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The North Face of Rakaposhi

The North Face of Rakaposhi

David M. Cheesmond

DAY 1: We walk up to the site of our old Base Camp at 12,000 feet. There are just five of us; the others have weighed job and other commitments and found it is impossible to stay any longer to climb this damned mountain. All of us are still weary from our previous three-week attempt that ended a mere 800 feet short of the summit. Was it only a week ago that we walked down this path in defeat? I realize, as I think we all do, that this try at an alpine-style ascent is clinging to a straw, a vain attempt to snatch victory at the very last moment.

We look unlikely candidates for a fast trip up a route totaling 20,000 feet in length high in the Karakoram. The weariness still shows in every face; at regular intervals people disappear behind bushes to squat or throw up, a carryover from the food and water back in the Hunza Valley.

When we first walked up here with our porters in tow, we felt fit and confident in our ability to climb the mountain. We were sure that no technical difficulty would turn us back. The weather had looked stable and set to stay that way. Whatever happened, we knew we would try our darnedest and have a good time doing it!

Slowly altitude is gained and we pass the spot where we had the inevitable porter strike which had held us up for three hours of fruitless negotiations. The final slope is next, where we had set up a temporary camp when the porters absolutely refused to go any further. Then it had been snow covered and we had spent six tiring days carrying our own loads up and bum-sliding down. Six trips a day for six days of good weather—that may have cost us the summit as it turns out.

The field in which we had been based seems to be haunted by the ghosts of our friends who have already left and the varied experiences we had enjoyed there. Small flat areas tell where tents were pitched and a few scraps of paper are blown here and there. It reminds me of an abandoned house with the presence of the previous owners still stongly felt.

Day 2: Sadly Kevin Doyle, Barry Blanchard and I watch as Steve Langley and Gregg Cronn head back down. The diarrhea and nausea have finally gotten to them, and they feel too weak to continue. Having only supplies for six days we can’t wait for even one day for them to recover. They have put as much effort into this route as anyone, and it seems unfair that they can be denied a second chance. On the other hand I feel slightly envious, knowing that they’ll be home in a matter of days and we will still be thrashing away high on the mountain. Suddenly it seems even more hopeless going on. The three of us who are left take a long time to get going, basking in the first sun we have experienced in over four weeks. I think all of us quietly hope that someone else will suggest that we too head down and leave Rakaposhi for another year. Strong will prevails however, and we are soon plodding up on the Gulmet Glacier below the site of our previous Advance Base. Recollections of the rest days spent sun tanning there are rent by my missing a step and sliding down the slope towards a crevasse. Barry is pulled off his feet but luckily Kevin holds us both. It comes home to me right then just how wasted we are—I can’t recall slipping uncontrollably on snow before.

Day 3: An early start sees us in the couloir we had used on the previous descent as a quick way off the ridge. It avoids the first section of cornices and rock steps which is by now extremely dangerous due to the large amount of melting that has taken place. We move together so as to be up and out of the oppressive gully before the sun hits the snow and ice hanging over the top.

I feel better today and seem like less of a passenger. Maybe we are getting committed as the road recedes further and further away. By ten o’clock in the morning we are once again on the ridge at 18,000 feet and going well thanks to our acclimatization. The ridge moves past at a rapid rate, and we are able to collect bits of rappel gear as we find it sticking out of the snow or ice. Being short on screws and stakes, we rack it all carefully for use higher up.

The route crosses the ridge to the side overlooking the Pissan Glacier, and we are treated to the sight of a huge sérac fall which rakes the entire face to the left. Safe as we are up on the ridge it still makes me nervous and all too aware of the dangers all around. Suddenly we are putting in a screw every seventy-five feet instead of a rope-length apart!

With the competence of the guide that he is, Barry leads into the site of our old Camp IV at 19,500 feet, in time to watch the sun color the clouds into brilliant reds and purples before disappearing behind the ranges to the west. Dinner is relatively luxurious as we find some tins left here from before. We sit outside well into the night discussing the trip, how enjoyable it has been, and planning further adventures once this one is over. As we drift off to sleep in our tiny tents perched on the overhanging cornice, I feel we are all improving both physically and mentally. Once more the top seems within our grasp and this time I hope we are given the weather to do it.

Day 4: Another day of good weather which we use to move up the 2000 feet to our next campsite. Although this is an easy day compared to the last few, and those yet to come, we are all grateful for the chance to stop early, rest up and rehydrate properly.

In spite of the general feeling of lethargy I manage to up-date my diary and read the entry for when we were here last: “84.06.29: Storm and snow so stayed in tents and rested. Yesterday went up and carried loads to 23,000 feet above the rock band. We are all feeling good but bushed after the hard work. Bad weather has been moving in over the last few days, but today is the first day we have not seen the sun at all. Everything is rather damp and depressing. We can last here today comfortably and tomorrow at a stretch, but we have to move the day after that—up or down. If it’s up, we have only two days’ food to make the top or we’ll be stretching our necks too far. We may already have shot our bolt on the logistics no matter what happens.”

As it was, we kept on up for another five days and really strung it out, finally descending without any food reserves and about one day of fuel left. We had all felt we were on the border-line between what is justifiable and what is not. We’re in about the same position this time, with two or three days’ supplies and still the same number of days to go. We have knowledge of the route to 24.0 feet, but with only three people there’s not much safety if someone gets hurt or ill.

