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Gasherbrum IV's Northwest Ridge

Gasherbrum IV’s Northwest Ridge

Greg Child

ON MOST EXPEDITIONS, you are invited along, agree to go, often without knowing much about the peak, get swept along in the choas of organization, travel and penury, then arrive at the mountain. Only then does the mountain begin to possess you. When I think of the origins for the seven of us going to Gasherbrum IV, I have to say that though this was true for some, others already had a kind of “investment” in the mountain.

Geoff Radford had attempted the northwest ridge in 1984 and had reached a highpoint of 23,800 feet. This time, he was determined to be part of a successful expedition. My own motive was, for want of a better term, to settle a score. With what, I’m not sure—probably myself. My first view of the northwest ridge of Gasherbrum IV had been in 1983, from Broad Peak. Peter Thexton and I were standing on the col before the main summit, looking directly onto the ridge. We discussed what a fine climb it would be, and even picked out a line of snow ramps through the steep headwall, knowing that a team of Americans were at that time attempting the ridge. A few hours later Pete contracted pulmonary edema, and despite an all-night struggle to shed altitude, he died. I vowed I would never return to the Himalaya after that.

As years passed, the seed of Gasherbrum IV planted itself in the heads of several friends and before I knew exactly why, I found myself with the unenviable task of leading an expedition to it. Never returning to the Himalaya was a vow I always knew I would break. Never leading another expedition is another matter.

Gasherbrum IV has justly earned a reputation as one of the most elusive summits. Since the first ascent by Bonnatti and Mauri in 1958, Japanese, British, American and Polish-Austrian attempts had all fallen short of the summit. The closest anyone had come to the summit were Wojciech Kurtyka and Robert Schauer, who made perhaps the most serious climb in the great mountains of the world by climbing the west face. Though a brilliantly conceived and executed alpine-style climb, they were without food and fuel for six days. In an extreme state, they had exited from the face near the south summit and descended the northwest ridge, missing the true summit.

The northwest ridge had been the focus of two strong American attempts in 1983 and 1984. In 1983 a team led by Steve Swenson had reached 23,000 feet but was halted by deep and unstable snow. In 1984 Werner Landry led a team (on which Geoff was a member) to the same route; they reached 24,000 feet, but ran out of steam after overcoming the first of two difficult rockbands that comprise the headwall of the upper ridge. In 1984 the Poles Kurtyka and Jerzy Kukuczka used the fixed ropes of the Americans to go high on the route, but mostly as a reconnaissance for the west face. In 1985 Kurtyka returned with Schauer. They used the deteriorating ropes on the northwest ridge to acclimatize to about 23,000 feet, and to make a cache of gear for their descent of this ridge from the west face. The ropes must have aided them greatly as they descended in their exhausted states.

So, in 1986, there wasn’t a great deal that was unknown about the northwest ridge: it had been climbed to 24,000 feet; Kurtyka and Schauer had descended its headwall; I had seen a path through the upper rockband. The obsession was that obscure object of desire, the summit. Though our successful ascent of the mountain stood on the shoulders of those who went before us, it was no step-ladder to the summit. Gasherbrum IV had sting in it till the very end and the outcome was always uncertain. Tim Macartney-Snape, who had climbed Everest by a new route and without oxygen, said that “G4” was harder than even that.

On May 17, Base Camp on the West Gasherbrum Glacier was established. We were Americans Tom Hargis, Randy Leavitt, Geoff Radford, Dr. Steve Risse, Andy Tuthill, and Australians Tim Macartney-Snape, and I as climbers, and Phil Balston as cameraman. The trek along the Baltoro was bitterly cold this year, and at least five Balti porters with various expeditions died due to complications arising from cold. Expeditions were also amazed to see helicopter-supported military bases at Gore and Concordia, which support armed camps at key passes such as Sia La, Gyong La and Bilafond La. All this is part of the Pakistani response to Indian “invasions” of the Siachen Glacier area. This bizarre conflict over mountainous terrain useless for anything except climbing or trekking is costing the Indian and Pakistani governments fortunes in human life and money.

