John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

2000 Mock & O'Neil Oprang Expedition Report

We completed a successful 29-day trekking expedition to the Oprang Valley in the northern Karakoram Range of Pakistan's Northern Areas. We trekked more than 250 kilometers, crossed five different 5,000-meter passes, and traversed six different glaciers.

The expedition met these three proposed objectives:

  • to cross the Mai Dur Pass, linking Qachqar-e-dur and Ghuzherav Mai Dur(1), which had been crossed by westerners only twice in the twentieth century;
  • to reconnoiter and cross two previously unknown passes over the watershed between South Asia and Central Asia linking the Ghidims Valley, a tributary of the Ghuzherav Valley (2), with the Sher Ilaq Valley(3), a tributary of the Oprang Valley that had never been visited by any westerner nor any woman; and
  • to reach the Oprang Valley, which had previously been visited only once by a westerner in 1934.

In addition to the above objectives, the following somewhat unanticipated results have also come from the expedition's success:

  • a greater knowledge of the remote North Ghuzherav Mountains (4), which are an unknown and unexplored part of the northern Karakoram Range;
  • the documentation of wildlife species, prey species and habitat characterization for this region;
  • a potential enhancement of local livestock management practices, which we explain later in this report (see page 10); and
  • a potential financial benefit to the village of Shimshal, through future earnings from taking trekkers and mountaineers into this region.

Our entire route passed through territory exclusively used by the approximately 1,300 residents of Shimshal village, which is the oldest and most traditional Wakhi-speaking village in Gojal, the region along the upper Hunza Valley. Shimshal has traditional rights to nearly 5,000 square kilometers of territory, including the only part of Pakistan that lies within the Central Asian watershed. Much of the region remains even today what Eric Earle Shipton had called a "blank on the map" and what Colonel Reginald Charles Francis Schomberg, a British officer who explored much of the region in the 1930s and 1940s, called the "unknown Karakoram". Our expedition planned to explore one section of this vast region. Through careful study of currently-available maps and satellite imagery, and through research of previous accounts, we identified an unknown and unvisited area and selected a novel approach to it. Detailed planning, previous experience, and excellent physical conditioning were the key ingredients of our success.

Getting to Gojal

We departed San Francisco on June 1, 2000 and arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, on June 3. We spent three nights in Islamabad and flew to Gilgit in Pakistan's Northern Areas on June 6. We spent three days in Gilgit during which time we finalized plans and bought supplies for our expedition. On June 9 we traveled by road along the Karakoram Highway to Passu village in Gojal where we spent the night. The confluence of the Shimshal and Hunza Rivers is just north of Passu village, which is the jumping off point for treks to Shimshal.

Trekking to Shimshal Village

On June 10 we traveled by jeep one and a half hours along the Shimshal River gorge to the end of the road at a spot called Boi where we began trekking. Our Shimshali friends were waiting for us at the road head. We divided our 220 kilograms of food and gear into ten porter loads and set off. Our first night was at the traditional stopping place called Ziarat. The Shimshali villagers had removed several key bridges over the Shimshal River along the 36-kilometer long route from the road head to the village. They feared that a catastrophic outburst flood(5) from a lake that had formed behind the Virzherav Glacier east of Shimshal village would destroy these hard-to-replace bridges. This meant we had to follow the old route to Shimshal village across the Mulungutti Glacier, which flows from Destaghil Sar (7,885 meters), the highest Karakoram peak west of K2. Our crossing of the lower portion of this glacier the next day was uneventful, and we arrived in Shimshal village (2,880 meters) that afternoon on June 11. We spent three full days in village, discussing our route for this expedition, sorting loads, and selecting local men to accompany us.

