Yaks can be very useful when crossing rivers! In the image, Bruno stays dry aboard a local yak at Braldu River crossing (Click to enlarge).
Kulan is a wild ass very rarely seen in Shugerab, Braldu and Sarpo Laggo Valleys. The team was extremely lucky to spot a couple of this unusual breed (click to enlarge).
"My guide, Qudrat Ali Shah, knew of a cave in the Braldu valley which had served as burial place, so we checked it out. In the cave there were arm and leg bones." In the image, Qudrat jokes at the entrance of the cave (click to enlarge).
Wesm Glacier seen from the same pass Shipton traversed on his way down from Skamri plateau in 1937 (click to enlarge).
The peak in the image does not appear on any available map. Its summit stands at about 6000 m. (Click to enlarge).
Another Everest pioneer. Image of Eric Shipton, courtesy of Cathedral Grammar School.
Impressive lines of 'penitents' at Braldu Glacier. (Click to enlarge).
"The upper Braldu glacier looks like a gigantic frozen lake, similar to the one we would soon come across not too far away." (Click to enlarge).
Up Sim Gang Glacier: This is the place where Bill Tilman and his porters saw footprints of the Yeti during Shipton's expedition in 1937. (Click to enlarge).<br><br>
Camp on the frozen Snow Lake. "The splendid weather and beautiful camp made a perfect end to our trek." All pictures courtesy of Bruno Collard and Blankonthemap. (Click to enlarge).
Blankonthemap: Shipton's tracks across Pakistan's hidden valleys
Posted: Jan 10, 2006 05:00 pm EST
(K2Climb.net)Shipton was a team-member on all four Everest expeditions during the 1930s and found the route that Hillary and Tenzing would follow to the top of the world. What now embodies pure alpinism, in Shiptons times was almost blasphemy. He was therefore rejected from fulfilling the dream of reaching the summit of Everest, or at least to try it with style. As soon as the mountain was summited he forced himself to consider that there were still many peaks around the world.
He would later reckon, in fact, that Everest had blocked his vision from any other project. Once you tried it, it was very difficult to stop. With that, Eric's focus shifted to Karakorum, which he explored again in 1957 and where he celebrated his 50th birthday. His Karakorum explorations were published in his book Blank on the Map.
Blank on the Map anno 2005
Bruno Collard, webmaster of French website Blankonthemap, completed the great traverse from Shimshal to Askole, Northern Pakistan in June 2005. Following Eric Shiptons notes, and footsteps, he led a small group across one of the most remote corners of the Himalayas.
The amazing trip included hidden mountain passages, strange wildlife, breathtaking landscapes and a heap of mysterious bones found in a cave. This last discovery has led Bruno to plan a new expedition. In fact, he is looking for historians and archeologists to join the team.
So for all you ancient history buffs on the Silk route, don't miss Brunos debrief on the expedition.
Gradually, we slide into China
"The trek starts gently, in the direction of the high grazing fields of Shimshal. The pastoral life of the Shugerab village, the simple life style and kindness of these women forced to live at 4000m altitude for more than 8 months a year, really touched me.
We went over one of the main peaks that mark the division of the waters of Central Asia and Southern Asia. Gradually, we slide into China and at the same time towards a magnificent wilderness. Oh, by the way, I noticed that the porters are no saints because on the way they cut the throat of a sheep which became our meat reserve - then a 10 hr walk to Chikar at the foot of the Braldu river.
Following the wild ass
Then, we walked up the great Braldu valley and through the river by holding onto our yaks. We installed our temporary camp at the junction of the Wusm-l-Dur and Skorga valleys.
Suddenly, excitement grew among us: In the river we could see a Kulan - only Wahab had ever seen one before. In fact, it was a Kulan couple which in the local language means "wild ass" - however, everybody agrees that it's not a donkey but a horse. With straight standing ears, long legs, the animals galluped through the stones with grace and suppleness, their yellow coats superbly standing out against the grey background of the river bed.
We tried to get closer but the animals ran, then stopped, always maintaining a safe distance. They seemed to be very curious about us and observed the way we moved. Suddenly, the animals fled towards the Wusm-l- Dur valley, which was great, since that was our direction too.
Almost mythical horses
We checked the fresh footprints in the sand of the river. Qudrat is positive: The footsteps, the droppings, are like those of a horse.
Spotting this graceful animal is something extraordinary in this rough stone desert. The Kulan generally live in the lower Shaksgam valley, but come summer, go up into the higher adjacent valleys looking for fields to graze.
As we went up along the Wusm-l-Dur valley, we spotted the couple two more times - incredibly lucky really since even the local people consider the Kulan more of a mythical than real animal.
