The Trango Pulpit
A journey under the skin
by Robert Caspersen, Norway
Wet snow entered the neck of my Gore-Tex. Looking up, my eyes stung with pain as the weather hammered down. I pulled up my hood. I couldn’t help smiling. Out in the mist, ten meters horizontally to the left of me, Gunnar was swinging on the belay-seat, directly under the lip of a small overhang that seemed to be the draining point of the summit snow-fields. He would undoubtedly be soaked by the time I finished the pitch. Under his hood, I could clearly see two burning eyes and a big yellow smile. Between us there was a fine line of short knifeblades and bent RURPs. Above me, a 40-meter, perfectly compact dihedral led the way to the top of the Pulpit’s headwall. It had been 33 days since we left the safety of our Base Camp on the Dungee Glacier and 13 days since our last decent meal. There was a 1400- meter drop below our feet. We were on pitch 41, an A3+ that forced me to dig deep into my bag of tricks.
Six hours after beginning, soaked to the skin but exhilarated by my progress, I watched Gunnar clean the pitch. We had made the top of the wall! A 300-meter ridge was the only thing separating us from the Pulpit’s summit.
I tried to grasp the situation. How could this be? How had it been possible to endure so much pain and uncertainty? The list of good reasons for turning back had, during the events of the last three weeks, reached a substantial size. What kept us going? Where did we find the motivation?
My eyes swept the scenery and froze on the most dominating formation to be seen: the northeast buttress of Great Trango Tower. In the rugged landscape of my consciousness, this aesthetic and awe-inspiring line had always held a special place.
In the summer of 1984, four highly capable young Norwegian climbers—Hans Christian Doseth, Finn Daehli, Stein P. Aasheim and Dag Kolsrud—helped push Himalayan climbing to a higher level with their ascent of the buttress. Rock faces of nearly the same size and technical difficulty had been climbed in other venues of the world before, but never at such an altitude.
Two-thirds of the way up the climb, at the foot of the final headwall, reality came down on them. The lower buttress had taken far more time than anticipated, their food supplies were running low and they were making slow progress on the upper wall. With great difficulty, they decided that two people with the remaining food would stand a better chance of reaching the summit than if all four continued on the minuscule rations.
Aasheim and Kolsrud rappelled off, and, after reaching the safety of the Dunge Glacier, monitored their friends’ further progress. After a week, they watched with tele-lenses as Daehli and Doseth topped out on the upper headwall and climbed the mixed terrain to the virgin (East) summit (6432m). A triumph. Aasheim and Kolsrud then watched as their two friends started their descent—surely thrilled, but just as surely in great fatigue.
Halfway down the lower buttress, Daehli and Doseth suddenly vanished from view. Later, their bodies were spotted on the glacier at the foot of the climb, but before anyone could bring them out they were buried by an avalanche. The triumph had turned into a total tragedy.
Though the deaths of Daehli and Doseth made a great impact on the small and intimate climbing community in Scandinavia, the memories of their personalities and their achievements as climbers continued to inspire many a climber throughout the years. Ever since I first started climbing, I knew that one day I, too, would stand beneath the Great Trango Tower and dwell on this beautiful, enormous and seemingly blank piece of gray-and-orange rock. After all these years, the Norwegian Buttress was still the most magnificent line I’d ever seen up a big wall. The Trango Massif stood out clearly as the ultimate venue for big wall climbing. I knew the others on our team felt the same. Somehow, we had all been planning this for at least ten years. Our motivation for being here was intrinsic and deeply rooted.
Though we had never climbed together as a team of four, Gunnar Karlsen, Per Ludvig Skjerven, Einar Wold and I knew each other well, and the sum of all our experience told us that we were ready for the challenge. Luckily, we were a great team. Now, however, the strain was starting to show. For one thing, there had been a change of topics in our conversations. Of course, we were always discussing our progress and the uncertainty of the terrain that lay ahead of us—that had not changed. But now we were also talking a lot about girlfriends, families, hot showers, beer, sport climbing and all the time in a context that involved food, good food and lots thereof.
The elastic had almost gone out of the rubber band. Living on minuscule rations for the last 12 days was getting to us. Our dialogues were often colored by the odd bark. But we never fought. Our goal was too well-defined. There were no options; we were in this too deeply. We always came out laughing. The whole situation was absurd. We were united by the seeming insanity of our situation.
