This expedition with a team of 5 friends marked my 18th year of climbing in the Karakoram and was the 3rd Springtime ski expedition that I led to the region.
This is the text of an article that I wrote for the Alpine Journal 2005. This text also appears on the 'Blank on the Map' website in English and French with a selection of my photographs. This website contains information about other groups who have skied in the karakoram.
The Great Karakoram Ski Traverse 2004
On May 4th 2004 I stood on the top of the East Muztagh Pass (5393m) looking at the steep drop to the Muztagh Galcier 250 meters below. I wondered what Francis Younghusband must have thought surveying the same scene in 1887. It was day 30 of my ambitious project to force a ski route through the high glaciers along the spine of the Karakoram, crossing six high passes close to the Pakistan-China frontier. The East Muztagh was the fifth pass, and it looked the most difficult yet. For a team of ski mountaineers carrying 350m of rope and a full range of modern climbing equipment and the descent was going to be quite a challenge.
It is little wonder that Younghusband's crossing 117 years ago won him considerable fame and became one of the defining moments of the 'Great Game' phase of mountain exploration in the Karakoram. My aims in repeating the feat were more modest. The golden age of exploration has passed, and today's mountain adventures increasing take place on a diminishing number of high profile peaks. However there are still mountain areas, that for reasons of politics or geography, have been seldom visited since the days of pioneering exploration. With a little research and planning these are the places where the spirit of exploration and adventure can still be enjoyed today.
The idea for a Springtime ski expedition following the Karakoram watershed first occurred to me in 1997 when I completed the classic Hispar/Biafo ski journey for the second time. After a great trip several members of the team were keen to try a similar but more ambitious project. I studied maps to see if it would be possible to link little known glaciers and high passes creating a ski route through the wildest and most remote parts of the range. There was one obviously exciting option. The 260km route from Shimshal in Upper Hunza to Hushe in Eastern Baltistan was clearly the longest continuous ski journey which could be attempted in the Pakistan Karakoram. Almost all the route would be above 4000m, and the main challenge would be the six passes at heights up to 5700m.
Little did I realise that it would be seven years before I would have the chance to make this journey. Each summer as I guided expeditions on the 8000m peaks of the Karakoram my eyes would drift westwards and I would pick out the peaks, passes and ridges between the Baltoro and Shimshal imagining how my planned ski route would snake between them. There was always a list of potential companions for this expedition, mostly friends impressed with my enthusiasm to take a break from the predictable world of commercial guiding and take a risk on an unpredictable project with a very uncertain outcome. Plans to make the journey in 2002 collapsed when I suffered a back injury in South America. Then in 2003 the project was postponed again when I was invited to lead an Everest expedition.
Of the six companions who assembled in Skardu on April 4th 2004, I was the only remaining member of the 1997 team, and few of the dozen other people who had been committed to the project in the intervening years were present. Ashley Hardwell (with me on Masherbrum in 1991) and Grant Dixon (from Chogolisa in 1993 and Tirich Mir in 1995) were the familiar faces. Robert West, Dave Cowell and Annette Dean were friends of friends. The team contained an interesting mix of ages, skills and experiences. Between us we had climbed and skied in almost every major mountain range on earth.
The history of ski expeditions in the Karakoram is a short one. The initial explorations of the range were all summer projects; from the expeditions of Godwin Austen in 1861 and Conway in 1892, to the Italian and British cartographic and scientific expeditions in the 1930's. In the second half of the 20th Century the number of expeditions grew steadily to their current level of more than 50 each year. Today several thousand climbers and trekkers visit the Karakoram each summer. It took the American party of Rowell/Gillette/Schmitz/Asay in 1980 to recognise the potential of the huge glaciers for Springtime ski expeditions with their pioneering journey from the Bilafond Galcier to Hispar, broken only by six days of porterage to join the Baltoro and Biafo Glaciers via Askole. The second half of their journey, the 120km system of the Biafo and Hispar glaciers, linked by the 5151m Hispar Pass, has become the classic Karkoram ski itinerary and has been repeated by about a dozen groups. In the 24 years since Rowell's expedition only two groups have completed new ski routes in the Karakoram. Bernard Odier's French group in 1990 completed a technically difficult circuit of the Biafo, Sim Gang, Nobabde Sobande, Chiring, Lakhmo and Muztagh Glaciers, crossing 3 high passes in the process. Five years later a 5 person American group made the ski crossing from Shimshal to Askole via the Lukpe La. My 2004 route would join together sections of these previous routes and also cover some new ground, creating a high altitude West to East ski route through the heart of the Karakoram. This would be a longer continuous journey than any of the previous ski expeditions had achieved. It probably also ranks as the longest journey ever attempted in the Karakoram (summer or winter) without the use of local porters.
