2016 Pakistan (3/3): Hindukush Traverse

Places Hindukush, northern Pakistan. Chitral, Yarkhun Valley, Gazin, Thui Pass, Daus, Yasin Valley, Darkot, Darkot Pass, Boroghil Valley, Kurumber Lake, Chilinji Pass, Chipursan, Sost, Hunza
Time & length September-October 2016, 5 weeks
Partners Lisa Kascha, Florian Schmid
We hiked through the entire Pakistani Hindukush from west to east and crossed 4 major passes with the highest one over 5,300 meters. The area is extremely remote and almost completely unknown to tourists. Our weather was great and we completed the traverse with only one tragedy: my friend Florian had to return home in the middle of the journey due to back problems, so Lisa and I finished without him.
I met Lisa in Vienna, she is a friend of my sister’s, the two of them met in university. Florian works for the outdoor brand VAUDE and is in charge of the backpack department there. Since March 2016 I’ve been working on several projects with VAUDE, all related to product development, photography and marketing.

I wanted to do this Hindukush trek since I first heard about its beautiful mountains and valleys in fall 2015. Sofia and I were in northern Pakistan that time, trying to spend as much time in the mountains as possible, but couldn’t complete the treks we had planned: It was too late in the season, we got snowed in heavily several times and the risk to continue was always too high. So I decided to come back in 2016 and hike the Hindukush in September, right after the Snow Lake trek I did with my friend Heinz Friedrich in August.

There were a few challenges to this trek: First we had to pass through a number of military checkpoints in order to get to our starting point in the Yarkun Valley. I knew that the military wouldn’t be amused to see tourists in that area, especially without a local tour operator. The Hindukush barely sees any foreign tourists at all.

Secondly, we are talking about a pretty long trek: 250 km, including passes up to 5,530 m which would require time to acclimatize. I figured the whole trek would take around 25 days. It was possible to resupply after the first 8 days (Yasin Valley), but the small shops only have some basic food supplies so that we were forced to carry some of the food for the entire trek from the beginning. We therefor decided to pay some local shepherds to help us with the luggage up to the first pass.

After I took a few days to recover from the Karakorum trek, I met Lisa and Florian in Islamabad on September 1st. We went to the bus station and wanted to buy tickets for Chitral, which they refused: apparently it’s too dangerous to go there for tourists, also the military would repeatedly check us at every outpost which takes time and would be annoying for the other passengers. It took a few cups of tea and some convincing in the office of the bus company’s boss until we got our tickets.

After buying a few more supplies in Chitral, we paid a visit to the local police station and asked for permission to travel up the Yarkhun Valley. Sure enough, according to the chief the place was too dangerous and there was no way we could get permission to go there without a local tour operator and a military escort. I debated this for about an hour, eventually we were granted permission. Yes, it’s always that stressful in Pakistan…

We paid a private person to drive us up the Yarkhun Valley to a place called Gazin, where we stayed with a local shepherd family. From there it was only about 12 hours of fast hiking up to Thui Pass (4,500 m). Obviously my two friends were not acclimatized, so we decided to take it really slow in the beginning. When we started hiking, we left two medium size bags full of food behind and asked the villagers to bring these up to the pass for us after 4 days. In return, they we promise money and a brand new Vaude backpack.

The hiking was good, but Lisa wasn’t doing so well physically, so we walked slowly and took many breaks. After two days, some police men and two villagers caught up with us and told us about some “security threat in the area” which apparently required us to leave the area immediately. Of course that was just another sign of the police’s overload with our presence as foreign tourists: they were worried about us. We asked them to calm down and relax. After a cup of tea, they went down to the village again and we continued our journey up to Thui Pass as planned.

After two more days and a small birthday party – Florian turned 37 during our trip – we reached Thui Pass on September 8 and our supplies were brought up in time. We spent that night just behind the pass, using the high altitude for some more acclimatization in order to be prepared for the next pass (Dakot Pass, 4,700 m).

On the way down we hiked over plenty of ice and gravel before we had to cross Thui River, which was more difficult than I thought. Eventually we found a place to camp under the trees and took some time to relax at the camp fire. Florian started having pain in his back…

We continued down the beautiful valley until we arrived at the first village. From there we made it to Daus in the Yasin Valley and bought more food for the coming 18 trekking days.

Florian’s back problems got worse, but he wanted to come with us to Darkot and try to continue the route anyways. Darkot is a pretty remote village at the northern end of the Yasin Valley, we arrived there on September 13 and spent two nights. Obviously there are no hotels in places like these – when we were in villages, we mostly enjoyed the people’s hospitality and stayed with them in their houses.

