly finishing up their breakfast, doing a last minute check on their gear, or loading their knapsacks on to the bus that would drop us off at Jaglot (the beginning of our jeep track) I asked the question that I always ask myself – “why do I come out here?”.

The answer is both rather straightforward and rather complex at the same time. Simply put, there’s no other place like it in the world. I began trekking in the Karakoram and Himalayas in earnest in 1994. While I had been visiting the Northern Areas since much before that, starting in 1994 I began moving out in to the real wilderness, which existed beyond the towns, villages and jeep tracks. In the meantime I had a chance to travel all across North America, parts of East Asia, Eastern Africa, the odd stay in Europe, and of course very widely in Pakistan. The Northern Areas in Pakistan are the most beautiful places I’ve seen anywhere, and it’s gratifying to know that even after five years of exhausting travel I haven’t even scratched the surface of what this mountain wilderness has to offer.

But there’s more to this hard traveling than mere visual aesthetics. All throughout the previous day, when our four buses were making their way from Lahore to Chilas, I was over-come by a familiar sensation – the feeling I always got before I embarked on a trek, or the night before a difficult rock or ice climb. An anticipation, that I knew would not be disappointing, but one that instills a complete sense of awe. But I start feeling like a fraud when I talk too much about the mountains. Beyond a certain point one really can’t explain what it’s like. Every journey is unique and this was all the more so, perhaps just because of the sheer size of the total number of people. When we stayed in hotels, in Chilas and Karimabad (Hunza), hotel personal informed us that this was the largest group they had seen. Prior to departure, when Yasser, Khurram and myself purchased half a ton of food for the trekking parties, the manager kept bringing us cold drinks as we went down our shopping list. He personally saw us to the door after a rather significant transaction (at least for a grocery store) had been made. A woman who was shopping must have over-heard us talking about “students” and wanted to know which school we taught at and what in the world was going on.

And then of course just before midnight on Saturday, the 15th of May, four buses pulled into campus, and the ensuing commotion of 88 people loading themselves and their gear onto the bus was just fabulous. Though at the time I kept losing my patience with the bus drivers who were the slowest and most inexperienced I’ve seen on the Karakoram Highway, going with a group of students made this the most enjoyable road voyage ever. Having never had any hang-ups, or felt the need to behave like faculty anyway, I believe I was as boisterous as anyone else on the bus.

Monday, May 17

It took us two hours to reach Jaglot from Chilas and by eleven o’clock we had made arrangements for three cargo jeeps to take us up to Tarashing, the start of our trek. I found the people in Jaglot to be abrupt and difficult to deal with, and not displaying the hospitality and courtesy that seasoned travelers have come to expect from people of the Northern Areas. Nonetheless we were soon on our way. Being cargo jeeps meant that the rear of the jeep was open and that there were no seats. For about fifteen minutes we tried sitting but the constant bouncing meant that standing was infinitely more comfortable. For an hour or so we drove over a magnificent desert with superb views of the north face of Nanga Parbat. I wondered what sort of progress the north face people were making. After an hour we entered a gorge, not as steep and remote as the one from Raikot Bridge to Tato, but infinitely longer. Being in open jeeps also meant that the sun was beating down on us relentlessly and we must have eaten a kilo of dust each.

Three hours later we passed Astor. Overcast skies, increasing greenery and a cool breeze gave us a bit of respite. Another three hours later we entered Tarashing, a lovely town at the end of the jeep track. Just ahead was a humungous ridge leading up to the Nanga Parbat massif. Our arrival in Tarashing generated a lot of attention. Akhtar, the owner of a local hotel, arranged for tea and insisted we stay the night before heading out. But all of us were in the mood to hit the trail despite the fact that we had at best, two hours of daylight. Akhtar arranged for a pony, Sitara, who carried the heavier of our tents (everything else was carried by us). It felt good to feel the familiar tug of a full knapsack. Twenty minutes after starting out we climbed the moraine of the first glacier. The glacier crossing itself was relatively easy – it must have taken us about thirty minutes over a fairly obvious path. On the first night I was amongst the last people coming into camp. As it got dark the people who had been leading correctly opted to camp in Lower Rupal. Myself and the others who had lagged behind found our way by torchlight. Half the tents were already up at that point, and in no time we had a proper little tent city. Since we were camped at the edge of a village, we bought some firewood from the locals and soon enough had a campfire going (our stove decided to die that night). Moazzam was designated chef and amidst much talk, and much help from Nadia, Erum, Ayesha and Rabia, was able to throw together a meal of soup, noodles, cheese and Ryvita (ack!). None of us were really hungry that night. The post-dinner tea rocked.

