Day 1: Arrive in Islamabad
Arriving in Islamabad International Airport, we are met by the trip leader. Transfer to the group hotel. The majority of international flights arrive in the early morning and you may want to rest before lunch, during which the group will rendezvous for a full trek briefing and can have any questions answered. In the afternoon it may be necessary for the whole group to visit the offices of the Ministry of Tourism to receive an official briefing about visiting restricted areas whilst our agent completes the permit formalities. The trip leader will organize this if it is required. Depending on the time available to us there may be the option to do some sightseeing in Islamabad, a city purpose-built in 1961 as the new capital of Pakistan. Alternatively, we could visit the Twin City of Rawalpindi a town from the days of the British Raj. The two cities are very different in character; the older settlement is rather sprawling with enormous and complicated bazaars where you can easily get fascinatingly lost. Islamabad, by contrast, is much more open, a modern city with many parks and wide streets arranged on a grid system.
Day 2: Flight to Skardu 2,500 m.
Weather permitting, we take the early morning 1-hour flight from Islamabad to Skardu, skirting breathtakingly past the Rupal and Diamir faces of Nanga Parbat (8126m) the world's ninth highest peak. It is even possible to catch a fleeting glimpse of K2 and the other high peaks of the Baltoro in the distance before landing at Skardu. Here, we check in to the group hotel and can spend the afternoon looking around the bazaar, visiting the nearby Alexandria Fort or taking a jeep ride up to the beautiful Satpara Lake. A prominent rock inscription of the Lord Buddha on the drive up to Satpara is a reminder that this area was a part of the Buddhist world before the arrival of Islam.
Day 3: Drive to Askole 3,000 m.
We leave Skardu by jeep for the 7-hour drive to the roadhead at the village of Askole, passing through the fertile Shigar Valley. The last 2 hours of the drive covers the ground which used to make up the first 2 days’ walk of the trek and includes the passage of the infamous Braldu Gorge section. The road into this high valley is prone to landslide, especially as summer progresses and the high glaciers melt. As a result, it is not always possible to drive as far as Askole. It can sometimes be necessary to start our trek as much as a day’s walk from the usual roadhead. This does not happen very often, however, and given good road conditions we will spend our first night under canvas in this famous Balti village, high above the thundering Braldu River. Askole is a single street of wooden houses, backed by irrigated fields of corn and potatoes and groves of apricot trees.
Day 4: Trek to the King's Polo Ground 3,000 m.
Askole, at around 3100 metres, is the last habitation that we will see for the next 10 days. Here, Balti life can be observed at its most typical. There is very little annual rainfall in the Karakoram and agriculture is only possible by using the melt-waters of the mountains and their glaciers. The Baltis have become experts in the construction of irrigation channels. Without irrigation very little can grow and the boundaries of Balti villages are therefore quite distinct with lush green fields of wheat, barley and potatoes, giving way quite suddenly on the boundary to an arid desert-like landscape. It will take us the best part of an hour to walk through the cultivated area of Askole before following one of the irrigation channels out of the village. We then descend from the plateau on which Askole is situated and walk beside the Braldu River until (in a further 2 hours) we reach the point where our route turns away from the approach to K2 and Concordia. Whilst the K2 trail crosses the river at a bridge, our path now continues on the west bank to reach a large flat sandy area covered in a sparse desert grass. This is known by the locals as the 'King's Polo Ground' and this will be our overnight halt.
Day 5: Trek to Namla 3,400 m.
This second, quite short day of trekking is usually tough going, partly due to the heat at this (relatively) low altitude and partly due to the underfoot conditions. But also because this is our first day of proper trekking and it takes time to get into the rhythm of things. Immediately on leaving camp, our route turns north to follow goat herders' trails beside the Biafo Glacier. The path beside the glacier is at first quite demanding as it clings to the valley side, neither truly on the glacier nor quite off it and here we encounter many rocks and boulders. After a while we climb up onto the glacier and, at this point, still quite close to its snout, the jumbled debris of ablation material makes underfoot conditions even tricker. It is with some relief that we recross the lateral moraine and discover a grassy meadow in the ablation valley beyond. This is Namla, at an altitude of 3,400 metres.
Day 6: Trek to Mango 3,626 m.
After breakfast and packing away the camp, we leave the pastoral tranquillity of our little ablation valley and return through the gap in the lateral moraine to climb up again onto the Biafo Glacier. We follow moraine ridges running up the middle of the glacier separated by runs of bare ice. This is a fascinating landscape with high peaks all around and the further up the glacier we get, the easier becomes the underfoot conditions. We continue trekking moving from one moraine ridge to another to secure the easiest progress and after around 3 hours we will make a stop to eat our lunch and take time to really enjoy our situation. After lunch we continue on the glacier for a further 2 hours until having turned the first 'corner' and almost at the next, we find a route through the contorted ice to the valley side and climb up to a pleasant green ablation valley offering magnificent views down valley towards the Braldu.
