The First Ascent of Choricho
A COCK was pecking wood. There was laughter, arguing and the trot of sheep heading out of the village to graze on empty fields. Old men approached tapping the ground with their walking sticks, small clouds of dust stirring around their naked feet, whispering and clustering in small groups before the cottage on the edge of the expedition field, crouching on calves like knotted mahogany and holding out their ancient hands to the fire where a young policeman was cooking pratha. Emaciated dogs pawed at the dirt near the tents of a French camera crew whose Mediterranean dreams went undisturbed by the guerrilla creep of ragged children who, like miniature Pandoras, were opening boxes in the dark and making off with Gallic tarps.
The Islamic vespers of night gave way to the sotto voce discourse of daylight. The citizens of dawn began loping along the pathway, clicking the loose stones beside our tent with their feet. Haji Fazil arrived wearing a black woolen cap, white trousers and a cloth vest. The crowd waiting in front of the clay shack parted before him. His brilliant white teeth flecked with gold fillings shown in a Cheshire arch, an enduring portrait of absolute authority, the avuncular calm of the favor-giver, the agent, the numbadar of Askole.
I limped on swollen feet to where he was talking with Captain Jawed Shaukat, our liaison officer, and sat on the edge of a flatstrapped bed frame. We drank white tea from cups still swirling with glacial flour. The glass tapped on the balsa scabs covering my lips and collecting in the shade of my nose. My stomach was humming and I felt dry as a peanut.
Jawed turned to me, gesturing toward Haji Fazil. “He says there are porters. Very good men. He will send them up this morning right away with a police officer.” Haji Fazil smiled and I grinned back, holding my fingers self-consciously to cover my mouth. The old men gathered closer, nodding their heads and smiling.
“He says you have done a very fine climb,” Jawed explained, beaming with parental pride. A square brown hand extended toward me from a white sleeve. Everyone grinned then. My lips split and I could taste blood sweet as maple syrup.
* * *
All the men in my family lived and died in the unions. Detroit is that kind of city. I’ve never thought back to it with affection but the dichotomy of the assembly line—those who owned it and those who worked it—sticks in the back of my mind and it was with more than a small amount of discomfort that fifteen years later I should find myself playing capitalist exploiter to the working class of the Braldu. But I mean we had a contract! Ian Wade and Jawed had sat out there in the heat of Bongla and written the whole thing out and the porters had all agreed to it. Yet every night as we sat down to eat came the dull eyes of need, the convenient misinterpretations and forgetting, the refusals.
Our head porter never seemed quite capable of resolving these things. Doubts hung around commitments and expectations like flies. He camped us where there was no water and carried no load. He frequently seemed more anxious about our poverty than the porters and asked often about the down parka he had decided we should supply him despite our assurances that we had no intention of having him carry above Base Camp. He waved off those explanations as if our “alpine style” was a personal embarrassment.
We fired him in Askole. He hung around until the French Bridge where Will Miller forgot his patience. We had lost others along the way but there were always so many porters coming back from having carried for the French K2 expedition that we were able to hire replacements quickly. We asked Captain Shaukat if he wanted a cook since he would otherwise be alone once we went up on the mountain, but he only laughed and said no, he was quite capable of looking after himself. When the last porters disappeared back down into the valley and we were left alone to our mountain, our relief bordered on the ecstatic.
During the trek in we had met with the Uli Biaho group on their way out. It felt odd to meet them there; fellow climbers, friends, but sun-tanned and done with it, headed home with their success. We spoke for a half an hour or so and Roskelley told us Choricho was a fantastic looking mountain. More of a tower. We saw it ourselves a day later. We sat on some stone stairs just east of Askole and watched it materialize out of the haze. It dominated everything else on the skyline, throwing out pinwheel ridges of small spires around steep glaciers and showing considerable height and aesthetic superiority to its better known sibling, Payu.
We followed the trash of two earlier British expeditions* up the icefall and set our advanced camp in a shallow cwm at 17,500 feet. Five days of up and down and prolonged storm later, we sat stewing in our tents and listening to Mike Goff outside grumbling to himself and shoveling snow. Like Christmas in the suburbs. Only it was July and Goff was building an object, not creating an emptiness. When the noise stopped and we emerged, we found not an igloo but a monolith eight feet high, perhaps ten feet around, with frozen gear hanging snow-shrouded from it like laundry in Alaska. We laughed and then later, when we’d eaten the last of our rations and the cold was once more driving us back into our tents, we tied our boots on loosely and walked it, round and round, counter-clockwise.
Down for more food and up for the climb. Three days later I sat on a twilight ledge warm as sheep and partner to a dozen gargoyle flakes whilst high above, Wade struggled on verglased rock and gully ice the consistancy of cold porridge. The rope moved in sporadic leaps. Discs and pebbles skittered past but no Wade. Somewhere on high he was bridging amongst the inky silhouettes on the edge of a second great icefield. My attention drifted easily away from climbing, which I couldn’t see, to sunset contemplations of a horizon where Nanga Parbat and Rakaposhi pouted, harmless and ignored as nuns.
