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The Flame

The Flame

Before 9-11, this 500-foot granite spike sitting on top of a 2,000-foot face had been the talk of the Trango Valley. Now there was no one to talk with} but when the rain finally stopped, the Flame got fired. Pakistan.

Brian McMahon

The crux of our trip to Pakistan was convincing the rest of the world that we weren’t insane. Josh Wharton, 23, of Boulder, had approached me with the plan shortly after the World Trade Towers were hit. His original partner, Phil Gruber, was married, and with his first child on the way, had opted out. Josh and I had climbed together in Pakistan in the summer of 2000, and he knew that I could be talked into almost anything. I made an earnest effort to convince him that we should go on a mellow, safe, and sane trip to Peru. He pointed out that not a single one of those adjectives describes why he and I climb, and then pulled out his trump card: a photo of the Flame that we had snapped in 2000. The argument was over.

Of course, I still had to tell my mother.

Josh’s father (an exceptional climber of the 1950s) was all for it, even to the point of floating me a small loan for the bit of airfare not covered by grants. I, however, was terrified to tell my parents and avoided doing so until well after the trip was nearly irrevocable. Josh and I both became news junkies, putting a good spin on almost any political event. We also had the benefit of past experience in Pakistan and a good sense of how open and friendly almost all Pakistanis are. My daily litany to incredulous friends revolved around the theme of “I’m sure I’ll be safer wandering around Pakistan than I would be in the wrong part of Denver at night.” I stand by that idea. Not once did I feel threatened or endangered by other people during my time in Pakistan. Of course, the climbing was a different story.

Tensions between India and Pakistan reached a crucial stage right before we left on August 14, but we opted to go anyway Little did we expect that our first major stumbling block would occur at Denver International Airport, where officials pointed out that my brand new Pakistani visa had already expired. I finally convinced an official from American Airlines to let me fly as far as London, where we had an airline change. Then I promptly smeared my visa into illegibility in a bathroom sink. The visa caused a few more problems here and there, but we weren’t about to let a little piece of paper keep us from the Flame.

With the help of our guide, Muzaffar, Josh and I cruised through the red tape in Islamabad— letting countless officials go to town with their little stamps (in triplicate) on umpteen irrelevant forms. We then picked up a suitcase full of rupees at the bank and began the seven-day journey to Shipton Base Camp.

As many climbers are aware, there are two choices regarding travel to the village of Skardu, where the pavement ends and the real journey begins. The first choice is a two-hour flight on Pakistan International Air (PIA—fondly known to the locals as “Perhaps It Arrives”), with breathtaking views of Nanga Parbat and the Hindu Kush. Unfortunately, due to a distinct lack of technology (including radar) at the destination airstrip, the scheduling of these flights is completely weather dependent, and somewhat iffy in general. You never know if a scheduled flight will actually depart until the wheels leave the tarmac.

The second option is two days on a bus traveling along the jaw-droppingly beautiful Karakoram Highway. This road was carved through the highest mountain range in the world over a period of 15 years under Chinese supervision. It was built to connect the two countries for trade. Even two years ago, I considered this ride to be one of the most dangerous parts of the trip, as the road is often only one lane wide, with enormous cliffs sucking at the outside wheels of the bus. On blind corners, drivers who trust completely to Inshallah (God’s Will) simply approach the curves with a prayer and a honk. On top of that, the highway traverses through regions where the western media and U. S. State Department widely proclaimed Taliban occupation.

I promised my mother and girlfriend that we would wait as long as necessary for a flight. That’s not the only promise I’ve broken.

The bus ride turned out to be uneventful. We were met with great courtesy, friendliness, and an endless supply of nearly undrinkable rancid goat-milk tea (Josh loved it). After the first stop we dropped our cover of being Canadian college students when I failed to come up with the name of the university in Ontario I was purportedly attending. Mostly, though, a cover seemed wholly unnecessary and downright insulting in the face of the kindnesses we received.

We spent a few busy days buying supplies in Skardu, then hired porters and headed out on Jeeps for the village of Askole, where one begins the trek to base camp. We left town feeling guilty that we needed only 20 porters; I wish we could have hired more. Portering is the best- paying job in rural Pakistan and many families count on it for their livelihood. With the huge decline in tourism, many porters are unable to find work. A normal summer in Pakistan caters to nearly 150 expeditions, many of which hire hundreds of porters. In 2002 we were one of only a handful of expeditions, and the result upon the Pakistani economy was obvious. Not only were porters out of work, the hotels were empty. Many shops—from cloth weavers to jewelry stores to butchers—were mostly closed. Even the road workers were slowing down.

The Jeep ride passed relatively uneventfully, and, as we began walking, Josh and I both experienced a strong sense of déja vu from our trek to base camp in 2000 (except that neither of us became violently ill this time around!).

We at last reached the Shipton Base Camp. The Flame had been central in our minds for the previous six months, and now there it was—a mere six miles, two icefalls, and 4,000 vertical feet away. Oh, and one very active avalanche slope.

