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Spantik Expedition 2022: The Karakoram of Pakistan

Since 2010, I had wanted to travel to Pakistan to visit the mighty Karakoram, home to the highest mountains in the world. However, at that time the political situation in Pakistan was challenging, and over the years, it gradually improved, with many expeditions resuming in the late 2010s.  Finally, the chance presented itself in August 2022, with a high altitude expedition to Spantik (7034m), which lies in the Hispar Valley of Nagar District in Gilgit-Baltistan region in northern Pakistan. 

Spantik peak from South-West. Photo credit: wikipedia.com

The opportunity to climb in the Karakoram, home to legendary 8000m peaks, K2, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum 1 and Gasherbrum II, along with numerous 7000m peaks – both climbed and unclimbed – is what took me there.  I have been fascinated with high mountain ranges of the world, having visited and done expeditions in many of them, including the Himalayas, the Andes, the Rockies and the Alps, so it made sense to come to this region.  The peak I aimed to climb, Spantik, at 7,034 meters or 23,054 feet, is perhaps one of the most frequently climbed 7000m peaks in the Karakoram, but even then only sees a handful of expeditions per season.  The ideal time to climb is July-August, so with our climb running for 4 weeks in August, we anticipated an optimal weather window to get to the top.  The south east ridge of Spantik provided the perfect challenge for me, giving me a second attempt at 7000m (the first one was in August 2015 on Nun in the Himalaya in India) on a route that was not easy, but also not technical.  

On this expedition, I reunited with Luke Smithwick of Himalaya Alpine Guides, who as a western guide with deep experience living and climbing in this region, I trusted to lead the expedition.  Understanding how to maneuver the red tape, logistics as well as being skilled at climbing, is well worth investing in on a trip such as this – one that I do not get to do too often.  I’ve learned over the years that trying to self-plan this type of expedition is certainly possible since I’ve done it, but the incremental cost is worth the removal of the hassle and stress associated with planning such a trip and potential challenges that can arise while in-country. 

The team of 8 of us – 5 Americans (Ted, Cam, Chris, Luke and me), 1 Canadian (Charles), 1 Australian (Tony) and 1 Pole (Aga) – commenced our expedition in Islamabad, the bustling capital city of Pakistan.  Many international flights arrive in the middle of the night in Islamabad, as ours did at about 2am.  Four of us were on the same connecting flight from Doha to Islamabad, so it was reassuring to meet up with fellow teammates as we arrived.  Our driver bustled us over to the Hillview Hotel, which would serve as our headquarters while in the city.  

Our climbing team (left to right): Ted, Tony, Cam, Chris, Charles, Gary and Aga (Luke is taking the photo)

Islamabad is a semi-tropical city, so the heat proved to be stifling for those of us who don’t live in the tropics.  The heat made acclimatizing activities around town, such as short hikes, challenging, so we sought to fly as quickly as possible to Skardu, which would serve as a better acclimatization point for us, being much cooler and at nearly 2,500 meters or 8,200 feet.  The flight from Islamabad to Skardu was about 45 minutes and took us through the confluence of the Hindu Kush, the third highest mountain range in the world, and the Karakoram, the second highest.  We also got glimpses of Nanga Parbat, K2 and other 8000m peaks during the flight.

Skardu, the capital of the Skardu District in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, is a gateway city to the Karakoram.  Most expeditions start here.  Skardu’s semi-arid climate, with an average temperature of 31C (88 F) in August, was pleasant, with the exception of exposure in the mid-day sun in open areas.  From the pleasant Summit View Hotel in Skardu, we could easily walk the streets of the city, as well as visit local sites, such as Katpana Desert, one of the highest deserts in the world and covered in sand dunes that radiated back intense heat. Locals build dwellings in such places using adobe-like bricks that help to regulate the heat, and cultivate water ways, which allow for the growing of basic crops and an amazing array of flowers.

We stocked up on food, water and gear while in Skardu and met some of the locals, who would serve as the lifeblood of our team, helping to organize our transportation, porters, cooks and guides for our journey to Spantik Base Camp and beyond.  We piled into a convoy of colorfully decorated Toyota Forerunners, and began our journey to the village of Arandu, which would serve as our first stop on our way to Base Camp.  The five hour drive from Skardu to Arandu was extremely rough, taking us over unpaved roads pocked with boulders and overrun by streams.  It was normal for us to be vaulted several inches out of our seats for most of the journey.  The ride could not end soon enough, as we bolted from the vehicles and hurriedly made camp before the sun set.  

