Monday, October 8, 2018

Adventures of the 2018 Canadian Pumari Chhish East Expedition

This past summer, Alik Berg and I went to Pakistan to have a mountain adventure. Below is a brief report from our expedition. For a more impressionistic account, check out this Bird Blog. For a photo essay, check out this Flickr album.

***

In the summer of 2018 Alik Berg and I traveled to Pakistan to climb in the Karakoram. As often happens, neither the final team nor the final objective ended up being what they had been originally. To begin with, there were four of us intent on exploring the largely untouched peaks of the Kondus valley. Over the winter, however, Chris Brazeau and Ian Welsted pulled out. Then, just a couple of months before our departure, military authorities refused the permit application for our primary objective, the unclimbed K13 (6666 m). We scrambled to find another goal, and settled on the unclimbed Pumari Chhish East (ca. 6900 m). I was familiar with the peak, having attempted it unsuccessfully in 2009, and knew to be a difficult and inspiring mountain. 

We left Calgary on June 30 and, after many flights, jeep drives and three days of trekking with porters, arrived in the 4500-metre basecamp on July 14. We spent the ensuing three weeks systematically acclimatizing: starting with day trips and culminating with two nights spent on the summit of the 5980-metre Rasool Sar. We had hoped to complete our acclimatization in only two weeks, but a week-long spell of bad weather at the end of July kept us confined to basecamp. 

With acclimatization out of the way, we turned our attention to the south wall of Pumari Chhish East. The shattered glacier below the face looked impassable, but we were able to find an alternate approach by climbing over a rock spur. From the crest of the spur we got our first close look at the face. The upper half still looked in good mixed-climbing shape; however, by what was now late summer, the snow and ice fields on the lower half had degenerated into wet rock slabs strafed by rockfall. It was difficult to let go of our ambitions, but in the end, we discounted the south face as too dangerous in current conditions. 

Next, we examined the east aspect of Pumari Chhish East for an alternate route possibility, but found it guarded by batteries of seracs. With just over a week remaining in basecamp, we cast about for other options, and settled on an unclimbed peak across the glacier from basecamp. The first day we scrambled to a bivouac at 5700 metres on the south ridge of our objective. The next day we spent sixteen hours negotiating the complex ridge to and from the 5980-metre summit, arriving back at our bivouac well after midnight. We slept in the following morning, before descending into another valley and hiking around the mountain back to basecamp. 

Two days later, in a cold rain, we left the meadow where we had spent half the summer. Pumari Chhish East remained unclimbed, but we still had a great adventure among great mountains and great people. 

Last but not least, Alik and I would like to thank the John Lauchlan Memorial Award and the MEC Expedition Support Grant for backing our expedition. And personally, I would like to thank my sponsors: Arc'teryx, Black Diamond, Bolder and Scarpa North America for their support. An expedition to the Karakoram is a major undertaking, and the trip would not have happened without their help. We did not come back successful, but we came back safe and we came back friends.

A storm clears from the south faces of Pumari Chhish South (7350 m) and East (6900 m).

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Myth of Sisyphus

Ducking my head, I stepped from the plane onto the jetway, and from the cool air inside the cabin into the oppressive heat of an Islamabad evening. After more than thirty hours of contorting ourselves into cramped airplane seats, and lounging at airports from Vancouver to Beijing, Alik and I had finally arrived in Pakistan. Down at the baggage carrousel, one big duffel appeared, then another and another... I held my breath as the conveyor belt grew empty with one of our bags still missing, but then a bulging blue duffel emerged. I exhaled in relief. 

Outside, dazed from jetlag and sleep deprivation, we stood by as a cabbie secured a small mountain of expedition duffels to the roof rack of a Corolla. The thin string he used didn’t seem adequate for the purpose; I hoped gravity would help to keep the heavy bags in place. As we drove into the city, lightning flashed and sheets of rain came down, forcing commuters on their small motorbikes to seek shelter under overpasses. “Your bags are waterproof?”, asked Ali, our guide to the thickets of Pakistani bureaucracy. “Not so much”, I waggled my hand in reply. 