Day 7: Trek to Baintha 3,940 m.
From the camp we descend to the glacier and once more negotiate a way through a jumble of boulders to reach the easier going of the central moraine ridges. Today we reach the 'miracle highway' of white ice which stretches off into the distance. The ice is not at all slippery as the surface is covered in tiny weathered ridges and is also filled with the grit of the rocks it has ground in its scouring passage through the mountains. After the last couple of days walking over the rocks and screes of the moraine, this is delightful walking and we begin to make rapid progress up the glacier. Today we cross the glacier to its north-east side and once again for our night's camp we will climb down off the glacier and make our way through the lateral moraine to the valley side where we pick up a trail which leads eventually to our camp at Baintha. This is a splendid camping place, with lush grassland, an abundance of flowers and birds and the chance to spot shy ibex on the mountain slopes above the camp.
Day 8: Acclimatization day at Baintha with optional day hike.
Today is a day for acclimatization before we go higher up the glacier. Baintha is the perfect place to stop for the day, especially since beyond here there is absolutely nothing in the way of greenery for some considerable distance. This rest stop also allows our porters the opportunity to bake a supply of Balti bread and chapattis to last them over the coming days. We can use this day to rest and catch up on laundry or diary entries. Or, for those with energy to spare, there is the very worthwhile option of following a trail up above the camp for fantastic views down the glacier and of the Latok group of mountains. This group comprises four main summits: Latok I ( 7145m), first climbed in 1979 by a Japanese expedition; Latok II (7108m), climbed in 1977 by an Italian expedition; Latok III (6949m), climbed in 1979 by a Japanese team; and Latok IV (6456m), climbed in 1980 by another Japanese team. These peaks represent some of the most technical climbing anywhere and none of the group received a second ascent until 1988. The group is isolated from its neighbors by the Baintha Lukpar Glacier to the south and the Choktoi Glacier to the north and present a superb mountain image. Equally impressive are the views looking down and up the Biafo Glacier which from this vantage can be seen in all its glory.
Day 9: Trek to Napina 4,215 m.
After our rest day it's time to get back onto the glacier and continue our trek to Snow Lake. At this point the Biafo is around 5 kilometres wide and we really get a sense of the massive scale of the landscape through which we are passing. On our right-hand side we pass the rocky peaks of the Latoks and the so-called 'Conway's Ogre', which has been visible right from the start of our trek along this glacier. Directly ahead of us we can see the rugged spires of the West Biafo Wall, including the 'fairy tale' castle of Sosbun Brakk. Here the distances begin to deceive your eyes as the scale of the landscape tests your legs. The walking is at first straightforward, on the ice 'motorway,' but as we reach a slight steepening of the glacier the ice becomes more broken and we have to carefully thread a path around numerous crevasses, some small and some enormous. If there is a covering of snow we must rope-up at this point to safeguard our passage over the hidden 'slots.' Most usually the glacier is snow free at the time of our trips and we should be able to make good progress here. After around 4 hours we 'pull off the road' again to our next overnight stop. This last off-glacier camp before we cross the Hispar La is located beside pools below a prominent tower of rock and is known locally as Napina (4215m).
Day 10: Trek along the glacier to the edge of Snow Lake at Sim Gang 4,500 m.
Leaving our camp we return to the glacier and make our way north-west. Again it is necessary to thread our way between crevasses and if the glacier is snow covered we will cover this section roped together for safety. The crevasses are mostly narrow and quite shallow and if they are open they present no danger or difficulty to step over or around. As we approach the southern edge of Snow Lake, with Sosbun Brakk just off to our left, we reach a ridge of tumbled rocks and boulders, testament to the immense forces at work at the junction of the Biafo and Sim Gang glaciers. The ridge of boulders surprisingly provides a reasonable campsite off the ice and where it is possible to construct reasonably level tent platforms which our crew will be busy preparing by the time we arrive here. This is the camp known as Sim Gang Basecamp and it is from here that we will set out to cross the southern arm of Snow Lake to the Hispar La.