Normal meals were in a mess tent that sat all of us around a table.  Meals consisted of soup, rice, and various curry-style dishes with vegetables and meats.  We also had a yak and a group of chickens accompanying us along the way, providing fresh meat for our meals.  The trick during the trip, especially the trek into base camp, where our bodies were just adjusting to local conditions and camps were in well-traveled areas, was to remain sickness-free.  Unfortunately, most of us ended up with GI issues of some sort, mainly diarrhea and vomiting, during the first few days.  Fortunately, I was able to avoid the worst of it, which I credit to avoiding any cut fruit and vegetables, drinking boiled water only and keeping my hands relatively germ-free with frequent use of sanitizer.

The trek to base camp would take 4 days, going from Skardu to Arandu, then Arandu to Chongo Brangsa Camp to Bolocho Camp and then finally to Spantik Base Camp.  The first day of the trek included semi-arid highlands similar to the environs around Skardu, and provided us lots of intense heat.  I definitely did not bring enough water on this day, but was able to supplement using filtered water generously supplied by teammate, Cam.  I often train in a state of water and food deprivation, which probably helped as well, but was certainly not something I wanted to try to intentionally do while at altitude on this trip.  The 9.5 mile hike with 2300 feet of elevation gain, took us through a beautiful valley and past some buildings that were offshoots of Arandu village that we just left.  Finishing at 3400m or 11,154 feet, gave us a decent gain of altitude, but not too much, so that our bodies could adjust.  I typically don’t have issues with altitude until about 16,000 feet or so, and only if I ascended too quickly.  As I learned in Ladakh, going at a very slow pace, coupled with no more than 2500 feet in elevation gain per day, was the best way to acclimatize.  In my younger years I ruined expeditions by going too hard too fast, putting too much stress on my body, and vowed not to repeat those mistakes on this trip.

The third day of the trek into Base Camp, took us from Chogo Brangsa Camp to Bolocho Camp, at 3,820 meters or 12,376 feet.  The trek was a gorgeous one, running parallel to the Chongo Bramsa glacier most of the way, requiring scurrying past some steep and unstable points along the moraine. A slip in one of these spots would have meant an unwelcome journey downward. The 10 mile, 2600 foot elevation gain day was much cooler than the previous day, allowing for a more comfortable trip. 

Immediately upon leaving Bolocho Camp, we got directly on the Chongo Lungma Glacier, one of the biggest glaciers in the Karakorum.  This day was probably the most difficult of the four days heading to Base Camp, not because traveling 7.8 miles and 2200 feet of elevation gain was difficult, but rather because of the terrain, which took us up and down ice, moraine and big crevasses that were open on the glacier.  I have traveled on glaciers in the past, but normally it is on top of snow pack and roped up.  On this section of the Chongo Lungma glacier, we did not need to travel roped, but there was no snow pack providing a clear highway for us to navigate. Instead, we descended up and down and over crevasse fields for most of the distance, with the middle section providing some relief with a clear walk on ice and snow.  After a few hours, we reached Spantik Base Camp, which sat perched at the top of a large moraine field at 4300 meters or 13,492 feet.  The last mile or so to the Base Camp was the steepest, requiring us to dig deep to get to our first camp for the climb.

Spantik Base Camp is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever camped at in my life, with a 360 degree panorama of massive 7000+ meter peaks all around us and a never-ending view of the Chongo Lungma glacier and the long, 26 mile valley we just trekked to get here.  High above sat Camp 1, barely in view at the snow line.  Above that sat Camps 2 and 3, and the summit of Spantik, about 7 km away. Further of the valley, the Chongo Lugma glacier extended more deeply into the mountains, contorting itself around twists and turns – terrain I could never imagine ever attempting to travel into or ever wanting to go near.

  

Spantik Base Camp

Our camp at Base Camp was set for the longer-term, as we would be on the mountain for another 1-2 weeks, using Base Camp as the place to recover as we did rotations up the mountain.  The way to acclimatize on big expeditions, is to climb high, sleep low, which meant for us climbing to Camp 1, spending a night, descending to recover, then climbing back to Camp 1, spending another night, then going to Camp 2, then descending all the way back down to Base Camp for recovery.  The final rotation would be all the way back up to Camp 1, then 2 and finally to Camp 3, where we would spend the night before making a final attempt at the summit.  

We did manage to get to Camp 1 (5100m or 16,521 feet) and spend the night, then return to Base Camp.  However, that proved to be our last day of sunny weather for the next several days, as clouds and a storm settled in.  We sat in Base Camp for 2 days weathering harsh winds and several inches of rain.  We thought after one day the storm would subside, but it kept going for a second day.  Watching the weather closely, we say that in the evening of the third day, the storm would finally subside giving us an opportunity to get back to Camp 1.  