After the sticky, humid heat of the tropical night, the airconditioned coolness of the guesthouse was a welcome relief. We lingered over egg-fried rice, struggling to keep our eyes open. Back in our room, having snatched only the occasional head-lolling, seated nap over the past two days, sleep came easily. 

By midmorning the next day, having already breakfasted on chapatis, omelettes and potato curry, we were back at the airport. Initially the agent at the check-in counter balked at the number and weight of our duffels, but Ali managed to negotiate the excess baggage charges down to a reasonable sum. There was no lineup at security, and fifteen minutes after arriving at the New Islamabad Airport, we were sitting at the gate, boarding passes for the flight to Skardu in our pockets. 

Gradually more people showed up. Locals in shalwar kameez, the women’s turquoise and purple, the men’s beige; other climbers in bright pants and logoed t-shirts. The pilots and flight attendants chatted among themselves as they waited for the plane to arrive at the gate. In a couple of hours, we’d be in Skardu, having spent but one night in Islamabad. But then the skies, clear until now, started clouding over – figuratively and literally. The scheduled boarding time came and went. A PIA official announced a fifteen-minute delay. Then came the dreaded words: “The weather in Skardu is bad, the flight is cancelled.” 

Back at the guesthouse, we pulled our duffels from the trunk and off the cab’s roof, and schlepped them back to the room we’d vacated only a few hours earlier. “Lunch?”, Ali suggested. We walked up a broad, tree-lined avenue, past a succession of dental surgeons’ offices, to an Afghan restaurant. 

No tickets were to be had for next day’s flight. With more rain and cloud forecast for Skardu, we consoled ourselves it probably wouldn’t go anyway. It did. As we settled in for the evening with books and podcasts, Ali messaged us there was a chance of tickets for an early flight the following morning. We zipped the duffels shut, set the alarm for just after six, and went to sleep full of hope. 

In the morning, after grabbing some toast and black tea, we hauled the bags out in front of the guesthouse. The cab that’d take us to the airport was due to arrive at seven. But a quarter after the hour it hadn’t come yet; at half past it still wasn’t there. The desk clerk called me inside: “A call for you.” It was Ali: “No tickets this morning.” There was nothing for it but to drag the duffels back into the room. 

*** 

For his sins (accounts vary as to what those were) the mythical Greek king Sisyphus was doomed by the gods to laboriously roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it trundle back down as he almost reached the top – and to repeat his labours for all eternity. Most of us regard being condemned to repeat a futile task with horror. The gods certainly chuckled, thinking this a fitting punishment for a mortal who had offended them. But not everyone saw Sisyphus’ fate thus. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus disagreed. “The struggle itself toward the summits is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” 

I expect tonight we’ll go to sleep full of hope, and tomorrow morning happily haul our duffels out again.

A small mountain of expedition duffels.
"One must imagine Sisyphus happy."


Monday, July 2, 2018

There's more to climbing big mountains than climbing, or how to stay healthy on expeditions

The first time I tried a really big mountain was in 2006. In the summer of that year Ben Firth, Eamonn Walsh, Ian Welsted and I traveled to Pakistan to attempt the then-unclimbed Kunyang Chhish East (ca. 7400 m). We felt strong and fit. In the weeks before our departure I went on an alpine climbing binge on Mt. Andromeda. It culminated with the first ascent, together with Scott Semple, of DTCB, an unlikely line left of the Andromeda Strain. Onsighting virgin Rockies’ choss, I felt on top of my game. As we made our way to Kunyang by plane, jeep and foot, I was optimistic about our chances.

The 2500-metre tall southwest face of Kunyanf Chhish East, Pakistan.

