Mountain Fellowship Recipient Nicholas Giguere traveled to Pakistan during the tumultuos period in the fall of 2001. While his initial plans did not work out for obvious reasons, the trip was still successful in many ways. Read on for the full story!
Before the ink had dried on the entry stamp of my passport the trip was off to an inauspicious start. “11 SEPT 2001 - LAHORE INTERNAT’L AIRPORT” it read. Paul Charlton and I had just landed in Pakistan as the first two members of a five person exploratory expedition to the Karakoram. Our hope had been to spend six to eight weeks climbing and exploring the northern slope of the Hispar Mustagh, north of the Hispar-Biafo glacier complex, and the environs around Khurdopin Pass (c. 5790m).
After less than a day in Pakistan our hopes were dashed as we finally caught word, via CNN, of the unspeakable events that had unfolded in the US while we’d been aloft. Dreams of first ascents, remote peaks, and desolate glaciers were replaced by an immeasurable sense of loss, sadness, and uncertainty. Suddenly, mountaineering seemed very frivolous.
Paul and I spent the next five days glued to televisions and computer terminals trying to sort out the implications of 9-11. To us, Pakistan felt safe. Bustling markets, chaotic traffic, the call to prayer echoing from the minarets, nowhere were the signs of the tension, anger and hatred reported by the western media. But, frantic e-mail from home begged me to return. The BBC, Voice of America, and CNN all warned of anti-american demonstrations and looming civil war in Pakistan. Our experience was quite the opposite. We found the average Pakistani on the street to be friendly, curious and outrageously hospitible. The generosity we were shown in the cities and the hills was indescribable. Discussions usually revolved around our impressions of Pakistan and why we had come. Locals who guessed our nationality would simply sigh, shake their heads and sadly state, “Terrible, terrible, very bad.”
Admittedly, the situation was serious. We considered our options: return home and scrap a year’s worth of planning, continue as scheduled and risk getting caught in a war, or switch gears and settle for something in between. While we ruminated in Gilgit, word came from home that our other two American members had bowed out. That left only us and our Balti friend and local expert Ibrahim Khalil. After an inordinate amount of handwringing and consultation we settled for a two-week long reconnisance. We rationalized staying by figuring that it would take the US at least two weeks to setup for airstrikes. Until bombs started flying we gambled that we’d be safe.
Decision made, we contuinued up the Karakoram Highway, past the looming Rakiposhi, to the village of Passu, the last major outpost in Pakistan before the Chinese border. From here, Paul (thankfully conversant in Urdu) and Ibrahim were able to arrange a jeep ride east to the end of the 4WD road. This narrow and steep trail winds its way from Passu following the deep Shimshal River gorge until passage is blocked by 3000 foot high scree slopes. Here we shoulderd our loads and, eyeing the slopes above, embraced the first natural objective hazard we’d encountered. On foot, packs on, we were back in our element.
Over the two day walk into the village of Shimshal (pop. 1000) we accrued an entourage of curious locals bearing loads for their homes and herds up valley. Shimshalis are reknowned for their strength at altitude and many who walked with us had impressive climbing resumes and a wealth of information about the surrounding peaks. Indeed on our hike out we spent the night at the home of the unassuming Meharbon Shah, a gracious host and one of only 4 Pakistanis to have summitted K2.
Passing the snout of the Malangutti Glacier the first of the truly big peaks came into view. The north face of Distaghil Sar (7885m) hung above a myriad of lesser peaks. While the faces appeared wreaked with objective hazard, there were several smaller peaks between 6500m and 7000m with appealing ridgeline routes. While difficult to discern from afar, snow conditions looked worrysome. Most peaks looked loaded with new snow and everything over 7000m showed telltale plumes ripping from the summits and ridgelines. Our newfound friends ticked off the names of the smaller peaks, most of them unclimbed. Continuing to the village, the unclimbed peak of Shimshal Whitehorn (c. 6400m) appeared as an obvious initial project. Situated just up valley from the tiny Shimshal hydroelectric station, the beautiful pyramid is ripe with possibilities. Time, time! If only...
Leaving the irrigated lushness of Shimshal returned us to the dry, dusty wilderness of the Karakoram. For several days we continued up valley. A short crossing of the Yazghil Glacier led to the lower Khurdopin and our planned basecamp at “Past Helga.” From here we explored the lower reaches of the Khurdopin and Virjerab Glaciers. Our hope had been to push high onto the upper Virjerab for looks at unclimbed peaks between 6000m and 6400m. Perhaps we’d even get as far up as Khurdopin Pass (crossed only twice in the mid eightys). It was not to be.
Two days later President Bush addressed Congress with bellicose words. Safely nestled in the mountains of far northern Pakistan the sounds issuing from our shortwave radio seemed to be coming from another planet. The meaning, however, was clear: airstrikes were coming to Afghanistan and soon. It was time to go. We beat a hasty retreat to Gilgit, now virtually devoid of foreigners, and then south and across the border into India.
While hardly what we’d planned on, this short peek into a corner of the Karakoram confirmed what we’d hoped. If you look hard enough, even in this day and age, there’s still plenty of wild country to explore. More importantly, the Pakistani people showed us something we hadn’t even been looking for: renewed faith that the human spirit is, at heart, kind and generous. That realization is worth a lifetime of first ascents.
Those considering an expedition to Pakistan and in need of a local logistical coordinator, interpreter, or registered mountain guide are strongly encouraged to contact Ibrahim Khalil via firstname.lastname@example.org
Again, sincere thanks to the American Alpine Club for its support. I hope that the political climate in Pakistan improves quickly, I cannot wait to return!