The burial places of the Uschelga people
My guide, Qudrat Ali Shah, knew of a cave in the Braldu valley which had served as burial place, so we decided to check it out. It was at the bottom of a huge monolith stone of Kartic origin, in a place called Uschelga (Usc=high, elga=houses, "higher houses" or "houses from above"). The entrance of the cavity is protected by an old stone wall. Behind the wall, we found bits of old pottery scattered everywhere.
Inside the cave we found arm and leg bones - the skull and the pelvis were nowhere to be found. Apparently, the cave had already been visited. The bones seem to be very old and Qudrat assured me there were no references of humans ever buried in this area, at least in Shimshal mythology.
Chatting with the locals of Shugerab, we learnt that there are many caves in the area, some of them containing all sorts of equipment, such as saddles for horses, etc.
Unsolved questions hidden in history
Maybe we are in the midst of an unknown history. That of men who lived at a time when the great peaks of the Karakoram were used by merchants who travelled back and forth between Southern Asia and ancient Turkestan.
This is a little known and fascinating period of the past. Great explorers like Younghusband, Schomberg, Conway and Eric Shipton debated at length about it. And their questions are still valid today: How on Earth, could men travel these high glacier peaks and crevasses at 6000 m altitude with their mules and horses? It's very difficult to imagine today, particularly seeing the current state of the glaciers or maybe did the peaks at the time allow an easier passage? Did the glaciers shrink or were they just bigger back then?
For the moment, it remains an unsolved mystery.
Eric Shipton wrote: "It would be interesting for history to send an expedition to these countries to trace the remains of old itineraries, to locate housing ruins and determine the historic migration of the primitive people of these isolated mountainous regions."
Obviously a scientific expedition could help clarify many secrets about the lifestyle of these ancient men. Archeologists could probably easily date the bones, identify its origins. It's only a matter of finding the time to bring some scientific skill to these isolated valleys.
We took nothing with us and left things as they were.
Wusm-l-Dur, the forgotten valley
Eric Shipton, in his book "Blank on the map", didn't mention anything of special interest in the Wusm-l Dur valley. Maybe bad weather did not allow him to see the amphitheater of mountains that we had before our eyes (it happened to me when I trekked around Mont Blanc).
But we did walk up a valley to the East through a river bed towards the Wusm Pass, which Eric Shipton descirbed as extremely dangerous due to ice falls and crevasses.
Excited, we went up a ramp of moraine towards herbal slopes and set up balconies. We were at about 4500 m and surely, the only people to admire this magnificent panorama.
An unknown 6000+ peak
The weather couldn't be better. Just opposite from me, there was a remarkable mountain for which I found no reference on my map.
Quadrat and I estimate the mountain summit might be about 6000 m, but on our incomplete map, only one point marks 5870 m and it is further to the north. Everything is beautiful here.
We continue to go up the valley. Further to the east of the Chinese border, a superb glacier ramp with summits of 6400 m can be seen on my map, those peaks offer lovely slopes to climb towards the Skami glacier.
Welcome to the third Pole
We walked in the snow, at 4500 m altitude for five days - skis would have been welcome. The higher part of the Bradlu glacier is as beautiful as a snow lake; the passes seemed easy enough between the Braldu glacier and those of Skamri (in China) and the Nobande Sobande, located just a little above the high ice cap.
This was the last programmed leg in our itinerary, but then suddenly one of the porters refused to go any further (it's true that he recently lost a brother in an avalanche in the Chapchingol pass).
So instead, we went towards the Lukpe la col, at the foot of the huge Bobisgir ice cap (6416 m). We awkwadly walked in fresh snow, without ever seeing the famous kairn (a pile of stones to mark the way) set up by Tilman, 68 years ago at Lukpe la.
Exhausted, we set up our camp at the col. Night was freezing cold, probably -15º C. The next morning, our shoes and sleeping gear were frozen but what a view we enjoyed: Sim Gang glacier was at our feet, to the east was K2 and Broad Peak. The north face of Baintha Brakk (also called The Ogre, 7285m) and Sosbun Brakk (6413m) were capturing the first sunrays.
Nature was saying: Welcome to the third Pole.
Epilogue: Call out for scientists and climbers (or both)
We found many cavities in the Ulschelga area. At least 3 weeks would be required to gather information from the inhabitants and to explore the cavities.
It would have to be an experienced climbing team since the caves are often in or above difficult walls. Historians and scientists would be ideal for a possible exploration mission. I invite all those interested in a scientific mission to examine the many caves of the Ulschelga valley (and any adjacent valleys) to contact me through Blankonthemap."
Blankonthemap is, according to its founder, the only existent website about Northern Kashmir. It also contains useful info on mountain areas in the Himalaya, Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Hindu Raj - including rare topo maps.