It was not to be: our highest attempt ground to a halt nearly a vertical kilometre below the virgin summit. It happens; after all, success on an expedition to Pakistan is never a given. But it wasn’t overhanging rock or thin ice that stopped us. In fact, our climbing skills were never put to a real test. No, what made us turn tail and start descending under cloudless skies were churning guts. They started churning in Islamabad the day after we arrived in Pakistan, and the churning never truly stopped. By the end of the trip, we’d lost count of the number of nights one or another of us had spent on all fours or squatted over a disgusting hole in the ground.

Sometime after returning home, I was talking with a friend, a seasoned Karakoram veteran. 

“So many stars have to line up to get up something big in Pakistan”, I complained. 

“You’ll figure it out”, he assured me. 

A dozen years and several expeditions later, I like to think I know better what it takes to succeed in those mountains. Sure, skill and fitness matter; but you’re going nowhere fast if you don’t stay healthy and and don't acclimatize properly. High mountains halfway around the world are a great equalizer. Below are a few of the often-painful lessons I learned there: trying, failing, trying again, and sometimes succeeding. As the saying goes, good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

Going nowhere fast.
  • Water. It sucks to generate heaps of plastic waste but I use only bottled water only while traveling through a third-world country – both for drinking and brushing my teeth. I make sure the seal on the bottle is intact, and that it wasn’t just filled up from the tap. I go as far as to avoid swallowing any water while taking a shower.
  • Fruits and veggies. As tempting as fresh mangoes and tomatoes might be, I try to stay away, at least while travelling to the mountains. There’s just too much risk they were washed in tap water. In basecamp it’s a different story, provided you have a good supply of clean water (more on that below).
  • Food. While traveling to the mountains I try to eat only cooked food from decent-looking kitchens. Having said that, I’ve been sick after eating at a good restaurant in Islamabad. This part is somewhat out of your hands but do your best to be careful and disciplined – avoid tasty-looking street food until you’re on the way out.
  • More on water. On the trek in, filter and treat drinking water, as chances are you’ll be hiking through animal pastures. Once in basecamp, make sure your water comes out of a moraine or some other pristine source, and not from a stream that yaks drink from. Make sure your cook gets water from a clean source. too.
  • Cook. In the Himalaya and Karakoram, it’s customary to hire a local cook (and often also an assistant cook) for basecamp. It sounds decadent, but you’re also giving someone a chance to earn a decent wage. Your cook can make or break the trip. He (it’s always a he) should have good hygiene. Ideally, it’s someone who’s been on other expeditions, and knows what the western gut needs to stay healthy.
Temptation on the way in.

Partaking of fresh apricots on the way out.

Don't get water where the yaks go!

A good cook can make or break your trip, says Ali.

In 2006, our last acclimatization outing before attempting Kunyang Chhish East was the deliciously-named Ice Cake (ca. 6400 m). Originally, we’d planned to spend a night camped on the summit, based on the rule of thumb that we should try to sleep at an altitude a thousand metres below the peak we hoped to climb. However, after only a few hours, splitting headaches droves us down. A mistake: the headaches were a good indication we still needed to acclimatize better. The process of acclimatization is boring and painful, but unless you’re a genetic phenomenon, there are no shortcuts. 
  • Take your time to acclimatize. At least at the start, I like to day hike to an altitude before I sleep there. Few things are as unpleasant as trying to sleep at an altitude you’re not used to.
  • Don’t try to do interesting climbing while acclimatizing. Your body has enough to deal with without throwing in hard climbing. Ideally, you'll be able to basically walk up really high.
  • Listen to your body. Don’t push yourself if you’re not feeling well. On a few occasions I tried to push through a cold, kept going hard, and ended up with a sinus infection. Your body doesn’t heal as well in a 4000 or 5000-metre basecamp as it does at a lower altitude, so you’ve got to give it time to recover. In the end it delayed me more when I ended up having to take a course of antibiotics than if I’d rested for a couple of days.
  • Digestion. Most people don’t digest well at altitude. I found out the hard way – we’re talking about spending half the night with my head out of the tent, throwing up dinner - that I can’t digest heavy foods above 5500 metres or so. I have since adjusted my diet accordingly, pretty much only eating carbs while venturing higher.
Acclimatizing is boring and painful, but there's no way around it.

