Words and photos by Steve Swenson unless otherwise noted.
The Karakoram Range is a group of jagged high-altitude mountains in South Asia where India, Pakistan, and China border each other. According to Barry Blanchard, “The Karakoram is the greatest mountain range on Earth, the ultimate expression of the word Mountain”. This range covers 30,000 square miles (77,000 KM2) and contains four of the world’s fourteen mountains higher than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), including K2 (8,611 meters, or 28,251 feet), the second highest peak after Mount Everest. Over the past thirty-seven years, I’ve been on seventeen expeditions to this range.
The Karakoram range is contained within the geographical region of Kashmir, whose control is disputed between the three neighbouring countries. The conflict over this region has had tragic consequences for its inhabitants, but it has also created a “political wilderness” in vast areas of the Karakoram due to restricted access. By now all the 8000-meter giants in the range have been climbed by multiple routes. But most of the 7000-meter peaks have only been climbed once and about a dozen are still unclimbed. In the Karakoram there are hundreds of unclimbed 6000-meter peaks – probably the highest concentration of untouched high mountains in the world.
After going to Mount Everest in 1994, I noticed the motivation for many climbers was to reach the summit of as many of the world’s fourteen 8000-meter peaks as they could. For me it was more fun to go climbing with partners who also believed that exploration was not about pursuing a set of goals, but rather to use them as the inspiration for continually seeking the unknown. My focus shifted and over the past couple of decades I’ve been interested in either new lines or first ascents on 7000 and 6000-meter peaks in the Karakoram.
The Western Karakoram is accessed from the Karakoram Highway (KKH) north of Gilgit where it runs past the Batura Sar (7795m) group, Rakaposhi (7788m), and the valleys leading to the major peaks up the Hispar and Shimshal valleys. The KKH eventually goes over the Kunjerab Pass into western China, but some of these mountains near the highway have been closed. These closures are due to a massive construction project along the KKH financed by the Chinese to connect their highway system with the Pakistan port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean.
I’m the most familiar with the Central Karakoram In Pakistan that contains all the peaks along the Baltoro Glacier from the Trango Towers to K2 and the Gasherbrums. The trips I’ve done all the way up the Baltoro were logistically complicated and expensive because the approaches with porters are long and the peaks are over 8000 meters. But the Central Karakoram also contains the Latok group, and further east the Hushe valley from where the Charakusa and Nangmah valleys can be accessed. The trips I’ve had to these areas were smaller, less expensive affairs because the approaches are much shorter, and the peaks are in the 6000-7000+ meter range.
The eastern edge of the Central Karakoram borders on the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) where Pakistani and Indian troops are faced off with each other in outposts, many of which are at over 6000 meters. There is a restricted zone on both sides of the AGPL where climbing access is not allowed. But since 2004 there has been a cease along the AGPL that has held for the most part and the Pakistanis have been gradually opening some of these areas where most of the peaks are unclimbed.
The Eastern Karakoram is on the Indian side of the AGPL and access is from Delhi to Leh and by jeep over the Kardung La. The Siachen Glacier provides access to most of the peaks in the Eastern Karakoram, but for the most part no climbing permits have been issued there for at least a couple of decades. But further south and east of the snout of the Siachen Glacier lay the Mamostong, Saser Kangri, and Arganglas groups where climbing is allowed. I’ve been in the Saser Kangri group in 2009 and 2011 where we did the first ascent of Saser Kangri II.
Immediately south of the Karakoram on the south side of the Indus River sits Nanga Parbat (8,126 m), the world’s ninth highest mountain. Technically, Nanga Parbat is not part of the Karakoram because it sits on the south side of the Indus River and is the westernmost 8,000-meter peak of the fifteen- hundred-mile-long Himalayan Range.
Security Issues are a big concern for climbers and trekkers interested in going to the Pakistan part of the Karakoram located in the province of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). It’s important to understand that Pakistan is a predominately Sunni Muslim country, but in GB the people are nearly all minority Shia Muslims. These Shia Muslims isolated by mountains in GB are some of the most friendly, welcoming people that I have ever met – like the Sherpas in Nepal. After arriving in GB, climbers and trekkers are as safe or maybe safer than other places we travel in the developing world. Care should be taken in getting from Islamabad to GB. It is possible to either fly from Islamabad to Skardu or Gilgit; or to take the KKH. Before getting to GB, the KKH travels adjacent to tribal areas that contain some extremist Sunni groups, so we have opted to wait in Islamabad to take the plane even though flight schedules can be erratic.
In 2015 Graham Zimmerman and Scott Bennett dragged me up the first ascent of Changi Tower (6500m) and they went on to do a new route on K6 West
I was back in the Karakoram in 2017 on another project, but that’s a story to be continued.
Steve Swenson lives in Seattle, Washington and Canmore, Alberta with his wife Ann where he climbs, writes and does volunteer work. He enjoys a broad range of interests including Alpine Climbing in the Great Ranges, ice climbing, trad and sport climbing. He has two adult sons – Lars and Jed.
His new book, Karakoram, is out now and can be ordered from Mountaineer Books.