To what heights can I not rise!?
2009 was an unusual year featuring prolonged winters and heavy snowfall followed by a wet monsoon spell during the early July. That’s when we decided to trek from Saif ul Muluk to Lalazar in Kaghan valley across the Dhadar pass. Northern areas were under a continual wet spell. There were frequent land slides and traffic suspensions occurring beyond Balakot. Considering the inclemency of the weather, we deemed appropriate to travel on public transport instead of personal cars.
Daewoo bus and shuttle service provides convenient and reliable means to commute between Lahore and Mansehra. Breeze was refreshing but it was a damp and unusually cold morning in Mansehra even in July that gave us only the slightest taste of the medicine that we were going to have. Pecking at the bits of information from here and there, amassed at the large bus stand (unfortunately there was no horse or his mouth in distant sight to disgorge, spew or vet the accounts), we embarked upon the first van that volunteered to leave for Naran.
The news was contradictory. But one fact was confirmed. The torrential rains had instigated heavy landslides causing wiping of road and blockades at certain points along the highway. There was even a word, of tourists and families getting stuck in Kaghan and Naran, in the air.
Only a few ventured to travel during such uncertainty, and those too, mostly the natives. The weather was lovely and the rain accentuated, washed and purified the natural green aura of the valleys and hills. During the course of the gradual journey, the panorama exhibiting a bonanza of natural beauty and charm kept creeping along. While, the roaring muddy water of Kunhar river made the landscape surreal.
Munching a couple of pulpy pears during a brief stopover was a thorough delight. Their taste was exquisite that we graciously relished as they dissolved and melted away sweetly in our mouths. We were passed Kiwai now and approaching Paras and Mahandari. That’s where the dreaded proceedings commenced.
Crossing a portion of the river Kunhar
A wide portion of the road had been swept away by the rocky and muddy falls. The van could go no further. Those who wanted to continue needed to walk across with their luggage and hire vehicles that were offloading the passengers at the far end. That involved passing through a portion of the river balancing and hopping on slippery pointed rocks in the drizzle. As we did so, much to our bewilderment, the rocks started falling. The stones, small and large, came crashing down bouncing and rebounding like ping pong balls above our heads. We bolted and rushed with our haversacks as quickly as we possibly could. It was quite a terrific sight. Scampering through the water, rocks and mud as we breathlessly made to the other side, there were only a couple of jeeps ready to take a return journey. Not surprisingly, they discovered themselves in excellent bargaining position_an advantage they exploited to perfection to extract the last possible penny out of our pockets. At the same time, the food, fuel and supplies were getting scant and the transport was getting increasingly thin at this side of the divide.
It was extremely chilly and the journey proceeded slowly in the rain. We encountered a few more landslides and the usual glaciers but nothing noteworthy. After a tiring journey and a lot of uncertainty we were able to reach Naran during late afternoon.
People were trapped in the valley and the inventories were running dry with little hope of replenishment. Naran, located at nearly 8000 feet ASL, appeared quite different from its usual self as against what it normally looks like during this part of the year. Even the lower peaks and hills surrounding the valley were still snow clad. The brooks and streams flowing down the mountains into the river Kunhar were frozen for the most part. It was extremely cold and required proper heating and warm clothing to attain some comfort.
Our next activity was to check in the familiar seedy hotel and look for our friend cum host cum guide Naseer. This was part of acclimatization process aimed at gradually shedding away the luxuries of civic life. As usual, maintaining his track record and fulfilling our hopes and expectations, Naseer was nowhere to be found. However, his cottage stood firmly across the river on the mountain with a dead telephone line that we kept staring at wistfully and dutifully with intermittent breaks. His cell was not responding which was again not beyond the realms of our expectation. We devoured a lavish late afternoon lunch, just in case, to mark the occasion.
It was still raining and very cold when eventually we were able to locate and contact Naseer. Pleasarities were exchanged and smiles were extended, ear to ear, upon his arrival. Weather permitting, the brewing plans and the adverse conditions plus the challenges likely to be confronted on the track were discussed. The prospects looked bleak and there was a big question mark upon our intended departure next morning.
After savouring a delicious spicy dinner of nan and chappal kababs, we resorted to the safety of our sleeping bags instead of the beds and dirty linen. Thanks to Naseer, negotiations and departure plans were finalized with the jeep driver, hoping for the best for the following day. Essentials like oven, lighters, batteries, cans, milk, noodles, dates, tea/coffee bags, chocolates, mints, medicines and lemon were stuffed neatly in the ruck sacks.
Following dawn rose with a miraculous change in atmosphere. The sky was all clear, awash and turquoise, with golden glow of the sun rising across the horizon. Rain had given way to snow at some point in time last night that now glittered along the contours and jagged skylines of the surrounding hills and mountains.