Day 11: Cross Snow Lake and climb to the summit of the Hispar La 5,151 m
After an early wake up call, we get ourselves ready in the starlit darkness, donning harnesses and packing crampons and axes ready for the day ahead. After breakfast, we set off in the growing light of dawn clambering over the boulder fields of our immediate surroundings. Beyond our ridge camp we encounter the ice and snow of Snow Lake. Here on the 'shore' we must rope up for the remainder of the day as we will now be continuously on snow covered glacier until reaching our camp on the very top of the Hispar La. Snow Lake is huge but is put in perspective by the immense peaks that thrust up all around its perimeter. Our little group are like ants as we march through this vast landscape with breathtaking views all around. After some 3 or 4 hours of steady marching across the level plains of Snow Lake we reach the foot of the slopes coming down from the Hispar La and begin to climb. The ascent is a fairly gentle affair and the angle never becomes steeper than around 30 degrees, but at altitude it is nonetheless strenuous. This climb is rewarded by one of the most incredible camping places in the world, with views straight down the Hispar to the mountains of Hunza in one direction and in the other we can look back over Snow Lake and the Sim Gang Glacier. Looking back this way the view is dominated by the peak of Baintha Brakk (7285m), more commonly known as the Ogre, which was first climbed in 1977 by Chris Bonington and Doug Scott. The epic descent from the mountain in a major storm after Doug fell on the first abseil (breaking both legs) is the stuff of legend. This camp, known as 'Hispar Top (5151m), will live in the memory forever.
Day 12: Trek to Kani Basa 4,395 m.
Waking up at the top of the world and watching the dawn paint in the peaks and spires of the Hispar and Hunza valleys is a truly magical experience. From our dining tent we can gaze at the Ogre while eating our porridge, an experience not given to many to enjoy. We rope up again for the initial descent from the pass on broad snow slopes following the glacier down as it flows over the terrain below. In some seasons the slope can be steep in places and a significant bergschrund can develop. Depending on the conditions your trip leader and the local guide may put in some short sections of fixed line to protect our descent. This is the most technical part of the pass crossing which will vary greatly from year to year. Eventually after around 2 hours we reach the bottom of the slope where the glacier levels out and we pass beyond the snow line. Continuing down the glacier the going is mixed as we negotiate the rubble strewn terrain of the moraines for a further 2 to 3 hours to reach our campsite in a small ablation valley to the north of the Hispar Glacier and on the east side of the tributary Kani Basa Glacier.
Day 13: Trek down the ablation valley beside the Hispar Glacier to Jutanmal 4,200 m.
Our first job today is to cross the Kani Basa Glacier. From camp a trail of sorts leads to the edge of the valley where we must descend to the jumble of stones and boulders churned by the collision of this glacier with the Hispar. As we pick our way across we are treated to a fine view northwards toward Kanjut Sar (7760m), whose snows are the originator of the glacier. After some tricky moraine negotiation we reach the other side and find a pleasant lunch spot at the first water beyond the glacier crossing. There are several out wash streams to cross on the next section of our route and these offer varying degrees of difficulty. The size of these streams depends not on rainfall (there is very little of this) but on the strength of the sun since they are all fueled by melt water. On hot days and especially late in the afternoon they can be fearsome torrents and impossible to cross. Normally and especially early in the day they will be relatively small streams crossed on stepping stones or by a shallow ford. During our descent of the Hispar Valley, an early start is essential every day in order to cross any side streams as early as possible before they become formidable obstacles. Our descent of this huge valley is done predominantly in the ablation valley that is formed between the sides of the true valley and the lateral moraine as the glacier shrinks away. On the Hispar the northern ablation valley offers some delightful walking at times and contains springs and meadows. We end the day following the trail through the ablation valley to reach our next camp at Jutanmal (4200m).
Day 14: Continue trekking beside the glacier to a junction with the Pumari Chihish Glacier 4,000 m.
Today begins with an easy walk of around an hour, following the trail through the ablation valley. Now we arrive at the tributary Yutmaru Glacier which comes in from the north blocking our progress and as before we must climb down onto the glacier and cross to the other side. This one is usually easier than the last although we are talking here about moving objects and great forces, so every season is slightly different. It should take us around an hour to cross and once again there are excellent views up valley. The peaks revealed today as we cross are Kanjut Sar, Pumari Chhish and Kunjang Chhish. As with yesterday, we will take our lunch at the first available water in the ablation valley beyond the Jutmal Glacier. The rest of the day is again a pleasant walk following the trail through the ablation valley with the sensational and ever present view of the mighty Hispar snaking down the valley, lined with peak after peak. Our next camp is located about 20 minutes above the next major tributary (the Pumari Chhish Glacier). In 1990, a team of Canadian glacial hydrologists measured the depth of the ice on the main Hispar glacier at this point to be 500 meters!
Day 15: Descend to the meadows of Bitanmal 3,718 m.
We continue down the valley for 20 minutes and after a short section of difficult moraine, we reach the confluence of the Hispar and Pumari Chhish glaciers. In what has now become a daily routine, we drop down to the glacier to begin its crossing with more excellent views looking up the glacier to its mountain heart. At the other side, a very steep path leads up through the moraine cliffs at the west side of the glacier. Once back in the ablation valley running parallel with the main Hispar Glacier we continue to a lunch spot at the meadow known as Dachigan. Now below 4,000 meters everything seems much easier and also warmer. The rest of the walk today is again a pleasant stroll in the ablation valley which descends gradually to an expansive meadow where there is a group of huts, sometimes used by shepherds from Hispar, but usually deserted. This is Bitenmal (3,718m) and the first signs of civilization we have seen since leaving the fields of Askole ten days ago!