My six person team assembled in Skardu on April 4th together with all the expedition food and new 1.4m plastic sleds which had been brought from the UK. The remaining equipment was collected from my Skardu store and packed for the journey to Hunza. We then spent a pleasant afternoon in the garden of the K2 hotel studying maps and discussing the details of our proposed route. This was the first time that the team had met and we began to appreciate the scale of the seven week project that we were about to embark upon.
The weather was dreary on the drive to Karimabad where we visited the recently renovated fort before spending the night in a deserted hotel. The new road to Shimshal removed the need for the long 3 day walk from Passu which I had made on previous visits in 1989 and 1990. My Shimshali cook from these visits, Baktawar Shah, is now a guide and organised the 20 porters that would be needed for the seven day trek to the Braldu glacier. The landscape of the Northern Karakoram can look bleak at the best of times, and the area around Shimshal is very dry and barren. In summer sunshine it has a dramatic beauty, but in April mist and drizzle it had a dark and foreboding aspect.
I had foolishly assumed that the trip would not really start until we unpacked the skis at the snowline. I had underestimated the difficulty of the trek along the gorge of the Pamir-I-Tang River and over the Shimshal Pass. The heavily laden porters made light work of the faint paths crossing steep cliffs and unstable scree slopes. The experienced mountaineers in the party found the trek among the hardest they had encountered anywhere in the Himalayas. The top of the 4758m Shimshal Pass is a broad, open, grassy plateau used as summer grazing by the Shimshalis. Winter snow lay thick on the ground as we reached the cairn commemorating Younghusband's visit in 1889. This was the first of four crossings that we planned making of the Karakoram watershed. As we descended to Chikar in the Braldu valley the waters ahead of us drained towards the Taklamakan desert to the North, while those behind flowed South through the entire length of Pakistan to reach the Arabian Sea at Karachi.
The broad Braldu River presents a major obstacle to summer travel in this area but we crossed the frozen stream of ice with little difficulty. Seven days after leaving Shimshal we reached the terminal morrain of the Braldu glacier and prepared to say farewell to the Shimshal porters who had worked hard and remained cheerful despite the poor weather and cold conditions. Their final act was to carry our 240kg of equipment a further 10km towards the snowline across the unstable rocks and rubble of the lower glacier. Ibrahim and Abdullah, my two Hushe cooks who had accompanied us from Skardu were asked to meet us on the Ghondokoro Glacier 20km North of their village in 30 days time. If they were sceptical of our chances of success they did not show it as they bade their farewells and walked of into the mist.
The sun appeared for the first time in many days and we found ourselves surrounded by jagged granite spires with steep faces covered in fresh snow. It took two days of hard effort to carry the equipment to the first usable snow at 4445m. The expedition almost ended before it had really got going. Robert had been acclimatising slowly and appeared to have developed a chest infection. Following long discussions we were all on the verge of returning to Shimshal before he recovered sufficiently to continue. Over the next few days we gained height slowly as the wide snow covered glacier led southwards towards our next goal, the Lupke La. The daily distance covered was less than we had anticipated. The effects of altitude, the weight of the sleds, the soft snow and the poor weather meant that our daily target of 10km was rarely reached.
