Colin Prior | Karakoram

The ice mountains of the Karakoram are among the world’s greatest natural treasures. Photographer Colin Prior has been passionate about these mountains since his first trip in the mid-1990s.


The Karakoram: Ice Mountains of Pakistan is the result of Colin's extraordinary dedication to capturing the majesty of this unique mountain landscape. A monumental undertaking involving multiple expeditions to the region over the course of two decades.


The reward for Colin is what he calls the ultimate mountain landscape: ‘The scenery is graphic, with towers, minarets and cathedrals of rock.’


Here Colin shares his stories and experiences from the behind the lens on this truly remarkable 20-year project.


My fascination with the Karakoram Mountains began when I was twenty-three years old. In the travel section of my local library, I came across a book that was to change the course of my life. Written by the climber and photographer Galen Rowell, In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods (1977) documented the 1975 American expedition to K2. I was familiar with K2, but had never heard of the Karakoram Mountains, and one photograph in particular, of the Trango Towers, captured my imagination like no other photograph ever had. What sort of place, I wondered, gave rise to mountains of this character, one that could transpose the mind to another realm? From that moment on, I was entranced and knew that my destiny lay there. It was not a question of choosing the Karakoram Mountains; they chose me.


During my initial research it became obvious to me that the most dramatic mountains lay along two glacier systems: the Baltoro and the Biafo. Here the mountains rise vertically in towers, cathedrals and spires with such steepness that much of the snow that falls on them is shed naturally and lies only on ridges and in gullies. In other glacier systems, such as the Hispar, the mountains could be described as more Himalayan in character – big, bulky mountains which are predominantly snow-covered. It was the mountain sculpture that initially caught my attention and accordingly, I focussed my efforts in both of these glaciers together with some of their subsidiary glaciers.


Travelling in Pakistan can frequently be problematic on a number of levels. Without doubt, the most significant setback after arriving in Islamabad is if you are unable to fly on to Skardu (it’s a 45-minute flight, which is often cancelled due to bad weather). The alternative is to travel by road along the Karakoram Highway – a journey which by comparison, takes 22 hours and requires an overnight stop. It’s a journey you really only want to do once but I have done it many times. The next stage, after a couple of days in Skardu to finalise logistics, is the six hour drive to Askole – the gateway to the Karakoram – which requires navigating the Braldu Gorge. This is notorious for rockfalls and mudslides. If heavy rain sets in it normally shuts the road for days, which ultimately encroaches on the time available on the glaciers.


Another aspect of travel in Pakistan is the bureaucracy. It can often take days to have permits stamped and authenticated, so I have learnt to live with modest expectations until we reach the glaciers. I have learnt the importance of the word Inshallah which often caveats the end of a sentence and means ‘if Allah wills’.


Probably, the single most important consideration when living on a glacier for a month is to ensure that the expedition cook comes well recommended. Good food can change your mental outlook and ensures that you are replacing the much-needed calories that you are burning off on a daily basis. However, there is much to consider with regards to what equipment to take – sleeping bag, mattress, down jacket, boots, crampons etc. With photographic equipment, it is important to know what you want to say creatively, so that you pack only the lenses you need. A problem which arises, and which needs to be addressed, is how does one recharge camera batteries, laptops and, crucially, a satellite phone. This requires solar panels and a battery. The challenge in all of this is to take as little kit as is necessary because more bags mean more porters, and more porters mean that an increased food load needs to be carried for longer periods of time. This demands more men or a train of ponies or, most often, both.


Each time I’ve travelled to the Karakoram in recent years, my agent has commissioned the same sirdar, Karim, who I met in 2013. The sirdar is essentially the foreman and it is he who hires porters for the expedition. I’ve known Hussain, who is my personal porter and who only carries my camera equipment, since 2004 and he has taught me a great deal about the flora and fauna of the mountains. Hussain, Karim and most of the other porters live in the village of Hushe – the gateway on the opposite side of the range – and in the true sense of the term, they are mountain men. Due to the effects of altitude in the Karakoram, Hussain carries my camera bag and essentially shadows me wherever we go. I can keep up with him on the flat but when we start ascending, he leaves me standing despite the fact that he’s got around 28 kg on his back and I may have 5 kg! I have the greatest respect for these men, and we have developed a close personal relationship over the years. On occasions, we may have one or two of the same porters, but they are more prone to change each year. However, often on the Baltoro, I meet some of the porters from my previous expeditions and we embrace each other. I have no Balti and they, little English but we are still able to acknowledge, without language, that we are still upright and breathing and are grateful.


Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) (7285 m) and Latok II (7108 m), Biafo Glacier, Panmah Muztagh, Karakoram Mountain, Pakistan


With all mountain photography, we remain at the mercy of the weather. Despite the investment and effort, if you happen to arrive at the wrong time, when cloud covers the mountains for days, you may end up shooting nothing and your only option is to return the following year. This is something I did on both glaciers several times. I also made a point of arriving in Pakistan in early June, to take advantage of late snows which enhance the drama of the landscape. I was always fortuitous, and during my last expedition on the Baltoro Glacier in 2015 we had late snows and, on occasions, gossamer clouds floating around the summits, so this added another dimension to the photographs. On our return, an anticyclone established itself and we experienced big blue skies and hard, contrasty light. I was so grateful that I had managed to shoot very different conditions during our ascent, or I might have returned with little that was worthy of publication.


During my expeditions of 1996 and 2004, I worked with a variety of film cameras, including an Ebony 5×4, a Fuji GX617 and a Hasselblad XPan II. The most demanding camera to use was the 5x4 as it required a single sheet of film to be loaded with each exposure taken. These individual sheets, known as Fuji Quickload, needed to be stored in a Pelicase, away from moisture. The sheets were then transported back to Scotland for processing by which time they would have passed through six X-Ray scanners.


