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Karakorum 2006

Preparations

Even as I walked down the Charakusa valley in late August 2005, and K6, K7, Hassin, and all the other beautiful, jagged peaks at its head disappeared from view, I was already thinking about returning. Back home in Canada, it was not hard to convince three of my climbing partners that we should spend the next summer in the Karakorum. Our plans suffered a setback when we were denied the permit for our first choice of objective, the unclimbed K6 West. Still determined to go, we started casting about for other ideas. Steve Swenson, my partner from the Charakusa, suggested we look into the Hispar glacier area. I fired off an email to Poland to Janusz Kurczab, guidebook author, journal editor, and veteran of numerous Himalayan expeditions. He replied that yes, indeed, there were a few things in the Hispar we might find of interest. Attached to his reply were images of the Kunyang Chhish massif, its south face rising three vertical kilometers above a green meadow. The main summit (7852 m) had only been climbed twice; the spectacular east summit (c. 7400 m) was unclimbed. We had found our goal.

On the road

On a warm evening in June, Ben Firth, Eamonn Walsh, Ian Welsted and I dragged ten oversized duffels into Calgary International Airport and boarded the first of many flights. From Calgary to Toronto, then to London, and on to Dubai, the trip passed in a haze of airplane food, booze and sleep deprivation. We arrived in Dubai in the morning, and as our flight to Islamabad did not leave until late that evening, decided to go sightseeing. Stepping outside the air-conditioned airport was like walking into a brick wall of humid heat: within minutes our soaked shirts stuck to our backs. We were indeed far from Canada (PHOTO).

We landed in Islamabad at dawn. Just as he had helped us negotiate the thickets of Pakistani bureaucracy in the permit application stages, so now Ghulam, our trekking agent, extricated four dazed Canadians out of the chaotic airport and into the more restful surroundings of the grandly named Regency Hotel. Over the next couple of days we received our official briefing, made last-minute food purchases, handed over six thousand dollars in cash for a helicopter rescue deposit, and met Mehboob, our Liaison Officer. Then early one morning, before the day heated up, we piled into a van and headed up the Karakorum Highway.

As we wound our way north along the KKH, deciduous trees were replaced by scrubby conifers, before finally giving way to the bare hillsides of the Karakorum. The huge, muddy Indus rolled through the moonscape, while above the brown slagheaps, like mirages, floated immense white peaks (PHOTO). In the evening of the second day out of Islamabad we rolled into Karimabad, Rakaposhi rising five and a half kilometers above the terraced apricot orchards (PHOTO). As we got out of the van, a friendly-looking man addressed us in what sounded suspiciously like English. It turned out to be Ghulam’s brother and our cook, Ali. Over the next two months we became good friends, but never quite managed to master his brand of Balti-flavoured English. At Mehboob’s insistence, we also acquired a kitchen boy. We were unconvinced that we actually needed one, but Asgar soon won us over with his devotion.

The Hispar

The following morning we hired jeeps and leaving the KKH behind, began to wind our way up the Hispar valley. The jeep track, now perched high above the river, now descending in series of switchbacks to cross the raging torrent on fragile suspension bridges, made four-by-fouring in the Ghost River Valley seem like child’s play (PHOTO). A few hours and a couple of flat tires later, we reached the village of Hispar and the literal end of the road. Beyond, the rubble-covered Hispar Glacier stretched to the horizon.

News of the arrival of an expedition spread quickly, and before long we were surrounded by curious children (PHOTO) and men looking to be hired as porters. Women were conspicuously absent. The haggling began in earnest the next morning. Without a word of Urdu between the four of us, we had to stand back and let Mehboob sort things out. And for a while things were looking grim as demands were shouted, bags were picked up and dropped again. But then, with surprising suddenness, Mehboob and the villagers came to an agreement, bags and barrels were strapped to frames, and everyone was through the gate and off up the trail (PHOTO).

It was around mid-morning on the following day, as we turned the corner from the main Hispar valley up the tributary Pumari Glacier, that we were suddenly confronted by the south face of Kunyang Chhish (PHOTO). Standing in a meadow littered with yak dung, with the main summit soaring nearly four kilometers higher, I felt very small indeed. I consoled myself with the thought that we first needed to acclimatize, and that it would be a while before we had to launch ourselves at the south face.

