(K2Climb.net) For climbers migrating through the passes to the mighty Karakoram range, an adventure unfolds even below the sawtoothed spires and jagged 8000ers. Last summer Frenchmen Bruno Collard and Matthieu Paley explored the Braldu Valley, looking for traces of a long-forgotten mountain pass that once linked the edge of the British Indian colonies with the ancient caravan Silk Road.
On their trek far off the beaten track toward the borders of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, the men found what they were looking for and still had time to bag a first ascent on a virgin 6000er.
Below is the account of the expedition ascent and archeological discoveries included, by Bruno and Matthieu.
Shiptons call: Go explore!
Bruno: In 1937, Eric Shipton completed a five-month expedition in the Karakorum mountains, coming up with a remarkable map of this Terra Incognita, the furthest part of what was then British India. His main focus was the study of unusual human migration through the high passes of the Karakorum range.
At the end of his report, he wrote But whatever the reason for the present disuse of these passes, it is a noteworthy fact that travelers nowadays not only find that the passes are closed, but they have great difficulty in getting any information about the former existence of the routes across them. It would be valuable historically to send an expedition into this country to try and trace the remains of old routes and disused habitations, and to determine the migratory history of the primitive people of these remote districts.
With these words in mind and following a thorough study of the forgotten accounts of former British explorers, Matthieu and I set out alone on a remote mountain path heading toward the borders of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. We were searching for clues on a forgotten route that linked former British India to the old Silk Road.
Human bones pointing the way
Matthieu: For 14 days, we explored the lower sections of Braldu Valley and an old salt mine located in Darband, an area near the Chinese border. The old mining activity might have been the reason for an old route through the Lukpe La (5,620m), connecting this valley to Askole in Baltistan.
This pass (believed to be identified first by Younghusband and Schonberg in 1934) is the fifth of those identified by the first British explorers. The other passes are Turkestan Pass, Saltoro Pass, West & East Muztagh Pass.
Bruno: Once there, we spotted what looked like a perfect shelter: An overhanging cave. After a short climb and some careful digging, out of the dust and rubble emerged what we had hoped to find: A rib, a shin, some fingers, an ancient piece of cloth here, at 6,000m, we were holding in our hands the proof of mans passage through these high passes.
Lukpe La the fifth pass unveiled
Bruno: In my opinion, the archeological finding was the core of our trip. I'm sure the bones found in the cave belong to a traveler who crossed the Lukpe La pass (5,620m) after a long walk on the glacier, an old forgotten and historic pass between South Asia and Central Asia! In the 19th Century Younghusband and Schonberg mentioned the pass in one of his books, but they never actually found it... Now we have proof the pass existed.
But what were these people doing here? Raiding nearby valleys, trading with caravans heading to Turkestan? Pondering over these and many other questions, we completed our journeys in true explorers fashion, scaling a virgin peak at 6,050m, right on the Central Asian divide between the heat of the Taklamakan Desert and the icy expanse of the Karakorum.
First ascent on Wulio I Sar
Matthieu: The ascent started at a place called Wulio, located at the bottom of the Southern face of Wulio I Sar. A path took us along a narrow valley, up to the foot of the glaciers close to 5,000 meters high. There we sheltered by a big stone lying on the moraine. At 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 8, we set off towards the summit, finding our way in order to avoid the seracs pointing down the South face.
The route goes straight up an easy slope to a small saddle. Then we proceeded up toward the top across a crevassed (but easy) area, trying to remain at the right side of the cracks, until we reached the East ridge. Once we reached a small ledge at about 5,800m, the route follows the ridge directly to the summit.
It took us six and a half hours to reach the top. We didnt have an altimeter, but we trusted Nelles Map (sheet 2) which says the peak is 6,050 meters high.
More about the Five passes a war story:The area was discovered by the British during 19th and 20th centuries because of troubles with the Russian Empire, which was taking positions at the gates of the Indian subcontinent," Bruno explains.
"Local people told the British colonial forces that people in the area (now northern Pakistan) used at least four high mountain passes, all of them above 5,000 meters high, to go back and forth toward Central Asia. The question was: If local people once used the passes, what would prevent the Tsars soldiers to make it through as well, straight into British territories?
The thought put the British army to work it was crucial to find the passes first. And they put good explorers to the task.
The first of these passes, East Muztagh Pass (5,422m), was discovered by Francis Younghusband. Martin Conway found the second, West Muztagh Pass (5,370m). Godfrey Thomas Vigne discovered Siachen Glacier and the Saltoro pass (5,550m), and later Thomas Georges Longstaff found the Turkestan La (5,850m).
In 1934, Shonbergs Unknown Karakorum book told of a fifth pass somewhere above Biafo & Braldu glaciers. Eric Shipton would dismiss such a possibility, alleging that no one would walk 120km on a glacier area to reach a pass.
Frenchman Bruno Collard is the founder of Blankonthemap according to Collard, the only existent website about Northern Kashmir. It also contains useful info on mountain areas in the Himalaya, Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Hindu Raj including rare topo maps.
Bruno himself has done some exciting trips across these lesser known mountain areas. In 2005 he completed the great traverse from Shimshal to Askole, Northern Pakistan.
Matthieu Paley is a professional photographer.
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