A5 with a view
by Silvia Vidal, Spain
translated by Christian Santelices
Pakistan, once again—its people, its streets, its odors and, why not, its bartering and characteristic discussions. Exhausting, yes, but very enchanting as well. Pep Masip and I had returned, this time with Miquel Puigdomènech, with a clear objective: to try to climb Amin Brakk, an immense granite massif without too many obvious crack systems.
Pep and I visited the country the year before with the intention of climbing Brakk Zang, a virgin needle 4860 meters high (see AAJ 1999, p. 398). We used our ascent to definitively study the Amin Brakk area as well. We took photos, looked for the most logical lines, the safest areas, observed the hours of the sun… and also tried to figure out the true size of Amin Brakk’s west face, because there was not too much information on either Amin Brakk or the valley in which it is located. Our first trip was very important, for with it we were able to lay the groundwork for our future ascent.
Thus, at the beginning of June, 1999, we landed in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, with the intention of making our way to Amin Brakk Base Camp as quickly as possible. From the last town, which we arrived at by car, we looked for porters who would carry our barrels of gear to BC and also the two to three hours up the glacier to ABC (4575m).
We stayed in BC for 15 days, sharing it with Josh and Anthony, two Kiwi friends who helped us remember that climbing and traveling are a lifestyle. While we acclimatized, we climbed to ABC to stock it for when we would live there later. Then from ABC, we carried all of the gear and supplies to the base of the wall and fixed the first five pitches of the route.
Our route began with a 250-meter snow ramp that we had to climb many times while carrying a lot of weight (which is why it took us so long to get off the ground). To save having to carry water up the snow ramp, we filled our bottles at the first anchor, where there was a crack running with water. With a small plastic tube and a lot of patience we filled the 109 bottles we thought would be necessary for the climb. (Though there were no ledges on the line we took, we had no problems with water, as we were able to collect snow from the portaledge fly.) Twenty days after reaching ABC, we began living on the wall.
We calculated we would need 28 days for the climb. As it turned out, it took 32. Bad weather contributed to this, forcing our decision, after 12 days on the wall, to ration the little bit of food in our haulbags. And so we reached the point where all of our conversations took on a similar theme: food. “Hey! Have you been to that new restaurant downtown…?”
We decided to go up the center of the west face of Amin, because, although it looked like a difficult line, it was very elegant and at the same time appeared to be more protected from rockfall. Yet we still had an unfortunate occurrence. On our fourth day at midday, an avalanche of snow and ice fell, ripping the fly and breaking one of the ledge’s tubes. We had to quickly fix it with some cord, duct tape and one of the aluminum steps of our aiders. The invention worked, lasting the rest of the climb.
The days passed, and little by little we began to realize the enormous number of days we were going to need to ascend the wall. But the truth is that you end up creating a routine that you can live with. In a month on the wall, there are moments of everything. Because we’re talking about a lot of days with only two partners and above all living in a very reduced communal space, good relations with your partners are very important.
We only had one book, which we re-read many times, and some games that we used to pass the time in bad weather. It wasn’t much, but we couldn’t allow ourselves the luxury of carrying too much extra stuff. We figured that we were hauling at least 500 kilos with us up the wall. Of that, only 218 kilos were water.
The days passed, some faster than others, and we slowly kept progressing. There were pitches—the majority of which were very technical and 70 meters long—that took us three days to put up. Two A5 pitches demanded all my imagination to finish. One of them, an open corner with no cracks, took up many hours. Besides a lot of small copperheads, I had to use leadheads (seldom used on granite but typical on limestone routes) because the comer was too open for the copperheads to stick. A lot of smoke escaped from my head for every small advancement.
But the hours were worth the effort. Because that’s what aid climbing is all about, right? To figure out how and where to put the gear.
Another pitch that also took a few days to climb was the tenth, a smooth slab without any natural protection where Pep had to place 27 bolts. We placed only 31 bolts on the entire route. The three of us don’t believe in drilling bathook holes, because once you begin to use bathooks, you’re already modifying the natural grade of the wall. For us, it would been like chipping holds on a free climb. We understood that to place solid bolts takes more time than to drill bathook holes. But our goal wasn’t to move rapidly. It was to remain faithful to the style we believe in. There are no bathook holes on the whole route, because I believe that the rock and your climbing ability determines a route’s grade. When you can no longer advance with what you have in front of you, it’s important to recognize this point and surrender to the reality. But this is just one opinion, a very personal one that the three of us happened to share. Everyone has their own philosophy.
Climbing capsule style, making camps on the wall, means that when you change camp you gain altitude. You change the location of your home and get a new panorama. This is what fascinates me about big wall climbing: discovering, day by day, the landscape that surrounds you.
So that’s how we climbed until we had made a total of four camps. We fixed three pitches above Camp IV, then climbed three more to arrive on the summit of Amin Brakk the afternoon of August 6.
A lot of people ask what you feel when you arrive at the top after so many days and so much work. The truth is that I suppose I didn’t feel much on the summit, as our minds were occupied with the descent. Really, the summit awaits you down in Advanced Base Camp, not up on top where the climb is far from over.
Yet the descent remained. It took us a couple of days to carry it out, because the day we came down from the summit to Camp IV, our rope got stuck on one of the rappels. We could have cut the rope and descended with our remaining ropes, but we didn’t think that was very appropriate. Since we had been cleaning everything on the route and we didn’t want to leave any trash on it (we took out all of the copperheads and pitons, leaving only bolts and slings for the rappels), this meant that the following day, we devoted ourselves to climbing the pitch again to the point where the rope was stuck, then returning to Camp IV to sleep. An extra day. The thirty-first.
On August 8, we rappelled to the ground, finally arriving at our tent in ABC. We found it very much changed, because it is on a glacier and they have a life of their own.
Now we were tired but satisfied, because we had achieved our objective of climbing this wall. And we had done it on our terms, without any type of outside assistance. We didn’t bring radios or telephones or any other apparatus to communicate with the outside world. We only used whistles, with a code that we invented, to communicate with each other on the wall.
And that’s our story, a story which, like all others, is very personal. Pep and Miquel will probably have their own versions. But what is certain is that we all lived our climb very intensely and were each deeply influenced by the experience.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Pakistan Karakoram
First Ascent: Sol Solet (“Sun, Little Sun”) (VII 6c+ A5 60° ice, 1650m) on Amin Brakk (5850m), July 8-August 8, 1999, Silvia Vidal, Miquel Puigdomènech, Pep Masip Silvia Vidal, 29, from Barcelona, Spain, taught physical education until climbing caught her attention. She began climbing seriously in 1994 and a year later began aid climbing for the first time. In 1995, she traveled abroad, visiting Yosemite, where she climbed Mescalito with a partner (her first time on granite), then soloed Zodiac without fixing. The next year she soloed Principado de Asturias (A4) on el Naranjo de Bulnes, the biggest wall in Spain. At the same time, she began traveling and climbing further afield, climbing Sea of Dreams and Reticent Wall on El Capitan, establishing the route Sargantana on the Porcelain Wall and making the first ascent of Brakk Zang in Pakistan, the latter two with Pep Masip. She is currently “surviving” on her mountaineering, traveling and having fun.