Camp beneath the Peaks of the Biafo Glacier


Snow Lake - The Karakoram's Icy Wilderness
STRADDLING THE REMOTE and often troubled border between India and Pakistan, the Karakoram Himalaya is undoubtedly one of the world's most formidable mountain ranges. Not only does it contain the greatest concentration of the really high mountains of the world, culminating in K2, the world's second highest mountain, but it also embraces the longest glaciers outside of the polar regions.

But whilst the best known peaks are those which flank the Baltoro glacier and the route to K2, connoisseurs would justly argue that spectacular scenery is also to be found beside the neighbouring and rarely visited Biafo and Hispar glacier systems. Many of the peaks here are unclimbed and even un-named; their glistening and seemingly unattainable summits capping massive, vertical and impenetrable granite walls. At the very heart of this great wilderness is the legendary and beautiful Lukpe Lawo, a vast sheet of almost level glacier covering some 77 square kilometres, fittingly named 'Snow Lake' by the explorer Martin Conway who first discovered it in 1892.

Snow Lake from the Hispar La

The classic way to explore this region is to traverse the Biafo and Hispar glacier systems, crossing the challenging 5,150 metre Hispar La Pass, and visiting Snow Lake on the way. Apart from encountering obvious climatic and cultural differences as it crosses from Skardu in Baltistan to Karimabad in the kingdom of Hunza, the route passes beneath a jagged skyline of granite spires and snow-capped peaks.

The Latok Peaks, Biantha Brakk (also known as The Ogre), Sosbun Brakk, Kanjut Sar, Khunyang Chhish, Disteghil Sar, Rakaposhi, Trivor and Spantik are just a few of the many hundreds of peaks which come into view along the way.

Karakoram Highway

Starting at the ancient city of Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan, the trek began its journey to Snow Lake with a 24-hour drive along the Karakoram Highway, up the rugged and precipitous Indus valley beneath the flanks of the mighty peak of Nanga Parbat, to the small town of Skardu. Since the reopening of the Karakoram to expeditions in 1975, Skardu has become a striking oasis at the very heart of a mountain desert; its colourful bustling bazaar and tree-lined streets stand out in stark contrast against the bare rocky hillsides which rise up on almost every side.

From Skardu, the way to the Biafo glacier passes through the fertile Shigar valley before entering the hot and barren Braldu gorge to reach the tiny Balti village of Askole, the last permanent settlement this side of the Hispar La. The mighty forces which created this rugged land are still at work and negotiating the steep and unstable moraine slopes of the Braldu gorge makes the approach to the mountains of the central Karakoram extremely hazardous. The newly constructed jeep track to Askole makes the going easier, but it is frequently blocked by landslides or washed away by the turbulent waters of the Braldu river.

On the Biafo Glacier approaching Biantha

Beyond Askole the route to Snow Lake leaves the main trail leading to Concordia and K2 base camp; instead, it crosses a col breaching the retaining wall of the valley and heads out onto the moraines of the Biafo glacier. From this point, three days' difficult walking over the boulder strewn glacier leads eventually to the grassy meadows of Biantha, a delightful campsite surrounded by dwarf willow trees and tucked away in an ablation valley running along the northern lateral moraine of the Biafo Glacier.

At over 4000 metres, Biantha is an excellent place to acclimatise and explore the upper reaches of the Biantha Lukpar glacier which decends from the nearby Latok peaks and Biantha Brakk, also known as The Ogre and, at 7285 metres, the highest peak in the region. However, our plans for exploration were severely restricted when continuous heavy rain pinned us down in our tents. We waited three anxious and frustrating days at Biantha, fully aware that the storm clouds were depositing substantial accumulations of new snow on the high peaks, on our route ahead and on the Hispar Pass.

The Karakoram has an unenviable reputation for unsettled weather and this year was no exception. The popular trekking period of July and August was particularly unsettled, and the weather pattern seemed reluctant to change even during the usually clear months of September and October. Typical daytime temperatures in the Braldu gorge were higher than normal (over 35 degrees centigrade) and the evenings were never very cold even at the higher altitudes.

Snow Lake

We knew that we had to make good use of even the slightest improvement in the weather and, encouraged by a partial clearance in the clouds, finally set out for Snow Lake and the Hispar Pass. We enjoyed spectacular views of the surrounding peaks as we walked up the now level ice of the glacier, jumping the smaller crevasses wherever possible but occasionally having to make long detours around the larger ones.

Hipsar La from the Biafo Glacier

In an effort to make up for lost time we pushed on, past a series of spectacular granite towers and the fairy tale peak of Sosbun Brakk, towards the lip of the incoming Sim Gang Glacier. Progress across the numerous crevasses became increasingly difficult and as the afternoon wore on we were forced to retreat to the boulder covered lateral moraine for safe passage. We stumbled into camp at dusk and collapsed into our tents which were pitched on a meagre clearing scraped out of the rubble of the broken glacier. As if on cue, the clouds rolled in and it started to snow again.

