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Essays and Travelogs

Skam La (2003)

This account is dedicated to the seven friends with whom I had the honour of crossing Skam La:

Rizwan Bajwa

Hasan Karrar

Yasir Khokhar

Raza Kazmi

Hammad Qazi

Hassan Zubair

Ali Imran

***

The following is still in progress and incomplete. I’ve typed out my journal entries for the most part unedited and what I recollect of the trip. You’ll note that there are a lot of incomplete sections and tags telling me to complete sections – I hope to fill this out more thoroughly someday. The account will be useful to anyone headed toward the Skam La.

***

Skam La 21st July Outside the Indus Motel

A Week Before Departure or “The Cast and Crew”

Mid-July, 2003

“Yeah pudding is a good idea… how much should we take?”

“Lots!”

“Yeah, but how much? We took a tonne to Werthum and didn’t make a single batch.”

“How about some ice-cream mix?”

“Ice-cream mix!? Don’t be daft: do you see yourself making ice-cream for us on Skam La? And anyhow we’ll need one of those machines…”

“Leave it to me”

You can’t tell this guy otherwise can you? I thought to myself. Yasir Khokhar is an incredibly stubborn man – to his credit actually: it helps to be stubborn if you go the mountains often. The first time I met Yasir was in Skardu, late July 2001. Him and Hasan Karrar had just come back from two weeks of hell in the Shimshal Pamirs. And they still had energy to go to Concordia after that – I was most impressed.

Anyhow, here we were: Yasir and myself. In Islamabad, a few days away from departure still trying to figure out what we should eat up in the mountains. There was the enormous debate over the issue of whether or not to take protein meal replacement powder – a great idea theoretically but a very hefty blow to our funds and also notorious for its poor taste. Then there was also the issue of what “real” food we would need to take. We’d bought all sorts of rubbish like pudding, ice-cream mix, instant noodles, chocolate spread and more. The food of substance would be lentils, potatoes and flour for the leg where we had porter support. After that we’d have a slightly lean period with instant noodles, canned meat and canned curry being staple.

Yasir also tends to be… well what he is: a computer science graduate. And to that end he had created some very sophisticated Excel spreadsheets. I too am a computer scientist and like any good computer scientist loved the notion of the organisation and sophistication that the spreadsheets brought to the planning and cost evaluation of our expedition. And like a good computer scientist Yasir had come up with a solution to the problem of logistics which eventually got thoroughly confusing and provided some entertaining estimates of expedition costs! We spent more time trying to figure out what was wrong with the spreadsheet than tweaking food and transport figures!

We ended up buying fifty-four packets of pudding mix and one solitary packet of ice-cream mix (which incidentally was a suspicious bright pink colour and was unused throughout the trip!).

I guess at this stage I might as well introduce some of the other characters on this journey. I mentioned Hasan Karrar a little earlier: someone who never claims leadership even though the facts on the ground dictate that he is. I met Hasan for the very first time at my university. It was my first year and I was introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance and at that time I didn’t realise that he was part of our faculty! But it was at the little adventure circuit at my university that I got to know more about him – first patron of the LUMS Adventure Society (LAS) and an inspiration to just about everyone at the university to get out into the open.

Then of course there’s Rizwan Bajwa – or just Bajwa as he’s referred to (I insist on calling him Rizwan, so that’s what I’ll stick to in this journal!). Eminently practical and street-smart to the core, Rizwan’s a real gem. He was my roommate during university and my most consistent trekking partner throughout our days at university. Our association as adventurers was deepened when the two of us became members of the three-man team that ran LAS. Putting together trekking expeditions for the students at LUMS was no easy business but we did, every quarter for two years. The expedition to the Skam La was an opportunity I had been looking forward to – go on a big expedition with Rizwan. We’d only been together on small treks thus far. I had heard much about Rizwan’s exploits on the expedition to Snow Lake in the year 2000 and was keen to see the man in action.

Hammad Habib Qazi is, again, an old trekking buddy. It was while talking to him after the mountain safety course at Malka Parbat Base Camp that we got seriously thinking about attempting Skam La again. Both of us went on the first attempt at Skam La in the Summer of 2002 and I enjoyed walking with Hammad – singing the Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen at the top of our lungs, sharing a bar of chocolate and walking 18 hours without food and water: Hammad is seriously tough!

Raza Kazmi, the latest edition to LAS, and one of the relatively less experienced members of our team. Every year in the month of May, LAS takes close to 100 students from the university up to various trips in the Karakorams. May 2003 was the last time that I would be in charge of this and was in the process of handing over the reigns to the next council. Raza was on top of my list of presidency of the LAS council and in the May 2003 trip he most certainly proved himself as the man in charge – always on top of things.

Hassan Zubair I’ve known through earlier trekking. We both went to the rescue and rope-work course at Malka Parbat Base Camp with Karavan Leaders and I know him to be strong in the cold and at higher altitudes. Ali Imran (or Agent) was perhaps the least known to me. I hadn’t been anywhere with him and prior to the expedition up to Skam La had tried to figure out what he was all about by asking around. And even after much asking around he remained a mystery! Quiet and to himself, I could see him as a stable more background player in the drama to come.

***

Stubbornly Defy the Lessons of History

Saturday, 19th July 2003

[Day 0: Part 1]

Very groggily, I look at my mobile phone. The alarm has just gone off and I am tempted to go back to sleep. Having slept late I was in no mood to wake up, much less try and make the futile attempt at trying to catch a flight to Skardu. Trying to catch a flight to Skardu, I have discovered over the years and many attempts, is as useless as trying to set the time on a VCR or car stereo! Anyhow, I convince myself that another trip to the Karakorams is worth it (really!) and get out of bed. Why do you do this to yourself every year? I thought to myself: the night before departure is always a late one – finalising ones packing and making sure that everything one needs is there. Or you could instead do what Yasir and Hasan did: spend the night getting sloshed at a friend’s house and hatch crazy schemes about what to do next year! Yasir knew that this would happen so had informed me the night before that I need to make sure I call his place to wake Hasan and him up so that we could try and catch the flight out to Skardu (read: contemplate the long and painful bus ride we would inevitably have to take). A very disoriented Yasir answers the phone and I convince him that Hasan and him need to get ready – fast! “Skam La? What expedition?” – “YASIR!!”. Anyhow, I get ready, say bye to everyone at home put my backpack, tent and spare kit bag into the boot of my car and drive off toward Islamabad International Airport where I am to meet Yasir and Hasan. They aren’t there so I go to wait in front of the domestic departures entrance and bump into Javaid Anwer, who owns the Adventure Shop in Lahore. Javaid Anwer is an associate professor of manufacturing at the UET and bearing this in mind his small workshop churns out gear that aspiring adventurers from LUMS often buy. We make small talk and he reveals that he is headed up to Concordia. Soon Tayyab from Karavan Leaders also shows up. Both, it transpires, have made bookings in advance and will get onto the plane for Skardu. I already start feeling slightly anxious – I am certain Yasir didn’t get any bookings done.

Hasan and Yasir didn’t show up till much later grinning – both with boots slung over their shoulders and spare underwear and socks spewing out of their backpacks. We made our way into the baggage check in and saw a mess of people queued at the Skardu counters.

“I’m telling you we shouldn’t even have come here. It’s a waste of time. It’s a historical fact that you will not get a ticket for Skardu, especially on chance” Hasan said, with much confidence. Well that was expected – he is a student and, more importantly, a teacher of history, and we all knew historically that getting a flight to Skardu is next to impossible.

But human beings are very strange creatures. We will ignore historical fact in the hope that the impossible will, for whatever convoluted set of reasons, become possible. And that is precisely what the three of us did. And of course we stacked the odds against us by a) not booking seats from before and b) not getting our names onto the waiting list for seats on the plane. Yasir jumped into the mess of people and tried to get a seat. Then I tried. Hasan looked on knowingly.

I resigned myself to the painfully long bus ride up to Skardu. I had done it the previous year and it had lasted about twenty two hours. So I started to prepare myself mentally, entering a state of numbness that should last about twenty two hours! Yes, my eyes were already glazing over and peoples’ voices were merging into a dull roar. Everything was blurring and I had entered the perfect state for bus travel on the KKH. Then through the blur I heard Yasir say something to the extent of “Well I guess we’ll just have to go in my Santro”, followed by a “Yeah” from Hasan. Wow, I thought – apparently this inspired idea came to the two of them while at Maheen’s the night before.

We dashed out and put our stuff in my car and made out way over to Yasir’s flat, where all three of us sent out yet another set of “last emails”. Miraculously, our entire luggage fit into Yasir’s tiny Santro.

Anyhow we set off by 11:00 am or there about… and then stopped to get fuel at a local petrol station. Here we began taking footage of our expedition and also my lessons in how cars work were initiated.

***

“ …and that is why the US went to War with Iraq!”

Saturday – Sunday, 19th – 20th July 2003

[Day 0: Part 2; Day 1]

“So Moscow, you don’t know how to drive a car? Presumably you don’t know how one works either…”

“Errr…” I said offended by the question! I’m a guy – of course I know how a damn car works! Sort of… so what if I don’t have a license or, more significantly, any driving time under my belt? A fact that causes me much embarrassment – I still don’t know how to drive a car! Most of my university days I spent hitching rides and getting about on my bicycle. Hasan and Yasir were just pulling my leg but I think I took genuine offence!

As it turns out, cars have little gnomes in their engines and that is the key resource that the Americans are after in Iraq. Aha! And to think I believed it was oil that the Americans wanted!

Stopped for tea at a pleasant-ish place beyond Mansehra somewhere. The valley was lush green and the near to setting sun cast a beautiful light on the whole scene. A couple of children were quite fascinated by my sunglasses. Yasir said I looked like a cockroach in them – ass!