The next few days will prove it one way or the other!

Day 5: A long, hard day. Starting at 21,500 feet at six in the morning, we are above the rock band within four hours. Ignoring the previous Camp VI, Kevin leads up the ice cliff at 23,000 feet and announces his intention of going on to our previous final camp at 24,300 feet that night. As he seems strong and confident, we are easily persuaded to continue as well, but I personally regret the decision when, at sundown, we are still digging tent platforms in a bitterly cold wind that saps what little energy I have left.

Enough motivation for a soup and hot chocolate and then into our bags for some rest. Even with the heat-barrier liner inside the bag we all feel the cold. It must have been considerably warmer when we were up here last. That time Kevin was sleeping in only two liners, his sleeping bag having been lost when his pack with all its contents was wrenched off his back by an avalanche that came close to taking us all on the big ride.

After some time we drift off into a half-sleep in which I experience pleasant hallucinations. Everyone is up here—Vern, Tim, Steve, Gregg, Farid, Chris, even Shafali the cook! We’re sitting around a warm fire and Shafali is passing fresh chapattis to everyone. “Number-one cook in the Karakoram” we say to him, “Number-one cook,” as he passes me a freshly fried egg to go with my chapatti.

But it is not to be, as I wake up to find I’ve rolled against the wall of the tent and my feet are freezing. Checking the time, I find it’s four in the morning. We need to be moving anyway.

We now have one good day of food and two of fuel, so we take only one warm brew and then make do with cold drinks in an attempt to recover from dehydration and a poor night of non-rest. Somehow, we are eventually up and ready to go, onto new ground with the summit in view and our sixth day from the road.

Day 6: As the sun creeps over the mountains that lie to our north in Russia and China, the air temperature slowly rises to a pleasant level for climbing at this altitude. We are moving slowly and taking frequent rests when breaking trail. In spite of the week of sunshine, the snow is knee-deep. It seems to take forever to traverse to the rock buttress that marks halfway to our proposed bivouac site below the summit rock band. Lunch is a dismal affair. We munch our ration of one chocolate bar each and watch the mist swirl over the ridge above us. Are we to get this close and be cheated again?

We carry on regardless and when digging our bivy platform, are relieved to see indications of clearing. Squashed into a two-man tent, we don’t even try to sleep and huddle together talking until a slight glow to the east warns of the need to get going.

Day 7: Starting off in the brilliant light of a perfectly clear dawn, in only a few hours we stand below the rock band that bars the way to the top on the north side of Rakaposhi. From here we can see Nanga Parbat, K2 and most of the peaks of the Baltoro; closer to hand are Haramosh and Dobani and the other mountains of the Rakaposhi Group. I get the first lead on the rock and spend quite a while clearing snow off holds and wonder if it all will be like this. Luckily the next pitch is better. With the sun warming the rocks, Barry is able to make good progress in spite of the 5.8, A2 rating. Another pitch of hard rock involving a pendulum and the discovery of a Japanese piton, and we’re on snow again. We can sense the summit lurking above us somewhere but the snow conditions are terrible and it takes ages to traverse onto the summit ridge. While sitting on a rock resting, I look up and notice the sun has disappeared and there is now a strong wind howling around us. Within a matter of minutes visibility is down to twenty feet and we’re groping to find our way.

Barry gets in front again and is first onto the crest of the ridge. Suddenly he jumps in the air and screams something down to me. Strange antics for over

feet, I think to myself, but the reason is soon brought home when my hair stands on end and I’m momentarily stunned by a severe electrical shock. Looking at the clouds whirling past we can now see the flashes that warn of the highly charged atmosphere in which we are moving. Sheltering under a huge boulder, we discuss the danger and the sensibleness of carrying on but are forced to admit that if we were at all sensible we wouldn’t be here in the first place! Without much consolation from such philosophical thoughts, we carry on keeping off the ridge top.

Just when I’ve made up my mind that we are taking too long and it is imperative to turn around, a slight clearing shows that the ground slopes away in all directions. We descend forty feet to take our summit shots in an attempt to stop the insane buzzing. There, we have a full five minutes rest before heading off into the storm again. After three hours of mind-testing down-climbing and later rappelling, we flop into our bivy tent for another miserable but jubilant night. We know that all that’s left is two days of intense concentration and then for the first time in two months we will be able to relax totally.

* * *

Looking back on the experience and seeing pictures of us immediately after we got off the mountain, it seems obvious we were fairly burned out and were lucky to have succeeded without any major epics. The only disappointment we felt is that everyone did not get to stand on top. But as Steve said on our first despondent retreat from the mountain, that only makes a difference to the folks back home and doesn’t change our own perceptions of the enjoyable trip we all shared.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Karakoram, Pakistan.

Ascent: Rakaposhi, 7788 meters, 25,550 feet. Capsule-style attempt and alpine-style ascent via the Japanese route of 1979 on the North Face. Second ascent of the route and fifth of the mountain. Summit reached on July 17, 1984 (Blanchard, Cheesmond, Doyle).

Personnel: David M. Cheesmond, leader; Barry Blanchard, Gregg Cronn, Chris Dale, Kevin Doyle, Tim Friesen, Steve Langley, Vern Sawatzky, doctor, and Captain Farid Khan, liaison officer.