American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Great Trango Tower

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1978

Great Trango Tower

Dennis Hennek

FIVE minutes before our expected arrival in Karachi, Pakistan, the loud-speaker boomed, “This is your pilot. Karachi Airport is closed due to flooding from monsoon rains. Our flight is diverted towards New Delhi.” Sunrise found us still flying next to the crest of the Himalaya, but bound for Bangkok. In Asia you expect the unexpected and resign yourself, but this was an inauspicious start for our expedition. We were already late for our planned meeting in Rawalpindi.

Galen Rowell and Kim Schmitz had arrived in Rawalpindi on June 30 from a month’s climbing in India. John Roskelley flew in the next day from Seattle. They began formalities necessary for expeditions to the northern regions. They purchased porter and liaison officer insurance through a local firm and contacted the Pakistani liaison officer, Captain Abdul Rashid, assigned to our expedition. Since I was the leader, further arrangements and a briefing of the expedition by the Ministry of Tourism would have to await my arrival.

Five days after leaving California, Dr. Lou Buscaglia and I finally landed in Rawalpindi on the morning of the coup and declaration of martial law throughout Pakistan. Communications to outside the country were suspended but conditions inside Pakistan were quiet and we made plans to leave as soon as possible for Skardu.

By July 6 we were ready. Arrangements with the government had been completed. Food and equipment in a bag lost in transit had been replaced. By ten in the morning a phone call to Skardu confirmed tolerable flying conditions for flight in the upper Indus valley. Elated, we looked forward to arriving in Skardu after only one week in Pakistan.

The plane headed north toward the gorge of the Indus River, flying low over the Punjab, past small villages and fields, quiet and peaceful in the morning rain. This area had been the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting at the time of partition between Pakistan and India. The plane broke out of clouds after crossing the Himalayan foothills. Soon crest peaks came into view—from Tirich Mir in the west to the giant pyramid of Nanga Parbat in the north. We flew close to the huge northwestern side of Nanga Parbat and looked from its windblown summit down the glaciers to the Indus River at its base, a drop of 20,000 vertical feet. Suddenly our plane turned and headed back to Rawalpindi. A battery warning light had dashed our hopes of reaching Skardu. Possibly the next day, but I remembered that because of the weather and other complications in 1975 it had taken me almost a month to get a much larger expedition to Skardu. We hoped our smaller expedition would be more efficient.

Upon our return we made reservations for the next flight and the next morning though it was raining heavily, we went to the airport. Our six A.M. reservation was canceled because of weather but we would have had to cancel anyway because our liaison officer didn’t get to the airport until eight. He had no excuse for being late: he had simply presumed that there was no chance the first flight would leave. This behavior was typical for the entire trip and caused us delays and problems on a daily basis.

Our luck did change and a later flight landed us in Skardu by noon. We hired a jeep and tractor-trailer combination to transport us to the government rest house. There we made arrangements to use the same transportation for the drive up the Shigar Valley to Dasso the next morning. The rest of the afternoon was spent buying food for the porters and making up porter loads.

Spirits were high. Galen came into the rest house with an old friend and many others in tow. Mohammed Hussein, the beautiful, selfless man who had carried George Bell down the Baltoro Glacier in 1953, was welcomed and asked to be our sirdar. Our liaison officer mistranslated this request and our departure time the following morning. When we left Skardu by jeep Mohammed Hussein was still at his home in Satpara; a frustrating loss.

The road up the Shigar Valley was slow and dusty. Passing through the town of Shigar in the early morning, our liaison officer required tea, necessitating a stop at the Karakoram Restaurant for chapatis and fried eggs for the rest of the group. We had started early to insure crossing most of the large rivers before the afternoon run-off made them impassable.

Late that afternoon we reached the end of the road at the mouth of the sparsely vegetated Braldu River Valley. We left behind motorized transport and walked the final six miles to the village of Dasso. That evening we hired about twenty porters: only those who seemed healthy, had tennis shoes, and were willing to work at government-set wages were taken on. They were told to report early the next morning.

We were up at dawn and in showery weather began to assign loads. In the midst of this confusion Mohammed Hussein appeared. He had walked all the previous day and night, a distance of sixty miles, to catch up. Although tired after his journey, he immediately jumped in and made quick work of assigning loads and getting the porters on the trail. He proved invaluable during the entire trip as our real liaison with the local people of Baltistan, solving problems and keeping our small group moving up through the Braldu Valley.