Still, the last week had been tough on us, both mentally and physically. We wanted out. So what kept us going? I shifted in the belay sling, sent new blood to my numb feet and looked around. The answer seemed obvious. I had felt it all the time. The surroundings were breathtaking, our exposure immense. To this point, apart from four rope-lengths across a hanging glacier, there had not been one easy pitch. Eleven pitches of interesting free climbing and 26 pitches of sustained aid climbing had made every lead a challenge. Whether placing 35 knifeblades in a row in the depths of a perfect dihedral, sky hooking in an ocean of blank granite or trembling from a copperhead or a violated birdbeak in crumbling rock, the pure beauty of the climb kept us there. The continuity of our line was beyond our imagination. It was perfect. It felt as though we were about to create a masterpiece. But of course, it had been there all the time—we were merely discovering the treasure.
And what an exciting treasure hunt it had been.…
After dealing with the epic bureaucracy in Islamabad, the constant death threat of the Karakoram Highway and the chaotic organizing of the porters, we had been relieved to at last arrive at the deserted Dunge Glacier.
“When we leave the ground and pull up our ropes, we’re safe,” we told ourselves. For four young men, all beginners in Asian traveling, simply getting to BC had been quite stressful. Our biggest fear (after, of course, being stopped by an increase in the Kashmir conflict, spending weeks in Islamabad dealing with formalities or dying on the KKH), was being too weakened by the inevitable diarrhea to be able to climb. Fortunately, we escaped with only minor problems.
Half an hour after arriving at our base at the snout of the Dunge Glacier, Gunnar, Per Ludvig and I hiked a further hour and a half to have a look at the face. From the start, our goal had been the Trango Pulpit, an enormous rock face to the southeast of the Norwegian Buttress. Since we knew so little about the face and couldn’t be sure whether any climbable lines up it even existed, we had paid the peak fee for the Great Trango Tower—just in case. But we had not come all this way to try to repeat an old route. We wanted the unknown; we wanted virgin rock.
We were alone on the Dunge Glacier. The weather was calm, the view astonishing. It was just like I had imagined during my ten years of anticipation.
What the Pulpit lacked in beauty when compared to the Norwegian Buttress, it gained with its size, steepness and blankness. It consisted of two rock faces on top of each other divided by a hanging glacier two-thirds of the way up. The photos showing the upper wall had been what attracted us in the first place, but once we realized the size and the complexity of the lower wall, we felt assured that we had chosen a good project. The lower wall alone was the size of El Capitan. And above it loomed a steeper version of Half Dome.
In our opinion, there was only one line of weakness through the lower wall. Fortunately, it also looked to be the least avalanche-prone of the options. That it also happened to be the most direct and longest line on the wall was no drawback. The upper wall seemed very blank, but it was too far away to properly judge if it contained a feasible line. Time would soon enough tell. For now, we were in business.
During the next two days, we fixed ropes up the initial slabs. The first seven pitches were fairly low-angled and went free at mostly 5.10 with sections of 5.11. The slabs were compact and what existed of cracks were often filled with dirt. Although the climbing was easy, it was often run out, and I was glad the weather permitted the use of rock shoes. After fixing our seven climbing ropes, we spent the next three days organizing our gear and carrying it one and a half hours up the glacier to the foot of the climb.
On the morning of June 28, Einar having recovered sufficiently from intestinal problems, we quit BC and moved up onto the face, pulling the ropes and committing ourselves to the climb.
On the top of the seventh pitch, we established our first camp at the far right of a big ledge, our two portaledges hanging partly sheltered by a small overhang on the steepening wall. Snow provided all the water we needed. Just to the left, a constant stream of rocks fell down, caused by meltwater from the hanging glacier above. We immediately named the camp “Karakoram Highway,” but, upon discovering that we were out of the target zone as long as we stayed close to the tents, soon learned to live with the sound of the passing “trucks.”
Above us, two more pitches of slightly harder free climbing followed before we had to shift to aid. The rock became very compact and the protection intricate. We followed a huge left-facing dihedral for seven pitches. The “Dream Dihedral” required sustained nailing with extensive use of knifeblades and Lost Arrows and some sections of copperheading and sky hooking, the rock seldom permitting the use of nuts and camming devices. One expansion bolt was often placed by hand-drill at the belays.
After a long period of fine conditions, the weather turned unstable and what started out as light snow often ended in heavy rain in the afternoon. We were forced to spend one day in our tents at the Karakoram Highway, the cascades of water just increasing the “traffic” nearby. After a day of immobilization, the weather cleared and we were able to establish Camp II at the top of pitch 14. As there were no more snow ledges on the lower face, we hauled with us more than 100 liters of water from Camp I to supply us until we reached the hanging glacier.
