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Essays and Travelogs

Batura Glacier by Hasan Karrar

 

It was the first time I had ever had Nihari on a trek. Scooping up bits and pieces of greasy meat with my fingers and gnawing on a piece of dried pita bread at the same time, I wondered what adventures the following few days would bring. For the time being I was content just to enjoy the novelty of this experience, coming to us courtesy of Atif Paracha who decided that this would be a fitting way to celebrate the fact that he had taken over as President of the LUMS Adventure Society. On the menu that night were also three litres of coke, which had been reduced to a litre and a half on the way up. Running out of water on the steep climb up, Paracha had very intelligently decided to start guzzling on the coke.

This was our first camp along a five-day trek up the Batura Glacier in Gojal, North Hunza. At over fifty kilometers long, the Batura is not just one of the longest glaciers in Pakistan, but the world (excluding, of course, the glaciers in the Polar regions). Already I was getting an uneasy feeling about the trip. The guidebook had described it as “an easy stroll along a flower filled ablation valley,” but the day’s steep scramble up the moraine to the side of the ablation valley had been an intense two-hour climb up unstable rocks. To make matters worse, the weather had been terrible, and I could vividly recall my fellow companions struggling to climb up against the howling wind (at times like these being anchored by a heavy pack does have its benefits). Given the deteriorating conditions of the weather, Yasser had sensibly elected to camp at the first level ground he found. Unfortunately, this wasn’t much of a campsite, with barely enough room to set up three tents amongst the rocks. The ground was covered with dust, which had the consistency of talcum powder, and some dried thorny shrubs were the only hint of vegetation. We gathered a few of those and made a feeble fire once the wind had subsided. But perhaps what bothered me more than anything was the lack of a stream anywhere nearby. A dry trek in Hopar last year opened my eyes to how dangerous running out of water can be. I wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of walking fifteen minutes to the glacier, en route crossing two short moraines, to collect the water. Rationing water is a terrible thing, perhaps because it inculcates a perverse psychological urge to chug down the last few mouthfuls in the water bottle. But to more than make up for my misgivings the moraine offered a fantastic view down the Batura glacier to the Batura group on the one side, and the jagged Passu Cathedrals on the other. I was initially disappointed that the Batura group didn’t catch alpenglow in the evening, as the sun set behind the mountains. But once the harsh backlight subsided the mountains turned a pale blue, cold to look at, which sent shivers down my spine. Standing there, mesmerized by the view, I remembered once again why I religiously return to these high and wild places in spite of the severe mental and physical punishment they have been doling out to me for the last seven years

With our participants pushing 140 we were the biggest trekking group in the history of the Northern Areas, if not the world. The majority of the participants, close to eighty, had gone off to spend a lazy three days at Fairy Meadows, taking in phenomenal views of the North Face of Nanga Parbat and enjoying the legendary hospitality of old friends Aziz and Rehmat Nabi who run Raikot Serai, the campground at Fairy Meadows. Another thirty-five odd people had gone up to the Rakaposhi Base Camp, a moderate to easy trek of three days, which offers some of the most amazing views I had come across in the Northern Areas. Yet another group of a dozen had made a very wise choice of basing themselves in Karimabad, Hunza, and then making day hikes in Hunza, Nagar, and Naltar and traveling up to the Khunjerab Pass. And with me were some of the stalwarts from a similar university trek to the South Side of Nanga Parbat from last year. Tough, introverted, dependable, and mature, my friends were driven by a desire to undertake a challenging trip. These were amongst the finest of travel companions one could wish for who didn’t utter a single word of complaint despite the challenging trekking conditions that the Batura subjected us to. I was half asleep, and wondering how the others were faring, when I was unable to block out the hysterical giggling, which was emanating from the tent shared by three Aitchisonians. After two and half years of living in Lahore, and close encounters with this species in this duration, I could very well imagine what sort of conversation must have been taking place there. Apparently even altitude and exhaustion doesn’t dampen some spirits. So it was that while the rest of us were still slowly arising from our slumber the Three Aitchisonians were already up and about and ready to go before the rest of us.

As for myself, I was in no rush to leave. The first order of the day was the crossing of the Batura glacier, and I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with glaciers, which oscillates more towards hate whenever I’m in the proximity of one. There was no point in delaying the inevitable, the trip was fairly uneventful except that between getting lost many times, and with a group our size, it took quite a while. Glaciers are usually the Russian’s expertise, and he handled this one well though he did have to take back his statement that he had made prior to t he crossing when he had dismissed the crossing as being “a half hour one.” Stumbling and cursing, all of us gradually made it to the other side in ones and twos eagerly awaiting the lush green Eden that lay on the other side. Such was not to be the case for we discovered that there was no greenery on this side either. What there was, however, were rocks, rocks, more rocks and yet more unpleasant scrambling. To make matters worse the sun was right above us now, and we were running dangerously short of water. The water situation was easily rectified. Ali and I had been in the lead and we dumped our packs underneath a small bush and walked fifteen minutes along the path till we spotted a small pool on the glacier from which we filled our bottles. Unfortunately there was no way of turning off the sun, and when we returned we discovered our friends all crammed underneath the bush trying to make the most of the shade. The cold water was much appreciated, and together with a few cans of beans, biscuits and jam it made an acceptable meal.

