Luck turned benevolent on me when Pakistan’s Inter Provincial Education Ministers Conference (IPEMC) was scheduled at Gilgit in July 2016; and I was nominated in the delegation from Balochistan. The conference was a two days schedule but my love with nature was not going to be that short an affair. After successful culmination of the official duty, I got leave from office; thence began my hunt for a trekking group around so that I could venture out at my earliest. I had asked a couple of friends to inform if they knew of any trekking expeditions visiting Gilgit Baltistan that week.
Hussain Tarek and Mujtaba Ezaz were already in Skardu having their best on bikes and roads; they were doing a similar search for trekking adventure when Zaheer Chaudry made our day. This Chaudry guy is a gem of an altruist, besides being a creative director most of which pertains to adventure. I had once met Mujtaba on International Mountains Film Festival 2015 at Lahore, again courtesy Zaheer Chaudry. Since we had become friends on Facebook, Mujtaba would often ask me that we should trek together some time somewhere. Having connected via Zaheer, Mujtaba immediately got hold of Hussain and reached Gilgit. In the meantime, he sought services of Fida Ali as high altitude porter for a possible expedition across the Haramosh La, a high pass between Kutwal and Chogolungma Glacier. Next day, we got on way to Sassi from Gilgit and a team of three porters led by Fida Ali joined from Skardu. In the meantime, instead of waiting, we had a hiking-cum-slipping spree around the waterfall by the road side inn at Sassi.
Road to Haramosh, it hardly qualifies as a road though, branches off Sassi on Gilgit – Skardu Road and breaches at Baarchi village. Those 22 kilometers of hard jeepable trek make you a believer in God if you aren’t one. The drive, driver and bumps all conspire together in favor of belief; only nature watch comes as a side benefit. Haramosh valley offers views of Baghrot peak, Khaltro heights, depth of stream flowing down and glimpses of snow-clad beauties near Spantik Peak. One is always obliged to the jeep driver who takes you safe during the two hours of a hard drive.
Group at Baarchi; Last Jeepable Point in Haramosh Valley – Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Way up from Baarchi is a mule trek to Kutwal, more often used by herdsmen and wood cutters; it can lead to bliss in about three hours (we hurried up walking as it was getting dark). Clicking and enjoying views of the glowing Haramosh Peak including the blue hour, we made to the first settlement of Kutwal after sun down. Villagers greeted us on arrival and suggested a place to camp for the night. A good chat ensued on bonfire with host youngsters.
First Day of Trek to Kutwal – Haramosh Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Last Evening Light on Haramosh Peak – Haramosh Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
We were offered Desi ghee and tea in the morning. After breakfast, we set off to see the majestic Kutwal Lake. Passing through a half torn juniper jungle, and nearby villages, we reached the lake. Those two hours were a journey through indigenous culture. Livestock grazing and kids playing along streams and men wearing spring flowers beautifully tucked into their caps.
Enjoying majestic views of the Haramosh massif and broader Kutwal valley, we kept walking further east. All villagers en route offered us meal and tea according to time of the day. After having final cups of saltish tea at the eastern most hamlet, we set our camp by the base of Haramosh La/Pass in the evening. We dined and slept a bit early since our guide told us that we’d begin our trek late in the night to avoid any mishap with snow en route.
Consultation at Haramosh Base Camp – Haramosh Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Setting head torches, we commenced to ascend the Pass at 3 am; it was ascent of 1000 vertical meters we knew. Earlier, a group of Pakistani trekkers had crossed the Pass in two phases, stopping overnight on way; but we preferred to cross the hardest climb of our expedition in one long day
“Our fellow Hussain Tarek was taking the challenge light as we observed him moving at a snail’s pace. I gave him company and encouragement for the first few hours but as day light began to break, my frustration rose to a certain height …”
After easy buck up calls to Hussain, I tried to apply a harder trick on him. I had with me that day a book about the ascent of K2 by Heidi Hawkins in which it was mentioned how the extremely injured or dead adventurers were decided about, at times buried in glaciers, amidst least of option in hard situations. I showed a few pictures of dead bodies wrapped in plastic sheets to Hussain and gave him option(s): whether to pace up or return from that point or be prepared to be dumped like one in the pictures. This made him move seriously. Thereafter he paced up and remained consistent for rest of the long day.
Group Half Way up Haramosh La – Haramosh Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
We crossed two glacial obstacles before noon, using ice axes at times, marking the first success that day. Next was the rock fall zone. There, one had to be mindful of two risks: one that the trekker going ahead would definitely send rocks to those following; two that some of the rock fall was expected from high above the pass without a notice. Our team proved lucky on both counts. We celebrated midway by drinking tea.
Crossing Glacial Portion – Haramosh Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Fellow Sarwar Taqi Shigri showed us a large size wild flower, glowing white in colour, which was considered a panacea to one hundred illnesses. We enjoyed magnificent views of the Kutwal Valley from vantage point(s) en route.