Camp II also had its surprises, but only of the pleasant kind. Next to our portaledges, a small, one-meter by one-meter ledge was overgrown with beautiful flowers and big leaves of rhubarb. Yes! Rhubarb! I couldn’t believe my eyes; I had to taste it, and yes, there was no doubt.
I had had my share of winter escapades in Norway, climbed two big walls in Antarctica and come to the Karakoram prepared for cold conditions. Being at more than 5000 meters above sea level, the mild weather surprised us all. But we did not complain. Only when it rained would we have preferred cold conditions and dry snow.
From the “Rhubarb” camp, the climbing got steeper and less straight-forward. The line passed through some roofs and sharp comers interspersed with blank sections. It was strenuous climbing in “rope-cutting country.” The grades soon touched A3+ and A4, and our speed was reduced to that of a lazy snail.
On the 13th day, we could again erect our tents at a new camp. Above, we entered the “Guillotine,” a beautiful yellow prow that turned out to be “the kingdom of anxiety.” I was at the sharp end. I had climbed 15 meters of singing rock and above me hung the biggest and most dislocated piece of rock I had ever encountered on a climb. I searched in vain for the warning tag indicating its maximum weight load. Directly below me, Per Ludvig was pinned to the belay. One pitch further down, the rest of the family was resting in our homes. One miscalculation, Robert, that’s all it takes. I got my hammer out and did a sound check, carefully tapping the monstrous block. This was rock ’n roll, alright! The pitch took me one and a half days to finish.
Immediately above followed another one of those time-consuming A4 pitches. For two hours, I hung from the belay, listening to Einar curse as he cleaned the pitch. Most of the metal was hammered into the rock with no thoughts for the seconding climber. Einar had hung motionless, belaying me for hours. When he finally clipped in next to me, I was prepared for some moaning, but instead he met my concerned expression with a broad smile. We were in this together.
Wet snow and heavy rainfall again cramped us in our tents for one-and-a-half days before we were able to establish Camp IV below the rim of the lower wall. Pitch 25 brought us up and onto the hanging glacier, which turned out to be easy, homogenous terrain, approximately 180 meters wide.
Our main goal had always been to climb the most direct and central line through the upper headwall. This was the grand prize: five to six hundred meters of overhanging and seemingly blank rock. Helped by vivid imagination, we were able to trace a thin continuous line of formations that cut through the middle of the face. But by the time we got there, we had already spent 20 days ascending the lower face, and what loomed above looked desperate.
There was another line on the left-hand side of the face that we had briefly discussed as a possible alternative if we were running short on time or food. It had far more features, bigger cracks, was less steep and shorter. It looked like it would go fast—and we were in great need of some fast progress, having only ten days’ of food left.
As Per Ludvig and I descended back to Camp IV, a huge rock-fall demolished the lower part of the possible “escape” line. The die had been thrown. We cut our daily rations to 1350 kcal per person, moved up and established Camp V at the foot of the Pulpit Headwall.
The opening pitches on the upper face gave us a taste of things to come. Flaky formations divided by compact sections made for interesting climbing, with several pitches going at around A3+/A4 as the route traversed diagonally to the right. When the weather deteriorated again, we climbed in perfectly dry conditions; the route was so steep, the curtain of heavy weather hung 15 meters out in space. Good. We deserved some luck.
On pitch 33 I ran out of luck (or had even more luck, depending on how you see it). I took a leader fall. I had already taken a handful on the climb, so this was no big surprise, but this time I landed upside-down onto a sharp flake. It felt as though my body had been cut in half. I screamed in shock, then almost fainted as the pain rose. I could not put any weight on my right foot. With great difficulty I finished the pitch, then retired to my sleeping bag, where I stayed for two days, eating painkillers.
The others had now arrived at a big section of blank rock and were bathooking at a snail’s pace, so I wasn’t missing out on much. The thought of being left with a stove and a bag of food while I waited for the rest of the team to pick me up on their way back down from the summit got me well in no time, and I was soon back up there with them, swinging the hammer.
Camp VI was established at the top of pitch 33, and again we hauled with us 100 liters of snow/water. It took us four and a half days to finish the two pitches of bathooking and reach more formations.
