The Karakoram, the ‘Black Gravel Mountains’, a spectacular range of peaks and valleys in the northern reaches of Pakistan. For centuries explorers have been allured by the splendor and massiveness of the brown and black metamorphic rocks, containing the highest concentration of the tallest peaks in the world. Boasting four peaks over 8000m, the Karakoram is home to the infamous K2, as well as another 30 peaks rising above 7500m.
Skardu is one of the main gateways to the Karakoram, a peaceful, conservative town of Shiite Balti population, elevation 7,316 feet. The main road is lined with small hotels, restaurants, tourist shops selling local gems, carpets and handicrafts, and supply stores packed with hiking boots, sleeping bags, tents, ropes, cramp-ons, carabiners and more, everything one would need to venture into the mountains.
The people are as diverse as the small town's offerings, old men with lined faces in traditional robes and woolen hats, wide eyed children and handsome, young guides, geared in North Face and Patagonia, who would blend into any mountain town in America. Rare is a woman to be found on the streets of Skardu, yet even though I stood out with my uncovered blonde hair, most people paid little attention.
Sharif would be my guide into the mountains, son of a famous Skardu guiding family, I had contacted him online and we decided upon a five day trek of mountains, scenery and villages across the Thalle La (Thalle Pass). I would climb with him, his cousin and a porter.
From the village of Khasumik, we set off on foot. Curious villagers peeked from doorways and small children huddled around giggling as we spoke.
Me with 40 pounds of gear, Sharif and porter with 50+, we set off on the trail, a small footpath for herders and animals, moving to higher grazing grounds late in the afternoon. The Thalle River rushes in a green swath down the valley, bringing snow melt to the arid land. Shephards care to flocks of sheep and goats, while farmers plant in terraced plots, using irrigated water from the snow melt. Rocky mountains slope gently on either side to snow-capped peaks.
Days were long for walking, air thin and temperatures freezing. Nights were searingly cold, forcing me into my sleeping bag immediately after sundown, fully clothed in down coat, wool hat and socks. The night before our traverse, I laid awake at 12,000 feet with my chest heaving until 3am when Sharif came to wake me to start our ascent. With thigh-deep snow, we needed to cross the pass before it became too soft to traverse.
The Thalle La lies at 15088 feet, higher than any point in the continental United States. Thalle's abundant pastures were formerly owned by the Raja of Khaplu, and the Thalle La was reportedly the main route between Skardu and Khaplu for British colonial officers because of the grazing for their pack animals. The pass is considered one of the easier passes in the region; yet, early in the season, the snow changes everything.
Thalle La gave us everything she had. We started in the dark, the path illuminated by the full moon. As dawn broke, the sky transformed to clear blue skies shining over the Thalle Valley and her imposing Thalle Peak. Yet, as we approached the pass summit, the winds picked up and hail began pelting us, the entire sky a whiteout. Clearing again when we reached the top for a mind-blowing, 180-degree view of the valleys below.