Rerouting the Itinerary

Our proposed itinerary called for us to trek along the Pamir-e-Tang River to the Shimshal Pamir, Shimshal's summer pastures, over the Shimshal Pass (4,735 meters), and down the Shimshal Braldu River to its confluence with the Shaksgam (Muztagh) River. From that point, we had planned to follow the true left (west) bank of the Shaksgam (Muztagh) River downstream to its confluence with the Oprang River, and to then ascend north along the true right (west) bank of the Oprang River to reach the Sher Ilaq Valley, its largest western tributary and our final destination. It is by this route that every year in December half a dozen Shimshali men, called shpun, take the village's several hundred yaks to winter pastures in Sher Ilaq. This journey between Shimshal village and Sher Ilaq takes twelve days. This route is only passable when water in the Shaksgam (Muztagh) River is at its winter low. In 1934, Schomberg had forced a route along the Shaksgam (Muztgah) River in early June, so we had planned our journey for the same month as had Schomberg. When we reached Shimshal village, however, the villagers told us that water in the Shaksgam (Muztagh) River was already very high, nearing its peak flow, making this a difficult, if not impossible, journey. At one point along the route, the river sweeps the base of a cliff for several hundred yards, forming an almost impassable barrier. Schomberg had mentioned this difficult section in Unknown Karakoram, and we had brought pitons and rope to protect what would be a difficult traverse of the cliff face. The Shimshalis thought otherwise, and told us it would be extremely difficult even with a fixed rope. This made us think that perhaps we should first try to cross the watershed between South Asia and Central Asia into Sher Ilaq. We sought the counsel of Rajab Shah, Shimshal's leading climber, and the only Pakistani to have summited all five of Pakistan's 8,000-meter peaks. Rajab liked our idea and suggested several reasons to avoid the Shaksgam (Muztagh) River section: if we were unable to traverse the cliff section we would have to turn back before reaching Sher Ilaq; and even if we did reach Sher Ilaq, we might not find a pass from the head of the valley over the watershed. Rajab concurred that we should reverse our proposed itinerary and first try to find a new pass over the watershed into Sher Ilaq. Once we had done this, we would then have an assured exit from the valley, and could proceed via whichever route we wanted. Additionally, he pointed out, a route over the watershed between South Asia and Central Asia to Sher Ilaq would be shorter than the traditional route, enabling us to carry less food in fewer loads and better meeting our goal of traveling as a small, lightly-laden party. Rajab's support for this change in our itinerary encouraged not only us, but also our Shimshali friends who would go with us.

We had one kilogram per day total of food for ourselves for thirty-five days, along with our gear. The Shimshali men eat a daily diet of bread and milky tea while trekking, and we had one kilogram per person per day for them. We managed to sort this food and supplies into eight loads. Our revised itinerary was to trek from Shimshal village to the base of the Shpodeen Pass. There, we would divide the loads, and send the bulk of the food with four men over the Boesam Pass to the Ghidims Valley where they would await our arrival. They would use two yaks to carry the extra weight. We would cross Shpodeen Pass into the Pamir Mai Dur Valley with four Shimshali men, then cross Mai Dur Pass into the Ghuzherav Valley and continue up the Ghidims Valley to rejoin the other four. The four men who would cross the Mai Dur Pass with us were Farhad Khan, Fazal Ali, Mirza Khan, and Sarwar Ali. The four who would take the bulk of our food on yaks via the easier route and meet us in Ghidims Valley were Laili Shah, Ali Sher, Bhakt Nabi, and Yahya Beg. Our plan was to send Bhakt Nabi and Ali Sher back to Shimshal village from Ghidims Valley and continue to Sher Ilaq with the six remaining men.

Crossing Shpodeen Pass

We set out from the village in the early morning of June 15, reaching Shpodeen (6) (4,471 meters) where we halted for an acclimatization day. On the morning of June 17 we crossed our first pass, Shpodeen Pass (5,346 meters), a steep ascent up 25-degree to 35-degree Class 2 scree slope with early-season snow and ice on the top. Our Shimshali friends assured us this would melt by midsummer. We descended into Pamir Mai Dur, a valley leading to a herder's hut at the confluence of the Pamir Mai Dur and Qachqar-e-dur Rivers. Along the way, we spotted a herd of twenty-three blue sheep (7) grazing well above the trail. The Shimshalis told us that blue sheep are very common in this valley (8).

