Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Rupal: the south face of Nanga Parbat

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May 1994. Javid Anwer (JA) who heads Green Earth Organisation (GEO), an NGO that ‘cares for the environment,’ asked if I would like to join a cleaning expedition to the south face of Nanga Parbat in August. I had never seen this mountain close up and I did not have to think twice to say yes. In the end the expedition got delayed and it was in the third week of September that we arrived in Rawalpindi to fly to Gilgit.

As expeditions go Nanga Parbat Saviour 1994 was a pretty fancy one – with a name as pompous as that it was bound to be fancy. To begin with, it was to be multi-national, and it had a TV crew to film the operations. Naturally there was going to be an immense amount of equipment and a whole team of porters – just like any old climbing expedition. This meant not having to carry anything but your camera bag and some personal belongings while the food and tents were to be with the porters or the donkeys that were to be hired. After years of mountain walking on shoe string budgets where I had to carry everything myself this was a grand treat for me and I looked forward to it.

September 17th. JA and I arrived at Rawalpindi where I pretended to be tired and went to bed early while JA got on the phone to round up the TV man and his assistant. He had also been told by the Ministry of Tourism that Daniel Lak, the BBC man at Islamabad, had shown interest in joining this expedition. This also had to be finalised and it was sometime after midnight that JA had everything organised.

September 18th. We got to the airport early where Farrukh, our TV man knew somebody who had promised to get the five of us on the Gilgit bound flight. The scheduled time of departure went by and the old Fokker sat on the tarmac shimmering in the rising heat while Farrukh and his walrus-mustached friend became increasingly frantic. Then about ten minutes behind schedule, Daniel and I had boarding cards stuck into our pockets and we were shoved out of the air conditioned lounged into the heat outside. I did not believe till the last moment that we were actually getting on the plane.

But JA and the two-man TV crew were left behind ‘to be put on the second flight.’ I told Daniel you can’t be lucky twice in a row when you’re flying to Gilgit and that the others would have to bus it all the way. I was wrong. When the second flight landed at noon they were all there. For the record, however, PIA had forgotten most of our gear back in Islamabad! More phone calls and we were assured it would be on the first flight the following day – if the weather held, that is.

September 19th. This was a week of miracles: the weather held and the gear arrived as promised! Our expedition took on Steven Moore, an American; Michael Parker from Australia and Jimmy and Andrea the two Austrians. Adding to this cosmopolitan colour was Ishaq Hashmi, the Afghan on the TV crew. After what seemed to be endless mucking around our four jeep caravan finally left Gilgit just before noon on the eight hour run to Tarshing under the east face of Nanga Parbat. We arrived cold and hungry well after sunset and took over two rooms in the brand new nameless inn. Outside, in the light of the full moon, the great massif of Nanga Parbat rising up to Raikot peak seemed to come straight out of a silversmith’s crucible. In the background Nanga Parbat seemed deceptively lower than Raikot.

September 20th. People not used to mountain walking find it awfully hard getting started in the cold. And Tarshing laid out in a wide valley at 3100 metres was cold. The difficult task of hiring porters was preceded by more mucking about but was finally done by mid-morning. Our camp was now a regular babble of languages: Punjabi, Persian, Brushaski, Shina, Balti, English, German and of course Urdu.

Although the plan was to clean up the base camps on Rupal side, it was seen that Tarshing itself was rather badly littered. Bags in hand we all worked our way up ‘main street’ collecting all manner of inorganic refuse and ended up at the school. Here Karim Mutrib our philosophic Hunza man played spokesman and made an impassioned plea about keeping scenic Tarshing rubbish free. Then he asked the Head Master if he would allow his students to take part in our operations. Sooner than you can imagine we had two hundred children running through the village screaming and shouting only to return with over two hundred kilograms of rubbish.

I am certain that for the children, more than anything else, this must have been a welcome digression from the drudgery of books and lessons. In a society where they have probably never heard the words ‘environmental degradation’ the ecological angle of what they did for us would surely have been lost. But the fact remains that the Head Master was quite willing to participate and fifteen minutes of oratory by Karim Mutrib seemed to have motivated the students enough for them to go out and fill up our rubbish bags. Surely if a concerted effort were made these impressionable young minds could grow up with greater empathy for the fragile eco-system they live in.