We started off for Camp 1 around 3-4pm in the afternoon.  The climb to Camp 1 was only 1 mile, but it was a steep 1 mile and 3000 feet of elevation gain.  It was mostly rock, but had slick snowy spots after 2 days of the storm.  In fact, the snow line had dropped significantly since the first time we were at Camp 1, with several inches of new snow at Camp 1 when we arrived.  Further up, we could see there was even more snow, with an estimated several feet, possibly up to six feet of new snow.  We will never know the true amount, but it was significant enough that we knew it had buried all the fixed ropes and most certainly put avalanche potential at an extreme level.  On top of that, we also found the high altitude tents we had left at Camp 1, to be in tatters.  They were ripped apart by the fierce wind, snapping poles, ripping the fabric and completely destroying the structural integrity of the tents.  At that very low point, we knew the expedition was over.  With no high altitude tents and crippling avalanche conditions, it was impossible for us to continue.  Our only choice was to descend.

We decided as a group that we would go down immediately and Luke radioed ahead to let the team in Base Camp know that we’d need to alert our porters to come meet us as soon as possible at Base Camp.  The porters, after dropping us off at Base Camp, had all dispersed back to their regular life, many of whom went to do mining jobs deep in the mountains.  It would be at least 3-4 days before they would all assemble back together to allow us to leave Base Camp, which is why we wanted to get word to them as soon as possible.  The descent do Base Camp was dark and wet, with slick conditions.  Unfortunately, my Gortex did not hold up very well (one of the key lessons I learned on this trip is that it was time to upgrade some equipment, including my jacket) and I was soaked all the way through.  We got back to Base Camp in the dark around 8pm, and I simply stripped off all my gear, dried off the best I could and got into my sleeping bag. 

The next 3 days entailed waiting for the porters to arrive so we could trek out.  During that time, we had lots more rain, which meant a lot more snow up high, adding to the already record totals for August.  We spent a lot of time talking, reading and writing in our journals.  I actually got bored for the first time in years.  It was rather nice. It was particularly nice being cut off from the internet and the constant flow of communications that prevents us from being really present with where we are and whom we are with.   We interacted with the other teams in Base Camp, who were in similar situations to us.  On the travels into Base Camp, we had met one party (a Spanish party), who had one member summit.  However, the mixed Austrian, French, Australian and Pakistani team in camp with us, like us, did not summit.  While we had been comfortable in our larger tents in Base Camp during the storm, they were at Camp 2, constantly having to dig themselves out of snow to ensure their tents did not collapse.  It sounded like a frustrating situation, being stuck in a tent for 3 days.

Our porters arrived after 3 days, which allowed us to trek out the same way we came in, making camp at the same spots.  Conditions surprisingly had not worsened on the glacier or the moraine, so it was largely smooth sailing to the village of Arandu.  In Arandu, we had lunch in one of the houses of a local, then took a tour of the small village.  Small children, mainy boys (girls typically followed the cultural norm of staying in the background) followed us around seeking gifts and candy, some of which we did oblige.  Chris, a doctor back home, provided medical care to an old man who had a wound on his arm.  In these villages, medical care is fairly infrequent, so doing what we could while there meant a lot to the villagers.

The jeep ride back to Skardu was equally as rough as the way in.  We decided not to spend the night at hot springs along the way, instead going directly back to our hotel, where we took a well appreciated shower, which was great after 2 weeks in a tent.  Laundry also was a priority. 

Our expedition at this point turned into a trek, with one week to go.  We headed to the Hunza Valley, which was its own kingdom for centuries and had a very distinct culture of its own.  The ride to get there took us back on the wild roads of Pakistan, with a stop at Juglot, where we observed the confluence of the three highest mountain ranges in the world — the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush — at the point where the Indus and Gilgit rivers converged. It is truly an awe-inspiring sight to see these mighty mountains come together.

The confluence of the 3 highest mountain ranges in the world. Photo credit: Luke Smithwick

Further along we stopped in Gilgit, the capital city of Gilgit-Baltistan.  We visited the Hotel Serena, which by far was the best hotel we visited while in Pakistan, with a restaurant that served high quality food, including a great burger as well as traditional Pakistani food.  It was a welcome respite, so much so that we not only had lunch there, but returned for dinner.  In Gilgit, I was able to get a straight edge razor shave, removing my beard I had grown out for the past two weeks.  

