American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Ship of Fools

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

Ship of Fools

Twenty-five days on a Karakoram giant

by Jared Ogden

Standing at the base of Shipton Spire, Mark Synnott and I shivered silently, neither wanting to tell the other our fears or doubts about the climb we were about to begin. Our intended route was just 500 feet to the right of the shredded remains of ropes and gear at the base of the spire’s east face, a grim reminder of Ryuji Taniguchi, the solo Japanese climber who perished in a massive rockfall while attempting the wall two years before. His haulbag was still 13 pitches up, constantly reminding us of how far away we were from safety. We had traveled halfway around the world to throw our best at this 4,000-foot granite tooth that climbed out of the Trango Glacier to 19,700 feet. Its history was festooned with numerous failed attempts and one climber dead. Would this mountain ever see success?

It wasn’t until the summer of 1996 that a strong North American/Australian team finally conquered Shipton Spire. Reports came back from them about near-death experiences, horrific rockfall and a lot of dangerous loose rock. Encouragement was hard to rally out of them, and when pried (with a crow bar) they told us there wouldn’t be any other safe lines. “Be careful, mate. . . ” they told us.

Mark and I confided in each other the possibility of disappointment, but we were overly confident that we could find a safe and quality route. With an abundance of lines scoring its faces, we knew we could find a way to the top.

The first time I met Mark was in Jackson, New Hampshire, at the 1997 Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival. I had heard of his prolific big-wall exploits and was psyched finally to meet up with him for a week of ice climbing. We spent a few days climbing together and made good friends right off. We traveled to Vermont to give slide shows on Nameless Tower and Polar Sun Spire, big alpine walls we had climbed separately in the past.

On one night, over countless 40-ounce beers, we talked about Shipton Spire. We figured that it wasn’t as bad as its reputation; admittedly, we also had never been there. Shipton Spire was high on both of our Sick Lists, and the booze helped us dream. Another sufferfest was bom.

After keeping in touch through the winter, we decided to go for Shipton Spire as a two- man team. We wanted to climb in the best style possible and would go with minimal gear — and a minimal budget. With a summit below 6000 meters, there would be no need for an expensive permit or all the headaches associated with a full-on expedition. Both Mark and I were making a living (at least a meager one) off of climbing, and knew from our years of scrapping trips together that we could knock off Shipton for four grand apiece.

With three weeks until departure, things looked set. I was picking over last details when Mark called with the news. He had just finished the fastest time up Lost in America on El Capitan.

“Wow. Congratulations, man!” I said.

“Thanks. But there’s something else, too.”

“Oh?”

“I think I broke my ankle. It looks real bad, bro,” Mark said.

Mark had fallen on a hooking section and indeed had broken his ankle. He came to visit me and to show off his cast. The doctor assured him that he would be able to climb in four weeks. Mark’s enthusiasm was still indefatigable. We decided to get on with it anyway. With Mark in a cast, and me still recovering from a fractured back I had sustained in a 500-foot ride down an avalanche in February while back East, we were the most pathetic, wanna-be-alpine- big-wallers-this-summer the world over. Yet there was hope, because we wanted this more than we wanted functioning bodies. We were not going to take no for an answer.

We flew over with another bunch of wall climbers who were setting out for the Great Trango Tower’s north face. They were surprised at our appearance. Mark hobbled on one leg while I tried to lift our haulbags onto the scales with a limp back. They were all laughing at us; I assume they thought it was a joke. Once we got to Rawalpindi, though, things really got into gear.

Rawalpindi has smog thicker than L.A.’s and a sweltering heat that will melt tires. We negotiated back alleyways and crowded bazaars in search of our wall food and final supplies for the trip. After bartering with shop keepers and rickshaw drivers for a few days, we were ready for the perilous journey up the Karakoram Highway. We managed to bribe the hotel clerk into selling us illegal beers for the ride. Considering the road, they would have little effect.

Our chain-smoking drivers, who looked like they were strung out on heroin, drove in a constant haze of hash smoke, swerving away from certain disaster at the last possible second. The 24-hour tour to Skardu, rife with ill humor, uncertainty, anticipation, and blaring Balti music that would drive you insane, was excruciatingly enjoyable.

