Over the Edge
13 January 2014
Past the straggle of houses, the path was shaded by willows and poplars and I paused to look over the walled-in garden where I had spent a night back in July 1990. Nothing had changed in sixteen years. Then we were on the wide shelf spilling down from the bottom of the wall of granite on our left and disappearing into the gorge of the Braldu River on our right: we were stepping over the edge of the world. Across the Braldu, on its south bank, the village of Teste was visible together with neighbouring Korphe.
Korphe is now well-known for the school built by an American mountaineer. Having failed on K-2 in the summer of 1993, the man was stumbling back to Askole when he failed to cross the river where he should have. Instead of making Askole he thus found himself dehydrated and dog-tired in Korphe. Nursed back to good form by the headman Haji Ali and his family, the American one day asked to see the local school. He found a bunch of children squatting in the open; the patch of ground immediately in front of each child serving as the copy book on which they did their sums and alphabets with styli of little pieces of wood. And so the American built the school, so said Salman, the porter who had fallen in with me as we left Askole.
Salman had noted the attention I was paying to Teste, a little to the west of Korphe. He asked and I told him I had been there in the summer of 1990. With my head dizzy with the notion of walking where some of the greatest Victorian explorers had been, I had crossed the Skoro La (5080 metres between Shigar and Teste) with two delightfully droll Shimshalis and a very dour Passu man. We needed provision before our plunge into the glaciers en route to Shimshal and Azizullah Beg, one of the Shimshal men, ordered me to pretend to be a surveying colonel, He said it would be very helpful if I promised the good people of Teste a school, bridge and hospital.
I balked, but Azizullah said if I knew what was good for us, I’d do as he suggested. If I had another idea, Azizullah, with great alacrity, pre-empted it by introducing me as what I was not. He told the gathered crowd that the government had sanctioned a school and a hospital for their village and that mine would be the last word on the siting of these two facilities. I played the uncomfortable role of colonel dreading discovery any minute and after we had purchased twenty kilos of wheat flour (generously subsidised) from them, the people of Teste, led by the headman, took us around the village for site selection for school and hospital.
Azizullah, the better man, played the part of a government functionary perfectly. Holding his chin in his fist, he hummed and nodded saying things that were neither here nor there. Then they saw us across the Braldu River to Askole in that crazy contraption, the garari – the wooden box with a pulley slung over a wire. I wonder how long the good people of Teste waited for their dream to come true before giving up on me as the fraud I had been.
A bridge spanned the foaming Biafo over which we entered the moraine of what was once the toe of the glacier: mounds of silvery-white sand pinned down by boulders like sheaves of documents under paperweights. The moraine spread clear across the width of the valley and extended all the way down to the bank of the Braldu. Long ago when humans had not yet gained the wherewithal to foul up the atmosphere sufficiently to cause what we now know as global warming and when whatever went wrong with the earth’s climate was purely Nature’s doing, the spot where I stood would surely have been ice a hundred metres or so deep. Early European travellers in this region heard from village elders of colder interludes when the Biafo extended itself so far as to dam up the discharge of the Baltoro.
Climbing up the powdery sand and gravel moraine, I looked northward into a trough filled with blue-green water, and gravel cones studded with boulders of all sizes. About six kilometres farther on was the great snout of the Biafo rising straight up like a rocky ridge athwart the entire valley. Somewhere, unseen at its bottom, the stream poured forth as a swift and narrow channel hugging the right bank on its way to join the Braldu. Over it was the bridge that had been thrown across some years earlier.
In July 1861 Godwin-Austen had noted two channels, one along either bank. I wonder whether the outflow has dwindled so much in the intervening century and a half or if the stream on the left side has been blocked by debris and the existing one gouged deeper by the increased flow. None of the men from our crew who I spoke to remembered two streams of the Biafo. But then none of them was any older than thirty-five.
