Pakistan: Snow Lake

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Steady on: Porters traverse a glacier near Snow Lake.

Trek Length: 21–28 days (10­15 of which are spent walking), 120 miles
Maximum Altitude: 16,900 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Self-organized Trek): $1,300–$1,500
Price (Group Trek): $1,700–$4,800
Prime Time: July–August
Staging Cities: Islamabad, Pakistan

The Rhapsody: There's a place in remote northeastern Pakistan that is so overpowering in its visual drama that a number of qualified observers have been willing to declare unequivocally that this is The Most Beautiful Place in the World. The Place is improbably remote, a week's trek from the nearest human habitation, which is itself the last outpost in the hardscrabble frontier region of Baltistan. Perhaps the difficulty of trekking to The Place—only about 200 people a year manage to reach it—and the lack of oxygen at its extreme altitude have colored the aesthetic judgment of those who have been there. Or perhaps not.

It's called Lupke Lawo, or Snow Lake, and it's not a lake but a ten-mile-wide glacial basin at 15,000 feet, ringed by the jagged high peaks of the Karakoram Range. Punctuated by mountainous "islands" that jut from its surface, Snow Lake lies at the head of the Biafo and Hispar Glaciers, which spread down from Hispar Pass in opposite directions like a long, bony thumb and little finger, forming a 75-mile river of ice that is among the world's longest continuous glacier systems outside the polar regions. Nepal veterans may miss the terraced greenery, religious shrines, and friendly, tea-bearing locals, but for those seeking solitude and aesthetic grandeur, this wild walk is unsurpassed.

The Route: The journey to Snow Lake typically begins in Islamabad, the main jumping-off spot for mountaineers and trekkers bound for the Karakoram Range. After flying or driving (there's a 50-50 chance bad weather will cancel your flight) from Islamabad to Skardu, trekkers travel by jeep along the terrifyingly narrow and precipitous road through the Braldu Gorge (brace yourself for two- to three-point turns to negotiate the winding bends) to the medieval-looking village of Askole, where the trek begins; be prepared to walk the final hour to Askole, as a landslide recently wiped out part of the road. The trek proceeds toward K2, then turns northwest up the Biafo Glacier to Snow Lake, climbing a gradual 1,000 feet a day for about a week. From there, trekkers cross the pass at Hispar La and make the five- to six-day descent of Hispar Glacier to the Hunza Valley, the lush green oasis that was supposedly the inspiration for James Hilton's Shangri-La. Return is an overnight trip via jeep to Karimabad and Gilgit, then by plane or jeep to Islamabad.

The Snow Lake trek is an extremely challenging proposition. Crevasses on the Biafo and Hispar Glaciers have claimed lives, and blizzards, whiteouts, and tricky, crevasse-obscuring snow cover are possible throughout the year. Even with a guide, you'll need solid route-finding, compass-reading, and rope skills.

Guides and Outfitters: Because you'll be crossing crevasse-riddled glaciers en route to Snow Lake—a week's walk away from rescue—it's not advisable to trek there on your own, without a rope team. In Skardu, the last outpost where food and fuel can be obtained reliably, you may be able to find a freelance guide who can organize porters, supplies, and jeeps to and from the trailheads. Typically, you'll need four to five porters per trekker, at a total cost of about $100 per porter; with food and jeep travel, the cost of a bare-bones Snow Lake trek arranged in Skardu is about $1,300 per person, depending on group size. A better choice is one of several outfitters in Islamabad that offer Snow Lake trek packages at prices ranging from about $1,700 to $2,000 for a group of eight (try Nazir Sabir Expeditions at 011-92-51-2252553;

A safer option still are the several U.S. outfitters (Concordia Expeditions, Geographic Expeditions, and KE Adventure Travel, among others) that offer full-service expeditions with all the amenities—hotels and meals in Islamabad and flights to and from Skardu (weather permitting) and Gilgit—at prices ranging from $1,750 to $4,800.

Read Up: Trekking in the Karakoram and Hindu Kush, by John Mock and Kimberley O'Neil ($17, Lonely Planet) is an essential guidebook for Snow Lake trekkers. Explorers of the Western Himalayas, by John Keay ($24 John Murray UK, ) remains a compelling history of exploration in the western Himalayas and the Karakoram. —D.N.

Filed To: Pakistan, Snow Sports

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web