The Karakoram, one of the great mountain ranges in Asia, is home to the largest concentration of peaks over eight kilometres (five miles) in height to be found anywhere on earth. Pakistan was once the centre of alpinism but due to its complex political and social situation, the Karakorum has little visibility to the outside world today. In the last decade the country has became increasingly difficult to visit for foreigners. Terrifying news from Pakistan dissuade even the most adventurous thrill seekers. Shades of grey have taken over with a negative portrait created by the international media dominated by tales of a country in near civil war. Only a few visitors determined to conquer the highest peaks of Northern Pakistan dare to come here each year.
People from the mountainous villages reflect badly on the past when their homeland was bursting with travellers during the summer months.
The lack of such visitors today leads to a lack of income for many families. Empty hotels are covered in dust, restaurants abandoned, shops closed and many local people unemployed.
Looking back, tourism was one of the main drivers in the transformation of Pakistan. It helped to regenerate and bolster the economy.
I trekked through Baltoro Glacier – one of the longest glaciers outside of the Polar Regions, completing my trek by crossing Gondogoro Pass (5940m – 19,500ft).This pass has one of the most overwhelming mountain panoramas anywhere in the world with all of the Karakoram’s 8000m peaks close at hand. Being the highest mountain pass in the world, the views from the top of the pass are unforgettable. Gondogoro Pass offers the best mountain scenery anywhere in the world. One can see the following peaks from the pass: K2, Broad Peak, Masherbrum, Laila Peak, the four Gasherbrums and Trinity Peak.
The first part of the trek took me and my fellow travellers to Askole – a little Balti village. For trekkers it is the beginning of The Great Adventure. It is here that Greg Mortenson (author of ‘Three cups of tea’) built one of his schools to support the local community. Leaving Askole behind, the adventurous start the challenging trek into the heart of the Karakorum. Before reaching Gondogoro Pass the journey leads through 62 kilometres of glacier. Trekkers walk every day starting in the early hours and camp each night on progressively higher elevations so as to acclimatise. An extra day is given for rest and most people become acclimatised in the Paiju (3500m), usually on the 4th day of the trek. After leaving Paiju we started to trek up the Baltoro Glacier. Below the glacier one of the main tributaries of the Braldu River starts its journey. Before reaching Concordia, the trek passes Urdukas with its dramatic Cathedral Towers and Goro where Masherbrum, Muztag Tower and Gasherbrum IV emerge. The following days take in Concordia with its breath taking view of K2. Upon leaving Concordia trekkers hike up to Ali Camp, situated above the Vigne Glacier.
At 2am I left Ali Camp with my companions for Gondogoro La. We trekked in darkness, reaching the bottom of the pass by early dawn at around 5 am. On top of the pass we were welcomed by an overwhelming mountain view so beautiful that words could never do it justice. The sun was rising and rays of red, pink and orange light were embracing the highest peaks. Our hearts filled with joy and satisfaction. The mesmerising landscape was our reward for many long days of walking. With excitement everyone was jumping, hugging each other and taking pictures to capture the moment.
The 15 days trek has been listed by Lonely Planet as one of the 10 best treks in the world. The Gondogoro La (‘La’ – in local language means ‘Pass’) trek involves Class 4 climbing. The North side is a 50-degree snow slope with avalanche danger and requires fixed ropes. The south side is a continuous 50-degree slope with rock-fall and avalanche danger that requires fixing as much as 300m of rope. Crossing this pass requires good judgement, commitment, top fitness, prior acclimatisation and basic mountaineering skills.
By midday we reached Hispang and in a couple of days we were back to civilisation reaching the first village, Hushe. It was a perfect image of a mountainous community: terraces of well maintained fields with golden, ripening wheat; herds of sheep; people working in the fields, collecting their crop; the river shimmering in the valley. This tranquil community scene cast aside any negative image of a country riddled with division and terrorism.
My journey was possible thanks to the hospitality of Kamal Hussain and his team from Snowland Treks and Tours.