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Posts Tagged ‘Snow Lake Trek’

It’s a busy morning in Skardu. The last of our provisions are being packed into blue barrels and loaded onto a jeep. Ropes and crampons are checked by our two guides Nasir and Habib. We met them both four years ago on our K2 Base camp trek and have remained good friends ever since.

Also making a return is our head cook Amin, but he is more than just a cook. Amin is at first a quiet and unassuming man but take him up into the mountains and his stature grows. In his own words jokingly…I am a Karakoram Tiger. He used to be a high altitude porter and survived a blizzard above 8000 meters on K2 for four days. In other words, he is harder than Vinnie Jones in a Guy Ritchie film. But along with this toughness, is a very caring and highly entertaining soul. He has an uncanny ability to sense when you are struggling and a helping hand or uplifting joke is always perfectly timed.

Nasir is the head guide and leader of the expedition. This morning he is in concentrative mood and ensuring that nothing has been forgotten. Once in Askole it’s a long and bumpy 8 hour drive back to Skardu. Everyone (save us) sits in the back tray of the jeep. I am placed in the front next to the driver. It is a cramped position and sitting slightly to one side after a few hours becomes painful. Habib explains during lunch that I must place my right leg over the gear stick and sit straight. The position becomes uncomfortable for a different reason and every time the driver needs to change gear, he reaches between….well, you know the rest. Safe to say my hip stops hurting which is the main thing.

Habib Emma Amin and Nasir

Habib Emma Amin and Nasir

We arrive late afternoon in Askole. The drive alone from Skardu has been captivating but the real drama of the Karakoram Mountains lies ahead. That night the clouds darken and it rains. Next to our camp are three British trekkers who have returned from K2 base camp and Snow Lake. They look a little deflated. The weather has been very unkind for the last 2 weeks and they were unable to cross the pass at Snow Lake and forced to return. Its ominous news. We too have been watching the weather for the last few days and now on the eve of the trek it shows no sign of improving.

Askole Snow Lake Trek

Leaving Askole

The next morning and the Brits are staring at a blue sky in disgust. I feel their pain. There can be nothing worse than seeing clear weather on your last day when for two weeks you have trekked in rain and low cloud. We on the other hand are feeling very fortunate and can only hope the good weather will hold. The first few kilometres of the trek amble along an easy trail. We round a bend after an hour and are confronted by a dramatic scene. A row of stone knives. Red and curved they tear at the white clouds that drift over them. I can feel a smile creeping across my face as I stand and marvel at natures work. I feel already very fortunate. T

The easy pace, and kind terrain changes abruptly as we make a left turn and start to scramble up the terminal moraine of the Biafo glacier. Moraine being a pile of dirt and rocks that accumulates at the front and sides of a glacier. The bigger the glacier the larger the moraine and the Biafo is one of the largest glaciers in the world, outside the Polar Regions.

As we climb higher the air thins and the heat rises to a midday peak. Picking our way over the rocks is not easy and there is little breeze and no shade. Emma by sheer bad luck has been struck down with a stomach bug on our first day and begins to suffer. We reach the top of the moraine but the jumble of rocks does not end. This is just the beginning as we must walk along the lateral or side moraine for the next two days. It can be a heart breaking scene if you are in bad condition or not feeling well and Emma right now is both. By early afternoon our water is running out and I too begin to suffer among the boulders. I curse myself not carrying another bottle. Eight hours after leaving Skardu we arrive at our camp. A small island of grass on the side of the cliffs. It is a welcome sight. I know our health and fitness will improve, as will the conditions. It’s been a hard first day but better days are ahead.

Climbing Biafo moraine

Climbing up the Biafo moraine

By four in the afternoon the sun disappears behind the towering cliffs. On the far side of the glacier we are treated to an amazing light display on the stony towers. They bask in golden rays, the light showing off their rough texture. Of all the mountains in the world none can compare to the brutal formations that are the Karakoram.

High Cliffs in pakistan

The High cliffs in Pakistan

I notice a sign near our camp indicating this to be a place where snow leopards have been sighted. Our chances of seeing one are close to non-existent, but I scan the high valleys and peaks anyway. They must be one of the loneliest animals on earth but what a domain they live in.The next day and Emma’s condition has not improved. An hour out of camp and she is plagued with stomach cramps and unplanned visits behind boulders. Despite the discomfort and inconvenience she soldiers on. Nasir and Habib are attentive and take turns to lead, ensuring that we never stray too far off course. Without them we would become lost in a maze of rocks within minutes. Ahead of them is Baqir the fourth member of the lead team. Baqir is with us as his knowledge of both the Biafo and Hispar glaciers is unsurpassed. He too has been a high altitude porter and now scouts ahead.

Last and certainly not least is Amin. He catches up as we take a break. Habib and Nasir always up for a joke ask him why he is following us. Amin quick as a fox feigns altitude sickness and wobbles on his legs.

I have lost my guide he says in a croaky voice.

Habib laughs. This Japanese climber is lost and wants to follow us, what should we do? Where are you going Amin san?

I am going to climb K2

Well you are going the wrong way, K2 is in the other direction.

