Heaven and Hell in the Rakaposhi Range

The crow-guide from the Rockies, Adam Fabrikant, joined a French-Chamoniard team consisting of the snowboarders-guides Julien Herry alias Pica and Laurent Bibollet alias Bibs, and the skier-photographer Arthur Ghilini. A journey in the marvelous Pakistani mountains where the symmetry between paradise and hell revealed itself in all its brutality.

Arthur Ghilini
Ombres chinoises devant l’Ultar Sar (7388 mètres).
Shadow puppets in front of the Ultar Sar (7388 meters).

In April of 2019, I joined 3 Frenchmen on a trip to the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan. Two snowboarders, Pica (Julien Herry) and Bibs (Laurent Bibollet) along with Arthur Guillini on skis. Pica and Arthur call Chamonix home, while Bibs lives just down the road. For me, a skier based in the Tetons of the US, the idea of joining 3 of Chamonix’s finest on a trip to the largest mountains on earth was more than humbling. I have to admit I had to google search them to learn whom they were. I am about as disconnected as you can get in todays age of social media, they seemed legit and my only main question was why they were willing to let me join on their trip after merely sending Pica a “cold call” of an email….

Arthur Ghilini

A few months later, visa in hand, I flew to Islamabad. Landing in Asia for the first time in my life, by myself, was pretty surreal. For years, I had researched Pakistan, Nepal, etc from a skiers eye, but had put little thought into what I would experience on a cultural level. I met up with the three Frenchmen after hanging around the airport for a few hours, we tried to fly to Gilgit and due to bad weather we quickly changed plans to the KKH, the infamous Karakoram Highway. For Pica, it was his 10th or so trip on the KKH, a veteran if you will so his casual approach to driving on of the worlds most dangerous highways was welcome.

Over the last few years I have made annual trips to Alaska and the Andes, as well as skiing loads in the lower 48, the last of the great ranges was missing from my resume and when we drove through the confluence of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush and the Karakoram as we crossed the Indus River with Nanga Parbat somewhere in the clouds above I could not have been happier. Over the next few weeks we would all experience both heaven and hell…

Arthur Ghilini

We arrived in Karimabad which was our basecamp for the next few weeks. For Pica it was something of a homecoming. He knew many of the locals and traveling in Picas entourage made mundane tasks such as food shopping etc more fun. Javed, a local to Karimabad, was our mountain guide. He had spent a bunch of time with Pica over the years and he became our father figure while we were in his home mountains. He helped us with everything from mountain logistics to getting dinner in town. Without him we would have been utterly lost.

Arthur Ghilini

After traveling for a better part of a week, it was time to ski. A decade of traveling to ski has allowed me to slow down and understand that the further you travel with your skis, realistically the less skiing you will get in. Quality trumps quantity and experience tops all. Just driving to the base of ski lines with another adventure in itself, high bridges, remote villages and crazy switchbacked roads. Our first day of skiing had us all excited, unfortunately we encountered somewhat isothermal snow and signs of recent avalanches, this would become a common theme. We made the most of the conditions, made some fun mellow turns and enjoyed skiing with the backdrop of the Karakoram. As I clicked into my skis for my first descent in Pakistan I could hear the prayers from the valley below, although we were only around 4000m, pretty low for this range, the idea that I could hear the prayers was pretty mind-blowing. I am used to skiing in Wyoming where if I hear anything besides the wind it catches you off guard.

Arthur Ghilini
Le Golden Peak (7027 mètres) dans le lointain.
The Golden Peak (7027 meters) in the distance.

We did another day trip and found similar conditions… It seemed we were not finding the ideal stable snowpack that we desired. A few weather days had us hanging in town. As the weather began to clear we got ready for a longer stint of camping in the mountains. We were perched on dirt, much warmer than the snow camping I am used to, with grazing animals in our camp with magnificent views of 7,000m peaks across the valley. The temps seemed to be getting colder and we spent our first day taking it easy and gaining confidence with the snowpack. Fun mellow powder turns were had by all, including Javed!

Arthur Ghilini
Adam prend le relais pour faire la trace devant Pica.
Adam takes over the track in front of Pica.

After a day that inspired confidence we decided to step out onto more complex terrain. The terrain that we were skiing was unlike most I had pursued, technical, yet playful, spines, faces and flutes. Oh my! This day proved to be our most productive and our heaven! We topped out our line early in the am, with Arthur across the valley to get photos in amazing lite. Pica, Bibs and myself took turns breaking trail up avalanche debris with hopes of skiing the virgin powder on the spines justify to our side. The descent went well, with fun steep technical skiing up high on spines which lead to gentler terrain down lower. I traveled around the world to meet up with strangers and successfully skied a new route that Pica had his eyes on and shared with us. Communication was harder than normal as French is Pica and Bibs go to language, I don’t speak a word of French, but we worked together and had a special day in the mountains.

The next day we would attempt an adjacent spine, just a few hundred meters away and this would prove to be our hell. The day started in a similar fashion, cold enough, as we made quick, steady progress to the base of the technical climbing. Unlike the previous day we would be climbing primarily in fresh snow, as opposed to avalanche debris, we factored in more time for the rough trail breaking that we anticipated. It was around 6:45 am, I had just taken over trail breaking from Pica and Bibs and I felt a large collapse, I looked back and saw Pica and Bibs flying through the air, both going down different sides of the spine we were climbing. That image of the two of them yelling, flying through the air is burned into my memory, my heart rate increased just writing this 6 months after the fact. At this point I looked around me, my crampons were in the crown, the avalanche literally broke where I was standing. I down climbed 100 meters and could see Bibs moving. I switched to my skis and tried to quickly make my way down to them, picking up snowboards, ice axes and other pieces along the way. My thoughts only went to the background of Picas phone, his wife and two young kids, I had never met them, but I felt sick with guilt, why was I fine? I kept going down and eventually saw signs of life from Pica. He was in pain, but alive, Bibs looked like he just down with a proper bar fight, but overall he was fine. The next 6 hours or so involved getting Pica back to our camp. Javed and Arthur came to help as quick as they could, Bibs was on the phone with the French embassy in minutes, organized chaos at its finest. At the end of the day it was an involved rescue. Like any bad day in the mountains, the weather was absolutely perfect, almost taunting us.

“Never had the mountains appeared to me so majestic as in this moment of extreme danger.”
-Maurice Herzog

Arthur Ghilini
Le Mishikar, le paradis puis l’enfer.
The Mishikar, paradise before hell.

The communication was challenging, Franch, Urdu and some English. We wanted a helicopter, not an option. We got Pica down, somehow Bibs was relatively unharmed. The following days involved us eventually retracing our steps and leaving Pakistan, the KKH back to Islamabad, etc. Pica needed to get to a western hospital, the hospital in Gilgit told him he was fine. The going was rough, but he kept his head high and never complained. He got home, got to his family and ultimately got the medical care he needed. He suffered some major injuries, including a broken vertebrae in his back, but he will recover with time. My first trip to the worlds largest peaks ended in disarray. I got lucky, I still do not understand why I was not in the avalanche with the other two.

Rock, ice and snow is the same everywhere on earth, what makes the mountains different throughout the world is the people. The Karakoram inspired me but what will bring me back is the people.

 

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