Jones Ambassador Guide Julien ’Pica’ Herry shares the story behind Hunza, the new adventure film by Invade Media documenting the magnificent mountains and culture of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. Watch the full movie now on Vimeo On Demand:
April 30th, 2018:
It’s 10am on a warm, cloudless day in the Karakoram range of Pakistan. Sam Favret, Leo Slemett and I are standing on the summit of Barbara peak (5520m) with an incredible 360 degree view. We soak in the simple pleasure of our position as much as possible, feeling very grateful for the chance to live our dreams fully.
That same morning we left base camp around midnight and hiked for 4 hours under the full moon before trading skins for crampons at first light. Topping out the first ridge with the sunrise over the Hispar glacier was unreal and the following hours of hiking felt a bit dreamy with the help of altitude and rich memories.
I first stepped onto the slopes of Barbara peak with my best friend Max in the spring 2008. We got caught in a storm on a high shoulder at 5100m and waited for an hour for the weather to clear. We had hoped to ride an amazing glacier line we had scouted, but the weather never cleared and we were forced to ride down our ascent route on more mellow terrain. We vowed to return to ride the line, but unfortunately Max lost his life a few years later guiding in the Alps. In 2012 I did return to Barbara Peak and enjoyed an emotional tribute to Max with some friends. We scattered his ashes on that same shoulder, in a place he was feeling so alive. Luck was on our side that trip as we also rode the glacier line with clear blue skies and perfect snow conditions.
Fast forward to 2018 and I’m back in Pakistan with Sam and Leo shooting a film project with Invade Media Productions. We’re joined by Jeremy Bernard (photographer), Alex Blaise (producer), Hensli Sage (drone), JR Ceron (cameraman) and Christopher Baud (safety guide). We’ve come to explore the magnificent mountains and culture of the Hunza Valley. Summiting Barbara peak today in stellar conditions just a few days into our trip is a dream come true and we’re extremely grateful for our immediate success.
The climb up Barbara had not gone quite as easy as planned, however. Half way up the climb we got a little lost on the mountain as the spine line we had hoped to ride from the summit ridge didn’t actually go to the summit. After hesitating a few minutes, we decided to keep climbing to the high point of the never ending ridge, expecting that to be the summit. After a long hour of climbing the snowy ridge, we’re relieved to find that the top of the ridge is the summit. Our local guide Javed was the first alpinist to summit Barbara Peak a dozen years ago. We are the second ascent party and the first ones with snowboards and skis. After spending 30 unforgettable minutes on the summit, we drop in, riding our ascent ridge down to a hanging glacier. Below us, the glacier slowly rolls off into the void.
Crossing the glacier our intended descent leaves our ascent route and ventures into the unknown. We slowly get to the top of a spicy spine section that we recognize from a previous recon hike. The first 150 meters are steep and the snow is rotten so we decide to use a rope. Gaining the edge of the spine the slope is not too steep, but our legs and mind are getting tired from the long day. Leo and Sam ski their way, fast and fluid as usual. I decide to take it easy with a slower rhythm and more calculated turns. Soon we get to a short traverse under some gigantic seracs. The snow gets even worse, but luckily the terrain is not so steep. Traversing to safety one by one, we make it to the bottom of an exit ramp that we now have to climb. We only have to ascend 100 meters, but it feels like a 1000 meters climbing on a thin layer of crappy wet snow on top of dirty rocks. After an hour of fighting up the rocky ramp we gain the ridge and discover a nice powdery spine leading to a sun softened slope on the other side. We rip this pitch down to base camp where our friends warmly welcome us.
Days like these are why I keep returning to ride in Pakistan, and specifically the Hunza Valley. Pakistan is a huge country that borders Iran, Afghanistan, China and India. The Hunza Valley is located in the Karakoram Range near the Chinese border. As a part of the Silk Road, people have been traveling through the Hunza for hundreds of years. The village of Baltit, recently renamed Karimabad, has always been the capital of the valley. Sitting at an altitude of 2600 meters, the valley is wide and green presenting a stunning contrast with the brown lower mountains and the white summits. Four 7000m summits are visible from the village - Diran Peak (7266m), Golden Peak (7027m), Rakaposhi (7788m) and Ultar Sar (7388m). Between the setting and the amazing local people, the Hunza Valley is one of my favorite places on earth.