Drove on and somewhere in the early night we came to Dassu. Dassu is lower down altitude-wise and consequently is a lot warmer, and drivers on the KKH tend not to like staying there. But we ended up there and drove to cheap and very shady looking place. Our room had a window that over looked the Indus [?] which we didn’t see but we heard the constant roar. It was a strange night, with some guests or possibly the owners of the place talking to each other like they were fighting… but were actually talking… and not fighting. But it certainly sounded like fighting. Next morning Hasan reported that some policemen he had bumped into quite liked his hair, as the policeman hadn’t much himself. Strange.

[Sunday, 20th July, 2003]

We leave Dassu, the next morning, glad to be on the road again. Hasan drives for the morning leg of the journey and manages to hit just about every pothole he sees.

Stopped for a quick cup of tea and a bit of lunch at a slightly hidden trucker place. According to Hasan and Yasir this is one of the KKH’s secrets – now you know!

Near the turn of for the Skardu Highway we spot a red jeep coming the other way. Closer, down near the bridge, Yasir recognises the jeep as belonging to Nisar and Wajahat, who were filming up in Deosai. Nisar had lent us the camera and film (of which we were in the process of wasting copious amounts of on this journey up!) to record our trek. Exchanged pleasantries with them, filmed them a bit and got moving again. Nisar looks like a bandit!

Rest of the way up:

The Santro seems on the brink of running out of fuel at any moment and doesn’t. We drive with the needle on empty for the last two hours to Skardu.

Pee break very near Skardu. Yasir and I set up video camera and record a pretend fight. In front of some really beautiful scenery of course. And I won, in the pretend fight, of course.

Finally get into Skardu late evening.

[Describe car journey up]

***

Skardu!

Monday 21st July 2003

[Day 2]

We’d be leaving for Askole the following day and so needed to get all our gear and supplies sorted. I was assigned to get various odds and ends – jerry cans for kerosene oil, stoves, cooking pots and utensil etc. so I set out with Naima, Yogi, Usman and Fatima to start looking for these things.

To clarify who these new names are. Naima, Fatima, Nabil Kirmani (Yogi) and Usman Ahmed had just come back to Skardu from a trek across the Deosai plains. Rizwan had been the leader for this trip and was positively overflowing with the bear disaster that the trip was! Naima is my best friend and over the years she’s shown considerable bravery, especially in developing a passion for the outdoors. It never ceases to amaze me what this tiny little girl can achieve – always setting the bar high and achieving even more.

Nabil, or Yogi as he is more popularly known (as in “Yogi Bear!”), was part of the three-man team that comprised Rizwan, him and I, and together we ran LAS for 2 years. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years but Yogi has consistently shown himself to be a real fighter and a bear of a man. Rizwan and I have always been able to appreciate his abilities as a logistics man but I never gave his ability in the mountains much credit until we went for a training course to Malka Parbat Base Camp with Karavan Leaders in the winter of 2002 – he really shone there.

Yogi was leading a parallel expedition to Snow Lake via the more traditional Biafo-Hispar route. Burair, a newbie to the mountains, was to join him. Burair is a strong guy and would be exceedingly useful to Yogi’s expedition. Usman too would be going with Yogi but didn’t know this at the time! Credit to Usman who did end up going, not really knowing what he was getting into but with enough pluck to get on with it.

I think my sunglasses were a bit… “brave” – I caught a significant number of people being quite fascinated by them! People really did stare at us quite a bit but perhaps I am inflating the importance of my bright red sunglasses and people looking at us had more to do with the fact that possibly the only two women on the streets of Skardu at the time were with us.

Of course I made a pilgrimage to the hardware stores down past Yadgar Chowk. Usually full of all sorts of rubbish, there are sometimes items of value to be found. I recall seeing a coil of static rope that was 150 metres in length and I wondered at the time whether we’d need it. Later on while cutting steps on the Skam La, I longed for this very static line.

Lunch was, as usual, at the Pukhtun Khwa Hotel – a dingy little place with lots of “character” (read: grime) and bloody good chappal kebabs. We’ve always patronised the place for it’s excellent chappal kebabs: kebabs that have the potential to obliterate whatever lining your stomach may claim to have!

That evening was interesting. I had a rather clever idea with regard to reducing our potential waste up in the mountains, by taking off the excess plastic and cardboard wrappings around biscuit and porridge packets. Burair and I filled one carton load of excess wrappings by the time we were done.

I wanted to make sure I got a good night’s rest before the day ahead. This ties in with the earlier example of how history repeats itself and how humans tend to be a bit stubborn. Sleeping the night before a trek is not meant to be – it is another unalterable rule of our trekking expeditions in the Karakorams. I tried though! By around 2 am I was in a strange daze, having struggled to sleep against the wrath of the bed bugs. The upper floor of the Indus Motel was almost exclusively ours, so there was a considerable mess of equipment and stores scattered all over the hall floor. I made my way over to where Naima and Fatima were. After amusing them terribly by the fact that I was only wearing boxer shorts below, I crashed onto a bed and actually managed to catch a few hours of sleep. Touché unalterable rule of “no sleep the night before departure”!

The following few sections are journal entries for the journey starting from Skardu by jeep to Askole and onwards up to Skam La Base Camp. Day 0 to Day 2 is repeated but directly transcribed form my journal, so it can be skipped.

Also, the following is a brief list of dates and events:

  • Monday         21st July Went by jeep to Thongal
  • Tuesday        22nd July Started actual trek from Thongal to beyond Jhola somewhere.
  • Wednesday 23rd July Jhola to Sagon Nala
  • Thursday      24th July Sagon Nala to Horpicka
  • Friday            25th July Horpicka to Sinan Streams (formerly Sinan Lake)
  • Saturday       26th July Sinan Lakes to first camp on the Nobande Sobande glacier
  • Sunday         27th July Glacier to Hanipispur Mountain base camp
  • Monday         28th July Trekked three hours up to what was thought to be “striking range”
  • Tuesday        29th July Early morning, weather copped out. Moved on two more hours at mid-day to a better position to attempt Skam La
  • Wednesday 30th July Failed attempt at Skam La
  • Thursday      31st July Skam La top; no descent
  • Friday            1st August Khokhar, Qazi, Imran and Akram descend
  • Saturday       2nd August Bajwa, Zubair, Kazmi and Karrar descend; storm at Snow Lake
  • Sunday         3rd August No food; storm
  • Monday         4th August Forced march through storm to Karfogoro; no food
  • Tuesday        5th August Down the Biafo; Bajwa and Akram on helicopter to Skardu

***

Journal Entry: Day 0 to Day 2 Rebroadcast

Friday to Monday, Monday 21st July 2003

[Days 0 – 2]

Where to begin… lots has happened in the past few days.

Currently about 7:00 pm and we are at Thongal. We got here at 3:00 pm having set out at 7:35 am – we made pretty good time. We are: Hasan, Yasir, Bajwa, Yogi, Burair, Hasan Zubair (Govinda), Ali Imran (Agent), Raza Kazmi, Qazi, Usman Ahmed and me. Usman, Yogi and Burair head up the Biafo and the rest are reattempting Skam La.

At the moment we are just getting dinner ready – potatoes, soup, rice – we’ve had some tea. Yogi has been doing the cooking and has mastered using the kerosene stove.

A while back we finalised our porter situation. Soon after, two villagers native to Askole came and kicked up a fuss about our group not taking any porters from their village. Anyhow after much talking and no listening the two went away… issue resolved?

We head for somewhere beyond Jhola tomorrow – i.e. the Skam La group. Ideally we should have been in Askole and tomorrow we were to head to Bulla. I think we can make it beyond it to beyond Jhola – most of our weight will be carried by porters – so we just race to there. We need to set out really early to avoid the extreme heat – I hate the Korophone-Jhola stretch – yuck!

Our group is an interesting mix. I am so glad that Bajwa has come – I think he is the one person I truly enjoy myself trekking with. Our group is fairly strong and we do have porters to support our initial push. Our planning has been better and things seem to have worked a little better – no major hitches thus far. So, the signs are good. It would be a shame if we didn’t cross the pass this time.

Our journey to Thongal was the usual – spectacular rock scenery near Dassu. I think I would really like to get more involved in rock climbing and come to these rock faces. Speaking of rock climbing, a couple of Spaniards returned from Trango, having ascended successfully. Hasan K was a bit jealous – maybe we’ll do a couple of pitches next year!

Usman’s coming with us was uncertain till about 11:30 pm last night – he had decided not to but he came around by then! He cursed himself for not having gone to sleep at 10 pm! But I think he is going to have an experience of a lifetime. I can sense his nervousness but that is expected on your first major Karakorams experience.

It has got a bit chillier. I think my stomach is not in perfect order at the moment – hope nothing happens. I don’t have camp slippers and am regretting that already – very useful item.

Transport has been interesting throughout. We went to the airport (we: Hasan K, Yasir and me) on Friday morning hoping to catch a flight. Of course we didn’t get a seat, so we drove all the way to Skardu in Yasir’s Santro. It was a blast – great fun. We have been given a camera and tonnes of film to capture our entire expedition. Anyhow, we managed to waste a couple of videotapes with complete off-the-wall wack-ball rubbish during the car ride – most fun!

In the morning today we were hoping to fit a lot of expedition food and 15 people into one loader [large, single cabin jeep turned into a pickup] – that didn’t work! So we got another loader.

I think Burair is not completely happy with me… he seems to be questioning me at every turn…

Last night/early this morning (1-3 am) was a very long and very wacky period. We got our packing done late but had to wake up early – so I decided not to sleep – I become a very strange person when half asleep! Naima will testify!

More later!

***

Journal Entry

Tuesday 22nd July 2003

[Day 3]

Its 8:15 pm. We are at a point before Bullah but after Jhola Bridge. We woke up at 5:00 am. The morning saw massive problems with the porters – we had discovered that we had an 8th load and not 7 like we originally thought. Anyhow, after much hassle Bajwa, Yasir and I set out – by 7:45 am or so. We made good time and got to Korophone by 11:00 am, about the same time as the others. Hasan wasn’t having a good day. We hung about at Korophone till 1:00 pm – our porters hadn’t showed up so we waited and finally gave up and left.

Then came that stretch in the Karakorams that I hate – Korophone to Jhola. And of course it was a horrible walk. Hot, dusty and just a pain.

