A Month In The Biafo | Colin Prior
Words by Colin Prior
In Stones of Silence, George B. Schaller wrote: ‘The character of a region has much to do with the character of the person describing it, for we see our own heart in a landscape. Once adopted, a wilderness becomes not just an entity but a state of imagination.’ For me, this ‘state of imagination’ has been wholly responsible for the work I’ve done in both Scotland and Pakistan and without which I would be unwilling to suffer the adversity and the investment of time and effort required to achieve success.
My trip this year to the Biafo Glacier had some mixed blessings; there were very late snows which, on one hand, I relished, as they help create dramatic mountain images – akin to winter, and on the other hand, these late snows impeded our ability to reach some of the higher locations. Reflection is always therapeutic if sometimes bittersweet. When I think back to my hopes and aspirations for this trip before leaving for Pakistan and compare them to the actual experience, they differ in some respects but on the whole I achieved what I wanted photographically; the missing parts of the jigsaw, or my book, have now been filled.
So, what does it take to survive on a glacier in the Karakoram Mountains for a month? Planning and preparation are essential and with experience this becomes easier. Each year I employ the same agent and that ensures I have the same core team; the Sirdar and my camera porter who I have known since 2004. Cooks and porters come and go but having a good relationship with the same Sirdar will help achieve your goals. Food is obviously important, as is a good cook, and this year Medhi regularly prepared pasta dishes that were as good as you anything you’ve eaten in a top Italian restaurant, and in a mess tent, just two metres from a crevasse!
The photographic side can be a bit more challenging. I worked with two cameras; a Canon 5DS and a 5DIV and took with me 8 extra batteries. I also carried a Powertraveller Solargorilla and Powergorilla, a battery which can recharge a MacBook Pro. This is the fourth time I’ve travelled with the Powertraveller kit and I used it once to recharge the Powergorilla battery, it takes nearly a full day in bright sunlight to completely refill. However, not for the first time I returned with several unused batteries. On my final trip to the Karakoram next year I don’t plan to take the recharging kit with me, it’s simply more weight which I can’t justify. I shoot to two cards simultaneously, so I don’t need to back up until I return as the images are already in two places. I also took a Gitzo® Systematic tripod which gave me the stability I required in heavy snow.
Other pieces of kit which are worthwhile; a four-season sleeping bag that is rated for low temperatures and I would recommend a thick air mattress, both will greatly assist in sleep. At the end of the day someone else is paid to carry the kit so it doesn’t make sense to compromise in this area.
So back to the adventure. As I mentioned earlier, very late snows this season and in Askole, which is the gateway to the Karakoram and where we had been ‘holed’ up for three nights, the snow fell as rain. Torrential rain, which in the Karakoram isn’t good news, as it is the catalyst for rockfalls. The word ‘rockfalls’, to most, conjures up a few rocks rolling down a slope. However, in the Karakoram the rocks can be the size of Volkswagen cars and they crash down with such speed and violence that they are truly frightening. Often, they are seen at distance on the opposite side of the glacier and can rain down for minutes and sometimes for hours; however we witnessed a few VW’s crashing down hillsides where we had to rapidly take cover. The path on our first day, to the Biafo Glacier, follows the line of exposed cliffs where thousands of hanging boulders are poised to fall at some moment in time, it’s not called ‘boom alley’ for nothing! Happily, we all reached the safety of our first campsite, Namla, without incident.
Five days later, we were beginning to experience the effects of the heavy snowfall and were constantly stumbling into thigh-deep snow filled holes which continued until one of the donkey’s slipped and fell into a crevasse. That was when we realised that going on, at that stage, wasn’t a good idea. Fortunately, the porters were able to rescue the animal. They filled up the crevasse with large boulders, essentially creating a staircase which the donkey climbed up. It was a great moment to see the poor donkey emerge onto the glacier, where they were led back down the glacier to Biantha where they grazed for three days.
We spent two nights at our impromptu campsite on the glacier to let the snow melt off a bit and then continued up to our next campsite, Karpogoro. Negotiating the snow-covered crevasses was challenging. After we had crossed onto the eastern lateral moraine I fell through into a crevasse but was saved my rucksack, which wedged me into the hole. The adrenaline boost subsequently helped me up the final ascent to the camp, which commands a superb elevated viewpoint up and down the glacier. Towards late afternoon I set up a camera on the unnamed twin peaks with a telephoto lens and as the sun began to set, I noticed the boulders in the foreground warming up in the late sunshine; their angular shape mimicking the distance peaks. As I was shooting I became conscious that the image would also work in a portrait format and moved the camera to an upright position. It wasn’t until I had downloaded the images onto my laptop that I realised that I had, in fact, shot the front cover image for the book. What a day, I couldn’t help thinking that the photograph was the reward for what could have easily been a disaster earlier in the day.
Following an equally challenging descent next morning from Karpogoro back onto the glacier, the terrain began to flatten out as we entered the Sim Gang Glacier. We traversed almost to its northern edge where we set up camp which was located in a position that gave great views, westerly, to the Towers at the end of the Biafo and to the Ogre (Bianta Brakk) in the opposite direction. The morning light was perfect for photographs of Broad and Solu Towers and the Hispar La and I created a number of compositions, including a panorama. By midday it was snowing heavily and I assumed, wrongly, that photography would be over for the day. However, by late afternoon it was clearing and the Ogre, which had been in cloud all day, was beginning to clear and the sky in the west was cloudless. As the sun set the drifting clouds momentarily cleared from the twin towers, revealing the summit and the Red Pillar – it was like the parting of the Red Sea – and then it closed in again, imprinting an image on the memory never to be erased.
What these experiences have taught me is that, regardless of what images exist in your mind’s eye and regardless of how much planning and effort you invest at the front end, you are still at the mercy of chance. One thing is for certain, however, you can’t shoot images of the Karakoram, unless you are in the Karakoram. I have learnt to accept that you simply can’t make things and that you just need to let them happen.