It had been over a year since my last expedition and the thought of finally going to the Greater Range, the Himlayas, had pretty much obsessed my mind for the whole of 2012. It is the first trip I’d really trained for putting myself through an actual training schedule during the summer, culminating in climbing the Peuterey Integral in a single push- something I’d been wanting to do for a while. I’d never felt as fit or as strong in my life and I really felt like the Charakusa was going to be a huge success on a personal climbing level…but expeditions seem to have a knack of knocking you off your pedestal!
The plan was to spend roughly 40 days in the Charakusa valley basecamp with my usual partner in crime Will Sim. A luxury camp on a flat, grassy plain, with a small glacial pond to bathe in and two cooks at our beck and call. Topped off with a stunning array of 7000m peaks offering everything from snow plodding to overhanging splitter granite it is pretty much the ideal location. First explored by Dai Lampard it has seen plenty of attention since then, and attracted some of the greats of the Alpine world such as Marko Prezelj, Max Turgeon and Steve House; as well as the rock climbing duo of the Favresse brothers. All in all it’s a pretty world class climbing location.
We had an awesome flight into Skardu, passing the immense massif of Nanga Parbat- my first sighting of an 8000m peak. Unfortunately shortly after landing my 5D Mark II decided to have an electrical fault- the first time I have ever broken a camera or lens and it happens in a mountain town in Pakistan. Thankfully I’d just brought an Olypmus EM5 for the trip which is meant to be pretty good but I was still really worried about not having my SLR…So for all you photo lovers out there every shot on this report is taken with a Micro Four Thirds jobbie…it opened up my eyes to the non-SLR market.
Neverthless we left the hustle and bustle of Skardu the following day and took a 6 hour jeep ride into the Charakusa valley to the end of the road; a small village called Hushe. Here we met our cook and porters and saw a fleeting glimpse of Masherbrum emerging through the clouds. It was quite humbling seeing such a huge massif; even at only 7800m high it looked monstrous. The psyche was high.
A pretty mellow two day walk in saw us at the fabled basecamp. Arriving a little beat after doing the last day in a little over 4 hours we were greeted by our new Base Camp friends Shingo, Jesse and Erin. It was good to finally be here. After 5 days on the go it was nice to finally set up our tents and get to a place to call ‘home’ for the next 6 weeks.
At a height of just over 4000m the plan was to spend a few days sitting around Base Camp and getting used to the height gain. After one day though and with the peaks emerging from the clouds we got psyched and headed up for the British Route on Nayser Brakk- a perfect pyramydal rock peak which would take us up to 5200m. A little high for our unacclimitised bodies but we had nothing to lose and on a drizzling morning we headed up. A heinously long rubble couloir takes you up to the col up the backside and after some 800m or so of it we arrived at the col where the real climbing starts. By now the weather was looking even worse but we decided to climb until it started to get stupid bad. Will took the lead up the rock and fired on up 5 pitches varying in grade and the amount of protection.
Eventually we arrived on the final 100m summit arete and with the snow now falling we made a quick dash for the top where we enjoyed what should have been world class mountain views, in a white out. Thankfully we just beat the worst of the weather to the top and we arrived back at Base Camp for lunch happy to have ticked our first Himalayan peak so soon.
The weather continued to prove wet and grey for a few more days but as soon as it cleared up we headed to our next objective. Sulu peak, a ~6000m mountain which we wanted to bivy on to help speed our acclimitisation. Taking our time was key here, the longer we spent at alititude the better, so we planned for two bivies; a luxury not often afforded in the mountains. Bags packed and the mountains started to come alive; a week of snow was seeing the sun for the first time and the shedding began on a very Himalayan scale. The higher we got the more we got to see of the playground that we had just arrived in. The immense massif of K6 ahead of us, the incredible mixed North side of K7 reminding me such much of the Aiguille Verte it was uncanny, and the plethora of smaller yet attractive peaks dotted all around us. It was like being in the perfect alpine playground- so much to see and do it blew the mind.