Tuesday, May 18

I always find it impossible to sleep till late in a tent because of the sunlight so I crawled out. Some people were already up, while others like Sayyam and Umer would have to be dragged out of their tents and sleeping bags in an hour’s time. Zakriya already had the fire going and a cup of tea was thrust into my hands (being faculty has its privileges I learnt on this trip). We were in no great rush to get going that morning, especially since more than half of the people were asleep. We just lazed in the sun (some like Raja wearing every piece of clothing he had brought along). The locals brought us lassi – the vessels in which it was brought took us aback initially but we all drank it. Gradually, others were woken up, and we slowly began disassembling the camp. The rubbish was burnt and we were ready to move by ten. Two hours of gradual incline took us past Upper Rupal and more grasslands. At this point I could see the route and it looked grim: a steady incline of about forty-five degrees going up for at least five hundred feet. I stood there taking in the scenery for a while. A few snow flurries fell. Jawad caught up. I pointed out the route to him and was astonished to hear him swear (up till the point I had never even seen Jawad do something as improper as roll up his sleeves). The climb seemed never ending but it did, and at the top I reached a small lake and caught up with those who had been leading the pack. Here again, I was stuffed full of candies, peanuts and raisins (I actually ate too much and that made walking a bit of a nuisance). We waited for the rest of the people to catch up. Another fifteen minutes took us around the bend to Baizhen camp (or Heligkoffer Base Camp, named after the famous German mountaineer). This place was stunning.

From here Nanga Parbat was a stones through away and the famous Rupal face shot four and half miles vertically into the clouds. All of us sat there stunned before moving on. A very steep climb took us to the top of the moraine of the Baizhin glacier, which swept across like a sea of ice and stone. One look at it and I knew that I at least would have a hard time getting across it. I wasn’t keeping an eye on the weather and therefore was very surprised when a blizzard moved in. Half of the group had already moved onto the glacier, but the rest of us perched on the moraine dug out sweaters, jackets, gloves, scarves, and warm hats. I felt a bit of panic – having been through some rather grim weather in the past, the prospect of being trapped on a glacier during a blizzard was anything but pleasing. Nonetheless it was an unbelievable sight – a blizzard, dark clouds, yet at the end of the valley, it was clear. Somewhere amongst the confusion, I had the good sense to pull out my cameras and get some shots. Luckily, the storm cleared by the time we began the long and arduous glacier crossing. All glacier crossings are a pain because they require you to think while your brain doesn’t respond because of exhaustion and lack of oxygen. Baizhin is the most difficult glacier I’ve been on; not because of its technical problems which are negligible, but because it entails endless scrambling over loose rocks and slippery ice.

After two and a half hours the slowest of us finally made it off the glacier and scrambled up the moraine expecting to see the base camp on the other side. What we saw proved to be disheartening. The trail continued steadily downward, going beyond a bend and clearly going on for a significant distance. Nonetheless, this was the moment to sit and gaze in wonder at the awesome Rural Face.