In Skardu, we hired Kareem, our expedition guide/cook. Kareem was adamant that our three-person kitchen be the size of a K2 expedition’s. As our budget was already overrun with complications, Mark and I refused. A snickering Pakistani isn’t the greatest experience, but when Kareem began to figure out this wasn’t the high-dollar sponsored trip he thought it would be, he turned cynical. Things started to look bad. Because I had a little experience in the irate-Pakistani-handling business, I played the bad guy to Mark’s good guy, and we managed to cool him down. In two days’ time once again we were riding the dirty roads to the Baltoro Glacier—toting a tiny expedition kitchen.

After six hours, the jeeps ground to a halt. Drivers yelled with their hands in the air: The river had washed out the road. We put together a bridge with timbers, then watched panic- stricken as our jeep edged toward the unstable booby trap. It managed to cross the torrent without mishap, and we toasted to a clear road all the way to Askole, the last real outpost of civilization before we headed on to the trail.

For three days, we hobbled and limped our way to the head of the Baltoro Glacier, from where we could see the magnificent Trango Towers for the first time. Shifting gears, we motored up to our friends at Trango base camp, then continued beyond for another two hours until we finally landed in a base camp of our own. Mark landed, literally: He was hiking in tennis shoes, slipped on a rock and reinjured his ankle. But he recovered quickly in our five- star camp. Whereas camps usually are dirty rocky outcrops suited for marmots and dryer than a windy day in Beirut, ours was different. We set up on a lush meadow five football fields wide, with a trickling brook meandering through it. Ibex often roamed about grazing on the fertile soils and climbed up blank walls without a whimper.

Three miles across the Trango Glacier and just above the confluence of the North and South Hainablak glaciers was the elusive Shipton Spire. It rises out of the ice without hesitation; its walls looked fierce and steep. We would spend only one day in camp before we carried our first load across to the base.

It took several hours, but we found a secret passage through collapsing talus fields and over ice, and shuttled loads for two days. Back at camp, Kareem would greet us with some concoction in a warm mug, followed by slimy green gruel over burned rice accompanied by stone-infested dry chapaties—and all served with mirth and a sneer. One time, I was accosted by flying plates and profanity.

“Hey, pal, forget the tip,” I snapped.

But for me to forget the pump for the MSR stove was inexcusable. Mark had to get a stove from the porters down at Trango base camp. I escaped up to the wall. Petrified of falling rock wiping out ABC, I woke from a restless night spent listening to rock shower the base and skated my way up the scree to the start of our route. Gazing up the wall, I followed a golden pillar as far as I could see. Light drizzle accompanied several days’ carrying before I finally returned to camp to face Kareem’s cuisine. Mark was back with our new 50-rupee, four- pound, alpine-clunker-special Pakistani stove which, as it turned out, would climb with us on the wall. We decided to send Kareem on his way.

The next morning, we exchanged savvy apologies. Kareem was happy to go on a paid four-week vacation from base camp. Now, just Mark and I faced Shipton Spire.

As Eric Shipton might have felt when he first entered the valley in 1937, Mark and I were about to forge into unknown territory, exploring where no one had ever been before. Already far from home, we now were faced with what any adventurer seeks out in life: the excitement of discovery. Ours would be climbing virgin rock on a pristine granite spire in the Karakoram.

Our first foray into this vertical world was cursed with horrible crumbling rock that instilled fear and loathing for what lay ahead. We fixed three 200-foot ropes over several days and found a suitable site for our first bivy, but the objective dangers loomed ominously overhead. We followed a crack system that lent itself to a lot of moderate free climbing with occasional nailing. For five days we stretched out our five ropes until a rain storm swarmed the Trango valley. Mark had decided to bring a down bag, and he was worried. On the first bivy, he woke up in the middle of the night to get his bivy sac.

“Hey, Jared, do you want me to grab yours?” he asked.

“No way, bro. I’ve got a synthetic bag. I don’t need one.”