For centuries, the people of the Hunza valley lived completely self-sufficient. They lived off their rich land and grew all their own food. The Hunza are a notably healthy and long lived community thanks to their wholesome diet, the rich mineral water flowing from the mountains and the lack of pollution. The success of their agricultural lifestyle has taught the Hunza people to give back to the soil everything they take from it. Of course the social situation has changed a lot in the Hunza Valley in the past decades with the Karakoram Highway bringing more cars, city food and habits, but many Hunza people still live self-sufficiently and they educate their kids to live in harmony with nature and to have a great respect for it.
Tourism in the Hunza Valley had been growing up until the September 11th, 2001 Al Qaeda attack in the USA. After the attack, tourism dropped off to zero forcing many local people to change their way of life. Pakistan quickly got a dangerous reputation as a Taliban hideout that lasted for the next 15 years. Thankfully, it seems the times are changing with a more stable political situation. The country has gotten safer and local tourism has grown in recent years.
Exploring the region on Google Earth prior to the trip, I found an interesting zone a bit north of Karimabad in Khunjerab National Park. The approach didn’t look too long and the terrain looked really promising with 6000 meter summits rising above the glacier. Asking around about gaining access to this new area, we quickly come to realize that it will be complicated because of China and Pakistan’s new infrastructure agreement. China is investing a lot of money in the Karakoram highway to provide better access to a major sea port for Chinese exports. The deal gives Chinese authorities almost total control of what happens in the Karakoram highway corridor and restricts a lot of activities.
Javed suggests that we test the waters with the authorities by taking a day trip to the area without our skis and boards. Leaving from Karimabad at night we drive three hours north on the Karakoram highway to the entrance of Khunjerab National Park. The military guards at the gate give us permission to spend the day visiting the park. Entering the park our next concern is how we will get across the river. The valley we want to access is on the other side of the river from the highway. We bring gear to build a zip line across the river if we’re forced, but we’re hoping a mysterious line across the river that we saw on Google Earth is actually a bridge.
To our delight, the bridge is for real and we get confirmation from a shepherd that we’ve found the valley we’re looking for on the map. He tells us to follow a path leading to a spring by a shepherd’s house, and that we are the first foreigners to ever visit the valley. After an hour walk we arrive at the spring and the first skiable lines come into view. An hour later we are at the base of the glacier on a wide flat grassy area that looks perfect for a base camp. The terrain rising off the glacier looks insane with several potential lines. Now we just need to get permission to camp there for a few nights.
A few days of paper work and negotiations later, we are given permission to spend five days in the valley with the condition that we respect the wildlife and leave nothing but shred tracks. After a night spent in the village of Sost arranging porter support, we cross the crucial bridge and start hiking all the gear up to the glacier early in the morning. We arrive at base camp at 4400 meters by mid-day so we decide to climb up the glacier above camp to better scout potential objectives. Two hours of climbing gains us a much better view of the lines and we set a target for the next day just as the visibility starts to deteriorate.
We leave camp the next day in the dead of night. Daylight catches us at the bottom of our chosen couloir. The first part of the line is mellow with good compacted snow that makes for fast climbing, but as we climb higher the snow gets deeper and more sun exposed. 2/3 of the way up we also realize that there is a huge snow mushroom hanging above the final section of the climb that we hadn’t see the previous day. Conditions don’t feel right so we decide to play it safe and turn around, the snow is getting too warm too fast.
Unsure about how long the good weather window will last, we gear up to climb again the very next day. This time we choose a bit shorter couloir guarded by a huge granite pillar that we name the “Zamendar Couloir”. The couloir faces west which buys us more time before it’s in the sun. Skinning up the three hour approach for the third time in three days we are quite happy to trade our skis for crampons at the base of the couloir. The couloir is firm at the bottom, but the snow turns to pow as the line gets steeper. The final section of the climb is the crux as climb sugary snow on rock to top out the ridge at 5450 meters. The views from the top of the ridge are breathtaking, so many mountains to ride in this area!
After a few minutes soaking in the views we rappel down through the sugary section to get on more skiable terrain. The snow in the couloir is overall quite good and the ambiance is magnificent. Success feels extra sweet after turning around the previous day.
We wake up the next morning to more blue skies, but we can’t move, just too tired. Despite feeling a bit guilty for relaxing while the weather’s good, we enjoy an easy day at our peaceful base camp.
On our fifth and final day we get up early and manage to climb and ride a nice virgin summit just above base camp that we name “Estelle peak.” We catch a window of good visibility on the summit before dropping into an amazing line to finish the trip.
Home to some of the most beautiful mountains in the world and snow conditions comparable to the Alps, the Karakoram range is an endless playground for the motivated explorer. Seeing the richness of life, longevity and minimal impact lifestyle of the Hunza people is also an incredible inspiration. The region is a true paradise both in mountains and in culture. I can’t wait to go back again.