Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Thalle La - the pass I couldn’t make

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In the 1977 obituary of Eric Shipton, his lifelong friend and climbing partner Bill Tilman wrote of having suffered from “mountaineer’s foot” on the expedition to climb Muztagh Ata in 1947. At that time, Tilman was 50 and his mate ten years younger — and he explained that the disease was the “inability to place one foot in front of the other."

Both Tilman and Shipton were however supermen. They carried on mountain climbing and adventuring until the very ends of their lives. I am a far lesser mortal and after having quietly celebrated my sixtieth in February, I was still looking forward to a few more years of hill walking. However, the sobering memory of my 2009 trek to Mintaka when blistered feet caused me to ride a donkey took the spunk out of me.

Nevertheless, the following year I had redeemed myself by walking from Shimshal, over the Shimshal Pass (4725 metres) to the summer pasture of Shuwert — arguably the most strenuous trek anywhere in Pakistan. Now I thought I was ready to tackle Thalle La that connects Shigar with the Shyok valley about 25kms northwest of Khaplu.

Thalle is cumin in Balti and I had long imagined that the route to the pass would be amply covered with wild growth of the condiment in full flower in June. So there we were, Hasan Jan, the man from Hushe who has climbed Nanga Parbat and three other 8000-metre peaks and Ashraf Hussain from Sadpara who too has a couple of eight-thousanders under his belt, at the end of the jeep road that runs parallel to and east of the main Shigar valley.

The jeep deposited us where men were busily welding steel pipes to feed the new one-megawatt power station for Shigar at 2615 metres above the sea. We arranged the loads and marched off. The sun was bright and blue rock thrushes, wagtails and redstarts kept us company along the river.

An hour after lunch, I, having been sent on ahead while Hasan and Ashraf repacked the gear, reached the spot where the stream washing the east flank of Thalle La meets the one coming down from the north. The summer encampment is marked Baume Harel on my U-502 map. But the man who greeted me outside his hut said they called it Marposchu – Red Rock Wall. Thinking I was by myself, he also warned me against trying Thalle La. “Too much snow,” he said ominously. I told him I was walking with two supermen who would haul me across without difficulty.

The snow warning was not misplaced. Baltistan was in the grip of freak foul weather. In early June, the sun was rarely seen and even as the old snow was not melting, the thick grey clouds never failed to dump more snow at heights above 3000 metres. Regardless of the man’s warning, my friends and I turned east to the Thalle La. The valley, now narrower, was suddenly transformed from bare rock to refreshing verdure. The grasses and flowers were richer and the slopes were liberally covered with juniper. Ashraf said the hills to the south were home to musk deer.

We passed teams of men walking back to Shigar with loads of juniper timber to be used as fuel wood. Some of the trees these men had harvested were as much as four thousand years old. But they were not mindful of the value of the juniper that grow no more than a millimetre a year and thrives only in fragile eco-systems. Within the next couple of decades the forest will be depleted and the musk deer gone from the hills.

Though it was an uphill grind, the walk was refreshing under a thick overcast that kept up a light but steady drizzle of rain and sleet. At just before five in the afternoon we reached another summer settlement at 3745 metres above the sea.

As we were setting up camp, I realised that my legs were quite stiff. But like it had always been, I told myself I would be fit for the pass in the morning.

But the morning that dawned with a dappled sky did not bring any renewed strength to my legs: if I sat down on my haunches I found it difficult to rise again without support. This was not a good sign. We set out at six hoping to reach the snow about nine when it would still not have been softened by the sun. But I was moving painfully slowly and the fifteen or so kilogrammes I carried seemed nearly twice as heavy.

The peaks to the east and south were pristine with new snow, chilling the wind that scudded down from them as we walked through ancient junipers. At eight in the morning we stood about six or seven hundred metres short of the snow. Our height was 3943 metres, the deep snow was another five hundred metres higher and the pass lay just above it at, I estimated, 4500 metres. It was a gentle snowy saddle, the pure, untrammelled snow alluring.

As we regarded the beauty of the scene ahead, I knew that I would reach the deep snow no sooner than two hours, perhaps even somewhat later. That would be mid-morning, the snow would be softened by the sun and we would be sinking in deep mush up to our middles.

The way my legs were, I knew I would not be able to take the slog. And so, I made no excuses; I simply said it as it was: “I cannot do it. We have to abort.”

Hasan Jan, who had walked with me in 2006, was surprised I was giving up so near the pass. He encouraged me to try even offering to carry my backpack. I have never dumped gear in my life and I was not doing it now.

As we sat there arguing, Nature resolved the case for us: from the north came a huge bank of billowing grey clouds obscuring the snow-laden mountains in front. The pass and its nearby peaks vanished from sight and we saw snow coming down on the dark hillsides. Light flurries hit us amid stinging sleet.

We tarried until the cold drove us back down. The Thalle La became a pass I had failed to make. In my younger days, this would have been failure and I would have returned to turn it into success. But now, it was defeat. I know I will never make another attempt on Thalle.

Postscript: The man at the grocery store in Skardu where we purchased our provisions for the trek was a wit. When he heard we were going up Thalle La, he quipped, “This is Thalle La, not thallay la.” The second being “take (or put) it down” in Punjabi. He asked if I was up to it and I boasted, I’ll bring him cumin blossoms from the pass.

After returning to Skardu I went to see him in order to tell him of my defeat and that there was no cumin on the northwest slopes of the pass. He suggested I try the other side to check out if the name is apt or otherwise. I could only venture a feeble smile.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 15 May 2015 at 13:00, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

You did it. You actually did it sir.

At 15 May 2015 at 15:47, Blogger Unknown said...

I'd be happy to do 1high altitude trek in my lifetime. For the record I've made a trip from Kalabagh to khunjarab pass in1987 in a Suzuki 800!

At 20 May 2015 at 09:24, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No, Nayyar. I stillhaven't gone back. I hope it will be this year.

At 20 May 2015 at 12:18, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

If one is not properly acclimated ,it become difficult to carry out at high altitude . I had the experience to clime Mussa Da Masala and Hurramosh peak


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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