Mark persisted. “Are you sure? It’s really wet in here.”

“Thanks, but this bag is the shit,” I said, and rolled off to sleep.

I would regret it deeply later. The rain leaked into our ledge and I found myself sleeping in a pool of water, literally swimming in my sleeping bag. I kept waking Mark to tell him how wet it was (and to make sure he couldn’t sleep, either) but he would just laugh and roll over, sleeping soundly and dry.

On the second night, I crawled back into my pond. Mark was brewing up when we heard the first pieces of ice hitting the fly of our ledge. When one piece put a gash in the fly, we both hit the inner wall and hunched down. As we listened to the ice and rock exploding around us and pelting the fly with greater force, we wondered if this was going to be it. I have never been more silent or still in my life. Were we going to wind up like Ryuji?

A sharp cracking sound resonated from above; we could hear something gathering speed. Mark and I were inches away from each others’ face, staring into eyes full of terror. Something that sounded like a 747 jumbo jet was on its way down, creating a great wind disturbance as it thundered along. Tied into the ledge, Mark and I had nowhere to hide. We waited for the next hit. The big hit. There we were, a mere 600 feet off the ground, and who knew how far this monster had fallen.

Then it happened.

A thousand pieces exploded all around. The force of the impact should have swept us off the wall. The debris from the impact was scattered all over our route. The biggest piece destroyed the ledge we had belayed on one pitch below; a tombstone lay imbedded in the rock and ice. The volume of ice and rock hitting the wall echoed off surrounding peaks until it quietly disappeared down the valley.

All was silent once again. Our grips eased off the cords that held up our ledge. We started to breathe as the last pellets bounced off the fly.

“Well, that wasn’t very close, was it?” Mark asked.

“No. I didn’t think I was going to die,” I said.

We looked out of the ledge to inspect the damage. The rain was not letting up and we were looking at a long wet night with new gashes in our rain fly. Once again, we endured a miserable night.

In the morning, we decided to go down until the storm subsided. We hauled most of our gear up to the next bivy, working all day in the rain, then slogged back to base camp. With no Kareem around, we cooked up bread pockets, pizza, noodles, and desserts. The sky was clear the next day, which meant we had to go back on the wall. We only had so many days to climb; missing one could mean failure.

Both Mark and I know what it takes to set a goal and achieve it. But on a big alpine wall, each day you walk a fine line between danger and safety, survival and fun. The climber must have complete faith and confidence that the other will carry his share more than half the time, and have 110 percent determination to stay focused for long periods of time. We planned on living up on the climb for three weeks in a row. To keep up the vision and strength necessary to endure hardships greater than expected and live under miserable conditions that no one really wants to go through are the hardest parts of such a climb.

With no one knowing what we were doing, it was an unspoken fact that no one falls, no one gets injured—period. Looking back at Ryuji’s haulbag and the close call of the day before, it was a test of our determination to jumar back up and commit to the wall.

We pulled our five ropes behind us and never looked back.

We had climbed 1,500 feet to a spacious ledge halfway up the pillar at 17,200 feet. While setting up the bivouac, I reached high to hang the ledge in a better position when the fly made a nasty shredding sound. Upon further inspection, I found that the entire fly had just ripped off of the suspension system, neatly sliding down to my feet in a ruined mess.

“Oh, God. That didn’t really just happen, did it?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” Mark replied. “It doesn’t rain much here.”

I felt like an idiot, but managed to sew up the fly so well that it looked better than before. It had started to get decrepit, with duct tape over horrific gashes—and now this. But the climbing ahead looked so good it didn’t seem to matter. Besides, we were used to sleeping in lakes.

Blessed with warm sunny weather, I led off from the ledge we had dubbed “Fantasy Island.” Stemming, hand jamming, and locking fingers up compact golden granite, I became immersed in the motions of the climbing and found it to be the greatest crack I had ever led. Closing in on 18,000 feet on the wall added a surreal effect as I struggled to get enough oxygen to keep climbing. Mark lay on the ledge, baking in the sun. Soon he was following, cooing at the quality of the climbing and the dramatic exposure. We finished two more pitches that day, one we named the Slot from Hell that Mark will never forget: a 200-foot-gash that started in a chimney, led to a ten-inch offwidth, and finished with a copperhead seam.

