For years I have received e-mails from alpinists across the globe saying “Id like to visit the Karakoram and climb something.” That’s like me sending an e-mail to a personals website saying “Id like to date.” The more specific you can be, the better your chances of turning your dream expedition into a reality. Decide whether you want to climb a 7000-meter non-technical peak, or an existing route, which involves big wall climbing.
Selecting a suitable objective is the most important part of your expedition. It will determine whether or not you will require a permit. Getting permits involves dealing with government bureaucracy. The process can be as simple as you contacting a “guiding” service in Pakistan that arranges everything for you, or as messy as you waiting for months to hear back because your peak happens to be in a “restricted zone.” The objective will also dictate where you must hire porters, their rates, transportation costs and more.
Reliable beta regarding suitable climbing objectives in Pakistan can be found at the American Alpine Club library in Golden, Colorado. Nazir Sabir in Pakistan also keeps a detailed log of peaks that have been climbed and by what route. Less reliable are local guiding services in Pakistan.
Lets assume you have decided on a suitable objective. The next step is securing a visa to Pakistan. This can be ridiculously frustrating. This is how it works: You send in your passport, visa application and a $120 fee to the Pakistani embassy closest to you. It may take up to 10 business days for them to receive your application. It will take another few weeks for them to send your application to their office in Islamabad. The officer there will forward it to the intelligence agencies, in a week or so. The intelligence officer will then personally set out to gather information regarding your expedition. The entire process can take between 1-3 months. I know a couple from Boulder, Colorado that waited 4 months for their visa, and had to finally cancel their trip. So my advice is to apply as soon as possible.
The next step is securing a permit. These are only required for peaks over 6500 meters/21,450 feet. To get one you must go through a licensed tour operator in Pakistan. You can find one on your own with a simple search on google, or I can assist you with the logistics. The permits can take up to 2 months to acquire, so you must have your tour operator apply soon.
At this stage you will be required to pay the tour operator a substantial advance in order to cover permit costs. You will also be asked if you would like optional helicopter rescue service for a down payment of $2000. If you are frost bitten and need to be evacuated, this option can be a lifesaver.
Once you have received your visa and permit, you can book roundtrip airfare to Islamabad, Pakistan. The most expensive way to do so is by going on a website such as Travelocity. Fares there are grossly exaggerated. The best way to get to Pakistan is by contacting a Pakistani travel agent in Chicago, New York City or London. These agents should be able to get you roundtrip tickets to Pakistan for less than $2000. Alternatively you could visit Pakistan International Airline’s website and book your tickets there. The only caveat there is that the website doesn’t always work, and that you must present the credit card you paid with during your flight.
The climbing season in Pakistan starts in Mid June and continues into Early October. If your objective involves travel on the Baltoro Glacier (K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrums) then its best to travel between Mid July and Mid September. Porters hate the snow, and will charge extra to walk on a snow-covered glacier. Snow on the glacier also involves roped travel with crevasse rescue gear adding days to your approach, and making the expedition more expensive.
In any case, the climbing season coincides with the worst time of the year to be in Rawalpindi-Islamabad. Power-cuts, coupled with temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius, mosquitoes and contaminated water ensure a truly miserable experience. Therefore, avoid lingering in the cities, and under no circumstance should you arrive in Pakistan and wait for a permit in these conditions.
Airports that allow easy access to climbing objectives are in Chitral, Gilgit and Skardu. Flights are supposed to run daily but are cancelled incase there is even a trace of cloud cover. Which means if you are arriving during the monsoon season (Early July to Early August) the chances of you actually catching a plane are slim to none. You can avoid this by arriving in Late June.
Most tour operators will drive you up the Karakoram Highway to either Skardu or Gilgit. From there they will arrange jeeps that take you to the trailhead. Please ensure that your guide is from the same area as your porters or you can potentially run into problems. Its not uncommon for guides from Hunza to organize expeditions in Kohistan and Baltistan. In-case your porters decide to double their wages half way up the trek, your Hunza guide wont be able to do anything. This can potentially ruin your expedition. DO NOT BRING SHERPAS FROM NEPAL TO GUIDE YOU IN PAKISTAN – not only is it unethical to the local communities, it can result in serious issues.
One last thing, make sure your cook washes their hands, and bring extra biodegradable soap for him! Stomach ailments ruin more expeditions than all other factors combined.
I’ll write another blog on avoiding stomach ailments during your expedition soon. In the meantime, if you have any questions on the content presented here, feel free to drop me a line.