We are seriously parched and desperately digging for water. Perched precariously on the steep snowy slope at camp 2, we are shoveling snow and hacking away at thick layers of hard ice with our axes. We can hear the running water gurgling enticingly under the snow but where is it? We have been relentlessly digging for the past forty minutes under a scorching sun but we can’t seem to find the elusive stream.
Exhausted, we stop digging in the eerie silence of the daunting mountain, kneel down in the snow and listen intently. It is there for sure, but where? Clearly upset, with beads of frustration and sweat dripping down my face, I look questioningly at Arif, my Shimshali mountain guide. He looks back at me sheepishly, “Last year there was plenty of water here. This year there is too much snow on the slope and the water has gone under. Don’t worry we will find it”. “We better find it, if we want to climb this damn mountain.” I mumble in a hoarse whisper and start digging again.
[quote]We kneel down in the snow and listen intently[/quote]
Kuksil 5, a 5,870 meters high peak with a corniced summit is a pretty sight from Karakoram highway en-route to Khunjerab pass on the Pak China border. It towers at the far end of Kuksil valley with its pyramid like structure and a fairytale summit. But looks can be deceiving; for Kuksil 5 is a difficult peak to climb as it entails a lot of technical climbing on 60 to 70 degree angled steep slopes. For years, Kuksil 5 had kept me captivated with its elusive splendor and dangerous climb but somehow I never got around to climbing it.
Kuksil 5 didn’t figure in my plans this summer either, as I had my eyes set on Spantik, also known as The Golden Peak, a seven thousand meter high mountain bordering the Baltistan and Hunza regions. But as luck would have it, that expedition fell through when the sponsors backed out at the last minute, leaving me with no choice but to give Kuksil 5 its long overdue chance.
It takes me only one phone call to enlist Cyrus Viccajee, a filmmaker friend from Karachi to join me on the expedition. He has recently developed a love for high altitude trekking and likes to join climbing expeditions till base camps only. This time however he wants to push the envelope further and climb up to camp 1 of Kuksil 5. Cyrus is great company in the wilderness as we both share a love for the mountains and a common fascination for the humour of the absurd.
[quote]Rangers feed us a delicious meal of white rice and daal[/quote]
Two days before our departure, Sohail Hashmi, a TV actor and a good friend from Karachi calls prospecting for a ride to Karimabad in Hunza valley. We welcome him on board and the three of us head for Karimabad via Babusar Pass. Sohail has never ventured into the mountains of Pakistan before; actually this is the first time he is headed north of Islamabad. The guys has a cutting edge wit and a bizarre sense of humor that keeps us amused and enthralled throughout the journey to Karimabad.
After a good night’s sleep, we meet up with our mountain guide Arif Baig, who hails from Shimshal Valley and led a successful climbing expedition to Kuksil 5 a year before. A tall, lanky guy with Clint Eastwood looks, Arif Baig has many climbing expeditions to his credit, probably the reason for the overconfident reckless energy about him.
We have two good days of rest, recreation and preparation in Karimabad and then it is time to head into the mountains.
Forty minutes drive from Karimabad up the Karakoram Highway and the road ends at a spectacular lake, a shimmering body of blue turquoise waters that was formed naturally a few years ago when half the side of a mountain broke off, obliterated 25 kms of the Highway and dammed Hunza river. We cross Attabad lake sitting in our jeep, perilously parked on two solid wooden planks straddling the boat.
Huge lines of trucks and other vehicles are parked on both sides of the lake as a sea of humanity throngs around. Goods are being off-loaded and loaded on to the boats, the travelers are drinking tea in the makeshift restaurants and the Chinese workers are toiling away in the distance, constructing tunnels and building the road that will connect the two sides.
After an hour’s ride through a stunning landscape we happily land in the town of Gulmit and drive up the KKH only to be blocked by the flooding waters that have washed off a section of the road, a few kilometers out of Gulmit town. The cars are parked on both ends of the road and people are milling about, helplessly watching the gushing streams gurgling out of Ghulkin glacier. Nobody is crossing. A boy scout approaches me as I stop the jeep at the edge of the flooding river. “You can cross if your jeep has a four wheel drive system. And take these people with you.” Without waiting for an answer he signals an old lady and her Down syndrome kid into the jeep.
I take one nervous look at the raging river, put the jeep in the lowest gear and then race across the frightening waters. And then it happens. In the middle of the river, the jeep plunges into a shallow ditch. I hear a dull sound as the back bumper of the jeep hits a big stone and the water level rises dangerously high, flowing over the bonnet of the land cruiser jeep. It is a spine-chilling moment but somehow the jeep moves on, splashing through the swift waters and emerging safely on to the other side.