Moving after a lunch break is always next to impossible and we probably wouldn’t have done so had it not been for the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere with still a huge amount of distance to cover. The next section of the trek is just a blur, or tainted by a monotonous scramble over the moraines for hours and hours. At a few points I found it safer to go down onto the glacier instead of scrambling along the moraines. All the while I was afraid that someone (including myself) would slip and break a leg but I was acting too selfish and feeling too tired to backtrack and see if the others were okay. I knew they would be able to look after each other, but that still did not justify the irresponsible behavior on my part. The sun was setting down the valley and gradually it because harder and harder to see anything but the ground a few feet before my boots. Still it was something. At around 6:00 in the evening I started looking for a campsite. I found a clearing where we could probably manage to set up a few tents. There was no water but I hadn’t seen running water for the last two hours – and even that had been significantly off the trail – so I wasn’t too concerned about that. While waiting for the others to catch up I befriended a local billy goat that was a lot more dignified than the personality-less hooligans that pass off as goats in Lahore.

The evening was uneventful except that we had to tally up all the water we had between us. We were of unaware where the nearest water source was, and it was only because of Ali’s resourcefulness – coupled with the kind assistance of a local guide who happened to be passing by, Ejaz Ali Khan – that we were able to replenish our stock.

In the morning we had the unique experience of having our campsite overrun by a group of billy goats that were being herded up to Yashpirt for grazing. These were followed by half a dozen yaks. Never been face-to-face with one of these creatures before, my initial reaction was to scream in terror.

We broke camp and continued our walk. As had been the norm for the last twenty-four hours now, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This meant that we had great views of the glaciers and the peaks. Unfortunately it also meant that we were in the glare of the sun all the time with no greenery to offer any respite

An hour or two of continuous walking brought us to Yokpirt where we found a huge bush to laze under. Again, there was no sign of any running water so I designated Ali and Rana to go and look for some. They met up with Ejaz again, who was kind enough to fill not only our water bottles but also a large jerry can, which was lying in a shepherd’s hut. This water proved to be invaluable the next day on our way out.

After lunch we decided to split up into three groups to facilitate our journey up the valley. The Russian, Ali and I left most of our heavy gear behind in the hut and left with just tents, sleeping bags and food for dinner and breakfast the next day. The Three Aitchisonians formed another such self-sufficient group. The initial push up the valley was difficult as we encountered some fairly steep sections after leaving Yokpirt. A little later the path ascended the moraine and we had a phenomenal and clear view of the entire Batura group and the Batura glacier. Another hour and a half of steady plodding brought us to Yashpirt where for the first time we encountered greenery and running water. As Yashpirt was a summer settlement with a few dozen occupied huts, we opted to camp away from the locals in order to respect their privacy.

The campsite we chose was a fairly rocky one with a stream flowing by it. There was just barely enough room to erect two tents but I was pleased at the prospect of having a tent all to myself and sleeping comfortably. Once the chore of getting the tents up was done, we climbed up to the moraine for views across the Batura group. The view was certainly spectacular rivaling some of the best I have seen in the Karakoram. What really made the evening for me was the moonrise over the Shimshal peaks, which were visible down the glacier. In all my years of trekking in the Karakoram, this was amongst the most beautiful moonrises I have seen. Gradually, the moon began shinning on the entire Batura Group making it glow in a surreal manner through the early hours of the night. Dinner was a can of cold beans – a staple we were getting a bit tired of by now. Nonetheless, there was no place I would rather have been. Sitting there with my friends I was overcome with camaraderie. “It’s a pleasure to be here with you guys,” I said as I retired into my tent.