The slow progress was draining our reserves. The exhaustion of leading was obvious, but belaying for ten to 12 hours was even worse. On lead, your focus is zoomed in as you concentrate on the task of getting up the next few meters of rock. Passages might be scary, but having mastered them, you are rewarded with a great feeling of accomplishment. Belaying is usually a completely different story. You are in position to set your focus on wide-angle. And, given enough time to reflect on your situation, you tend to do so.
There were two different personality types who descended to camp in the evening. One had a gleam in his eyes. He babbled with enthusiasm, seeing only challenges. The other was filled with concern. He posed critical questions, saw only problems and had a long list of good reasons to get the hell out of there. That evening, coming down from a strenuous day of bathooking, Gunnar had the gleam. He truly enjoyed life on the big walls.
On day 30 we established our last camp on the climb, Camp VII, at the top of pitch 37. Directly above this camp, the climb followed a left-slanting line that we had hoped would be easy ground. Once again, hard and intricate nailing along loose flakes, expanding rock and small overhangs slowed us down. Things were looking grim.
Partly as a result of my own ruthless drive, Per Ludvig had too often ended up at the dead end of the rope, building a nest in his wide-angled world and slowly growing more defensive. Now, however, he had finally awakened. His focus had changed, and he was leading with great confidence, getting the most out of every day.
Pitches 40 and 41 climbed a dominating dihedral and finally put us on top of the actual rock face. The only remaining ridge led to the Pulpit’s summit. On day 34 the weather again forced us to seek refuge in our tents. At this stage, we only had food for one more day, so we had to reach the summit the following day regardless of the weather.
At two o’clock in the morning on August 1, we left Camp VII in obscure and foggy conditions and jumared to the top of our ropes. From there we started up the ridge with two climbing ropes and a light rack. The first two pitches involved some moderate mixed climbing in a chimney and a slab section that felt desperate in plastic boots. On the ridge we found rappel anchors from the Czech-Slovak climbers who had summited a couple of days earlier via the Southeast Ridge. Our last six pitches were in common with theirs.
Four easy pitches of snow plodding along a thin ridge brought us to the Pulpit’s summit. It was early in the afternoon on our 35th day. I was too emotionally moved to speak. We had pushed our mental and physical barriers to a new dimension.
As we sobered up and reflected on our position, our big smiles were soon replaced by expressions of concern. Base Camp seemed awfully far away. Two weeks earlier, we had easily agreed that if we had to, we could manage without food on the descent. Other people had gone without food for more than three days. Now, however, reality came down on us. We had already been living on a less-than-appropriate diet for the last two weeks. We rested our eyes on the top of the Norwegian Buttress, thought about Hans Christian and Finn, doubled- checked one another and headed down.
Late at night, we were back in the vertical world of Camp VII, where we ate our last dinner and went to sleep. In the morning we started abseiling the Headwall with all our gear, reaching the hanging glacier at night. We had left three ropes in place on the steepest pitches so we could pull in and reach the anchors.
The next day we carried all our gear across the glacier with great difficulty. The muscle atrophy in our legs was serious, making it difficult to walk. We swung over the rim of the lower face and abseiled down to Camp II. The weather deteriorated again, but we didn’t care. We were so close now.
On the 38th day, we abseiled the rest of the lower face in cascade conditions, setting foot on the Dunge Glacier late in the evening. We were very hungry and had some minor bruises from leader falls, but other than that we had suffered no major injuries, had not lost or left behind any gear apart from the rappel anchors and remained good friends all the way. The ropes no longer held us together, but there was something else, something else.…
Summary of Statistics Area: Pakistan Karakoram
New Route: Norwegian Trango Pulpit Direct (VII A4 5.11, ca. 2200m) on the northeast and north faces of the Trango Pulpit (6050m), June 28-August 4, 1999 (plus two days of fixing), Robert Caspersen, Gunnar Karlsen, Per Ludvig Skjerven, Einar Wold
Twenty-seven-year-old Robert Caspersen started climbing in 1988. A three-time National Indoor Climbing Champion of Norway (1992, ’94 and ’98), he has onsighted 8a+ and redpointed 8c. His first ascents in Norway range from big walls to crag routes. He has taken part in two expeditions to Antarctica, both led by Ivar Tollefsen. In 1993-94, he was part of the first expedition to Queen Maud Land, where he participated in ascents of Jøkulkyrkja (the range’s highest peak), Gessnertind, Holtanna and Ulvetanna. In 1996-97, he returned to help make the first ascent of the Rondespire. A student at The University of Sport in Oslo, he is currently investigating free-climbing techniques.