Thursday, August 26, 2010

Karim Sar Expedition, Pakistan 2009

When well-meaning family and friends heard about my upcoming climbing expedition to Pakistan, the conversation went something like this: ‘You want to go where? The place with all the bombings? Aren’t they beheading westerners. Why in God’s name would you want to go there?’

Why indeed? As others tried to dissuade me from accepting Pat Deavoll’s invite to join her, I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea. This was despite all of the negative western media, or perhaps partly because of it. I watched nightly news reports of increasing conflict between the Pakistan Armed Forces and the Taliban, hints that the Government and country were on the verge of collapse, trying to decipher facts from whatever slant the American or English reporters decided on. I didn’t understand what was really happening in this fundamentalist Muslim country. I felt ignorant, something easily done from our safe haven in the Southern Pacific. Pat had travelled to and climbed in Pakistan on a number of occasions, including the two previous years, and she agreed that the risk this time around was probably higher. Still, life is about putting yourself out there from time to time, and the more I researched the country and its people the more fascinated I became. The combination of geographical contrasts and political edginess convinced me that I needed to experience it for myself. Also, I had travelled to both India and Kyrgyzstan the previous two years and was keen to compare differences between the three countries.

At Lahore Airport, while waiting for our domestic flight north to Islamabad, I ordered two bottles of water from a kiosk. When served, the water came with egg sandwiches and Madera cake.

‘Oh yeah,’ said Pat. ‘I forgot about that. Do you want my sandwiches?’

The goal for the trip was a 6000 metre unclimbed mountain called Karim Sar near the Hunza Valley, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. Pat had spied the mountain from one of her previous trips, and found out that it had been attempted unsuccessfully by a strong Italian team. Apart from that, we didn’t know much about the mountain or the Shutinbar Valley we were to approach it from. The Italians wouldn’t divulge any information as they were keen to head back for another go.

To reach Karim Sar, we needed to travel along the fabled Karakoram Highway (KKH), which is maintained by the Chinese, to Gilgit and then on to Chalt and finally Budelas. Part of the road trip meant squeezing between the eastern fringes of the Swat district, where the Taliban and Pakistan military were fighting, and the troubled Kashmir. Along with occasional suicide bombings in various urban areas, and of course the actual climbing, this part of the journey was likely to be the riskiest.

‘How do you know when it isn’t safe?’ I asked Baig, our local guide, after he met us at Islamabad Airport. Heavily-armed military personnel and police officers patrolled the airport’s entrance, perimeter and surrounding roads.

‘It is always safe, until you meet bad people,’ he replied. ‘Then, very quickly, it isn’t safe any more.’

Baig works for Nazir Sabir Expeditions, the company we used to organise all of our logistics in Pakistan. Company owner Nazir Sabir is a famous high altitude climber, known for achieving a difficult first ascent on K2, Pakistan’s highest mountain.

In previous years, the company had organised many expeditions, but more recently there has been a sharp drop in the number of western tourists. Baig partially blamed the western media for creating a false impression about the dangers of travel in his country. He explained that certain areas were considered dangerous, but usually westerners could still travel unhindered throughout the country.

I found Baig’s comments a slight contrast to the way the company limited Pat’s and my attempts at unsupervised sightseeing in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and parts of the KKH. Understandably, and given the downturn in tourist numbers, if something happened to us it would no doubt damage what little business remained for Nazir Sabir Expeditions.

Pat and I remained in Islamabad for two days while trying to get our freighted luggage through customs. After flying out from a bleak New Zealand winter, the 40+ degree temperature proved somewhat combative, and the limited bursts of supervised sightseeing between extended periods enclosed in our air-conditioned hotel rooms proved to be a blessing.

Islamabad is a clean and organised city. Apart from the numerous concrete barriers and security checks to dissuade suicide bombers, traffic flowed smoothly along well maintained roads lined with trees and grass verges. Traffic police – some looking surprisingly like Eric Estrada from the 1980s television show CHIPs – kept their eye on speed limits and dangerous driving. This was almost the exact opposite of the hustle and hassle of nearby Rawalpindi. Convergence, a keen judge of non-existent gaps, and a well-utilised horn kept traffic inching in various directions. But this is why I come to these kinds of places. There’s a vitality here that more restrictive western rules don’t allow for. There’s something to be said about being able to sit on the horn because the vehicle in front is travelling too slow, pulling out to pass regardless of what traffic is coming the other way, and leaving the onus on the driver that caused the initial slowdown to avoid any vehicle carnage.

