Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.— Anatoli Boukreev
People of all leanings have been drawn to the mountains for centuries, some for spiritual reasons, some to experience the solitude and beauty, others to test out their own physical and mental abilities, to chart new routes, and others still perhaps mistakenly with the ambition of conquering the mountains.
Barring the latter, I had a mix of all the persuasions at varying degrees drawing me once again to the majestic peaks of Pakistan.
On a trek in these remote ranges you may not encounter another soul for days, a luxury perhaps very few places in the world can boast nowadays. The bad press Pakistan gets seems to have allowed nature time to recover in Gilgit-Baltistan and reclaim its territory.
My trip to Deosai Plains, Rama Lake, Eagle’s Nest and Irshad Pass bordering the Wakhan in 2015 had only increased my desire to explore and experience more of the pristine nature this area has been endowed with.
This time, however, I decided to follow my father’s footsteps and attempt a mountaineering expedition — essentially a more cumbersome form of trekking, at a higher altitude with lower oxygen and usually involving an attempt to summit.
Planning an expedition can be a challenge. They can be fairly costly due to the remoteness of the peaks and the logistics involved.
The first step in planning your first expedition is getting a team together. And when no one you know fancies the idea, you coax your brother into it! The next step is narrowing down the region and the mountain you want to climb.
Perhaps the most important step is finding a reliable mountain guide with local knowledge. Ideally, this is someone who has climbed that peak before and is aware of the risks, terrain and the technicalities.
A brief Google search for mountains within the 6,000-6,500 metre range yielded quite a few peaks that had been climbed.
One of the most prominent and beautiful looking ones, Laila Peak, caught my immediate attention.
As steep and beautiful as the mountain looked, a little bit of research and a few quick calls to some local guides forced common sense to prevail — the mountain was well beyond our zero-experience league.
No Pakistani, porter or guide had climbed Laila Peak before (would be delighted to know that I am wrong here though).
Sonia Peak seemed like the best possible choice given our experience.
With an altitude of around 6,100m, it lies at the northern reaches of the Karakoram Range inside Khunjerab National Park close to the Chinese border.
It had been climbed a few times before, with the first summit credited to Rahmat Ullah Baig from Shimshal, who climbed it from the Chafchingol Pass side — the eastern face — in 1993.
We decided to attempt the summit via the northwestern face — the Thugeen side. To my knowledge it had been climbed only once before from that side in 2008.
Fortunately, we managed to track down a guide, Niamat, who had climbed it on that very expedition led by Fazal Ali, an eminent mountaineer also from Shimshal just as Niamat and Rahmat.
The base camp of the mountain, Dhee, is a solid four days’ trek from Shimshal.
Once we had agreed on the expedition cost and logistical details, I booked my flights and set out to purchase all the equipment needed.
I had agreed with Niamat that he will organise all the food and logistics from Shimshal onwards, which left me to procure equipment of a personal nature only — crampons, ice axe, down jacket, sleeping bag for sub-zero temperatures, crampon compatible boots and so on.
I flew from London on the morning of September 15, 2017, had a brief layover in Istanbul and reached Islamabad at 4:30am the next day.
Taimoor, my brother, was waiting for me at the check-in counter for the Islamabad to Gilgit flight, accompanied with arguably the most experienced member of our nascent expedition — an ancient looking rucksack that predated the first Indiana Jones movie.
It had my father’s name printed on it, along with the two expeditions it had previously been on: a joint Pak-Japanese Services Expedition in 1978 that was credited with the first summit of Passu Sar (7,478m) and a Pak-Polish Rakaposhi (7,788m) Expedition the following year.
My father had dug out this rucksack from a long-forgotten trunk in the basement, had it repaired, washed and printed my brother’s name on it, ready for our expedition (still wonder why my name wasn’t on it, but that’s a family score to be settled later).
The flight to Gilgit was on time and landed around 8am. We had already organised a jeep ride to Shimshal. After a quick and hearty breakfast, we were on our way to Aliabad to meet Niamat.
Saad, the third member of our expedition and a late but great addition by Niamat, was also there.
Being more experienced than Taimoor and myself, Saad knew exactly what to pack for survival at high altitude — home-cooked biryani, seekh kebabs, shami kebabs and beef pasanday, all in tightly-sealed food bags.
So far so good. However, in Aliabad we were told our No Objection Certificate (NOC) still hadn’t arrived.
After a few frantic calls back and forth to avoid any further delays, we were finally allowed to go ahead on the condition that Niamat’s brother would pick up the NOC in Aliabad the next day and fax it to us in Shimshal.
