Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Hisper: fortress of ice and snow

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The Biafo-Hisper glacial system, extending ninety-eight kilometres in a gleaming white line of ice clenched within the jaws of the most dramatic granite spires, is among the longest ice stream outside of the polar regions. Its southeast end rests a few kilometres from the Balti village of Askole while in the northwest the houses of Nagar feel the icy blasts of wind scudding down its surface.

Right in the middle, equidistant from both ends of the glacier, there sits the gentle saddle of the pass that the people of Nagar know as Hisper. For the people of Baltistan, this is R’Dzong La (Pass), however. Now, R’Dzong in Balti signifies a small defensive turret. The question is: why should anyone need a fortification 5230 metres above the sea on a glacier?

Oral history preserves tales of travel over this glacial system between Hunza and Nagar on one side and Baltistan on the other. Anthropologists and linguists tell us there are signs of cultural interaction between the two ethnically and linguistically distinct regions taking place by this glacial route. However, peaceful exchanges do not warrant the building and maintenance of a fortification for so long a period that the pass where it sits becomes known as fortress. This can only mean that the people of Baltistan felt some sort of threat from Nagar.

Had the Balti people been writing histories at some point in the past, none survive. Fortunately, early British explorers and map-makers in this area left behind a large body of information. Tucked away in those hundred and fifty year-old records is a small story that tells us why the Baltis knew the Hisper Pass as a fortress.

In the summer of 1861, the explorer Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen was in Askole exploring and making his maps. An elderly person informed him that the people of Nagar periodically came over the glaciers to loot and plunder the villages around Askole. It was said that the last raid took place about twenty-five years before his visit.

A body of some eight hundred men (an obvious exaggeration) having trekked twelve long and arduous marches along the Hisper and Biafo glaciers, over the high pass in between, stormed into Askole one morning. The attackers overpowered the villagers, gathered all the barley and wheat flour Askole could muster and packed it in the ibex skins they had brought along for the purpose. They also rounded up ‘all the cows, sheep, and goats’ they found in the village together with a hundred men and women to be sold into slavery.

This team was led by Vizier Hollo of Nagar, Godwin-Austen was told. On the return journey, as they neared R’Dzong La, the weather broke. A blinding blizzard swept down the glacier, making it impossible for the raiding party and its captives to cross the pass. Even today with protective gear of every manner, waiting out a blizzard at such heights is perilous; in those far off times it was certain death. As his party started to dwindle, falling to the numbing cold, Hollo and the survivors attempted to struggle over the high pass even in the face of driving snow and arctic winds. But it was a losing proposition.

Only Vizier Hollo, so Godwin-Austen was told, was able to limp back into Nagar to tell the story of the dreadful disaster in R’Dzong La. A look into the annals of Nagar does show us that a certain Hollo was indeed a minister under the ruler of Nagar in the 1820s and perhaps also the following decade.

Such raids being routine, the men of Askole were prompted to build a defensive position on the pass. Through the summers, they would have maintained a small armed presence either to provide early warning to defenders in Askole or to attempt to fight off the attackers. This time Askole was caught unawares: it being September, the raiding season thought to be over, the people of Askole had withdrawn the garrison.

How to get there: The Biafo-Hisper trek is an experienced mountain walker’s journey and can begin either in Nagar or in Skardu. A mountain guide and porters are needed which can be hired locally or through any reputable travel agent represented in all provincial capitals. Skardu and Gilgit (the latter on the road to Nagar) are connected by air as well as by road with Islamabad. The duration of the trek is twelve days.

Detailed Itinerary:

Day 1. Skardu to Askole by Jeep. 8 hours.
Day 2. Askole to Namla Camp Ground, Biafo Glacier. 8 hours, the going is strenuous.
Day 3. Sha Fong Camp Ground. 7 hours, moderately strenuous.
Day 4. Baintha Camp Ground. 7 hours of glacier walking. Strenuous.
Day 5. Marfogoro Camp Ground. 7 hours. Moderately strenuous.
Day 6. Snow Lake Camp Ground. 8 hours, very strenuous sometimes in deep snow.
Day 7. Crossing of Hisper Pass. The trek (2.00 AM up to 10 hours). Very strenuous.
Day 8. Khanibasa Camp Ground. Another early beginning and a 8 hour-plus trek.
Day 9. Jutmal Camp Ground. 8 hours, very strenuous crossing of broken glaciers.
Day 10. Bitanmal Camp Ground. 8 hours, strenuous.
Day 11. Hisper village Camp Ground. 9 hours of easy walking.
Day 12. Huru village and jeep ride to Nagar.
Note: The trek can be done in reverse as well.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 5 May 2017 at 10:04, Blogger سنڌ ويب said...

Sir Salman Rasheed..
he is a man havings much miracles.

At 23 October 2017 at 07:38, Blogger Off And Running said...

amazing. i crossed gondogoro la this year, but walking on biafo and crossing hisper la after reading this is my goal now.

At 31 December 2017 at 01:34, Anonymous Aleeza said...

Just love my Pakistan!!
J'adore mon Pakistan!!


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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