Now that is a fancy title. It had to be. In the early years of mountaineering and well into the 1950s when most Himalayan and Karakorum giants were still unclimbed and when team after team of strong willed and eccentric young men pitted their strength and sometimes their lives against those silent cathedrals of rock, ice and snow, ‘reconnaissance’ was what they were supposed to have done when they failed to reach the summit. It is understandable that no climbing expedition ever left home with a view to merely investigating the routes up a mountain: they all set out with an unshakable determination to reach the summit with each man dreaming of that moment when he would be fortunate enough to stand on that hallowed, untrodden piece of earth. In the end it was the elements that defeated them and they returned home to write books titled Reconnaissance of Rum Doodle - 1927 or Reconnoitering Uthan Dandi - 1922.
Musa ka Musalla – the Prayer Mat of Moses, is a whaleback of a mountain 13,374 feet high, lying north west of Kawai in Kaghan valley
. The first time I saw it was early in 1972 from a hill above Abbottabad
. Its contours were softened by deep snow and to me, uninitiated to the thrill of mountaineering it seemed a truly formidable mountain to climb. That prospect of snow glistening against a beep blue sky kindled in me a desire to one day stand on its crest. This time around, nineteen years later, when I gazed upon it from Mansehra it looked benign and tame with its light sprinkling of snow – just the kind of mountain to climb for an out-of-form mountain walker like me.
Trevor Brahm who wrote Himalayan Odyssey climbed it in February 1972 from its south-west ridge and noted that the peak was snow covered throughout the year. But twenty years down the line and the way we are contributing to global warming the peak now thaws around mid-June and remains clear until mid-October. So, just before it was due to become snow bound again, Nasir Awan, a young mountain walker, and I set out to climb it.
We arrived in Mansehra on our way to Shinkiari hoping to entice Wajahat Malik, another climbing friend, to accompany us on our little expedition. He had, unfortunately (for us), gone away to the United States for studies, but God knows what stories the good man had told his family about me for it was like coming home to folks I had known for ages. His mother, soft spoken in the extreme and with a sad smile, was a generous host and his teenage sisters a pair of absolute charmers. Sofia, the younger, was an incessant talker, and Shaista, the elder, was the dreamer of the family with a far off look in her eyes. And of course there was the matriarchal grandmother with a mannerism so brusque as to shock conventional folk right out of their socks.
We were duly invited to dinner over which we were warned of the lions (grandmother), the dacoits (Shaista) and the wolves and bears (Sofia). These latter with unfeigned glee at my pretense of alarm. However, the girls successfully terrorised us to such an extent about being deprived of money and camera that we left most of our spare cash with them.
At Shinkiari we hired the one and only jeep to take us to Kund Rest House from where we were to begin our walk in. Babu Khan, the driver, arrived doped to his eyeballs on hashish and two hours of crunching and growling along a rough mountain trail brought us to the rest house. We were counting on the presence of Gujjar nomads in the higher pastures and had brought very little food in order to keep our rucksacks as light as possible. All we were carrying was half a kilogram of panjiri made by my wife, two packets of soup, a tin of cheese and some tea leaves. Therefore, when Yakub Khan, the chowkidar at the rest house, assured us that there were still many Gujjar
families in the mountain we felt considerably relieved. Provisions, especially milk and yogurt, were not going to be in short supply, it appeared.
Since it was almost midday Yakub Khan offered us lunch which was a few cobs of corn roasted on a wood fire and washed down with several cups of sweet, milky tea. Then he led us to the edge of the clearing, showed us the path and instructing us not walk farther then the rest house of Shaheed Pani bade us Godspeed.
We were in a forest of chir pine, behind and far below us, rimmed by misty blue ridges was the Pakhli Plain with Mansehra sprinkled amply in it. In front, towering above the dandelions was Musa ka Musalla, to our right was Kaghan valley and the Kunhar river and to the left, hidden from view by the forested ridge was the Siran river valley and Kohistan.
We marched through the forest until we came to the fork in the trail where we were to turn left for the rest house of Shaheed Pani. But it was still early in the afternoon with another three hours of daylight, so rather than waste time unnecessarily we decided to continue, hoping to make it to some Gujjar camp before nightfall. But unknown to us and contrary to what Yakub had said we had passed the last of the Gujjars about an hour earlier – and they were on their way down.
Soon we had ascended the knife-edge crest of the ridge that forms the watershed between the Siran and Kunhar rivers. On both sides the forested slopes fell away sharply and in the distance the eastern horizon glistened with a series of snowy peaks dominated by the pyramid of Malika Parbat (whose name does not mean Queen of the Mountains) rearing majestically into the clear blue sky. And above the valley, not far from us, a pair of white-backed vultures rode the updrafts on outstretched wings and splayed primaries.
