Think Twice About this Solo Stroll…
Ultar Peak (Karimabad), Pakistan
“Trekers ples not go Ultar without guide” read the neatly painted and very official-looking sign placed about ankle level at a street fork in Karimabad, Pakistan. It was about 10:30 a.m. when I calmly strode past it, taking the upper fork towards the village outskirts. I couldn’t wait to leave its realm, charmingly picturesque as it was, for the famed Karakoram solitude beckoning in the shadows of moody Ultar Peak. Ultar, at 24,500 feet, up until a recent successful 1991 conquest, had the dubious honor of being one of the world’s highest unclimbed mountains.
The young Australian couple I had met a few days earlier declined to accompany me on my trek and so I proceeded alone after a quick porridge breakfast, selfishly relieved at the prospect of being able to claim the calm all to myself. Passing the sign reminded me of the guidebook passage describing the trek to the base of Ultar as “strenuous” where a local guide was “useful but not necessary”. Assuming that those guidelines were meant for the “lowest common denominator” trekker, I waived the need for a guide without a moment’s hesitation. The sign I passed only served to reinforce the impression that the local constituency of able guides was becoming increasingly savvy in its approach to securing customers through a combination of fear-inducing tactics and warm approachability.
Generally, I tended to be tight-fisted in soliciting guide services, feeling that they were an artifice that detracted from the sacred “independent experience”. Moreover, the New York Marketing Executive voice-in-my-head kept nagging, “The last thing you want to be is a victim of a smooth pitch.”
I felt even more steadfast in this suspicion when I encountered two returning villagers about ten minutes beyond the village boundary. They expressed surprise that I was going to Ultar with no guide. “Dangerous!” they warned. I calmly responded with my characteristic nonchalance and snapped a few photos of them lofting back-mounted loads of dried grass, 700-year Baltit Fort majestically framed in the distance. Fifteen minutes after parting ways, I was truly on my own.
It was not long before I began noticing the subtle degradation and disappearance of the path. The luxury of being able to stroll ahead unconsciously while taking in the humbling scenery gave way to the necessity of continually maintaining a sense of my surroundings and direction. This got more challenging as I became engulfed by the uniformly stark relief of the gorge-like entrance into Ultar’s foothills. Clues consisted of little more than a faintly visible pebbly scattering that seemed just shy of a random arrangement amidst the finely ground rubble. My upright walking stance also started to angle itself nervously towards the mountain face as the ground underfoot began losing its firmness. I found myself digging my feet deliberately into the crumbly moraine as I paced ahead with an increasingly low centre-of-gravity crouch. Above and below me on the steep slope stood precariously positioned rocks held questionably in place by the pasty stony shrapnel I was constantly agitating with my every tenuous step. And then it happened.
Placing my weight on one of these rocks, I inadvertently dislodged it. A state of mild panic arose as I noticed it plow its way downward, releasing an entropic series of events that included a gentle shower of rubble about a hundred feet below. Before I could marvel at my mini-landslide, several thumb-sized pebbles started bouncing off my leg from above. I gulped palpably and swiftly turned to see if the landslide effect extended upwards, my gaze fixed on the two large boulders some roughly 30 feet up. When all was at equilibrium again, I found I had slipped onto all fours; my knees, elbows and backpack smeared with a gravelly mud.
The indelible mark of mud is a sign of nature’s supremacy. Getting up sheepishly from my first knockdown, I tried brushing off my muddy clothes with my muddy hands. It was apparent that I was going to be spending my evening doing some down-and-dirty hand washing. It was also apparent that I had begun sweating rather profusely.
My altimeter/thermometer watch indicated a comfortable 70 F. Few clouds dotted the sky and I picked myself and my spirits up – thankful at least, that the weather was being cooperative. Tying my muddy jacket around my waist, I proceeded gamely, convincing myself that “This was IT!” That a passage without tribulation is a passage that yields no satisfaction, insight or enlightenment. With that cheery thought in mind, I rounded a bend and confronted a sight that both tantalized and tortured me.
A chill overran my body despite the afternoon warmth as I realized that if I wanted to go any further, I would have to crawl on all fours up the next slope. It was a vast vertical scree of scattered rocks and sharply chiseled stones awash in a sleazy mud. The path by now had completely disintegrated.
