Updated: Karakorum Skiers Risk COVID Closures

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.