Fortunately, it brought us to a huge deluxe platform that would accommodate our two-man tent. The “Captain’s Quarters” was so big we wandered around unroped and slept without swamis. There was even an abundance of ice for melting. We abandoned our portaledge, the barrel we had used to haul our water supply in, and other heavy items on Fantasy Island, and moved camp, dragging our ropes up behind. Gasherbrum IVs’ west face now was in view, and the rugged Nameless and Great Trango Towers cast long shadows across the crumbling Trango Glacier.

The following pitches were a blend of technical wizardry, savvy, and hard free climbing. We pushed several over 200 feet to get to a stance or to make the best of each lead. Scattered clouds had begun forming, often showering us with snow or sleet by mid-day.

Each day put us closer to a ramp that led to a small col where we had decided to put our last camp. Each day, we were up at 5 a.m. and would not get back to the ledge until it was dark. The snow was blowing hard and we were tired. The constant grind wears you out, and this is when you look to your partner for encouragement. When I reached Mark’s belay, we talked about resting for the afternoon. By this point, Mark’s hands were constantly needing repair. In the thinner dry air, cuts take longer to heal, and after freeing a long hard pitch his hands would be bleeding again. But we decided to push on; Mark’s infallible enthusiasm was contagious. We had a great day pushing our limits and freeing hard pitches in lousy weather.

With our ropes fixed to the col, we were ready to move. Storm clouds threatened the sky, but we were going for it anyway. Mark and I swapped hauling the bags each pitch. Things were running smoothly until it started to snow. By the time we got to the col, we were both exhausted and soaking wet. The last thing we wanted to do was dig out a platform for our tent, but we had no choice. With heavy arms, we patched together rocks and snow to make a pathetic platform that would only deteriorate with time.

At 18,500 feet, the nights got considerably colder than on the lower portion of the climb. Mark’s cuts looked appallingly painful. Wet numb hands and fingers made climbing a gruesome task for him, and the cuts never healed. Along with wet sleeping bags, we were having the pleasure of pulling on wet plastic boots; the stench was strong enough to raise the dead. With wind and snow driving at us each day, there was never a chance to dry out, and the psychological stress proved to be as hard as the climbing.

Above our camp, a steep ridge splintered with hand cracks split the east and north faces with spectacular exposure dropping from each side. We wouldn’t need to drill for the rest of the route. In deteriorating weather, Mark freed a long section of the ridge, placing cams and pitons for a belay, then rappelled down through thick fog.

Strong winds kept us pinned in our tent for the remainder of the day. Although we were out of the storm, we now had to deal with tent time. Eric Shipton sums it up perfectly in Blank on the Map:

“There is a certain grim satisfaction to be derived from struggling upwards, however slowly; but the bulk of one’s time is necessarily spent in the extreme squalor of a high camp. Smoking is impossible; eating tends to make you vomit; the necessity of reducing weight to a bare minimum forbids the importation of literature beyond that supplied by the labels on tins of food; sardine oil, condensed milk and treacle spill themselves all over the place; except for the briefest moments, during which one is not usually in the mood for aesthetic enjoyment, there is nothing to look at but the bleak confusion inside the tent and the scaly, bearded countenance of one’s companion—fortunately the noise of the wind usually drowns out his stuffy breath.”

Cooking with our hanging stove in the tent created condensation that collected on the tent walls. The snow floor melted out. It seemed there was no way to avoid being wet. After several days our tent floor, replete with holes and muddy water, looked more like a riverbed than a floor. Mark’s bivy sac seemed to keep him dry. Mine seemed to leak perpetually.

“Hey, Jared—looks like that bivy sac really works.”

“Yeah. It’s designed for people who like to suffer, like me,” I chuckled. “Besides, I didn’t really want to stay dry anyway. My bag is more comfortable when it’s soggy like this.”

