Pakistan – Charakusa Valley 2013
Everest hadn’t exactly gone to plan, but coming back from Nepal I was looking forward to putting the whole thing behind me and training like mad for Pakistan. I had a First Ascent on my mind that had been a constant source of obsession since my trip last year and I felt fit, strong, and unbelievably psyched.
I was heading in this year with Andy Houseman, a man with a reputation for strong off the couch abilities and suffering with a smile. Our objective was the unclimbed 7041m peak of Link Sar- in a valley that has seen decades of climbing from all sorts of climbers it is amazing that this peak still remains unclimbed. That is until you take a look at it closely and work out a safe line of ascent- there aren’t any. There have been multiple attempts on the mountain before but they have always been repelled and Link Sar has grown in my mind since being on it myself last year. It’s actually quite the beast of a peak- and keeps the crux of the whole route for the very last few pitches. It requires taking European Alpine style of fast climbing to a 7000m peak and that’s something I’m really interested in right now…
Backtrack back though and myself and Andy arrive in Pakistan. With the Nanga Parbat massacre a month before and Andy having an absolute nightmare getting a visa he was just about ready to quit before we got on the plane, so arriving in Islamabad felt like the first crux. I think that’s why I quite like Pakistan, just getting there is still an adventure. We caught a plane out of Islamabad to Skardu where we tried to get over the jetlag and get psyched for what lay ahead.
Skardu was a pretty bussling place last year, but Nanga Parbat had obviously taken its toll. I don’t think we saw a single Westerner for the two days we were there. It all felt a bit eery, but at the same time I knew we were safe. This is a region that benefits greatly from tourism and Nanga Parbat has hit them hard. Nevertheless Skardu has always retained its Pakistani look and style- its dirty, dusty and smelly. So we decided to go and walk down by the Indus river- the glacial river that feeds from all the major valleys in this area. Its massive. Getting to the edge was a bit of an ordeal but it was even worse when the nice stroll by the river turned out to be littered with garbage and syringes, children were playing in the water just meters away from pharmaceutical waste. Sometimes it’s hard to know where the line is between being ‘Western’ and ‘protective’, and just accepting that this is a way of life and normal for them.
The jeep ride to Hushe was exciting as usual- the mountains get bigger and steeper and the people of Hushe could not be more welcoming. I was really happy to meet up with my cooks from last year again; the sun was out, the views over Masherbrum were amazing, and I was excited to be back.
Joining us this year at Base Camp were Jesse Huey, Ian Welsted, and Raphael Slawinski. Badass climbers with K6 NW face on their tick list. They had arrived just before the Nanga Parbat massacre and Jesse had decided to fly back to the states- I spoke to him a fair bit whist he was still in Islamabad and I think I would have made the same decision. We had the luxury of arriving a month later so could see how things panned out. As we walked in to Base Camp we knew that Raph and Ian, who had decided to stay, were on K6 NW Face and we were dying to know how they were getting on. The weather had been exceptionally good this year- they were in the middle of a 14 day perfect high pressure system and we were psyched and gunning for them. It was a great start to our season when they were to walk, prize in hand, in to our camp 24 hours later.
Walking up the valley to Base Camp and I was like a kid in a toy shop pointing out all the climbs and mountains to Andy, excited to be sharing this new playground with him. It felt like a second alpine home, and I was happy to be back.
I learned a lot on Everest about acclimatising for a big project - don’t tire yourself out, don’t climb until exhaustion. Let the body take it slow and never waste it - you won’t recover at these altitudes. The idea being to always remain focused on the main goal - that’s what you’re here for. Unfortunately this high pressure system had turned the lower mountains in to death traps - with no refreeze big rock falls occurred at all hours of the night and finding a safe peak was proving hard.