Approaching the base of Sulu and we opted for the NW ridge instead of the often done central couloir. Scrambling up some 400m onto the ridge we found a good bivy spot and settled in for some haemoglobin growth.
The following morning and the peaks glowed radiant around us in the morning sun. Not a breath of wind, not a cloud in the sky. Back on the ridge and we soloed up through classic alpine terrain- loose rock, sugar snow, and the odd crevasse / berghshrund. It’s always interesting to get a feel for what alpine ‘conditions’ are like in a new area; what the snow is like, how hard the black ice is, and how solid the rock is. Its not something that you can tell from far away, you have to feel it under foot and at your fingertips.
Topping out and it was another night enjoying the killer views whilst dealing with a splitter headache. Fast track acclmitising can have its downsides at times. Nevetheless we were treated to a spectacular sunrise and sunset and then headed down nice and early to BaseCamp for some much needed O2 and food.
Sulu had been good. We had felt strong and it was good to get the acclimitisation bit out of the way with. The weather windows were still proving good so we headed up towards Drifika and some unknown (to us) terrain. I guess the best way to acclmitise is just to quest around up high as much as you can so with that in mind we headed into another valley which gave us some awesome views on the K7 massif and Link Sar.
Back in camp and the Ali’s were still providing us with incredible food, laughs and company. Life is good in Pakistan. It was a huge luxury compared to our previous trips away and it was still all a little bemusing for us. That day the weather was starting to turn. We’d had a pretty good run of it so it was only fair but there’s so much to do out there on a small scale that even mixed weather days dont present a huge problem. So we packed our bags for an early and fast ascent of Beatrice- a peak above base camp that is just under 6000m with a huge central couloir leading straight to the summit (the Diaper Couloir). Not the most exciting climb but something that is perfect for when the weather isn’t.
Heading up to the base and we ditched our kit. We even opted to ditch the harnesses and rope. Feeling a little naked (it does always seem a little pointless going in the mountains without a harness on) we started breaking trail up the couloir. Hemmed in by vertical granite walls and hunched over the axes; Daft Punk blaring in my ears it was just like a training day back at home. At about two-thirds height the couloir joins in another one and you start to get some pretty awesome views over the K6 and K7 massifs. The ice couloir steepened and hardened at this point and we tried to find a way through the rock- the thought of reversing the ice without the option of rapping was maybe a little bit daunting. There’s no handy PGHM helicopter out here afterall. Scrambling around on some really loose rock we gave up and committed to the couloir. The summit was grim, the weather was comming in, but sometimes you just cant help but grin when you run up something and just nab an ascent before the elements turn against you. It was ace to just be there for a few minutes, grab a few shots, realise that we were feeling really strong at that alititude, and then down climb to the base again. Some days you just cant beat and they make you smile even months and years later.
Now it was time to turn our attention to our bigger projects. Link Sar is a pretty unknown 7041m peak at the head of the Charakusa Valley. It’s an awkward peak. It’s big and complicated, with many different faces and types of climbing, but its hemmed in by the K7 massif on one side and a death valley on the other side. From straight on you cant get far enough away from it to get a good perspective as you end up running into the K6 Massif. So it’s a bit of an unknown. We’d been up to recce its North Face a couple of times, finding the approach in itself quite an adventure. The narrow glacial valley that leads in to the North Face is flanked by some huge seracs with the mothership at the very end waiting to carve down the entire valley and wipe out anything in its path. However no amount of reccying would allow us a full visual on any line on its north face, it was just too big to be able to see from so close up, so we went in blind. We figured a line up the first 600m or so and then accepted that it would just lead on out somewhere. We were full of ideas and suggestions- in a way there seemed to be so many possiblities but when all you can see is the bottom few hundred meters and the top you’re not really sure what the middle 800m is going to entail. So naturally we were psyched.
Bivying far enough down the valley so as to avoid the mothership at the end we settled in for the night. The sun set on the peaks above us and over the K6 massif opposite as we watched cornices from high up collpase and avalanche down its huge 2500m face; the full moon rose and cast its eerie light and before we knew it it was time to get up. Bags packed and it was still a good few hours until we reached the shrund of the route. Day broke over a patchy sky and it felt liberating to finally cross the shrund and head up in to the unknown.