Anyway, now at camp and there is no clear water at this campsite. We have relied on the gritty water of the Jhola Nala. Hassan Zubair devised a way to filter water – through a silk handkerchief. It worked well enough, as larger particles have been filtered out.

We haven’t set up tents – no need and it saves time in the morning. Yasir is currently explaining the workings of satellites to Rizwan. I hope I get a good night’s rest – tomorrow we wake up early and head to Panmah or hopefully beyond.

Interestingly we are already almost out of kerosene. So, today the porters cooked on a wood fire for us.

***

Journal Entry

Wednesday 23rd July 2003

[Day 4]

Well we got an early start today – we were all walking by 6:00 am. We made good time and were at Bullah pretty quick.

Ok before continuing, a couple of points. Yesterday’s campsite was a pretty poor place to camp – primarily because of the lack of clean water. Also… I have forgotten the second point! Oh yeah: altitude – Thongal: 2882 metres, beyond Jhola 3100 metres, before Panmah (Sagon Nala) 3500 metres.

Currently we are at Sagon (or Sagon Nala) we got here at around 1:00 pm – which was too late to cross it. I got here at 12:20 pm or so and went all the way up the stream to check if there was some point of potentially crossing but I had no luck.

Anyhow, we are “stuck” here. We wanted to make it to Panmah. We’re probably an hour or so away from Bullah. Tomorrow is going to be a very difficult day. We “intend” to head to Camp Yogi of last year (a point before Shin Shia Biaho). I think that we are being a bit ambitious – as usual! Let’s hope we make it.

I was kind of disappointed – a bit depressed actually. Our campsite, if you want to call it that, is pretty poor again. There is an incredible population of flies and very persistent too. We’re about to have dinner soon. Daal and parathas cooked by one of the porters.

***

Journal: No Entry

Thursday 24th July 2003

[Day 5]

***

 

Journal Entry

Friday 25th July 2003

[Day 6]

Today has been quite a big day for us. Yesterday we walked from Sagon Nala to Horpika. Today we walked from Horpika to what is now the Sinan Stream (formerly the Sinan Lake; named so after one of the members of the expedition form last year; these are not formal names!), beyond Skinmang. We’ve covered a fair distance and have gained altitude as well – currently at 4275 metres.

Anyhow we started the day early as usual – we were walking by 7:00 am. It was really hard to wake people up this morning. Anyhow we made a good start. Our idea was to get onto the glacier and stay on it until we got to the moraine to cross to the Sinan Stream.

The idea kind of backfired – the glacier was awful to get through. We ended up getting too close to the moraine of Camp Yogi – walked along it and eventually ended up at Shin Shia Biaho. We had made pretty bad time – got there at 1:00 pm. We set out form there and headed fro Sinan Streams. Got there by 5:40 pm. A big day overall.

It’s probably 8:00 pm and Rizwan and Yasir are talking about – something. Yasir has also brought along a personal stereo thing and we are listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali.

I called home from the satellite phone – Iba picked up and I wished him a happy birthday.

This campsite is beautiful, compared to the others we’ve been at. A bit chilly though. We spotted some ibex on the top of the ridge behind our campsite. That is a good omen, according to our Balti friends.

***

Journal Entry

Saturday 26th July 2003

[Day 7]

It’s 7:15 pm and we are camped on the Nobande Sobande – altitude 4500 metres.

It’s quite cold and I suspect it will go negative later. The weather is great though – been clear all day. We’ve had a slight wind blowing at us all day – really saps you. The wind has died down though. The surroundings looked so beautiful in the Alpenglow.

Anyhow, we started from the Sinan Streams at 7:30 am and shot down to here by 10:30 am. I attached myself to the porters and pushed pretty hard – we’ve come really far and really fast. Upon getting here we brewed some hot chocolate.

I think I have a cold or something – runny nose and have sneezed a lot. Our tent is pitched on a rather awkward bit of ice – hope I get some sleep.

We have dismissed the remaining 5 porters – so tomorrow we carry some pretty heavy loads.

In other news, we are still without success in making pudding.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow. Tomorrow night we try and summit Hanipuspur. If we summit then we’ll be able to call ourselves mountaineers.

***

 

Journal Entry

Sunday 27th July 2003

[Day 8]

[Morning]

Its morning – I’ve just woken up. Have had a pretty uncomfortable night. I didn’t have much on – just a shirt and so was losing a lot of heat to the ground. Finally got some sleep when I put my fleece on. The sun is out and it is mildly warmer. Every now and then you can hear a bird. Odd.

[Evening]

It’s about 7:00 pm now. We are almost at last year’s high point – close to the west ridge base camp of Hanipuspur.

The walk was ok today. There was hardly any snow on the glacier as compared to last year, so we didn’t need to rope up. It was cold though – a constant wind blowing in our faces and it was overcast. We are at 4800 metres – so we gained a bit of altitude.

We started out really late today – we set out at about 10:30 am and stopped walking by about 2:00 pm.

The weather, now, is beautiful. There is some cloud cover and the sun is peeping through. We all just took a bunch of photos.

Agent is keen to attempt Hanipuspur. I want to but I’m nervous somehow. Dinner was hardly substantial – Maggi noodles, soup and hot chocolate. Furthermore, my right knee is giving me a bit of trouble. In any case Agent has volunteered to do a weather check. So if alls good we go up Hanipuspur.

I really hope the weather holds in the next couple of days – we really ought to cross the pass this time round. I hope my knee doesn’t give me anymore trouble. It’s very odd – I’ve never had a pain develop like that before.

***

Journal: No Entry

Monday 28th July 2003

[Day 8]

***

Skam La 29th July Summit

Journal Entry

Tuesday 29th July 2003

[Day 9]

Yesterday we moved our camp a little further up the glacier from where we were originally going to attempt the pass.

We got to camp early and started cooking. Initially planned to make daal and rotis. But the roti idea was scrapped, as it was taking too long. Eventually I ended up cooking noodles, daal and pudding. Am getting good at preparing meals – especially pudding!

I stayed up pretty late cooking, while the others dozed. It was quite eerie in the darkness and the blue glow of the stoves.

It stayed clear till we were about to wake up. When we woke up at midnight the weather had turned bad and so we didn’t set out for the pass. I was quite depressed this morning. It was so reminiscent of last year. Well here we are a little farther still. Now we can see the pass and are a mere 30 odd minutes (or so we reckon) away from it.

We set out incredibly late from camp to get to where we are. I think we set out at around 12 noon. We walked about an hour or so and now are perfectly placed for an attempt on Skam La. Kazmi was having trouble today. We have hit 5050 metres. Yesterday’s camp was at 4900 metres. Interestingly one of my big breakthroughs came through today – I have walked above 5000 metres!

I have prepared today’s pudding. Yasir has some water on the boil – we are melting snow to fill up our bottles.

Tonight we attempt Skam La – I hope it stays clear; to go back the same way we came would be painful.

We have developed an interesting group dynamic. Yasir, Bajwa and I are part of the “Octopus” mohalla (Octopus is the name of my tent). Qazi and Hasan are part of the snobby “Kelty” mohalla. Then the lowest rung are the D3 walas!

***

Skam La 31st July Moscow and Hasan on Top of Skam La

No Way Down

Thursday 31st July 2003

[Day 11]

It was about [get time] am – a little late, but we could afford to sleep in because we were close enough to the pass. I got the ropes ready and checked all the tie-in loops. We were packed up by and moving by [get time] am. I was a little concerned because the sun had started coming out and I was in no mood to experience the kind of dehydration we went through yesterday. But we made good progress, and even though the sun came out we were in good condition for the last ten or fifteen metres up. Hasan and I unclipped and free climbed to the top because this final ascent was very steep. The others stayed back. Hasan got up first and a few seconds later I joined him. We gazed down at the Sim Gang. We had done it – we had reached the top of Skam La. Hasan and I shook hands and embraced each other, feeling pretty damn good about ourselves. Now we contemplated the difficult descent ahead.

We got of all the others up, and there was a general sense of jubilation. After this was a series of victorious group photos and at this point I took out the Pakistani flag I had been carrying around in a waterproof case for the past ten days. Then we had to look for a logical point to cross. Hasan went to the right of where we were standing and I went to the left to check for paths. After a bit of exploration I noticed a huge gash that cut off what seemed a good point of descent lower down. I also noticed that what I was standing on was actually a cornice that could potentially break away. That meant we’d have to stay away from the left side and not get too close to the edge. Hasan had more luck and had found a very convenient little gully-like feature that we eventually used for our descent. This choice was not concurrent with the information given us by David Hamilton. Hamilton had said we’d find a logical descent to our left, and in fact we had visually confirmed this from where we were at the top. However it was rendered inaccessible by the big gash and the fact that a lot of this path was corniced to the left.[1]

Then this happened:

Everyone lines up, ropes up.

Hasan and I set up small anchor above the gully.

After this I go with my backpack to the bottom of rope.

I Down-climb to see how far it is (from up top it seemed like the rope covered most of the descent). I noted a crust of slightly softer snow and ice over harder ice-layer under it.

After the rope ends, slope becomes considerably steeper, 75-80 degrees… went down quite a way. It was cold; the sun had still not risen high enough to have hit this part of the slope.

Basically I noticed that there was still a long way down.

Climbed back up.

Quite exhausted by effort. Pooped.

Brought up debate again about whether to use gully or not.

The debate being: the descent was an easy climb down but given the group an easier route might be better.

However, we decide on this route in the end.

I was a little zapped by the morning’s effort and the snow on the top was becoming a lot softer because the sun was getting higher. It was obvious to us that we’d have to do something quick or leave the descent for tomorrow. I informed Hasan of the situation and he went down to set up the other rope for tomorrow. He instructed Hammad who came over as well and the two of us sat on the anchor to make sure it didn’t come out while Hasan was using it. We sat for what seemed like forever, and with the wind blowing it completely drained us. We tried to use Hammad’s mattress as a foil to the wind. Eventually we figured Hasan was not using anchor anymore and went to behind something to shelter from the wind. This was the first time I’d started feeling truly drained on this trip.

