The mountains of Pakistan have been my holy grail (or should I say, Mecca!) for at least ten years. At xalps Antoine said they’d made it harder with permissions and you couldn’t get away with it as the authorities would follow you and be there when you land. So when I heard of a new competition in Pakistan, supported by the government, I thought I better take this chance while I can. The competition was in the “foothills” (still higher than anything in Australia or New Zealand) but of course my main motivation was to explore the bigger peaks.
The Muzaffarrabad event was cancelled due to an earthquake a few days before I arrived. Other visiting pilots had flown there earlier but had been escorted everywhere by the tourist police. Not exactly giving the impression of being safe. Right now, I’m in a bus station and I’ve been refused entry to half a dozen hotels as it’s apparently too unsafe for foreigners. I’ve said the trick is to go to a country in that sweet spot between war and over-tourism, seems there’s still a few teething problems. It was most frustrating that it took a week to get a SIM card. Also I believe that not having a tarpaulin at launch was one of many factors contributing to Alex’s accident.
To be fair, we did get whisked straight from the airport (once we’d waited for some more arrivals from Europe) to the legendary Hunza valley. This actually suited me fine – although some pilots were more oriented to the competition friendly flying at Muzaffarrabad. Hunza is an adventure flying destination and you could say it’s a different sport completely. Jan and Shane from southeast Queensland had been out and about flying amazing routes high and deep in the mountains, and it looked like we only had a few decent days before the weather deteriorated. In hindsight my feeling that oxygen would be more trouble than it’s worth was valid. Although I generally never take medication for anything I tried Diamox, noticing no side affects despite taking one 250mg tablet every eight hours, three times the dose of the others.
So the first night was in Islamabad, the second in Naran on our way to a high (4000+metre Babusar) pass, then after a full day on the Karakorum highway we checked into the Darbar hotel in Hunza. It was hard being in the bus with the sun shining, we’d asked about flying down from the pass but the villages below and down river are touted as unsafe for foreigners. With the next day good, it was rather disappointing to have to visit the toilet half a dozen times during the night. Probably due to tap water – UV purified but rather cloudy “muddy” water.
This trip was artificially short as I couldn’t get time off work. I resolved to sit in my own shit if that’s what it took to fly amongst 7000+ metre glaciated mountains. Jan, Lucas (from Argentina) and myself took our own taxi up to launch to be nice and early. A last bowel movement and I took off. As Jan described, the first 500 vertical metres were the hardest – I ventured a few kilometres up the river before getting up. Soon enough I was cruising along with the famous Lady Finger on my right and Rakaposhi on my left. Cloud looked too low to dive deep into high mountain passes so I crossed over to the northwest “Japanese” ridge of Rakaposhi. Beautiful autumn colour. Clouds developing with some depth though and showers all around so I opted to land. Another bowel movement but during the flight I’d actually had the satisfaction of a few dry farts. My landing at 4300m was in the perfect grassy spot, and once the sun came out I took off and flew higher up the ridge. [Track: Hunza to Rakaposhi ridge, back to Hunza)
Cloud base was relatively low but with my altimeter in feet I hadn’t realised I’d reached 6001 metres earlier that day. Gliding past the glaciers on the Hunza side of Rakaposhi I flew back home. As I dilly dallied around on a spur an Enzo3 thermalled up to join me. He was to win the competition, having flown around the corner to Gilgit, while I came third. Neither of us knew as the organiser Snowy wisely wanted pilots to believe it was not a competition, this was just to satisfy the organisers. It’s no place for any additional risk. Without a radio I knew nothing about Alex’s accident until later.
Landing at the cemetery it was great to see Shane who had just returned from a huge overnight vol biv to the west. Him and Jan have definitely demonstrated since inspirational flying lately. We walked back to the hotel and caught up with the others. It was a great atmosphere in the Darbar hotel, with a large open common area and buffet meals. There are actually a healthy amount of western tourists in Hunza, although they could do with a lot more. The people in the village are great. The competition organisers have been through a lot with the competition relocation, and this is the first year, and to be honest I was expecting a certain amount of chaos, so I hope everyone understands not to take my frank and upfront assessments personally.
Still, I felt it would be best for me and everyone else if I spent a night away from it all in the hills. On the next day I went to Eagle’s nest early with Shane, Josh (from NZ) and Dominic (from Switzerland). Shane climbed out straight after launching but I struggled out in front. Aside from being precious about my Ozone zeolite in the dust and weeds, I’m actually quite overweight on it – should have brought the Enzo. Shane tried to wait for me but in the end it was hopeless. I joined Colin (flying a Gin explorer) in a thermal but never got high. With the west / valley wind picking up I crossed the valley. Landed for a bowel movement and to get the battery pack for my dead vario.
