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ISSUE 09OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Stopping By Kilik Pass On A Snowy Evening

Ahmad Altaf is a senior-year student at LUMS and a member of the LUMS Adventure Society. This winter, him and two other members from the LUMS Adventure Society, along with an acquaintance, became the first ever students to successfully attempt the Kilik Pass (4820m) trek in the winters. A natural mountain pass (now a fenced border) between Pakistan and China, the Kilik Pass has significant roots in the old Silk Route and related trading activity. These inspiring trek enthusiasts achieved the feat in four days and in temperatures that went as low as -30 degrees celsius. They were aided in their journey by their guide, Basharat and porter, Ali. This is the diary Ahmad kept during his groundbreaking trek.

Day 1 – 2:45 AM

Here starts my journey to the Kilik Pass. Well, it started nearly twelve hours ago. I’ve been in one bus after another since then. Currently making a pit stop.

These journeys take awfully long. And it’s awfully cold. -2 degrees celsius and a blistering wind – but its eerily beautiful! The night sky is clear and the moon is in full bloom and doing a great job of illuminating the snow on the hills.

I am travelling with Mujtaba Aizaz, an acquaintance from the trekker’s meet-up 2016. Mubariz and Khokar (colleagues from the LUMS Adventure Society) are waiting for us at Karimabad. As my fingers turn numb from all the writing and lack of warm gloves on-hand, I can only think about the tough task that lies ahead and the lure of achievement that led me here. We can be the first student expedition to trek to the pass (4820m) in the winters!

Day 2 – 9:40 PM

I write this from a semi-comfortable position on the bed of our favourite, Room 101, Hilltop Hotel, Karimabad. It’s -10 degrees but at least I have a blanket for company and a frozen pack of Oreos. The thermostat is broken though! The atmosphere is a bit apprehensive; our planning is a bit flimsy – we are not entirely sure about water availability on the trek and the amount of food that we will require.

The tension is perhaps a corollary of the fact that we barely know of people who have attempted Kilik Pass, let alone in the winter season. Personally, I am more than a little scared – a bit excited but perhaps more scared.

I wonder why I left the pleasantness of Karachi for the prickly cold of Hunza. Perhaps a combination of my ego and a desire to achieve something significant before I graduate. Whether achievement is directly correlated to being brutally battered by the vengeful cold, I am yet to find out.

The journey begins tomorrow at 7 am. For now, I think I’ll enjoy the heater – while it lasts.

Day 3 – 6:00 PM

It’s hard to write legibly when your hands are so numb – the worst has not started yet of course. Night is about to fall on us and it’ll only get colder. We are huddled in our sleeping bags inside an abandoned barracks next to the Kalam Darchi (KD) Fort, with a small fire going, courtesy of our guide/porter, Ali.

We set off at 7:30 am from our hotel as we headed towards Sost. Off we went, winding through the Karakoram Highway (KKH), past a partially frozen Attabad Lake and the magnificent Passu Cones.

We reached Sost at noon. That’s where we met Band-e-Ali (Ali bhai), our current porter and an old acquaintance/guide from a previous trip, whose cheeriness belies his years and Basharat, a local from the Misgar village, who was to be our main guide. It was cold – very cold. We hired a local van here. Just past the first check-post towards Khunjerab on the KKH, a road winds left and back into the mountain valley which leads to Misgar, a tiny hamlet that saw its first settlers around 1864. The river here was a brilliant green and the whole scene was so serene. The mountains offered protection from the harsh winds.

We stopped for some refreshments and then drove off for around 7 km on a now unmetalled road to KD Fort.

I am now settled in my sleeping bag, although an acute pain in my upper back is becoming troublesome. The drive today has aided in calming my nerves and I’m hopeful of a successful trekking expedition.

Trek Day 1 – 9:30 PM

Writing this from a hut in Murkushi – trekked 14 km today to get here. The snow-capped peaks to our left, extending towards Sad Buldi and Kilik, are illuminated brilliantly by a starlit sky.

