Ascent of P 6640, Chinese Karakoram
Adrian Burgess, Alpine Climbing Group
ALL OUR ENERGIES were focused on the ascent of the north ridge of K2 from the Xinjiang Province of China. However, after two months of climbing, fixing rope and preparing the route to 26,000 feet. Brad Johnson and I found ourselves in Base Camp in good weather while our team member Alan Hinkes was trying for the summit with two Basque climbers. (See “Climbs and Expeditions” section.) K2 was not out of our minds, but it was out of reach at the moment and we were frustrated.
Surrounding Base Camp were a number of peaks of about 22,000 feet. While on the north ridge, we'd looked across at them and drawn imaginary lines up their unclimbed faces. The climbing adventurer in us wanted to break out, but we had another job to do and fantasies were likely to remain just that. Then, on July 22, with the 3500-foot unclimbed south face of P 6640 staring down at us, we made a decision. “Let’s go and do it. We would if we were in the Alps.”
That night, we hiked up to the base, fully aware that even the moraine and rocky ridges we followed were probably virgin. As I lay in my sleeping bag and checked out my climbing gear, I casually asked Brad if he had the rope. He looked across at me and shook his head with a disbelieving stare. We'd forgotten it. Still, we rationalized, the route wasn’t going to be so difficult — ice up to 55° and most of it less than that. I reckoned it looked a bit like the Courtourier Couloir on the Aiguille Verte and I’d soloed that years ago.
Dawn was barely breaking when we made our way over the rocks towards “our” couloir. All snow had long since disappeared because of the warm season, but the ice was good and our spirits were high. I didn’t expect the zing and drone of rocks that met us as the ice steepened. We ducked under an overhang and had a hasty discussion. The gully was turning into a bowling alley with us the skittles. Should we go up, change our route or wait and see? We chose the latter because it gave us time: time to get hit by rocks but also time to think of an alternative.
Racing from overhang to overhang up the left side of the gully didn’t seem too dangerous, but when it came to where we would have to move into the open, we both balked. Up to the left, a smaller side gully led out of sight through some brittle-looking rock. We followed it as naturally as if it were where we had planned to go all the time. The difference was that the ice had become steeper. Still, our confidence soared and we moved rapidly together. Sometimes I led and sometimes Brad. He looked happy enough and I hoped I did too, though a creeping feeling inside me was beginning to grow. We were moving away from an option to descend and we didn’t know where we were going because we hadn't “scoped” any other route. All we knew was that there were some ice arêtes stretching down from the summit and that they should be safe from stonefall. Some other awareness was starting to blossom too. I felt free and alive. All the climbing on K2 involved fixing ropes, hauling gear and food, in short, work. Standing alone on frontpoints with the ice sweeping away brought me back to the true essence of what it was all about. Escape from routine, the tingling sense of doing something you shouldn’t. The whole reason I’d begun climbing over thirty years earlier.
We pressed on up, diagonaling left through more gullies and then back right, where we could see the ice ridges. It had suddenly become much more exposed. Brad was above and was having trouble with poor, rotten ice as he attempted to reach the first ridge. I decided to traverse over to the right to try to reach it lower down, but that meant crossing a short rubble-covered ledge. It was steeper than it looked and every rock hold came away in my hands. I tried not to let my eyes follow the debris as it plunged into the shadows. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. The climbing had changed. I was now trying to save my life. Things had become serious. Raw panic hovered just below the surface, but I had to stay cool if I wished to survive. Worrying about the building exposure could only compromise my concentration. I knew I could climb it with a rope, but without, well, I wasn’t sure.
The snow on the ridges was rotten on the left but had small ridge-like penitentes to the right. Despite the special Reebok boot that gave me much support, I was glad to be able to side-step on these ridges. After a few more hundred feet of arête, I looked up to see Brad starting a traverse right where the ridge ended and a thin seam of ice led through the summit rocks.
“My God!” I thought, cursing my stupidity in getting myself into this situation. “Keep it together now or you’re dead.” I called up and asked him to stop where he could find a place to rest. One dislodged stone, one careless move and he could kill me. I suggested we climb as though we were roped, one at a time, stopping when it seemed reasonable. The ice steepened to 65°. It was thin and three feet wide. There was one complicated change-over as I tried to step onto a foot-square ledge while Brad tried to step off it. I placed ice-tool picks carefully between Brad’s teetering boots. We were a team, linked not by rope but by a common desire to survive. It demanded all my abilities to focus on the immediate surrounding ice and loose, friable rock. At one point, the ice fractured all the way across as Brad removed his ice tools, leaving a precarious slab. I noted the danger with an almost detached, third-party perception.
"Don't set both feet in the plaque. It could go.” Then we traversed out to the right and began the final rock climb to the top. A torque of a tool-blade, an awkward mantle and we were on the snowy summit. It had taken a little over four hours.
The descent was another string of surprises, culminating in 1500 feet of frontpointing down 50° ice while sun-released rocks spun past us. It had been an amazing day, but not one I’d want to repeat every day.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Karakoram, north of K2, Xinjiang, China
First Ascent: P 6640, 21,785 feet, via the south face, July 23, 1994 (Adrian Burgess, American born in the U.K., and Brad Johnson, American).