Meanwhile the others had set up our tents and were already brewing up something or other. Hasan came up (Hammad having already gone to the tents) and both of us had to wade back to camp with our backpacks on because the snow was so soft by this time. We crawled back to camp exhausted. Descent would have to be left for tomorrow.

The rest of the day was spent lounging around in the tent, brewing whatever we could. The snow melted directly had a terrible taste to it. Water consumption was really low. I suspect some unburned gas got mixed in – vile, poisonous taste. Low on food too. Had to get down quickly to Karfogoro to pick up food. I didn’t really feel the effects of altitude as such, no shortness of breath as we’d acclimatized beautifully throughout. Didn’t really give descent much thought – figured that people would use ropes as guide rails. Not everyone had a complete complement of equipment – only Yasir, Hasan, and myself had both crampons and mountaineering axes. I wonder now why everybody did not have a full complement of equipment; I think this was one of our key mistakes.

We listened to songs and drank some of the poisonous tasting water that we melted. I still can’t figure out why the water tasted so vile – I think that some of the stove gas was not completely combusted and condensed and fell into the water. Yuck! I was dehydrated.

Rizwan, Yasir and I were huddled in a tent talking about various things. For some reason we started talking about Yasir’s car, the Santro that Hasan, Yasir and I had come to Skardu in. And eventually the car became an issue – Rizwan and I insisted that the car was the older model and not the slightly sleeker newer version, while Yasir, the owner of the car insisted that it was indeed the newer version of the car. Why Rizwan and I so vehemently believed in the car being something different to what the owner claimed, I can’t say. Altitude – could be…

 

***

 

Four Descend

Friday 1st August 2003

[Day 12 – Part 1]

I can’t recall this day too well. I remember the date very well, because after descending the pass I immediately called a couple of people and told them to remember the date and time because, I claimed, we had made history – which in a slightly contorted way we had.

My journal entries stopped the day before. After descending I wrote no more entries in my journal. The descent threw me off a little I suppose and I just couldn’t get around to writing anymore entries. On the way back I even thought long and hard about how I’d write about this day.

Thinking back, the one very clear image I have is Yasir’s crampon at eye level. He had borrowed Maheen’s crampons. They are a really good pair of Camp crampons, grey, lightweight alloy with blue straps. And very very sharp. And it was this image I had to look at for most of the day.

We started out early. Yesterday had meant that we needed to get our act together quickly because by 10:30 am or so everything begins to melt, including the slope we were to descend. So we got a relatively early start and were on the slope by about 6:00 am or so.

“So how are we going to do this?” I asked.

“Oh…I was hoping you had given it some thought!” Hasan replied.

“Rats!”

And with these famous words we began the descent of the Skam La.

We decided then, that Hasan would stay at one of the anchors, probably the first and I would station myself at another, probably the second. Then we would lower people down using belay devices – Hasan had a couple. This was a pretty poor plan but the only one that made some sense given that eight people had to be lowered. One of the immediate problems with the plan was that once lowered, where would those people go? After all, it was a slope and there were no natural ledges. It was decided that I would cut out a platform at the end of the first rope – but that still left the end of the second rope insecure: who would cut out a platform at the end of the second rope? Also, the gully wasn’t very wide and cutting into ice is no easy business – how would we fit up to eight people at anyone place in the gully?

Regardless a small reconnaissance had to be conducted in order to check our anchors and free the rope up. I descended down the first of the fixed ropes, using the figure-of-eight descender that Hasan lent me. The rope was very stiff due to ice freezing on to it. So half way down the first pitch, I undid the descender from the rope and used a twist of rope around my forearm for friction. I got down the first length thereby getting the rope unstuck and also proving that the first anchor held! The second anchor, however, was a mess: the screws had all but come out. So I called Hasan down to inspect it and redo it. I was not confident about setting that anchor. Hasan descended and redid the anchor. Here we stuck in an extra screw and clipped our backpacks into it.

Now I descended the second rope length to see how much more we would need to descend and whether we’d need another rope to descend. I started to descend and I was using a wrap of rope around my forearm for friction. The slope was not too severe – about seventy degrees by our estimate. However, toward the middle of the second rope length, the slope became a little steeper – perhaps around seventy five or eighty degrees. So I decided I wanted to use the figure-of-eight to descend the remainder of the rope length and unclipped it. Because the rope was incredibly stiff, it was very hard to get a bight of rope into the descender and while struggling to do so, the descender slipped from my hands and fell all the way down – never to be found again.

I felt pretty stupid at that point – and immediately apologised to Hasan, who was kind enough to say that the particular descender had to be retired anyway. I continued down the remainder of the rope and once down was a little confused. The gully took a bit of right after the rope, so one couldn’t see more than thirty or forty feet more of the gully. So I called Hasan to take a look and once down he felt that we were looking at a pretty straightforward descent – maybe needing to cut a few steps in the ice here or there. So we both went back up using jumars and I stayed at the second anchor.

I was already feeling a bit exhausted. Ascending up that rope really took it out of me and I suppose all the exercise the previous day didn’t really help. Hasan had it worse as he had to ascend both rope lengths.

I made sure I was standing securely at the second anchor and started to cut out a platform for about two people. Meanwhile I noticed the rope had not been pulled up – in order that the first person be lowered. I was also wondering how I would lower people, now that I had lost the figure-of-eight. I kept hacking away at the platform and eventually, also noticed some movement on the rope. Hammad was descending and was not being lowered. That was odd, I thought – weren’t we going to lower people? But I didn’t bother asking what was up – too tired by the hacking and also a bit confused by the lack of a descender. I had hacked out a small platform by this point but was left feeling drained. I also thought it might be an idea to clip myself into the anchor as well, so I clipped in a sling.

When Hammad came into visual range, I noticed that his feet weren’t looking too secure on the ice: his crampons weren’t tied on properly. But he was descending well. Then, maybe for the last twenty feet of the rope, his feet slipped out from under him and he started to slide. Brace yourself, I thought to myself and stuck an arm out. Hammad still firmly held onto the rope but was not producing enough friction to halt his slide. By the time he got to where I was he had slowed a little and I immediately grabbed him by the arm. This perhaps gave him some room to manoeuvre and allowed him to stop his slide and stand precariously on his crampons.

“Qazi, are you stable?”

“No… no I’m not!”

“Ok, I’m going to try and tie you in somewhere. Do you have a sling and biner?”

“No!”

“F*ck! Ok, I’m going to make a figure-of-eight knot at the end of the rope and tie you in.”

I started fumbling with the end of the rope trying to make a knot but it was difficult given that one of my hands was still busy holding onto Hammad.

“Qazi, I need to use both hands. Do you think you are stable enough for me to let go?”

“NO!!”

“Ok, grab on to me.”

“Where? How!!??”

“Somehow, I don’t know! Do something quick!”

“Ok, wait… yeah alright.”

Hammad kept his cool and maintained his precarious balance on the slope. I had to move fast but with cold fingers it was hard to. It was odd how in this emergency I was unable to put together one of mountaineering’s easiest and quickest knots. Then I noticed that Hammad didn’t have a karabiner in the main loop of his harness. So I would have to now undo the double figure-of-eight I had made, make a single figure-of-eight, loop the end through Hammad’s harness and double it. A few more nervous moments spent doing that and he was finally tied in. Then I directed him to move onto the platform and widen it since Ali Imran was now on his way down.

Briefly, Hasan supervises anchor at bottom of second rope length. Hasan, Yasir and I debate – what happens now: It’s late and we’re nowhere nearer to the bottom.

Yasir takes charge – the four of us are to head down and the remaining four follow tomorrow.

Now the four of us were down three rope lengths – or almost three rope lengths: we still had about ten metres of rope left to climb down. The decision to go all the way had now been finalised. I was in a strange numb euphoria (not a happy euphoria, just a very removed, dreamlike perspective). I was exhausted. I had my axe dug into the ice and was leaning onto it, my head touching the slope – which was melting, little streams of water developing everywhere. I looked to my right and saw Ali and Hammad also bent over onto the slope for support – lifeless. The sun was taking away any energy we had. I had a breathable black waterproof on and was absorbing a lot of heat. I opened my waterproof front to help cool of – but that hardly helped. I also had my warm hat on which only made matters worse. But I figured I ought to keep it on – maybe it provided some protection against direct sunlight.

Sleep. That’s what I wanted to do. I was so tired. I had my eyes closed for the most part while leaning on that slope. I have a feeling that Ali and Hammad also had their eyes closed – just give us an opportunity to rest.

Yasir, seemed to be the only one with some energy. Shouting the last few words of a conversation with Hasan – figuring out what we would need. I couldn’t think that far ahead all I could think of was the descent. How would we descend?

Yasir has a tendency to exert control in situations where no control is being exerted. We usually look to Hasan to call the shots, being the eldest and most experienced. But he can be too democratic as a leader at times, in that he tends to look for a consensual decision as opposed to the “right” decision. In this scenario again he was trying to achieve a consensual decision. Perhaps that would have been appropriate had we the luxury of time and had we less pressure on us. But we didn’t have either and it was vital that somebody take charge and make a decision. I don’t think that I would have taken Yasir’s decision. That is to say that I perhaps would not have made the same decision as him – for the four to descend. I was too stuck on group unity – it seemed instinctively wrong to split the party, especially if it could be helped. But Yasir, I think from a more removed, more objective, expedition level stance felt we ought to descend.

I think that, had I been in my senses, or at least a little more aware, I would have agreed to a descent (instead of debating with myself whether we should or should not split the group). And had I been more aware I would have insisted on taking one of the ropes with us for our descent.

But I wasn’t.

Yasir continued the conversation with Hasan. I couldn’t bother listening. Hammad and Ali were just as uninterested as I was. Then suddenly there was shouting. I looked up and Hammad’s backpack was hurtling down at us like a bobsled – racing down the narrow gully. First things – check if you’re anchored? Yes. What about Hammad and Ali – yes. Yasir – him too. Stab ice axe into slope, brace yourself.