Two years before, the base camp had been a regular climbing jamboree, hosting six Americans and a group of Italians. Half an hour away, two more Americans, Timmy O’Neill and Miles Smart, were at Trango Base, along with a contingent of Japanese and a group of Mexicans. This year, it was just me and Josh, Muzaffar, and our new English student/cook, Gaffoor.

In 2000 the Flame had been the talk of our base camp. Its sheer beauty and physical improbability are almost indescribable, and it surely would have been climbed already had it been closer. The Flame earned its name through its unique shape: a 2,000-foot wall with an exquisite 500-foot tower perched on top. We like to think of it as the face of Half Dome with Moses sitting on top. At 20,700 feet, it is the tallest feature in the Trango Valley.

In 2001 a team of three Austrians attempted to climb the Flame (Norbett Reizelsdorfer, Herbert Kobler, and Tony Neudorfer). According to Muzaffar, who had been present in 2001, they attempted a line slightly left of center on the lower wall. They likely followed a system of thin, left-trending cracks to the base of the spire—where they turned around. The Austrians had attempted a mix of alpine and classic wall-style climbing, ferrying gear up to a 17,000-foot camp at the base of the Flame and attempting the route over several days.

Josh and I were convinced, however, that light and fast was the only option for a reasonable chance of success. In 2000 Mike Pennings and Jonathan Copp had proven what was possible with their lightning-fast first ascents of the Cat’s Ear Spire and Hainabrakk East Tower, as well as a three-day repeat of Inshallah on Shipton Spire. To us, the next logical step was to apply this light- and-fast, go-for-broke style on a route that lacked a well-supplied base camp an hour away.

So, after waiting out a few days of light rain we made our initial approach. We left after an alpine-start breakfast whipped up by our new friend and cook, Gaffoor, with Muzaffar carrying a few pieces of gear and coming along for companionship. He turned around when the glacier steepened, and Josh and I donned our crampons and immediately realized our first mistake. Earlier that morning, after lathering on some sunscreen, I had left the bottle next to Josh’s pack for him to use. He hadn’t noticed it—and so our only bottle of sunscreen was back catching rays all by itself. We pressed on, thinking that if we were light and fast enough, maybe we could outrun the sun.

We climbed through the first icefall uneventfully, without a rope. Apparently, each time the Austrians had approached they took anywhere from two to four days, depending on conditions. We didn’t have time for that and figured a great timesaver would be to eschew “safe” glacier-travel techniques altogether, and just walk real fast. Hopefully, neither of us would fall into any of those big holes that glaciers always seem to have.

Our second mistake came when I talked Josh into a shortcut straight up a hillside to the ridge that protects the Hainabrakk Glacier, on which the Flame sits. The hill, unsurprisingly, cliffed out after about 1,000 vertical feet—but still well below the ridge we needed to gain. So we found another little hill that might connect us to a traverse, that just might go somewhere useful. But when that hill started a small avalanche as soon as we stepped on it (and set off a resounding OOOOOMMPH sound on the first hill we had climbed), we realized that we had likely erred. We decided that it was suicide (and inefficient) to go back down the first hill, and so being the wise and skilled mountain travelers that we are, decided to rappel straight off the side of the cliff next to us. The hill at the bottom (which differed in no way from those threatening to avalanche all around us) must be perfectly safe. Right?

I rapped first and upon disconnecting from the rope promptly sunk in well over my head. This didn’t bode well for our plan to sprint down the hill toward the safety of the glacier. By the time Josh was off rappel I had managed to thrash my way to the surface, with only one major crampon gash in my leg (in order to leave behind lots of well-marked red snow in case we had to find our way back). Josh was unable to come up with a good answer for why we weren’t cragging in the Sport Park in Boulder Canyon.

Our first good choice of the day came in deciding that the next hill attempt would best be tackled in the early morning, when the snow was hard and relatively safe. So we set up our single-wall tent in the safest place we could find, busted out a delicious energy bar each, and settled down for the evening. We had some wonderful lightweight gear—our favorites were incredibly light and small zipperless down sleeping bags, rated to 30°F. Combined, they weighed less than one summer-weight synthetic bag and stuffed to the size of a liter bottle. In the interest of weight, however, we had opted against taking sleeping pads—so I probably don’t need to describe how we slept.

The next morning, after quaffing some hot water from our homemade hanging stove, and another gourmet energy bar, we continued our walk. But this time the snow crust was beautiful—better than any sidewalk in Boulder. One more lesson learned.

The weather remained crystal clear and beautiful for the entire walk, and we arrived at our planned advanced base camp uneventfully. Except for the sun blisters covering Josh’s face.

It began snowing soon after we set up our tent. It kept snowing all night while Josh tried to find a way to sleep on a glacier, at 17,000 feet, in a 30-degree sleeping bag, without a pad— all without letting his blistered and pus-covered face touch anything. It continued to snow all the next morning, and as we had brought food for only four days at ABC, we left behind a gear cache and retreated to base camp.

