Anisa Iqbal conquers Concordia

Thinking about taking a trip to Pakistan? Anisa Iqbal – my newest hiking friend and the youngest American to ever reach Concordia – says that, at the very least, you’ll need a lot of luck, a pony named “Burraf” and a few Baltoro Dance Parties to keep you going.

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A Kid in Concordia

by Anisa Iqbal : 11/29/10

As I rise out of my tent in the early morning, a beautiful scene greets me, as it does every day. Since we’ve been here a week already I’m used to it, but when I stop to soak it in, the view still blows my mind. It amazes me most looking back on it now. While we were actually on the trip my goals were to eat, sleep, wake up, and keep hiking.

I slowly get up and shove on my glasses. After putting on a warm coat, I pick my way down the steep side of the mountain to our crazily colored mess tent. The bright blue, yellow, and red contrast the grey mountains. Almost everyone is already down for breakfast; yesterday we had decided to leave the table outside to enjoy the view, so our meal today is under the enormous blue sky. For breakfast we have eggs, like always, and chapattis with marmalade and Nutella. Also present is the Muesli that doesn’t taste good without a spoonful of honey.

Jeff crosses the Braldu river as it crashes over boulders in the path.

Place de la Concorde

We are in the Karakoram Mountains, next to the Himalayan Mountain Range. It’s one of the most amazing places on earth, called by many people the “Throne Room of the Gods.” In the morning, before you even see the sun, light spreads across the sky like silk, flowing over the mountains and sneaking past clouds to rest above them. At the juncture of two huge glaciers is a camp called Concordia, named after a place in France, Place de la Concorde, where all the major streets come together.

Thinking about making this journey? You’re going to need a lot of luck to get there. We were extremely fortunate, in that we were able to cross breaks in the road made by floods with relative ease, and that my father’s uncle is a retired army officer. He proved to be very helpful, getting fuel from the army when the only gas shop’s owner was shot. After somehow making the jeep ride to a small village called Thungol, you start walking. Ten days later, if everything goes as planned, you should reach the unbelievable camp of Concordia, where you can see some of the highest mountains in the world.

Anisa meaners through the pyramid maze

“The glacier is a living beast; restless, it creaks and groans under our feet, moving like an incredibly lethargic bear.”

Everyone notices the change of terrain. Before we reached the glacier, it was either loose dirt or hard dirt. In some places there was also sand. Rocks were often imbedded in the dirt, sometimes small and pebbly, some stretches filled with large water-smoothed boulders. Once we get onto the glacier, everything changes; we can hardly see the ice that is expected to be on a glacier. All we could see in front of us was rocks, rocks, and more rocks. But as we went along, even these were replaced. At first they were big, uneven chunks; about halfway down it turned into plain shale, like the sky shattered and fell to rest on the earth on a particularly stormy day. Most were loose, too, so just one step could send someone sliding down into a bottomless pit, deep into the bowels of the earth, called a crevasse. The large rocks were hard on our ankles, bending them this way and that. But nothing compared to the places where nothing was filling the spaces between the rocks, and I could hear the river underground many feet below. The glacier is a living beast; restless, it creaks and groans under our feet, moving like an incredibly lethargic bear.

The singer on the right had a great voice, but everyone would join in the chorus ©Ahsan Iqbal

“There being no drums on the barren glacier, they use empty jerry cans to set the beat.”

Our trek is not only amazing, but one of the most fun experiences I have ever had. Along with me are my family, cousins, aunts, uncles, family friends, and staff, and we would always have a great time after we got into camp. For a 16-day trip, we of course need porters to carry our immense piles of stuff, as there are no human settlements off the jeep road from whom to buy supplies. Our porters are absolutely great; everyday they make our whole meal for us, and serve it on plates like they would at a restaurant. But they are a cheerful bunch who love performing arts; Often, in the kitchen, the cook and his assistants abandon peeling vegetables and cleaning forks to clap along to the many songs they like to sing. A few times during the trek, we have “Baltoro Dance Parties,” consisting of a thick ring of people and the brave souls doing traditional dances in the middle. There being no drums on the barren glacier, they use empty jerry cans to set the beat. Our family friend Matthew especially enjoys this, as he likes to hit the clubs back home.

 

Mustard Dares and Scary Stories in Thungol

“If you don’t give them back, all of the first sons in the future generations of your family will die.”

Our staff also loved to tell stories, especially Ibrahim, the assistant cook, who had many tales of high altitude climbing on snow-covered peaks, even at his young age. I remember on the last night of our trek we sat in the mess tent, huddling around one small lantern, taking shelter from the howling wind which was ruthlessly buffeting the tent walls and while we listen to the myths and scary stories Ayub had to tell us. One of them goes like this:

One day, a hunter goes out to find a markhor (a type of moutain goat) in mountain pastures. He catches one and then sees his wife in the mountains. He is suspicious and doesn’t think she’s his wife, because she should be at home. He knows there are Pari in the mountains, a kind of evil female fairy that takes pleasure in seducing men. He cuts open the markhor and does a form of divining by pouring sand into the stomach. If the sand stayed in the stomach, it wasn’t his real wife. If the sand went through, it is his wife. So when he did it, the sand stayed in. He immediately grabbed her hair and got 3 strands in his hand. She begged him for them back, but he refused. She followed him back to his village and said, “If you don’t give them back, all of the first sons in the future generations of your family will die.” The man just ignored her and walked inside, so that’s what still happens today to this particular family.

“There was one more hoofed beast in our troop- the goat who I foolishly named Dinner.”

Now let me tell you about the wildlife; there was hardly any. If you are lucky, you might spot markhour off the trail on the steep side of a mountain. Occasionally you could find little lizards sunning on the rocks, but they don’t stay for long once you’re in sight, which is quite a problem when you are attempting to capture it’s small spots of color with photographs. Closer to civilization, there were herds of yaks, some of which were smart enough to cross bridges on their own, scaring my mother terribly. There was also, of course, the many mules, donkeys and ponies that made the porter’s lives easier. Since mules can carry the equivalent of three people’s loads, the pack animals were invaluable to our trip. They were not very nice, though; as soon as you got close, hooves were out and flying. The only nice pony working for us resembled a pony I know back home, named Snowy, so I named the pony Burraf, or “snow” in Urdu.

Our favorite pony named "Burraf," which means "snow" in Urdu

There was one more hoofed beast in our troop- the goat who I foolishly named “Dinner.”  I was warned again and again that I shouldn’t make friends with her, because after all, we were going to eat her. But I don’t regret it; I still remember her friendly yellow face with creepy rectangular pupils. A few times she got tangled in a small tree, or in her rope, and I would free her happily. But I learned a new way of looking at an animal you’re going to eat. You can try to distance yourself from it, and only think of it as a meal, or you can realize that knowing and having respect for the creature you are going to eat is better than just eating the meat of some random animal.

“Simply thinking of the view from Urdukas, a camp up on the side of the glacier, is enough to send me speechless for a few minutes.”

When people gush about how amazing it is that I was the youngest American to reach Concordia, I shrug it off and say, What’s the big deal? I didn’t even climb a mountain. But now, safe in my house, looking back on my trip, I realize how truly lucky I was to have experienced it. Simply thinking of the view from Urdukas, a camp up on the side of the glacier, is enough to send me speechless for a few minutes. I am so grateful for all the pictures my dad and brother took, as they help me remember how spectacular that trip really was. I know that if I was offered that trip again, I would go in a heartbeat.

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