The Hike: Ultar Mountain and the Hon pass

Josephine Ris

23 December 2016

We have arrived in Karimabad, the (tourist) capital of Hunza. After “loosing” quite some time due to driving with escorts, being forced to turn back after driving four hours towards Astore and because I spend some time in bed due to being sick, we are eager to go out and explore again. Rather sooner than later that is and seeing how I feel a lot better, we decide to go on a hike the next day.

10.00 AM
We meet with a guide and head out for the walk, a bit unsure of what exactly it is that we are doing. Two minutes into our hike, going upwards on steep roads, I realize that I am not as much back in shape as I had thought. David and our guide, Zabi, practically run up the hill while I follow behind. I am having a pretty hard time. The guys notice that I am falling behind so I tell them that I seem not to be in too good shape yet. They slow down a bit. I am still behind them but I do not mind, I focus on climbing and let the boys talk.

We leave the village behind and are still ascending. We reach a kind of ledge, a path, but a narrow one, just big enough for one and a half person. To our left flows a small stream and next to that is a rock wall, to our right a massive drop, a ravine with a big stream flowing through it. Did I tell you yet that I am afraid of heights? The combination of the physical effort, the narrow path and the view of the abyss make me dizzy. I try to focus on the path but occasionally images of the steep decline dance before my eyes. OK Josephine, keep your cool, you will get there. After ten minutes the path leads us to a field. Good. Zabi tells us the hike will take about an hour. David is disappointed, we thought we would do a longer walk, more like five hours, we heard good stories about it.
I am a bit relieved, to be honest, I do not think I would have managed to walk for five hours in this shape. I mean, my stamina was not too good to begin with, I was not exactly the first one to be picked for the volleyball team, and I have not fully recovered yet either. It was a bit stupid to think I could go hiking the moment I felt better. An hour should be manageable.

12.00 AM
We are near the half way point. With disbelieve I ask Zabi whether this normally indeed only takes one hour. I know I am slow, but it took us two hours just to get to the half way point, what kind of super human would do the whole round in just one hour?

We sit down to rest a bit and Zabi offers to take us on a alternative route, rather than just going back. He says the long tour will take us two more hours going up. I become a bit desperate. The past hike has taken us two hours but to me it felt more like three or four. I enjoyed it, for sure, but it did not come easy. Two hours… I don’t know about this, it does not seem like a good idea. I feel the pressure, not because anyone is actually pressurizing me, but because I do not want to be the one holding them down. And of course I am curious for the view up there. I want to make the most of it while we are here. The boys notice my indecisiveness and Zabi tells me he thinks I will manage.
‘How about the water’, I ask? ‘Where will we get new water’? We have already finished more than half of the bottle and it is the only one we took. David assures me it will be fine, saying he will ration himself.

‘Two hours’? I ask our guide again. Your two hours or my two hours? He laughs, says: ‘Your two hours.’ I know David would like to go on. Ok, enough. We’ll go. Two more hours is doable, I think. Let’s go to the top!

2.00 PM
I am slow, really slow. David and Zabi have to stop regularly for me to catch up with them and once I am there, I need to sit down to rest. I’m not doing particularly well and at one point, half an hour after we have decided to do the big trek, David says we should not do it. Stubborn as I am, I refuse. I don’t want to be weak. ‘No’ I say. ‘We go on. Let’s go’.

2.30 PM
The climbing does not end. I am so worn down at this point, I simply do not know how to put one foot in front of the other anymore. Just when it seems we have one more hill to climb, a new one appears once we reach the top. Our guide keeps saying ‘one more push’, ‘we are almost there’. I know it is not his fault but I am starting to hate him. How could he have misjudged so badly how much time it would take us? How could he have said he thought I could manage to do the big tour. He is the one who is supposed to have the experience. Although I am tired, hungry and out of energy, I push myself to go on. Come on, one more step. Going back is not really an option, we have come so far and I do not want to let David down. I do not want to let myself down either. I don’t like to be the one ruining it for the others. Zabi said the final part is very steep but will therefore also go very fast. It does not make sense to go back now if that is true. At this point I can only take 10 steps before I have to stop and rest again. The pain in my lungs is killing me as the air gets thinner and thinner. My heart is racing. Again a new hill appears. Another one of these ******* hills I mumble. I have stopped looking around me, or behind me, at the view of the snowy peaks and the valley far below. I can no longer appreciate its beauty. David has stopped taking pictures ages ago. Desperation has taken a hold of me and I have had to fight to hold back my tears several times already. I am slowing our group down tremendously. I know it must be annoying for them and I try but I simply cannot manage to go any faster. Another hill, and yet another one and we still have not reached the steep rocky part that should take us over the top.