(When the climb was over, I would give the useless-rag-of-a-bivy-sac as a tip to Kareem, telling him how well it worked. “Yeah, Kareem, this is the best one I have ever used,” I lied.)

The storm continued to rage outside; when we woke, the tent was buried in snow. From Mark’s last belay, we strapped on our crampons and donned ice axes for the rest of the climb. The snow was blinding, and the belayer suffered long hours tied to the anchor. The knife edge ridge splitting the mountain created dramatic 4,000-foot drops to both sides. With one ice axe in a runnel of ice and the other hooking rock, we were experiencing hard mixed climbing that was difficult to protect; 5.9 rock moves interspersed with vertical ice typified the climbing. Ahead on the ridge, three prominent rock towers impeded our passage. Finding a circuitous path through the towers was going to be dangerous. And thousands of feet off the ground, there was no room for mistake.

The first of the towers was guarded by an overhanging rock chimney and rotten snow over thin ice. Beyond it, on one of the worst days of the storm, Mark climbed up and around the ridge on to the north face to pass the second tower. The wind was so fierce I couldn’t see 30 feet in front of me. For three hours, Mark battled the urge to retreat in the face of strong winds and the worst snow we had encountered. I could hear him hammering pitons into the frozen rock while I froze at the belay. I called out into the storm to see how things were going, and to keep myself from going insane from standing alone.

“How’s it going, Mark?” I yelled.

“It’s going,” he moaned. “But I can hardly see, and I’m totally soaked.”

The climbing was hard. A long unprotected traverse across mixed ground over the north face led to a steep section of crumbling rock with the consistency of kitty litter. The final unprotected 5.8 rock traverse in plastic boots across an icy vertical face over the abyss without any gear pushed Mark to the edge of his patience, but his perseverance paid off. He was in a protected alcove and had linked us through to the next ice wall leading to the final tower.

I had suffered at the belay. My feet had turned numb and I had been shivering for hours trying to stay warm. Soaking wet, I clamped on my jumars to follow the pitch.

Re-climbing the traverse made me feel sick. The exposure was unnerving; a slip would mean a long swing off the face and into the rock wall below. Nearing Mark’s belay, I realized the severity of the lead and how nerve-racking it had been for him to continue in the storm. I could just make him out on a snow ledge when he started shouting at me.

I thought the rope was snagging over an edge, slowly sawing its way through, or that the belay was coming loose and we were going to fall off the wall. My head was pounding from the altitude, and adrenaline pumped through my veins as I imagined what I would look like as I tumbled down the north face. I settled down when he told me the haul bag was caught. He needed help freeing it. Suddenly, the rope jerked violently down and the haul line snapped me in the face. Pieces of protection flew out of the crusty rock just before the traverse, causing the rope to drop. I was looking at a nasty swing if the last piece ripped. I snapped.

“Goddamnit, Mark! Just wait a minute,” I shouted.

“Hey, you know, I wouldn’t mind hearing you say, ‘Great job, bro!”’ Mark said.

The climbing had been dangerous, and I should have praised his efforts, but I was scared, wet and tired. At times like these, when you have pushed yourself through a tense situation where fear and uncertainty rule your actions, you need support from your partner to keep going. I hadn’t given Mark a lot of support in the past few days and it showed. Dealing with hard climbing in the face of bad weather had put me more into myself than our team effort. Both Mark and I had our uncertainties about the remaining climbing and the food, time and energy we needed to get to the top, and the storm was intimidating. I felt like an asshole and apologized. Support for each other, we both agreed, was essential to get up the face.

The following two days, we climbed past the third tower to the base of the final headwall that led to the summit ridge. A wild tyrolean traverse we called “the Northwest Passage” linked the final moves of the puzzle. We now had all five ropes fixed 1,000 feet above our bivy and were ready to go for the summit.

We looked at our food supply, then at our limp arms and shrinking stomachs. Meager rations sat in the soggy food bag as a foot of fresh snow buried our tent. We had been eating the same food for 21 days in a row. The thought of forcing down diluted soup and stale crackers ruined our appetite faster than you can say puke.

“You know, Kareem wasn’t such a bad cook, was he?” Mark asked.