The unknown looked different when confronted with it. Turning a corner we stared up a huge snow and ice gully that was capped off by some huge and steep mixed terrain above. We knew that an easier hidden ramp would allow us access through it all so we put our heads down and started the endless couloir ahead.
Progress was good but slow going at times in deep snow until we hit the ramp. Here things got nasty. The snow turned into every form imaginable. Pockets of deep unconsolidated snow that felt like you were sticking a leg through a crevasse to snow fluted ridges that were firm on one side and completely bottomless on the other. It made progress excruciatingly slow as well as dangerous at times; desperately trying to find screw placements to keep the simul climbing safe enough as we quested on. Eventually we entered the real unknown. The ramp ended abruptly in a double fluted ridge that would require a full 50m rap into another part of the face. Given the bottomlesss snow that had existed on each of these ridges it was a safe bet to say it would have been an irreversible rap into a face that we still couldnt see. The weather was starting to break over K6 and opposite us on K7 and a light snow fell as the sun set, we tried to look for a bivy ledge but couldnt find anything even remotely close. Getting the tent up seemed key with the snow falling and no bivy bags, and committing to a face we knew nthing about at this point was…well, a little commiting. So I set up the first of many v-threads back down the route.
The following days were spent waiting for another weather window for Link Sar. On such a face we couldnt risk getting caught out in a big snow storm, the possiblitiy of getting avalanched off were too high. So we waited out endless days of rain, watch films, basked in the sun when it came out; and bided our time. Meanwhile the weather had changed distinctly autumnal then wintery. During the night we could hear huge avalanches racing off K6 and nearby peaks. The hidden Link Sar was getting loaded.
Over a week had passed and the Americans were getting ready to leave camp. We had clung on to the vague hope that we would get another weather window and it seemed like it was going to pay off- the meteorological team sent through a synopsis with a week of good weather starting in a couple of days. The weather window was late; it kept raining. We were packed and ready to go but for the first time this trip they’d got it wrong. The following day we headed up regardless under a grey sky and made it to our ABC beneath the face. It was obvious that the winter had come to the high peaks and in the evening sun they were sloughing. The face had turned since we were last there and anything above 6000m looked like a no go. In any case it started snowing again that night and we packed up and left for Base Camp under thick clouds and falling snow.
Back at camp and we’d reached that time when you both know its time to pull the plug, get back to the real world, and drink a beer. The porters were called for and with just one day left we decided to try one last peak. Amazingly it dawned nice and sunny, but bitterly cold. A quick breakfast and we rushed off to the backside of Fathi Brakk. By the time we got there the weather had come in again but with no commiting terrain we would just climb on up until it got really bad. Heading up an endless loose gully we got to the final summit ridge which actually had some decent climbing on it. Tagging the summit we could barely see a thing but it felt awesome to do our final Pakistan peak together and on the evening of our departure; somehow aleviating some of the disappointment of Link Sar. Rapping back down in a brewing snow storm it got cold and wet, especailly for Will who’d gone so light and fast he hadnt even brought any gloves. Typically by the time we stepped off the mountain onto the glacier, the clouds cleared and the mountain peaked out. But hey you cant win them all…
A hectic non stop 4 day walk and ride finally brought us back to Islamabad in time for the anti-America riots; but thats another story….
Thanks to all the incredible people we met out on our travels. To Blue Sky Treks and Tours who far surpassed any expectations for service and help. To our amazing cooks, the two Ali’s for always having a smile on their faces and a fresh pot of tea ready. To Shingo for teaching me how to play and lose Chess; to my amazing girlfriend for buying and sending some much needed emergency photo gear to Base Camp; and of course to Will for yet another amazing expedition. A special thanks to Mountain Hardware, Petzl, Primus and PHD for kit, and to the BMC and the MEF for financial support.
Since I never ever get bored of this view here’s one final shot of K6…till next year!