Does it Make Sense to Extend the Karakorum Season?

Summer hopes are fading for Pakistan’s tourism industry. The spike in COVID-19 cases in the country, combined with a worrisome new outbreak in Beijing, have made it unlikely that any expeditions will climb in the Karakorum in July.

The country is doing what it can — some say prematurely — to open to foreign visitors. Prime Minister Imram Khan ordered the opening of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa & Gilgit-Baltistan under a so-called Controlled Tourism policy.

The announcement was not exactly applauded by those regions. “Not during my watch,” retorted Hafeez ur Rehman, head of Gilgit-Baltistan. He fears that the coronavirus will be imported to isolated and impoverished local communities, where heath facilities are rare.

Local communities in isolated mountain areas are specially vulnerable to a potential COVID-19 outbreaks. Photo of Balti girls: Alpine Adventure Guides Pakistan
Isolated communities are especially vulnerable to a potential COVID-19 outbreak. Photo of Balti girls: Alpine Adventure Guides Pakistan

Trying to find a middle ground, Baltistan’s Association of Adventure Tour Operators came out with their own list of safety procedures for the region. Ali Saltoro, the head of Alpine Adventure Guides, told ExplorersWeb that the measures specifically aim to keep foreigners away from local villages, and include:

1. Fewer stays in towns; camping instead

2. No stays in last villages, from which porters are hired

3. Carry plenty of sanitizer and spray disinfectant

4. Spray backpacks and luggage daily before any change hands between visitors and porters

5. Maintain social distancing between local staff and foreigners

6. Daily checkup of foreigners and local staff

7. Carry all emergency supplies necessary to treat any suspected COVID patients

8. Establish back-up of emergency rescue facilities

“Many countries are feeling more confident now that their coronavirus cases have decreased, and we are basically learning from them,” Saltoro said. “We are going to request all departments to grant entrance to mountaineering and trekking groups, whose members will not stay in any city of Gilgit-Baltistan, but head straight for the mountains.”

Local guiding agencies request something further: To give visitors time to plan their trips, they want to officially extend the climbing season from the end of June till the end September, taking advantage of the changing climate in the Karakorum. That way, those who’ve had to postpone their initial plans can possibly still squeeze something in.

“[Some] expedition teams targeting 7,000’ers are scheduled to reach Pakistan in August and remain until November,” Saltoro said. “Another team heading for 6,000m peaks doesn’t expect to arrive before the end of July” because of the delays.

Luke Smithwick on a previous ski expedition in Kashmir. Photo: Luke Smithwick


Many others, however, have already cancelled their trips, including Luke Smithwick. He had hoped to continue his vast Himalaya 500 ski project, but finally aborted last week. “Locals report an outbreak in northern Pakistan that has led to a new lockdown,” he said.

Likewise Sergi Mingote, who set himself the goal of summiting all 8,000m peaks with No O2 in record time. The Catalan climber has discarded his hopes for Gasherbrum I and will instead launch a European cycling and climbing tour that covers 7,000km in 60 days and summits a personally chosen set of 14 peaks to promote his sponsor’s attempt to bring the Winter Olympics to Barcelona in 2030.

Sergi Mingote climbing in Pakistan (Kinshoffer wall on Nanga Parbat) last year. Photo: Sergi Mingote
Sergi Mingote on the Kinshoffer Wall on Nanga Parbat last year.

Mingote has plenty of experience in Pakistan, with previous successful climbs of K2, Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat and GII. He believes that even August is too early to go for the Karakorum giants. “Unlike Nanga Parbat in the west, which has been climbed in late summer and autumn, the weather is too bad to seriously consider the Karakorum 8,000’ers after the end of July,” he said. “The climate is indeed changing, but not enough yet, as far as I know.”

“On the other hand, trekking groups continue every year throughout the summer, although you may have to complete the Baltoro Circuit in relatively bad weather.”

Expedition agencies and foreign donors have been delivering supplies to local communities. Photo: Alpine Adventure Guides Pakistan

Today, Pakistan announced that it will open its airports to international flights by the end of the week. The visa process has been simplified and allows last-minute arrivals, notes Ali Saltoro. His agency is one of many operators in the area who are distributing supplies to those communities where many locals usually work as porters and BC staff for climbing expeditions.