We procured some remaining food items (as you can tell by now food featured high up on our priority list) and fuel and within two hours we were on our way.
Shimshal is a beautiful valley nestled between the mountains on the banks of the Shimshal River and home to some of the famous mountaineers from Pakistan.
Navigating the treacherous and winding jeep road, that branches off from the Karakoram Highway towards Shimshal, took us a good few hours and we arrived there late in the evening around 8pm.
This was as far as motorised transportation would take us. From here on, our expedition was on foot.
Our team grew exponentially over the course of the next few hours with the valuable additions of a cook, five porters, a yak and two donkeys with two young sucklings in tow.
We weighed all the gear and food and distributed it across our contingent, with a hefty 45kgs going to the yak.
I had been travelling non-stop for over 24 hours, but we opted unwisely to trek onwards to Zartgorbin (~4,068m) in the morning instead of taking a day to rest and acclimatise in Shimshal (~3,100m), thinking that we’d keep a few buffer days for the summit attempt in case we were hit by inclement weather or other unforeseen delays.
However, trekking up to Zartgorbin, an increase of ~1,000m in elevation without having properly rested or acclimatised was to result in a painful night with an acute headache (symptomatic of altitude sickness) and a bloated stomach.
Yes, gobbling down parathas and a few eggs the morning before a long and arduous trek is a bad idea. Thankfully, throwing up a little gave my stomach some respite and the rest of the night was spent in peace.
From here on, I decided to follow my father’s advice, “don’t tire yourself, tire the mountain with your patience” — patience that I had clearly lacked.
On day two, we started late and trekked for only about five hours and camped at Shapodeen at 4,500m. All three of us (myself, Taimoor and Saad) at this stage were hit by mild altitude sickness of varying degrees.
We could tell our bodies were slowly acclimatising though. One-tip cricket brought some amusement and distraction from the nagging headaches that had begun to grow.
On the third day we stepped out of the tent onto a white canvas. It had snowed overnight as the temperatures had dropped well below zero.
The donkeys in our convoy seemed unfazed by the snow and were going about their business in a leisurely manner. The humans on the other hand, those who had dared not to pitch a tent and bivvy it out — the weather-hardy porters — had to scupper for shelter in the middle of the night.
We made sure every night to pitch our tent where herders’ makeshift shelters were present. These are used by Shimshalis on their long marches to the higher and lusher pastures, where they leave their stock to fatten in the summer months, before gathering and herding them back to the villages before winter.
We started early on the third morning and after a good nine-hour hike, crossing the scenic Boisam Pass (5,000m) where we were greeted by some of the most spectacular views, we reached Mindikshalagh (4,140m).
Mindikshalagh is perched at the junction where Boisam Valley meets Gujerab River. Here we caught our first glimpse of the summit of Sonia Peak.
It shone like a golden pyramid under the daze of the setting sun.
Our arrival coincided with the arrival of a few hundred sheep that had been grazing in the pastures nearby. One of these was going to be our meal for tonight and for the next few days of the expedition.
Not long after an ideal candidate had been spotted, Karimud Din “Kassai” Baig was on it and slaughtered and skinned the animal in 15 minutes tops.
I walked around Mindikshalagh to discover that it had a revered footprint, which after some inquiries, I was told was of Baba Ghundi, from Ghund in Tajikistan.
I had come across Baba Ghundi’s shrine in Chapursan Valley, but hadn’t known that this saint had walked all the way to Mindikshalagh as well.
As Ibn Battutah or Ibn Jubayr would have remarked, ‘Allah knows best about the authenticity of this.’
On the fourth day we suffered a setback. Saad had to turn back due to a family emergency while we were only a day shy of Dhee, our base camp.
We bid farewell to Saad, packed up our camp and started our descent to Dhee (3,700m) — which comes with its own fair share of ascents, as is the norm in the mountains.
From Mindikshalagh, Dhee is a nine-hour up and down trek along the Gujerab River, where we finally had the luxury of a refreshing and much-needed bath.
We reached Dhee around 4pm and set up our base camp on the west bank of the river, opposite Thugeen with the summit of Sonia Peak peering down at us.
Taimoor and I decided to rest and sleep longer that night — but early in the morning our peaceful slumber was disturbed by the ground shaking beneath us.
This is the first of a two-part travelogue of a mountaineering expedition to summit Sonia Peak in the Karakoram Range, published in Dawn’s Blog section on December 25, 2018.