As I paused to catch my breath, my eyes moved towards the path that led to Baltoro glacier, reminding me of the ordeals I faced a few years ago after stepping on the glacial moraine and the boulders of Baltoro glacier.
It was my first encounter with glaciers and that too with Baltoro, [often termed ‘Bal-Toro’ in Urdu, meaning bone breaker].
I remembered all the group members, including myself, using all sorts of nasty names from our personal vocabularies to describe the terrain and varied moraines of Baltoro.
Having left Askole and stepping on Biafo’s boulders, Baltoro’s brutalities seemed like silly little pranks of a mischievous child.
All those words that I had given to Baltoro in 2010, were passed on to ‘honour’ the ‘glory’ of Biafo’s crusts and turfs; most of them starting with B [whether in English, Urdu or Punjabi!].
My mind was set before embarking on this journey, termed as the most difficult trek of Pakistan’s north.
Where I was going had a reputation well above that of word of mouth. The terrain was the most terrifying and tormenting ‘mettle tester’ in every way. But then the destination too was not ordinary.
In the heart of the Karakoram mountains lies the fabled and fabulous Snow Lake
Lakes are often called the mirrors of mountains, but a lake exists that does not reflect anything because its water is frozen.
Lukpe Lawo, famously known as Snow Lake, lies in the heart of Panmah Muztagh range which is a sub-range of the Karakoram mountains. Actually it’s a high altitude glacial basin which was discovered by a British mountaineer, Martin Conway, in 1892.
Only a few lucky souls have seen this 16 km-wide frozen lake located 4,877 metres above sea level on the convergence point of the Hispar and Biafo glaciers.
Both glaciers together form the world’s longest glacial system (100 km) outside the polar regions — 67 km long Biafo alone is the world’s third longest glacier, whereas the Hispar glacier is 49 km long. The Snow Lake traverse uses all of Hispar glacier’s length and 51 km of Biafo glacier’s length.
The ancient kingdoms of Baltistan and Nagar are located in the opposite direction of Snow Lake. We started our journey from Skardu which falls in Baltistan, and after crossing Biafo glacier and scaling the Hispar Pass (5,128m) and its glacier, we would have reached Hunza.
Being a sub-range of the Karakoram mountains the Panmah Muztagh too has some prominent peaks for climbing, such as Baintha Brakk or The Ogre (7,285m), Latok Group (7,145m), Sosbun Brakk (6,413m) and Solu Towers (5,947m). Different features distinguish them from the rest of the Karakoram — Panmah Muztagh range is much rockier and steeper with complex granite formations.
At Namla, the first campsite on the Biafo glacier, a sign board describing Namla as a sighting place for snow-leopards greeted us. Our porters and a very talkative guide told us that markhor too can be seen on the surrounding cliffs.
We were further informed that various hunters come to Biafo to try their luck, and the presence of hunter posts on the way to the Biantha campsite confirmed this.
Hunters come to the posts in summer and stay for several days in quest of their bounty. A few hunt for hobby while the rest hunt for selling and often sell markhor meat for 7,000 rupees per kilo.
We had a rest day at the Baintha campsite to relax our stiff and cramped muscles. Around noon we heard gunshots; somebody whispered “Markhors are being hunted.”
After some time a hunter came and offered markhor meat to us. He had sold almost all the meat and was left with just 5kg which he did not want to carry the entire length of the Biafo.
All of us knew that markhor is one of the ‘near threatened’ species so nobody was interested but the hunter knew all the tricks of marketing and managed to convince most of the expedition members to ‘taste’ the most expensive meat of our lives.
The markhor had been killed and we had no involvement in his cold-blooded murder, so the top management decided to enjoy the ‘God sent’ opportunity.
The meat was handed over to our expert cook who told us that, since we were in the wilderness of mountains with no proper kitchen facility, we should not expect the feast to be ready before two hours.
We spent the long wait relaxing and inhaling the aroma of the food being cooked.
After battling with the kerosene stove for more than two hours, our cook served lunch.
It took me quite some time to chew the first bite; even after being cooked for over two hours the meat was still like rubber.
It tasted good (thanks to the chef’s culinary skills) but climbing on cliffs gave the markhor tough meat. I left the rest in my plate and finished the rice as did a few others.
After coming back from this expedition, I learnt that the Gilgit Baltistan government auctioned off the markhor hunting license for 6.2 million rupees.
The next campsite that we reached was on the upper surface of the glacier which was cluttered with stones of all sizes eroded from the mountain cliffs.
Biafo is notorious for being cluttered with time and energy consuming lethal crevasses and to avoid these we took the longer route.
Fresh snowfall covers crevasses and makes them deadlier. Since it was summer, the centuries-old glacial ice and snow was melting and the water was going deep into the maze of hidden and deep crevasses.
It seemed as though this entire orchestra of nature was perhaps crooning the last couplet of Rumi’s poem,
‘Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself.’
Dancing around crevasses and jumping on the boulders, somehow we crossed two more stages and reached the mouth of Snow Lake.
Here we rested for a while, while the porters served us soup in the majestic span of Snow Lake.
Then we started to ascend the Hispar La; the climb was way more toilsome than it appeared, a couple of times the ice cracked beneath the feet and one or the other group member came close to falling down the bottomless deep crevasses but thankfully we were prepared — tied up with rope and group formation, and the expertise of the guides came to our rescue.
By afternoon we were on top of the Hispar La. The view from 5,128m above sea level was spectacular.
The famous Italian climber and mountain guide Hervé Barmasse has won nine international awards for climbing and opening new routes on various unclimbed peaks. He has climbed more than 30 peaks, most of which were ‘first ascents’.
In an article about peaks around Biafo glacier and Snow Lake, published in 2013 in American Alpine Journal, a prestigious publication of the world of climbing, he states, “In five expeditions to different areas of the Karakoram, I’ve climbed virgin peaks and new routes up to 7,000m, but never seen a place like Snow Lake, its particular features making it so aptly named.”
The panoramic view from the top of Hispar La substantiated his words.
This corner of Karakoram is almost unexplored; unlike the Baltoro or main Karakoram, very few climbers turn to this side.
Peaks around Snow Lake are more challenging, but yet to be explored and ascended.
Some of them are not even touched and named; in the language of climbing such peaks are called ‘Virgin Peaks’. Aspiring climbers can try their luck and give their names to unnamed peaks, and enrich the history of climbing.