Winter was slow to leave the Baltoro this spring. During our first thirty days in Base Camp it snowed for all but six. Nevertheless, we established Camp I in the huge cwm beneath the northwest ridge at 18,500 feet on May 25 and Camp II in a cramped spot at the top of a 3500-foot couloir at 21,800 feet on June 5. Geoff recalled bare ice in the couloir in 1984. This year we found deep snow. Trail-breaking was soul-destroying. We recorded temperatures of -25° F in Camp I and — 15° during rope-fixing in the couloir.

To reach Camp III we deviated from earlier attempts. Instead of following the tattered ropes in the diagonal couloirs of the west side, we dropped over the col, east, onto the easier slopes of China.

On June 10, the site for Camp III, at 23,100 feet, was reached in high winds. After five hours of digging, Hargis, Macartney-Snape and I occupied a snow cave just in time for a massive storm to pin us down for three days. After two days in the cave, Hargis began to cough up infected matter, so he decided to descend alone. His descent to Camp I was, in his words, “The most desperate thing I’ve ever done.” The next day Macartney-Snape and I also descended and shared his experience of being tossed about on fixed ropes and crawling from one rope to another through deep, shifting snowdrifts.

Back in Base Camp, we waited till June 17 until signs of good weather returned. During that time the British who were attempting the horrifyingly loose west face spur abandoned their attempt.

By June 19 we were all back on the mountain, Leavitt and Risse in Camp II and all others in the snow cave. With the wind turning from an unfavorable sou’wester to a nor’easter blowing clear skies from China, we made our move.

Our hope on June 20 was to get to the high point at 24,100 feet of the 1984 attempt, and reach the summit the next day. The five in Camp III set off early, with Geoff and Andy breaking trail. At 23,600 feet we arrived at the first rock-band. Torn and sun-bleached ropes marked the 1984 attempt. We re-fixed some lines here, following an ice chute where the other attempt had apparently climbed steep rock, and at dusk pulled onto a flat promontory, at exactly 24,140 feet, the 1984 highpoint. Here we bivouacked.

The 21st dawned perfectly clear, yet windy. The only visible clouds on the vast horizon were monsoon thunderheads over distant Indian Kashmir. The most difficult section awaited. To move quickly, we economized on weight, taking four sleeping bags, two stoves, two 300-foot 7mm-ropes, a few pitons and a movie camera.

Two hundred feet above the bivouac Andy, leading the way, dropped neck-deep into a slot. Minutes later he stepped on a windslab which boomed sickeningly under our weight. This drove us onto the ridge crest where we found firm névé and ice up to 65°. We moved unroped over this section for some 800 feet, until we reached the base of the second rockband at ten in the morning. Feeling optimistic, we ditched everything except climbing gear and the movie camera and set off up the rock wall. At this point Geoff decided to turn back, feeling that he had reached his own personal summit. Since this was his second try at the mountain, it was sad to see him descending.

Kurtyka had written to me describing what he had found on the descent of the ridge in 1985. “Do not fear the rock band. It’s a nice surprise,” he had written. As I slipped about on the first steep marble fist-crack, gasping and expecting to fall at any second, I wasn’t so sure. But the difficulties relented as we reached the snow ramps I had seen from Broad Peak.

We were all feeling the strain of technical climbing at altitude. Tim, irrepressible in his stamina, did more than his share of the leads. At four P.M. we reached the top of the rock band, at 25,800 feet, in a howling wind. The main summit was still some 1500 feet horizontally south. Clearly, we would not make the summit before dark, and rappelling the rocks by moonlight seemed like lunacy.

We had a brief, yet urgent discussion over a bivouac in the open with only the clothes on our backs. Tim and I were for it, and so, eventually, was Tom, despite a racking cough. Andy decided that the gamble with frostbite was not worth the risk. He took a rope and descended alone, while the rest of us found a suitable place on the ridge to scratch out a tiny snow cave.

Digging the cave was almost more than we could manage. Handful by handful we clawed away. Framed in the entrance I could see Broad Peak. The sight of it and the thought of Pete still there made me determined to reach the summit of Gasherbrum IV. Yet I was also conscious of the bridge we had burned, and wondered if recklessness was not taking the helm. But as the sun set and the moon rose, the fantastic sky convinced us that we had chosen the right place. The pearly tusks of Gasherbrums I and II stood stark against an indigo horizon capped by a band of pink. In the upper band a full moon beat out its eerie light. A landscape from another planet. As we entered the cave I felt like a stranded astronaut bedding down for the night on a strange, and possibly hostile planet.

