John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

Excerpts from Mock & O'Neil Oprang Expedition
2000 Shipton/Tilman Grant Application

The Shipton-Tilman Grant is awarded by W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.
"Any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of an envelope." H.W. Tilman
"But as the Chinese proverb says: 'Beware of what you ask lest it be granted'." H.W. Tilman (Two Mountains and a River)

Team Members

Names: John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

What do you propose to do and when?

We propose a 33- to 35-day trekking expedition to the Oprang Valley in the northern Karakoram Range of Pakistan's Northern Areas. The expedition has three main objectives: explore the Oprang Valley, which was visited only once by a westerner in 1934; reconnoiter and cross a pass over the Central Asia watershed at the head of the Sher Ilaq Valley, a tributary of the Oprang Valley that has never been visited by any westerner; and reconnoiter and cross the Mai Dur Pass between the Ghuzherav and Shimshal Valleys, which was crossed only once by westerners in 1925.

Our expedition will explore the remote Ghuzherav Mountains northeast of the Shimshal Pass and west of the Shaksgam (Muztagh) and Oprang Rivers, the only part of Pakistan that lies within the Central Asia watershed. This area forms the bulk of Pakistan's Khunjerab National Park. The entire route passes through territory exclusively used by the approximately 1,200 residents of Shimshal village, which is the oldest and most traditional Wakhi-speaking village in Gojal, the region along the upper Hunza River Valley.

From Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, we will travel north to Gilgit from where we will continue by road on the Karakoram Highway to Passu village in Gojal. The confluence of the Shimshal and Hunza rivers is just north of Passu, and the trek to Shimshal begins here. We will trek up the Shimshal Valley to Shimshal village (2,880 meters) and continue beyond the village along the Pamir-e-Tang River to the Shimshal Pamir, Shimshal's summer pastures. We will cross the Shimshal Pass (4,735 meters) to Shuwerth, the last summer settlement in the Shimshal Pamir. From Shuwerth, our route will descend along the Shimshal Braldu River to its confluence with the Shaksgam River. We will continue northeast along the true left (west) bank of the Shaksgam River to its confluence with the Oprang River. Leaving the Shaksgam River, we will then ascend north along the true right (west) bank of the Oprang River to its largest western tributary, called Sher Ilaq by Shimshalis. We will explore Sher Ilaq for a few days, and propose to exit the valley by crossing either a pass west into the Ghidims Valley, or crossing a pass southwest into the Gunj-e-dur Valley. These two glaciated passes are essentially unknown, although Shimshali men claim they are feasible. The mountains adjacent to the passes range between 6,100 meters and 6,400 meters, and we estimate the passes range between 5,200 meters and 5,400 meters. The Ghidims Valley leads to the Ghuzherav, an east-west valley north of and parallel to the Shimshal Valley, from where we propose to reconnoiter a route over the glaciated Mai Dur Pass (5,500 meters), then cross the nonglaciated Shpodeen Pass and return to Shimshal village. Alternatively, the Gunj-e-dur Valley leads south back to the Pamir-e-Tang River where it meets the established route to Shimshal village. We plan to begin in mid June, before the Shaksgam River is at its peak flow, and to return to Shimshal village by mid July.

Have you obtained the necessary permits, visas, etc?

The Tourism Division of the Government of Pakistan's Ministry of Sports & Tourism is responsible for trekking regulations in northern Pakistan. The Tourism Division designates all areas into one of three zones: open, restricted, or closed. Foreigners are allowed to go anywhere in open zones up to 6,000 meters without a permit or guide.

The route between the Shimshal Valley, Shimshal Pamir, and the routes to and in Ghuzherav have been in an open zone since 1986. The lower Braldu, Shaksgam, and Oprang valleys beyond (east of) the Shimshal Pamir were reclassified from a closed zone into an open zone in 1999 making this area now accessible to foreigners for the first time since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Our entire proposed trekking route is in an open zone where no permits are required. Because such a window of opportunity to visit the last unknown region of the Karakoram may close again at any time without notice, we intend to travel this year.

Has anyone gone before you? When? What did they do?

The only recorded traveler to visit the Oprang Valley was Colonel Reginald Charles Francis Schomberg, a British officer who in 1934 traveled rapidly up the Oprang Valley, crossing the Oprang Pass at its head into China. Schomberg writes about this journey in Unknown Karakoram (London: Martin Hopkinson, 1936). Schomberg did not visit the Sher Ilaq Valley.

The only recorded travelers to cross the Mai Dur Pass were the Dutch geographer Philips C. Visser and his wife Jenny Visser-Hooft in 1925, who were seeking the source of the Hunza River. Visser wrote an article about this journey, "Explorations in the Karakoram", which appeared in The Geographical Journal 68, no. 6 (1926): 457-473. Visser camped June 30 at Avduzhi, and on July 1 (or 2) started up the Ghuzherav. He writes:

"The Ghujerab [Ghuzherav] valley was longer than we had supposed it would be, being even longer than the Khunjerab, so that in discovering the source of the Ghujerab [Ghuzherav] on July 3, we had also traced the Hunza river to its source. The glacier stream issued from a big glacier, up which we climbed; at its head we found, the next day [July 4], a pass [Mai Dur Pass] of 18,000 feet, over which we managed to bring our caravan. The descent along the slope facing south was precipitous and dangerous owing to the falling stones. At the foot of the pass we reached a glacier flowing in a southerly direction, and lower down, a valley which we surmised would be a side valley of the Shingshal [Shimshal]. Here we found another colony of shepherds [Mai Dur]."

