American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Pakistan, Great Trango Tower, East Face, Swiss-American Expedition, Second Ascent to the East Summit

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 1993

Great Trango Tower, East Face, Swiss-American Expedition, Second Ascent to the East Summit. Our expedition, consisting of Swiss Xaver Bongard, Ueli Bühler and François Studiman and American photographer Ace Kvale and me, arrived in Pakistan on June 10. On June 24, after a three-day trek from Askole, we made our Base Camp near the mouth of the Dunge Glacier where it runs into the Baltoro on June 24. Bongard and I immediately began preparations for a new route on the east face of the Great Trango Tower. We scoped the line, established Camps I and II on the very dangerous approach, much of which was possible only at night, and fixed the first pitches. On July 13, after some periods of unsettled weather, we spent the first night on the wall in our hanging 2-man A5 portaledge. We climbed capsule-style, with only six ropes total, and established five camps on the wall, four hanging and one at the snow ledge halfway up, fixing our ropes above each camp until we decided it was safe and timely to move the camp up. Many of the belays were in suicidal positions, due to ice-, snow- and rockfall from above, but camps were generally in safe havens. On July 28, we summited, after being trapped 400 feet below the rim for three days in a fierce Karakoram storm. The climbing involved many pitches of technical aid climbing, some pitches of free, difficult ice and mixed climbing. The last five pitches below the snow ledge involved vertical ice climbing and rotten aid and free climbing up a dangerous steep corner system which we named “Gollum’s Gully”; this turned out to be a major drainage for the snow ledge. It was possible to climb these pitches only at night, due to incessant ice and snow pummeling down during the day. The rest of the route also had severe objective hazards because of ice, rock and snow avalanching from the snow ledge system and the summit séracs. Occasionally, huge sections would exfoliate off the wall and pound down around us. The upper headwall above the snow ledge was superb, though chimneys in the final section required multiple “Harding Slot” maneuvers in inclement weather at 20,000 feet. The final six pitches from the rim to the summit involved technical ice and tenuous mixed climbing, as well as a tough final slug through deep unconsolidated snow to the summit ridge and onto the east summit. It took us three days to rappel the route. From the base of the actual climb, we had to rappel a buttress to the east of the approach gully because of dangerous all-day and all-night avalanches caused by the warming summer conditions. We made 44 rappels in all. In general, the weather was fine, though we spent many days and nights in freezing storms in our hanging bivouacs. We named the route “The Grand Voyage.” It was Grade VII, 5.10, A4+, WI3. We climbed 4400 feet from the actual base to the summit in 33 pitches with a 200-foot lead rope. Our route began well to the left of the Norwegian route. It joined it at the top of the snow ledge, continued along it for three rope-lengths and then branched to the right of it to reach the summit. We sighted fixed pitons and slings on rock outcroppings left by the Norwegians on the final pitches to the summit, verifying the likelihood of their complete ascent. (They doubtless met their accident on the descent.) Our ascent, then, was the second to the east summit (6231 meters, 20,443 feet), as both the Japanese and Spanish teams who repeated the Norwegian route did not venture past the rim. It should be noted that Great Trango Tower has three principal summits: the main (central) summit (6286 meters, 20,624 feet); the west summit (6237 meters, 20,463 feet); and the east summit, to which we climbed. Bühler and Studiman had hoped to climb the Nameless Tower, but Bühler broke his ankle halfway up the Kurtyka-Loretan route when he fell some ten meters. Studiman did a splendid job with the evacuation and they were back in Base Camp in a day and a half.

John Middendorf

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