Wham!

Something happened. I didn’t catch it. I had my eyes closed and was concentrating on gripping my ice axe in the arrest position. Ali, who was right next to me and Hammad, had lost their footing, but their anchors had held. Yasir was furious.

“WHAT THE F**K ARE YOU DOING HASAN!!??”

“I’m sorry… I’m really sorry!”

Hasan apologised. What had happened? Yasir asked.

“I don’t know… I thought the bags were anchored in.”

Now I remembered. It was my doing. I had casually stacked Hammad’s backpack onto Hasan’s and mine – I hadn’t felt it necessary to clip it in. It was also partly a necessity – there weren’t enough karabiners to go round and we had been in such a rush to get down. But my carelessness had nearly cost us here.

Yasir finished talking to Hasan. We had to move now. We struggled down the final ten or so metres of the last rope length. Now it became obvious to me how we would descend. I had the only ice axe of the four and was the lowest down – I would now have to cut steps for the remainder of the descent. This was a necessity as Hammad and Ali were effectively without crampons.

The rest of the descent was pain. It was hard work when I just didn’t have the capacity for it.

A lot of accounts of mountaineering don’t make a big deal out of cutting steps. It is routine work in routine situations. But it wasn’t a routine situation. We were severely dehydrated, hungry, tired and were being further drained by the climbing sun. The next five hours were pretty rough.

***

“ …been a rough day”

Friday 1st August 2003

[Day 12 – Part 2]

Alright, get up now. We have to descend. Cut steps. Cut the first step. My glasses are so bloody fogged up. Can’t see a thing. Wipe them… with what? Haven’t got anything to wipe them with. It’s so fucking hot. Feeling dizzy. Ok rest. Cut the first step, Yasir insists. Ok, ok… I’ll do it. Raise myself, pull the axe back and strike the ice. Its hard. Its concrete. I hardly make a dent. Hit harder. Still no good. Keep at it. Ok we’ve got a step. Is this any use? We still have a few more metres of rope. Step isn’t deep. Hack some more. So tired. Lean back onto the slope. Its nice and cool. It’s fucking melting. I’m thirsty. Move down…? But I haven’t cut a step deep enough. Ok I’ll move down. Kick right leg in… now the left. Ok, cut a step before you collapse again. It’s so difficult, ice is too hard. Maybe it’ll soften up as the sun melts the slope… hack at it. Is it deep enough? No. cut some more. Move on Moscow, that’s good enough! Good enough… just a couple more blows. Yeah it’s good. Lean onto the slope. Rest. It’s nice and cool. My gloves are still dry. Put on your overmits, keep them dry. Overmits in my pocket… too difficult to get them out. Gloves are still dry. My hands are cold. Ok get moving. Why is Yasir in such a bloody hurry? Let the slope melt, I don’t give a shit. Look up. Ali is still using the rope. The steps aren’t deep enough. Cut them deeper. Can’t see anything with these god damn glasses. Look up. Ali’s going to fall. What happens when the rope ends? Cut the steps deeper. Move down. Hack another step. It’s good. Just another couple of hits. It’s good Moscow, move on… Yasir. But these steps aren’t that deep! Why do you want me to move so fast… ok next step. Slope’s melting. My gloves are getting wet. Cut the step… can’t… rest a bit, lean on my ice axe. Get moving Moscow the slope’s melting! Ok ok, I’ll move. Give me a second. You try cutting steps.

Have to find a rhythm.

[complete: descent]

The ice was becoming softer but that coincided with a general melting of the entire slope. Somehow, the intensity of the sun wasn’t as severe now either. I had settled into a good rhythm, hacking steps pretty quick. I was now actually a few steps further down then Yasir. And I thought this to myself, “Gee, I’ve actually settled into a pretty good rhythm… hope I don’t lose it!”, soon after which it became a struggle to hack steps again. I also remember thinking to myself at this point that I’d get really pissed off if Yasir asked me to film this, soon after which he asked me to film the descent! But surprisingly I didn’t get pissed off. I was far too numb to care – a state that made me infinitely acquiescent. So I dutifully climbed a couple of metres up to level myself with Yasir, who turned his backpack to me in order that I take out the camera. A wobbly balancing act ensued and without spilling anything from his backpack I managed to retrieve the camera. I didn’t film for more than half a minute and the entire episode saw all of us mouthing off the vilest things we could think of at that moment, generally directed at the slope itself. I panned up, caught the other three and any profound sentiments they might have had. I panned down… and figured I ought to switch off the camera and start cutting steps again.

It wasn’t so easy getting going once more. I entered a trance again. Hack at the slope, cut out a step, move down my right leg, move down my left leg, hack another step… keep going. The slope was less steep now but still steep enough to require steps – two of us didn’t have crampons on. There was a bergschrund at the bottom of the slope that was becoming more obvious. The slope eased up considerably after it but we had to be careful till we reached it.

We’re finally at the bergschrund: it’s late afternoon and we’ve been at it for nearly five hours now. I’m scared that the lip of the bergschrund may collapse and god knows how deep the thing goes. I voice my concern and we decide to try and locate some narrow point. More hacking – this time laterally, trying to find a narrow point. We go on for while, maybe half an hour. Finally, we come across what seems to be a relatively narrow point in the gap between the upper and lower lips of the bergschrund. I stick in the snow anchors into the slushy ice and snow of the slope and fashion a short tether by tying in the ends of two slings. I stuck the tether into the anchor and inched closer to the lip of the bergschrund. Doesn’t look to good and I’m in no mood to complicate out situation by falling into the bergschrund. We turn back, spotting another potential narrow point in the gap.

And then something incredible happened. History was made! Yasir slipped and slid toward the mouth of the bergschrund. I was busy focusing on my next step and I thin Yasir made some sounds to the general effect of “I’m slipping” and I caught sight of him get thrown over the mouth of the bergschrund, land comfortably on the other side and slide down the remainder of the way to the bottom.

So Yasir, was now officially the first Pakistani (in many years?) to have crossed the pass, in a rather unceremonious and ridiculously dangerous manner. What happened after of course is even more incredible. A couple of steps later, Hammad also decided that life wasn’t worth living and slipped, got thrown over the bergschrund and like Yasir, slid all the way down. Two in a row! It was unbelievably lucky. I was astounded by our luck – both of them got thrown clean over the gap.

Ali Imran and I walked on a little further and got to our predetermined crossing point. I couldn’t bother with even pretending to rigging up some kind of safety – if the bergschrund wanted to collapse it was most welcome to. I held my axe in the arrest grip and lunged across the gap, twisting round in order that my slide be arrested by the axe. I got out of the way and Ali Imran jumped and slid down to the bottom. I was tempted to just slide down too but I decided against it. We had done it and I think our descent deserved a decent end. I was going to walk it down – the slope was gentle enough.

It was over: we were all down now. Safe, but with the most idiotic things happening toward the end. I couldn’t believe our luck.

It was so beautiful and serene – pleasantly warm, while the sun was almost setting. Half stumbling, half walking down the final few steps to where the rest were. Yasir had the camera trained on me.

“How d’you feel Moscow?”

I raised my arms above my head – victory. I don’t remember saying anything but if I did then it was probably something like “We did it”. I came and sat close to where Yasir was. I knew that if I sat down I wouldn’t have it in me to be able to get up and do anything else. But I sat down nonetheless, and looked down to where the Sim Gang flowed down into Snow Lake. It was truly remarkable to look at.

I couldn’t think of anything – I was empty with relief. I was numb and pleasantly warm now. It felt so comfortable to be in this numb stupor. Yasir turned the camera to me again and asked me about what had happened during our descent. I started and I laughed a little – I was pleased we had made it.

I think my opinion of the beauty of that place was partly a result of my extreme relief. I was just plain relieved that we’d got down ok – I didn’t need to worry anymore. And it was incredible. And I was keen to take a picture but my camera was attached to my back pack, stuck somewhere on the descent slope.

[complete]

Back to reality. Had to get all this wet clothing off me – especially my socks and boots, which were soaked through. Yasir supervised the setting up of Hasan’s tent. How we’d fit in there, the four of us, was beyond me. But that was for later. The sun was fading fast and we had to get something inside us. Fortunately we had a stove and a couple of steel mugs. Yasir began melting snow in them, balancing both over the stove at the same time.  [complete]

***

2nd August Remaining Four Descend

Storm

Saturday 2nd August 2003

[Day 13]

Woke up slightly cold and very groggy. I worried a lot about my feet – they were perpetually cold. The night had been… interesting – very cramped. Four guys in a two man tent sharing two sleeping bags really was a tough chore. I didn’t sleep much but I was far too burnt out to do anything apart from lying there and bearing it. What made the situation a whole lot more complicated was the fact that Hammad’s sleeping bag (one of the two sleeping bags we had) was the sort that only opened half way. That made sharing it really tough!

Regardless, we all crawled out and did our morning thing brought out the mattresses. We heard the remaining four shouting and talking. In fact that is the first sound I heard when I woke up in the morning. I think we were all concerned about how the remaining four would get down. They did have both ropes. But they were a weak party, given that Kazmi and Hassan Zubair had hardly any experience on snow and ice. We spread the mattresses and sat down to watch the show. I remembered that I had carried a small tin of halwa especially for this occasion and brought that out. It was a bit tough so we bit of chunks directly.

Rizwan did some pretty spectacular climbing from this point onwards. For the lengths of the ropes, he descended quite casually, with Hassan Zubair tied to his harness. At the end of the rope Hassan Zubair stopped, he wasn;t going to go any further without assistance. Meanwhile, Rizwan very neatly and quickly picked his way down the steps we’d cut the previous day. He downclimbed in less than a couple of minutes a section of the slope that yesterday had taken us almost five hours! He walked into camp, huffing and puffing with exhaustion. He was dehydrated quite badly and we got him to lie down on a mattress and I opened his jacket front to help him cool off. He narrated what the group had gone through the night before. No water, no food (they didn’t have matches). It transpired that Hassan Zubair had, in exhaustion and partly in worry over the descent, fainted as Rizwan was brining him down. Rizwan had been quite exceptional about the whole thing – bringing down a fellow member and just cakewalking the descent. Wow! Then we heard Hasan shout.

