“The Karakoram: Ice Mountains of Pakistan” by Colin Prior

Great Trango and Nameless Tower Great Trango and Nameless Tower

The Karakoram Mountains, located for the most part in north-eastern Pakistan, contains four of the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks and four of the longest glaciers outside the polar regions. Photographer Colin Prior has been “fascinated” by the Karakoram for the better part of a half-century, and traveling there for a quarter-century, and it shows.

Nayser Brakk (5200 m) from the Charakusa Glacier
Nayser Brakk (5200 m) from the Charakusa Glacier

The photographs—and photographs are what The Karakoram: Ice Mountains of Pakistan largely consists of, and almost entirely photographs of mountains—are stunning: words cannot really do them justice. The raw materials are incomparable: the mountains, craggy peaks and spires, look otherworldly, like the cover of a science fiction novel. Prior’s photographs, in black and while and color, in sun and cloud, at dawn and twilight, closeups and panoramas, are masterpieces of composition—and probably equipment, but one would have to be a photographer to know: they look effortless.

The photographs—or the vistas—are striking for their lack of any indication that humans have ever set foot in these places. The few pictures of people are mostly portraits, set off from the scenery. Perhaps the only human intrusion in such a place should be that of a photographer.

Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) and the Sim La from the Sim Gang Glacier
Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) and the Sim La from the Sim Gang Glacier
The Karakoram: Ice Mountains of Pakistan, Colin Prior (Merrell Publishers, March 2021)
The Karakoram: Ice Mountains of Pakistan, Colin Prior (Merrell Publishers, March 2021)

Prior is probably a better photographer than writer. The photographs are accompanied by a relatively brief introduction, which is a largely chronological account of his visit, dates, times and destinations, medical issues. But he’s refreshingly open about these trips come about:

 

I began by producing an eight-page, full-colour brochure, which I sent  to most of the camera and outdoor brands. I called, I emailed, I attended  exhibitions and had various meetings with PR agencies and with brands  directly. In the end, I managed to secure sponsorship for four years from three brands: Lowepro, Rab and Lee Filters. This would provide the  financial support I required to achieve my goal, and suddenly the lights turned from red to green.
Baltoro Cathedrals 6007m
Baltoro Cathedrals (6007 m)

Documentary filmmaker Mick Conefrey contributes an informative and eloquent essay on the history of photographing the Karakoram. He says of Prior

 

His work in both black and white and  colour perfectly captures the monumental strangeness of the Karakoram: the eccentric rock formations, the mists that envelop infinitely complex mountains and clustered peaks, the seemingly endless glaciers blanketed in snow… The Karakoram is undoubtedly a hugely photogenic region, but it takes real skill and patience to create photographs of this quality. Anyone who has travelled in the region will be instantly transported back; anyone who has never been there will be booking a ticket for the next plane.

 

When the next plane will be is anyone’s guess. And behind the stark beauty of the mountains lies a sadness that is almost palpable. Prior’s photos look eternal in their majestic isolation, but we know they are anything but: the snows and glaciers are melting.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.