3.00 PM
Of course the last part does not take us only ten minutes. It takes an hour, again. It is indeed very steep, but we have to zigzag through it to find a path and it is difficult to find hold. I realize by now that we should have gone back. Even half an hour ago it would have been better to go back. Never mind the view. This is taking too long, it is taking too much energy. Even if we get there, we still have to go all the way down again.

We get to a part of rock wall that seems un-climbable. Zabi tells us to be carefull now, to press ourselves into the wall. He points me towards tiny ledges, more like relief carved out of the wall, on which I am supposed to find hold. I force myself not to look down, not to think about how crazy this is. Luckily it is only one wall and once we have climbed it, I feel euphoric. I can’t help feeling proud of myself for climbing such a steep, smooth, rock wall at such an altitude, without having any rope or security to hold on to. I am not given much time for self appreciation though, as we are in a hurry to get to the top.

4.00 PM
FINALLY! We are at the top, where we are surprised by the strong wind, slapping us in the face. Man, it is cold up here. Zabi takes about three pictures, but we start descending as soon as possible. We are too cold and too tired to stay longer, but the mood has shifted, as we are happy to be on the other side of the mountain. Going down is easy, right?

4.30 PM 
Every one of us is exhausted. The last food we had was a small banana, Zabi did not even have one, nor did he drink anything. We had breakfast at 9 in the morning. We have been hiking for 8 hours, either steeply ascending or steeply descending. I long for a steady, level road. Just a normal road. One where you do not have to worry where to put your feet, where you know they will find hold. One that is not going up or down.

5.00 PM
The descending is killing my knees. Blow after blow hits the joints in my knees. Especially as my leg muscles are over worked, worn and no longer able to soften the blows. Zabi keeps saying we have to hurry, he is right, the sun is about to set. He says if we go fast, we can make it before dark. But as much as I want to go faster, my body does not cooperate with my mind. I try not to think about what it will be like to descend this mountain in the darkness.

6.00 PM
At some points I jump down, not knowing what to expect. Not knowing whether my foot will land on a rock, snapping my ankle. Not knowing whether I will land on a lose stone, dragging me along in it’s fall through darkness. I am lucky but I curse myself. These jumps are too risky. It is not worth it. I have to be more careful, even if that means slowing down even more.

6.30 PM
Then, the inevitable happens. I fall. Darkness. I have no idea what I am falling towards. I land pretty well, breaking my fall with one hand and one knee. But my skin is torn and my spirit finally broken. I have fought the tears off several times already, but I can no longer hold them down. I don’t want this anymore, I say, tears streaming down my face. I do not know how I should continue going down this mountain anymore. Every step an uncertainty. With hours to go. The thirst is killing me. My stomach is empty and my energy is drained. I gave my last push hours ago, on the other side of the mountain. I cannot do it anymore. I say I want to go back to the shelter we passed earlier, spend the night there, at this moment I don’t know how to continue anymore. ‘We’ll cook the water, sleep a few hours and descend the mountain in daylight’. Zabi agrees, ‘It’s better’ he says, but David does not. ‘There is no food there guys’ he says. ‘And it is going to be cold’. He adds that we are not sure whether we will be able to cook the water and that we are going to be even more exhausted with no food or water if we spend the night there. It makes sense, I have to agree. I really need something to drink. ‘Come on, we can do it!’ he encourages us. He helps me up my feet again, tells me how proud he is that I’ve made it this far. And thus we go on, stumbling in the darkness, trying to find the path.

