trekking the Baltoro Getting There The People The Panorama The Mountains Getting Back September 11, 2001

Wow - Pakistan certainly eclipsed Iceland as an exotic destination!

It really was like an Indiana Jones movie (minus the bad guys) at times, complete with the chaotic street scenes, foreign garb and camels :-). Finally, travel that really felt like we were away from home! It was great! We spent four weeks there in August and September of 2001.

The fun began immediately in the bustling streets of Rawalpindi, the very old sister city of modern Islamabad. Coming from behind us as we walked on the sidewalk, every single driver and bicyclist was twisted around to look at us as he went by. As we were wearing native dress and Brenda had her hair covered with the large scarf that women wear, we wondered how they knew so easily that we were foreigners. Our guide later told us that westerners "Walk different." Ha!

From Islamabad, we drove north into the foothills and then dropped into the huge Indus River gorge on the Karakoram highway. Again, the foreign flavor was strong and pervasive and wonderful. For example, the first stop for gasoline involved a hand-cranked pump! As we moved north, towns became smaller and more widely spaced and the terrain more rugged, more arid and ever more precipitous. Soon the villages were the only green spaces in a brown and grey landscape.

Two days on an ever narrowing paved road brought us to Skardu, an absolutely picturesque mountain town. From there we had one day in a jeep to cover the approximately 60 miles to the end of the road and the beginning of the trek. This road was way cool! It was ultra-narrow and went up and down and across some of the most amazing terrain, cliffs and river-crossings. A civil engineer would probably be both astonished and appalled at the construction, all by hand.

Drivers tooted horns before blind corners, blind hills, and sections where passing wasn't possible ... i.e. all the way. In spite of this excellent system, our jeep once met another at a dicey place on a sloped shelf right above the river. It was too narrow to get out, so the drivers held a long negotiation by shouting back and forth ... we won! The drivers were nothing short of fantastic, despite the mechanical shortcomings of their old Toyota Landcruisers. One had windshield wipers that worked only if the driver reached (and looked) under the dash with the bare wire ends to short them on the frame - the knob had been transfered to the stereo, clearly a more important function :-). Another suffered a misplaced leaf spring bolt which was fixed on the spot with a rock used as a mallet.

From Thongol at the end of the jeep road, we walked for about ten days into the Karakoram range to reach Concordia. Our walk took us along the raging Braldu river to the Baltoro glacier. From the very first day we saw stunningly tall peaks with striking rock faces and huge glaciers. We kept pestering our guide for details and he would answer "No name, too short," "No climb, too short." This seemed incomprehensible until we got into the "real" mountains a few days later.

Town on KKHThis picturesque town on a tributary of the Indus River along the Karakoram highway is one of the largest we passed on the way north. The multi-level houses are almost all made of concrete.

Building terrain in the gorge is pretty slim, so houses tended to be taller here than in the plains to the south. Most of the hillsides are either terraced for agriculture or used for grazing goats and sheep.

On the lower right, you can see kids playing in the icy, very fast-moving water. The parents here obviously have more faith in their children's judgement than those in the US.

Farther up the Indus River gorge the road has about one lane of pavement centered on about two lanes of road bed.

When large vehicles meet, it can be an adventure while they maneuver around each other.

Road LandslideThe jeep road from Skardu to Askole is very narrow and often built on unstable substrate. The person walking on the road gives you an idea just how narrow this part is.

This section had a landslide earlier in the season, making the road impassable. We unloaded everything from one jeep, and the porters carried the gear around the bad section and then loaded it into another jeep that had been trapped on the other side of the landslide. While we were walking along this, rocks were still tumbling down the hillside.

We did this kind of vehicle swap three times in one day. Quite an operation!

Askole TownhouseThese are dwellings in the tiny village of Askole, an hour walk beyond the end of the road, and the last settlement we would see for two weeks.

The construction of rock, small timbers and mud is much like the Pueblo Indians used in the American Southwest. We saw several arrangements where the sheep and cattle lived on the lower level while the people lived above.

Nice TownAcross the river from Askole are some wonderful terraces and a few individual homes. The constrast between rich green fields and arid mountain sides was striking. This was the last cultivated land we would see for two weeks.

Irrigation ditches are cut into the mountainside, sometimes in solid rock, to channel the water from glacier outflows high above.

Mark on BridgeThis tempting bridge across the Braldu river was just too much for Mark to pass by. Compared to others later, it was a real luxury affair.

Bridges like this are revolutionizing life in rural areas. Just a few years ago, the locals often had to walk a day or more to a safe crossing, and were not able to cross for months during high water.

BridgeThis fun little bridge was the first on our actual trek route. Again, compared to others later, it was a really good one :-). The next photo shows the surprising and ingenious location of this bridge.

It saved us half a day of walking to be able to cross a side channel of the river at this narrow section. Trail improvements like this have made this popular trekking route much safer and easier for porters and clients alike.

Bridge CrossingHere is Brenda crossing the bridge you saw in the photo above. Most of these bridges are maintained by the military.

This trek path is also the major route for soldiers and supplies to reach the Kashmir region. We saw many donkey and pony trains taking supplies to the various military camps along the route.

Several days up the valley is the Kashmir region, where India and Pakistan have a long running dispute over the boundary. No photos of the military bases were allowed, but most consisted of a few small rock huts or fiberglass buildings. We walked right through these camps and the soldiers came out to greet us - visitors are rare for them.

 

Bardumal camp on a wider spot along the Braldu river. The large blue and red tent is the cook tent and a second, similar, tent served as the dining tent. The scrubby vegetation here is much like that found in arid areas of the American Southwest.

This is one of the many striking, un-named, un-climbed mountains that had us all in ecstasy during the first days. Look at those lovely lines, angles, ridges and summit block!

By the time we saw it again on the way back out, it looked pretty insignificant.

Down the BaltoroThis is the view back down the Baltoro glacier after two days of hiking up it. The large peak at the upper left is Paiju, while the impressive rock tower on the right is the coveted Uli Biaho. Many thousand vertical feet of technical ice and rock climbing must be completed before reaching the 19,957-foot summit. One of our friends here in Salida, Bill Forrest, was on the summit team for the first ascent of this amazing granite spire.

The jumbled rubble surface of the valley bottom is the Baltoro glacier. A rock layer from an inch to tens of feet deep covers the entire length of the glacier. This challenging terrain is loose, very hilly, and riddled with crevases and streams.

Our camp on the ice is visible at the bottom center, above a 100 foot grey ice cliff. A steady rain of boulders and ice blocks fell into the tarn (lake) while we were there.

Black GlacierAn interesting mix: the clean white seracs and cornices up high, and a very black dirty glacier snout down below. Covered as it is with dark dirt, you would hardly know it was ice.

This small glacier is one of many feeding the Baltoro glacier. Though significant to the eye, both glacier and ridge were un-named.

Glacial river bridge crossingAbout a day below Concordia, the glacier changed character. The rubble layer became thinner and huge white blocks of ice had been thrust up everywhere. Our guide said that the glacier moved so much that the route was different even after two or three weeks. He was correct. When we returned a week later, the route in one place was dramatically different due to a failed ice bridge.

Here Brenda is crossing the last pony bridge of the trek. It is two poles with a few flat rocks laid across them, without any ties or anchors. After this the streams were small enough to jump or wade across. Sometimes we would climb up an ice ridge, cross over the stream on this natural bridge, then drop right back down.



Getting There | The People | The Panorama | The Mountains | Getting Back | September 11, 2001