Tired of getting beaten off easy climbs due to rock-fall and soggy snow we packed our kit for 5 days for a perfectly pyramidal peak called Drifika. At 6455m it’s definitely a peak that is classed as an objective rather than an acclimatisation peak, but we had run out of options. A long approach day took us up to the glacier at about 5000m; heavy rain in the afternoon continued on until the alarm went off at 2am. It was worrying for the snow pack around us. At 4am it stopped and we packed up and left as the sun rose. It was a beautiful morning but the sun was intense even at these early hours. Breaking trail is always a pain but breaking trail across a glacier that is riddled with huge crevasses and bridges that are sodden through is really terrifying, as well as just simply impossible. We were beaten again by the heat, it was killing us. But we figured we’d sit it out a day, if it doesn’t rain its got to freeze at some point during the night…we were standing on a massive block of ice after all.
So another day was spent cowering from the sun in the NASA silver tent and talking about nothing and everything and hoping for a clear night. 2am and not a cloud in the sky. We cautiously hoped that the snow pack would be better otherwise we were running out of acclimatisation options. Under a starry sky we headed up to the snow-line on the glacier and found ourselves on weight bearing snow. Relief. As we hurried along to the base of Drifika, the sun rose around us, but we knew we’d beat it today. Ahead of us lay a ridge crest all the way to our next bivy spot with no fear of soft snow covered glaciers. Nevertheless the sun still threw everything it had at us and by 8 o clock it became almost unbearably hot- plodding along at 5500m with a 17kg backpack on whilst the sun is roasting you is not my idea of easy acclimatisation. But it was great though, we took our time, enjoyed the outstanding views of the Karakorum and generally eased ourselves in to the beauty of our surroundings. Life was good.
The ridge lead us to the most perfect bivy spot at about 5800m, and after climbing up the ridge a little higher we decided that it was too good to ignore. So we did what we seem to be doing best on this trip- sat in the tent all day. Thankfully Andy’s NASA space tent is great for keeping the rays out, so I dozed away in stress free I-have-all-day-to-do-nothing bliss. Evening arrived and the sun setting over the Charakusa Valley giants as well as the Karakorum giants of Masherbrum, K2, Broad Peak, was pretty special, so special I felt the need to do a bit of Alpine Exposures.
The following morning and we left our heavy packs behind. Up and down in a day, no problem; it wasn’t too far. Rather disappointingly though what looked like good nevee was actually black ice- I’ve gotten quite used to romping up black ice but this was painstaking as it was traversing. Essentially it’s like doing a rising traverse of a massive face of black ice- quite apart from the fact that it’s time consuming, it’s really quite boring. Thankfully the views just kept getting better and I was glad I’d lugged up my 5D with me. I was actually having quite alot of fun without the big pack, I felt fast and alive, and we were actually ‘climbing’ rather than walking. A short crux step reminded me brutally of the thin air at 6000m and that I was acclimatising, not acclimatised. Up to this point though it had been enjoyable- I like to move fast and I felt strong. But the traversing just continued and the real fear was not making the summit, but how the hell to get back down. It would involve dozens of short tensioned raps back down the way we had come up and the sun would be on the face during that time. I knew we could make it up and back down but it would take too much out of us- to me that was the worst thing to do. I knew that Link Sar would demand every drop of energy we could muster so spending any of it before hand was out of the question. I broached the subject to Andy who seemed quite happy to leave all this black ice behind and call it a day.
No summit, no joy, but actually I wasn’t too bothered. We had come here to acclimatise and we were acclimatising. Whether or not we’d gone a few hundred meters higher wouldn’t make the slightest difference for such a short space of time. It felt like a better decision to conserve ourselves for the main objective which was staring at us from the porch of our tent in the distance.
Back in Base Camp and it was nice to have a hot shower and proper food after 5 days on the hill. A week of bad weather arrived as we settled back in but we desperately needed some snow to fatten up the faces so it was ok. These are the most trying times on expeditions though. You live for the weather forecast, you spend 23 hours and 55 minutes a day waiting for next bulletin, it can be maddening. So this year I decided to make sure I was active every single day that I was in Base Camp, whether it be stretching, pushups or forcing myself to run up to the high ridge above camp before breakfast- just keeping the body moving really kept me ready and psyched for when the rain would break.