A refreshing morning view from the valley
The early morning jeep ride to Saif ul Muluk offered a unique and different experience. There was absolutely no traffic on the track that remained crowded during this part of the year. Never had I seen the surroundings of Naran draped in such lustrous white during July before. Snow line had descended to the levels that were unprecedented according to the locals and the glaciers had thickened, at places, virtually assuming the shape of ice walls.
A view from the jeep on road to Saif ul Muluk
View of a rivine and muddy jeep track
We reached the legendary Saif ul Muluk lake early in the morning that was the starting point of our trek. Surrounded by an indenting outline of snow all round, the breathtaking view of the lake was captivating to the core. The serenity and sublime charm of the reservoir made it appear dreamlike. In the morning rays and ripples induced by the chilly breeze, the stars danced and glittered on the mirror like reflective sheet of water reminding me of my earlier camping nights at the place. Grand peaks and icy slopes flowing into the lake captured their majestic and mesmerising view in the trembling surface of water.
A breathtaking view of lake Saif-ul-Muluk
At more than 10,000 ft ASL and already above the tree line, we started our walk. It was a gradual rise, snow covered almost from the start, narrowing down slowly into a gourge. There were occasional ridges and climbs on the way. Looking back and stealing a look of the lake from an occasional vantage point was fascinating.
In life and hiking there is no looking back….but when it is worth it!!!??
On our left lofty Malka Parbat, the highest peak of Kaghan valley, stared down with all its grandeur. The trek curled to the left along the mountain ascending steadily. To our right, a steep trail went up the mountains leading to Aansoo lake.
It was a bright sunny day and the sun was beating down with all its blaze. The rays were being reflected by the wide expanse of fresh and pure white snow and piercing our eyes and skin. Anything bare and exposed was beginning to feel the effects of sun burn. Chilly breeze, that blew across , made it worse. We walked steadily as the virgin snow crackled and crumbled under our feet. Our foot marks left a continuous trail on the paths unraveled. There was no sign of life left in the wilderness except for occasional herds of ibex that crawled like moving dots on the sheets of ice and slopes.
The murmuring streams and brooks, weaving their way across to the reservoir downstream, were partly buried under the folds of ice and snow. Crevices were visible at certain points. Crest of ice was hard for the most part but softer layers made us stumble and flop. With thickening layer of snow underneath, it got progressively harder to climb. Our energy and strength slowly sapped.
Considering the conditions, we had to jot down a realistic plan. We had been on the trek for more than four hours and to give ourselves a fair chance to camp somewhere at a decent spot before the sunset, there were another couple of hours available to cross the pass before we could start a speedy descent.
Not well equipped, we still decided to give it our best shot. The gourge narrowed and the grade steepened assuming the form of successive hills. Wading our way through the mass of snow, we climbed one after the other, narrowing in on the skyline.
Etching our foot marks on virgin snow
It was getting increasingly tiring and we were forced to take frequent breaks. With continuous gain in the height, the oxygen levels in the air depleted. Straps of our rucksacks penetrated into our flesh as we sweated profusely and got breathless. Our pace slowed down considerably as our strides became smaller. Still our motivation and drive kept us going.
Unfortunately we were lagging much behind the schedule now. Having been for six hours on the trek, the top was inching closer but staring down upon us menacingly. There were still a couple of ridges separating us from the top. It was late afternoon and we were left with almost three hours before the sunset. With the darkness swallowing everything, it would get extremely cold in this wide expense of snow. Apparently there was no reasonable spot where we could camp with some degree of surety. The best we could do was to trail back and find a piece of bare land at some lower altitudes.
At that point, we eventually decided to get back. Retracing our steps, we commenced our descent marveling at the barriers that we had crossed and the height we had attained. It was steep and quite slippery making us tumble at places. Legs were stiff and heavy now, and once off balance, the body offered little resistance to fall. Still, it was quicker and faster to trek along the descent. With the sunset approaching, our progress was satisfactory now.
Finally along a wide curve, we were able to redeem that classic distant view of Saif ul Muluk from a higher pedestal. The shadows were lengthening and the breeze was getting bitingly cold slapping our faces and caressing our contours.
Pitching our tent
A brisk walk ensued. Before dusk, in dying day light we were able to find some narrow stretch of soil and rocky ground. Dead tired but relieved, we pitched our dome tent amidst those towering mountains. Washing our faces with the ice cold water was a refreshing and terrific experience simultaneously. Saving our plans to accomplish the trek on a better day in future, soon the cups of tea and servings of noodle made a round and hence a memorable day and an exciting adventure that we shall treasure for the rest of our lives drew to an end……