Around midnight I awoke thinking that the water bottle in my tent had broken. I groped around in the tent and discovered that there was actually quite a bit of water around the feet of my sleeping bag. Funny, I thought, and then I listened more intently. I could definitely hear running water, but it clearly wasn’t raining. It was then that a realized that the water level in my tent was rising – a stream was now running through our camp! I yelled out to the Russian and Ali for help who by now had discovered a similar phenomenon in their tent. I quickly put on a jacket, threw my cameras out onto the rocks, and tossed my boots onto dry land. Cursing I climbed out of my tent just as Ali and the Russian were emerging. One of my more vivid memories of the night was the Russian laughing wildly – very few people can laugh in the face of such adversity. It took us a while to move the tents. The pegs were submerged under a few inches of icy water, and once that was done there was still the question of lifting the tents, which by now had become impossible because they were now functioning as swimming pools. There was no other place to set them up so we just tossed them on the rocks and crawled into the wet sleeping bags we had spread out under the stars. The temperature was about four degrees and I spent one of the more miserable nights of my life waiting for the sun to rise. The Russian was snoring away next to me and his obvious comfort was a source of great envy and anger for me. Needless to say I didn’t sleep much that night, and we were up and about at six in the morning. We initially went up the valley for a while to get better views of the glacier as it comes around the bend at Fatmil, and then returned to Yashpirt. Either we were very tired or the altitude was getting to us but it took great willpower to ensure than everything was dry, and then carefully packed. We were leaving the campsite around nine and already the Russian and Ali were talking about a convoluted plan which entailed walking all the way down to the crossing point, crossing the glacier and camping where we had camped the first night. I don’t take too well to a thirty kilometer forced march on rocky terrain without a nights sleep and little food, but the Russian assured me that he would put up with my crankiness if I promised to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Which is pretty much what I did all the way down. Reaching the glacier I was beat and I discovered that my boots had broken and I was twisting my left foot in the strangest possible directions. I wasn’t enjoying myself, but the Russian and Ali were a great source of inspiration and assistance and came through splendidly as I was on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. When we finally came into view of the other end of the glacier I was overjoyed to see the others groups there. But there was one final obstacle, a major stream that had to be crossed before Yunzbin, our last campsite. A local, Nawaz Baig, was of great assistance in helping all of us get across the stream. It was at this point we heard the great news that Nazir Sabir had reached the summit of Everest the day before. It was good to be back with the entire group again. We swapped stories though none of them came anywhere near our foolish little episode of flooded tents. Nawaz Baig led us to a shepherds hut. As we had discovered yesterday, these huts are communal property used by shepherds as they travel up and down the valley. There is usually some basic communal crockery and pots and pans. We were reassured we could make use of them too. As always we have been very careful to carry out all our garbage and to leave the place cleaner than we found it. We hope other travelers will go to the same lengths. Nadia and Erum made a devastatingly delicious hot and sour soup with noodles that night. Nazir Baig had brought us some local saltish biscuits and combined this made for one of the finest meals of my life.

The next morning we were rudely awoken by locals driving their goats up to Yashpirt. I tried to block out the noise but after an hour-long yelling match between locals in Kirgiz on whether these tents belonged to “Angreez” or “Pakistani” (the only two words I could understand), we slowly started emerging. Though they may be the loudest locals in the Northern Areas, they are also some of the most hospitable I have met. By nine in the morning a small group had gathered by the shepherds huts, bringing with them goats milk and baked bread, which we gladly accepted. Our offering of our unused tea, powdered milk and biscuits seemed feeble in comparison. It was a pleasure to sit there and chat with them about the mountains, our experience up the valley and the recent ascent of Everest, a source of pride for all the locals as Nazir Sabir himself is from Hunza.

The final two hours were a steep sliding descent down to the Karakoram Highway. Ali and I made it down before everyone else and sitting there by the KKH gave me a sense of great satisfaction. After a little over half an hour our vehicle appeared on the horizon – this must certainly be one of the greatest sights in the world. Rashid, our driver, warmly greeted us. In a little while everyone was down and we made our way to Karimabad to meet up with the other parties.

Going to Karimabad after a trek is like coming home. I’ve been going there regularly for over ten years now and have been fortunate to make many good friends: the hospitality of Ilyas Khan, Nasir, Sher Ali, Javed and Alam Shah, amongst many others make it, for me, the friendliest place I have ever visited. This time however, we heard grim news on arrival: a local guide, Faraz Ahmed had fallen to his death above the Ultar pastures. I myself have visited the pastures a few times and admit to having had a few close calls on the tricky route up. It was a grim reminder that while the Karakoram might be magnificent, forces of nature demand our constant respect and caution. By nightfall all the groups were in Karimabad, and most people spent the majority of the night awake swapping stories, and getting into arguments about which trek was the toughest. I was happy just wandering up the village, chatting with students, and then walking halfway down to Altit village since the moon was shinning on that side of the valley. Much against our will, we left Karimabad the following night. One hundred and forty people pulling out of Karimabad is quite a sight. Our local friends were there to bid us farewell. I would be coming back in July but that was small consolation at the time. I sat in the front of the bus and spent the entire night awake; partly to keep Rashid company and partly to enjoy the KKH as it glowed in the moonlight. We talked about our experiences in the mountains, I as a trekker, and him as a driver who plys the KKH to make a living. Yet again, I noticed that there’s a certain fatality in the beliefs of people who live or work in close proximity of the mountains year after year after year. A certain resignation mixed with awe, that in the end, what will be will be. At the end of the day, any encounter with the Karakorams or Himalayas is a humbling one. This is an important lesson.

Discussion

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