Crossing Mai Dur Pass

On June 18 we trekked toward the head of Qachqar-e-dur, named for a Shimshali man, the late Qachqar Beg who had first explored the valley in search of game. We established a camp (4,992 meters) on glacial moraine, which we named Farhad Base Camp after Farhad Khan, our companion and the only Shimshali who had crossed this pass. Here, in a high glacial bowl surrounded by unclimbed snowy 6,000-meter summits, we were in sight of our pass and we had excellent views of the distant peaks of the Hispar Muztagh. On the morning of June 19 we crossed our second pass, the glaciated Mai Dur Pass (5,700 meters), meeting the first of our three expedition objectives. This high pass is not used by Shimshalis. It has only been crossed twice; the first time by the Dutch geographer Philips C. Visser and his wife Jenny Visser-Hooft in 1925 who were seeking the source of the Hunza River, and in 1998 by Farhad Khan. The pass was obvious, and did not require any reconnaissance. The ascent to the pass began on an easy 10-degree to 15-degree snow slope, which steepened to 30 degrees for the last 100 meters. The pass was corniced on the east (Ghuzherav Mai Dur) side. We broke through the cornice and rappelled 75 meters, first down a 10-meter vertical headwall and then down a 45-degree snow slope. At the base of the rappel, we traveled across a sizeable glacial basin for two hours before exiting off this large unnamed glacier. We continued along moraine another two hours to camp beneath the glacier's terminus.

Traveling through Ghuzherav Mai Dur & Ghidims Valleys

After our initial effort to cross two 5,000-meter plus passes in our first five days out of Shimshal village, we relaxed the pace a bit. Our week-long spell of good weather had now turned to overcast skies mixed with snow and rain. We descended the Ghuzherav Mai Dur, again seeing blue sheep in this largely unvisited valley (9). On June 21 we ascended the Ghidims Valley to the highest herders' hut (4,343 meters)(10), where we rejoined the four men who had brought our loads there on yaks. They were glad to see us and learn that we had no difficulty crossing the Mai Dur Pass. To celebrate, we bought a goat from nearby herders, which our friends killed, cleaned, and cooked. We feasted that night.

The next morning, we sent the two men back to Shimshal village, and our expedition assumed its final configuration. Bringing the remainder of the meat with us, on the afternoon of June 22 we again put the heavy loads on yaks and followed scant herders' trails up the Ghidims Valley to Laili Base Camp (4,475 meters), the base we established for our next reconnaissance. We named this camp after our Shimshali companion, Laili Shah. This camp was at the confluence of the upper two branches of the Ghidims Valley, which headed north and southeast. Based on our maps, we had decided that the southeastern branch of the upper Ghidims Valley held the best prospect for a route into Sher Ilaq.

Reconnoitering & Crossing Ghidims Pass South

The task at hand next was to reconnoiter and cross a pass on the watershed between South Asia and Central Asia. When conceptualizing the expedition, we were encouraged by the writings of Captain C.J. Morris, a British officer, who visited Ghuzherav in 1927 and observed:

"…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 [Ghuzherav] 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).

The mountains adjacent to the proposed location of any passes range between 6,100 meters and 6,400 meters, and we estimated that any passes would range between 5,200 meters and 5,600 meters. Our satellite imagery showed this section of the watershed had the least summertime snow cover. Finding this pass would create a link between the Ghidims and Sher Ilaq Valleys. Shimshalis have lived in this region for generations yet knew of no way across the watershed between these valleys, and, frankly, had never even conceptualized that a route might exist. They were, however, as eager as we were to look for one.

From Laili Base Camp, we looked southeast toward the southeastern branch of the upper Ghidims Valley. According to our available maps, four distinct, parallel valleys branched northeast in the general direction of Sher Ilaq. The upper two of these branches were arms of the Ghidims Glacier. The lower two valleys were also glaciated, but were separate from the Ghidims Glacier, which guarded the entrance to these side valleys. Our strategy was to reconnoiter each possibility, starting with the highest valley, until we found a feasible route.

The first reconnaissance on June 23 explored the upper basin of the Ghidims Glacier. John, Farhad, Mirza, and Laili set out at 6 a.m. Reaching the head of this glacier, we found what appeared from our side to be a pass into the Gunj-e-dur Valley, but the Sher Ilaq Valley lay behind a steep, unfeasible wall. We ascended the 6,000-meter ridge on the north side of the upper névé basin, but found no feasible pass. From the ridge, however, we could see that the adjacent, lower arm of the glacier looked promising. We descended and reached camp at 5 p.m.