Whilst I felt good and strong Andy had managed to pick up a stomach bug. We’d both gotten sick upon arriving at Base Camp, after all Pakistan is basically the birthplace of diarrhea, but a good course of antibiotics laid waste to that bout and we’d been ok on Drifika. Back in camp and Andy wasn’t feeling 100%; there was plenty of time to get better though so I wasn’t too worried. We waited patiently, watched Cliffhanger, read, and talked about Western food and getting hammered in Chamonix. It was good fun actually; expeditions are times when you get to know someone really well- spending up to two months with just one person and you cover a lot of subjects. Or you do what I do and read a book then lecture Andy about what I’d read as if I’d known it for years.
Our next weather window announced itself and it was a long one. For some reason it felt like now was the time to get on Link Sar. We weren’t acclimatised for it, but it was a weather window that was too good to waste. So the decision was made and we started excitedly packing away, the sun was shining and I was buzzing. The forecast that evening still showed good weather for 5 days and I went to bed happy and ready for some big mountain fun.
The plan was to climb Link Sar. At just over 7000m it actually packs quite a punch. The idea was to make the first ascent of it by a hard, technical, long, and committing route. It seemed like the best way to make a first ascent of a 7000m peak- instead of finding the easiest way, why not really throw yourself in to the unknown and find something that will really honor the mountain. We talk of siege style on Himalayan peaks, but I wanted to find a line that we could climb alpine style and that would put every climb, every run, every expedition I’ve ever done to good use. The aim was to climb its North face, arrive at the North summit, traverse a 1km long ridge at approx 7000m, drop down to a col and finally scale one of the most perfect summits I’ve ever seen- a steep granite pyramid that would provide hard technical climbing at 7000m all after 4 days of being on the go. The route was massive, each day would be huge; not your traditional Himalayan day, but more of a European Alpine day. Once on the ridge proper we would be fully committed and retreat in bad weather at this point would be out of the question. It was a route and mountain I’d been dreaming of for a long time.
We headed up the approach valley. Last year this valley was pretty intense, flanked by steep granite walls with seracs perched high up, heavily crevassed, and the mothership of all seracs sitting at the head it’s quite intimidating. I thought it was bad last year but this year it was really nasty. Things were looking good though, the faces had fattened up a bit better, the sun was beating down on them sloughing the last of the snow, and I was feeling pretty confident. We bivied half way up the glacier and the next morning headed up to the base of the route. Unfortunately it took hours to negotiate the rest of the way- the bridges were scary, and at one point a small chunk of serac broke off the mothership which was enough to send us running for cover. All in all by the time we neared the final shrund it was much later than we would have liked. In fact I couldn’t actually climb up through the last few crevasses. I found myself tentatively downclimbing into very intimidating crevasses until i could bridge across and climb out again- it started to feel unbelievably dangerous. Andy’s stomach bug had resurrected and it was decided to stash our kit and come back in a couple of days. The approach had defeated us, but at least it had now been recced. We gingerly retraced our steps back down the glacier and back to camp.