While in Gilgit we visited the Kargha Buddha, a large, 50 foot Buddhist carving in one of the local cliffs that dates back to the 7th century.  Buddhism was the religion of the area at the time, stretching into Afghanistan, Pakistan and into India and beyond.  Many Buddhist cultural artifacts still survive in this part of Pakistan, including ethnic and linguistic commonalities between the people and languages of the region and present day Tibet and India. 

The immensity of the situation Pakistan found itself in started to dawn on us while we were in Gilgit.  There, we saw local television and got alerts from the US embassy about flooding that was occurring in the country.  The massive rains we were experiencing the past two weeks was certainly causing high rivers where we were, including some washed out bridges and flooded homes, but the lower part of the country, which was much flatter, was bearing the brunt of the rains with massive floods.  One third of Pakistan was under water and hundreds were dead, along with thousands more displaced.  The immensity of the largest natural disaster in Pakistan’s history dawned on us.  While we could not climb a mountain – not a big deal – people’s lives in Pakistan were being turned upside down.  We started to understand how fortunate we were not to be experiencing the flooding other parts of the country were and that we were safe.  News had spread back home, with the story being a top one on many national outlets, so we made sure to reach out to our family to assure them we were okay.  We were fortunate that the area of Gilgit-Baltistan was largely unscathed, with the same being true in Islamabad. 

We assessed the situation with our team, including local Pakistani authorities, and determined it was safe for us to continue our journey in Hunza.  The rain continued the entire time we were in Gilgit, and followed us to Passu, a small village along the Karakoram Highway.  Riding the famous Karakoram Highway brought us to the wilds of Pakistan, as well as exposed us to rain-induced landslides.  The Karakoram Highway is built where no highway was ever meant to be built in the midst of giant mountains that are constantly eroding and exposed to seismic activity.  The highway itself is an engineering feat and one of the lifelines of Pakistan, connecting remote villages that were cut off from the rest of the region for centuries.  While riding the highway, we witnessed the absolute fury of the Indus river and its tributaries, all of which were puffed up from the massive amount of rain that had fallen.  Rockfall was everywhere, often forcing us to stop and cross over the other side of the road. 

We spent the night in a cold, but well kept hostel in Passu.  The highlight of the stay there was the Yak Grill Passu, which served a simple yet exquisitely tasty menu of nothing but yak – yak burgers and yak steaks to be precise.  We had multiple meals in between rainy and cold excursions to explore the local trails as well as to fetch some famous apricot cake at a local Glacier Breeze Passu

In the morning, we decided to continue our journey on the Karakoram Highway, trying to reach the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa National Forest, but not long into our journey, we were stopped dead in our tracks by massive rockfall on the highway.  After long deliberation, we decided it was not safe to continue, and best to turnaround.  We weren’t necessarily worried about being hit by a slide (although that certainly warranted concern), but rather being trapped higher up in the valley by a slide that took the highway out.  With limited shelter and food options in that part of the country, we would have been stuck.

We drove to the local village of Sost, where we stopped for tea and further deliberations.  After a couple of hours, we decided to head to Aliabad, a village in the heart of Hunza, famous for its forts, apricots and walnut cake. Along the way to Aliabad, we stopped at the home of Hussein Ali Khan, the world’s leading expert on snow leopards.  He opened his home to us, serving us tea and lunch while showering us with his knowledge of the rare, elusive snow leopard.  He and his son shared footage that they’ve captured over the years of the animals, which showed these majestic animals in their surrounding native habitat. Hussein spent years educating the local population on snow leopards with the home in preserving their habitat and ultimately their survival.  Snow leopards have been a fascination of mine for years, so it was a special treat to be able to visit with Hussein.  I have never seen a snow leopard in the wild (only in captivity) and hope that someday I will in this part of the world.

After a 2 hour trip, during which we visited Lake Attabad (formed from a massive landslide caused by an earthquake in 2010), we reached Aliabad,  a charming town in the heart of the Karokoram surrounded by 7000m giants, including Ultar Sar (7400m) and Rakaposhi (7800m).  We got a view of the latter in one of the valleys, with the longest stretch of continuous vertical terrain in the world from valley floor to the summit, going more than 6km in distance and rising over 5000m.  Even with the cloud cover, it was an amazing site to behold.

Aliabad is home to Cafe de Hunza, a fantastic coffee shop that serves up local specialities, including walnut cake, jams and Hunza tea, which when served with honey is heavenly.  The shop served as a great refueling stop, before we climbed to the Altit Fort overlooking the surrounding mountains and valley.  The fort served as the home to the hereditary rulers of Hunza, an independent kingdom established almost a 1000 years ago and lasting several hundred years.  The fort had a Lord of the Rings feel to it, with its medieval towers and huge, mountainous backdrops.  The Altit Fort is guarded by Salahuddin, who also serves as a tour guide and sports one of the most well known mustaches in all of Pakistan.  