The next day the same reconnaissance team headed for the next lower side valley. Leaving camp at 7 a.m., we followed the northeast arm of the Ghidims Glacier to its head, and by 11:30 a.m. found ourselves standing on the watershed looking into the Sher Ilaq Valley. Laili, who often took his yaks to Sher Ilaq during the winter months, recognized some rock formations there and shouted with joy when he saw those familiar features. We traversed the ridge line and found a feasible descent route into Sher Ilaq. We had thought our reconnaissance might take a week, and were stoked to find a route on our second day. As we descended back to our base camp, we scouted and found a site for a necessary high camp.

On June 25 we moved the entire expedition to Laili High Camp (5,294 meters), a windswept site on rock and shale close to the pass. That night was very clear and cold, with a good breeze; conditions guaranteed to form a hard crust on the snow and create optimal conditions for a pass crossing the next morning. Leaving the high camp at 6:30 a.m., we followed moraine for half an hour, then proceeded up the glacier toward the pass. The gentle 10-degree snow slope steepened after an hour to about 35 degrees. We reached the pass, which we named Ghidims Pass South (5,650 meters), a mere two hours after leaving our high camp. The pass is the low point in the middle of the rock ridge. The descent on the eastern, Sher Ilaq side paralleled a rock rib that descended from the ridge. The route was sheltered by the rock rib, and had no cornice build up at the top, making it free from avalanche danger.

We made an initial 50-meter rappel down a 45-degree snow slope to a platform on the rock rib. Then we rappelled another 75 meters to the base of the rib and crossed the bergshrund below that was bridged by snow from winter avalanches. We traversed north across the glacial basin to the base of a rock spur, where we crossed onto moraine. We followed this moraine due east, then crossed to the north side of the glacier. John, curious about the upper glacier that lay on the other side of the rock spur, walked upvalley with Mirza for an hour until a clear view of the watershed divide was visible. John and Mirza looked closely, and saw a snow-free scree slope that led from the glacier to the ridge top, and looked like an easier return route to the Ghidims Valley than the route we had just descended. They then headed down valley following the rest of the expedition. We followed lateral moraine down valley and passed the mouth of the glacier we had crossed, the North Rost-e-dur Glacier.

The Sher Ilaq Valley has three main branches named Chap-e-dur (literally, "Left Valley"), Rost-e-dur ("Right Valley"), which we were in, and Arab Khan-e-dur (Arab Khan's Valley (11)). Rost-e-dur is actually the true left valley(12), and has two glaciers at its head, which we call the North Rost-e-dur and South Rost-e-dur Glaciers. We soon passed the southern glacier and came to the first meadow, which we named Mirza Camp after our Shimshali companion. We camped there in a flower-filled meadow, having accomplished our second objective just eleven days after leaving Shimshal village. Things were going very well.

Exploring Sher Ilaq & Oprang Valleys

Shimshalis use the Sher Ilaq Valley as winter pasture for their large yak herds. The name Sher Ilaq probably means "milk pastures" (13), in tribute to the abundant high-quality grass there. The yaks are tended by a handful of men, who remain for six months each year on the Central Asian side of the watershed, cut off from Shimshal village by deep snow on the passes. Alone and isolated in these remote high elevation areas, they spend their time milking the yaks, spinning yak hair, gathering yak dung for fuel, and hunting for wild game. In late winter, the female yaks give birth, and the men tend the calves and mothers. During bad weather and in the evenings, they pass their time telling stories and singing songs that recall their adventures and those of their ancestors in this remote region. Life in Sher Ilaq is hard, and only the strongest Shimshali men undertake spending the winter months in the treeless and isolated valley. Those men who take on responsibility for the village yak herds during the winter gain considerable prestige within the village and are regarded for being stronger and more resourceful than other men. They claim that their greater ability comes from their unity of purpose and close cooperation, and their greater strength from their diet of cream, milk, bread, and occasional wild game. Shimshalis also believe that the natural environment of places like Sher Ilaq is more pure than the village environment. Free from pollution, unspoiled by human impact, and imbued with a spirit of wilderness, such mountain areas are revered by all Wakhi people. The Shimshali men who live in this environment over the winter attain a degree of this purity and wholesomeness by virtue of their sustained presence there. This, too, gives them a certain mystique in the eyes of the villagers, for the men achieve a sort of natural grace by living in this remote natural environment. Sher Ilaq is regarded by the village as a very special place, one that only the strongest and most resourceful men can reach. When we were in the village prior to our departure, one Shimshal man asked John where he intended to go. When John replied, "Sher Ilaq," the man looked at him, smiled, and asked, "Do you think you are enough of a man to go to Sher Ilaq?" By reaching Sher Ilaq, we had accomplished what Shimshalis regard as the most difficult of journeys, one that no one outside Shimshal has ever made. Kimberley became the first woman ever to visit Sher Ilaq. Furthermore, we were in Sher Ilaq at a time of year when no Shimshali had ever visited it. The summer high water in the Shaksgam (Muztagh) River has kept Sher Ilaq closed outside winter. Our new route had brought us here at the peak of the summer season when flowers bloomed and clear streams flowed through the meadows. Our Shimshali companions marveled to see this valley in its summer lushness, for they only knew it as a winter place of dried grass and snow-covered slopes. They frequently stopped and sat amidst the flowers and asked us to take their photo, astounded at the beauty of the valley. Golden marmots (Marmota caudata aurea) were plentiful in these meadows, and they whistled in alarm as we strolled down the valley.