September 21st. Everybody but Farrukh, the TV man, opted for an early start and Nasirullah, our guide, said he would ensure that breakfast would be ready at 5.30. But when I woke at five everybody, including Ibrahim the cook and his assistant, was fast asleep. ‘Early morning’ for most seemed to be mid-morning. Steve and Michael were the first to set out; I followed immediately behind Daniel and from the lip of moraine material that forms the ablation valley west of Tarshing, I saw the two Austrians at the bottom. Far away, near the school building I could see JA with the donkey train and the TV crew. We hardly looked like an expedition.

Beyond the lip of moraine material Tarshing glacier was badly cut up, but the great traffic of locals and trekkers had clearly marked a beaten trail across its undulations. On the other side lay great brown patches of golden stubble that had only recently been a good crop of wheat. That was the village of Rupal – a spreading straggle of houses sprinkled over a slope that gently rises to the west until it runs into a dusty spur separating it from the ablation valley of Bizhen. By midday the stronger walkers amongst us were already having tea and biscuits at Bizhen Camp.

Looming above and rising a staggering 5500 metres was the Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. We were looking at the greatest vertical face of rock in the whole world, so sheer that snow and ice could find a hold only on a few ledges. Great ribs of rock stuck out of the coat of white that lay in giant hummocks or reared up in straight walls several hundred metres high. Here and there were immense cracks cutting across the snow and we knew these were some of the most avalanche-prone snow fields anywhere. This was not a prospect that could stir the spirit of a Wordsworth; it was a sight awesome in the extreme – a sight that makes it impossible to deny the existence of gods and demons that live on the frozen mountain.

Far away in the south, invisible to us, is the 4200 metre high Burzil Pass that connects the vale of Kashmir with Gilgit and Skardu. For two millenniums traders from the south crossing it every summer were struck by the sight: all around them lay a great sea of snow bound peaks, but in the distance was this forbidding mass of rock rising darkly above the rest; naked but for a few scraps of snow on its sheer flanks. To them it was Nanga Parbat – Naked Mountain. The name caught on because the traders took it back to India, while the name Diamir given it by the Shina speaking peoples on its northern flanks remained confined to a few valleys and was virtually unknown until the first explorers ventured here in the 1840s.

Bizhen was littered and the lovely stream was very nearly choked with plastic bags and empty juice and cigarette cartons. In three hours we had cleared the area and made a large dump to be removed on the way back. Besides littering the other ecological problem we were becoming increasingly aware of was deforestation. The sides of the ablation valley had a fair cover of dwarf juniper and the valley floor was liberally strewn with deadwood signifying greater tree cover at some point in the past. Nasirullah, who has been a guide in this area for about fifteen years, said that he remembered the time when the mountainsides were thickly covered with forest. The culprits were not just the locals and their need to keep warm during the long, bleak winters, but also the innumerable climbers who have camped at Bizhen and indulged in the luxury of bonfires. Although it is easy to shelter behind the excuse of burning deadwood only, ideally even that should be left for the locals’ use.

September 22nd. It was another long straggle of men and donkeys that slowly worked its way westward around the mountain. Beyond lay Bizhen glacier coming out of a crumpled icefall at the foot of Nanga Parbat. As we went over the lip we saw on the far bank the path snaking down a dusty slope and into a wide grassy meadow. Karim Mutrib said this was the plain of Bateli which meant ‘stony.’ As misnomers go this was a good one for the plain had hardly any stones but a luxuriant bed of grass watered by a clear stream. The western end of this expanse was a high glacial fan with a thick forest of birch growing at its foot; hidden behind this was the camp ground of Latobo – end of the day’s journey.

Latobo was spic and span. There was no rubbish to be seen; and this was very surprising. It turned out that the local headman, upon hearing of our impending arrival, had collected everything and concealed it in order to sell it to us. The message we received said in case we were not ready to part with some money he would strew the rubbish all over the place after our departure. The man who seemed to have gone into hiding was communicating through a spokesman. JA held a council of war with Daniel, Michael, Steven, Nasirullah and me and it was agreed to coax the man out of his retreat and into a discussion.

Ayub Khan turned out to be not half bad. He certainly did have an angle to his garbage collection efforts but he was willing to become a part of the GEO network to preserve this beautiful wilderness. That this was to be for a small consideration was quite understandable since he barely ekes out a meagre living from available resources. Subsequently as a result of a meeting at Islamabad, the Ministry of Tourism kindly agreed to give our man a letter of authority to work as a GEO appointed ‘Green Guardian.’