We started our trek at 8:30 am – the trek was largely plain, around 600 meters of ascent over the entire distance. The Pamir topology came into full view – tall majestic mountains. We trudged along the almost frozen Kilik river and across a variety of terrains including rock, plains and some loose ice over the river.

We made our first stop at Arbab Gul, a small spring one hour from our campsite. Our next main stop was at Lup Jungle. One could tell it would be incredibly beautiful in the summer.

The trek was long but our spirits high and the area with its indigenous wildlife and close proximity to China made the entire range absolutely fascinating.

We were greeted by two herders, Essa and Gul, at Murkushi. They are here to tend to their yaks up till Sad Buldi. Basharat bhai convinced them to go up to Kilik with us. Spent the next few hours in their cozy hut, next to a fire. Had saag (mustard leaves cooked in spices), potatoes, daal and custard for dinner. After a great chat with the two herders and our guides, including CPEC discussions, we retreated to our hut.

We are to go to Sad Buldi tomorrow – 12 km of trekking and 600 meters of ascent. Into the valley towards our left. Quality huts are sparse up there, our guide tells us and the wind is fierce. I fear that tonight will be our last comfortable night – relatively at least. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

Trek Day 2 – 4:30 PM

We’ve made it to Sad Buldi! It’s even colder, as expected. There are no sticks or firewood available here. The hut is quite flimsy too. Our hosts get a fire going with some dried dung instead.

We set off from Murkushi at 8:30 am. Sad Buldi was 12 km away and 600 meters greater in elevation. But the ascent was not gradual – short, steep inclines took their toll on all of us as we inched along at snail’s pace. The steep ascents gave way to flat plains, full of lateral moraine, often covered with loose, dangerous, cracking ice. I almost fell into a crevasse but got out just in time. All along, the Kilik river flowed by our side; stayed rather, since it was frozen.

We passed an area called Shep Shep and then crossed Sisgil where most of us were able to spot markhors through binoculars. Cheetah, leopard, yak and wolf tracks were also present in abundance along our route.

There was spring water available just before Shireen Maidan so we stopped for chai. I finally got some water which I promptly gulped down. The long break only served to make us more lethargic. I was losing energy fast and fearing the worst. Mujtaba wasn’t much better off. We were crossing the 4000 meter mark now – the possibility of contracting altitude sickness increasing as we gained height.

We reached Shireen Maidan at 1:00 pm. What a beautiful sight! A flat, expansive plain, with yellowed grass and craggy, ice-covered Pamir Mountains in the surroundings. We took a few photos, posing nonchalantly in the direction of Sad Buldi. The plains gave way to a frozen river where we had to negotiate our way across with extreme care. But Sad Buldi never came. I crossed the remaining plains extremely slowly and was then confronted by what was perhaps the final ascent. Mustering my remaining reserves of energy, I forced my way across and got to Sad Buldi with the leading pack.

It’s a beautiful campsite – but it will be extremely cold tonight. -26 degrees if the weather forecast is anything to go by. But Kilik is just 6 km away – we can already catch a glimpse of the mountains that form a natural border with China.

The smell of makeshift biryani wafts through the cold air, the smoke visible – and delicious. Tomorrow’s ascent will form the culmination of our journey (hopefully!)

Trek Day 3 – 9:25 PM

They told me it was folly – everyone I asked. “Winter trek?” they would say; some would laugh, others would tell me that it was not the best idea. But the adventurous spirit in us made us want to brave the frightening winds of the Pamirs in the winters, while the locals themselves huddled around fires in the refuge of their homes.

None of us slept particularly well the night before. The fire did little to repel the intense cold of Sad Buldi. Despite being huddled together with 5 people, my teeth chattered uncontrollably and I woke up to a stiff neck.

We had little time to waste. Kilik beckoned and then we had to make our way back to Murkushi. No one wanted to stay at Sad Buldi for another night.