The porters dropped their loads in a green meadow at 4,200 m. We handed over wads of rupees, took group photos, and breathed a sigh of relief as they picked up their frames and headed down the trail. They were a smiling and hard-working lot; but the repeated haggling, not knowing if and when we would get to our destination and how much it would cost us, was starting to wear on us. With the porters gone, we turned to unpacking the forty-some loads, organizing the resulting mess, and generally turning the meadow into our home for the next seven weeks.

In search of red blood cells

With basecamp in place, the following day we started the process of acclimatization. A walk up to the head of the valley and the foot of the south face marked the first of many times we would stumble up and down the rubble-strewn Pumari Glacier. The most memorable moment of an afternoon scramble up the talus gully behind basecamp came as a short, intense snow squall blew in and Eamonn, watching the three of us pull pants out of our packs, exclaimed, “You all brought pants?” (PHOTO) But whether in pants or in shorts, we continued and summitted a 5,100 bump and still made it back to camp for dinner.

Two days later we slogged back up to Bump 5,100 then continued toward the south ridge of the main summit of Kunyang. Reaching the spine of the mountain, we were greeted by a strange sight: a thirty-degree gully and the gentle ridge above safeguarded by an unbroken umbilical cord of fixed rope (PHOTO). We had intersected with the route being followed by a Japanese expedition. Continuing along the ridge to the nearest highpoint revealed more fixed line stretching into the distance. To lightweights like us, used to the quick jaunts of the Rockies and Alaska, this glimpse of expedition style in action was like a window into an alien culture.

Ali Chhish

After a few day hikes above basecamp, we decided it was now time to go sleep high. As our objective, we chose an unclimbed 6,164 m peak on the south ridge of Kunyang East. It looked straightforward enough, and we figured that if we could combine acclimatization with a first ascent, it would be all the better. Little did we know that this unassuming peak, which we later named Ali Chhish in honour of our cook, was about to teach us a lesson in humility.

On our first attempt we managed to spend two nights at or above 5,000 m; but got nowhere near the top, as a storm pinned us down overnight in a bergschrund well below the summit (PHOTO). By morning the avalanche cones on the lower lip of the ‘schrund had connected with the upper lip, and descending to basecamp seemed like a good idea. After a couple of rainy days spent sleeping, reading and playing endless rounds of hearts, we were back. As we settled into our sleeping bags at the high bivi, I started feeling nauseous. The next thing I knew I had my head out of the tent, puking until there was nothing left of dinner or lunch – and then puking some more. The following day my partners shepherded me back to basecamp.

After a day’s rest, we returned for a third attempt. We had grown tired of carrying overnight packs, and so decided to try the peak in a day from basecamp. We must have been getting acclimatized, as we went from 4,200 m to the start of the summit ridge at 5,600 m in five hours (PHOTO). Unfortunately at this point the Karakorum factor kicked in and our progress slowed dramatically (PHOTO). Several things contribute to the Karakorum factor. First, there is the sun, so much higher than it ever gets in the Rockies, sapping strength and will. Then, there is the altitude, making one gasp for breath while frontpointing even moderate ice. Finally, there is the deceptive scale: everything is harder, bigger, and farther away than it looks. By late afternoon (PHOTO), having climbed only three hundred vertical metres from where we had gained the ridge, and with as much still remaining, we pulled the plug and began descending. We staggered into basecamp late that night, to Ali’s waiting dinner and celebratory cake. We could only hope we could live up to such a welcome on our next outing.

Ice Cake

Even though we were getting out and getting high, we felt like we were falling behind our acclimatization schedule. With a high pressure system parked over the range, we rested in basecamp for only one day before going up again. This time it was to be for a few days. The idea was to follow the south ridge of Kunyang Main all the way to the summit of the 6,450 m Ice Cake, maybe even higher if the weather held.

After a predawn breakfast of tea and chapattis, we headed up the familiar talus gully behind basecamp. Retracing our steps from some two weeks earlier, we followed a rising traverse toward the south ridge The Japanese had decided to pull the plug on their attempt, and we kept coming across piles of abandoned food: cookies, noodles and dried tofu, dumped out of their packaging and left for the ravens and the elements (PHOTO).