One of my first thoughts was whether or not I had made a wrong turn at some point. It seemed incredulous that what lay ahead constituted an “indistinct trail” in the guidebook. What lay ahead was positively off-putting and just a little frightening. I mentally re-traced my steps and remembered that I had indeed previously taken a few forks that led inevitably, after a few short turns, to a non-sequitous precipice – more often than not, accented by a spectacular waterfall a few yards away. That I couldn’t really place the exact location of the telltale water whoosh was testament to the immensity of the echo that enveloped me. It enabled a perception of magnitude but none whatsoever of direction.
I refused to believe that I had made a severely wrong turn as my last distinct route decision felt like ages ago. The top of the scree seemed to belie a ridge-like path. It stood over a hundred treacherously vertical, sickeningly muddy feet away. I visualized the safest route upwards, taking care to skirt the big boulders in the most conservative fashion possible. Three steps into my crawl, I began muttering out loud about my own sanity as I took my first real slide downhill.
Rubble from above tumbled down and overtook me, selected pieces ricocheting chaotically off boulders and bouncing with abandon towards and off an edge about fifty feet down slope. Others rolled sluggishly till the viscosity of the muddy substratum stopped them. Assuming an octopusian position on the slope face, I alternately scrambled, clawed and spread-eagled myself to a halt. In all, I may have slid ten feet, but I feared for every screaming inch of it. I was now desperately crouching on nature’s belly with, you guessed it – mud on my face.
Straining my neck upwards, I sucked in several urgent breaths and plotted my upcoming strategy. Meanwhile, any frivolous move generated more slippage. With what amounted to nothing more than a scrappy intuitive interaction between body and terrain, I found myself successfully breaststroking my way to the target ridge. I didn’t dare speculate about what I would see after surmounting the ridge. Would there be a steep drop on the other side? Would the ridge be absurdly narrow? Would I find myself inexplicably cornered and have to slide back down and retrace my steps to who knows where?
I scrambled back up to my feet and slapped as much earth and dust off before surveying the future. A faint path had re-appeared and with it, my optimism. By this time, my vision had been tuned to the subtlest directional indicators. The slightest hint of an unnatural indentation or pebble placement was enough to give me confidence. And yet, the path would vanish time and time again. Giving way, in most cases, to more body contact with the Karakoram Range and its mealy moraine. This became routine and my anxiety ebbed and gave way to a meditative plod. I became less concerned with losing my way and simply made up the way as it came. My gaze focused aimlessly at the monotonous harsh, Martian relief. Plodplodplod. Surmounting another routine hump, Mars suddenly gave way to a vast meadow of dreamlike quality that brought me to my knees. This time, in utter gratitude and joy.
The incongruous onslaught of greenery almost gave me an asthma attack as I absorbed its beauty with all my being. Sloping gently upwards, it had a putting green texture and was visually peppered with carefully positioned boulders. Low-lying wispy clouds contributed to the overall floaty headiness I was now feeling, a queasy combination of dizzy exhaustion and triumphant relief. Relief because there beyond the cloudy veils stood Ultar – an immense monolith whose upper reaches stayed hidden in a threatening mass of unusually dark frothy cloud.
I could only guess at Ultar’s total size as that was continually confounded by the booming icefall that echoed in this natural amphitheater. Adjacent to Ultar is Bubulimating Mountain, a sheer rock face so steep, it is completely devoid of clinging snow or ice. Legend has it that Princess Bubuli was imprisoned atop it by an evil king, where nightly, she would sing in vain for a rescuer to set her free. I imagined her song in the thickest night, whistling sadly in the mountain wind, like a shrill piccolo to the accompaniment of Ultar’s glacial kettledrums. A gradually perceptible pitter-patter on my windbreaker brought me back to reality as I opened my eyes to an ominous sight.
The gloomy clouds that shrouded Ultar’s peak had during my brief interlude with the Princess completely blanketed the sky. The temperature had also dropped dramatically. A glance at my watch revealed a nippy 50 F. My concern heightened as the slight drizzle that had initially awakened me transformed into a hailstorm. I took shelter in the nearby shepherd’s hut, the landmark signifying the end of the trek. Confident that the temperamental Karakoram weather would do an about-face as inexplicably as it had turned south, I relaxed and tucked into an overdue snack of dried fruit. It had taken me 3 hours to climb 3,000 vertical feet. I was pleased with myself and inhaled a few generous breaths of fresh dewy mountain air. All that remained was for this weather tantrum to pass and I would head back down.