We left there at 8 am. The ascent started straight away followed by a never ending ledge of slippery ice. We maneuvered our way across carefully. One wrong step and you would fall down flat onto the frozen river, some 50 feet below. The wind was relentless. Mamoon’s (my friend) balaclava proved to be a life-saver. We trudged along. The snow levels increased rapidly. Pretty soon, it was close to calf height – every step forward required a ton of energy. The sun was out too – its reflection on the snow created a sharp glare…and it was cold! Really cold.

After the 2nd ascent, with Kilik nowhere in sight, we began to feel a little drained. All of us stopped to pant every five minutes. I was at the very end of the pack, my head was hurting and most of me wanted to turn back. My boots were frozen, my socks were full of snow. But a combination of fool-hardiness, pride and false sense of self-belief kept me going. It took us 3 hours to navigate through approximately 6 kilometers of snow to finally reach Kilik Pass.

A fascinating sight, no doubt. A vast expanse of snow, surrounded by a multitude of peaks – a barbed wire fence was evident just 100 meters from where we stood, marking the Chinese border.

We were at 4820 meters and speaking to the clouds. We were also the first students to successfully attempt this pass in the winter! We took a few photos – then had 2 chocolate bars I had bought from Sost for this very occasion four days ago. Then we headed back.

Upon reaching Sad Buldi, we gobbled down some food, but mainly water and then hastily descended towards Murkushi, some 14 km away at 3:30 pm. We sped off, motivated to get one step closer to Karimabad. Despite the fast pace, we were still 3 km away when dusk set in. We trekked carefully under the clear, star-lit sky, aided by a single flashlight.

Trekking in monochrome was tranquil. We reached Murkushi at 7 pm. All of us collapsed inside the hut. Essa and Fauji chacha got a nice fire going and prepared dinner. We had a delicious meal of mutton, saag and potatoes. Tomorrow is the final day. I am already looking forward to a nice bed and French fries at Hilltop! All that separates us is a final 14 km stretch to KD Fort and a drive back
to Karimabad.

Trek Day 4 – 7:00 PM

I can finally breathe a sigh of warm relief under the quilts of the Hilltop Hotel. However, I cannot quite write without stuttering fingers. The cold, it seems is ingrained within us. The others in the group agree. 3 of my fingers are turning blue. And it’s not much warmer here either – minus 11 degrees celsius. But there’s a plate of club sandwich and fries to my side and a television in front of me so I can’t really complain.

The day started off on a jubilant note. We had gotten our best, most comfortable sleep in days, in that warm Murkushi hut. So we woke up late, around 8 am. Had a grand breakfast of saag, parathas and cheese. Ali and Mujtaba left for Misgar around 8:45 am – they had left to get a van for us and bring it down to KD Fort. The rest of us left half an hour later. We sped off, motivated to get back, trekking quickly, with headphones in ears and following the lead in silent unison.

We only stopped for two small breaks; one at Lup Jungle and the other at Arbab Bul. Therefore, we made it to KD Fort in good time – in almost 4 hours. To our dismay, the van was not there. Only a small note, left by Mujtaba that told us to get to Misgar.

Tired and frustrated, we made the 7 km journey to Misgar, on the unforgiving, turbulent jeep track that curved up and down the whole time.

Fresh landslides near Arbab Bul had already proven to be a bane in our lives as we had to navigate through endless rock, gravel and moraine. By the time I saw the Misgar boundary, my feet were numb but I didn’t care nor did I stop. And right at the very last junction, I saw the van hurtling towards us. We picked up the rest of the group that was behind us and got to Misgar.

Basharat bhai and other locals offered us chai after which we took off. We dropped Essa and Fauji chacha at Misgar bazaar and Ali at Sost, amidst hugs and farewells.

What followed was a silent ride to Karimabad, now just the four of us. Three hours later, at 6:30 pm, we were greeted by Javed bhai at the Hilltop gate. And that marked the end of this journey. For now it is time for a long overdue rest, good food and drink – and then it’s off to Rattu tomorrow!

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