American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Run for Cover — Trango Adventure

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1993

Run For Cover—Trango Adventure

Greg Child

Trango TOWER, OR NAMELESS Tower as it is also called, is a strangely symmetrical 20,470-foot granite shaft of the Baltoro Mustagh. I first read about it in 1976 when Mountain published Martin Boysen’s account of the first ascent on the southwest face, a 3000-foot sheer wall. He also described the attempt in 1975. On this, Boysen nearly died when his knee wedged in a crack at 19,000 feet. He hung there for three hours until he hammered a piton into a saw-edge and hacked into his breeches and his flesh, then popped like a cork backwards onto the rope. It was certainly one of the most ungainly epics of mountaineering.

I first met the tower in 1983 when I went to the Baltoro with Doug Scott and team. We climbed a 2000-foot big-wall route on nearby Lobsang Spire. It occurred to me that nothing could be cooler than to climb a big-wall route on Trango Tower. Three expeditions then began in which the tower slapped me around like an unwanted suitor.

In 1986,I arrived at the Dunge Glacier with Tom Hargis and Randy Leavitt. The British route, which lies above the Trango Glacier, was still the only route up. The east face was unclimbed. We got there just after Pole Wojciech Kurtyka had given up on it. We headed up the steep wall, using portaledges to bivouac. We found hard free and aid climbing. The problem was that Hargis and I had been on the top of Gasherbrum IV a week before. We were in no condition for Trango Tower. Our food was down to potato powder and porridge, and my gums bled from vitamin deficiencies. When a truck-sized wart of snow bombed Leavitt on day three, we retreated.

In 1989, I was back on the Dunge with Mark Wilford. Kurtyka had completed his route in 1988; in 1987, Slovenes had added a route to the south face (formerly the Yugoslav route; it must now be called the Slovene route); and French Swiss had climbed the west pillar. We tried the northeast pillar, a smooth sheet of rock similar to modem nailing routes on El Cap. During the thirteen days we spent on it, we reached half height, got trapped by two three-day storms and got both wet and hypothermic. Falling ice was so constant that we slept in our helmets. Climbing alpine-style, we had no fixed ropes for escape. It was either climb it in one shot or go down for good. I remember the ugly day we left the portaledge, frozen fast to the wall like a car rammed into a snowdrift. We bailed out on icy ropes with cold hands, but with the intention of coming back another season.

In 1988 and 1989, Wolfgang Güllich and friends freed most of the Slovene route and added one beside it called “Eternal Flame.” Spaniards had added a new route left of the British one in 1989.

In 1990,I got lucky and climbed K2 from China, but as I looked across the miles to the Trango group, basking in a honeyed glow of sunshine, I was stung by a premonition; our route was being scooped. Sure enough, Takeyasu Mina-miura was passing our abandoned portaledge and on his way to the summit on a 40-day solo climb. On top he unfurled a parapente and stepped into the air. On Trango you pay your money and take your chances. A crosswind dashed Minamiura into the cliff and he plunged down. But luck had a change of heart, and his chute snagged, bringing him to rest on a ledge 200 feet down. When he called Base Camp by radio, his Japanese friends launched a rescue, jümaring up the decaying ropes of the 1976 first ascent. By the time he was down, he had spent 49 days on the tower.

When Mark Wilford and I were back in the Trango Glacier Base Camp on July 29, 1992, there were seven routes up the tower. We figured we could find a line untouched by human hands and enjoy a few days on the wall in better weather than the tempest of 1989. We set off on a jigsaw of cracks on the eastern margin of the south face. We shared a bivouac ledge at 18,600 feet with four jovial Korean Americans. (See Climbs and Expedition Section.) On August 13, they summited via the Slovene route, then left their fixed rope, telling us, “The next ascent will be lucky. They’ll have fixed rope all the way.”