After three days of walking through the hot, desert-like valley, we reached Askole, the last village, where we replaced the weakest of the Dasso porters. From Askole our plan was to double-stage to Base Camp. Instead of taking the normal four days to Payu, we planned on doing this section in two days and hired porters accordingly, promising to pay wages for the regular four stages. The porters asked for fresh meat if we expected them to double-stage. We purchased one goat with the understanding that they would cook and eat it at Payu in two days. If it took longer, the sahibs would get the goat. They found our sense of fair play humorous. On that note we left Askole for the bridge crossing on the Dumordu River.

This rope bridge is always in need of repair. Braided willow ropes are combined to form three trunk sections that are stretched between two rock out-croppings above a narrow one-hundred-foot section of the river. Two of the trunks support the arms; the third section is suspended lower down for the feet. All three are then laced together with individual willow ropes. Because of the number and size of expeditions using this bridge, the people of Askole who maintain it cannot keep up with repairs during the summer months. The lowest section is the first to disintegrate into broken strands trailing in the brown glacial torrent below. The bridge was in bad shape when we arrived in the afternoon. Since getting porters to cross it would take time and coaxing, we replaced the lower section with climbing rope and tied this to the hand rails with webbing. It wasn’t as good as the original, but it was stronger and it worked. By late evening all had crossed and settled down to dinner around various fires at the river’s edge.

Continuing up the Braldu the next day, we passed many beautiful unclimbed peaks. In oppressive heat, we travelled over miles of broken moraine and river bed. Rounding a corner of the river on a slight rise we had our first view of the Baltoro Glacier and its dark, rock-covered snout. The Grand Cathedrals of the Baltoro with their fantasy-like summits rose on the left side of the glacier. Distant and much higher was K2. That night we reached Payu Camp and a reunion with Dr. Jim Morrissey, our final member.

The following day, July 14, Galen, John and Jim, along with most of the porters, established Base Camp on the Trango Glacier, directly opposite the Great Trango Tower at 13,500 feet. It was a triumph to have traveled that far in only seven days from Rawalpindi. Kim, Lou, and I waited in Payu Camp for the porters’ return from Base Camp. Final wages were paid and rations for the return journey to Askole were handed out. The next day, under lowering clouds, we all assembled on the Trango Glacier.

A Karakoram storm began in earnest on July 15. The past month had been clear. Except for the light rain that had fallen during our approach, no major storm had reached the area. But this storm continued with heavy snowfall until July 18. The rest that this enforced stay in Base Camp afforded probably helped the eventual outcome of the climb. But sitting for five days in our tents at Base Camp and listening to hundreds of rock and snow avalanches made us anxious. All the debris on the south face of Great Trango Tower was swept free and deposited onto our proposed route, which was up a gully to a notch between the lowest and Great Trango Tower. We were well aware of the tenuous nature of planning a climb here and of our dependence on favorable weather to make a summit attempt in alpine style.

With a lessening of avalanche activity by the fourth day our fears were replaced by impatience. We couldn’t agree when to start. Waiting out an entire day of good weather in Base Camp to allow the mountain to settle had safety advantages, but it would also waste one good climbing day. Not knowing how long the good spell of weather would last, we decided to start on July 19.

July 19 dawned clear and warm in Base Camp but conditions above 17,000 feet were still freezing. Clouds continued to mask the upper portions of the Trango Towers from direct sunlight, keeping the accumulated snow locked onto faces and ledges above our proposed gully.

An earlier trip across the Trango Glacier to deposit food and equipment at the base of the gully lightened our loads for the first hour and made the short trip across the glacier pleasant. The scene greeting us at the base of the gully brought us back to reality and the seriousness of the next 3500 feet. After five days of avalanches, the gully was a shambles of powdered granite blocks and snow.

We made up loads from the cache and started up the gully, trying to stay out of areas we had seen hit by avalanches. But, our real safety was in getting to the notch as quickly as possible. Each was on his own, moving as rapidly as possible under the heavy loads. Galen, John, Kim and I reached the notch at 17,000 feet around noon after scrambling for four hours. Jim and Lou were somewhere behind us and out of sight in the gully below. At the notch we began building a tent platform for our two-man tent and ledges for the rest to sleep on.

During the afternoon, as the four of us sat enjoying our sunny perch, we discussed a problem that had plagued us the entire trip. Which of the six would continue toward the summit the next day? From the notch the climbing appeared to be difficult technically, requiring experience on fixed ropes. Lou didn’t have any to speak of but Jim did. Both the doctors were slower than the four of us. The doctors also had put in more financially. We sat for hours pondering these questions and tried to find an equitable solution.