Korophon lay on the far side of the Biafo moraine at 3160 metres above the sea. Before the Siachin conflict, this was a pristine and much preferred campsite with a fine stand of willow and lovely clumps of the thorn bush called khombu in Balti. Now it is home to three or four soldiers permanently stationed here to mind the helipad. It is also infested with mules, donkeys and passing soldiers. Gujjar nomads, whose mules are conscripted to ferry military rations and equipment to Concordia at the top of the Baltoro Glacier, normally leave most of their animals here after their return from a sortie while they go down the valley to Askole to replenish their own supplies. That is, every summer Korophon has a resident population of a few dozen mules that will remain as long as the absurd Siachin struggle festers.
The humbler donkeys, all a hundred a forty of them, are conscripted to ferry loads from Korophon to Askole or the other way and they have become so used to the easy going free interludes of Korophon that they routinely wander over from the village to graze here in peace. The natural by-product of this population is of course dung all around together with its accompanying stench and countless flies. I whinged with one of the soldiers about the mules and the pollution and he said the army was not to be blamed because the Askole donkeys shouldn’t be there in the first place. I very nearly said if things had gone right, it should be the armies of the two countries that should never have been there in the first place.
We paused long enough for a leisurely cup of tea prepared by Ali, the expedition cook. An older brother of GM’s (who was handling our enterprise), Ali who spoke with a heavy nasal twang was an incessant talker with a rambunctious sense of humour, and his jokes were peppered with sexist Punjabi cuss words. Balti humour being a bit over my head, I failed to get the point of most of Ali’s little skits. But the others always laughed heartily and that kept the man going.
East of Korophon we walked around the lower part of a huge lump of rock and swung north into the gorge of the Panmah Glacier that our good doctor insisted on calling Panama. The path was strung some ways above the river and at times was built on piles driven into the side of the hill. About four kilometres ahead we could see the suspension foot bridge where once the dreadful garari spanned the roiling waters of the Panmah. As we carried on northward into the Panmah, we watched walkers heading across the bridge and into the Baltoro en route to Concordia.
In recent years an army of pointy-roof latrines has been strung out along the left bank of the Panmah a little downstream of the bridge. And if the wind is wrong – as it was when we were there – one can quite be choked by the stench of human excrement. Thankfully we were across the river and did not have to go across the bridge, swing down south and pass within a hair’s breadth of the stinking tin cubicles to enter the Baltoro gorge.
We passed on northward to make the campground of Qurban Shishpi Khombu forty-five minutes after the bridge. Our billet was on the right bank, just below the rock wall where the conglomerate fan started its descent to the river. Just two days out of Skardu and Nasser Khan, the great meat-eater that he was, aired his first lament about the absence of his favourite food item from the menu. While our own fare of lentils and chapattis was being prepared, he kept up a steady banter about the many ways he could prepare meat. So picturesque was his description of the process that I the vegetarian could almost smell the tang of the spices and the rich aroma of cooking flesh. I even found my mouth watering. Nasser smacked his tongue and promised Naeem and me plenty of meat when we came lateral to one of the summer pastures higher up the Panmah valley. There he planned to buy a sheep from the herders.
Nasser, it turned out, was no ordinary gourmet; he was a reputable chef as well. By his own account, weekends were an orgy of cooking in his home where he, not his wife, hogged the kitchen with his three children as assistants. There were also tales of outings to the hills north of his native Swabi where he and his friends had at their disposal a rest house of some sort. There Nasser periodically organised culinary and feasting sprees. But it was the account of the Festival of the Sacrifice with its over-abundance of meat that made his eyes twinkle. We got a detailed résumé of the ways he would begin with the sweetbread and while his family picked on that, he worked on the main course of roast haunch, ribs, t-bone, what have you.
The pattern was set since departure from Askole: every morning we left camp at exactly 6.30. Descending to the valley floor, we marched along the grey waters of the Panmah. Up ahead a conglomerate wall, the edge of another alluvial fan, stood athwart of our route. An hour and fifty minutes since leaving camp, we had reached the middle of this high fan where we halted for tea at the first stage of the day’s march. The wall on our left rose to a 6295 metre-high peak that goes by the name of Bullah. Hence, the halting place follows that same name.