We left Darkot on September 15 and slowly went up towards Darkot Pass after taking a good bath in the hot springs on the way. The night before reaching the pass, Florian decided that he couldn’t continue the trip – his back wasn’t getting any better and he couldn’t take the risk to damage himself. It was tragic, but we understood. At the place we were that night, it was easy to go back to Darkot, drive to Gilgit and return to Islamabad. Once we were over the pass, there was no going back anymore – so it was either that day or never. And Florian decided to not take any chances.

Lisa and I reached Darkot Pass (4,700 m) in perfect weather conditions. The area is glaciated with plenty of permanent snow on top, simply a wonderful place for people like me to reach. The two of us were really happy – now we entered the actual heart of the Hindukush: Boroghil Valley and Kurumber Lake.

In the next few days, we hiked down to the breathtaking Boroghil Valley and crossed the Chiantar Glacier moraine in order to continue up to Kurumber Lake. We met one family of shepherds in that place, they spoke “wakhi” and could only communicate to us in sign language. Other than this family and us, the place seemed empty.

On September 20 we reached Kurumber Lake (4,290 m). I wonder how many foreign tourists have been to this place after 9/11… Probably not more than a dozen. To celebrate this victory, Lisa to a quick swim in the ice cold glacier water.

The weather changed a bit in the next two days, we even had snow below 4,000 m altitude. One hour before reaching Chateboi Glacier, we ran into a few houses with two local families who spend the summers up in these mountains with their cattle. We had tea with them.

On September 23 we traversed Chateboi Glacier. It’s full of deep crevasses and very hard to navigate. Don’t even try this one if it’s snow-covered – we wouldn’t have stand a chance to make it to the other side if the ice hadn’t been clear.

We then reached the open valley between Chateboi and Chilinji Glacier. I knew this place from last year, only that now it wasn’t snowing so hard, instead we had blue skies all day long. We crossed Kurumber River a few times – two times without bridges, one time we found a bridge. There used to be a “pulley” right before the glacier, but it’s broken now and the locals seem to not care to fix it, so we had to cross the river right before the water disappeared under the ice of Chilinji Glacier.

We began to hike up to our last pass, Chilinji Pass (5,335 m). We followed the glacier on its north side and camped amidst a little grove where two shepherds joined us for a sign language conversation. The next day we continued to climb up to the pass, following a steep drainage full of rocks. We made camp just underneath the pass at 4,800 m.

We reached Chilinji Pass (5,335 m) on September 26 after an incredibly exhausting climb. The top was completely covered in ice and snow, everything was beautiful. This is one of the highest and certainly most difficult passes I have ever climbed. Now we followed the glaciers towards Chipursan.

We followed the moraines and rivers down the valley. The upper Chipursan Valley is a beautiful place, I really enjoyed being there, knowing that we finally completed the Hindukush traverse. In the afternoon we saw the first settlement, located at the end of the valley road, but decided to stay one more night in the wilderness and reach the place in the next morning. So we celebrated Lisa’s birthday and the end of our successful journey on September 27.

The next day we entered the small settlement. There was a military checkpoint, the soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw us coming from the west. And they were even more confused when we told them that our trip began in Chitral – they weren’t aware that one can hike so far. Especially Chilinji Pass is known as a very difficult and dangerous pass to trek over, which is why apparently only a handful of people per year go up there.

It took us about two hours to convince the military that what we’ve been doing was completely legal. What did it matter anyway? Our traverse was completed, no reason to worry about us now anymore, we just needed to get back to Hunza now…

We hiked down the Chipursan Valley road for a few hours until a car stopped for us. Inside were four men on their way to Gilgit, they agreed to take us to Hunza the same day. We first felt extremely lucky, but once we realized that all four Pakistanis (including the driver) were constantly drinking hard liquor and smoking weed one the way, we just wanted this drive to be over as soon as possible. Ultimately we reached Karimabad in Hunza late in the evening of September 28.

We spent the next few days relaxing, eating, washing and answering emails on our cell phones. I met with some of my Hunza friends which I won’t see now for a while.

Lisa and I were extremely happy and relieved to have finished this traverse so successfully. The weather was perfect, the landscape impressive and the few social encounters insightful. This journey could barely have been any better… if it wasn’t for Florian’s back problems and early return.

Pakistan is a beautiful place, but it surely isn’t for everybody. If you want to do something extraordinary in the mountains there, you will probably go through tremendous legal hassle. And if you are a woman, well, the patriarchic society there will probably make you regret not traveling on the side of a man. Nevertheless, if you can cope with the culture of a conservative muslim country, Pakistan is a great destination for adventurers.

Here is a picture of Mr. Shabbir Hussain from Hunza who help me plan this trip. I was able to thank him and his fellow shepherd friend as well as his nephew Essakhan Hunzai (a Hunza trekking guide) with new VAUDE sleeping bags.