Suddenly a solution was forced upon us by the mountain itself. A large snowfield of several acres above 18,000 feet avalanched. It funneled into a narrow gully just to the left of our camp and filled the gully we had just ascended. It took minutes before all was quiet again. What had happened to Jim and Lou? Our shouts bounced unanswered off the walls of the gully. For an hour we lived through one of the deepest fears: that of the loss of close friends. But luck stayed with us another day. Tired, they had stopped to sit on a boulder and talk about old friends. Lou was looking up the gully when he asked Jim if he’d seen the waterfall. What waterfall? They scrambled up the side of the gully and narrowly missed being covered. Later they joined us at the notch. That night Lou decided not to go higher; he would wait at the tent for our return. Jim wanted to go as far as he could, promising to go down if he held up progress.

July 20 dawned absolutely clear. We made up five loads, two light ones for Galen and Kim, who would lead for the entire day, and three heavy ones for the prusikers. We climbed the first five hundred feet out of camp unroped and then came to a granite headwall. Several pitches were beautiful orange granite, with ice and snow plastered on the rock and difficulty up to F9. Smoother sections required some aid, as both mountain boots and the altitude made them too difficult and time-consuming for free climbing. We chose a line to the right of the area swept by the avalanche the day before, but the structure of the face continually forced us to the left. After several hours on rock, Kim and Galen decided to follow snow-and-ice gullies, which finally led directly into the avalanched area, but they decided it was safe to continue. The day was still young and the major slide had probably consolidated the large snowfield; later the afternoon sun might soften the upper slope and cause another slide.

By noon we crossed the last rock band and stood within the relative safety of a boulderfield at the base of the snowfield. We had climbed ten roped pitches and could finally see the upper portion of the tower. The snowfield, scarred by avalanche tracks, ended at the base of a long corniced ridge that led up and left to a high notch several hundred feet below the summit. For the rest of the afternoon we followed the consolidated tracks, looking for a bivouac site. What had appeared from below to be a large flat area at the top of the snowfield turned out to be a continuation of the ridge. With night coming we had no alternative but to chop a platform on top of a large cornice at 19,000 feet. After several hours we produced a platform large enough for the five of us to lie side by side for warmth. The night was clear and cold. In one sweeping panorama in the light of the full moon all the major peaks of the Baltoro rose in spectacular splendor: K2, the Mustagh Tower, Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums, Chogolisa, Masherbrum, Payu.

The only thing missing was food; each thinking the others had already packed it at the notch that morning, nobody had brought enough.

July 21 produced a perfect sunrise with K2 piercing the northeastern sky. The weather was holding, absolutely clear at about 10°F. The summit was a golden pyramid directly above our bivouac site. Deciding that we had a good chance to make the summit, we left all of our bivy gear on the platform. John and I would lead for the day; the rest would jümar up fixed ropes. The ridge led to the notch, but several large gendarmes posed a problem. We traversed along the top of the snow-field toward chimneys that would lead back to the ridge beyond the gendarmes. After probing along the base of the chimneys, we selected the most feasible and followed a tongue of ice that led up to the base of another long chimney. This section offered some of the best climbing on the entire route. Orange granite, as solid as any I had ever seen, formed the gradually steepening walls of the chimney. Using nuts and screws for protection, we cramponed up the chimney’s back. In the upper section, mixed rock and crampon techniques brought us out onto the ridge again.

We looked down a thousand feet to see the bundles of our gear stacked on the bivy platform below. It was past noon but the climbing from here looked somewhat easier. The ridge disappeared gradually into a gully that led to the corniced notch below the summit. John led the last roped pitch above this notch that ended in some boulders below a snow plateau leading to the summit. By 4:30 all five of us stood on the summit. The afternoon was warm and clear, with an unobstructed, unforgettable view in all directions. We all agreed that there could be no better view of the Baltoro Karakoram.

Our return trip down the Braldu Valley was as fast as the approach. Word reached us that several members of Chris Bonington’s expedition to the Ogre had been hurt. We had two experienced physicians and Bonington’s none. We caught up with them above Askole but not in time to help Doug Scott, as he was helicoptered to Skardu five minutes after our arrival. We did spend the next several days with Chris Bonington, Clive Rowlands, and Nick Escourt, providing what medical help we could.

In retrospect everyone was well pleased with the trip. We proved to ourselves that a small, well-organized party can be successful in the Himalaya.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Baltoro Karakoram, Baltistan, Pakistan.

First Ascent: Great Trango Tower, 20,600 feet, Summit Reached on

July 21, 1977 (Hennek, Morrissey, Rowell, Roskelley, Schmitz).

Personnel: Dennis Hennek, leader; Dr. Lucian Buscaglia, Dr. James

Morrissey, Galen A. Rowell, John Roskelley, Kim Schmitz.

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