Forty-five minutes later and the only thing that had changed was the state of my nerves. Highly charged at this point on account of the stubborn hailstorm and venting sky, spewing forth an ever-thickening broth of gray soupy cloud. I estimated it would take me maybe half my uphill time to trek downhill, getting me back to Baltit around 4 p.m. It was tempting to wait a little longer and try to enjoy the surroundings but my anxiety prevented any natural peace from occurring. I took a few final mist-covered photos, double-checked the plastic coverings in my camera bag, chugged down a few more apricots, adorned my loose wool hat and extra wool shirt and turned to go down. It was 2:30 p.m. and I was more than a little concerned at this point. Especially when my hands began feeling numbish and I chided myself for not packing my gloves.
I descended initially at a quick and purposeful pace, trying to ‘make haste while the sun shines’. The ground was slippery but I soon attained a comfortable groove. The following guidebook passage kept dogging my thoughts:
“On the return trip, high water channels look like good trails but they aren’t, because they leave you with some dangerous descents, and may pose a rockfall hazard below.”
It soon became apparent that I was on a distinctly different return trail. Winding passages through garden-like groves of scrawny trees struck an eerily mysterious chord – like I had accidentally crossed into a fairytale setting where the pathways were clear, yet totally unfamiliar. In this deceptively dreamy setting, I was possessed by a deadening calm, like that of a highly alert sleepwalker. The trickling tumble of the meandering stream alongside the path a comforting symbol of life. I just couldn’t get over how I could have missed this obvious trail on the way up; all that scrambling on my belly seemed so silly. Until I found myself suddenly at a dead end, facing a “dangerous descent”.
Ahead was a small leap off the trail onto a narrow one square foot space. I made the jump adequately but not without a little ankle quiver that jolted my senses. If I weren’t careful, this would turn ugly. Thoughts of my recently repaired shoulder surfaced. I was now walking very carefully with my hands tucked into my coat pocket for warmth, pacing like a clumsy toy soldier. The calm from a few minutes ago had frittered away and in its place was a mantra-like chant that went, “No mistakes now, no mistakes”. On and on it went. The next leap was an eight-foot one and when I came face to face with it, I realized I was in for a test the rest of the way back. For I had become quite lost.
I hadn’t encountered any of the wide crumbly slopes down which I had resigned to scrambling on all fours. Instead, I was led down a series of tight and narrow switchbacks strewn with minor rock-climbing episodes. The latter involved several dicey jumps onto landing spots either perilously close to a life-taunting edge or surrounded by waxy pebbles and jagged stone facets. The mantra became all the more urgent as I consciously battled my ever-increasing fatigue.
The opportunity to navigate down some crumbly terrain interspersed with delicately suspended boulders soon presented itself. And yet, its setting didn’t look at all familiar from the upward journey. I stopped often, usually at a jumping-off point, daring myself to speculate that I was heading into an ever-increasingly precarious situation; my hands getting more cold and wrinkly from the drenching moisture; my pants, jacket and even my hat soaking wet with sand and mud; the mantra slowly surrendering to my wavering spirit, darkness setting in – straining my vision and increasing the chances of a tired slip. Each step forward was an effort of deliberate concentration as I tried my best not to be the next rolling stone.
I found that I had subtly changed my inner voice. It now repeatedly uttered, “Today I’m being tested. Can’t afford to fail. Not today. Not this test.” For the rest of the way back, my new mantra went uninterrupted by nary a single sighted soul. The guidebook estimated a return trip of about one hour.
At 5 p.m., a solid two-and-a-half hours after I’d begun, I spotted Baltit Fort. Traipsing back into town in the failing light, a local villager with a wizened countenance watched me stumble by and, catching sight of my sorry muddy mess, stepped aside from the path, giving me a wide berth. As I glanced over at him, he stroked his silky white beard, waggled his finger at me knowingly and muttered, “You go Ultar without guide.”