Friday, 12 January 2018

Karakorum Matters....

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite   William Blake.
Two books recently published are focussing a new interest in the Karakoram Mountain Range; ‘‘The Ogre’ by Doug Scott and ‘Karakoram’ by Steve Swenson, the first by Vertebrate and the latter by The Mountaineers; (published in the USA-available in the UK via Cordee). The ‘Ogre’ has been well reviewed in the UK, but ‘Karakoram’ less so. It is a first person story of the authors 15 visits to the range, during which he amassed an outstanding record of ascents, plus the inevitable failures and epic retreats. Set against  the cultural and political background of Pakistan during the almost three decades in which these climbs took place; a period of ever increasing tension caused by the Kashmir conflict with India, and the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism and terror. It is in explaining and detailing the history of these events, and their affect on the local peoples of the Karakoram, that I found this book to be above the common place of such expedition fare.

I cannot compete with Swenson’s fifteen journeys to the Karakoram, for I have only been there on four occasions, but like him my own experiences in these incomparable mountains, can still bring from my memory bank, days (and nights) spent amongst peaks with magic names like The Trango Towers, The Gasherbrum’s, and Masherbrum.

My own experience in the range began when leading a trek to K2 Base Camp in 1989. The recalls from this are still raw, for by the time we reached Concordia (at approx 4600m), the famous glacier basin with its almost unbelievable dramatic mountain setting, and its iconic view of K2 and the surrounding peaks, I was almost bushed out. One of our Party, had become ill, and from about a section of the trek on the Baltoro glacier beneath the Mustagh Tower, two of the Balti porters and I had to take it in turns to support him physically. Fortunately after a couple of days rest on reaching Concordia he made a good recovery. I was feeling much the same, until scoping from our camp, scanning the slopes of Broad Peak (8051m) looming almost directly above us, something caught my eye which could only be human movement. Watching this for some time I realised it was a party in distress, and they needed help, and fortunately as our Sirdar Hussein had previously been with an expedition to this mountain and knew a safe route through its ice fall, we quickly readied and set forth to climb up the flanks of the peak to render what help we were able.

Some hours later we were within shouting distance of the stricken party, initially believing them to be Spanish but as we reached them, we found they were three Mexican’s; two females who were supporting a male climber held between them. They had descended from high on the mountain, from whence their team member had developed pulmonary oedema in a high camp 1600m above our heads. The women had more or less carried their companion for most of that distance, down some dangerous and difficult terrain. A truly impressive feat!

Hussein had along with him another Hunza, and they took over supporting the sick man to give the Mexican ladies a rest. However they soon tired and Marguerite the strongest of them and I then moved in to replace the others. I found this exhausting, but as we quickly lost height, it became somewhat easier. The Hunzas took over again to get the patient through the ice fall as I went on ahead to reach our camp, and to alert our Doctor, an American Peter Stone to be ready as soon as the patient arrived. Fortunately he had all that was needed, a comprehensive medical chest and some emergency oxygen. By the next morning the sick man was sitting up on a bed of sleeping bags, in our Base tent, and quaffing the hot drinks we prepared for him.

I have often wondered why so many climbers suffer altitude problems on Broad Peak? One such was a friend Pete Thexton, a Doctor himself who also developed oedema but unfortunately in a period of bad weather, was unable to descend and who died in a high camp. It seems that because of its reputation as a technically easy peak, climbers tend to move very quickly into the so called ‘death zone’. And I found that moving up so quickly helping the Mexican’s in their need, to a height well over 5000m was totally shattering physically.

So many memories remain from my four Karakoran visits, including meeting Mark Millar near Hushe, retreating after an attempt via a new route on the flanks of Masherbrum, as he was heading back to Islamabad to catch a plane to Kathmandu, to meet up with team mates for an attempt on Makalu ll. We said our goodbyes, but sad to report a few days later, he and his party perished in a PIA plane crash in the hills above Nepal’s capital. However most of my Karakoram memories are happy ones and an instance of this is the day we organised on a green sward, under Masherbrum, the ‘Hushe Olympics’. Climbers/Trekkers versus team Balti. The tug of war event became larger and larger in participation using a 60m rope. In the end the sheer number of locals prevailed, leaving team Climber spread-eagled on the ground.

But a Nanga Parbat trip (8125m), the 9th highest mountain in the world dominates at present my thinking from those days. This, the western bastion of the Karakoram boasts the largest mountain faces in the Himalaya, its southern aspect holds four kilometres of height above base. Its four deep and previously inaccessible valleys set around the Peak meant that the villagers residing in them all spoke different languages and even today are suspicious of outsiders. My visit to the northern, Rakhiot side of the peak in 1990, when I led a trek/climb to Julipar peak on the eastern flank of this huge face bears this out. Failing to reach the summit of this mountain, due to bad weather, we crossed over by a pass of that name into the upper environs of the Diamir, descending down into the shelter of the Patro valley. 

Waiting for us as we did so were a group of rifle toting locals, they would not allow us to proceed, unless we sacked our porters from the Tato village in the Rakhiot and employed them instead at a hugely inflated rate; they were very aggressive and left us with little choice but to follow their demands. Fortunately Hussein our Sirdar could speak their language Shina, and after parleying with their Head Man, and paying off our Tato men, they allowed us to move on down, but only after a number of rupees had changed hands. I detail this experience of my own for I believe they give some insight into the future terrible events of June 2013 which occurred at a Base Camp under the Diamir Face.