Much before the Balti explorers commissioned by Raja Ahmed Shah entered this valley with a view to forcing a new route through to Yarkand, Balti shepherds and hunters would already have been acquainted with the Panmah. Though many of the modern place names may well date back only a couple of decades when new and mostly exploitative trekking stages were laid down, most go back to the time of the early hunters and shepherds.
By mid-morning we were at the campground of Soq (Dry Wood) and that, a mere four to five hours, was to be the limit of our daily marches. We camped amid clumps of willows where the air was scented by wild rose. A good spring offered the first chance to bathe since Askole and Nasser and I gladly availed. Thereafter we lay in the sun and read with the sky alternately clouding up to deliver a spattering of rain before clearing again. After the initial scramble for cover, the few drops of rain lasted just long enough for us to ignore them.
Naeem was a voracious reader. But he only read books ‘that did not use the mind.’ I found that curious for that meant he did not read for edification. And then I got a gander at his reading material: Sidney Sheldon. Naeem was also very fond of a so-called Urdu travel writer whose work, he admitted, did not tell anyone anything about the places the writer claimed to visit. But the read was easy and it had all the formula spice of humour, risqué yarns and even women where none existed, said Naeem. He was of the view that if it was easy reading, one did not need be bothered about veracity or exactness of information. And so he had read all two dozen or so of those supposed travelogues that paint the author as a great hero discovering untrammelled territory in the most frequented mountain areas of Pakistan.
Our complement of porters included two High Altitude Porters as well. Slightly built Hasan Jan with a very Tibetan face and a thick mop of wiry hair and the heftier Ghulam Hussain with a flaring hawk nose were both natives of Hushe valley north of Khaplu. Both were accomplished climbers, but while Hasan Jan spoke very quietly of his achievements, Hussain was a bit of a brag.
After he had ‘dragged’ the seven Japanese climbers to the summit of Gasherbrum II in 2002, he watched them weep, pray their Buddhist prayers, weep some more and finally string out their national flag. He says he could not understand the reason to cry, but since they were all praying, he thought he should too. He faced westward and prostrated himself for a good few minutes before getting up to fly the Pakistani flag. When they were done, one of the climbers asked Hussain if the Pakistan government will recognise him as a hero and celebrate his success.
‘I was surprised that they even thought our government would acknowledge my triumph on a remote mountain that so few in Pakistan even know of.’
When they were safely back in Skardu, the Japanese team gifted a sum of thirty thousand rupees as acknowledgment for Ghulam Hussain’s good work. That was when he was overcome with emotion, he says. But long after the event had briefly been covered in the sports pages of a couple of newspapers, he became somewhat dejected that no Pakistani journalist asked to interview him nor any prize came forth from the government. His only satisfaction is that as his climbing years neared a close (he was 47), Spanish mountaineers had helped set up the Green Mountains Mountaineering School in his village. When not helping climbers on high snow slopes, Ghulam Hussain kept busy as vice-president of the school.
That the Pakistan government and media have never commemorated mountaineers is because we are a nation of exhibitionists. Whatever we do, we like to do it with people watching. We revel in activity in the glare of spot lamps and in full public view. And we also like to do things that bring in money by the bucketful. We do not care for sports that take place out in lonely wildernesses and which do not spell money. Mountaineering being the loneliest of sports whose heroism unfolds in its most sublime form in obscure places hidden from television cameras, simply goes unacknowledged. Moreover, because it pays no huge dividends, it is not the sport of choice for most Pakistanis.
Thirty-one year-old Hasan Jan had successfully climbed Gasherbrum II and Nanga Parbat and in January 2004 nearly died of exposure on Broad Peak, another eight-thousander. The Spanish team he was climbing with retreated from Camp II twice before eventually giving up in the face of a deadly white-out. With food running dangerously low, they waited sixteen days at base camp for weather to clear sufficiently to permit evacuation by helicopter.
