Millions of stars pepper the night sky–regularly obstructed by tall mountains–really tall mountains of ice and snow. The jostling of the tent interrupts my feeble attempt of sleep. ‘Damn wind again,’ deliriously, I think. I haven’t been able to eat properly in two days; we’ve all been sidelined by some sort of stomach illness, it was just my turn. Confusingly, it wasn’t the wind–it was our camp cook with warm tea. My exhausted body warmed, anxiously. I hoped the fluids would stay down while the daunting task of the day ahead frightened me. I pack my bike and start pushing.
We’d been on the Choktoi Glacier deep in the Karakorum Mountains of Pakistan for about a week, building a memorial for two departed climbing friends and boyfriends. Steve and I the friends, Angela and Jewel the girlfriends. Laughter, tears, illness, and physical labor filled the week. Our basecamp was at 14K-foot elevation, and slowly our bodies began to adapt to the shortness of breath and thin air. Our intended exit strategy climbed up and over a 19K-foot pass, and the seriousness of health-related altitude complications sent the girls back down the approach trek while Steve and I continued, rather blindly, with the vision of circumnavigating the Latok group via fatbike.
Nearly every interaction we had with the locals were met with a bewildered awe. We could have been proud just to get the bikes to basecamp, but we are stubborn or dumb, call it what you will, and we were set on accomplishing our goal and wouldn’t be satisfied until we gave it our all. Basecamp required one day by car and four days by foot to reach. The locals–every single one of them–while all super nice, felt the need to tell us that bikes have never been up into the mountains. We soon found out why.
Topographic lines on a macro scale. The lines on these maps do not come in feet; they come in tens or hundreds of kilometers. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the massive scale of these mountains. The north face of Latok is some 10K-feet in length, and we were camped less than a few miles away yet it looked no bigger than El Capitan of Yosemite. Entire glaciers and ridges stacked with countless peaks stretch for a finger length on these papers. Navigation was on glacial scale and an error would get you lost by days or weeks, not just hours. We were dependent upon ourselves to read and navigate the terrain and it was refreshing.
And on the second night of the traverse, the sun came out and stayed out for the duration. After abandoning our bikes near the top of Sim La Pass the previous day, we spent all morning beating the continual snowfall from the roof of our Copper Spur tent and contemplated turning around. But a break in the weather provided retrieval of the bikes and sent us on our way pushing the bikes roped together down the far side of the glacier in a whiteout. The sun was a welcomed sight and feeling. The view amazing, too.
Waking early, we had the most spectacular riding of our lives. The sloppy warm snow of the day before locked into a frozen playground of waves and roller coasters. The weight of the laden bikes seemed to drift away. It’s as if the ropes, harnesses, crampons, ice tools, snowshoes, and all the other knickknacks needed to survive were no longer strapped to us. The riding felt unencumbered, and the miles flew by with grinning ease.
Unfortunately, moments of grinning ease were not often felt. Steve has no pedals on his bike for the simple reason–it’s just easier to push. During the 8-day circumnavigation we only had pedals on our bikes for 2.5 of those and actually rode about half of that. Somebody has an equation somewhere about riding time vs. pushing and whether or not it’s worth it for a bike trip. I can guarantee you that we were nowhere near the acceptable riding quota for the trip to be ‘worth it’ on bikes, but I can also guarantee you that Steve and I would do it no differently–but probably never again.
A million Rupees. “I’ve never had a million of anything,” Steve jokingly said one morning in the gear tent. Expeditions in foreign countries require complex logistics that would be extremely hard to navigate on your own with a Western mentality. Hiring a guide is part of the business of going into the mountains, and it supports the local economies. I would recommend Higher Ground Expeditions for all things Pakistan.
Andrew Burr is one of the longest-standing members of the Big Agnes photography family. When he’s not shooting for Big Agnes he’s trekking the globe for Patagonia, Climbing magazine, or spending time at home with his kids in Salt Lake City, Utah. Follow him on Instagram at @andrew_burr.