I got up and I could feel I was weak. I strapped on my crampons, picked up my axe and started walking toward the slope. Hassan Zubair had to be brought down. But he was so high how would I ever get there? I crossed the bergschrund and started climbing up step by step. I was exhausted and going up was difficult to say the least. But I got half way up to Hassan Zubair. Then something quite stupid happened. Hasan shouted at me or generally – the thrust of which was that nobody was helping and that we should go stuff ourselves. Now, that was a perfectly reasonable sentiment at the time, given the fact that nobody actually was helping with the second descent. However, given my condition and general mood at the time and also the fact that I was on my way up, I figured the comment was a bit uncalled for so I shouted right back and mouthed off a couple of curse words for good effect. That was that. I asked Hassan Zubair if he’d make it down ok, which he assured me he would – upon which I turned back. I was furious – here I was trying to help and I’m getting cursed and shouted at?

That was a mistake though. I should have realised that Hasan needed help and that was just the pressure of the circumstance he was in that made him say what he had. I should have gone up to where Hassan Zubair was and taken either him or Kazmi down with me. But I turned back and went back to camp in a huff. I was angry and flung my crampons and ice axe away when I got back. Yasir and Rizwan tried to calm me. And what happened next made me realise that I should have stayed on and helped.

Hassan Zubair had begun descending and Yasir had gone to the base of the slope to try and guide him down. Meanwhile Hasan and Kazmi had come to the point where Hassan Zubair had been left by Rizwan. I had decided to look up at the descent after my little anger fit – needed to see that all ended ok. Kazmi let out something between a yell and a cry for help and started hurtling down toward the bergschrund. He’s had it, I thought. If Kazmi survived that he’d be a very very lucky man indeed. It happened quickly and Kazmi had picked up considerable speed by the time he came to the bergschrund. Then he slammed into the lower lip of the bergschrund and I was sure he’d have broken something. He hung on and stopped dead for a few seconds. I thought he’d been knocked out. But he started to move again and struggled to get out of the bergschrund. I felt incredible relief and just squatted, holding my face in my hands. Kazmi had nearly gotten killed.

Now it was just a matter of Hasan getting down – which he was doing, steadily down climbing.

About four of us escorted Hasan down the last few metres to where everyone had generally decided to pile up. It was a muted sort of victory. I was displeased, put off by everything and how we had done it. We finished off the halwa and got ready to move on.

Meanwhile, Rizwan’s sleeping slipped out of his backpack and rolled down the gentle slope about 200 metres or so from where we were. We were all so pooped that for some time we just hung about deciding whether or not to retrieve it. The sun was incredibly strong and was dehydrating us fast. We decided not to get the sleeping back and make do with what we did have on us. And so we started our walk down the Sim Gang Glacier.

About two hours later, the weather began to deteriorate. Hasan wasn’t too happy with the situation and he said something that lingered with me for the rest of the trip out of the Lake – something to the effect of “Snow Lake swallows whole roped teams”. Scary. The party stopped and Yasir and I went ahead to scout out the distance left. We were certainly not going to make it to Karfogoro today. Yasir is always a voice of hope at these rather dreary moments and I returned a bit cheered. We set up camp and began piling up snow on one end of our site to protect the tents from wind. I don’t know just how effective those walls were going to be given that they weren’t too high. And so we got on with it. We cooked the last of our “real” food. After this we would not have any substantial rations, apart from some fruit drink and a bit of flour.

Our sleeping arrangements were very interesting that night. Rizwan had lost his sleeping bag earlier, and I had lost my tent in the bergschrund at the bottom of the pass. So now, we had to squeeze five people into a 3-man tent and share four sleeping bags between the five of us. We lay two bags down on the floor of the tent and would spread the other two over the five of us. Snug!

***

Stormed in at Snow Lake

Sunday 3rd August 2003

[Day 14]

This has to be one of the most depressing days of my life. Stuck in a tent with four other grown men, cramped for space with nothing to eat and nothing to read. [complete]

***

Skam La 4th August Storming Snowlake

Through the Storm and on to Karfogoro

Monday 4th August 2003

[Day 15]

I woke up and I was in a dismal mood. Stuck in this miserable tent, hungry and tired and without a good night’s rest.

But it was very still. I couldn’t hear the pitter-patter of snow falling on the tent. Went out for the morning ritual and found, much to my happiness, that the sky had cleared just a tiny bit. There seemed to be a break in the clouds. This was it – we had to move now. I went back into the tent and got the idea going with Rizwan, who received it very positively indeed after taking a look outside. We had to move now or we’d lose our chance to get out of this mess.

Rizwan and I spoke to Hasan. He didn’t seem at all in the mood to move.

“You’ll get killed, we’ll all get killed – this is a Snow Lake storm”

But what was the alternative – wait it out? If this was a Snow Lake storm then it could last for days and we were out of food. And then of course there was the lure of food at Karfogoro that Yogi’s team should have dumped for us. I wasn’t going to let this go. We had a break in the weather and we needed to move. Yasir was game too. Hasan was still unconvinced and was acting pretty gloomy overall. This place was getting to us all and I think Hasan too was being overcome by general lethargy and listlessness. This annoyed me greatly at the time. I didn’t see an alternative.

Whatever it was, we were going to move and Rizwan and I galvanised the whole party into action. The break in the weather meant that we could pack things up, clean up and move out. I looked over the ropes and checked the tie-in knots. There was a reluctance to go. People were feeling weak and lethargic. Two days of sitting around and wasting away had taken its toll on this already dehydrated and hungry group. Hassan Zubair wasn’t feeling too good, so I took the tent from him to lighten his load. Hammad, ever cheerful, also looked a little out of sorts. All this didn’t bode well for the day ahead. All packed up and we were set to go. I tied in behind Hasan as usual.

This was going to be a long and scary haul. What Hasan had said the day before about whole roped-teams falling into the deep crevasses of Snow Lake and vanishing had scared me somewhat.

We began our long and exhausting trudge down the Sim Gang, following the base of the mountains to our left. We knew from the map that there were two large arced sections we had to get across. After the arcs we’d be at the corner of Snow Lake where the Biafo Glacier exits.

Hasan had the toughest job today. He was in lead and he had to constantly check for hidden crevasses, using his trusty walking poles as probes. Every time he’d suspect a crevasse he’d mark it and call out, then I’d call out to the guy behind me and so on until the last person knew. Every so often I’d see Hasan slip part way into a crevasse and I’d immediately throw myself into an arrest position in case he was going to go down further. This was frustrating – both for Hasan, as he’d be the one taking a wet and tiresome semi-plunge into some small crevasse or the other and for me to drop down every time and pick myself up. It didn’t help that today I had a very heavy load, carrying the D3 (tent) along with my regular load. It was a tiring rhythm. Walk some, mark crevasse, leap over crevasse, walk some, Hasan slips into small crevasse, I fall to arrest, get up, walk some, mark crevasse, keep moving… To further the fun, there were these near invisible potholes, full of water, everywhere. So every now and then one of us would sink knee deep into slush. Add wet and cold feet to the mix and you have a very annoyed party of trekkers.

We trudge along like this for some 3 hours and cross one of the arcs and are now well down the Sim Gang and we can see the corner of Snow Lake and the Biafo… or so we think. We’ve developed a good rhythm – an exhausting one but we can keep it up now. There’s a complete lull in the atmosphere around us. The storm has lost its severity, it never really picked up after the break. But it’s overcast and threatens to snow. We rest at this amazing formation with two large aquamarine pools of water. Water at last! We drink up and fill our bottles. The first good water we’ve had in days. It’s heavenly! I sit on a small mound of snow and look in front of me, to the north and see the sun briefly peep through in a very haunting way – grey and orange through a cover of clouds. It reminds me of a surreal Japanese painting. We start up again, revitalised by the water.

Food. Food fantasies begin to creep into the mind now. God, what I’d give to eat one of those volatile chappal kebabs at Pukhtun Khwah in Skardu. That reminds me of last year, summer of 2002 when six of us went up the Panmah and Nobande Sobande but didn’t cross Skam La. Sinan (one of the members form the 2002 group) used the back of a small carton of cheese to write down a months worth of places to go and eat out at – that’s how bad food fantasies can get! Fruit – I wanted fruit, lots of it. I craved the crispness and freshness of some good fruit. Oh well, it’d have to wait!

8 hours of walking and we neared the end of the second large arc of mountains. The corner seemed to be close at hand. And it came and went. We got confused. Hasan, Yasir and Rizwan who had been to Karfogoro back in 2000 began debating whether where we were was indeed Karfogoro.

“These places tend to change a bit so…”

“I recall it had a lot of rocks strewn about.”

“And look dead ahead – that looks like Rabbit Peak to me.”

But there was uncertainty. We had come to the end of the arc and there seemed to be a change in the terrain, a lot more rocks strewn all over the place, which the three (Hasan, Yasir and Rizwan) figured to be the terrain at Karfogoro. We kept walking in this uncertainty and a fear began creeping over me – what if we were lost?

Soon we entered a gully with a stream running down the middle of it, formed by the mountainside to our left and a large mound-formation to our right. We kept walking through this gully. I was getting pretty nervous now – the fear of being lost in the mountains was getting to me. Yet how silly to have felt that way – there was no doubt that we would hit the Biafo if we kept walking in this direction. But the paranoia seems to creep in at moments like these. Hasan got a little nervous too, especially as we entered the gully. He looked back and asked me whether we should go on. Yasir, ever cool, shouted out –“Let’s keep moving, no need to worry, Karfogoro is just round the corner”.

[complete]

Karfogoro at last!

Where’s the food?

***

Down the Biafo?