I am making new route to K2 he says with a twinkle in his eye.

We all laugh, it is just the tonic when you are feeling a little tired. After 6 hours of rock hoping and scrambling we reach camp on the far side of the Biafo. It’s a lovely patch of green with a good stream fed by the melting glacier. Amin prepares a special meal for Emma to ensure her stomach is not tested too badly.

Snow Lake Trek Pakistan

Snow Lake Trek

On the morning of day three we scramble over some more moraine and finally reach the white ice of the Biafo. It is flecked with small stones providing traction to walk upon. We shift from 1st to 5th gear and make good progress. After 2 days of tedium on the moraine we now surge ahead on the white runway. It feels good to stride out. Our progress is so good that we make our next camp after only 4 hours where we come across another group. They had arrived yesterday but are staying here for an extra day to acclimatise. The team are comprised of Pakistanis from the Punjab region. They welcome us into camp. We are now at an altitude of 3800 meters. Nasir and Habib are careful not to take us too high too soon and stick to the general rule of not exceeding 500-600 meters in elevation per day.

Biafo Glacier

Small lakes on the

I should mention at this point we are also supported by 10 porters. These guys are the engine room of the trek. Without them it would not be possible. Each morning they pack up and pass us with ease carrying 25kgs. When they get to camp there is no immediate rest, they set up our tents and the kitchen tent. Carry water from the streams and bring it back so it can be boiled. Nasir and Amin go ahead in the last hour to ensure it all goes smoothly. Habib normally remains with us to make sure we find our way into camp. When we arrive, Amin is already slicing potatoes and has chai and more jokes waiting. We sit on mats in the Kitchen tent and play cards each afternoon with Nasir and Habib. Amin stirs both a physical and metaphoric pot; watches over Nasir’s shoulder and occasionally snickers at his decisions.  Dinner each night comprises of soup, a main course of rice pasta and vegetable curry followed by a dessert of jelly, custard and even some mangoes. I am amazed by the meals produced in such a cramped place.

cooking meals on snow lake Amin head cook

Amin the Karakoram Tiger

It is early evening on day five and we have arrived at our camp before crossing the pass. The last five days have been clear with light cloud but now as the sun goes down dark clouds gather and it starts to sleet. If the bad weather holds we will not be able to cross the pass. Amin, Nasir, Baqir and Habib all take turns in predicting the weather. Nasir is confident it will pass during the night as the wind is strong. We have a couple of days up our sleeve to see if the weather breaks. Later that night the clouds break up and the stars come out. To my left the moon is rising and the Biafo is bathed in silver.

crevasse crossing in Biafo Glacier

Crossing the many crevasses

We are woken at 4am by the sound of a gas burner and cups being washed. Nasir comes to our tent. The weather is good, we are going over the pass. We pack up our gear and put extra layers on for the cold morning outside. We take a simple breakfast of chai and biscuits. It’s far too early for a stodgy meal. We cross the side moraine of the Biafo for the last time and step onto the crunchy ice. The moon is still high in the early morning sky. The land around us is a monochrome of blue.

Snow Lake Pakistan

The snow lake

An hour later and the tops of the mountains are turning yellow. The ice beneath us is replaced with fresh snow and Baqir stops the group. The snow hides the crevasses we have so far been able to see, but from now on they will be invisible; so we must all be roped together for safety. Baqir takes the lead and sets a steady pace. He keeps us on course and heading towards the base of the pass. The Punjabis are about 500m off to our right. I look across. They appear like dust on a table cloth in this vast white expanse. We have reached the head of the Biafo Glacier better known as Snow Lake. Here the glacier is over 16km in width. We have travelled just over 70km in 6 days since we first climbed up the terminal moraine.

Biafo Glacier roped together

Roped together on the Biafo glacier Baqir leads the way

The wind on the glacier is cold but as we reach the bottom of the pass it abates and we take a break. Ahead I can see two huge crevasses with a wide bridge in between. We cross the bridge and start the climb. The gradient is at first gentle by mountain standards. We approach a steep section but the snow is soft and Baqir and the porters create deep treads that are easy to follow. No crampons are needed. Following the porters on a rope is not easy as we are forced to keep up, but heading uphill is not too bad as they are handicapped with their loads while we carry by comparison very little.

Approach to the Hispar La

Approach to the Hispar La

We take a long break around 9am, we are now about half way up the pass. The Punjabis are a long way behind and no longer in sight. There is no trace of wind and we start to peel away layers of clothing. Pushing on we make the top of the pass around midday. Behind us Snow Lake shimmers white under a noon sun. In front of us we catch our first sight of the Hispar valley and Glacier. The mountains on this side of the pass are immense but not as jagged as those along the Biafo.

The porters celebrate with a Balti war cry before picking up their loads. Challow…Challow is called out, the Balti word for lets go. It is a word I am going to curse very soon. Up until now the porters have been held back by gravity and heavy loads. Now as we cross the pass the terrain is flat and their true power is unleashed; it soon becomes difficult to keep up on the rope. The deep snow is not making life any easier. There is not a trace of wind and the sun shines hot on the white snow baking us in all directions. I can see grey clouds ahead and start to crave their presence but the lack of wind keeps them away.