It was a desperately cold night, full of Tom’s coughing and chattering of teeth, Tim’s nocturnal singing, my mumblings and groanings. Our brains were too cloudy to really feel the true agony of it, which was a blessing. When the sun rose we found ourselves crawling out the cave and moving over the north summit, along the icy gap to the rocky pinnacles of the south summit. We moved like robots, battered by the wind that rammed Gasherbrum IV’s east face and poured over the gap like surf pounding into a seawall. Even when I climbed to the wrong summit our brains were too numb to feel frustration; subsequent ascents may see a sling on a spike on one of the first towers.

Tim, more compos mentis than Tom or I, led on, across the snowfield capping the west face. He soloed across a treacherous fifty feet of verglased limestone. Here, I insisted on a rope. This was to prove wise in another hour.

From there it was a short distance, up an easy slope and a 60° rock slab sprinkled with large holds, to the summit. At ten in the morning on June 22, the obscure object of desire was reached. It was supremely clear. Not a single cloud interrupted the endless view of mountains in Sinkiang, China and the Karakoram. The summit was a small dome of snow clinging to a narrow, rocky fin. We stood atop it, shot some movie-film and felt grateful that our punch-drunk bodies would not have to climb up anymore. I think we were all too spent to really feel elation.

Bonatti had described descending from a piton driven into the summit. We searched for it everywhere. Nothing. We left our own sling around a chockstone and rappelled. As I descended I saw Tim shimmying along the summit-fin, like a mad, lost thing. After forty feet he returned to our anchor and descended. When he reached me, he was excited.

“I saw it! Fifty feet away. Bonatti’s pin, with a carabiner and an old rope hanging from it!” We later theorized that twenty-eight years earlier, the summit cone of snow may have been fifty feet to the north.

Tom had already crossed the verglased traverse, racing to shed altitude. Again, I called for the rope, led across the awful rocks, and made a boot-axe belay for Tim. He paused to remove a piton at the start, and began levering it out with the pick of his ice-axe. The next thing I saw was his axe flying through the air, followed by him, hurtling backwards, a red ball bouncing down the west face. He seemed to fall in slow motion. I could hear my heart thumping, preparing itself for a grand tour of the west face. I yarded in slack, watched him disappear behind a prow of rock, then a jolt torpedoed boot and axe into the slope.

I called his name. No answer! I tried to pull him up. Impossible! It occurred to me that if he was dead, with nowhere to anchor the rope to, I would be stuck here for eternity, as in situ as Bonatti’s piton. And if I cut the rope, then Tom and I would have no way to descend the mountain.

Then the rope came in, and in and in. He appeared, dazed, his own suit leaking feathers as if both barrels of a shotgun had been blasted into it. He thanked me for saving him from the biggest tumble of his life. I thanked him for saving me from the longest wait of mine.

Time lost all meaning as we rappelled the headwall. Every anchor in the compact marble and the shattered diorite took an age to set. Soon, we ran out of slings and pitons. Cords on Jümars were removed and knots jammed into cracks. At the foot of the rocks we found the gear we had stashed. We lit the Scorpion stove, desperate for water. Propane spurted out and the stove exploded. We kicked it away.

“This is like a pub with no beer. Let’s go,” I said, and we continued rappelling, into the night.

As we hung on the belays, sleep would overtake us and strange dreams would fill our heads. The call to descend would propel us out of this netherworld. Just as we used our last piece of gear, a frozen sling of Wojciech’s was found hanging on a horn.

At ten in the night we reached the tents and our first water in thirty-six hours. As we dropped into sleep I thought of the summit. I had originally wanted to leave something up there in memory of Pete, to make up for the summit we névér reached. But I had left nothing, except for a fond thought. It was the best thing I could leave.

It’s still there.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Karakoram, Pakistan.

New Route: Gasherbrum IV, 7925 meters, 26,000 feet, via the northwest ridge, summit reached on June 22, 1986 (Child, Hargis, Macartney-Snape).

Personnel: Thomas Hargis, Randy Leavitt, Dr. Stephen Risse, Geoffrey Radford, Andrew Tuthill, Americans; Greg Child, Timothy Macartney-Snape, Philip Balston, Australians.