Today the quality of high-resolution digital cameras, combined with the latest generation of mirrorless lenses, has made capture so much more pleasurable and rewarding. You can return home confident in the knowledge that you have captured the images that you set out to achieve – a luxury that was unthinkable 20 years ago.


Ironically, I damaged a disc in my neck after collapsing in my hotel bedroom with food poisoning. My head hit a mirrored door, shattering the glass into long shards which fortunately didn’t cut me. After a week convalescing in Islamabad, I continued onto the Biafo Glacier but remained in a lot of pain and didn’t properly recover until I returned to the UK … when I realised I had lost 7.5 kg.


In all of my time in Pakistan, I have never once felt threatened. People went out of their way to be helpful and courteous and I always felt it a privilege to be accepted by my small team of porters and others who I met annually. As I am not a climber, there is significantly less risk of harm on the glaciers – for climbers the risk of avalanche or rock falls is always real but less so for me. The greatest hazards we encountered were the crevasses on the Biafo which we tried to avoid. My desire to travel up the Biafo early in the season was potentially more dangerous as the crevasses remain covered but the snow by then is rotten, and on my last trip I did fall though into one. Fortunately, my rucksack snagged and stopped me from dropping down any further, and with some help I was able to pull myself out. I try not to linger on what might have been the alternative outcome had I not been so fortuitous – these crevasses may be 10 metres deep or 100+ metres deep – I’m just grateful that I didn't get the opportunity to find out.


Without doubt, the Trango Towers is one of the world’s most visually striking mountains. It elicits a sense of mystery and awe but also a sense of disbelief that its sculptural qualities are entirely the result of natural processes. It looks like an imagined landscape, something perhaps encountered in Middle Earth. Biantha Brakk (the Ogre) would be a close second.


During this time, I have witnessed, first-hand, how much the glaciers have receded. In areas both on the Baltoro and Biafo, the glacier tables (ice pedestals which support huge boulders) have melted almost in totality and some of the older porters have pointed out to me where there were once hanging glaciers which have all but vanished. The other major change is just how many people are now visiting the Karakoram, particularly Pakistani nationals as well as people coming from all over the world. By comparison with Nepal, the numbers are still tiny, but the trend is most definitely upwards, and roads are being driven deeper and deeper into the range in an effort to shorten the trek to Concordia and K2 basecamp.


Another trend I have observed is that the sons of the porters are now less inclined to follow their fathers into the mountains as porters. Many are working in the kitchens of large restaurants in Lahore where they can earn more money and where conditions are preferable to those encountered on the glaciers. Whilst this is completely understandable, it means that these young men do not have the same connection with the mountains and are not able to read snow and ice conditions or, importantly, know where not to place their feet in the same way that their fathers do. I recognise the value of the time I spent with Hussain whose knowledge of snow leopards, hunting ibex and where to find the most exquisite wildflowers was a source of fascination for me.


I was keen to bring on someone that could write more authoritatively about the history of exploration in the Karakoram Mountains than myself and Mick was the obvious choice. I had read his book The Ghosts of K2 and was really impressed with the research he had undertaken. I approached him and was really thrilled when he agreed to write an essay, Photographing The Karakoram, which has added another dimension to the book. Few people could have written the essay, which chronologically sets out how the evolving technology of photography played such an important role in documenting the original exploration of the region, right back to William Martin Conway’s 1892 expedition through to the first successful attempt on K2 in 1954.


I have always been a great believer in working on long-term projects in an attempt to explore a subject from the inside out. If any project is to stand out today amidst the sea of images that proliferate on the internet, it requires a significant investment of time. It is unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity again to work on another big overseas project in such a remote part of the world as the Karakoram – for me, there simply isn’t enough time. However, I’m currently researching a new project through which I hope to raise awareness of the continuing destruction of habitats and the consequential loss of biodiversity which will require travelling to some remote parts of the world. As in my previous book Fragile: Birds, Eggs and Habitats, I plan to bring together macrocosm and microcosm to expose unseen aspects of the natural world.


Ghur (5796 m) and Pamshe Peak (6023 m), Biafo Glacier, Panmah Muztagh, Karakoram Mountains, Pakistan


I can’t believe how long I have been drawn back again and again to the Karakoram Mountains, and I still maintain that there is no other mountain range in the world that can rival them. If I had the time back again, would I do the same thing? Absolutely. When I travelled around the world to shoot calendars for British Airways for four years in the late 90’s, I managed to visit 50 countries and inevitably people would ask ‘Where’s your favourite place?’, expecting my answer to be the Seychelles or The Kimberley. However my reply was always the same – Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains.


What I find hard to believe, is that given the visual assets bestowed on the Karakoram Mountains and the fact that there are 4 of the world’s 8,000 metre peaks in a very small area, there have been so few books ever published on the region. To have had the opportunity to produce a collection of work in a region that has largely been unseen is a great privilege.


The short answer is yes, if the photographer had both the passion and a trust fund. Without commercial sponsorship this project, for me, would have remained a dream. The difference today is that brands would demand a film rather than stills. It’s with a certain sense of nostalgia that I close this chapter in my life as it’s the ending of a way of life which sadly includes photography as we have known it – and regrettably, in time, the printed book.


I would like to thank my sponsors, Mountain Equipment, Lowepro and Lee Filters for funding this project, without which this project would have remained a dream.


Colin Prior, Gondogoro La, Baltoro Muztagh, Karakoram Mountain, Pakistan


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