Updated: Karakorum Skiers Risk COVID Closures

Karakorum Skiing
Luke Smithwick ready to ski the Druk Couloir. Photo: Luke Smithwick

Andrzej Bargiel and Luke Smithwick are continuing their separate ski expeditions in Pakistan. The worsening COVID situation threatens another lockdown — yesterday, the country experienced a record number of deaths. However, the country, and the Karakorum, remain open for now.

Bargiel and his team traveled to Gilgit three days ago on a 20-hour bus journey, then headed for Shimshal. This means that they have switched the order of their planned peaks. First, they will go for the virgin Yawash Sa in the Ghidims-Dur area. Afterward, they head to Laila Peak in the Hushe Valley, via Skardu, further south.

Andrzej Bargiel, en route to Gilgit earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Luke Smithwick is into his 76th Himalayan expedition. Many of these he has guided, others have been personal projects, including his decade-long Himalaya 500. In it, he has been accumulating 500 ski descents in the Greater Ranges.

Right now, he is enjoying the backcountry Karakorum, “human-powered, no helicopters,” he said. Two weeks ago, he bagged the first ski descent of the 1,500m Druk Couloir.

“The Yosemite-sized granite walls on each side of this couloir top out at [250m],” he said, “and the line is 50° at its steepest.”

Smithwick chose to call the remote couloir Druk, which means dragon but also thunder in both Balti and Tibetan, because of the thunder they heard while climbing the couloir.

Pakistan closed for the holidays

The climbers are currently in wild and isolated corners but both may face problems when they try to return to Islamabad. Pakistan has banned all tourism between May 8 and May 16, during the Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan. They are trying to prevent the virus from spreading faster at a time when many local people are moving about.

All roads and tourist spots will be closed,” the Karakorum Club posted. Asked by ExplorersWeb if this could affect the skiers, a club official answered: “It shouldn’t affect them ideally, since the [restriction] mainly pertains to activities where hordes of tourists head to resorts, hotels, restaurants, etc., resulting in large public gatherings.”

In any case, the temporary measure should not interfere with Smithwick, who is spending nearly two months in the Karakorum. Bargiel, however, plans to return to Gilgit from Yawash on May 8. He might have to accelerate his schedule or delay it a week. From Gilgit, he heads further south to Skardu, in order to trek to Laila Peak. 

Andrzej Bargiel and companions trek to Yawash Sar II, at the head of the valley, left of the glaicer.

UPDATED: After four days of trekking, including crossing a very snowy pass at 5,000m, Andrzej Bargiel and his team arrived at their base camp yesterday. “Today,” Bargiel tweeted, “we managed to reach 10km further, to the foot of Yawash Sar II, and here at an altitude of 5,100m, we spend the night.”

Tomorrow (Friday) at 4 a.m. local time, if the weather holds, they will summit Yawash Sar II and ski down. If so, they should make it back to Gilgit and then Skardu before the closures.

Map of Gilgit-Baltistan.

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About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

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MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
4 months ago

The CDC warnings for both Pakistan and Nepal say : “Because of the current situation in (Nepal, Pakistan) even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants and should avoid nonessential travel to Nepal.” Remote/ small group size Pakistan travels should make this safer, but a 20 hour bus trip is a lot of exposure. Hopefully they are vaxed and got to remote areas before the spike in cases. But Katmandu, the Khumbu and Base Camp? Epicenter. Kathmandu is now in lockdown…how does this square with the disinformation the Ministry of Tourism has been putting out? If… Read more »

Don Paul
Don Paul
4 months ago

If a lot of people were traveling for Eid, there will probably be a spike in cases a week later. Although the Indian news media has a lot of stories about the “double mutant”, the B117 variant is still the dominant one. India’s surge seems to mostly be the result of gatherings in the Ganges River and BJP political rallies. There’s no mass gatherings in Pakistan, though, and I’m not sure how family visits for Eid will compare.

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Paul
Paul
4 months ago

Looks like that he decided to speed up the expedition, just done with Yawash Sar II – successful summit and ski descent!!!
So they should get to Laila Peak before 8th May 🙂

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