After a stormbound day a few kilometers short of the pass we eventually reached the top at 9.30am on April 21st and measured the height as 5634m. To the south we had excellent views down the Sim Gang Glacier. The snow covered mass of the Orgre's North Face was the most prominent peak visible. This pass had first been crossed by Bill Tilman in 1937. It lies far from the regular trekking routes and has probably not seen many repeat crossings. We were only the second group to make a ski crossing. The ascent had been problem free, however the descent involved broken and crevassed ground. The heavy sleds which had performed admirably on the flat proved to be more of a handful on descents. Had we not been blessed with good weather the descent to the Sim Gang glacier would have been unacceptably dangerous.
Our next goal the Skam La was visible a mere 5km to the East. The climb to the short 200m headwall was very gentle, but deep soft snow made progress infuriatingly slow. It would be three days before we were able to establish the expedition's 14th camp on top of the 5657m pass. In these days the fate of the expedition would once again hang in the balance. 3km on April 22nd followed by a stormbound day on April 23rd created a grave problem with supplies. Ahead lay the Skam La, the most difficult climb of the trip, for which we needed good weather. Our resupply depot lay 25km on the other side of the pass. If we were unable to cross and reach these supplies our only retreat lay down the Biafo Gacier. The journey to Askole might take about 8 days. We had supplies of food and fuel for only 3-4 days.
Yet again our luck held when it mattered most. We climbed the steep snow face of the Skam La on 24th April. It took 12 hours of back breaking effort under the glare of a merciless sun to drag the 6 sleds to the top of the pass using pulleys and more than 200m of rope. We were rewarded with the best views of the expedition: an unbroken panorama of peaks to the East and West, and our first view of K2 in the distance. This pass had first been crossed by Eric Shipton during his 1939 expedition. Camped on top of the pass temperature dropped to -25° C during the night; the lowest recorded on our trip. Annette's hand froze to the snow spade as she collected snow for cooking.
The ski descent of the Nobande Sobande glacier was the best of the entire expedition. After a few kilometers of polling across level but slightly soft snow the gradient increased and the snow became firmer. For the first time since putting on skis 10 days before we glided effortlessly over a smooth level surface covering almost 20km to a campsite with running water close to the junction with the Chiring glacier. The perfect weather and snow conditions continued into the following day and we covered 5km in an hour to reach our resupply point. This had been placed by Musa Khan and his team of Tisar porters a few days previously. Our spirits soared as we saw three large red flags flying in the breeze indicating 100kg of food and fuel stored in 5 large kit bags. At 4221m this was one of the lowest altitude points on the route.
Our jubilation was short lived. The 15km ascent to the West Muztagh Pass was to take six days and be the most exhausting and frustrating of the entire journey. Efforts to reach this pass by the early explorers (Schlagintweit 1856, Godwin Austen 1861, Younghusband 1887) all failed due to the difficulty of negotiating the junction of the Panmah/Chiring/South Chiring glaciers. It was not until 1939 that Edrik Fountaine (a member of Shipton's expedition) made the first recorded ascent of this pass in modern times, although it is believed to have been a traditional trade route prior to European exploration of the region.
It took most of a day to drag and carry the heavily loaded sleds over the moraine band separating the Chiring from the Nobande Sobande glacier. The novelty of stepping on our first rocks for several weeks soon wore thin. A far bigger obstacle lay ahead. The outflow of the South Chiring glacier entered the Chiring in a chaotic jumble of broken ice blocks and deep unstable crevasses. A full day of porterage on the lateral morrain was required to pass this obstacle that was no more than 400m in length. Poor weather, difficult snow conditions and complex terrain added to the nightmare of the Chiring glacier. We had reached the resupply point only one day behind our projected schedule. By the time we reached the W Muztagh Pass we were running five days late.
The first signs of despondency began to show in the team. The prospect of reduced rations had to be considered and it looked like we might have to choose between completing our journey or missing our flights home. GPS readings gave the height of the pass as 5720m. Of the six passes crossed during the course of the expedition this was not only the highest but the only one which we could claim as a 'first ski crossing' (although Bernard Odier came this way in 1990, they failed to find the W Muztagh Pass in poor weather and crossed another pass a few km to the NE) * see correction below*. We descended without difficulty into the upper branch of the Sarpo Lago Glacier , passing close to the Sarpo Lago Pass used by Shipton to gain access to the North side of the range in 1937. Lack of time forced us to turn from our preferred route over the Moni Pass leading north of Muztagh Tower towards the more famous East Muztagh Pass.