We spend that night in Sust, a drab border town that has a dry port and serves as a customs and immigration post. Next day we hire three Shimshali porters and head up the Karakoram highway. After driving through steep narrow gorges for a couple of hours, the mountains slowly recede, giving way to a comparatively wider Kuksil valley.
We can see Kuksil 5 in the distance as we park our jeep at the Khunjerab National Park check post right by the roadside. The elevation is about 3900 meters above sea level and we can feel the altitude as we step out of the jeep and a draft of cold air makes us shiver in our t-shirts. Instantly we dive for cover in the post where two welcoming rangers feed us a delicious meal of white rice and daal.
After disconnecting the battery wires of the jeep and sorting out the gear, we shoulder our heavy packs, say goodbye to the good rangers and start our trek towards the base camp of the peak. It feels good to be in the mountains as I steal glances at the magnificent peaks looming in the distance and a wave of adrenalin sweeps over me. The valley is pretty much flat, which means it will take us about three hours to reach the base camp. Arif and the porters who are natural born climbers take off at full speed while Cyrus and I walk behind at a slow pace, making sure we don’t overexert ourselves. We are nearing 4000 meters and at this height if you are not fully acclimatized and if you exert yourself too much, you can succumb to high altitude sickness that can prove fatal.
We reach the base camp in the late afternoon and set up our tents right next to a shepard’s hut which seems to be occupied but there is no one around at the moment. Our campite sits in the middle of a huge pasture and has a commanding view of Kuksil peaks. There are goat droppings all around us and an occasional whiff of sheep dung wafts our way when the wind changes direction.
[quote]Cyrus and I are both nursing slight headaches[/quote]
Cyrus and I are both nursing slight headaches and feel breathless even when we exert just a little. Arif and the porters on the other hand are prancing around, exploring the shepard’s hut and throwing stones at a lonesome marmot that pops out of a hole, lets out a screech and disappears, never to be seen again.
And then suddenly all hell breaks loose, the valley rings with sounds of hundreds of bleating sheep, interspersed with a lot of cursing and shouting in the Wakhi language. Cyrus and I scramble out of our tent and watch an unruly mob of sheep descending from the mountainside. Three old men are throwing stones and herding the sheep towards the huge pen built next to the shepard’s hut. They greet us warmly when they approach our tents and then get busy with their evening chores.
As the night falls and we crawl into our sleeping bags after an early dinner, we can hear them singing in their cozy hut, preparing dinner and perhaps wondering about the strange intruders in their midst.
We spend the next two days at the base camp eating, sleeping, taking short walks and basically resting our oxygen starved bodies, and helping them acclimatize. On the third day we set out to establish Camp I at an elevation of about 4700 meters above sea level. We feel the excitement building up as we leave the base camp and trudge up a steep slope littered with boulders and rocks. Weighed down by our heavy packs and a mixed sense of relief and trepidation, we know in our hearts that the fun and games are giving way to the real adventure.
The climbing is hard and there is no reprieve on the relentlessly steep rocky slope. As we climb higher we experience the harshness of the elements around us. Climbing alone at my own pace, I feel like a stupefied muse being lured into the folds of a ruthless giant, yet unable to restrain myself from walking into the thrill of the unknown.
After about five hours of tough climbing the slope finally levels off, giving way to a rocky moraine littered with clean patches of fresh snow. Another hour of hard slog through the rough snowy terrain and we arrive at the site of camp 1. The porters have put up the tents, stashed our gear under a big rock and are preparing to descend back to the base camp.
At this point we are in full view of Kuksil 5, Mohandass pass and Kuksil glacier. As I am clicking away at my camera, I can’t help but marvel at the enchanting beauty of the place. After some welcoming soup and a heartening meal, Arif explains the climbing route to me and I can feel anxious butterflies fluttering in my stomach. But we feel strong and happy and celebrate Cyrus’s baptism to the religion of high altitude climbing by helping ourselves to the only can of fruit salad that we have in our food supplies.
Early In the morning Arif wakes me up with some disheartening news. Two out of three small cylinders of gas used for cooking are not functioning properly. Now we are left only with one cylinder of gas to cook and it won’t be enough to melt snow for drinking water at camp 2. I am worried but Arif is not fazed and reassures me about the presence of a water stream close to camp 2. “Don’t worry, we will have enough water to drink and cook. Last year we didn’t have to melt water up there at all.”
After breakfast Cyrus is ready to walk back down to the base camp. He walks over to me and gives me a big hug. “Bon voyage, radical dude. Break a leg.” We both laugh nervously. And as I watch him walk away, a sense of loneliness and trepidation creeps over me in earnest.
The sun is beating down hard when Arif and I start climbing towards camp 2. We are both sweating profusely and downing a lot of water as we traverse the huge snowfield of the heavily crevassed Kuksil glacier. After about two hours of slogging through ankle deep soft snow, the angle of the glacier steepens as we near Mohandas pass and then steer left towards a steep slope that leads all the way to the rocky spur on which we will establish our second camp, about 5000 meters above sea level.