We explored the meandering streets of Aliabad, stopping at the various shops, including some of the best gemstone shops in the surrounding area.  The Karakoram is known for its gemstones – from garnet to rubies and all sorts of stones in between.  To this day, you can still find tourmaline, topaz and other gemstones in the mountainsides, including in moraine fields.  I was on the hunt for some emeralds, which are rarer in this part of the Karakoram, for my wife.  I did find some nice emerald cuts from a local shop.  Half the fun in shopping in Pakistan is interacting with the locals, understanding their history and perspective, and making a truly human to human connection that you would not get to make otherwise.  I left the shop with not only some gemstones, but what I felt like a deeper bond with the people and a better understanding of their lives.

The next day we departed Aliabad and Hunza, making our way back to Skardu.  The long, 5 hour dusty ride brought us back at the end of the day.  The next day we hiked 3.6 miles and 2600 feet up to the famous Mansoor Rock, a wafer thin rock that projecting out into thin air over the nearby valley.  We each took turns daring gravity, before we headed back down the lush, apricot-covered valley below.  

We enjoyed a final farewell dinner with our Pakistani crew, who served as guides, cooks, porters and companions during our trip. We could not have done the trip without their hard work and support. They carried hundreds of pounds of gear for us, led us through tough terrain, cooked and cleaned, fixed broken gear, and provided good laughs. Serving on an expedition is a good job in Pakistan, but certainly is a tough one and our crew did an amazing job.

Our flight out of Skardu brought us back to Islamabad, where we had an extra couple of days to explore.  We spent a day visiting the Faisal Mosque, the largest mosque in Islamabad dedicated by the Saudi king, as well as the Pakistan Monument, the Pakistan Museum, and the Pakistan Museum of Natural History.  Each of these provided us glimpses into the complex, diverse and ancient history of Pakistan and the surrounding areas.  As a fan of history, I appreciated learning about this fascinating part of the world.

Our expedition crew. The Pakistani guides porters and team made all the difference.

The final stop on our last day in Pakistan, took us to Magallah Hills National Park, which is a well-preserved park with leopards, foxes, jackal, deer, pheasants (which is what The Monal, a beautiful restaurant serving amazing food within the park, is named after) and other rich wildlife that lived among its plush canopy.  We hiked a few miles in the park, which allowed us to explore its beauty amidst the high humidity.   Magallah sits right outside of the district where government buildings and foreign embassies sit. 

We had one last celebratory lunch and coffee at our favorite shop, Loafology, and one last celebratory dinner at our favorite Afghan restaurant near the Hillview Hotel, the Kabul Restaurant, where we ate piles of delicious kebabs, rice, and other delicacies from the region, for an amazingly affordable price.  Our flight departed at 2am in the morning, as most international flights do, and at the busy airport we said our final goodbyes as a team before we went our separate ways.   

This trip definitely did not go as planned, but that is what often happens when you go on expeditions to the highest mountains in the world and parts of the world that are dealing with different stages of economic development and myriad of challenges.  While we did not reach the summit of Spantik as we had planned, and indeed, did not get past Camp 1, we still had an amazing experience.  We did get to see the beauty of the Karakoram, from it’s pristine, majestic peaks, to the local villages that define its culture.  Yes, our timing was unfortunate with the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history which unfolded while we were there and resulted in conditions that ended our climb, but our summiting meant nothing in comparison to the human suffering the country went through.  It was a stark reminder that we climb to explore not just the mountains, but the local country and people, who we must always respect and make part of our journey.  We grow not just by reaching the highest points on the globe, but through the human connections we make.  

I walk away with a whole different perspective of Pakistan than I had before I had arrived.  The images we see on western media of a war-torn country full of fanatics hiding in caves and chanting death threats to western peoples, is not the Pakistan that exists in reality.  The Pakistan I got to know is fully of beautiful people, who simply want the same as all of us want: a life full of peace, prosperity and love.  Not once did I feel threatened as a westerner, as an American or as a visitor the country.  On the contrary, I felt safe and welcome.  

Certainly Pakistan is dealing with it’s share of challenges from climate change that is drying up its water supply and flooding its country to overpopulation that threatens its future stability and viability as a state, and ethnic and religious tensions and bigotry, that is causing inherent internal conflict, and bringing it in conflict with nations in the outside world, who do not have the historical and cultural depth to understand the complexity.  It’s incumbent upon all of us to understand Pakistan, and indeed other cultures. Not doing so is a missed opportunity.

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