Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Seven summits

Whether it's stamps, bottle caps or back issues of Alpinist, people like collecting things. When it comes to summits, there are many lists for an aspiring collector: the fifty-odd eleven-thousanders - we're talking feet here - of the Canadian Rockies, the fourteen eight-thousanders - metres now - of the Himalaya and Karakoram, the Fifty Classics of North America... And if you don't like any of these lists, just pick a mountain range, a unit of height or some other criterion, and come up with your own. Another list popular among peak baggers with a world travelling bent is that of the Seven Summits: the highest peaks on the seven continents. The facts that Eurasia is really one continent or that the high point of Australia is an uninspiring bump poses some problems, but nothing that an arbitrary definition or two cannot take care of.

As my Pakistani summer holiday winds down and I hang around Islamabad exploring its dining options and waiting for my flight back home, it occurs to me that with some creative redefining of just what constitutes a mountain, Ian and I can claim to have climbed seven summits on our trip - though of course not the Seven Summits. In chronological order, here they are.

1. Skardu Rock (ca. 2700 m)

We'd been in Pakistan for ten days and we had yet to climb more than the stairs to our hotel room. First we spent several days in Islamabad waiting to fly to Skardu. Then, when catching a plane looked unlikely, we gave in to the inevitable, got into a van and started up the Karakoram Highway. Two hours into the drive we got word of the murders in the Nanga Parbat basecamp. Shocked, uncertain, we turned around and headed back to the city. The next day, with a heavy heart, Jesse decided to return home while Ian and I got on a small prop plane and flew over the site of the massacre to Skardu. From previous trips we knew that once there we'd be completely safe. The Baltis are altogether different from "those Chilas fuckers", as many of them call the people from the tribal lands near Nanga Parbat.

Skardu hadn't changed much in the four years since out last visit: it was still dusty, noisy and friendly. But after another few days of waiting for an obligatory but useless meeting with a local official, and for PIA ("Perhaps I Arrive" airlines) to deliver one of our bags, we grew tired of its charms. We longed to stretch our legs and to breathe clean mountain air. Unfortunately we timed our scramble up Skardu Rock, the slag heap above the town, to coincide with a vicious dust storm. We did our best to shield our faces from the stinging dust carried on the wind, but by the time we got back to the Indus Motel we had sand in our eyes, ears, noses and teeth. Still, while climbing a short wall of dried mud, we'd felt like alpinists again. Our expedition - supposedly a climbing one - was finally underway.

The hour-long flight from Islamabad to Skardu took us past the Diamir flank of Nanga Parbat, now tragically  associated with the murders at its foot.

A rainbow appears over the dusty main street of Skardu.

Ian negotiates the crux on Skardu Rock, hoping the rock he's grabbing stays put...

... and walks up a scrubby slope to the top in a vicious dust storm.

2. The Flame (ca. 5000 m)

With all the delays and false starts, we felt like we were behind schedule. After all, we planned to go to seven thousand metres, requiring some serious acclimatization. To get the show on the road, the morning after arriving in basecamp we headed up the hill immediately behind it, nicknamed The Flame for the spectacular pinnacles along its crest. I felt fine for the first few hundred metres: this altitude thing is not as bad as I remembered, I thought. Then, a couple of hundred metres below the hills's rounded summit, the thin air hit me. The last stretch, up talus and isothermal snow, had me breathing hard and slowing to a pace more appropriate to somewhere two or three kilometres higher.

From the top of what amounted to an insignificant bump, we gazed at the spectacular mountains all around: the triple-summitted Farol to the north, the orange ramparts and blue seracs of K7 to the east, and the giant, convoluted bulk of K6 to the south. We realized we had forty days to play among these peaks and we smiled at the thought.

Ian walks up the hanging valley south of basecamp, with K6 hidden in the clouds behind...

... and points out some of the peaks there, such as the spectacular Beatrice.

All around the hillsides are in bloom, as life takes advantage of the brief alpine summer.