In time there came a muffled call. Wade then in descent like Icarus on rappel, purple and yellow, illuminating the night. He huffed heavily, as one will do at such elevations, and sat beside me. A bit below, Will Miller and Mike Goff had supper on the brew and our bivy tents dug into the wall of a crevasse. We spoke of having come far that day and stood to make ready for the long traverse home. As Ian leaned forward I noted a rusted ice ax dangling from his harness.
“And what here, sir?” I asked, pointing a mitten.
He’d discovered it sticking out of the snow on a small ledge, brought to it by a peculiar British sensitivity for relics of defeat. We hemmed a while about what sort of retreat they must have suffered that had them leaving ice axes behind with 1800 feet of ice and three miles of glacier to go. We had accumulated an anthropologic dossier of shame in the traces they had left of their messy capitulation: ice gear, runners and clothing, tent poles, syringes, discarded food containers and mounds of assorted garbage pocked their withdrawal like Elphinstone’s retreat from Kabul. Such is the onus of big team expeditioning and we were anxious to ascend from their high point on the wings of the new religion.
The southwest face turned out to be as edgeless as space. No place to rest our weary ankles and those heavy packs constantly wanting to pull us backwards, accentuating any diagonal lunge into a near pirouette. And very exposed. But never a leader-fall and always working upward without the tattle-tale colors of fixed rope behind us. Thirty feet above where we had been we were trackless as muggers in a Manhattan night.
Lousy place after dark, though. We never really found a proper spot to sleep on the whole face. Wade and Miller would end up dangling their feet from dull, if pragmatic, ice shelves while Goff and I fashioned inventive disasters, our art form reaching its zenith at One Bun Bivy (20,700 feet) where we both spent the night hanging bat-like in our Lowe packs thinking unclean thoughts about the ladies who do the stitching.
The following morning Mike Goff let fall a canteen as graphic demonstration of just how high we were. So impressed were our teammates that Will Miller almost immediately showed his enthusiasm for the line by blocking a pumpkin-sized rock with his jaw and Ian Wade froze to candle wax the tips of three fingers leading onto the long-sought west ridge.
The mountain changed there from Karakoram spire to Himalayan peak; from rock and ice to snow slabs and cornices. We dug in a comfy ledge on soggy snow and put up our bivouac. We debated climbing—it was only another thousand feet to the summit—but slept instead, removing crampons by daylight for the first time since the initial schrund. Following dinner there came a chilly orographic breeze that swirled in our northerly basin and chased us into our bags only moments after sunset had brushed the picket heads of Tartary with orange.
Being cheerful, good-natured lads and up by 2:30 A.M., we had better to expect of our mountain than the vexations of that summit day. Not a trace of the walk-up we had seen from the glacier. Bergschrunds and cotton candy. Goff at last shuffled like a crab on a concave plane around and up and over a bit of overhanging froth placing us on a long, steep icefield. Metronomes set at 21,500 feet, we climbed voiceless and unprotected into an azure sky. Too tired to think of beauty, we thought instead of nothing. Plodding last in line, I watched hopefully as Mike mantled youthfully onto the highest cornice in view. Will shouted down something about having further to go but I put that out of mind as the oxygen starved ravings of a mad man. That deceit enabled me to join the others on the cornice but it did not give us the top.
One hundred feet across a rotten horizontal mustache of feeble snow rose another cornice, perhaps twenty feet higher than our own. Despite my suggestion that it only “seemed” higher owing to angle and altitude, the others were not deterred. Mike worked out to a granitic breast and returned. Since I was second in the afternoon queue, it was then my turn. Fortunately it was the sort of thing I do best: dull and straightforward, more shoveling than climbing, stopping here and there to catch my breath and once to drop partially through a Buhl hole, then crawling on hands and knees to a point where at last going on meant going down.
I ran through the regular list, counting Trangos, trying to remember which was Gasherbrum and which was Masherbrum, wondering if you could see Hidden Peak from 22,165 feet. The Pakistani route on Payu stood out. I forgot most everything else. Just the normal touristy gasps and a couple of aspirin left in the hole my ice ax had left on top. So much said for super-alpinism.
The rappelling was horrid but done efficiently. Never even a close call. We were back in Base Camp in three days and since my former military training gives me a silly look of susceptibility when volunteers are sought, ’twas I who left at five the following morning with Jawed to send back porters and call for transport from Dasso.
Just as well, I might add. While I was becoming famous that morning and shaking hands in Askole, my companions were opening a can of tomato sauce that would have them all lying on their sides and puking while I swam in a sulphur hot spring and ate vegetable stew beneath apricot trees, the Paul Revere of the Braldu.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Karakoram between snouts of Baltoro and Biafo Glaciers, Pakistan.
Approach: From the rope-bridge over the Dumordu River on the way to the Baltoro, up the stream to the unnamed glacier.
First Ascent: Choricho or Payu North, 22,165 feet, via southwest face and west ridge; summit reached August 1, 1979 (whole party).
Personnel: Ian R. Wade, leader, and Michael Goff, British; Geoffrey Childs and William Miller, Americans; Captain Jawed Shaukat, Pakistani liaison officer.
* See the account of the Scottish expedition in the “Climbs and Expeditions” section of this A.A.J.