The climb to the top of the East (or Old) Muztagh Pass (5400m) was straightforward, but by now we were all showing signs of cumulative fatigue. This was the 28th day since we had left Shimshal and the meagre diet of 900g of food per day was beginning to have an effect as our strength and energy levels began to drop. Each of us felt an increasing sense of fatigue as the days passed and clothing which had been tight at the start of the trip began to feel loose as the signs of weight loss began to show. Camp on top of the Pass (measured as 5393m) gave great views over the Chinese side of the range with the Chantok and Chiring peaks prominent. The huge north face of Biale dominated the view to the South. Descending from the pass took an entire day, plus an extensive reconnaissance the previous afternoon. This was arguably the most difficult part of the journey, and certainly the most dangerous. We used over 250m of fixed rope to prepare a route down steep slopes of snow and ice constantly threatened by massive overhanging ice cliffs above. The glacier below was strewn with thousands of tons of blue and green ice blocks that had fallen across our descent route in the previous days. I held my breath as one by one the rest of the team abseiled down the frighteningly dangerous slopes encumbered by 30kg sleds dangling from their harnesses.
When we were all standing safely on the level ground of the Muztagh Glacier, well back from the threat of falling ice, we could contemplate the magnitude of Francis Younghusband's efforts in 1887. It certainly was a remarkable achievement to lead a group of untrained and ill equipped locals down such a feature using only a single pick axe, a few yards of pony tack and the unravelled turban of Wali, his faithful servant. The second crossing of this pass only happened in 1929 when Ardito Desio (later famous as the leader of the successful 1954 Italian K2 expedition) made a crossing as part of the Duke of Spoletto's large scientific expedition. Bernard Odier's 1990 team claimed the first crossing by a ski expedition.
The ski descent of the Muztagh Glacier mirrored that of the Nobande Sobande ten days previously. Firm snow gave easy skiing conditions and we sped towards the snow free Baltoro Glacier 10km ahead and 1000m lower. By noon we were camped on the North side of the Baltoro Glacier below Lobsang Spire and opposite the Pakistan Army camp at Urdokas. It was 29 days since we had left Shimshal. Time and supplies were now a consideration. By reducing our daily rations it would be possible for the entire team to reach Hushe, given good weather and snow conditions. But poor weather leading to slow progress might leave us a little hungry. It was also looking unlikely that we would complete the journey in time to get our scheduled return flights home. After a short discussion Robert, Dave and Ashley decided to take the shortest route home via Askole, while the remaining three would push on towards the expedition's original goal. Before departing they helped to carry loads over the rocks of the Baltoro Glacier to the south side where we hoped to find better snow.
On the morning of May 7th Grant, Annette and myself set off along the Baltoro, our sleds weighed down with the extra supplies donated by our departed companions. We searched for a strand of continuous snow that would lead eastwards to Concordia. At an altitude of only 4160m the ice was patchy and the glacier surface covered with rocks. Crossing a small frozen lake in the lead I broke through the ice and was soaked to my waist until Grant and Annette arrived to pull me free. Two more frustrating days followed: with only 4.6km covered in 10 hours, and 2.4km covered in 8.5 hours. We spent more time carrying the sleds than pulling them and the experience was deeply depressing. Then on the morning of May 10th we reached good snow. Two days of 10km saw us speed eastwards along the Baltoro Glacier and southwards into the Vigne Glacier. Concordia, which I know well from years of expeditions in the area, lay under a thick blanket of snow and the high peaks were similarly covered. Many people have seen K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums from this spot, but few have stood here at the end of Spring when the glaciers are covered in many metres of snow and ice.