“You must be joking. I would rather eat my own vomit than his cooking,” I said.

We began to dream about massive buffets and cookouts on the beach. It was time to finish the climb.

With only a few gas cartridges left, we realized we would have to push on for the summit in the storm. Four Power Bars and two liters of water made up our food for the summit push. The rack of gear was just as thin as we were: five ice screws, one set of stoppers, a small amount of camming units, two ropes we would pull up from the fixed section, headlamps, a few slings, one pack, and a few extra clothes. Nothing that wasn’t necessary was coming with us.

The next morning offered no signs of good weather. We were back at our high point by 9 a.m., then climbed up steep fluted ice on the north face. Occasional rock bands and buttresses broke up the face, offering the best alpine mixed climbing either of us had ever experienced. Following long sweeping sheets of ice over compact granite and slamming in the occasional piton and ice screw belays, we climbed 600 feet to just below a long overhanging cornice on the summit ridge. The day had worn on and the fact that there was no way we were going to make the summit in the daylight made us even more committed than before. The overhang was like a heavy burden, weighing down our thoughts with unexpected bivies we had suffered in the past.

As I watched the fiery red sun set the clouded sky ablaze in an awe-inspiring display of colors, I wondered what the rest of the climb was going to be like in the dark. Mark started to tug on the rope, but there was nothing left. I yelled up that he was out of rope, but he couldn’t hear. I jumared over the hideous cornice, my rope sawing through the snow that threatened to collapse on me. I followed a double-corniced ridge to Mark, who stood waist-deep in snow with no belay in sight.

“Have you been just standing there the whole time?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. I like it when you jumar on my harness,” Mark said. “Let me go put in a belay.”

“Nice job on the cornice,” I offered.

“Unconsolidated sugar snow under windslab without any gear is ugly to face anywhere,” Mark said. “Looks like you’re up, bro.”

I was exhausted. The thoughts that were running through my mind didn’t help. I was worried about freezing at belays and the consequences of a mistake. There was nobody for miles. We didn’t have a radio to call for help. The chance of any kind of rescue was impossible. What the fuck were we doing here?

“Looks like an iced-over chimney there, huh?” I said.

“Yeah. This is pretty sick, man. We’re not going to take no for an answer,” Mark replied.

“OK. This looks kinda sketchy. Watch me,” I said.

The spotlight from Mark’s headlamp went on. I grunted up the flaring chimney, cursing the night and the cold. Up and around the chimney, the ridge came back in sight. To the right, under the cornice, dropped 4,000 feet of air to the North Hainablak Glacier. To the left, the granite slabs disappeared to the South Hainablak. In front lay the summit.

“I’m off belay, Mark,” I yelled into the blackness.

“Can you see the summit?” he asked.

“Yeah. It’s 100 feet away!” I was cheering.

The storm had let up enough that we could see stars. Breathing in crisp frozen air, the realization that we were going to do it settled in. When Mark caught up to me, we both shouted a victorious yell.

“Yeah baby! We got this one in the bag!” we cried.

Mark was the first to the summit. At 10:30 at night, 100 feet from my belay, I could see his head lamp higher than the top. He had to mantle onto it, it was so small. The thing really is a spire—with a tiny spot for a top, just enough to stand on without falling over. Mark down- climbed back to me and said there wasn’t enough room for two. I was next.

On the summit, the walls on all sides dropped off into darkness. It was pitch black; we couldn’t really see anything, but we knew what was out there. After a few moments, we knew we had to start down. The night was freezing the sweat and snow on our clothes, making them stiff. The first three rappels were more like downclimbing. The fragile cornice remained in place as we gently rapped over to a horn of rock just below. Out on the face again, it was scary not to be able to see where we had come from or where we were going. The ropes were pulling well, but if one were to get stuck, it would be a real pain in the ass.

