When it comes to adventure sports in Pakistan, Gilgit Baltistan (GB) is almost always the name that comes to one’s mind. This is partly because of the enterprising nature of the local community and their understanding of the sport and partly because of the diversified mountain ranges it offers to the adventure sports community.
However, the monotony of GB was overwhelming enough that I along with my crew decided to go a different way this year and we opted for Chitral. The district is the northern most district of Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa bordering with Gilgit Baltistan and spanning over the mighty Hindu Kush mountain range. Legendary explorers and mountaineers Isobel Shaw and John Mock have traversed this mountain range in the early 70s. Based on their experiences and knowledge gained from locals in Chitral resulted in an unbeaten trek starting from Golen Valley of Chitral and ending in Kumrat Valley of Dir Kohistan.
The overall trek included two passes, the one we named Shachiku Pass (5200M) after the narrow valley of Shachiku and Thalo Pass (4500M). The former ascends from Golen Valley of Chitral and descends through a strenuous bouldered ascent of 1000 meters of Shachiku Pass into Bashkhar Valley.
From there onward, along granite walls, green meadows, streams and waterfalls, one reaches the mighty Bashkhar Lake followed by three small un-named lakes.
From that point a relaxed yet glacial ascend takes the traveler to the top of Thalo Pass that descends into the last nomadic settlement of Kumrat Valley popularly known as Shah Zor Baanda. The next two days from this point onwards is a beautiful walk along Kumrat river in the green meadows filled with violets, lavenders and starry eyed butter cups.
The expedition came with a lot of uncertainties. The crew faced challenges in outsourcing local resources including guide and porters. Secondly, being an unbeaten trail, planning the expedition was the foremost of challenges. The team was unaware of the trekking hours per day, had no idea of camping sites and entirely unaware of the terrain it was about to traverse. The trek started with a 12 hours strenuous ascent towards high camp at 4450 meters. Completely dry with patches of boulders and rare sights of availability of water. Keeping the bodies hydrated was the most daunting challenge on the first day. The sun was in its full bloom coupled with cold air directly hitting on our chests. We barely made it to the campsite before sunset. Though it wasn’t the greatest of the campsites, yet a few square meters of plain surface sufficed for our tired bodies.
Next morning, took another day in the same conditions towards Camp 1.
Upon achieving the objective, the news came from our guide that landslides over the years have ruined the trek towards the pass. A three member team was immediately formed to take a survey of the route and find a alternate. The team came back having identified the route. After a short debriefing, an action plan was developed. Since early morning departure was the plan, the team took to their camps early. At 4 in the morning, the team was preparing for the final ascent. A strenuous patch of loose boulders followed by loose scree and a mix of glacial mud couldn’t be more challenging. Eventually at the end of the 8 hours, the team made it to the summit.
This was the only patch during the entire trek that had a transforming effect on each member of the crew. We didn’t talk all day long during the descend, set up our camps, had our supper silently and went to sleep with brief notes of goodbye. I believe, everyone had something in return for the effort they made that day. Something that couldn’t be molded into words and expressed objectively.
The route afterwards was along a small but fast flowing stream in a valley locally known as Ishpurilli. This was a also a bouldered trek with patches of grass lands. Evidences of the mighty Himalayan Ibex were frequently found throughout the valley though we hadn’t have a chance to observe any. Rumors were that they shall start their journey at the end of August towards Chitral.
The past days’ strenuous journey was rewarded when the crew spotted a green meadow from the midst of Ishpurilli. It was small grass land in the midst of dry granite mountains called Daar Khotoo. Three springs originated from the granite to form a beautiful stream that flew through the entire meadow and eventually falls into Laspur River of Chitral. Each member of the crew spotted a placed to get their moments of nirvana along the stream. And came the night with a sky full of stars and comets. The reality turned into enigma as our Chitrali brethren stroke local beats and echoed blues in the middle of the night from their nearby camp. I never understood a single word but each of them pierced my soul and I wished the night to be forever. I snugged into my sleeping bag by the bonfire looking at the sky. There were no random thoughts and no plans for the next day on my mind, a true spiritual experience in middle of nowhere.
In the next few days, the crew will be traversing into Dir Kohistan via the mighty Thalo Pass. As opposed to our expectations, we faced a death valley (a narrow trek which only the wild Markhor takes during its migration period) and had to cross the lake through fixed ropes. It seems like each pass in Chitral has a test of its own before the crew could summit it. The descend from Thalo pass was short 300 Meters but dangerous one. Loose rocks had the tendency to slide down and the crew had to get aside for the route to clear each time. It took more time that expected, but that paid off once we entered Kumrat Valley.
We were welcomed by the endless meadows filled with wild flowers and grazing animals. Fresh water streams and crispy fragrant wind. It was like the flora shared a particular patch with each other. When the violets would end, starry eyed butter cups would take over the whole valley. While they will gradually sparse, lavender would take their place. The huts of nomadic communities by the stream, the mist on mountains and wild horses would give an exact impression of the Native American’s Cherokee tribes who would fancy the same habitat.
We were greeted like kings in Kumrat. Given a huge space to peg our camps, strictly barred from cooking for ourselves as each household brought something for supper. All those somethings collectively formed an eight course meal for the team that night. We had nothing else to do but eat the purest of the food that was available in the jungles of Kumrat. That was a celebration night and not only the crew, but the nomadic Kohistanis celebrated with us equally. I was thinking to myself,it was not their joy but the positive energies that we brought along from the grandeur of nature that brought ecstasy in their hearts.
To me it’s all about connecting to the mountains. Once your plea is accepted, the tiring aspect of the climb vanishes as it was never there. It is about the respect one gives to their grandeur and only then will one be able to see beyond his eyesight. A famous mountaineer once said, “You never conquer a mountain, it lets you conquer itself only if you respect what you see”. It was never truer than this time. The gradient of the pass along with the strong wind, rolling stones from above, loose footing on scree and hopping on the boulders while maintaining consistent ascent is mentally as well as physically assaulting. The only strength one can rely upon is the spiritual and emotional intent that evokes one’s hidden potential for maintaining the required endurance.
I haven’t done justice to describing the real experience. But as I said earlier, these experiences are hard to be molded into words. Chitral was an amazing experience not only for the wilderness it offers but the immense hospitality and compassion of its people. The crew is committed to bring Chitral’s Hindu Kush to the adventurers’ attention. This trek was an attempt to open the windows of adventure sports and tourism to the world beyond just Shandur Festival.