Day 16: Trek past the snout of the glacier to Hispar Village 3,250 m.
Today will be our last day of trekking and as with every day since we started following the Hispar Glacier down, we must first negotiate a side glacier. Today it is the Kiang Glacier, which is usually one of the easier ones although following the crossing there is a steep climb to regain the trail. This now leads through the grazing grounds of Daltanas and Falolingkish. One particularly large stream has to be crossed just before Falolingkish, but early in the day this should present no problem. We now descend past the snout of the Hispar where the Hispar River issues as a torrent from its maw. Just beyond, a footbridge leads across the river and a steep path cut into the cliff opposite winds its way up to the fields of Hispar Village. This is a large village by Nagar standards and its cultivated lands stretch for miles along a huge alluvial fan. We will take lunch here and depending upon the state of the road, we may meet our jeeps here or we may have a further hour's trek to Down Hispar. Once we have reached the vehicles, we drive for 1 hour to our last campsite which is no less idyllic than the previous. A veritable lawn of grass beside a large man-made pond provides the perfect place to say thank you and goodbye to our Balti and Hunza porters whose jolly company we are sure to remember as much as the spectacular scenery of the past two weeks.
Day 17: Drive past Rakaposhi Peak to Gilgit 1,500 m.
We travel by jeep on a rough road down the Hispar Valley for 2 hours to Nagar and where we reach the Hunza River and the Karakoram Highway. During this part of the drive we have a tremendous view of Rakaposhi, which at 7788 meters is number 29 in the world rank of highest mountains. It was was first climbed in 1958 by a British expedition which included Mike Banks and Tom Patey. The glacier spilling down from its flanks reaches almost to the road and for many years, this was the principle source of ice used for food storage and preservation by the people who live in the area. Once past the bulk of Rakaposhi the Hunza River and our road turn south. We continue down the highway to a junction of the Hunza and Gilgit rivers where we turn off the Karakoram Highway and drive west into the mountain town of Gilgit. Once an important town on the Silk Road and the place from which Buddhism spread from South East Asia throughout China, Gilgit has had several incarnations over the centuries, becoming part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in the middle of the 19th century. In 1877 the town and surrounding district was leased to the British by the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and became the Gilgit Agency. Then in 1947, the town became briefly part of the newly independent India before being wrested from their grasp to be de facto a part of the brand new country of Pakistan. In 1970 Gilgit became the capital of a newly formed administrative area known simply as the Northern Area and finally, in 2009, this became the district of Gilgit-Baltistan with a limited autonomy over its own governance through a governor, chief minister and an elected assembly. Due to its historical location at a strategic cross-road for trade, the town is still a melting pot of religions and ethnic groups. Arriving in the town after our long journey from Askole we check into a comfortable hotel and enjoy a hot shower, a restaurant meal and bed.
Day 18: Fly to Islamabad
After an early breakfast, we make the short transfer to the small airport just outside the town. Weather permitting we will make the spectacular 1 hour flight back to Islamabad, passing the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, before following the fall of the Indus back to the capital. Arriving in the capital after a period in the mountains is always a strange experience and it takes a little time to get used to the hustle and bustle and especially the traffic. Our private bus will be waiting at the airport to transfer us to the group hotel and once we have settled in it will be time to take lunch (unless we have experienced unusual flight delays). After lunch the rest of the day is free for independent sightseeing or to relax at the hotel. Your trip leader will advise you on the possibilities for sightseeing. Shopping for hand-woven wool rugs is an option. This evening we come together again for a celebratory meal at the hotel or in a local restaurant.
Day 19: Contingency in case of flight delay.
Gilgit is a 'weather dependent' airport which means the planes will only fly here if the visibility allows line of sight to the runway by the pilot on the approach. Fortunately the weather is mostly clear in the Karakoram but local weather conditions can bring cloud and rain from time to time. If we cannot fly we will travel down to Islamabad by road along the spectacular Karakoram Highway. If we flew up to Skardu this will be an added bonus as it is a fantastic travel experience in its own right. The drive from Gilgit down the Indus River to Islamabad is shorter than the drive from Skardu but will take 12 - 14 hours. This is an important contingency day to allow for this. If we have flown to Islamabad this will be a further day for sightseeing in the capital and your leader will advise the group on the options available for today.
Day 20: Departure day.
After breakfast. Islamabad Airport transfers are provided.