The day after crossing the pass, we walked down the Rost-e-dur Valley and came to the confluence of the Rost-e-dur and Chap-e-dur Valleys. Here was a small stone hut built next to a large boulder. Laili Shah, our Shimshali companion who regularly came to Sher Ilaq during winter, said that he and one other man would stay at this hut from late November through early January. After that, the snow would be too deep for the yaks to break through to the dry grass underneath. The hut's interior had a small fire place, and a raised platform for sleeping that was lined with blue sheep pelts. A few blue sheep horns were placed on prominent rocks outside, as trophies of successful hunts. These hunts were not for sport, but for meat to augment the meager winter diet of the herders.

We continued down valley toward the main Sher Ilaq herders' hut. Shortly below the Chap-e-dur hut, we came across bear scat and paw prints, so fresh that flies buzzed around the moist droppings. We judged them to be no more than a few hours old. Laili said the bears, which from his description are brown bears, occasionally raid the huts in search of blue sheep meat. We had no idea how these bears might react to our unseasonable presence in Sher Ilaq. Continuing down, we surprised a small blue sheep near the trail. This was unusual, for blue sheep, like all mountain ungulates, typically flee when any large mammal approaches. Our Shimshali friends said this animal was sick, and so it could not flee. We approached within about twenty yards, and saw that it was indeed ill. Black swollen lesions disfigured its mouth and muzzle, its rear legs trembled, and its fur was coming off in large patches. The disease, our friends said, had come from China, and infected much of the blue sheep population in Sher Ilaq. Possibly it is a form of hoof and mouth disease, a disease that also affects domestic sheep. Our friends agreed that they sometimes see similar disease among their own flocks. Because of this disease, Laili told us, no one had hunted any blue sheep the preceding winter. We continued down valley, and came across more bear scat. We reached the main Sher Ilaq hut, and set our camp on a grassy spot near the river.

In the morning our friends were excited, telling us that during the night the bear had come very close to our camp. It was, they told us after examining the tracks, a mother bear and a cub. "You must make a big fire of yak dung", they told us, "that will keep the bear from coming near your tent at night". That day we were all tired, and we rested and walked up to a high point for a view. At night, we followed our friends' advice and built several yak dung fires along the line of the bears' previous approach. In the morning we found no sign of the bear. Perhaps it is indeed wary of humans and stays away from the acrid smoke of the smoldering dung.

The next day, June 29, Kimberley and John, along with Mirza, made their way down valley to the confluence of the Sher Ilaq and Oprang Rivers. We stood at the large concrete pillar that marked the Pakistan side of the border with China, and gazed across the river at the Aghil Mountains in Chinese territory. The Oprang Valley was rocky and devoid of vegetation except for immediately along the river banks. At the confluence, where the stream beds intertwined and widened out, tamarisk and small willows grew. Schomberg, who was here in June 1934, described this place as:

"…the usual vast expanse of grey dry stone and the numerous discarded channels of the two streams … the large stream and its valley which came into the Oprang had no name at all" Unknown Karakoram (London: Martin Hopkinson, 1936, 96).