This optimistic approach was again exhibited at a more hectic pace by our quietly-spoken driver Wali Khan through the dusty and winding KKH en route to Budelas. An at times slightly intense relationship with the edge of the road, and the ensuing plummet beyond it to the Indus River hundreds of metres below, encouraged me to look up at the surrounding countryside rather than focus too much on the multitude of vehicular near misses.

Towns and settlements rolled by, some deemed unsafe to stop at due to the likelihood of insurgents harbouring there. We spent three hours waiting in a queue at Mansehra for a bridge, apparently sabotaged the night before by Islamic militants, to be repaired. Heading the other way were scores of trucks loaded with refugees trying to escape the fighting in Swat. Forced from their villages by either the military or Taliban, they had travelled in their tens of thousands over Shangla Pass, heading to specially established camps near Islamabad. In all, more than a million residents were said to be displaced from their homes by the fighting.

Seeing firsthand the effect on the people of a fight considered essential for the security of Pakistan made me realise, not for the first time, how easy we have it in New Zealand and how we tend to take our liberty for granted. The daily struggle for a majority of Pakistanis to have even basic necessities is very real and, at times, desperate. This is while western democracy sits on the sidelines and judges a religion and culture it doesn’t fully understand. Small wonder certain factions turn against the west.

Reading a local newspaper, I came across an article reporting that the Taliban was purchasing children directly from poor families, and training these youngsters to be suicide bombers. Selling one child meant the rest of the family could be fed and housed safely, a harsh reality but one faced by many. And here I was, on an expedition costing thousands of dollars that had no value other than a recreational pursuit.

At Budelas, we hired porters and donkeys for the two-day trek to base camp. The rugged dryness, crumbling silt escarpments and abrupt landscape of the lower Chalt district gave way to pockets of irrigated greenery. Cherries, mulberries and apricots grew in abundance, and we followed the gentle uphill gradient of a long-established stone-walled irrigation channel clinging to the side of a steep cliff. It took me some time to realise that, by looking up, I wasn’t staring at steep-sided clouds. These were sheer monstrous mountains, some with an elevation of five vertical kilometres from where we rested. They are the most impressive testaments to alpine architecture that I have ever seen. The world’s three great mountain ranges converge here: The Himalaya, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. Pakistan has five mountains over 8000 metres high and more than 100 over 7000 metres high. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the prolonged effort required to climb something so big.

At least Karim Sar was only 6200 metres, and from a base camp situated alongside the Shutinbar Glacier at 3700 metres, the height seemed more in proportion. Baig said to keep an eye out for tracks in the snow of Ibex, the local wolf or maybe even a snow leopard.

Pat and I settled into the slow routine of acclimatisation and scoping for a potential route to climb Karim Sar. Afternoon thunderstorms and occasional snow showers kept us guessing about weather patterns and, a few days before we planned to attempt the climb, I came down with a nose infection. After days on antibiotics I still didn’t really feel well enough to climb, but agreed to help Pat as far up the mountain as I could. Over the next three days we established a high camp, and Pat soloed the last 1000 metres to the summit while I waited, exhausted, at the 5200 metres tent site. I was happy to have made it this high, and fully aware of far away home felt right at this time. Pat returned successful and, as we only had one sleeping bag at the high camp, I soloed back down to our advance base camp tent 1000 metres below. The following day Pat joined me, and we retreated down through the icefall and out to Baig and our cook Nisar at base camp.


  1. Seems like there are many hidden places in Pakistan worth visiting. That place looks lovely. It is just unfortunate to learn about those kids being trained to be suicide bombers.

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  2. Pakistan has much more different image, news agencies and reporters spread 95% negative image of this country which is very wrong. Although there is negativity in this country but not too much like demonstrated in the news paper.If you are not bad and are not here for bad purpose then you are totally safe everywhere in Pakistan.