Our route followed cracks and flakes. We climbed about 60% free at 5.11, A3 + . Two bolts for belays and four rivets to connect cracks were our only drilling. We occupied a bivouac ledge at nearly 20,000 feet on two occasions and we fixed rope to this ledge. For a time, we were joined by Rob Slater, who had climbed some big walls on El Cap in the past, but in recent years a career in high finance had whittled his climbing down to cameo appearances. Rockfall, icefall and storms that smear the wall and ropes in wet ice are the norm on Trango Tower. I didn’t begrudge him when he said one morning, “I’m not going back up there. I don’t want to end up buried in a shallow grave.”

Wilford and I returned to the route, looking forward to an uneventful climb. On the morning of August 23, we woke to clear skies and clipped our jümars to the ropes to head to the summit 2000 feet above. A whoosh of falling rock and a shadow streaking across the wall sent us scattering like mice spooked by a hawk. A table-sized block slammed into the snow 80 feet to our right. A second later, more debris ripped through the air and exploded nearby. We looked up and saw a fresh scar of rock 1000 feet above. A plate of rock had fallen away to expose a gaping cavern. Out of this commenced an exodus of boulders and ice which rained onto the slope beside us.

The rocks clattered down perilously close to our fixed ropes on the wall. We stood for minutes, watching to see if anything struck the ropes. Risks escalated every minute, so we headed up. Though we knew it was dangerous, the temptation to reach the summit that day was great. We judiciously noted that the rocks were striking just short of our ropes. A wad of ice frozen to the first hundred feet of rope slowed me to a crawl as I scraped it away with a piton. Rockfall was so close I could taste it. Each falling rock had a unique sound, some sounding like helicopters, others sputtering like poorly tuned Volkswagens, and still others zooming like incoming artillery.

At eleven A.M, we sat on a ledge at the top of our fixed ropes, relieved to be above the rockfall. Above me, Mark was leading a new pitch, getting up nearer the summit, 800 feet higher. Suddenly, vibrations began to well up through the cracks and flakes around me. The wall shuddered as in an earthquake. The ledge seemed about to collapse. Mark, clinging to the rock with his fingers, stared down with a look of alarm. Then, a roar like the sonic boom of a jet filled the air and a cloud of granite dust rose up the wall and darkened the sun. Tons of rubble roared off down the approach gully above the Dunge Glacier.

As the dust cleared, I saw the team of parachutists who were climbing Great Trango Tower with the intention of base jumping off. They were far away and looked like ants on a sugar cube. They stood in their tracks, convinced we’d been squashed. In fact, we were 100 feet from the edge of an enormous geological event. A slab of rock 30 feet thick, 500 feet high and 200 feet across had collapsed, grinding everything beneath it to grey dust. We shouted to let them know we were alive. Then we headed on.

Our route surmounted a giant triangular snowfield and then joined the Slovene line for the last four pitches. We passed a pile of parachute cord—no doubt Miniamiura’s—when we got slightly off route. We arrived on the summit at nightfall in time to see Masherbrum and the silhouettes of Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums in the last alpenglow.

The next day, after a frigid bivouac without sleeping bags on the ledge at 20,000 feet, we decided that our route was too dangerous to descend. We executed some diagonal rappels and joined the Koreans’ fixed ropes, removing them as we went. At the bottom, Mark took a risk and jümared our ropes to remove all but a 300-foot section. He expressed a conviction that Trango Tower was angry at climbers, and the thought prompted us to make amends by filling a haulbag with the trash of past expeditions and taking down more than 3000 feet of rope left by various teams.

In all the eons it had taken to shape this mountain, it seemed uncanny that the day we chose to climb to its summit, it should fall down, and uncanny that the rockfall should wait until we were safely above it. Moreover, early in the climb, we had considered climbing directly up the section of wall that had collapsed. Little more than the toss of a coin had made us climb the route we finally chose. Little more than the toss of a coin had saved our lives.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Baltoro Mustagh, Karakoram, Pakistan.

New Route: Trango Tower (or Nameless Tower), 6239 meters, 20,470 feet, via a new route on the south face, “Run For Cover,” VI or VII, 5.11, A3 +, 22 pitches. Route preparation started on August 5, 1992. Summit reached on August 23, 1992 (Greg Child, Mark Wilford).

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