Jenny Visser-Hooft wrote a book about their travels, Among the Kara-Korum Glaciers in 1925 (London: Edward Arnold & Company, 1926). Shimshalis do not use the glaciated Mai Dur Pass, although a few men claim to have followed the route while hunting ibex.

Captain C.J. Morris, a British officer, visited Ghuzherav in 1927. His observations are directly pertinent to our plan to reconnoiter and cross a pass between Oprang and Ghuzherav:

"…at Mandik Kushlak …we were greatly surprised to find ourselves in a broad stony valley at least three-quarters of a mile wide [the Ghuzherav]. To the east we could see the two streams, the Ghidims and the Mai Dur, which uniting form the Ghujerab [Ghuzherav]. At the head of these two valleys are snowy peaks, which form the watershed between the Hunza and Oprang valleys. Although there are no known passes into the Oprang it seemed to us, from a careful study of the country, that several ways might possibly be found, as … the ridges are not particularly high" ("Some Valleys and Glaciers in Hunza", The Geographical Journal 71, no. 6 (1928): 522).

Although the 1937 Shaksgam expedition of Shipton and Tilman intended to explore the region, Shipton and Michael Spender went no further than the confluence of the Shaksgam and Shimshal Braldu Rivers. From that point, Shipton climbed a ridge from where he glimpsed the Oprang, writing:

"I could see the [Shaksgam] river as far as its junction with the Oprang. My view upstream was restricted to a few miles. It seemed to me that it would be possible for a lightly-laden climbing party to force a route up this gorge, without having to ford the river" (Blank on the Map, 1938; reprint 1985, 290).

Shipton was apparently unaware that Schomberg had done just that three years previously. Tilman, too, thought about "making a wide sweep to the east by the Obrang [sic] river and back into Hunza by the Shimshal gorge" (Two Mountains and a River, 1949; reprint 1983, 616) on his was back from Kashgar, but instead headed west into Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor.

After 1947, the territory came under the control of Pakistan and was closed to foreigners who have since been unable to visit this unknown Karakoram region. Although the area is within the Khunjerab National Park, park management has never visited the area and has no information about it. In 1986, Shimshal village and the Shimshal Pamir were first opened to outsiders. Since then only handfuls of foreigners have made the trek each year, usually just to Shimshal village. We have visited Shimshal territory eight times in five different years as detailed below.

Year Places John & Kimberley Visited in Shimshal Territory
1989 Shimshal village, Shimshal Pamir, Ghuzherav (John only)
1990 Shimshal village, Yazghil (John only)
1991 Shimshal village, Shimshal Pamir; two separate visits (John only)
1992 Shimshal village, Shimshal Pamir, Ghuzherav, Boesam and Chafchingol passes (Both)
1996 Shimshal village, Shimshal Pamir; three separate visits (Both)

The Oprang and Sher Ilaq Valleys are used by Shimshalis as winter pastures for their large yak herds. These areas are known to and visited by Shimshali people only, and they tell stories and sing songs that recall their adventures in this remote region. We have a long-standing relationship with the people of Shimshal and our Shimshali friends support this endeavor.

Why should this project be awarded? How does it embody the Grant namesakes' "spirit of adventure'? Why are you doing this?

The Oprang Valley is territory that Shipton was drawn to as a "blank on the map". Shipton wrote about planning the 1937 Shaksgam expedition, that:

"The most interesting of the many unexplored areas of the Karakoram was that lying in the basin of the Shaksgam river … on the frontiers of Hunza … and the Chinese province of Sinkiang" (Upon That Mountain, 1943; reprint 1985, 437).

The 1937 expedition, however, did not reach the Oprang Valley, and Shipton wrote that:

"[after] the Shaksgam expedition of 1937 … there still remained … to be explored … the mountains stretching to the north-east of the Shimshal pass across the Oprang river" (ibid., 452).

Today this large expanse of mountain terrain remains an imaginative vacancy. Apart from Schomberg's brief travelogue, we have no description of the landscape and no idea of how it has changed since his visit. Of the Sher Ilaq Valley, we have no description at all. The same is true for the upper Ghuzherav and Mai Dur Pass, visited only by the Visser-Hooft expedition of 1925.

But these areas are not unused. The region is regularly visited by Shimshali herders, those people that Shipton described as the epitome of "hardihood". About Shimshal and its inhabitants, Shipton wrote:

"The community of Shimshal is remarkable for its isolation and independence of support from the outside world … They are a happy community leading an ideal existence in magnificent surroundings. The country is sufficiently difficult, and conditions sufficiently severe, to foster in the people that hardihood without which it seems to me impossible for mankind to be content" (Blank on The Map, 1938; reprint 1985, 296).