From next year onwards Ayub Khan will not only see that trekkers and mountaineers take back what they bring in but at the end of each season will also climb up to the high camps on Rupal to retrieve whatever may have been left behind. For every 25 kg of rubbish that he brings to Tarshing GEO will pay him a porter’s per deim. Thereafter, at the beginning of every season GEO will retrieve the rubbish from Tarshing for proper disposal at Rawalpindi. Besides, the man will also carry out extensive replantation in the windswept flood plain of Latobo.

Here Steven and Michael left us because their visas were running out. They were to be sorely missed. Steven for his endless stories of travels in Africa for which Michael, a well travelled man himself, chided him if he had ever been anywhere other than Africa. And Michael for giving a philosophic angle to the most banal affairs. But the most enjoyable had been the stream of clever repartees between Michael and Daniel and the latter’s brilliant double entendres. The Austrians also left and it devolved on Daniel and Ishaq to maintain the expedition’s multinational colour.

September 23rd. The morning was employed in garbage collection and lengthy discussions with Ayub. After lunch we walked to the mountaineers’ graves on a small hillock west of Latobo. The six graves (Japanese, Austrian and one Pakistani) were grouped at the base of a knob of rock which carried their names. Towering above them in the background was Nanga Parbat. To be buried at the foot of the mountain they had set out to conquer was as good a tribute as any for these doughty men. Perhaps their spirits still roamed the icy flanks above.

September 24th. Another morning of endless mucking about, useless arguments and a late start. Judging from the cirrus the day before I had foretold bad weather and it started to build up from early on. The clouds advanced with the sun and a keen wind swept out of the head of the valley: it was a depressing prospect in which we were headed for Mazeno Base Camp at 4100 metres.

Although tree line at our latitude is around 3100 metres, Rupal being within the range of monsoon rains supports trees to almost 3500 metres. We passed through scattered forest and saw a group of shepherds heading back from the summer pastures with several donkey loads of fodder and firewood. Far in the west the lovely peak of Laili that had looked like a huge dollop of vanilla ice cream and its neighbouring crag of Thushing were concealed by a great swirl of grey. Just after midday Daniel and I stood on a high, dusty crag looking into the heavily crevassed Thushing glacier. Then the donkey train came up and for the next thirty minutes we watched with bated breath as the drovers struggled to get the laden animals safely down the dangerously narrow path.

Mazeno Base Camp nestles at the head of the valley under a high ridge that completely blocks out the sun just after midday. It is a cold, dreary and windswept camp. But for trekkers wishing to cross Mazeno Pass (about 5300 metres) this is the best choice. There are passes that have an aura of romance (Bolan, Khyber); others that symbolise the highest degree of piety and faith for being on pilgrim routes (Broghal, Karakorum) and countless more that smack of commonality. But there are few with a dark ambiance of malevolence; and Mazeno is one such. For centuries it was used by none but bloodthirsty raiders from Chilas coming down every summer to plunder Tarshing and neighbouring villages. Never in the course of history has it been a conduit for pious men in the service of their Lord or for traders looking for more temporal gains.

One of the earliest outsiders and certainly the first mountaineer to cross Mazeno was A. F. Mummery who made the maiden attempt on Nanga Parbat in the summer of 1895. He and his two brave Sherpas were last seen in a saddle on a ridge under the north face. For lowly man’s irreverence the gods on the mountain had claimed their first sacrifice – and this was not to be the last. Subsequent attempts were to see almost sixty more deaths and Nanga Parbat came to be known by the gruesome title of Killer Mountain.

We arrived at Mazeno Base Camp under grey skies and had barely set up camp when it started to snow. A hurried inspection to assess the litter revealed very little. However, the ridge on the west was one vast latrine with virtually miles of toilet paper caught in the bushes. In this cold, dry environment the scats do not disintegrate for years and are an endless source of river contamination as melt water washes over them every spring. This was quite similar to the situation at Latobo and certainly a seriously ecological hazard.

Dinner was hastily eaten and by six I could no longer brave the cutting wind sweeping the camp. There was some talk of the plan to walk up to the foot of Mazeno Pass and check the two higher camps, but I made it very clear that I was only going up under a clear, blue sky.