We spent the night at the Japanese Camp 1 (PHOTO), sharing it with Mahmood and Hussein, two cheerful high-altitude porters bringing down the last of the Japanese tents. We got up in the dark to take advantage of the morning cold, before the blazing sun turned the snow to mush. By midmorning we reached the Japanese highpoint, marked by a big coil of static rope (PHOTO). Beyond, the pristine ridge rose in corniced waves towards the meringue-like Ice Cake, with the sharp pyramid of the unclimbed Kunyang South poking up behind it (PHOTO).

By mid-afternoon we reached a broad plateau below to final rise to the summit of Ice Cake. We were now above 6,000 m, and we felt it. It was tempting to give in to the lassitude and do nothing, and it took an effort of will to level the tent platforms and get dinner going (PHOTO). The next morning we slept in until 5 am then slogged up the remaining four hundred vertical metres to the summit of Ice Cake (PHOTO). Under a cloudless sky the Karakorum lay spread out before us, from Kunyang’s south face just across the chasm of the Pumari glacier, to the bastions of the Ogre in the hazy distance, to the eight-thousanders at the head of the Baltoro glacier far on the eastern horizon (PHOTO). We lingered on the summit for the better part of the day, taking in the views and napping under jackets pulled over our faces (PHOTO). By late afternoon, with lingering headaches all around and worsening weather in the forecast, we decided to descend to basecamp. It took us just over three hours to run down the avalanche-prone southeast face to a warm welcome from Mehboob, Ali and Asgar, and Ali’s waiting dinner.

The predicted bad weather materialized a couple of days later, with high winds and snow all the way down to basecamp (PHOTO). It is hard to imagine a more relaxing setting than an expedition basecamp in bad weather. There are no insistent emails or phone calls, no deadlines or chores, just endless cups of tea, card games and books, with the day’s progress punctuated only by Asgar’s calls to meals (PHOTO). But after a few days of this idyll we started getting antsy, and by the time the sun poked its head out again we were eager for some activity. While Ben and Ian went off on a fruitless search for the ski poles we had left on our last attempt on Ali Chhish, Eammon and I headed to the “Kunyang Shield,” a not quite Squamish-quality granite crag half an hour from basecamp. The result was Rhubarb Alley, a five-pitch outing more reminiscent of the Rockies owing to its scruffy rock (PHOTO). Still, the Shield afforded a pleasant diversion from high-altitude slogging, and we would go on to establish two more routes on its gritty, vegetated flanks.

Kunyang East: the first attempt

The day started at midnight. After a hurried breakfast we shouldered our packs and stumbled away, up the rubbly glacier, over the snowy remains of old avalanches and the chaotic debris of new ones. Somewhere in the darkness above us towered creaky serac walls. We hurried up the avalanche paths to the base of a small snow gully (PHOTO), which offered what we judged to be the safest access to our goal: the southwest face of virgin Kunyang East (PHOTO).

By daybreak we were already cramponing up the huge, sweeping snowfield which made up the initial one thousand vertical metres of the face (PHOTO). As the angle steepened we switched from simply leaning on our ice axes to pushing the picks into the hard snow, and then to swinging the tools into the plating ice. Our route faced southwest, and by midmorning the sun swung around the ridge and blazed down on us (PHOTO). The effort required to move in the heat was excessive, and we started looking for a place to rest. Unfortunately the face swept down at a uniform angle and even spots for a flat-footed break were few, much less comfortable ledges. Finally Ben spotted a promising hole to our left, and we traversed over to investigate. We could not have asked for better: a sheltered bergschrund which, with some chopping, even accepted our two bivi tents (PHOTO). We were at nearly 6,000 m, and in the last twelve hours had climbed 1,700 m. We decided to call it a day and get an early start the following morning.

We were off just as dawn was beginning to light up the cloudless sky. It was cold, and I shivered while tethered to each belay (PHOTO). We were climbing as two independent pairs, each with its own handful of ice screws and skinny rope. The plan was to combine ropes and racks only on the more technical bits and on the descent. Sixty-degree ice took us to the base of the First Ledge, the first of two icy ramps slashing up and right across the rocky headwall, and the key to getting up the face without extensive rock climbing. We continued simul-climbing, keeping one or two screws between us, stopping when they ran out. By the time we reached the base of the Second Ledge we were in the sun again, once again suffering from the heat in spite of the altitude. But there was nowhere reasonable to stop, so after a short rest we kept going (PHOTO). Fortunately the Second Ledge is much shorter than the first, and by mid-afternoon we arrived at its apex. There we found the first signs of previous traffic. This was the high point reached by a Polish attempt in 2003, and it was marked by a titanium piton and a wired nut. Unfortunately the sixty-degree slope below the vertical granite wall still did not offer a reasonable bivi spot. In the end, a few hours of chopping produced a ledge for most of one tent and a couple of one-person ledges.