We propose to travel through this vast landscape with Shimshali friends whose "backyard" it is. John's fluency in Wakhi, the language spoken by Shimshalis, will enable us to come to know it from the Shimshalis' point of view. Our adventure is to turn a "blank on the map" into a palpable place by traveling through it and crossing new passes, and by coming to understand how the people who have lived there for generations perceive and relate to their mountainous landscape. Shipton, too, found travel in this part of the world an incomparable experience:

"… no experience of mine has been fuller, no undertaking more richly rewarded than those few months among the unknown mountains beyond the crest of the Karakoram. The vast scale of the country, its complete isolation from any source of help or supply, demanded all our ingenuity and a wide range of mountaineering technique. Striving to traverse and understand such a world, and thus to absorb something of its peace and strength, was at once our task and our reward" (Upon That Mountain, 1943; reprint 1985, 450).

We became interested in exploring the Oprang Valley through reading Shipton and Tilman, who mention it as the most interesting country they did not visit. We were further tantalized by the brief account given by Schomberg. We read the Visser-Hooft expedition report of the Mai Dur Pass and realized that these routes could be combined to form a spectacular route through unexplored regions along the Central Asia watershed, a route that epitomizes the adventurous spirit embodied by Eric Earle Shipton and Harold William Tilman:

"There is nothing in my experience more fascinating than finding and crossing an unknown pass across a mountain range. The more important the watershed, geographically speaking, the more satisfying the achievement …" (ibid., 413).

We have had many discussions about these valleys with Shimshalis, who have repeatedly invited us to travel there with them. Now, for the first time in over 50 years, the government of Pakistan has opened the area to foreigners and we can accept our Shimshali friends' invitation. Without the Shimshalis' trust and cooperation, it would be unrealistic to think of visiting this remote and inaccessible area.

We are outfitting our own trek, and are not hiring a local trekking company. This is a choice, not for reasons of economy, but for reasons of style and simplicity. We prefer traveling as a small self-sufficient party comprised of a few local people who can share their experiences and knowledge with us as we travel as guests through their territory. We will have no staff, other than four Shimshalis who will be our companions and porters. We will do our own cooking and camp chores. We are committed to the principles of minimum impact, environmentally-sound travel in remote mountain regions as evidenced by our previous work on ecotourism in northern Pakistan. We are providing all of our own food, gear, clothing and equipment, and are not seeking any corporate sponsorship. This trekking style is one that we have used successfully throughout the Karakoram for many years, and matches well with that of Shipton and Tilman.

Provide us with some background about yourself and companions; who are you, what are your capabilities, what have you done before?

We are recognized as experts on trekking in northern Pakistan, having coauthored the 1st edition of Trekking in the Karakoram & Hindukush (Lonely Planet Publications, 2002, 1996). We have visited more places throughout the Karakoram and Hindukush than anyone else we know of still active today. On our numerous treks in Pakistan over the years, we have crossed more than 40 different passes, traversed almost 50 different glaciers, and visited many more valleys than we have counted.

John has a Ph.D. in South Asia Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. His doctoral research, for which he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship, was on the oral traditions of the Wakhi community in Gojal. His academic expertise includes the languages and cultures of northern Pakistan. He speaks fluent Urdu, the language spoken throughout Pakistan, and Wakhi, the language spoken by the Wakhi people living in Gojal, among other languages. He has also worked as a consultant on the Khunjerab National Park for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and as a guide and translator in northern Pakistan for National Geographic magazine. John first trekked in Pakistan in 1977, and many of his early treks are mentioned in the out-of-print guidebooks written by the late Hugh Swift. John has made 13 trips to Pakistan spanning 23 years, and totaling four years and nine months in country.

Kimberley has over 12 years experience in the adventure travel industry having worked for a tour operator designing and operating trekking and mountaineering expeditions throughout the Himalaya and Karakoram. She first trekked in South Asia in 1984. Kimberley has made seven trips to Pakistan spanning 11 years, and totaling 23 months in country. We have also worked together as joint consultants on ecotourism in northern Pakistan for The World Conservation Union (IUCN). We were married in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1991.

We have the physical capabilities to succeed with our proposed endeavor. John is an experienced rock climber and we both have mountaineering skills and vast experience trekking in rugged terrain at altitudes up to 6,000 meters. For example, we demonstrated these skills when we traversed the Biafo and Hispar glaciers, and crossed the 5,940-meter col, called the Gondogoro La, between the Baltoro and Hushe Valleys. We have proven ability to successfully reconnoiter Karakoram routes, having "rediscovered" the Lupgar Pir Pass (5,190 meters) in remote Chapursan in 1994. Our friend and renowned mountaineer Nazir Sabir, who is from Chapursan, later told us we were the first people to cross the pass in more than 50 years. John has made similar crossings such as the Naz Bar and Zagar passes between the Yasin and Yarkhun valleys. We have demonstrated in varying capacities - John as a scholar, and both of us as consultants, guidebook authors and trekkers - that we can accomplish what we set out to do.

Forward to Table of Contents for 2000 Mock & O'Neil Oprang Expedition Report

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