Headaches all around on the summit of Ice Cake.

So that's my hard-earned, if perhaps obvious wisdom: be paranoid about water and food hygiene while traveling, make sure you have a good setup in basecamp with your cook and water supply, and respect the altitude. And lastly, even if things aren't always going your way, remember that you're on holidays in an incredible place.


PS: I’m writing this post on a hot, muggy evening in Islamabad, starting yet another Karakoram expedition. We'll see if I can walk my own talk.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Ephemeral

Spring has come to the Rockies with a vengeance. Just now we're changing rock climbing plans for tomorrow and thinking of shady Acephale or Planet X, fearing the sunny Coliseum might be too hot. Yet not so long ago it seemed winter would never end, and we'd never trade ice tools for chalk bags.

I love the transitions between the seasons. They don't last very long: one day there's a white ribbon of ice snaking down a cliffside, the next afternoon there's nothing but a dark wet streak. Or, six months hence, that same wet streak can turn overnight into a dangerously enticing veneer. It's during those times of transition that some of the wildest, most unlikely ice lines can form. I have a list of them in my head and come October, I start eying certain cliffs, knowing that if I blink, I'll miss my chance. But there at least one of these ephemeral of lines you need to keep your eyes peeled for in April.

The East End of Rundle, affectionately known as EEOR, is one of the best big rock climbing crags in the Rockies. A sunny exposure, a short approach, routes a dozen pitches long, better than average limestone: what's not too like? The vertical rock ends in scree bowls, bowls that in the winter fill with snow blown over the summit ridge by the westerlies. On occasion these bowls release in spectacular fashion, sometimes with a nudge from the Kananaskis safety people, and avalanche debris cover the gravel road below. More rarely, the melting snow runs down corners and chimneys and freezes into narrow white lines hundreds of metres long.

Over the years I've experienced some memorable days ice climbing - yes, ice climbing - on EEOR: Balzout, The Great White Fright... But Dropout continued to elude me. It wasn't for lack of trying. The first time I attempted it, years and years ago, with Ben and Rob, the ice was all there, but our timing was off. A snowstorm the night before had covered anything less than vertical with a thick white coat. We took hours to climb a pitch and a half - and didn't even make it to the hard parts. We bailed.

The second time, a few years ago, Juan and I were also just a day too late.  The cliff was clear of snow but the ice still looked good - at least until midmorning. As the day started warming, the ice literally melted before our eyes, while increasingly large chunks rained from above. We ran away.

This past April I came back for a third time, with Alik. It had been unseasonably cool all week, and the ice still looked to be - mostly - there. There was a snowfall warning in the forecast - if it's not one thing it's another - but it was supposed to stay clear until at least midday. It seemed worth trying. Besides, with iffy avalanche conditions on the Divide, there was nothing else we were excited about.

The East End of Rundle, with the line of Dropout in the centre as it looked on my second attempt. On that occasion we were in the right place, but at the wrong time.

Third time lucky? Alik Berg nears the top of the second pitch. It's one of the cruxes of Dropout as a mixed climb, with tricky footwork on smooth, waterworn rock. Fortunately a corner crack offers perfect protection throughout.

The intermittent line of ice started just above, tempting us with direct access to the upper half of the route. Unfortunately the translucent veneer looked unprotectable at best, and unclimbable at worst. Casting wistful glances at the tantalizing smear, we deviated right for a couple of pitches onto the summer line.

Alik Berg comes up the third pitch, with the avalanche paths descending to the gravel road a reminder of the lee-loaded bowls at the top of the wall.