Before leaving Concordia I looked East to the snow covered slopes of Sia Kangri and the Conway saddle. This will be the route of my next ski journey. If India and Pakistan ever settle their border dispute in the high glaciers of the Karakoram and the area becomes demilitarised, it should be possible to ski from the Baltoro Glacier over the Conway Saddle and down into the Siachen Glacier and the mountain valleys of Ladakh. But that project would have to wait for another year, perhaps even another decade. Now only the 6th and final Pass, the Ghondokoro La, blocked our path to the Hushe valley. Of all the passes on our route this one is the most frequently crossed. It is used by hundreds of climbers, trekkers and porters each summer. It was only discovered in 1989 by Ali Jangjungpa a local Balti porter from one of the villages in the lower Hushe valley. The first foreigners, including myself, crossed it the following year. In summer the route is equipped with fixed ropes maintained (for a fee!) by the 'Hushe Rescue Team'. In mid May it presented a formidable obstacle to three weary skiers encumbered with almost 100kg of equipment.
We abandoned all spare food into a deep crevasse and started the 600m climb at dawn. The slope was too steep for skis and sleds, so we fought our way up through the deep snow on foot, carrying everything in very large rucksacks. The snow varied between knee deep and waist deep, and the angle became steeper than 45°. The weather worsened until visibility was little more than 10m. Above our heads towered an enormous unstable cornice dripping menacing icicles. By early afternoon we were cold, wet and tired. Only a final 10m of near vertical snow separated us from the top. Leaving my heavy pack behind, in a place judged to be acceptably safe from avalanche and cornice collapse, I led up this final section to secure a fixed rope. A little over one hour later the three of us crawled into a hastily erected tent on the flat surface of the pass. As the storm raged outside we lay exhausted in the tent too tired to remove our frozen clothes.
By evening the storm had passed. Clouds parted to the south revealing the familiar shapes of Trinity, Leila and Masherbrum.: peaks I recognised from eighteen years of climbing in the Hushe valley. We threw dozens of large rocks down the snow slopes to release the unstable layers snow. The 800m descent the following morning passed without incident despite our weakened state. On the level ground of the Ghondokoro Glacier we were able to reassemble the sleds and put on our skis for a final time. The ski down the glacier offered everything that I could have wished from a ski descent in the Karakoram: a firm surface offering easy turning for a skier pulling a sled, terrain that was interesting without being difficult or dangerous, and spectacular scenery. My only regret was that in our 37 day expedition we had experienced only 3 such days! Within a few hours we reached the place where the glacier takes a sharp left turn and is joined by the icefall that flows down from the icefall of the Masherbrum La. At this point there were too many surface rocks for us to ski any further. As we stopped to remove our skis familiar voices called from the slope a few hundred meters ahead. True to their word Ibrahim, Abdullah and 3 other men from Hushe had come to meet us as planned. We were 2 days overdue, but they had waited for us. In fact they had seen us climbing down from the pass through binoculars several hours earlier and had a pot of hot tea and a plate of biscuits waiting for us.
I cannot say if we were more pleased to see them or if they were more pleased to see us. They have been my friends for many years and have worked with me on many expeditions in the Karakoram. They have seen me set off for five 8000m summits, and they have seen that I always return safely. However this time they thought that I had chosen a project with far more dangers and uncertainties. They cried with happiness to see the three thin dishevelled travellers arrive out of the mountains. Later they told me that prayers had been said in the Hushe village Mosque for our safe arrival.
We were in a daze as we walked the familiar trekkers trail past the herder's settlements of Dalsan, and Gondoro to Saitcho. We were able to exchange ski boots for comfortable shoes and walk through a landscape of grass, bushes, trees and flowers. The 'shop' at Saitcho (possibly the only 'tea house' in the Karakoram) had been opened specially in expectation of our arrival and served up fried eggs, chips and fizzy drinks. The next day we were welcomed as heros as we walked through the fields into the village of Hushe. These simple hardworking people know the high mountains of the Karakoram better than anyone. To receive such a welcome from them was a humbling tribute to our journey of exploration that had pushed us to our physical limits.
* correction : since the original publication of this article Bernard Odier assures me that his party did in fact cross the correct West Mustagh Pass in 1990.