Although what happened there on the night of 22nd June was widely reported, there has been little follow up and understanding of the disparate cultural and political forces at work in that area of the Karakoram. The Diamir Face, particularly the Kinshofer route has become the most popular way to access the summit of Nanga Parbat, and fortunately as the weather had been settled in that period most of the climbers, were in the High Camps. But 12 people remained in the Base that night when 16 armed militants, dressed in the uniform of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts, arrived in the camp guided there by a local. This irregular military unit was formed by the British in the latter part of the 19th century and was based in Gilgit, hence its original name, Gilgit Scouts. On Independence it was merged with The Pakistan Army, but later it included Baltistan into its title, and it was charged with policing and keeping the peace in this highly volatile district.

The militants forced the inhabitants of the Base Camp out of their tents, made them hand over their money, valuables and mobile phones. All of which they then smashed to pieces, and they then tied their hands behind their backs, made them kneel and shot each one in turn. One Chinese climber, Zhang Chuan from Yunnan managed to escape. He ran blindly into the night, zig zagging as he did so followed by a hail of bullets one of which cut his scalp and the bleeding from this was nearly blinding him; fortunately near the camp was a ravine and he dived into this to reach safety. But the remaining ten climbers and a local camp worker all died. Three were from the Ukraine, one from China, two from Slovakia, two from Lithuania, and two from Nepal. One Base worker was allowed to survive by the killers, for he persuaded them he was a ‘good Muslim’. In the early hours of the morning the militants left the camp, and gingerly the Chinese climber returned to his tent where he had hidden a mobile phone. Climbing up towards Camp One, he managed to make contact with those in residence there and let them know what had happened. They summoned help and later that day the Pakistan military arrived in helicopters. The climbers in the high camps then all retreated and assembled at the Base. Initially the idea was to walk out, but worried that the militants would still be in the area they refused, and eventually they were flown to safety.

Subsequently the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for this attack, but unlike the climbers who reported they believed this had been carried out to avenge the death of Bin Laden; they stated it had been in retaliation for a USA drone strike, which had killed a local Taliban leader, Waliur Rehman. The whole area around Nanga Parbat is fraught with tribal loyalties and long standing disputes, but this attack on the climbers was seen by the Pakistan authorities as truly serious, and almost the very next day it was the subject of debate in the countries legislature. An enquiry was set up and an Army Colonel, Captain and Police officer were despatched to investigate.  But they too met a bloody end, gunned down in a hail of bullets in their car at Chilas, a nearby town on the Karakoram Highway, again being the victims of the Taliban; however they had managed to establish that the militants were mainly local before their demise.

Soon after this the authorities arrested 16 men who were claimed to be the attackers, 10 were from the Diamir region, 3 Mansehera and 3 from Kohistan.  This latter is surprising to me, unless they were members of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts and that is how they knew each other. Kohistan is quite some distance from Nanga Parbat, away in Swat. Steve Swenson has a short Chapter about this ‘Attack’ in his Karakoram book, but even today almost five years on from this event there are serious questions about what really happened that night. How about the fate of the local guide who led the militants to the Base Camp?

Over recent decades thousands of trekkers and climbers have visited the Karakoram Mountains, and there had never, until the killings on Nanga Parbat been any such attacks on them. This had a major effect on the economy of the region for many of the locals had come to rely on these visitors for their financial well being.  It meant hardship for many families in towns like Hushe as fewer and fewer visitors continued arriving, but as at 2017 recovery is under away, and once again many climbers and trekkers are heading for the Karakoram. Even parties were on the south side of Nanga Parbat last year, bolstered by the presence of a new, local Mountain police unit of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts whose members now accompany each expedition.

The culture, make up and politics of Pakistan are ever more complicated and Steve Swenson does inform on these from a mountaineers viewpoint, and how it affects climbers in their planning to visit the Karakoram, but he also has feeling and friendship for such locals as his long standing cook Ghulam Rasool from Hushe, who he has materially helped over the years. Few climbers of my experience understand how the territorial and tribal conflicts in the region affect the locals besides the international visitors. The whole region was restive at the time of the British, and though popular images of this era in film and literature seem to concentrate on the North West Frontier, the Khyber Pass and the Pathans, equally such areas as Swat/Kohistan, Gilgit Agency and the Indus valley were difficult areas to govern. 

K2-Image Dennis Gray
In recent times the Taliban have fought the Pakistan army in the Swat Valley, parts of the Karakoram Highway have been too dangerous to travel, and the Shi’a/Sunni divide has led to many terrorist outbreaks. Hunza is a stronghold of the Ismaili (Shi’a), and south of Gilgit around Chilas are to be found Pashtun Sunni militants, and so one needs to be aware whilst travelling in these areas. Nonetheless the Karakoram remain a most magnificent range of mountains, it is almost as if the forces of nature have conspired to construct Peaks that are of a design to challenge the climber, some of which such as the Latok’s, the Gasherbrum’s and K2 are almost without equal. Steve Swenson does justice to these in his ‘Karakoram’ volume and for anyone interested in visiting these mountains I recommend getting hold of a copy.   

Dennis Gray: 2018