We were dehydrated now, and starving. The cold had crept under our skin and our bones ached. Eighteen hours of non-stop climbing to 19,700 feet had taken its toll. Each time we rapped, we left a single screw, or a sling—the cams were frozen useless. While setting the belay and waiting for the next to come down, we would doze off out of sheer exhaustion. By the time we reached the bottom of the headwall, it was all we could do to continue. The ice encasing the ropes made them heavy and cumbersome to pull, then coil and toss for the next rappel. We had to re-climb sections of the ridge until we finally reached the remaining three fixed ropes that connected us to our tent.

At sunrise, we were surprised to see the sun shining on our tent just 500 feet below. By 6 a.m., after 13 rappels, we had made it back, and collapsed in the tent still wearing all our clothes and gear. Mustering up enough energy to brew water for a drink took a while, but with the sun shining on a victorious morning, we could dry some things out and relax.

The hardest part was over. We knew we only had to go down.

The haul bags were mostly empty; once back on the vertical wall, lowering them was basic. The weather began clearing, too—sort of ironic for it to clear after we made the summit, but we were looking forward to being finished.

I had a hard time trying to sleep the last night on the wall. I didn’t want the climb to be over. My mind wouldn’t turn off, away from the incredible experience we were on the verge of finishing. The amount of work, determination, and fun we had had on the spire was almost done. As when watching your favorite movie over and over, I was reluctant for it to end.

“Hey, Mark?” I whispered.

“Hey. Mark?” I said louder. “Are you sleeping?”

I wouldn’t get a reply until morning, when I was awakened by Mark, packing.

“Jared, I need a small bag of stuff to top off this haulbag,” he said.

“OK.” I felt around. “Here.” Knowing I just had to get some sleep, I had taken a sleeping pill at 3 a.m. In my drug-hazed semi-coma I had no idea I had just handed him every roll of film I had shot on the wall.

An hour later, we were ready to start throwing things off the wall.

“Hey, bro,” Mark said. “Take a picture of this.”

As I snapped photos, Mark tossed the pig. We both laughed, watching as the weighty bag quickly picked up speed on its 1,500-foot ride. Mark was chuckling like a chubby Cub Scout as the bag bounced off the wall and started a death-defying spin. Seconds later, the valley erupted into thunderous booming as the haul bag exploded into the rocks far below. We watched in delight as the contents of the bag were shredded, impaled, and projected all over the final 200 feet of the wall and onto the ground.

“Wow! That was rad!” I shouted.

“Holy shit, dude,” Mark gasped. “That was sick! Did you get pictures?”

“Yeah. Those are going to be great,” I said.

By the time we were 400 feet from the ground, I could tell something tragic had happened. I was rappelling down toward the remains of the haulbag when the crushed shell of a roll of film stopped me in my tracks. I lurched on the rope and found my heart skipping beats. I choked back the lump in my throat.

“Mark!” I called out frantically. “There’s film down here.”

“What do you mean, film?”

I continued rappelling, finding a dozen fragments of other cartridges scattered about the rocks and debris. What made the ear-curdling scream fly off my tongue was the destroyed roll I found that I had marked with tape.

It said summit day on it.

My heart was racing; I couldn’t hold back the tears. Neither was to blame. After recovering what we could, we finished the final rappel in a light rain and raced for camp.

We reached camp just after dark. Kareem was nowhere to be found. We wouldn’t see him for four more days.

We returned twice to the base of the wall to recover all the gear and to carry out our trash. When Kareem arrived, he was happy to see we had summitted and began the arduous task of burning rice, making tooth-breaking chapaties, and snickering at our very sight. Our days were numbered, and our porters showed up right on time. We would be praying to Allah that we would have enough money to pay the porters’ wages on the way out and somehow get back home.

We left our base camp as clean and pristine as we found it, wanting the next group to find it the same way. The breathtaking views from camp, the serenity of the upper Trango Glacier, and the whole experience were very hard to say good-bye to. Our efforts, dreams and successes lay folded in the crevasses and the fissures of Shipton Spire. Our presence may hardly be noticed, but we will never forget our ride on the Ship of Fools.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Pakistan Karakoram

NEW ROUTE: Ship of Fools (VII 5.11 A2 WI6, 1350m) on Shipton Spire (5900m), July 9- August 8, 1997, Jared Ogden and Mark Synnott

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