The stream now had a name, Sher Ilaq, and we had met our third expedition objective by reaching its confluence with the Oprang River on June 29.

Reconnoitering & Crossing Ghidims Pass North

Our task was now to find an exit from Sher Ilaq. We had also realized that returning via the Ghidims Pass South was not our best option; the steep slope on the Rost-e-dur side would necessitate an ice climb, and neither we nor our Shimshali friends relished the idea of hauling our loads up the sun-softened snow slopes. Our other option, of following the Chap-e-dur Valley to its head and seeking an unknown pass into the Gunj-e-dur Valley, was also problematic. We had no assurance that a practical pass could be found to Gunj-e-dur. Certainly no Shimshali had ever crossed that ridge, although several had tried. Laili had unsuccessfully sought a pass between Chap-e-dur and Gunj-e-dur several times, spurred on by a pass marked on an orographical sketch map published by the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research. Rajab Shah, Shimshal's best climber, had himself made an attempt from the Gunj-e-dur side several years previously, but had turned back saying it seemed too difficult. We were willing to try, but we realized that if we did, our food supply was insufficient to allow us to retreat and return via the Ghidims route.

Therefore, we decided to seek a second pass between Rost-e-dur and the Ghidims Valley over the watershed between Central Asia and South Asia. We, of course, hoped that we would not only find another pass, but that it would be easier than the first one we had crossed. We had a hunch that the second side valley from the upper Ghidims Valley could provide just such a route, since John and Mirza, on their way down from our initial crossing of the watershed, had spotted what seemed an easy, and in part snow-free route to the watershed ridge. On June 29, while John, Kimberley, and Mirza went to the Oprang River, Farhad, Laili, and Fazal moved back up Rost-e-dur. On June 30 they made a successful reconnaissance of John's and Mirza's ridge route, and saw that the descent on the Ghidims side was also a snow-free scree slope. Reassured of a straightforward return route to the Ghidims Valley, we moved the expedition to a high camp (5,060 meters) on moraine on the North Rost-e-dur Glacier on July 1. We named this Fazal Camp.

The next morning we awoke to several inches of fresh snow with more falling. Despite the reduced visibility, we judged conditions to be sufficient to attempt the crossing. The soft fresh snow and the continuing snowfall made the going difficult and slow. From Fazal Camp we crossed the upper North Rost-e-dur Glacier and headed toward a prominent rock rib that lay in the middle of an arm of the upper glacier. Beyond the rib, we could see that what was previously a dry scree slope leading to the watershed was now snow-covered. Moving off the rock rib, we made a fairly level traverse of the upper basin of this small arm of the glacier, then ascended the now snow-covered 35-degree to 40-degree slope to the ridge line. The route was free of any avalanche danger, but the fresh snowfall made footing treacherous. We reached the top of this unglaciated pass (5,486 meters), which we named Ghidims Pass North, at noon. We built a cairn on the pass, and stopped briefly for photos. But the weather urged us downward. The descent from the pass was on a 40-degree to 45-degree slope of mixed scree and rock covered by fresh snowfall. In less stormy conditions, it too would be dry. At the base of this slope, we traversed a fairly level small permanently snow-covered glacier in half an hour to reach moraine on its opposite side. Once off the glacier, we followed the rock of the lateral moraine down a short way and stopped for lunch at a place we named Sarwar High Camp (5,150 meters). This spot, where we built a cairn and small stone enclosure, will make an ideal base camp when crossing the pass from west to east. We continued down along the outflow stream from this side valley's glacier, reached the main Ghidims Valley and returned to Laili Camp by late afternoon.

