6/10/2009

Naked Mountain



The remote Astor Valley is the only way to reach the Rupal Face, known as "Killer Mountain" to climbers. The highest sheer vertical incline in the world, this massive wall of rock and ice rises over 4,000 meters (15,000 ft) straight up from its glacial base. Locals call it Nanga Parbat: "Naked Mountain." A good number of mostly insane climbers have lost their lives trying to scale its summit, the world's eighth highest at 8,126 meters (26,660 ft). Benjamin and I just wanted to see it.

In getting to the tiny, isolated town of Astor, set well off the Karakorum Highway, we spent a lot of time on roofs. From Gilgit, we caught a jeep heading south, finding the only vacant seats up top with a small crowd of men sitting on other people's luggage. Speeding past scattered villages, Chinese-led work crews, a downed Indian helicopter on proud display, and little boys on the roadside selling peaches, we unloaded in Jaglot, a collection of grimy shops that barely passes for a town. We walked to its edge, conveniently located about 100 meters from its center, to wait by the roadside.

Minutes later we were perched on sacks of rice in the back of a truck, lumbering towards Astor. Six hours and three checkpoints along the bone-rattling, cliff-hugging road we pulled into the town's deserted street--there's only one--at midnight. With the help of the last officer that checked our passports, we found a nice flat roof on which to pitch our tent, the roof of the local police station, he told us. There are a few places in Pakistan where I'd refuse to go near a police station, but Astor, fortunately, is not one of them.

The next morning, we awoke far too early, thanks to a couple drops of cold water on my face. The tent lining was soaked and dripping. Everything else was wet, backpacks and sleeping bags. We de-camped in a rush and fled to a tea-house across the street to wait out the rain. Loading into yet another jeep, along with about ten men, four women, two children, and three goats, we made the final leg of our road-trip before setting out on foot. We spent the night in Tarishing, right below a supposed partial view of Nanga Parbat. All we could see were the clouds that had hung around all day like a gray halo ringing the Astor Valley.

The next morning, instead of cold feet and a wet tent, I woke up to a bright clear sky revealing the enormous eastern flank of Nanga Parbat.

We hiked over the rocky moraine towards Rupal, passing goat herds and kids on their daily path to school in Tarishing. There's no school bus to whisk these kids over the glacial debris, and no functioning road connects Rupal to the outside world. A trek for us was a walk to school for them.

Continuing west, we wound through the terraced village for the next hour, a smattering of earthen homes, stone walls and lush fields stretched out along the curved incline of the valley. Just before running into another enormous glacier, we veered north into grassy meadows, steep walls blocking the view of Nanga. Finally, an hour past the last shepherd's, Nanga Parbat's most forbidding face emerged.

We set up camp behind two giant boulders, resting to take in the magnificent view.

Well-fed and half-rested, we started up a curved chute beside the glacier to get a closer look at the massive face looming to the north. I ignored a budding headache, keeping a steady pace up towards the lip of Nanga's giant glacial bowl. An occasional crack of ice, an avalanche of rocks or a warning whistle of marmots or pteradactyls filled the cold, gray silence as we reached the top of the ridge.

Spread out hundreds of feet below was the the serrated river of ice sweeping off to the south and southeast. Straight ahead as well as 45 degrees above was the summit of Nanga Parbat, its face filling our frontal view, much too massive for my camera to take in. We slid down a stretch of snowy moraine to get a closer look at the glacier's ice pools and crevases before hiking back to the top of the ridge, my head spinning like a rusty merry-go-round. It was time to get back to camp. I strained to keep my balance to avoid a fatal slip down either side of the delicate ridge, ignoring the chirping marmots and crashing avalanches from behind.

Finally back at our boulders, I crashed in the tent and drifted to sleep.

When I woke next, the sky had darkened and I was hungry. We had a regular feast for dinner at Nanga's base camp: Maggi noodles cooked and eaten from carved up juice boxes, and corned beef heated in a fire and folded into strips of naan. Delicious. When our bonfire faded into ash, the moon-lit snow of Nanga Parbat filled the star-speckled black space to the north.

We spent the early hours of the morning sprinting back to Tarishing through dim meadows and yawning valleys where villages were just waking up. We crossed the last moraine just ahead of an expedition of uniformed schoolgirls, and were just in time for the one and only jeep service connecting Tarishing with the outside world. As usual, we found a couple spots on the roof. Hanging onto the railing as our jeep wound northwards, I watched the snowbound roof of the Karakorum drift by beneath a cloudless blue sky.















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