American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Great Trango Tower's Northwest Face

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Great Trango Tower’s Northwest Face

Parallel worlds

by Jared Ogden

Our ledge, hanging cockeyed and dripping wet, was our only refuge from the tempestuous storm that had been lingering now for five days. Alex, Mark and I had tried three days in a row to lead one miserable pitch with no luck.

“I can’t believe how big these snowflakes are,” Mark said as he hung from the 27th belay.

“Yeah,” I said in a chattering voice. “Look, our ropes are soaked—and if it gets any colder, we’re screwed!”

Alex was on lead, again. This was his third time trying the pitch. It was cold and storming hard. Mark rappelled; he didn’t have Gore-Tex on and was soaked. I watched him rap into the swirling void and heard frustrating yells all the way down. The ropes were icing up and he had to take out his knife to clear them—a dangerous endeavor, as he was on the verge of hypothermia.

“God damn,” Alex moaned with a chuckle from above. “This sucks! You see the water flowing out of my jacket? I can’t believe this!”

“You think we should bail for the day?” I begged from my frozen belay.

“Yeah. My hands are numb and I can’t feel what I’m doing. Let’s go down,” said Alex.

Out of 15 days, only seven or eight hadn’t been lashing, storm-ridden suffer-fests. We wondered if we had the determination.

In the history of the Trango Towers, there are grand successes and harsh failures. Legendary climbers have flocked to the area to make their mark in the world of alpine climbing and challenge themselves on the mighty walls. There have been bolt-free first ascents, demanding aid routes, all-free ascents of aid routes and all-free first ascents. Unlimited opportunities exist, and we had our sights set on Great Trango Tower.

In 1997, Mark Synnott and I were on our way to climb Hainablak Central Tower (a.k.a. Shipton Spire) when we first saw the massive northwest face. The wall is nearly 6,000 feet. The virgin West Summit is 20,415 feet high. It surprised me that no one had tried to climb the face over the 25 years that climbers have visited the area.

“When do you think we can do it?,” I asked anxiously.

“Right now! I think we should do this instead of Shipton,” Mark said immediately.

We realized we couldn’t do that, because our porters were already three miles ahead in Base Camp, and our rack was really small, even for Shipton. But we knew we would be back before long.

For two years, we planned to return. Our proposed route combined all the elements of rock climbing: a long free climb up a 3,400-foot slab to a vertical and overhanging headwall that stretches over 2,000 feet, finishing on a knife-edge ridge for 1,000 feet to the West Summit. As with any expedition, however, we had problems with funding. Selling half our possessions and praying we’d be lucky had funded our Shipton Spire trip. With the same resourcefulness, we pulled together more than we had bargained for on Trango.

We were to make a film and host a live internet site. The logistics were horrendous, and we would have to make compromises to accommodate the media. I was struggling with my conscience. Was this unethical? Would we deface the alpine climbing world by using a powerdrill and fixed lines?

Indeed, these were some of the problems that we were facing as a team. We wanted to climb the wall as we have done many times in the past: committing ourselves to the highest standards of climbing practices and minimizing fixed ropes. But on this trip we would fix more than 3,000 feet of rope and spend a month on the wall, carrying computers and all assortments of cyberspace technology and video cameras on the climb. I saw this as an intrusion on what I had experienced in the past. What had happened to the solitude and silence of the Shipton Spire days? Wouldn’t we be criticized? I became frustrated and wanted nothing to do with it.

At least, that’s what I was thinking in the beginning. It all changed once on the wall. Solitude abounded. The silence was broken only by a solitary gorak soaring the mysterious thermals up high into the heavens or the distant rumbling of the glaciers buckling under their own weight. Once again, we were climbing in the magnificence of the Karakoram with the complexities of the world left behind.

While gazing out on this magnificence, I heard Mark shout, “That was amazing!” as he reached the top of pitch 16.

“A bit scary, though, running it out over pins placed single-handed on lead,” he added when I met him at his belay. He was full of vigor and high on the experience. He later told me it was one of his favorite pitches.

A few pitches later, after reaching Camp II, we were relaxing in our ledge when we heard distant foreign voices.

“Did you hear that?” Alex asked, surprised. We thought we had lost it. We heard it again and made our way over to the edge to see what it was. Just a week earlier, we heard there was a four-man Russian team that had arrived to do the same climb. Could they be here already?

Moments later we were sharing a brew with Ivan Samoilenko, Igor Potankin, Alexander Odintsov and Yuri Koshelenko, talking about the Caucasus, mutual friends and how no one had yet broken Alex’s speed record on Khan Tengri. When we saw the antique equipment they were using, we wondered how they had even arrived at this point. Alexander was wearing a leather carpenter’s belt that held their pitons as Ivan jumared with legging straps that hooked into rings on his ascenders—something you would find on an arborist. When asked if they would lose their pins in a fall, Alexander simply replied, “Don’t fall.”

Ivan showed me their hand drill. Looking like a relic from the 17th century, it had a bit on one end, a rubber hand-pump mechanism in the middle like that on a stethoscope and a hardened butt to hammer on.

“Eye ave been using diss a drill for feefteen years!” he proudly announced. The bit was as blunt as a worn eraser, and they only had a few removable bolts, also from a long time ago. It was fascinating to watch them climb. We had a great time shouting across the wall to each other as we made progress.

We found the first headwall pitches to be featureless. Hooking, beaking and riveting linked up to a beautiful left-facing dihedral. Overhead, the wall reared up in a wave of golden granite, with dark roofs looming above.

Alex spoke of his family often. He carried photos of his three boys in his pocket at all times and occasionally brought them out to look at. He was a proud father, telling stories about them with longing and devotion. Mark, too, talked about his newborn son, William.

