“Two things that Hunza offers that have the potential to make an impact globally, are mountaineering and music,” says Saad Ata Barcha, a researcher on folk music and languages of GB
“Two things that Hunza offers that have the potential to make an impact globally, are mountaineering and music,” says Saad Ata Barcha, a researcher on folk music and languages of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) who recently led a 19-member team of artists, professional mountaineers and porters from the valley to clinch the Guinness World Record for “highest-altitude DJ set on land” by performing at the summit of Minglik Sar (6,050 metres). Another record — highest-altitude dance party on land — is pending for approval.
In an exclusive chat with The News on Sunday, Barcha, who is currently pursuing a degree in cognitive science at York University, Canada, admits that he was “driven by passion” and his “eyes were constantly on the prize.” No wonder he named the expedition Khimor, a Hunzai-language word for desire.
The performance that lasted a good half an hour had a bunch of local artists such as DJ Ghasuray, Noman Asmet, Rameez Qara and Junayed Alam, playing hareep, traditional Hunzai music that makes use of daddang (dhol-like percussion), daamal (a set of two mini-percussions), and suranai (a woodwind instrument similar to a shehnai). They also added a rubab, a guitar and a flute to give it a contemporary touch. The DJ fused it with electronic dance music (EDM).
The entire expedition was budgeted at Rs 3 million and as Barcha puts it, the prime motivation was to raise funds for the Shimshal Mountaineering School in GB and promote adventure sports. Aid came in the form of contributions from the locals; HBL was the main sponsor.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Tell us a bit about how Khimor came about.
Saad Ata Barcha (SAB): Me and Nosher Ali Khan, my co-organiser, wanted to combine mountaineering and music and create something international. After thorough research, we found out about the World’s Highest Altitude Dance Party (previously held at 5,892m, in Tanzania), and the World’s Highest DJ Set on Land (previously at 5,593m, in Nepal). We discussed the idea with Ali Musa, an expert mountaineer, who told us that it was logistically possible to take a team of artists and the equipment to the summit of Minglik Sar at 6,050 metres and perform there. The rest is history.
TNS: What was the initial response of your family and friends?
SAB: They were quite intrigued, but they supported us nonetheless. They only advised us to be mindful of the cultural and environmental sensitivities. Families of some of our team members were worried about our safety but Ali Musa assured them about the safety measurements.
TNS: Could you give us a sense of the kind of funds required for the expedition?
SAB: Mountaineering is an expensive sport. Additional costs were related to taking around 30 people and equipment, to a height of 6,050 metres. Our budget was around Rs 3 million. Crowd-funding was to be the last resort; our priority was to target the companies that invest in empowering the youth and promoting local talent. The HBL has been an active participant in such activities and readily agreed to sponsor the expedition.
The expedition served as a fund-raiser for the Shimshal Mountaineering School in Gilgit-Baltistan. The HBL made the biggest contribution towards it but the locals also chipped in.
TNS: How did first-time mountaineers like you prepare for the expedition?
SAB: We had basic knowledge about hikes and treks but climbing a 6,000er with musical equipment takes more preparations. Ali Musa, the expedition leader, had climbed Minglik Sar several times but never with such heavy equipment. We had a detailed meeting with the leaders of Shimshal Nature Trust and explained the project to them. They came up with a list of eight high-altitude porters who would carry around 20 kgs each.
Our project required electric power, and getting power supply at 6,050m was a challenge. Running an electric generator could trigger an avalanche and wasn’t considered friendly to the environment. We considered taking solar batteries with us, but they had never been tested at such a height, so there was no assurance of them working. We ended up taking an eco-friendly electricity generator, a set of solar batteries and a UPS inverter. We had contingency plans for power.
TNS: Did you try to explore how the previous Guinness World Record holders had made it?
“Our project required electric power, and getting power supply at 6,050m was an ordeal. Running an electric generator would trigger the risk of an avalanche and wasn’t friendly to the environment. We considered taking solar batteries with us, but they had never been tested at such a height, so there was no assurance of them working.”
SAB: We thoroughly watched the videos posted by the previous record holders. We wanted to learn how they had executed the performance. Ali Musa told us that we weren’t going to have a lot of plain space on Minglik Sar to perform (like the previous record holders did), and that we’d have to be very mindful as the mountain is notorious for avalanches. We were also told about mitigating the vibrations caused by the sounds and the dance movements. Besides, our performance, in terms of the intensity of the sound and dance, was supposed to be different from the previous ones.