A couple of days later and Andy was feeling much better. So we planned on leaving early morning, grabbing our kit on the glacier, and continuing on to the shrund of the route to bivy. Unfortunately the weather window was now very small pushing us to grab our kit and get on the face as high as we could. The access from our stash to the final shrund was nerve racking- I’ve never lead up through such terrifying terrain before and I was relieved when we got to the start of the face. We felt good and strong, the heavy packs pulled at our shoulders but we felt we had lots of time left in the day to make a start on the face. Last year the face had been slow as there had been lots of snow on it so breaking trail was a bit laborious- this year it was the exact opposite. Much like on Drifika we found ourselves on interminable black ice. The heavy packs, altitude, and sun started to make themselves felt, a haze of lethargy overtook us as if someone had fed us a handful of Valium, and we tried to find a bivy spot on a face that has none. Just as the sun set we eventually managed to find the closest thing we could to a bivy spot and after much clearing and setting up rope hammocks we were glad to finally get off our feet. It had been a long day- we’d done some 1800m of vertical ascent from Base Camp. I was feeling pretty shattered and the bivy was cramped and very airy to say the least. But some water, hot food, and the view of the Full Moon pouring over K7 opposite us was really a night to remember. Stars everywhere, K7 looked close enough to touch, and no wind. I soon drifted away happy as larry. Tomorrow we would get off this face and find somewhere to pitch the tent, but tomorrow was still going to be a big day…but that’s another day. Today is now, and now is warm, cosy, and safe.
The following morning was a slow one. Nothing is ever fast when perched in such a precarious position, everything is a target for gravity up here. I’d managed to sleep pretty well and after warming up after 30m of climbing I got back in to the swing of things and felt on fire. A long rising traverse would bring us in to a rap in to the face proper, and more committing terrain. Andy had not slept well, and with his recurring stomach pain he hadn’t been able to recuperate overnight. I guess that’s one of the cruxes of high altitude climbing- recovery. If you don’t recover overnight then you’re just f*cked, and going higher will just make things worse. I could see that he was giving it everything he had and forcing himself to go on, but I knew what was coming. I think I avoided it by just leading out as far away as possible so that Andy couldn’t talk it over with me, I’d been here on two trips and I was too focused on climbing this project. Sometimes it is hard to remove your own personal blinkers and appreciate how bad the other person is feeling when you’re at the other end of the spectrum. I really believe in the bond of the rope, and getting to the top is always a team effort. You both have strengths and weaknesses and they are to be used not exploited, but I had pinned too much on this climb, it had been my personal Everest ‘come back’ and now it was slipping away. Andy told me that he just couldn’t go on any longer, inside I was searching for a way to continue but really there isn’t one. Sometimes you just have to wake up and listen. There was no justification in pushing on, Andy would have gotten worse for my own personal gain, I was now crossing the line in to selfishness and that’s not why you climb as a team. I suddenly realised that, and then it was over. Don’t be a twat, it’s always harder for the other person.
At this point we’d arrived at exactly the same point that I’d turned around from last year, and I felt like I really needed to progress a little bit further and see the north face proper. Andy was good enough to let me climb on and after rapping in off a spine tying off the rope, and soloing on a little further the route finally revealed itself to me. It was beautiful, better than I had ever thought. It was hard climbing, but it was there, tantalizingly close. I took it all in for a while. I imagined myself coming back next year. I had to. The route was too good not to come back to. I was at peace in a way. This year was over but I knew I would come back the following year, I was going to do this line. I climbed back over to Andy with a big grin on my face, and already planning next year in my mind, and started the long raps back down the face.
Back in camp and I poured over videos and photos I had of the face. I knew I could solo it, I felt the approach was tracked out enough that with a refreeze I could justify doing it, and I felt confident that I could reach the North summit in a single push. It bugged me though; it wasn’t my line. My line still encompassed a 1km long ridge traverse and the final summit pyramid- one of the most spectacular summits I’ve ever seen in the flesh. A summit so sharp you couldn’t stand on it. The ridge though would be too much to solo- you start putting too much in the hand of objective danger, a danger that can be completely avoided with a rope on. I felt that if I climbed the North Summit it would be one of the best climbs I would have ever done, but I also knew that I wouldn’t come back next year for the full thing, and I really wanted the latter. So I resigned myself to calling it quits, I made the decision in the mess tent, looked round at Andy and said ‘lets finish off that whiskey then shall we?’
PS: If you’re wondering why there is a lack of landscape shots of Link Sar it’s simply because I’ve already roped in someone for next year and am not giving away any info on my project yet…..three times a charm as they say!