We were now at over 6,500 m, but other than feeling a bit nauseous Ben and I passed a good night inside our imperfectly pitched tent. Unfortunately Eamonn and Ian’s night had not been nearly as restful. Upon unzipping the tent door we were greeted by the sight of two long, brown stains on the ice slope below. In the absence of unclimbable pitches or killer storms, the combination of altitude and diarrhea proved just as effective in turning us around (PHOTO). Leaving some supplies hanging from the Polish anchor in anticipation of another attempt, we slid down the first of many rappels: first down steep icefields, then over a vertical rock wall to shortcut the traverses of the past two days (PHOTO), and finally onto the open snowfields of the lower face. At this point the ice for rappels ran out, and we started downclimbing the endless slopes. The afternoon sun blazed down on us, turning the snow to mush and releasing rocks from the walls above. A few close calls convinced us to take shelter below a small outcrop until the sun had left the face (PHOTO).

We reached the glacier just as it was getting dark. In the distance, some lights were bobbing up and down, disappearing for a few minutes behind a rise, then appearing again. It was Mehboob, Ali and Asgar coming up to meet us with drinks and cookies (PHOTO). They had spent the last three days watching us through binoculars, and were relieved to see us down safely. All together now, we stumbled down the glacier to basecamp. After nearly falling asleep over dinner, sometime around midnight we finally collapsed into our sleeping bags. It was another few days before we all recovered, both from the attempt and the sickness. Fortunately, it looked like the weather would let us have another go at the face.

Kunyang East: the second attempt

The alarm went off at 11 pm, and by midnight we were away. Up the glacial rubble, over the avalanche debris and onto the face, we retraced our steps from some ten days earlier (PHOTO). In the interim much had changed: the approach gully had melted back to uncover gritty slabs, while on the face proper much of what had been snow was now bare ice. It was also much warmer, and water was freely flowing down a big runnel in the giant slope. Roping up at the top of the slope, we traversed toward the ‘schrund bivi over rockfall-scarred ice (PHOTO). As the sun swung around, rocks started to fly, first small ones, then bigger and bigger ones. Often we would not even see them, just hear the whining noise they made, the pitch announcing the size: a mosquito-like buzz for the little ones, a deep whirr for the big ones. It was not even noon when we reached the shelter of the ‘schrund, but it was none too early. As the afternoon warmed up, cascades of water started roaring down the icefields we had recently crossed. It was long after nightfall before the sounds of projectiles and rushing water finally died away.

Getting up at 11 pm for the second night in a row, we discussed our options. I was still keen to continue, taking advantage of the night-time cold. But we could not be sure of reaching the relative shelter of the next bivi before things heated up again. And there was no denying that we had been very lucky to come unscathed thus far; how badly did we want to push that luck? In the end, with heavy hearts, we drilled an abalakov in the back wall of the crevasse and headed down. A few rappels, including an overhanging one over the giant ‘schrund of a hanging glacier, then a long traverse back right onto our line of ascent, then more rappels, downclimbing, another rappel or two… Fortunately the descent went off without a hitch, and by the time the sun came up we were back on the glacier, disappointed and relieved (PHOTO).

We spent the next couple of days recovering and deciding what to do with the rest of our time in Pakistan. One thing was clear: with conditions on the face being what they were, we were done with Kunyang. In the end, we accepted Mehboob’s invitation to visit his native village of Tareshing and see the famed Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. But before, Eamonn and I had to go climbing one last time.