The fourth pitch gave some excellent climbing, almost reminiscent of Alaska: solid rock, ice-filled seams and good cracks for protection. Of course it finished with marginally-protected, insecure scratching. After all, we were in the Rockies.

On the fifth pitch we finally traversed into the vein of ice, which by then had thickened enough to be climbable.

Following it, I was reminded of Repentance on Cathedral Ledge: one hand on a tool in thin ice, the other arm-barring across the squeeze chimney.

But no, we were in fact halfway up a much bigger cliff back home in the Rockies.

The sixth pitch, which took us to the base of the crux chimney, proved the key to the climb. Deviating from the corner climbed in summer, we ventured out on the slabs to the left, following the sometimes barely-there line of ice wherever it took us. A step of thin, detached ice had Alik questioning the reasonableness of what we were doing. Fortunately a wire placement appeared, tipping the scales for up instead of down.

There was a snowfall warning for the day, but luckily it wasn't until late in the afternoon that the first flakes started swirling around us. I was glad: mixed climbing is hard enough without a white shroud hiding every edge and crack. Unless you're in Scotland, that it. There, it's only when the cliff's coated in white stuff that it's in "good nick".

I was glad the weather held off long enough to let us enjoy the crux chimney without being deluged by spindrift, funnelling from the bowls and gullies above.

And the chimney, with its veneer of ice on the left wall, is the main reason for doing Dropout as a mixed climb. Still, the chimney wouldn't be the same if, looking down between your crampons, you weren't looking at hundreds of metres of cliff below you.

The forecast snow finally arrived when we were climbing the easier pitches above. Easier but not easy, with a deep layer of snow on smooth limestone slabs.

We topped out just as it was getting dark. We tiptoed up the thankfully stable bowl above the route, and plunged down the windblown screes on the backside. We were both pleased with the day: Alik with his first mixed route on EEOR, me with the conclusion of a long quest.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Wilson Adventures II: Suntori Sit Start

The steep gully, hemmed in by walls of featureless limestone, opened up into a small snowfield, but higher up it necked down again. As the beam of my headlamp swept up the nearly vertical chimney, instead of the hoped-for snow bowl, it revealed nothing but blank, bulging rock walls. I'd led us into a dead end.

Traversing to a snow arete bordering the gully on the right, crampons scratching on rock under a thin covering of snow, I looked down into another couloir. It seemed more open than the one I'd been following. Maybe it was the right one? I traversed back into the dead-end gully and pounded in a knifeblade. Adding a stubby screw, I shouted down, "Secure!"

A few minutes later a headlamp appeared below, and soon thereafter Alik himself. After a brief discussion of our options, he tensioned over and down into the other gully. Removing the screw and leaving a 'biner on the piton, I followed, the jury-rigged toprope cutting into the faceted snow of the arete separating the gullies. After pulling the rope and retying in, I continued my lead block. Some hard snow, a step of thick ice, and a vast snow bowl opened above me, more guessed at than seen in the darkness.

***

Mt. Wilson is to Rockies ice climbing what Grotto Mtn is to its rock climbing. You can spend a whole winter season (or several) on its flanks, and still have more ice to dream of. One of the finest routes on the entire south face has to be Suntori: a pencil-straight line leading to the base of the white quartzite towers crowning the summit ridge. It was first climbed in a three-day effort by Cory Balano, Dave Edgar and Dave Marra. Treating it like an alpine route, they took it all the way to the summit ridge and descend the huge avalanche funnel of Lady Wilson's Cleavage back to the road.

The formidable team of Jay Mills and Eamonn Walsh made the second ascent. Not only did they free the mixed crux, but after an early start from the road, they topped out with daylight to spare. I didn't think Alik and I could match their speed. However, I had another plan in mind.