At 8575 metres on K-2 Hasan very nearly lost the fingers of both his hands. In that frigid cold, he took off his mittens to re-fix a loose crampon when, within a matter of minutes, he felt his hands become numb. Not long after that doing a pitch with both ice axes, he felt intense pain in his fingers. Taking off the gloves again he saw the flesh beginning to blacken. So close to the summit, Hasan balked at the idea of aborting. ‘I knew one thing clear enough; if I persisted I could possibly make it to the top but well lose the use of my hands. On the other hand, I could retreat to save my fingers and attempt K-2 another time.’
Hasan is glad he took the second option. However, K-2 took its toll, albeit a minor one, and he needed surgery to remove some dead flesh from his fingers. The Spaniards he was climbing with wanted to take him to Spain for the operation, but Hasan, like so many other village folks, did not have a passport. In the end, they sent out a fully equipped doctor from Spain to Hasan’s village in Hushe valley. There he carried out the operation at the local facility saving Hasan’s hand from likely amputation.
In the summer of 1861 Godwin-Austen had estimated the depth of glacial ice around this spot at about ‘60 to 80 feet’ and that the glacier was on the advance. It was bulldozing ‘covered scrub and upturned turf immediately in front.’ At one place he observed the immense force of the solid, creeping mass of ice where a hill of stones and earth projecting into its path was slowly being cut through as if by a knife. Now, in the summer of 2006 at about that same spot, we were by a boisterous river with the snout of the glacier still several kilometres upstream. Indeed, some five kilometres upstream I could just discern the snout of the glacier. There, glacial movement had scoured the left bank paler than the rest of the rock wall. I estimated this scouring was to a height of somewhat more than a hundred metres. That is, at some point in the past, the Panmah was here that much the deeper.
Askole summers being too warm for yaks, the creatures, Godwin-Austen tells us, were routinely driven up to this point to graze through until autumn. But now increasing temperatures supported more vegetation at higher altitudes and we were told of summer pastures half a day’s march farther on. That was where Nasser hoped to buy the sheep he was already singing about. His song was a take on a favourite number by Pathanay Khan, a celebrated Punjabi singer. In between were snatches of prose to describe the eating of the fried brain.
‘You know, I haven’t felt anything substantial under my molars.’ Nasser grieved.
‘But we’ve had plenty to eat.’ I tried to console him. ‘Lentils with chapattis or rice, vegetables and even fresh green salads.’
‘You call that food? This is no life where you don’t have to pick your teeth clean of shreds of meat. Just brush your teeth and hit the sack! You call that a life?’ Nasser, past consolation, wailed.
Summer pastures advancing up the gorge of the Panmah, as indeed they are in the Baltoro, are precursors of permanent villages. By and by, with the governments of the world heedless of soaring temperatures and melting glaciers, new farming tracts will become available to mountain communities. If the human race carries on the way it is, in ten years or less, places like Bullah and Soq will be taken over by the beginnings of new villages. The slopes will be turned into terraces for agriculture; fruit trees planted, footbridges and other contraptions thrown across the river, jeeps running beyond Askole and in a decade Panmah will be as the Shigar Valley is today. Then Askole will cease to be World’s End.
Leaving Soq we marched along the river before climbing up the high fan of alluvium coming down from our left. Its broad, flat top was cut by several streams the largest of which showed, even as early as eight in the morning, every sign of becoming impassable within a couple of hours. Already it was shunting along boulders large enough to badly skin a leg if not snap it. The rich glacial loam was sparsely covered with wild rose and some willows along the cascades where yellow-headed wagtails hopped from stone to stone. The higher slopes had some juniper and I suspected Himalayan ibex were watching our progress up the valley.
Wolf scats and pug marks were met with occasionally. Once the wolf would have lived entirely off wild prey, but with increasing livestock activity, its diet was supplemented. Though none of the porters had actually seen the beasts in this area, it was not uncommon to lose three or four sheep each season in the summer pasture some hours further up the valley.
We crossed another alluvial fan with a stream neatly bisecting it. Hasan Jan said the place was called Biyarok Shi (Chough Dead). At 3515 metres it was liberally covered with willow along the banks of the stream and wild rose all around. Onward the going was through these thickets. Two hours after departing Soq we were lateral with the dirty grey snout of the Panmah: a great undulating frozen river with crests, some sharp and jagged, others rounded crowned by boulders; troughs filled with blue-green water, crescent-shaped caverns with dark interiors vomiting foaming white water or just sitting there with gaping maws.