8.00 PM
Of course I do not hate Zabi, by now I even feel he is saving our lives. He is the only one familiar in this territory although the darkness makes it very difficult for him to find his way. He is also the one most able to walk on this kind of terrain, and has clearly done this often, although I have to say David is still managing quite well too. The few times Zabi does slip, I pray for him not to fall. On his own, he would be considerably faster, but he does not get annoyed with us. His timing, however, is completely off. ‘Two more hours going up’ he says and it turns out to be four. ‘One more hour down here’ and it turns out to be two and still we are not there by far. It kills me. Every time my hope gets smashed.

In order to get more light, Zabi has taken one of the jackets people left at the shelter, put in on a stick and set fire to it. He looks like some Hollywood movie hero, walking ahead of us with his flaming torch, occasionally leaving behind some glowing scraps to light up the path.

9.00 PM
I wish I could describe to you the endlessesness of it all. After every turn, every hill, every corner, another field of obstacles appeared. Zabi keeps saying it will be the last one, but it never is. It kills my morale. It does not seem to end, ever. The lights below are so far down. So far. Ahead of us I still clearly see the snowy peaks of the mountain range on the other end of the valley. We seem to be closer to them in height than to the valley below. And we know there is no other way of getting off this mountain, nothing goes up here, except for humans and goats.

9.30 PM
My legs are so weak that they are trembling and I am continuously losing my balance, even on bits where there are no obstacles. David is now guiding me along, encouraging me, holding my hand to keep me steady. If it was not for his support, I would given up a while ago. He is worried, as he sees my balance is completely gone. He tells me to keep steady, lean towards the rock wall. He tells Zabi to take the light and guide me, he will manage in the dark.

10.30 PM
I am acting like a child and although I am aware of this, and very ashamed of it, the overwhelming fatigue is stronger than my pride. At some point I even mumble “this is the worst day of my life”. Luckily David and Zabi are still very patient, guiding me along. If only I could see the end of it, but we are still not there. The thirst gets worse and my mind keeps wandering off to the idea of a glass of Fanta. It seems like heaven, but it also seems equally unreachable. I forced Zabi and David to share the last sip of our rationed water hours ago. I tell myself people can survive without water for a day, so technically we are still fine.

One more slope, Zabi tells me. I make him promise, swear, that this is indeed the last one and he does. He points towards some point in the darkness and tells me that is the road we need to reach. The road where a car is waiting for us. I cannot see the road, but I have no choice but to trust him.

11.15 PM
With torn jeans, mascara tears on my cheeks and twigs in my hair, I reach the road, or to be exact, some kind of stone stairway. Zabi offers for the 6th time to carry me and I no longer have the strength to refuse. He carries me on his back down the stairs and finally we reach the taxi. I lay down and let the car take us back to the hotel. I have never been this happy to be in a taxi. Immediately my mind starts playing tricks on me and I find myself thinking it was not that bad after all. Oh well, at least this is better than dramatically stating it was the worst day of my life.

The next day
We invite Zabi to have dinner with us but he replies that he would like us to come have dinner at his family’s house. Happily we accept the offer and while we enjoy the delicious home cooked dishes made by Zabi’s mum, we laugh about our experiences of the previous day. Sure, the circumstances were not ideal and every one of us made some stupid decisions, but we did manage to climb the mountain and form a friendship along the way. Zabi tells us he believes we are the first Dutchies to climb this mountain and says we should be proud. We leave smiling, happy to have met him and to have been invited for dinner with his family.

A few days later
While we leave Hunza behind, David tells me to open the Lonely Planet and read about Ultar, the mountain we climbed. With amazement I take in the following:

“A popular side trip (six hours – four up and two down) to Hon Pass (4257m) is steep – it’s 1000m up and 1000m down – and strenuous, but well worth the effort. There’s no single established trail except for the final few minutes, but it’s not hard to find the way. The unceasing ascent yields an increasingly spectacular perspective on Ultar and its icefall. Nobody crosses Hon Pass, so after savouring the views, retrace your steps. (Trekkers in really top shape can do the entire trip as a day walk from Baltit in eight hours round trip.)”

“Nobody crosses Hon Pass”, except for these two crazy Dutchies, obviously.