An hour before sunset we came to a hut outside which three Afghan shepherds were making chapattis. In my shamefully inadequate Pashto I asked if we could spend the night with them. But they were having nothing to do with us and for the second time in my life as a tramp I was turned away. The man lied that there were Gujjars farther along the ridge. Fifteen minutes later we came to a fresh water spring were we filled up and I scouted ahead for any signs of the promised Gujjars. About a mile up the trail I could see a clump of huts but there was no smoke indicating that they were abandoned – for that was the time every household would be cooking the evening meal.
That night we camped on a grassy saddle just above tree line and ate our meagre dinner of a few mouthfuls of panjiri and several draughts of water with the heady fragrance of pine forest in our nostrils. Even at 10,000 feet it was not as cold as I had expected and we sat outside in the twilight watching Balakot and the myriad villages lighting up. Overhead the blue welkin was fast turning into a sheet of diamond-studded velvet.
When I emerged from the tent at five in the morning there was no frost on the ground and the mountain air was wonderfully fresh. I prepared some tea and roused Nasir to eat a leisurely breakfast which was some more of what had been dinner the night before.
We set out sometime after six and were soon at the huts that had seemed deserted the previous evening. Two Afghan lads sat around a fire and we got ourselves invited to their tea. The idea was to see if we could leave our rucksacks with them, make a dash for the Musalla and collect our loads on the way back. But they were rather circumspect: they hummed and they hawed until one of them said it was not advisable for they were on their way down the mountain.
Around mid-morning we crossed a small plateau with a muddy pond. This was the only source of water since the spring we had passed the evening before. Sometime after this we dumped our rucksacks behind a rock and took off with great speed until our ridge broke into a series of rocky saddles – five in all, that had to be negotiated before we reached the base of our mountain.
Below us, to the left, was a wide couloir across which was the ridge that Brahm had climbed in 1972, and the clump of huts where he had spent the night. It was midday and the summit was still about two thousand feet above us which would have taken almost two hours to climb, our rucksacks lay two hours from where we stood and the muddy pond on the plateau, the nearest source of water, was a further three hours’ walk away. To make for the summit was to be benighted on the rocky ridge that lay between us and the waterhole, a proposition that was very clearly difficult. Furthermore, I was worried about our rucksacks being discovered and spirited away by some thieving Afghan which would mean having to carry on until we reached the safety of some shelter. Had there been any water on the ridge we would have brought our loads up, spent the night there and made for the summit in the morning. In the event, however, there was nothing to do but to turn back. We knew we had failed.
On the way back, high up on the rocky slope instead of watching my step I was rather foolishly looking beyond the purple ridge of the Kala Dhaka in the west to see if I could recognise any of those distant peaks when I stepped on a lump of loose rock. It shot out from underfoot; I took off, landed heavily on my side and started to roll down. About six feet below me was a narrow shelf beyond which the slope of shiny gneiss fell sharply away and disappeared in a sudden plunge about seven hundred feet from us. I scrabbled among the rocks and found a hand hold before the worst could happen.
In that fleetingly short moment when it was all happening I surprisingly felt no panic, no terror. I was calmly detached and the only thought that sort of strolled through my head was, ‘So, this is it then. This is how I go.’ It was as though it was all happening to someone else. For several minutes I lay there regarding the slope below me and then I turned to look at Nasir. His face was drained of colour.
‘You almost bought it.’ he said. And for the next five minutes we discussed how I would have gone down, for surely the shelf immediately below us would not have stopped me. I asked Nasir what he would have done had I actually gone down.
‘I would have made pictures of you on your way. There wouldn’t have been much else to do in the event,’ he said with a laugh. He was darn right. There was nothing he could have done.
We reached the plateau with the pond an hour before sunset and were soon joined by two men. Since we were almost out of our panjiri we asked them to make us some chapattis. These turned out to be thick, lumpy things barely done on the outside and all but uncooked inside. From the murky water of the pond that stank of urine and was alive with colourful little creatures I made some soup and the perfectly palatable Tomato-Vegetable soup from Holland turned into a dark brown ooze tasting half way between animal urine and the real thing. We scrapped off the cooked crust of the chapattis and downed it thankfully with the soup. The uncooked part we chucked into the pond – dinner for the colourful worms that danced about in the muck.
Fluid was what our bodies desperately needed, but young Nasir found the urine-tainted soup unbearable and gave up after one mugful. I drank the remaining three, boiled another potful, added some tea leaves to kill the foul smell and drank it up. That night while I slept comfortably Nasir tossed and turned in the agony of thirst verging on dehydration. But brave man that he is, he did not complain.