The last bit of the climb to camp 2 is hard and I am nearly spent as I reach the rocky outcrop where Arif is busy putting up the tent right at the edge of the ledge that drops about 70 feet down to the glacier. I nervously scan the slope above me as there is fresh debris of a massive avalanche scattered right behind the rocky spur, a few meters away from our tent. This is no place to linger, I think to myself and then start scanning the slope for the promised water source that is nowhere to be seen. My heart sinks as Arif confirms my apprehensions. The water stream seems to have been snowed over.
After making a few holes in the snowy slope for almost an hour, we finally strike gold. Mouth-watering water starts trickling out from one of the holes that we have been digging. We dig the ice around the flowing water and form a small pool, taking turns drinking and then collecting the precious liquid in our water bottles. Happy, we breathe a collective sigh of relief and start preparing for the early morning climb towards the summit.
We spend a restless night tossing and turning in our sleeping bags and then wake up at 3 in the morning and prepare breakfast. I forcefully down a few biscuits with some tea and then get out of the cozy tent to gear up. It is still dark outside and an icy wind is sweeping over the mountain. We turn on our headlamps, rope up and start climbing the slope that leads us to the ridge of the mountain.
We are climbing the sheer slope using our ice axes and crampons but the altitude is taking its toll and the going is very slow. It takes us about 45 minutes to reach the ridge from where the view opens up. The scenery all around is breathtaking and it seems as if I am swimming a in a sea of soaring peaks. An orange glow is appearing on the horizon and soon all the peaks will be awash in the early morning sunlight.
We start negotiating the ridge that involves mixed climbing. At times we are grappling with 65 to 70 angled steep slopes and at other times we are climbing over rocky spurs formed by the loose shale rock. At some point, in order to move faster, Arif and I decide to unrope and climb solo. It is a risky decision as we are quite high on the mountain, climbing a very exposed dizzying ice slope and there is no room for a slip or an error. As the sun rises higher in the sky, warming our exhausted bodies and boosting our morale, we stop for a snack on a rock outcrop and take in the surroundings. Sipping our tea and munching on biscuits, both of us are panting heavily, trying to conserve our energies. As I look around, I am exhilarated by the climb and the dangerous beauty of the place. Shining icy slopes, mini avalanche runnels and crazy rock faces remind me of the danger lurking all around us, but when I look into the distance, at the never ending vistas of towering peaks, my spirit rises at the thought of the impeding adventure.
The elation doesn’t last long. After resuming the climb we find ourselves confronting a steep rock face that we have to negotiate in order to move up on to the ridge. I tie the rope to my harness and Arif starts belaying me. I cautiously tread up the rock face, my crampons begging purchase on the sharp loose rock when suddenly the rope goes slack and I hear Arif yell as he slips and falls. I look down in horror but to my relief he has arrested his fall by securing himself with his ice axe, but he is groaning with pain and inspecting his hand. I can see the blood dripping from his palm and reddening the snow down below.
I gingerly climb down to him and take a look at his hand. The razor sharp rock has sliced the palm of his left hand and the gashing wound is oozing out a lot of blood. I quickly take out my first aid and kit, clean the wound and carefully bandage his hand. Even though he is in pain, he puts on a brave face, tells me he is all right and we start climbing again.
After climbing a series of rocky spurs, Arif finally points to a snowy ridge right above a protruding rock that leads towards the summit. When we clear that rock, my heart instead of leaping with joy, sinks down to my boots. The 100 meter long snowy ridge to the summit has almost a knife-like edge and there are near vertical slopes falling hundreds of meters down, on either side. The mountain throws the last and final daunting challenge at us. Arif and I discuss the situation and then decide to go for it.
[quote]In pure Edumund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay style he motions me to go for the summit[/quote]
I belay Arif with the rope as he starts on the right side of the ridge, moving slowly towards the summit, careful not to slip or start an avalanche. I watch him climb for a good twenty minutes and then he stops and sits down in the snow. He makes an anchor, tethers himself to it and starts belaying me. I move up the ridge, carefully following his footsteps. As I near Arif, I can see the summit only a few meters ahead of him. In pure Edumund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay style he motions me to go for the summit before him. I know he has climbed this peak before and is giving me a chance to be the first one on the summit that day.
Finally the ridge levels off and I find myself on the top of Kuksil 5. A few moments later Arif joins me on the unsafe corniced summit where we gingerly balance ourselves and cautiously move about, taking pictures and marveling at the enchanting beauty of the peaks all around us.
While standing on the top of Kuksil 5, I feel elated and yet a part of me is aware of the ant-climax of the whole drama that has been unfolding on the mountain for the past one week. And I hear a voice whispering inside me, “What next?”