Flying again I went towards the big mountains south of Spantik. Finally I got high, reaching the maximum altitude of the trip, 6308 metres. This is what I came for. I saw mountain goats (Ibex?) high on a rocky slope. I crossed some high snowy ridges, with epic views across the glaciers. Shane was somewhere nearby but I only found out afterwards – with no communications, effectively I was alone. I noted that probably the hardest part of the flight now would be to execute a safe landing.
Low clouds pushed up against Spantik and its neighbours and snow showers crept over, so I flew north to follow blue skies. I crossed the valley near Passu. A long ridge offered a potential landing. With sink in the last fifteen metres or so, I braced for impact. I then de-robed as quickly as possible for an emergency ejection of yoghurt consistency on the rocks – an improvement but not there yet.
I was proud of my innovative launch – the first time I’d tried laying out a rosette on top of a bush. Saved dealing with shards of slate like rock, and I was away again. Now racing against the clock, I climbed on huge rocky spires. Dived over the back and was dealt up to nine metres per second sink [my skydrop vario peaked at -10.5m/s] from the southeasterly. At one time I glanced down to see 110km/h ground speed. On the other side of the valley it wasn’t so bad. I flew back and forth over dry creek beds looking for water. Settled for a grassy perch at 3850 metres next to a small glacier. Perfect biv spot.
Next morning the cloud lingered just above. After following the damp creek bed down 1000 feet, spring water popped out, I filled up. Back at camp a small snooze before a few drops of rain prompted action. Took off and flew out to the sunny spur. Low altitude flying with more views of Ibex, twisted old juniper trees, and the Batura and Passu glaciers. Just after getting reception on Jan’s spare SIM card, I changed my mind and thought I’d try to fly a little further. But then I bombed out. A couple of local kids came out to say hello. I checked out the aquaduct (water canal) under construction on my way to the road. A few cars later on the quiet road and a keen bird watcher gave me a lift back to Hunza (where he lives).
I was back in time for the paragliding gala speech night with the dignitaries. Best reply to my question (which was your favourite speech?), “The last one!” Great to get everyone together again and another good social occasion.
The next day I had off. We walked up to Baltit Fort and bought some Lapis lazuli. Some of us decided to have pizza – I later gifted my ALDI food, mine wasn’t the only stomach struggling. But in fact I’ve been good in the latter part of the trip.
The following day and more low cloud had everyone rather lethargic. Some of the guys opted to go out on motorbikes instead. Phil hung in there and Snowy and Colin have us a lift to launch in the mid afternoon, with us needing to jump off the Honda 125’s for any steeper bits. Still in sun during the hike we were shaded as we set up. A long glide out to sun and a low save made it a really enjoyable flight. A shepherd hollered out as I climbed up the cliffs. Phil was never far away. We flew with the vultures and followed the ridge higher. The evening light was beautiful. Spoilt for choice we landed on top of the ridge high above the Barpu glacier half an hour before sunset.
More cloud the next morning but that only enhanced sensational views. Phil and I had plenty of time to tell stories and wander around on the ridge at 3600 metres. Finally we took off, already at cloud base, and crossed the valley. The air wasn’t so nice. Showers developing in Hunza again and we settled for a face landing on loose scree a short distance above a dirt road.
The walk out was rather enjoyable. Firstly swing bridges and hydro infrastructure under construction. Then a seemingly untouched village. I didn’t miss the smell of diesel. A taxi delivered some residents home and we flagged it down on the return journey to Hunza. Cloud milled around Lady Finger. No one else had flown. We checked into the Embassy hotel and hiked up with the others for dumplings and tea. A pleasant final afternoon in Hunza, then a movie night back at the hotel. Things fell into place as my bus back to Islamabad was organised.
This trip was always going to be too short. Hence my urgency to fly while the weather was good. In retrospect it has been a very good trip. The difficult aspects of logistics should be easier next time, and with a longer trip much easier to justify. It’s sometimes testing for a loud impatient westerner like myself to adjust to the pace of life in this Muslim version of (ahem) India, but you also have to seize those opportunities while you can. My thanks to all the organisers for facilitating this crazy sport and to Pakistan for the famous hospitality. I hope Hunza doesn’t change too much. Banning plastic bags is a great initiative but moving away from bottled water would make a big difference. I won’t miss the diesel. For my own selfish reasons, I hope India and Pakistan can resolve the Kashmir issue sensibly and peacefully. Climate adaption is already underway as farmers move higher, with water security a pertinent issue. Many of the glaciers will go quickly but there are some monsters among them…
Snippet cut is two and a half minutes, highlights video below is ten minutes.