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5th June 2019

Photographing the Karakoram – The Last Refuges of Wilderness | Colin Prior

This year, landscape photographer Colin Prior will return to the Biafo Glacier as part of his wider project to capture that intangible quality found in the mountains of the Greater Karakoram – one of the last refuges of wildness in the world.

Words by Colin Prior

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So, I’ve reached this point in my career and what’s next? When I was travelling extensively for British Airways calendars, people would often ask, ‘Where is your favourite place?’, half expecting the answer to be the Seychelles, Sri Lanka or Greenland and impressive though these places are, my answer was always the same, Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains.

Having travelled there on five previous expeditions, they are, for me, not just a place but a state of imagination. My interest was kindled at the age of 23 when I discovered a book in my local library entitled In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, by the climber and photographer, Galen Rowell. Published by the Sierra Club in 1977, the landscapes portrayed in this book captivated my imagination like nothing else had and I longed to travel there for myself.

Recently, I heard Billy Connolly being interviewed on a documentary and he said something that struck a chord with me. ‘The library is where the tunnel is if you want to escape. The library is the key. All the knowledge in the world is there – the great brains are there to be picked. Books are your ticket to the entire world.’

He is not wrong and like him, I too found that tunnel. But sadly, local libraries across the country are disappearing and the escape tunnel has shut down.

Grand Anse, La Digue, Seychelles.
Lake Kariba, Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe, Africa
Veinestinden, Ternnestinden and Helvetestinden, Lofoten Islands, Norway.

In the introduction of his book, Galen Rowell, describes the Karakoram Mountains prosaically; ‘Most modern mountaineers see the peaks of the Karakoram as the grandest of all nature’s art forms, thrust into place by the collision of land masses, then sculpted by eternal winds and snows. These mountains have a certain look that is absent in most other ranges of the Himalaya. Most of the world’s great peaks are almost completely blanketed under snow and ice. The Karakoram is an exception. Bold rock outlines shine in the sun, and only weaknesses are hidden beneath the snowy blanket.’

A summary as to the character of these mountains which have inspired the earliest travellers to the region; beginning with Martin Conway in 1892, Eckenstein/Crowley in 1902, the Workmans’ in 1899, 1902, 1906 and 1908, and the Duke of Abruzzi in 1909.

These expeditions normally had two objectives – to gather scientific information on the flora and fauna, climate and geology and to conquer the world’s second highest mountain, K2, however they all made the same and, in some cases, fatal mistake – they underestimated, by a long margin, the challenges and sacrifices that would be required to reach the summit of the world’s second highest mountain.

In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, 1977.
K2 and the Godwin Austen Glacier from the upper Vigne Glacier.

There is a parallel between climbers and mountain photographers – we both dream about mountains, but our dreams are very different – their dreams end on reaching the summit – my dreams, however, are focussed on creating images which are imbued with the inspiration that the mountains of this region impart.

The nature of climbing these vertical peaks demands a different approach to photography and one which doesn’t restrain me to the same extent, leaving me much freer to scout for the best photographic locations and wait until the moment is right, albeit at lower altitudes.

This then was challenge I set myself; to capture that intangible quality found in the mountains of the Greater Karakoram – one of the last refuges of wildness in the world.

Unnamed peak (6105m), Sosbun Brakk (6395m) from Baintha, Biafo Glacier.

On my trip this year, I will return to the Biafo Glacier and trek to the Hispar La (5150 m) at the head of Snow Lake, from there we will traverse the Sim Gang Glacier to the Lukpe La (5610 m) and ascend Braldu Peak for sunrise (6140 m). The return will be back down the Biafo, stopping enroute to photograph the Orge I & II and the Latok group.

Rote map of 2019 expedition.

I will have my usual crew – sirdar and camera porter and I’m sure that there will be some familiar faces amongst the porters. The scale and structure of the mountains at the head of the Biafo are unique and my hope is to have the breaks in the weather that will allow me to capture their character.

Baintha Brakk (The Ogre), Baintha Brakk II and Latok II, Biafo Glacier.

The gateway to the mountains is at Askole, and after a few days out the white noise of daily life disappears and all you can hear is your own breathing and heartbeat.

But before long a daily routine is established.

I normally rise at 0430 in time to shoot sunrise, which is around 0500 in June, followed by breakfast at 0630. Camp is then broken and at 0730 we’re on the move to our next campsite. On the Biafo, we generally camp on the lateral moraines meaning even after a long day on the glacier, an unwelcome scramble up and over the fragmented moraines to the campsite is necessary.

Each day brings familiar challenges, whether it’s some form of altitude sickness, an aversion to food, fatigue, washing, avoiding crevasses, weather watching and the sustained absence of family and friends. And yet it’s what keeps me going back.

Unnamed twin peaks (5734 + 5770m) from Karpogoro, Biafo Glacier.

The same sentiments were summed up by Aleister Crowley (the great Satanist) following his expedition to the Karakoram with Eckenstein in 1902.

‘I meant to tell mankind about a new state about which I could tell them little or nothing, to teach them to tread a long and lonely path which might or might not lead hither, to bid them dare encounter all possible perils of nature unknown, to abandon all their settled manners of living and cut themselves off from their past and their environment, and to attempt a quixotic adventure with no resources beyond their native strength and sagacity. I had done it myself and found not only that the pearl of great price was worth far more than I possessed, but that the very perils and privations of the quest were themselves my dearest memories. I was certain of this at least: that nothing in the world except this was worth doing.’ I concur.


About Colin Prior

Colin Prior, born in Milngavie, Glasgow in 1958, is a landscape photographer.

Prior takes panoramic landscape photographs of Scotland and around the world. He uses the 617 panoramic format extensively in his work shooting Fuji Velvia generally in the “golden hour” at dawn and dusk. To date, Colin has worked on four calendar commissions for British Airways and has had several solo exhibitions, most notably The Scottish Visual Experience, Land’s End and The World’s Wild Places.

Colin Prior, Ghondokhoro La, with K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums beyond.

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