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Guardians of the glaciers - life beside Pakistan’s vanishing ice

The rapid melting of Pakistan’s icy giants is creating hardships and challenges for the vulnerable communities dependent on them.

Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan - As we make our way towards Pakistan's first organic village, an intense one-hour trek along the rugged, steep and unfenced mountainside pathway from Mindoq-Khar, near Kharpocho Fort, my legs are shaking with a mix of fear and strain.

The sharp mountain edges stick out threateningly, and I am reminded of the soulful lyrics of Ali Zafar's Paharon Ki Qasam (Oaths of the Mountains), a tribute to the late Pakistani climbing hero, Muhammad Ali Sadpara from Skardu, who tragically lost his life in February 2021 while climbing the notorious Bottleneck gully which is just 300 metres (984 feet) below the summit of K2.

Above us, the sky is a brilliant shade of blue, adding to the surreal beauty of the landscape. As we gain a wider view of the Indus River Valley below us, our 44-year-old guide, Abbas Jaan, stops and draws our attention to the colour of the water.

"You can see the water turning a murky grey, carrying with it the particles from the retreating glaciers," he says, his eyes scanning the slow-flowing waves of this vital drinking water supply. “And even though it's grey," he adds, "the glacial water is mineral-rich and incredibly pure."

"But, year by year, these glaciers are melting fast. They are decreasing," he says, pointing towards the thousands of smaller glacier peaks that surround us in the far distance; some mountains are snow-covered while others are dry and brown.

The city of Skardu, from where we have departed, sits some 2,228 metres (7,310 feet) above sea level. It is the gateway to the Karakoram mountain range and some of the world's highest peaks