TNS: Were there any anxiety pangs before starting out? You knew the risks involved, didn’t you?
SAB: As team leader, I was aware of the risks involved. Ali Musa had thoroughly briefed me about them. We had faith in his mountaineering expertise. His safety plan was detailed and transparent. Our team of porters was also very encouraging and boosted our morale. They knew we were amateurs, and it was a huge venture.
Despite the nervousness, the spirits were high from the beginning. We were driven by passion and our eyes were constantly on the prize.
TNS: Give us a brief timeline of the expedition.
SAB: We started off from Hunza on June 19. It’s a four-hour jeep ride to Shimshal and is considered one of the most dangerous roads in Gilgit-Baltistan. At one point the road was blocked due to a landslide. We had to walk over to the other side and continue our journey from there. Upon reaching Shimshal, we met the community leaders and they formally gave their consent for the expedition. We also handed out the funds raised as one of the objectives of the expedition.
On June 20, we set out on the three-day trek to the base camp for Minglik Sar. There was a slight rain on the first two days that raised the landslide risk but made the weather pleasant. We had to walk for 10 hours and gain an elevation of 1,300 ft. We stayed at a shepherd’s hut at night, at a place called Gharsar, next to the Yazghail glacier. At night, we set up our musical equipment and did a full-dress rehearsal with our artists.
On June 21, we left Gharsar and walked for another 10 hours, a steep climb through cliffs, to reach Parinsar. We camped overnight at Parinsar where we faced a heavy snowfall due to which we could not do our rehearsals. Instead, we did a small jam session inside our tents.
On June 22, we carried on with our journey from Parnisar to Shujerab. This trek was relatively less steep, but it was very draining. After an eight-hour walk, we reached Shujerab in the Pamir foothills. We camped overnight at Shujerab, next to the glacial waters and did another full-dress rehearsal next to our camp.
On June 23, we started our trek from Shujerab to Shimshal Pass. (Shimshal Pass is the base camp for Minglik Sar, at a height of 4,500 metres.) After a four-hour trek, we reached the base camp. Once there, we started analysing the route. The locals told us that there had been a heavy avalanche two days ago. Ali Musa, therefore, had to be very careful about the route to take. Using binoculars and satellite maps, he delineated a route for us and briefed the team about it.
On the morning of June 24, we set off from the base camp to the advance base camp (ABC) at 5,200 metres. Our summit team consisted of five musicians, three videographers, two organisers, an expert mountaineer and eight high-altitude porters. After about five hours of strenuous climbing, we reached the ABC where we rested for a few hours. Ali Musa climbed another 200 metres to analyse the route to the summit.
At 2am, on June 25, our team came together again: it was time to push for the summit. Led by Ali Musa, we put on our harnesses and ropes. It was a steep climb for eight to nine hours. When we reached an altitude of 5,800 metres, we encountered unprecedented dense clouds and suffered a white-out. Ali Musa told us pushing for the summit in such weather was dangerous. But we had no choice. We pushed for another 110 metres reached a point where we could break the record. We then decided to set up our equipment there.
An electricity generator we were carrying was our priority power supply source. But when we turned it on, Ali Musa told us that the vibrations were raising the risk of an avalanche. So, we had to turn it off and switch to the UPS and batteries. It took us almost half an hour to set up our equipment. The performance itself lasted for half an hour. The Guinness requirement was for the duration “at least 15 minutes”. The musicians included DJ Ghasuray, Rameez Qara, Junayde Alam, Noman Asmet and Zulqarnain Saleem. After our performances, we did a photography session, packed up and started our descent. The descent proved very tricky as the weather had gotten sunnier and the ice had started melting. A couple of our members slipped on several occasions, but the safety measurements taken by Ali Musa proved adequate and the entire team made it back without any major injuries.
TNS: Did you get mobile phone network coverage throughout the expedition?
SAB: There was no mobile or internet connection after Shimshal. We had a satellite phone with us that kept us connected to the authorities and our families. We could also use it to inform our rescue team in case of any emergency.
TNS: Is a video recording of the event available on the web?
SAB: Our content is currently in the post-production stage. We had a team of expert videographers with us. The documentary and vlogs will be released soon on our Instagram and YouTube channels and on the official social media platforms of the HBL.
The writer is a staff member