3. Sulu Peak (5950 m)

The first few times I went to altitude (everywhere is at some altitude, but you know what I mean), I tried to rush things. I tried to go too high too fast; even worse, I tried to sleep there. Few things are as unpleasant as sleeping at an altitude you're not acclimatized to. If you manage to fall asleep, it's only to wake up a few minutes later in a panic, unable to get enough oxygen into your lungs. I've since learnt that it's far better first to daytrip to, say, six thousand metres, before dragging your sleeping bag up there.

Unfortunately my first attempt on Sulu Peak was cut short by nothing as glorious as altitude sickness, but by a humble cold. It's amazing how weak your body becomes when it's busy doing something else - like fighting a sinus infection. While Ian continued on to the summit through a murky morning, I headed down to the tent and collapsed gratefully into my sleeping bag. A few days and a course of antibiotics later, I tried again. This time around I felt fit and strong, and even took a perverted pleasure in pushing the pace while my lungs burned in the thin air. Mindful of cornices overhanging the north face, I made my way carefully to the highest point before retracing my steps to a wind scoop a few metres lower. There, I unrolled my foam pad, pulled on my parka and insulated pants, fired up the stove, and settled in to breathe some thin air.

Sulu Peak and its south couloir, a classic acclimatization objective.

The couloir would be a great ski run if it wasn't for all the avalanche debris and runnels - and if you had skis.

Enough of this sitting around, I'm getting cold, let's go down!

4. Farol West (6150 m)

When asked how to get better at alpine climbing, Barry usually replies, baby steps, baby steps. The same could be said for acclimatizing. We couldn't hope to skip from six to seven thousand metres and expect to perform. No, we'd have to put in the time and let our bodies get used to functioning with only half as much oxygen as back home. So we shouldered heavy bags holding everything from a tent to an iPod and headed up the familiar hill behind basecamp. Once in the hanging valley above, we made for the giant seracs spilling down between the West and Central Farol Peaks; but, just before we got under them, we hung a left up a safe snow slope.

That night we slept on a small ledge we'd hacked out from the crest of a narrow ridge a few hundred metres below the summit. The following day we continued below cloudy skies that soon degenerated into snow flurries. I suppose no one had told the local weather Allah about the forecast high pressure system. Like crabs we scuttled sideways on sixty-degree ice, first along a knife-edged ridge then below some steep rock, until we hit a couloir that took us straight to the summit. A wind scoop some twenty metres below the highest point made for a comfortable home. For the next two days we ate, slept, lounged, read, listened to music and gawked at distant giants: that's Masherbrum to the west, just a couple hundred metres shy of eight thousand; that must be Saltoro Kangri to the east, deep into that silly high-altitude battleground that is the Siachen Glacier area; and that's Chogolisa to the north, where Hermann Buhl's body still lies entombed somewhere in the ice; but it's too bad we can't see K2...

The triple-summitted Farol Peak (quadruple, if you count Farol Far East on the far right). We climbed Farol West on the left.

Ian settles into our first bivi...

... and follows a narrow ridge on the second day.

A spectacular view of Chogolisa from our summit bivi.

5. K6 West (7040 m)

The tricky thing about the Charkusa valley is that there's just so much to climb. There are granite spires, ice couloirs, fluted faces and crenellated ridges; in other words, all manner of excuses from venturing onto the truly big rigs. And we'd come to get on the biggest one of them all: K6. A few days' bad weather gave us the chance to rest from our latest acclimatization outing. It also coated the bare grey ice on northwest face of K6 West, the reason why we'd traveled this far, with a friendly layer of neve. So when Hanif, our forecaster extraordinaire, predicted a seven-day window of good weather, we had no more excuses. I tried not to think about what we were getting ourselves into as I sorted cams and packets of soup. I knew that the coming days would push both my body and my mind. I also knew that it was better not to contemplate the whole climb all at once. My pack ready, I found a flat sandy spot to do some yoga and tried to clear my mind.