Return to Ali Chhish

Our objective was the 6,164 m summit we had attempted earlier. We had no time or desire for a multi-day effort and so packed light packs and set our alarms to 1:30 am. Ali, used by now to the strange hours we kept, made us tea and chapattis, and soon we were walking up the familiar rubble of the Pumari glacier. Branching off the main glacier, we gained a glacial bench at the foot of the west face of our objective (PHOTO); then up a massive field of avalanche debris, past the huge ‘schrund, and onto the ice face above. The first rocks were starting to fly, and we sprinted for the meager shelter of a slabby rock band. Roping up we continued, deviating from the plumb line to avoid the worst of the rockfall (PHOTO). We made good progress to the summit ridge, where altitude and funky snow conspired to slow us down. Doggedly, we kept going, up and down and around cornices, rock steps and crevasses, until by mid-afternoon we sat astride the ridge just a few metres below the top (PHOTO). A precarious snow mushroom made up the actual summit, and at first it appeared that we might be denied yet again. But a traverse on steep ice under the belly of the cornice opened the door (PHOTO), and soon we were able to take turns standing on the highest point.

The descent went reasonably well, though once again we were dogged by rockfall, while a serac avalanche to our right was a keen reminder of our insignificance in these mountains. The weather had been deteriorating all day (PHOTO), and by the time we rapelled over the ‘schrund snow was beginning to fall. As we continued down through the night, the snow changed to rain (PHOTO). For one last time we stumbled down the Pumari glacier, rendered unfamiliar by darkness and downpour. We staggered into camp just before midnight, grateful to Ali for the dinner he had left ready for us. We decided that it was only fitting that from now on Peak 6164 be known as Ali Chhish.

The long way home

Two days later, on a wet, foggy morning, we left basecamp. Over the next few days we battled swollen creek crossings (PHOTO), mudslides and washed out roads (PHOTO) as we made our way back to Gilgit. Leaving our expedition baggage at the hotel, we then spent three delightful days in the Rupal valley (PHOTO), enjoying Mehboob’s hospitality and trekking through green pastures at the foot of Nanga Parbat (PHOTO). But my last memories of the trip are of twenty four non-stop hours on the KKH, of the bazaars of Rawalpindi (PHOTO), and of chaos at Heathrow in the wake of a bomb scare. By the time we arrived back in Calgary, basecamp with Kunyang Chhish soaring high above seemed like a half-forgotten dream (PHOTO).

Back in Gilgit, we met a couple of friends who were going in to try the objective we had failed on: the southwest face of Kunyang East. While I was jealous that their trip was just starting while ours was winding down, I was also ready to be going home. In fact, I was not even sure if given the chance I would have traded places. I realized that what I envied more than their chance of bagging an unclimbed peak was that they might get to walk in that distant, rarefied realm we had looked up at so often from basecamp, and had striven for, but never quite attained.

ACKGNOWLEDMENTS:

I would like to thank the following organizations, whose support made the difference between going to the mountains and staying home:
• Mountain Equipment Coop for their support of our expedition;
• Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, Clif Bar and Scarpa for their continuing support of my climbing activities.

I would also like to thank the following individuals for their advice and encouragement:
• Janusz Kurczab for suggesting Kunyang Chhish as an objective in the first place, and for providing us with valuable contacts;
• Janusz Golab for sharing his experiences from the 2003 attempt on the southwest face;
• Jerzy Wala for providing us with a detailed map of the Hispar Muztagh, and a comprehensive compendium of climbing activity in that range;
• and Mohammad Hanif for excellent weather forecasts.

SUMMARY OF CLIMBING ACTIVITIES (MAP):

Two attempts on the southwest face of Kunyang Chhish East (c. 7,400 m), the first on July 22-24 to 6,550 m, the second on July 31-August 1 to 5,900 m: Ben Firth, Raphael Slawinski, Eamonn Walsh and Ian Welsted.
First ascent of “Ali Chhish” (6,164 m, peak 79 on Jerzy Wala’s map of the Hispar Muztagh) via the west face: Raphael Slawinski and Eamonn Walsh, August 4.
Ice Cake (6,450 m) via the south ridge: Ben Firth, Raphael Slawinski, Eamonn Walsh and Ian Welsted, July 8-10.
Three first ascents on the “Kunyang Shield”:
Rhubarb Alley, 270 m, 5.10d, Raphael Slawinski and Eamonn Walsh, July 17.
Being There, 230 m, 5.10d, Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted, July 19.
Gandu Crack, 130 m, 5.10a, Raphael Slawinski and Eamonn Walsh, July 28.

© Raphael Slawinski 2006