A steady downhill plod of thirty minutes brought us to a wide flat field next to the Rupal River. Here again, the leading pack had been waiting for us. While this would have been the ideal place to camp, Nanga Parbat was hidden behind a hill. Also this clearly wasn’t the base camp. At this point it was also getting a bit late and we knew that we would have to decide whether we wanted to camp here or move on further. Speaking for myself, I was getting tired. I was cursing all the seemingly useless equipment in my knapsack, the two camera bodies, three lenses and a rather heavy tripod. It was around five o’clock. We had a quick lunch of baked beans and sausages, and then made the decision to move. It started to get dark a bit too quickly that evening, and the lag between the leading pack and the tail enders must have grown to at least forty minutes. We finally reached base camp and found a place next to a lovely stream. Some people had gone ahead further and I received some flak (correctly perhaps) when I called them back. It was bitterly cold that night, but the camp was thoroughly enjoyable. Dinner consisted of hot soup and endless cups of tea. Later we crowded around the campfire and sang songs. The night in the tent was actually quite miserable. I must have woken up a half dozen times because of the cold which seemed to creep in from the ground. Throughout the night I was afraid someone might die.

Wednesday, May 19

Woke up to discover that my pounding headache had gone. Then someone called out from outside saying that they had tea ready. I unzipped my tent stuck my head out and almost dropped my cup of tea. The mountain was totally stunning. When we came in last night we had been unable to appreciate the real grandeur of the mountain. Now shinning in the early morning light, Nanga Parbat looked magnificent like few others summits possibly can. Haroon and Zakriya still had energy left so they did a quick hike to Advanced Base Camp. The rest of us lazed around. Rizwan was resourceful enough to purchase a goat from a local shepherd and have it stewed at the base camp. Ran into a local guide, Hasan Shah, and his American client, Mason Byles, who seemed to have been to just about everywhere. After lunch we faced the prospect of walking back to Bazhin Camp. The walk back took a solid four hours – some of the uphill sections were particularly nasty. Though we had crossed the glacier once, going over it again didn’t make it particularly easier. This time we had spread ourselves too much over the glacier, and route finding was both difficult and exhausting. As had been the norm, we made it into camp as it was getting dark. Again, it was good to be able to count on my fellow travelers to get the fire going and make tea and dinner. A huge bonfire was planned for that night but since we had run out of kerosene and petrol, it didn’t look like it was going to happen. I crawled into my sleeping bag only to be coaxed out of the tent with promises of a huge fire – apparently some pretty ingenious items had been used as fire-starters. The blaze was indeed impressive, verging on a forest fire. Sitting out there was a joy. Again, we sang and danced, till late into the night.

Thursday, May 20 – Sunday, May 23

The last day of the trek was over-cast. It was a bit of a bummer since I had been hoping for some early morning photographs of Nanga Parbat. Breakfast was the usual – tea, tea and more tea. By this time we were all so grimy, that smearing sunscreen as if it was war paint on our face seemed like a great idea. Packed up by nine in the morning, took some group photographs, and bid farewell to our mountain which was mostly blanketed in clouds. The walk back was uneventful except for the last half an hour when we got drenched in a thunderstorm. The temperatures must have been hovering just below freezing, and since I have suffered from frostbite before during ice climbing trips I was particularly concerned. Made it back to Tarashing to discover that people who had reached earlier had ordered endless cups of tea. We huddled in the basement of a hotel consuming packets and packets of biscuits, gallons of tea, and lots and lots of spinach and lentils.

The jeep ride back to Jaglot was long, or so it seemed since I was keen to reach Hunza, a warm shower and a clean bed. As fate would have it, that wasn’t to happen until the next day as a landslide between Gilgit and Hunza forced us to spend the night in Gilgit. For the next two days, LUMS invaded Hunza. It was an ideal ending to a perfect trip. We ate to our hearts content and spent what little money we had left on souvenirs. On the last night we made parodies of our favorite songs and danced away to the local folk music.

Each journey is different and rewarding in its own special way. Having traveled in the Northern Areas for quite some time now, I know that the mountains never disappoint. What was new for me was traveling with so many people – 88 is more than ‘a group’ – it’s a tribe. And the great thing about it is that it was thoroughly enjoyable at every single moment. I got to know my students in a way that I could never had gotten to know them at the university. By the end of it I was friends with them, and very eager to learn more about who they were, what ideas they had, what their dreams were. In other words, we transcended the artificial and often forcefully enforced boundaries between students and teachers. There was none of that teacher/student gulf there; on the southern voyage we were all awe-struck pilgrims witnessing one of natures most stunning spectacles.


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