A drop of water falling from one of the bone-white towers on the summit ridge would flow down the discontinuous ice of Suntori, here and there dropping through thin air to splatter on an ice pedestal. It would then percolate through the avalanche slope below the route, before dripping from the lip of the snapped-off dagger of Stairway to Heaven and free-falling for an entire ropelength. Tired now after all the excitement higher up, it would meander down the rolling ice of Midnight Rambler, before coming to rest among the trees broken by the huge avalanches that, once or twice in a winter, roar down the from nearly a vertical mile above.

I'd always thought retracing the drop's path in reverse would be the best way of climbing Suntori: scrambling up Midnight Rambler in the dark; arriving at the base of Stairway to Heaven at first light; above its overhangs, walking straight up to the start of Suntori; and finishing through the quartzite towers, likely once again in the dark. Planning an early start, Alik and I drove up the Icefields Parkway the night before. A warm wind whooshed through the evergreens on the valley bottom. It wasn't quite the high pressure we'd have liked, but conditions seemed good enough to try. Walking a hundred metres into the darkened forest, we spread out our mats and sleeping bags, and settled in for a few hours of restless sleep.

The pencil-straight line of Suntori from the Icefields Parkway. Stairway to Heaven is behind the treetops.

The south face of Mt. Wilson from a couple of kilometres up the road. Stairway to Heaven is the right-hand dagger (the left-hand one is another story, and hopefully the subject of Wilson Adventures III). The ice above Stairway to Heaven is Living in Paradise (and hopefully the subject of Wilson Adventures IV). Suntori is hidden in the gully to its left. Lady Wilson's is the funnel on the far left.

Alik Berg links the first two pitches of Stairway to Heaven. Anything to save time; the days are short in January.

Sporting an outfit to match the azure ice behind, yours truly starts up the top pitch of Stairway to Heaven. Photo: Alik Berg.

Alik Berg walks up the slope above Stairway to Heaven, as flurries swirl in from the west. Nothing to worry about (or so we hope).

The upper south face of Mt. Wilson. Suntori is on the left, the daggers in the middle are unclimbed, and the crux first pitch of Living in Paradise is hidden behind the rock buttress on the right.

Murky weather on the slope between Stairway to Heaven and Suntori.

Anticipating a long haul, we stop at the base of Suntori to rehydrate.

The first pitch looks trivial, but the rotten, detached ice requires some non-trivial gymnastics. Photo: Alik Berg.

On the other hand, the second pitch proves surprisingly straightforward, with good gear and short cruxes. Even the sun puts in an appearance. Photo: Alik Berg.

A few ropelengths higher, Alik Berg starts up what is probably the best pitch of the route. A short icicle leads to a near-vertical ice hose, almost reminiscent of an Alaskan goulotte.

Alik Berg battles brittle ice at the start of the pitch.

A couple of ropelengths higher the headlamps come out. Fortunately it is the last "hard" pitch - unless, that is, you leave the main drainage and go questing up another gully to the left.

After slogging up the snow bowl below the quartzite towers, we pull into a sheltered cave at their base. Photo: Alik Berg.

At this point we've been going for fifteen hours or more. We stop to have some soup and regroup before facing the last few pitches through the towers and the descent. While waiting for the water to boil, Alik Berg amuses himself by levitating an ice tool.

After finishing the soup, we step out of the cave and into the steep gully above. Climbing between bone-white walls, pulling over chockstones, we're not sure if the gully isn't going to dead end in overhanging rock until we see it roll over into the gentle humpback of the summit ridge. Photo: Alik Berg.

We plunge down the other side: downclimbing steep snow around walls of glacial ice, and rappelling here and there when the ground below seems too steep to downclimb. Eventually we reach the low-angled trough of Lady Wilson's Cleavage. After changing batteries in our fading headlamps, we continue: walking, downclimbing, rappelling. Eventually we find ourselves walking in our crampons down the snow-covered Icefields Parkway, almost twenty-four hours after we left it.

Summary: An ascent of the Midnight Rambler-Stairway to Heaven-Suntori linkup on the south face of Mt. Wilson by Alik Berg and Raphael Slawinski, January 7, 2018.