The significance of this day's effort was obvious. The second pass, Ghidims Pass North, was unglaciated, was at a lower elevation, had less objective danger, and was significantly easier than the first pass, Ghidims Pass South, which was glaciated, had a higher elevation, had a much steeper slope on the eastern side, and was exposed to some avalanche danger. Our Shimshali companions felt that our second pass (i.e., Ghidims Pass North), was easy enough to offer an alternative route to their winter pastures in Sher Ilaq. Laili, our yak expert and the owner of many yaks, certainly thought the route good enough to take yaks over. This pass was so much more preferable than our first pass that we decided to refer to it simply as Ghidims Pass. We ourselves were very pleased to have found and crossed a previously unknown and relatively straightforward pass over the watershed between South Asia and Central Asia. But to our Shimshali friends, the implications of this route were of immediate practical value. This pass would enable them to reach the Sher Ilaq Valley in only three days from Shimshal village, in contrast to the traditional route via the Shaksgam (Muztagh) River that takes twelve days. The difficulty of transporting food and supplies over the longer route, and the danger of the river crossings on that route (two Shimshal men had drowned the previous year attempting to cross the river) would be eliminated through use of our new route. The fact that it would be practical in summer also opened the possibility of year-round usage of Sher Ilaq, rather than just winter usage. This could enable Shimshal to relieve the intense summer grazing pressure on the grasslands of the Shimshal Pamir, and promote more sustainable herd management practices. Our friends were excited by these new ideas, and enthusiastically discussed them among themselves as we trekked back from Ghidims Valley.

Returning to Shimshal Village

With our three expedition objectives met more quickly than we had imagined, we returned to Shimshal via the Boesam Pass (5,090 meters), the standard route between the Ghuzherav and Shimshal Valleys. We stopped in the afternoon of July 5 at Zardgarben, a lovely camp high above Shimshal village. Here, we decided to spend the night before descending to the village. We told our friends that they, however, were free to head home and greet their families. Farhad and Yahya stayed with us, and Laili, Mirza, Fazal and Sarwar gladly went down to their homes below.

On July 6, we headed down to the village. Along the way we met a village elder, the first villager we had seen since meeting herders at Pamir Mai Dur on June 18. We knew that word of our success had spread through the village when he greeted us enthusiastically and said, "Congratulations, congratulations! Congratulations on your new pass!" Soon we came to the suspension bridge over the Shimshal River leading to Shimshal village where we saw a large crowd of men gathered on the opposite bank. Wondering why they were there, we crossed the bridge. One by one, the men came and embraced each of us, congratulating us on our success and our new passes. They led us to a level area near the bridge, where they sat in circles around plates of fresh bread and thermoses of salty milk tea. Inviting us to join them, we shared in a meal of pituk, the bread traditionally made to honor accomplishments and greet distinguished guests on auspicious occasions. We have been to Shimshal on eight different trips over the previous eleven years, but this was the first time we had ever been so honored. The entire village was eager to talk about our new passes and what they might mean, and we spent two nights in the village sharing stories of our expedition. On the afternoon of July 7, we headed out, reaching Passu and the Karakoram Highway on July 8.

Walking out from Shimshal, we reflected on our expedition and recalled the words of Shipton:

"…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 absorb something of its peace and strength, was at once our task and our reward" (Upon That Mountain, 1943; reprint 1985, 450).

End Notes

1. Mai means 'sheep', and refers to blue sheep; Dur means `valley' in the Wakhi language.

2. Ghuzherav is an east-west valley north of and parallel to the main Shimshal Valley.

3. Sher Ilaq was inadvertently called Shirin Ilaq in our grant proposal.

4. These mountains lie north of the Shimshal Pass and northeast of the Ghuzherav River and west of the Oprang River.

5. The glacial dam did give way starting at 10 a.m. on June 10, and we awoke in Ziarat on June 11 to see rising water in the Shimshal River. The release rate was gradual enough that no significant flooding ensued, although it was wild to see mini icebergs floating down the Shimshal River and making their way into the village's irrigation canals.

6. Shpod means "rhubarb" in the Wakhi language, and the aptly-named Shpodeen means "the place where rhubarb grows".

7. Blue sheep are also called bharal (Pseudois nayaur).

8. The name of the valley means "Sheep Valley" in the Wakhi language.
9. Shimshalis graze livestock in the lower part of this valley, but the upper valley is unused and largely unknown.
10. Shimshalis graze a few yaks in the Ghidims Valley during summer and some goats and sheep in the early fall.

11. Arab Khan is the older brother of Rajab Shah.

12. True left technically refers to the branch of a valley, or the bank of a river or glacier when facing downstream or downvalley.

13. Shir means "milk" and ilaq means a "pasture". This toponym was likely borrowed from Kirghiz herders. Shimshali men readily agree.

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