The morning sun already sparkled on the snow slopes above but we were still in deep blue shade. For being at almost seven thousand metres we felt surprisingly good. All the same, in spite of wearing every single layer we had, we couldn't climb fast enough to stay warm. Every few minutes we'd stop and swing some circulation back into our arms and legs. It was not unlike being high up on Denali. Finally, slowly, we emerged into the sunshine. The top wasn't far now. With a huge cornice jutting over the Charkusa valley two and a half kilometres below, maybe a raven could have trod on the highest point. We'd have to settle for respectfully stopping a few metres away. Overhead, the dome of the sky was a blue so dark it shaded into black. Silent, ice-clad mountains marched off to the north; on the southern horizon, brown lowlands merged with a hazy sky. We sat on nearly empty packs and took it all in. We couldn't stay on top forever; we never can. But we could try to remember the moment more deeply that anything our cameras could capture would ever let us.

K6 from basecamp, with the main summit (climbed once) on the left and the west summit on the right. The northwest face drops down and right from the west summit.

The face is guarded by many obstacles, including a convoluted bergschrund.

Before starting up this pitch, I casually mentioned how it looked like Guinness Gully. Somehow, though, I never got this pumped on that climb. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Fortunately most of the climbing was lower angled, though the never-ending ice fields took a toll on our calves.

On a brilliant but cold morning, Ian walks up the last few steps to the summit.

6. Nayser Brakk (5200 m)

If there's one absolutely iconic peak in the Charkusa valley, it's the perfect rock pyramid of Nayser Brakk. And now what we'd taken care of business on K6, we felt free to indulge in some low-stress rock climbing. Leaving basecamp at the un-alpine hour of ten o'clock, we could have been in the Bugaboos, going out for a casual session on Crescent Spire after too much coffee and talk at Applebee.

I'd climbed Nayser Brakk before, but it was long ago and I'd forgotten just how wet, chossy and generally unpleasant the approach gully was. But no matter; it was soon behind us and we were donning rock shoes and starting up the initial slabs of the northeast ridge (a.k.a. the British Route). And it did remind us of that other famous northeast ridge, that of Bugaboo Spire. The one in the Charkusa might be a bit harder, a bit shorter and get you a bit higher, but both are equally classic.

It was late afternoon by the time we hand traversed the final ridge and stepped onto the summit. Shafts of sunlight slanted through storm clouds that had been making empty threats all day. We snapped a few photos, balanced on the highest point for a few more, then headed down. Rasool would be getting dinner ready and we didn't want to be late.

The classic Nayser Brakk reflecting in "the pool of shrinkage", a swimming hole near basecamp.

Ian starts up the first pitch in threatening weather...

... and follows a sharp ridge near the summit in warm afternoon sunshine.

The mountains at the head of the Charkusa Glacier from the summit of Nayser Brakk. From left to right, Hassin Peak, K6 and Kapura Peak.

7. The Dog's Knob (5400 m)

Some mountains have sex appeal just by virtue of their names. After all, who wouldn't want to have The Shark's Fin, The Ogre or Devil's Head on their climbing resume? On the other hand, who'd want to climb Kapura (Goat's Balls) Peak or The Dog's Knob? In the end, though, mountain names are just that: arbitrary labels people hang on inanimate chunks of rock. And TDK happens to be a very pretty granite spire that, yes, does have a slightly phallic appearance. Then again, what spire doesn't?

We were anchored in a notch ten metres below the highest point. To get here we'd climbed six pitches of sometimes gritty, sometimes steep, sometimes runout, but always fun granite. Now ten crackless metres separated us from the place of our desire. Chalking up, we took turns bouldering up to the top and then back down to the belay. Even though we still had to rappel back to our packs and hope that the ropes didn't get stuck, even though we still had a couple of days in basecamp to pack and relax, there was a certain finality about the moment. This point of perfect granite would be the last summit we'd climb in the Charkusa. I felt satisfied, yet sad.

The Dog's Knob, the object of Ian's desire.

Ian jams some steep cracks...

... and makes a delicate a traverse a couple of pitches higher.

It could be argued that a perfect summit requires climbing up and down.


And there you have it, our seven Pakistan summits. Summits are a small part of climbing, and an even smaller part of an expedition. A great deal happens between the short moments spent on top. But summits are also a hugely important part of climbing, and an even more important part of an expedition. These seven punctuated ours.

Late summer colours in the Charkusa.

Our expedition was supported by the Goretex Shipton-Tilman Grant, the Lyman Spitzer Award and the Mugs Stump Award. We thank them for making our trip possible.