September 25th. When I stuck my head out of the tent at five in the morning, the sky was like a great sheet of azure crystal. All around was a thin veneer of snow and our water containers were frozen hard. Our cameraman had showed every sign of freaking out since leaving Tarshing and now he finally did. The man simply refused to go on. But Ishaq, his assistant, was a real sport who was more than willing to fill in on the trek to Mazeno Pass. For once an early start was made.

We climbed the ridge on the west and followed its crest to the north. Below us Thushing glacier looked exactly like Concordia on a smaller scale while the jagged peak of Thushing brashly imitated K-2. Over a high wall of moraine material piled up by some long ago glacier we entered a wide open amphitheatre of the most fantastic looking crags. But Nanga Parbat that had overseen our progress up the valley had been hidden behind the high ridge since arrival at Mazeno Base Camp.

Another two hours across a stony landscape and we were at High Camp that lies in a small depression at the foot of Mazeno Pass. Daniel and Ishaq went down to the camp to inspect and reported that there was a bit of litter that needed to be cleared. But foolishly none of us had remembered to bring the rubbish bags along, and so this task was also to be the lot of Ayub Khan next year. Across this stony vista we could see the crest of Mazeno with its sentinel needles of rock. It was still five hundred metres above us and across a hard grind over scree. Although I had wanted to get to the crest and look into the valley on the far side I had no wish to cross the pass for the glacier on the north requires technical skill. From there only the mountaineer with crampons, ice axe and ropes shall pass.

After a quick cup of tea that was taken black because Ibrahim had forgotten to pack the milk powder and sugar, we hurried back under a leaden sky and as we were descending the last ridge snow began to fall thinly. Back in camp that afternoon, a keen wind kept us huddled around Ibrahim’s cooking fire where he ladled out liberal helpings from his pot of soup.

Averse to spending any more time in a tent than was absolutely necessary I suggested doing the ten hour marathon back to Tarshing in a single day. The plan was approved by all concerned and Nasirullah said he would see that Ibrahim had breakfast ready at the crack of dawn. This ‘crack of dawn,’ I knew, would not be earlier than eight and since Daniel and Ishaq had opted to leave early with me I resolved to start breakfast for three myself.

September 26th. A pot dropped on some rocks on purpose can wake the dead in the still of early morning in the mountains. It certainly roused Ibrahim who arrived to see me struggling with a stove that refused to light because of the intense cold. He took over and, thanks to him, we were able to get away by seven. After several stops to film we reached Latobo in time for lunch. On the far side of the glacial fan, Daniel said, was a hut that the famous Tyrolese mountaineer Reinhold Messner had set out of on his epic solo climb of Nanga Parbat in 1987. This was something not to be missed and I took up Daniel’s offer to lead me to it.

We left the trail and entered the forest and suddenly became aware of the sickening thwack of metal on wood. Following the sound we were soon upon a group of wood-cutters hacking away at those beautiful trees. Willow, juniper and birch fell to their merciless axes. This was the beginning of the trees’ journey to keep the people of Tarshing warm during the long winter ahead. Nasirullah remembered the time when the fan and the adjacent hill were thick with forest – now this cover is sparse and receding.

On the way out we had discovered that these people had never considered an alternate fuel for they knew that would cost money while the trees were theirs for the taking. That cutting the trees cost them in terms of time did not matter as long as no money changed hands. We were convinced at this point that the biggest ecological problem Nanga Parbat faces is not littering but deforestation. A massive replantation initiative is imperative together with a concerted drive to wean people away from the cough-inducing smoky wood fires. At the same time there is a need to reassess local architecture and adapt it to be more energy efficient.

This, we all knew, would be extremely difficult but certainly not impossible. And when the next GEO team visits Tarshing in May 1995 to retrieve the rubbish two items on the agenda will be a long talk with the influentials on the subject of alternate energy sources and the replantation initiative. Subsequently, in a bid to reduce water contamination, GEO will dig pit latrines at Bizhen, Latobo and Mazeno Base Camp. It is an ambitious programme but as Javid Anwer says, that is exactly why GEO came into being.

September 27th. As our jeeps pulled away I looked back to see Tarshing glowing in the magic early morning light of late September. Behind it on the lip of glacial material stood the few surviving dwarf junipers, companions of those that have already warmed past winters at Tarshing. But as we drove away it was not a feeling of doom but of hope that I felt. A first step had been taken; the journey had well begun.

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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