2016 Pakistan (2/3): Snow Lake Trek

Places Karakorum, Pakistan. Biafo Glacier, Snow Lake, Skardu, Askole, Gilgit
Time & length August 2016, 3 weeks
Partners Heinz Friedrich
We hiked up Biafo Glacier and reached Snow Lake in less than one week. Up there on the ice we couldn’t move for several days due to severe snowfall and poor visibility. On the 6th day of terrible weather, we were running out of time and had to return to Askole – approaching Hispar La or even Lupke La would have been absolutely impossible given the weather conditions.
This report is the continuation of Heinz’ and my Deosai traverse which you can find here. In Skardu we picked up the climbing gear we shipped there two weeks before and bought groceries. Then we went to the military’s “Field Security Section” and discussed our plans. Although the Snow Lake trek goes through “open zone” they said there is no way we could go alone, without tour operator and guide. We insisted and debated this issue for over an hour, using every trick in the book. When we went there for the second time, they finally gave us permission – they said it was a “one time only” deal, a huge exception. They didn’t give us anything in writing but promised to inform all the military checkpoint on the way to Askole so they would let us pass.

After resting in Skardu for a couple more days we hired a driver to take us up to Askole. The road is bad and can only be driven with 4×4 vehicles. It took us 8 hours to reach the village and the end of the road since we had to clean the road from a small landslide that must have occurred only minutes before we got there. All military checkpoint on the way knew that we were coming and allowed us to continue.

In Askole (and also just before in Skardu) we talked to a few guides who all told us the same story about what happened to the Snow Lake trek lately: Apparently something changed in a field of crevasses on the western side of Hispar La and made the traverse impossible. They said no group was able to go over these crevasses this year, all nine expeditions that tried in 2016 had to return. Even one expedition led by two known and experienced European mountaineers could not find a route around the crevasses. Heinz and I wanted to try it anyway so we could see for ourselves. The people around us thought that what we were doing was way too dangerous, especially since we were only two people on the rope and had no guide.

Our trek started on August 9. The weather was quite good on the first day but changed in the afternoon of the second day – it frequently rained on us while we were walking on the moraine.

The next few days we kept on walking up the Biafo Glacier. Although we were carrying so heavy backpacks full of food and equipment, Heinz and I were motivated and made good progress. The weather was only marginal: sometimes the sun came out, but mostly it was cloudy and we had some rain and snow.

We started walking on the rope and with Snow Shoes in the morning of August 14. The crevasses got bigger and bigger and some of them were covered in old and fresh snow. Around noon we reached Snow Lake. Suddenly we got wind from the southwest, it started snowing and the whole place was covered in clouds. Since there was almost no visibility, we decided to camp and wait for better weather.

While lying in the tent, Heinz and I discussed a plan that we came up with a couple of days ago: Instead of going over Hispar La, which according to all the people we spoke to was uncrossable at the time, we considered going over Lupke La, a pass in the north of Snow Lake. Lupke La was 5.480 m high and fairly difficult, only few expeditions have tried that route so far. But the pass itself was not the only problem: If we take that route, we would have to go all the way to Shimshal, we figured. That included the crossing of a river so challenging that people usually use yaks to get across. But if crossing Hispar La was indeed impossible, than only two options were left: Lupke La and the difficult route to Shimshal or the same way back to Askole. Obviously we didn’t want to go back. What we needed now was a change in the weather. It was quite frustrating to look outside the tent in the next morning.

It kept on snowing for five days. We felt so unlucky…! Even though we wanted to, we could not continue the trek – almost all crevasses were covered in fresh snow and visibility was poor. When the clouds lifted a bit, I went outside to take a few pictures, but mostly we had to stay inside our tent.

On August 17 we moved a bit but had to stop again after only 2 hours. That was all the time we had before it started snowing heavily again.

During the next day we mostly had bad weather again. But it stopped snowing in the evening so I went out to take a few pictures. Just before midnight the moon came out for a bit which even allowed me to take some night shots.

After losing so much time due to severe weather, it was clear that reaching Shimshal was completely unrealistic. We ran out of time and food – there was no other option than to go back.

We began our way down on August 19 and reached Askole in the morning of the 22nd, from there we departed to Skardu.

We were both a little unsatisfied with the outcome, but clearly there was no other way. We were unlucky, but made the right decision, no doubt about it. Going up to the glacier all the way to Lupke La in the clouds and with all that fresh snow would have been way too dangerous. We did the best we could… maybe another time.

Thanks to Sofia Matousek for all the research and information I received via sat phone. And thanks to VAUDE for providing all that excellent equipment, especially that bomb shelter of a tent (Power Sphaerio 3P).