Sarwar Showing Shrub; Cure of 100 Illnesses – Haramosh Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
View of Haramosh Peak from Trek – Haramosh Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Another two hours ascent took us closer to the Pass top. Last 100 meters portion was negotiated using a rope. Fida Ali and I made it to the top around 2:30 pm while remaining fellas joined in next one hour. Arriving at the snow clad height of 4800 meters above sea level was a different feeling altogether.
Team Using Ropes on Last Ascend – Haramosh La, Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Taking best advantage of the sunlight, group members took to various pursuits. I sat reading the adventure book about the ascent to K2 and Gasherbrums. Mujtaba fell into photography. Porters took to the tent and kitchen settings. Hussain could enjoy stretching his legs. As a group we made a couple of selfies with the national flag to celebrate the ascent
Fida Ali put his magic hands under the stones marking the Haramosh La Top and brought out four pieces of gemstones (quartz) in raw form. He explained that one of his elders had hidden that treasure and told him to retrieve whenever Fida happened to be there.
Then I slipped out on a stony trek above our camp site to enjoy the highest altitude washroom facility in open air. Without delving into details, the vantage point offered views of Laila Peak, Baska Peak and Kutwal Valley. None could read or answer the nature’s call amidst a panorama better than what I enjoyed that evening at the top. Views of Bolocho Peak and Chogolungma Glacier in the far distance came as bonus.
“None could read or answer the nature’s call amidst a panorama better than what I enjoyed that evening at the top”
Next/third day was to have a four hours walk on pure glacial terrain. We roped up in sequence and commenced the cautious walk at 6 am early morning; it was a misty day. Our guide Fida Ali had such a lucky foot that we stumbled only once or twice around crevasses during the course. Lot of fun and photo activity continued during the brief journey. We crossed the soft snow part in three hours and hard glacial part in next one hour. Then a narrow trek took us to Laila base camp in another two hours.
Glacial Traverse from Haramosh La to Laila Peak Base Camp – Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Our group was supposed to stay at Laila Base that night. Someone informed that Spantik Peak (7000 meters asl) could be seen from a point an hour hike from the place we were camping. Mujtaba and I ventured to the height but saw more of Chogolungma Glacier as the shrewd peak lay in clouds that afternoon (hard luck). We contended ourselves with view of the tents pitched at its base and with the aim that we would attempt Spantik someday.
Fourth and final day was the trek along Chogolungma Glacier, the source of Basha River in Arandu Valley. We began with negotiating hard glacial portions while it was still raining. Soon the Spantik expedition members joined us; they had to abort the attempt due to bad weather (so it wasn’t hard luck for me or Mujtaba only). An Italian and two British fellows formed the members while 20+ porters were walking along with luggage; they were the happiest men one can find on Earth. Despite carrying heavy loads on backs, they were playing the sweet Balti music on cell-phones. That brief journey together was a blessed experience indeed.
We took a tea break in the afternoon at Bolocho camp site and parted ways with Spantik expedition team (They’d stay for the night). Then we continued our trek enjoying views of Basha River formation and Astak La; we trekked 33 kilometers to Arandu that day. During the walk we came across Balti women gathering grass, brief jungle of fruit bush and trees and Kerolungma stream merging into the mainstream. At Arandu, we stopped, amazed to appreciate the misty view of Basha River, an unforgettable sight.
We were garlanded for the success by fellows at Arandu. Extreme hospitality included soup of the Markhor (wild mountain goat). We had a visit of the village the following morning until a jeep was arranged to take us to Skardu, another five hours drive. En route we stopped by Chhuttrun where we enjoyed bathing in natural hot water springs; it was effective to lessen our tiredness.
Garlands of Success at Arandu Village – Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
A comfortable night stay awaited us at Shangri La Resort Skardu, courtesy officer friends from Gilgit-Baltistan Government, also met a few Secretaries who had been my course mates back in 2003 at Peshawar Services Academy. Next day was a happy flight to Islamabad and on to Lahore/Quetta as applicable.
Flight to Islamabad from Skardu Airport – Baltistan, Pakistan Credits: Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Crossing the Haramosh La in three days (plus one day around Kutwal) turned out to be an extraordinary achievement for us. Hussain had his maiden trek, another surprising feature for anyone who heard about the feat. We became heroes on social media for a brief period. Then invitations flew for us to attend Trekkers Meet Up at Islamabad as well as Swat.
Besides Fida Ali’s able stewardship and Sarwar Taqi’s funny company, it would be unjust not to mention our brief yet able team of porters who performed their utmost to keep us comfortable.
Haramosh is a Heaven and Kutwal is Love, we conclude.
Aziz Ahmad Jamali
Aziz hails from Jaffarabad, Balochistan and is an officer in civil services of Pakistan. He is a humble soul, avid explorer, passionate hiker and trekker with immense knowledge and experience particularly in Balochistan area.
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