It was still snowing lightly the next morning and with nearly 50cm of soft unconsolidated snow lying on the glacier we realised that finding a safe route across Snow Lake to the foot of the Hispar Pass would not be easy. In contrast to previous days, the porters preferred to let the trekking party break trail and the security of a rope was very reassuring as we moved out onto the level glacier. There was potential danger in every step, and we took five hours to walk just a few kilometres, carefully probing the way ahead whenever we identified the tell-tale signs of a hidden crevasse. We eventually established camp in a level snow basin at the very foot of the Hispar Pass.

The Hispar Pass

It was vital to make an early ascent of the pass the following morning in order to take advantage of better snow conditions on the upper glacier. In the faint light of a still and cold pre-dawn, and to our great surprise and delight, we realised that the clouds had cleared to reveal spectacular views across Snow Lake towards the Sim Gang and Biafo glaciers. By the time we had roped up and negotiated the first seracs on the Hispar Pass, the jagged and snow covered peaks of the Biafo Glacier were drenched in the rich golden rays of the morning sun.

The Ogre and Snow Lake

We made slow but steady progress towards the summit of the pass, carefully but easily avoiding the many seracs and crevasses which barred our way. The effects of altitude now added to the effort required to overcome the knee deep snow underfoot. As the sun rose higher in the sky, its intense rays reflecting off the surrounding glacier, we found ourselves gasping for breath in a great oven of ice.

Six hours after leaving camp we finally skirted the last deep crevasse to arrive on the summit of Hispar Pass. Our reward was a stunning panorama of the peaks of Snow Lake and the Biafo Glacier, dominated by the mighty fang of The Ogre rising out of a great white wilderness stretching away as far as the eye could see.

The view ahead was one of striking contrasts. The southern retaining wall of the Hispar valley is formed by the huge white wall of the Balchhish group, a single long and undulating ridge punctuated by numerous 6000 metre peaks. To the north a complex assemblage of rock walls and intervening ridges leads up to the major summits of Kanjut Sar (7760m.), Khunyang Chhish (7852m) and Disteghil Sar (7885m). We crossed the broad level pass and began our descent of the upper Hispar Glacier, once again avoiding the many seracs and crevasses. After another eleven hour day we made camp on the first available level section of glacier at the foot of the pass.

Incoming Glaciers

With the climax of the expedition now behind us we looked forward to a relaxed and easy descent of the Hispar valley to Karimabad. Our experiences so far should have warned us not to underestimate these rugged mountains and the next week's walking turned out to the hardest of the whole trip. The daily routine was always the same; cross the awkward moraines and boulder strewn ice of a glacier in the morning and then follow a delightful grass-covered ledge or ablation valley to a campsite in the afternoon.

Negotiating The Hispar Glacier

The unsettled weather also returned as soon as we had crossed the pass; indeed, it was to taunt us all the way home. Within any period of a few hours, brilliant clear blue skies would fill with snow laden clouds which would then disappear as suddenly as they had arrived. Snowfall was minimal, but just enough to make crossing moraines and boulder fields extremely difficult.

There are several ways down the Hispar Glacier from the foot of the pass and we made for the one along its northern lateral moraine. However, this route has to negotiate four incoming glaciers descending from the high peaks to the north. Crossing the first two, the Kani Basa and Jutmal glaciers, was relatively easy but recent activity and movement on the last two, the Pumari Chhish and Khunyang glaciers, made them fairly hazardous. Each step required care as we followed the indistinct trail across rough ice, large boulders, loose rocks, fine scree, muddy pools and, to cap it all, compacted moraine slopes rearing up at an angle of more than 75 degrees.

Into Hunza

It was a pleasure finally to be able to walk, hands-in-pockets, beside the narrowing Hispar Glacier with occasional views back to the peak of Khunyang Chhish, the great white wall of the Balchhish group and the Hispar pass. The trail passes some deserted settlements before negotiating a way down a large alluvial fan to the banks of the Hispar river which is crossed on a new suspension bridge.

The Snout of The Hispar Glacier

Hispar is a village of one thousand strict Shia Muslims who have a reputation for being unfriendly and obstructive. However Noori, our local guide from Hunza, knew some of the villagers very well and we were pleasantly surprised to be courteously escorted to the rest house situated at the far end of the village amongst fields of wheat, turnips, poppies, buckwheat and marijuana.

Our final day's walking was through the hot and dusty Apiharar Gorge to the tiny settlement of Huru, situated on a ledge high up on the valley wall where a small pool gathers a trickle of water issuing from a spring one hundred metres above. It was a delightful setting in which to end the trek and, safe in the knowledge that the walking was over, we relaxed in the shade of some willow trees.

A new jeep road links Huru with the ancient and bustling town of Karimabad, and from there a long drive down the Karakoram Highway beneath the, flanks of Rakaposhi leads to Gilgit and Rawalpindi. As we sped down the highway in the early hours of the following morning, we were all quietly immersed in thoughts and memories of a rough and gruelling trip.

But as we turned a corner we were simultaneously stirred by the marvellous sight of Nanga Parbat's summit bathed in a warm and delicate pink glow. It was a subtle and timely gesture which served to remind us that even nature's most rugged and hostile environments have a gentle and fragile beauty.

This article was originally published in the magazine 'Trail' in 1995