We backtracked along the ridge until we came to the saddle of Shuddle Gali, the only pass on the watershed between the Kunhar and the Siran, and began the long descent to Balakot ten miles away. The path descended sharply to a ridge about four thousand feet below us and then followed its contours until the ridge dwindled out a mile north of Balakot.
A group of Afghan shepherds on their way up pointed out a pond on the ridge below saying that was where we could get a jeep for town. I knew that was balderdash: in twenty years of mountain walking such news has never ever happened to be true. Sure enough it was not true this time either. We passed the deserted village of Bathyuri perched on the edge where the ridge took a sudden plunge of almost one thousand feet. Two men were removing wooden beams from a collapsed house saying that if they did not take them the rapacious Afghans would, ‘You leave the most worthless of things unattended and they take it. This is good, valuable timber.’ they said.
As we walked into the hamlet of Lamni I spotted an old man with a small child walking in the fields. I shouted to ask how we could get past the village, but even before the man could answer the child let out a full-throated squall and tried to clamber up the old man’s legs. The squall grew louder and more frantic as I drew nearer and it turned out that the child thought I was a ‘doctor with a needle.’ I gave him a toffee to quieten him down and then Nasir appeared. The child started to howl again and this time he was not believing anyone about us not being doctors. We declined the old man’s offer for tea and hastily departed to let peace return.
A few miles short of Balakot we came upon a jacked up jeep and two young man lounging in the mellow sunshine of late afternoon. Javed and Naseer had been out for a joy ride when they got two flat tyres – no wonder though, considering the condition of the tyres, and were now waiting for one of the jeeps that we had seen going up to return so that they could borrow a tyre and get back into town. As I was chatting with them Nasir trudged up, threw down his rucksack and declared that he had had enough and was simply not walking the last couple of miles into Balakot. He wanted to ride the jeep even if it was leaving the next day.
Javed was the more philosophical of the two and he quizzed us about our expedition. That we had come out of Musa ka Musalla greatly intrigued him, and having made us relate in detail the proceedings of the last three days he asked if it was beautiful up on the mountain. I said it was indeed magnificent and he said something that was quite surprising since it came from a man who was virtually illiterate.
‘It is beautiful only for those whose inner eye can perceive. For the rest these mountains are useless lumps of rock and lumber.’ In one fell swoop Javed, the unlettered jeep driver from Balakot, had said what I had struggled so many years to describe to my less perceptive friends at home.
After an hour the other jeep arrived, the tyre was fixed and we roared off in a cloud of dust happily bound for Balakot. Within the next five minutes the engine began to cough and sputter and then simply died. No amount of fiddling with the innards of the machine could bring the darn thing back to life. So much for the ride that Nasir had so enthused about.
We eventually walked into Balakot around five. I looked back to see Musa ka Musalla for the last time.
‘I am coming back next year to climb this same ridge.’ I said. I had failed, and to give up now was to be irrevocably defeated. I, at least, was not yet ready to live with that.
‘Count me in.’ said Nasir.
Gray clouds had built up around the summit leaving only the broad flank visible. Perhaps even as we beheld it the first winter snows were already beginning to frost its rocky summit. Surely Nasir and I had been the last people to attempt to climb it in 1991. For the next eight months Musa ka Musalla will be inviolable – only the howling winter wind and the white-backed vulture will fly over it.
It looked beautiful and it will, no doubt, look beautiful even in the depth of winter. But then maybe it is only the perception of my inner eye.
Labels: Gilgit–Baltistan, Kaghan, Northern Pakistan, Prisoner on a Bus: Travels Through Pakistan
posted by Salman Rashid @ 8:55 AM,
At June 22, 2013 at 11:44 AM,
I did enjoy it. I always feel like I was there. Although, I'm glad I missed the soup from the urine filled pool. And, now I know what kind of trees those are/were.
At June 22, 2013 at 12:09 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Carol, The soup got me through the night! But, really, that was the worst thing I have ever tasted.
At January 8, 2014 at 9:08 PM,
Dr. Khalid said...
Great expedition... I dream of climbing this peak, whenever I see it on the way to Mansehra. Its strange that people living near a great thing are hardly aware of that.
At March 10, 2016 at 4:50 PM,
AHMED BAJWA said...
Nice expedition. I Did it from Paris side and sheran(When Aatish jawan Tha), Have you tried the less challenging track from Thandiani to Nathiagali through rich pine forest of Baron Gali and Dagri Bangla ? It also needs to be narrated.!!! Regards/Ahmed
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