Looking across the valley to the southeast face of Nameless Tower and further up the glacier to the tiny summit of Shipton Spire, I could relive some of the greatest days of my life by recounting the experiences I had while climbing routes on these two formations. The mysterious energy and silence of the place brings tranquillity and humility deep into my heart and soul. Alex called it the Heartland. He was right.

The climbing was ethereal. Tapping and ringing of hammer and piton resounded through the thinning air. Our fears and doubts were being left behind with every inch we gained, giving each of us more confidence to push on in the face of deteriorating weather and dwindling food rations.

Camp III: The weather nearly shut us down. Mark and Alex were on a tightrope with their friendship. Caught in the middle, I tried to keep everyone focused on the objective, myself included. The stress of climbing all day and working more than three hours a night to type e-mails and download and transmit digital images for the internet was taking its toll. I kept thinking the intrusion was too much. It was going to break us apart. We all felt it. We could read it in each others’ eyes.

I finished another long technical pitch, again with no drilling. Mark had run out a pitch on 15 beaks interspersed with manky blades and rivets to connect the blank sections. Alex avoided a deadly block by blading up a seam that ended on a blank wall. He faced a potential 150-foot fall as he resorted to hand-drilling 20 bat hooks in a row on a 110-degree wall to reach the end of his rope.

Following our ascent, criticism would circulate around how we drilled holes through blank sections. At the time, we were all struggling with the decision. Do we climb the wall without a drill? What if we fail as a result of a blank section? Do we leave the mountain as we found it? Or do we drill and climb to the top in the best style possible? We all agreed that we would place the least amount of holes possible to maintain a high standard and still make the summit.

The Great Roof

We always knew it would be dramatic. A horizontal roof 25 feet straight out to the lip on thin blades hammered straight up into a crusty seam. I tried to swallow my stomach out of my throat and managed to meekly spurt out a shout to Mark.

“Hey, watch me here,” I yelled. “I had to back clean, so it’s a little sketchy.”

Alex (with a fever) managed to jug up to the roof to film Mark cleaning in golden sunlight. It was breathtaking. Uli Biaho was cloaked in a crimson blanket as the sun set over the distant summits of the Latok Group.

The route opened up to free climbing at this point. We would leave the next morning with a pack on our back and blast for the top. We carried two ropes, a small set of pitons, cams, slings and a little bivy gear.

The following morning, Alex leapt off the belay and didn’t stop until he reached the ridge 800 feet higher. He was yelling incoherently about something. We figured he still had a fever. When we got to him, we understood.

It wasn’t tragic, but it felt like it. Staring in disbelief, we all relished the splendor that the Karakoram has to offer. More and more, I remember that moment. I recall it all coming together right then. Everything that climbing is about happened at that spot.

All the walls had fallen away. The hard work and suffering had rewarded us with more than we had bargained for. Clear skies stretched out to distant peaks separating the Baltoro from the heavens. It was silent except for the ghostly rumble of the glaciers eating away at the mountains. The heavens had opened up and given us a brief spell of luck, just enough to make it to the summit. We knew we would succeed, and it showed on our faces. We were so far from home, but we all felt right there with everyone, as if everything was connected. It looked so much like a dream that we spent a long hour just staring out into it all and absorbing our accomplishment.

We made quick work of the remaining six pitches. Alex took a 50-foot whipper just below the summit but survived with a bad laceration to his right elbow. The summit was 25 feet away. We couldn’t reach it because it was a blank slab and we had no drill. If you want it, go for it.

The skies closed back down and it stormed for another three days as we suffered through the most harrowing descent we have done. It was dangerous, but we made it. We came down to a BIG party. There were several more expeditions there, and some Germans even gave us a few beers to celebrate with. It was great to see all our friends.

We spent the next day retrieving our gear from the wall and packing loads. We left the next morning in a storm. Looking back up the wall, we could faintly make out our Russian comrades. They had a long way to go.

On the hike out, we all walked far apart from one another. We had gone through so much. It was very intense to be up there with all the world watching. We had more bad weather than good, and it wore us thin. It wasn’t the best trip we’d ever done, but we did finish our route.

Parallel Worlds was huge, perhaps the longest rock climb ever. I speak on behalf of our team in that we did it for ourselves first, then for all the masses to praise and slander. Who knows, in the future, we might see routes like this climbed in a day or soloed without a rope. In the end, the whole ordeal was really quite simple: it was about three climbers who wanted a challenge, a hard-earned adventure that would bring us all together. We hope it will stand as a tribute to Alex, who always put 110 percent into whatever he did.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Pakistan Karakoram

New Route: Parallel Worlds (VII 5.11 A4, 6,000') on the northwest face of the Great Trango Tower (20,415'), July 2-August 1, 1999, Alex Lowe, Jared Ogden, Mark Synnott

Personnel: Mark Synnott, Alex Lowe, Jared Ogden, Darren Britto, Greg Thomas, Jim Surrette, Mike Graber

Jared Ogden was bom in 1971. He has extensive professional experience working for companies such as The North Face, La Sportiva and Black Diamond, and his work as a photojournalist has been published in more than 20 publications. His climbing resume includes numerous first ascents, from mixed climbs such as Cold Cold World (M8+) and Hardline (M8+) to wall routes in Pakistan (Book of Shadows on the Nameless Tower, Ship of Fools on Shipton Spire) and Baffin Island (Rum, Sodomy and the Lash on Sail Peak). In 1997, he was the ice climbing champion in both speed and difficulty for the ESPN Winter X-Games. He currently lives in Durango, Colorado.

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