Tuesday 5th August 2003

[Day 16]

I sought Hasan’s reassurance. I wanted to know that we’d make it because very honestly I didn’t think we had great chances. Our food was down to a half bag of porridge, a few packets of soup, some fruit juice powder and a bit of flour. Given that we were easily looking at another three days of walking, that didn’t exactly seem like a lot of food to me, compounded by the fact that we hadn’t exactly been packing it on in the past ten days. If we were stormed in again even if for a day or two, we would be in trouble. I felt weak. Very weak. I had never felt this way on any of my treks and that scared me. We were all weak and that scared me too.

It was sunny and I was squatting near our tent trying to figure out how to pack up. Yasir was mucking around with the satellite phone trying to charge it in the meagre sunlight, when it sounded off – a message. My recollection of this is a bit vague. Yasir didn’t exactly specify the contents but the message stated that helicopters were on their way and further that a team had been sent up the Biafo for us! That sounded very unbelievable to me. But the immediate connection I made was to the phone call we had made a couple of days earlier to my dad. And immediately I wondered about what would happen if helicopters actually came. We were out of the worst of our trouble – we had walked ourselves out of the storm. And Hasan’s first reaction to the messages didn’t seem very “positive” to me – he was of the opinion that we would turn them away. It made sense – we weren’t in trouble anymore and ideally we were a few days away from the end of our journey. But what if the helicopters actually came and what if they insisted on taking us? What would I do? Would we send them away? They had probably been sent through some coordinated effort from my dad, which meant that he had probably faced considerable expense to have had them sent over. What of that?

And then we got a call from Maheen. And here was another ambiguous event. Yasir received the call and apparently Maheen confirmed that helicopters had been sent for us. But according to Yasir he had asked her to tell them to stand by. Later on it transpired that Maheen had replied to Yasir’s request by saying “Nothing doing” and “You’re getting on those choppers”. I wasn’t too sure what the exact content of the conversation was but there was considerable ambiguity in my mind as to what was happening.

Regardless, I put all that aside, assuming that the helicopters had been put on standby and looking forward to meeting the team that had been sent for us – food!

I had a gut feeling that something was up and that some kind of weird choice would have to be made. Already I was thinking of the possibilities and how to handle them.

The walk down the Biafo was – pleasant. It was relatively flat and it was a safer surface without snow and the danger of hidden crevasses. And of course the weather was relatively better – it wasn’t exactly sunny but at least it wasn’t a storm.

We walked and chatted and all the time I felt nervous – about the earlier phone conversation. What if some sort of helicopter was on its way – what would we do then? We didn’t really need it anymore – we’d walked ourselves out of trouble.

And then we heard and saw a helicopter go by, up the Biafo toward Snow Lake. And a second one. Finally, a brand new Bell chopper located us – brand new: not in the green colour that other army aviation choppers have. The Bell circled a few times and Hasan signalled for it to go away. It didn’t. In fact, it landed close by and the pilot called to one of us and I went over. I told him that we were ok and that we didn’t need a rescue anymore. For some reason it didn’t occur to anyone of us to ask whether they had some food on them. Regardless the pilot asked my name and it told him and he signalled some sort of recognition. He said that he’d need someone to go with him to just confirm that the rescue was ok and that he’d drop whoever it was back.

I ran back to the group and told them this. Hasan suggested that I go with the pilot and do the confirmation. I figured that it wouldn’t take to long, so I left my pack and told everyone to wait for me and that I’ll be right back. However, Hasan told me to take my bag with me. Then as I was leaving, someone remembered that I had the cooking utensils and that I ought to take them out. This was odd, because as far as I was concerned I was coming right back. Regardless, I didn’t argue and took out the cooking gear.

I got into the chopper and put on the headset. The pilot introduced himself and his co-pilot. The helicopter was being tested, hence it was brand new and unmarked. The co-pilot was a European, although I can’t recall from where exactly. After the introduction the pilot said that there was room for another, so I opened the door and beckoned for someone to come. Yasir and Rizwan came. I told them and after a very amusing and confused sort of debate between the two, Rizwan decided to hop in for the ride.

The flight down to Paiju (Paiju is the last pre-glacier camp, before the Baltoro Glacier, enroute to K2) was spectacular. I tried to pick out places I knew. Rizwan and I were enjoying our ride thoroughly. The flight took a while – maybe 40 minutes or so. A nagging concern I had was the cost of this ride.

Once at Paiju, the situation took a new turn. We went down to a tent where other army aviation officers were sitting and got talking to them. One of the majors started scaring the hell out of us about the cost of this thing – something to the order of US $800 per hour. That really took the wind out of the two of us. Who was going to pay this enormous sum of money, and that too for a rescue confirmation ride? Going back seemed like a silly thing to do. It was suggested to us that instead we hitch a ride back to Skardu, as a sortie was already scheduled for that and organise whatever relief effort we wanted form there. That made sense and given the scare about the costs of the operation till that point (two Lamas had been sent after us plus the Bell; all had been in the air for a couple of hours a piece), it made sense to the two of us.

We had a quick meal with the offices. It was delicious. After the last few days of some pretty nonexistent food, this really was heavenly. The sortie out to Skardu was being readied. Meanwhile, the officers got talking to us, asking us why we did what we did and what we did when we weren’t in the mountains nurturing our suicidal tendencies. They turned out to be a really cynical bunch. But quite interesting and very amusing nonetheless.

[pleasant meal; amusing and cynical aviation officers]

The ride back to Skardu was tremendous. What takes eight hours of difficult jeep journeying we compressed and finished in less than half an hour, following the valley out. We got talking to our pilots, relatively young guys both in their early thirties thought both looked younger than Rizwan and I. They talked about their marriages, about their careers. We landed at some spot well out of the main Skardu town area. We waved they good bye and went down the road to wait for some sort of transport. Soon after, we were in a cab on our way to the Indus Motel, looking like hell itself.

Looking at the video of this day, the video that Yasir shot, I’m disappointed. The group that remained reacted in a slightly cynical manner. Although I suppose it was due to them – having not eaten and being exhausted for days had taken its toll on all of us. But it disappointed me to hear some of the things that were said when the chopper took off. There seemed a need to separate Rizwan and myself from the rest of them. It was obvious that the helicopter was by this point not a necessity but that it came now seemed an embarrassment, a blow to our self-reliance. Kazmi

***

Back in Skardu

Tuesday 5th – Wednesday 6th August 2003

[Day 16 – 17]

We walked into the Indus Motel looking like hell and immediately looked to make a call. Our first concern was acquiring food, a guide and vehicle to travel back up to Askole. But first we’d have to call home confirm the rescue and then look to make the next move. Called home and it turned out that some relief party had been sent up to meet up with us so we ought to stand down. But a little while later it turned out that no such party had been sent and it looked like we might have to go after all. That suited me fine – I was in no mood to dump my team and I certainly didn’t want to look like I had. I was filthy but I figured that that was good – if I bathed and cleaned up I might have to drive myself a bit harder to go back.

But it so happened that soon we were both bathed and clean. We had been told to stand down and that if we were to take any action than it would be in case more help was needed. From our conversations with the people at home it transpired that some sort of relief effort was on its way with food. Apparently Askole policemen were already on their way up to meet the party, carrying food. In hindsight, we just shouldn’t have accepted this piece of information and if I have one regret from the expedition, it is this. Rizwan and I cleaned up and got on with it.

We ate dinner at the K2 motel down the road from the Indus Motel, having gotten Yasir’s car and its keys from Nazir (one of the brothers who own the Indus Motel). After dinner we had green tea in the garden. It was absolutely beautiful. At dinner we were met by Captain Hisham. He interviewed us briefly about the whole operation and told us that we were to report to the local headquarters first thing in the morning.

[Wednesday 6th August]

First thing in the morning: we reported to army headquarters and were debriefed by Major Khuzaima. He was a very sharp, wily sort of character – totally in control of the situation and the sort of person who is always inquisitive about what’s going on around him. Anyhow, he interviewed us and he asked us why we had called for the helicopter and we explained what had happened. Why didn’t you try and get the helicopter’s attention when they first appeared? What about the rest of the group – why didn’t they get on board? And so on.[complete]

Back at the Indus Motel that evening, we reinitiated communications with Islamabad and it transpired that the police party with food had not in fact set out and that no such party was due to. This misinformation had been supplied to the Army who had in turn told the concerned people, namely the people based in Islamabad, the same. So the first thing that we figured was to get supplies together and set out for our party who would by this stage be well down the Biafo. What a waste of time. Had we been informed earlier that no such party had set out we would have set out the very instant we got to Skardu.

Regardless we got whatever we could together with the money we had. I spoke to my father and told him of what we were planning to do and he advised me that we hire a local guide instead and entrust him with getting the food across. It made sense. By this point it really was more symbolic than anything – in all likelihood the remainder of the group would troop in the next day anyway. But we had to do what we set out to in the first place by taking the ride out.

Nazir boosted the supplies with cans of sardines and packets of powdered juice. We packed this up, hired a local loader and packed it off to Askole.

***

[title]

Thursday 7th August 2003

[Day 17]

We spent the day waiting. We expected the group to arrive tonight. So we had a day to kill.

Nazir is an incredibly resourceful man. He knows all of Skardu and owns a considerable number of businesses in it, including, poultry. Rizwan, Nazir and I got into Yasir’s car and decided to picnic at Satpara Lake. Nazir grabbed a couple of chickens from his poultry shop and we sped off towards the lake.

[meet the paindoos]

Once back at the Indus Motel, we met an incredibly interesting gentlemen by the name of Nicholas. He sported a scraggy beard, long unkempt hair and wore a Balti hat – very much the wild mountain man image. Rizwan and I got talking to him and it turned out that he was French, lived in Tibet with his Tibetan wife and children, spoke 14 different languages including English, French, Balti, Urdu and a host of Tibetan languages, was involved in a host of socio-cultural research – a very impressive scholar! Rizwan and I were reacting to trekking generally and were planning something on bicycles for the following year – avoiding mountains and snow for a bit! We mentioned this to Nicholas and he told us that Tibet would be an ideal spot for such a trip. Interestingly, he also mentioned that Baltistan is one end of the Tibetan Plateau and the languages are incredibly similar.