Crossing the Hispar La

Crossing the Hispar La

Each rest is a relief we have now been going for 9 hours and I am getting very tired. Emma is having a good day but is now also feeling a little fatigued. Challow… Challow….not already. The snow is softening and Baqir is getting concerned. If we don’t get down soon it will be too soft and the crevasses are waiting for the weak and unfortunate.

An hour later and we are now heading downhill but this has just increased the pace. We come across a section of ripples and a couple of porters drop down to their shoulders. We have hit crevasses. He is stuck and can’t get out. Nasir comes forward and with the aid of another porter and pulls him out. Baqir prods at the snow with a long stick. Despite his best attempts a couple of more porters sink down to their waists. We sit and wait while they get pulled out. It’s so hot I rub snow on my arms and the back of my neck.

Descending the Hispar La

Descending the Hispar La

We round a bend and walk across a snow bridge avoiding a deep crevasse just to our right. The bridge is on a slope and a little slippery. As I cross the bridge the rope pulls tight and pulls me over. I fall over the slope and dangle above the crevasse. The weight of the group ensures I only fall a few feet but it is still an unsettling experience. It’s now my turn to be pulled out.

We cross the crevasses, it’s now just an easy 30 minutes downhill to the base of the pass. The porters increase the pace again. The group senses the end. We are now skiing behind the porters and concentrating on not falling over in the soft snow. That night we make camp on the glacier. It’s taken just over 10 hours but we have crossed the pass, there is no going back now.

Camping on the glacier is a romantic notion but it comes with some compromises. The sun goes down and the wind builds in strength. The cold ice reaches up from the ground and chills your bones. Even with foam matts, it’s hard to escape. That night I crawl outside my tent. I have been fighting a losing battle with my bladder for the last hour and finally surrender. I unzip my tent and stand on the glacier. The moon is not out yet and the sky is littered with thousands of stars. The night is black and frigid; I shiver in the breeze. It is the coldest Milky Way I have ever seen.

Camping on the Hispar

Camping on the Hispar

The next morning I wake feeling a little groggy. My legs are stiff. I feel like I have been in a fight and lost. Amin has prepared delicious porridge with apricots and raisons. My mood lifts. Habib tells us we have an easy day only about 4 hours and we will stop. It’s now day seven and we make our way off the white ice of the Hispar. Unlike the Biafo the Hispar has in past years been difficult to cross. The left side of the glacier is too dangerous and the right side has several smaller glaciers that flow into it. Each of these must be crossed. There is no more white ice, no highway left.

We have to cross this

We have to cross this

On the 8th day we come across the confluence of two glaciers. The morning has been difficult already crawling across a series of land slips. Now in front of us rocks and crevasses stretch for over 2km. It takes your breath away as well as some of your resolve.

The Hispar glacier is the graveyard of rocks. From tiny pebbles to massive boulders, they all come here to die. Among the multitude, 16 people pick their way over the corpses.

The glacier groans and creaks. It bleeds running water, the rocks are like stony scabs on its skin. Habib and Baqir go ahead to ensure we are not blocked and forced to backtrack. Nasir and Amin stay with us to provide moral and physical support. As we near the far side of the junction we reach a small section that requires us to fix a rope. Baqir has chopped some steps into the polished surface. On both sides of the slippery bridge a deep crevasse lays in wait. The security of the rope makes a huge difference. Without that it would be a perilous little descent.

Dangerous section in the Hispar Glacier

Dangerous section in the Hispar Glacier

Wild Flowers in Hispar

Wild Flowers in Hispar

It’s now the morning of day ten and the village of Hispar is only four hours away. It hangs across the valley surrounded by golden fields of wheat. It is calling us, but before we can reach it we encounter one last adventure.  The bridge has been washed out by summer floods and we have to cross the river in a make shift basket suspended by a cable and pulled across by a rope. I have seen these put to use before but have never ridden in one. It’s a bumpy and exhilarating ride. Below us the power of the river roars.  The waves reach up snapping at the basket. We all cross safely and hike up a steep hill into the village of Hispar. We have reached the road. I feel a sense of relief and sadness. This has been special trek made with special people. At this point in time I study the porter’s faces and thank them all. The thought of never seeing them again is difficult and painful to consider.

Basket river crossing in Pakistan

Crossing the river in a basket

From Hispar we hire a tractor and descend a further 30km down the valley to Hopper where we transfer to a jeep and make the 4 hour drive back to Gilgit. That night we sleep in a warm bed but my thoughts are back in the tent playing cards and listening to Amin singing.

I miss them already.

Fast Facts

Nasir and Habib can help you with all your tours to Pakistan. They have both worked in this industry for many years and are true professionals

They can accompany you on short hikes or tours of northern Pakistan if trekking is not your go.

They can be contacted at

nasir_guides@yahoo.com and habibsaqib2002@yahoo.com

Or contact them on Facebook

“Trekking Pakistan” for Nasir and “Habib Saqib” for Habib.

But make sure you take Amin as your cook if possible you won’t regret it

We would be happy to answer any questions you have regarding travel in this wonderful country.

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