Passing twin birch trees – the only birches I had seen since Korophon – we made camp at Dong Lungma (Sunken Valley) by mid-morning. This was Independence Day and Nasser wished to celebrate it fittingly with a carnivorous feast. But before he could conscript one of the men to go up to the summer pasture to procure some sheep, Haji Ali from among the porters came up to say that after a recent hunt he had secreted away an ibex here in the deep freeze of the glacier. He was, he said, willing to sell the animal to us. As an aside he also announced that he had brought his rifle along and would be more than pleased to bag a few more animals higher up the valley.
Nasser Khan was overjoyed. Why, ibex meat in the wilds of Panmah Glacier when one was not even expecting it! He announced that the porters would receive a complimentary bonus of ibex meat and the exultant men raised a mighty chorus of ‘Nasser sahib, zindabad!’
This was godsend and Haji Ali was immediately dispatched to fetch the meat. He ambled off to disappear up the glacier and when he returned shortly after, he was lugging a blue plastic drum. No sooner had he undone the lid that I almost retched: the meat stank to high heaven. A ground sheet was spread and on it Ali laid out shoulders and haunches, six in all, for everyone’s inspection. The meat, dark red in colour, was not in a deep freeze as I had expected and the drum was nearly half-full of water. Ali had apparently stuffed the drum with ice over the meat, but his storage obviously did not have proper temperature control and the ice melted.
I asked about the ribs and innards and what the man said seemed to imply that these animals were all haunches. The legend doing the circuit in Pakistani cities with their complement of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets is that the birds used by the franchise are hardly chickens. They are reputed to have no beaks, claws or feathers. They are simply lumps of meat with four or eight sets of legs and have to be fed through tubes. Whenever I hear of this sinister and so complicated an operation – and I hear of it at regular intervals – I always want to know if it would not be easier to simply get battery chickens? And now we have some mad scientists up in high Karakoram producing ibex with several sets of legs each.
I could see Naeem did not like the reek either. But Nasser said ibex at Dong Lungma was not to be sniffed at (in any sense of the word) and once cooked, the meat would be all right. A group of porters set to washing the meat in the stream and while I was photographing them at it, I noticed the maggots and sounded the alarm. With the expert touch of the medical man, Naeem inspected the meat again – this time very closely. He probed into the folds of dark red flesh, turning them this side and that just as if he were inspecting a surgical incision to determine which cancerous bit needed extraction. With a knife he pulled out a couple of writhing white creatures and flicked them into the running water. And then he gave the bad news to Nasser standing by expectantly: the meat was too rotten to be eaten and would have to be discarded.
Haji Ali saw his three thousand rupees, the price agreed upon for the ibex, winging away and protested loudly. Why, he had eaten haunches with more maggots than meat on them and survived to be not just a hunter but a porter as well. He was frantic fearing Naeem’s verdict would sway the rest of the party to also reject the meat. A rather disappointed Nasser deferred to Naeem’s advice, but the men of Baltistan are made of sterner stuff: unanimously they said that maggots or not, they were not ceding this rare chance of a carnivorous binge. Presently their pots were boiling with the meat, maggots and all.
When he was not portering, Haji Ali routinely came up the Panmah to shoot ibex. He would skin and cut up the animals and squirrel away part of his bag in his drum in glacial ice, just as he had done with the meat he sold us. The rest he would take home for his family. Around the end of summer, he came up to remove the rest of the kill to be sold to customers in the villages. He was aware that his hunting was illegal: when I asked to photograph him with his aged and rusty Lee-Enfield .303, he refused saying he could be arrested if the photo somehow got into the hands of wildlife officials in Skardu. It turned out that Haji Ali with his reputation with the wildlife department, was already in trouble for his illegal activities and his case was pending in a Skardu court.