[stuff…?]

We drove Yasir’s car all the way into the Shigar Valley – probably about 45 minutes worth of driving and then we walked some way. We waited for our jeep to come and a couple of jeeps passed but they weren’t ours. I was wondering how they’d react or if they’d react at all. I felt guilty and at the same time I knew I would feel relief at seeing them.

The jeep finally came, we recognised it. And Rizwan and I jumped up onto the back immediately to say hi to everyone. They were mostly dozing off and didn’t really respond as such. It felt strange. Awkward. We got a few muffled responses that said hi and cursed in good-natured fun. It felt strange though, hanging onto the back of the loader, speeding along quietly in the night air in Shigar valley.

We hung onto the back until we got to where we had parked Yasir’s car. The three of us got off and drove back, quiet for the most part. It just felt so awkward. Rizwan and I had felt genuine relief at seeing the party and we laughed and shouted to them as soon as we saw them but it felt awkward right after. Guilt? It was like we were guilty of something and more importantly that we were meant to feel it whatever the case may be.

Back at the Indus Motel things just got more awkward. Hammad, Ali Imran and Hassan Zubair were really happy to see us and when they got off the loader they hugged and chatted with us. Kazmi and Yasir were in good spirits too I suppose. Hasan was annoyed – and whatever it was, was being directed at Rizwan and me. As soon as he got off the loader he made a beeline for the reception, without really acknowledging Rizwan and me. Having looked at the video for those portions of the journey when we weren’t with this crew, there really was some degree of upset, a bad taste in the mouth.

Or maybe it was just me. I felt guilty inside. At the time, part of me felt like I had abandoned my team. Perhaps it was this nagging guilt that made me look at all of this in such a poor way. And yet when I think back to it, I did what made the most sense, given my circumstance.

[complete]

***

Homeward Bound

Friday 8th – Saturday 9th August 2003

[Day 18 – 19]

 

The morning was another surreal, awkward event for me. Everyone was bathed and breakfasted, and we congregated in Yasir and Hasan’s room, at the end of the hall, the room that overlooked the river. We all made attempts at conversation. Bits and pieces of the trek were talked about. The descent came up. I apologised about losing the figure of eight descender to Hasan again and gave him a couple of my ice-screws to compensate. Yasir reminded me that this trek seemed to fit into the general pattern of my treks thus far – I never seem to complete a route, which is true to an extent.

[complete]

***

End Game

August 2003

I wanted to make history and that is why I went to Skam La. Skam La had till last year held no specific attraction to me. In July 2002, I set of with six other people and headed up the Panmah with a vague idea about the historical significance of a first Pakistani crossing of the pass. I had no idea about the difficulty or the kind of technical skills required. The expedition in July 2002 could in the best analysis be termed a very good reconnaissance of the Panmah Glacier, the Nobande Sobande Glacier and the general approach to the Skam La.

In the worst analysis it was perhaps a very naïve attempt at a fairly difficult objective. The successful crossing was not an easy task, as I hope my account thus far has illustrated. Last year we had perhaps a few days worth of food – four days at a pinch, when we felt we were in a position to cross the pass. Luckily, I feel, the weather didn’t hold and that night, in late July 2002, we decided to turn back.

That was the event of significance. That was what made Skam La a worthwhile objective in my mind. It had no emotional significance till that night when we turned back. It is important to note this because for others it did have some other, powerful significance. Hammad comes to the mountains because for him it is important to periodically fill himself with the pure aesthetic pleasure of being up there. So the pass held a kind of beauty for him – part of just being in the mountains. For Hasan, it comes down to a long term ambition he has – to attempt and with any luck, cross the six Snow Lake passes. Snow Lake for him is significant to him not only as a wild and beautiful place but also as the challenge of crossing the six very technical, very tough Snow Lake passes. Rizwan, I have always felt, has had more than just an aesthetic motivation for coming to the mountains – I think he definitely enjoys the social side of it! He comes to have a blast with his friends. Yasir I haven’t been able to decode yet – there is an element of sport that he enjoys and I think he revels in the challenge and hardship that the mountains throw at him. I guess its knowing that you can do something, that you can endure something so trying that gets him.

For me the mountains have always offered good sport. Trekking in the Karakorams will test the will, endurance, strength and character of anyone. I tend to be clumsy, speaking optimistically, at most conventional sport – I do not have that talent in me. But endurance sport is one arena in which I feel I am even mildly worthy. Running, cycling, swimming and trekking have always appealed to me, especially their endurance and long distance elements. That night when we turned back, something inside me clicked – very subtly and with out my noticing it: just a germ of an idea – Skam La had won round one. At the time, I was, like everyone else, too bothered about our return to give it much thought. I was glad to be alive and looking forward to chomping down immeasurable quantities of chapli kebabs back in Skardu. And anyway we had already decided that the summer of 2003 should be spent on organising an expedition to Spantik (Golden Peak). But the germ multiplied and grew and while returning from a rather dull mountain safety course in November 2002, it hit me.

Or rather, us.

Hammad and I were sharing the front seat of one of the two jeeps that was heading down from Lake Saif-ul-Maluk. And we both started talking about the plans for the summer of 2003. Of course we touched the idea of Spantik and how we would go about it. But we both sounded very uninterested in Spantik (my reluctance was fuelled more by the idea that I would, in my capacity of President of LAS, have to try and look for sponsorship!). So we both started talking about our recent attempt at Skam La and how it was such beautiful and untouched terrain. And then we both simultaneously came around to the idea that maybe the summer of 2003 should be a reattempt of the pass. Perfect! Now I wouldn’t have to be bothered about finding sponsorship for Spantik and more importantly there were others who were keen to reattempt the pass. There was now a chance to attempt the pass again, to complete the route, get good sport in the process and very significantly be the first set of Pakistanis to cross the Skam La, thus make history.

Now, Skam La carried some significance for me. It was not just sport now, it had the twist of my realising that a second attempt had a better chance of crossing and thus the chance to make history.

A rather odd combination and perhaps a slightly crack-pot-dictator set of motives meant I wanted to go to Skam La.

I know for a fact that my extreme interpretation of trekking (and maybe mountaineering when and if I ever climb them!) as a sport is a transient one. Prior to this interpretation I had no interpretation and prior to that I was completely sold to the idea of going to the mountains for the “good views you get”! Of course it is oneself that decides what to go up to the mountains for and that will change and adapt for as long as one goes up the hills. It is important to know why one goes to the mountains – that will determine one’s attitude and performance up there.

I like what Stephen Venables has to say about the mountains. I remember telling Rizwan early on in the expedition that when we get higher up and get to colder, snowy-icy terrain, I feel a lot more alive. Venables has something similar to say. He says that going to the mountains provides “a sense of living intensely and being intensely alive” [quoted from “Mountain Men” by Mick Conefrey and Tim Jordan]. I think I agree to a large extent. There were points when I was, I felt, very close to my physical limits and those periods I felt numb. But once I got through those periods I felt very alive – I appreciated my “aliveness” a great deal.

And of course for those who aren’t too clear, and quite honestly I am one of them (!), there is a rather clever solution. Or at least a phrase that offers an interesting escape to this problem. And the phrase is: “Because they’re there”. This statement is attributed to George Mallory, who attempted and disappeared on Everest in the 1930s and some suspect that it’s more just a myth than real. But it’s a convenient little phrase, from a mountaineering legend so we might as well shut up and live with its open-endedness!

[complete]

Post-script: Eight Brave Pakistanis

Summer 2004

 

To think that after it all happened, the helicopter would be such an issue. I was interviewed briefly for the video that was being edited for Skam La 2003 and the interviewer’s first question was whether I got flak from my team about having gone in the helicopter. “Why should I get flak?” I thought.

For a full year after and beyond, Rizwan and my contributions to the expedition were conveniently bundled away, reduced because of this controversy. It irritated and angered the both of us and, interestingly, till well after the expedition, if the two of us ever got talking about it, we would get quite worked up.

It’s a strange world and by now, almost a year later, the kinds of interpretations that abound about what “actually” happened at Skam La amuse me at one level and frustrate me at another. I’m amused that many people felt that my father sent helicopters to rescue me. The day we called, the day my entire tent, all five of us in there having consented, called my home and informed my parents that we were in trouble. The decision was taken by the group present in the tent at the time – including Rizwan, Hassan Zubair, Ali Imran, Raza Kazmi and myself. The actions that were taken after were meant for the benefit of the entire group. It is impossible that my parents would send aid exclusively for me. Moreover, I do not see why it was wrong for the five members who decided to call in and inform the outside world that we could potentially get into quite a mess.

By the 6th of August we had effectively walked ourselves out of trouble and I will maintain that the decision to get out of the storm at Snow Lake was one that Rizwan and I had pushed for. Had the two of us not pushed for the team to move on, we could have stayed stuck there for days and who knows what would have happened to the team then. Our food situation was precarious – we effectively had nothing to eat. Even at Karfogoro, we had not found the provisions that were to have been left for us.

More importantly, the army aviation rescue team had the wrong objective – they had been told we were lost. However, we were not lost, but rather had run out of food. Had the chopper brought us some food, I think they would have had a far more successful rescue operation on their hands.

Hindsight is a wonderful faculty or quality that we posses as human beings. It all worked out fine in the end and luckily no one was hurt and we had no major mishap. Looking back at it many would argue that calling in a helicopter was excessive. I agree. By the time the helicopter arrived we were effectively out of trouble. But the time we called, we were in a mess and it was useful to have told someone out there that things could get worse. I just wonder, had something gone wrong on that trek (for instance, had we waited days upon days for the storm to finish), would the helicopter issue still be debated?

Regardless, I hope that this account provides a clear enough perspective on what happened at Skam La.

I also hope that people look beyond helicopters and realise that eight very brave Pakistanis achieved something quite unique in the summer of 2003.


[1] Note that in 2004, Karavan Leaders also crossed this pass via the left side. They found the descent was quite straightforward, with only a small 100m-rope section, implying that this pass changes from year to year. This indicates that the left still seems to be the ideal side for descent.

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