Independence Day at Dong Lungma was also the first pay day because some of our porters were coming only this far. Naeem, who had agreed to be, besides the doctor also the finance manager, sat in the middle counting out the notes before handing them to Nasser at his side. The wads duly counted a second time then passed on to the porters. This was also the day that something that I can never handle also took place. Ali, the cook who is a brother of GM’s, announced that we had a total of twenty-eight porters. Rather than get into an argument or create ill-will with a roll call, Nasser astutely suggested we commemorate Independence Day with a group photograph. Thank heavens for digital cameras: the three of us had twenty-five porters in all.
If I had thought Naeem’s day would begin with ministrations to twenty-five very sick men crapping and puking all over the place, I was dead wrong. We did not have a single case of food poisoning. And so, following the set pattern of departure at 6.30, we were soon going up and down, up and down over the undulating lateral moraine along the right bank that we had followed all along. The valley was scarcely any narrower than the lower end, only we now had a silent glacier instead of a noisy river for company. In fact, just above N 35º 45’ the valley dramatically broadened out offering great vistas to the north where the Choktoi Glacier draining the Skamri Mountains to the north and Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) in the west, ran into the Panmah. The wedge between the confluence was crowded with jagged, snow-draped needles of the Skamri Group of which we never really got a good enough view because of the obscuring clouds.
The undulating moraine led us to the snout of the Dumordo Glacier coming out of the west. Beyond it we climbed another fan to a spot they called Khor pi Ka. With its level ground, rose bushes and tiny spring it made for a neat camp ground. Hasan Jan, my tutor of the Balti language on this trek, said Khor pi Ka meant Markhor Pillar because of the broad slab of rock crowning the wall on our left. Surely some of Haji Ali’s brothers-in-arms had been stalking game here as well.
The meaning of the name was doubtful however because markhor is a sort of generic term used across Pakistan for any wild goat. As far as I know, only Himalayan ibex (Capra ibex; skeen in Balti) inhabit this part of the Karakoram complex with no other species so far recorded. To the north, up along the Braldu Glacier, I have seen good herds of blue sheep or bharal (Pseudois nayaur) with its characteristic stubby curved horns. This animal shows both goat and sheep-like behaviour patterns and is believed to have split a very long time ago from a primitive goat-like ancestor. Since bharal is also not recorded here and because Hasan could not very clearly describe what he called markhor, I remain doubtful of the meaning of Khor pi Ka.
Neither Hasan Jan nor anyone else in the group knew when this event occurred. Nor too could they say whether poor Razi was accompanied and, if otherwise, how details of his death became known. Hunters, it seemed, were routinely lost in the wilds. Sometimes the corpse was discovered the following season and from its condition, it was known if death was by exposure or if the wolves had had their day. Other times, nothing was found and it was presumed the hunter lay in a deep freeze in some icy crevasse. If you ask me, that was a crazy price to pay for a few days of eating some maggot-ridden meat.
This was our shortest march so far: two hours and forty-five minutes after leaving camp, we fetched up Ghwang Lungma (Wide Valley) smack at the junction of the Choktoi and Panmah glaciers. About eight kilometres northward, the Panmah swung around to disappear behind the Skamri Group as the Chiring ice stream joined it from the east. The New or West Muztagh Pass lay at the head of this latter glacier.
We could have gone on to Shingchakpi camp ground, instead we made camp at Ghwang Lungma. Only now I discovered the reason for the very short day. Our cook Ali’s son was with a mountaineering expedition at Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) and for some curious reason father and son were swapping places. The route between Baintha and our camp lay along the Choktoi Glacier and even as our tents were being put up, Ali’s son was on his way to replace his father. In order to save himself and his son the extra eight kilometres to Shingchakpi, Ali had deviously planned the short day at our expense. But he had been a good cook well versed in legerdemain and able to conjure up, besides excellent meals, much needed tea or soups virtually within minutes of a halt. The three of us agreed he could be forgiven this little bit of deceit.
*Written as it is, the name is wrongly mispronounced with a long a. It needs actually be written with a double f which should carry the emphasis for the correct pronunciation.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
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