When we arrived at base camp, it was raining. The next two days dawned clear, but we were stuck in camp while Josh’s face healed. On the third day it was raining when I awoke. And it continued to rain, every day, for the next 36 days.

On three different occasions we became so frustrated by being stuck in base camp with all of our climbing gear waiting for us a mere six miles away, that we just did the approach through the storm. And an exciting approach it was. We never got around to naming it, but it probably goes at about V, 5.5X WI4. Luckily, it didn’t entail any aid pitches. Neither of us ever went for the big ride through a crevasse, but we both fell in to our shoulders on each approach, and unwisely became adept at jumping some wide abysses.

None of these optimistic approaches to the Flame panned out, although on one attempt we managed to establish the general course of our route and actually reached the top of the main wall, climbing almost entirely in a whiteout. Our route up the lower wall followed a wet crack and chimney system that exits onto the shoulder just right of the final spire. It went at mostly 5.9 and 5.10, with many exciting bits stemming around huge, loose icicles and precarious swords of rock. The few bits of aid on the first half of the route will certainly go free at difficult 5.11, if conditions permit.

The mood back in camp was getting grim. Ten days remained before we had to leave the valley to catch our plane. Our first clear sunrise, with nine days left, saw us pounding up the approach. By this time the previous avalanche slope had melted off, and in its place was an amusement park of enormous, precariously perched rocks. But we had the approach wired and got to our trusty tent uneventfully.

And then a miracle occurred: dawn came without rain once again. By the time it was light, Josh and I were already atop the single fixed line we had left on our failed first attempt and were moving quickly up the wet 5.10 terrain, a veritable waterfall from the first pair of good-weather days in many weeks.

The crux M5 pitch that I had lead on our first attempt was falling apart by the time we got to it, and Josh initiated a long traverse to the right in hope of finding another way to the ridge. He found it, but it turned out to be even worse than my detached M5 and involved a long and virtually unprotected pitch up a detached waterfall—with occasional mini-avalanches trying to rip him off. From the top of this pitch we easily reached our previous highpoint via a 500-foot pitch up steep but loose snow.

This put us about 50 feet up the backside of the final spire, where a blank wall led up to what we hoped would be a decent Beak seam. I drilled the first hole of the route and placed a removable bolt (which we left in place) to get started on the crux aid pitch of the route. A few hook moves, and a few falls, led to some decent Birdbeak placements and easier aid territory.

It was a rope-stretcher pitch to a hanging belay somewhere near the summit. We had a handful of incredibly lightweight titanium pitons that were a lifesaver on that pitch (I used the smallest ice piton, “The Sphincter,” as an admirable alternative to standard Birdbeaks).

That hanging belay was the scene of my luckiest decision of our climb. Because Josh had masterminded the trip—and it was obvious to both of us that the summit was a mere 25 or 30 feet away on easy 5.10 ground—it seemed to me that offering him the last lead would be the courteous thing to do. I was also sure he would let me keep the final lead, since we had brought only one pair of rock shoes, and changing shoes at the hanging belay just wouldn’t be worth the time. So I confidently made the offer, knowing I risked nothing and that he would not accept. But he jumped at the chance to be the first on top and quickly demanded the rack and shoes. It figures.

My disappointment, though, faded after he had climbed 30 feet. From there he could see the summit another 160 feet away, protected by a completely blank and difficult-looking slab. He yelled down to me for advice, and because I certainly didn’t want to lead it, but I really wanted to get to the top, I made the obvious choice. I pretended I couldn’t hear him.

Standing on a pair of dime edges, above a poorly placed knifeblade, next to an Alien with only two lobes cammed, Josh cast off onto the most impressive lead I have ever seen. The opening moves were 5.10+, and the occasional broken hold that careened past my head attested to the rock’s quality. After 30 or 40 feet the climbing eased back to a 5.9 slab with the occasional 5.10 move-but without a single piece of gear. By the time I had 10 feet of rope left to pay out, I was getting really nervous that it would turn into the most horrifying simul-climb imaginable. But no, 190 feet above my belay Josh reached the summit, thus avoiding the very real potential of a 350-footer.

There wasn’t a single crack near the top, so Josh tossed a long sling around the summit of the Flame and yelled “off belay.” Even jugging the pitch was exciting, because every time the slab pushed me too far left, Josh would yell down that ìswinging back right would be a good idea, since the summit is a bit too round for the anchor to hold on that side.î

By the time I got to him he had the second (and last) hole of the route almost drilled, and it was time for a few snapshots and a quick overnight retreat. Under Fire had gone at V+, 5.10+X A3 M5 AI4.

We arrived in base camp two days later in time for lunch and congratulations from our Pakistani friends. By dinnertime, Josh had a gleam in his eyes. The weather was still good, and we had a whole six days left before we had to leave for the airport. What better time than now for a new route up Shipton Spire? After all, the previous fastest first ascent had taken a mere 17 days, right?

So, after one day of rest we went for it. The result was two days up, a day and a half down; and a great deal of spectacular, Yosemite- like climbing. We named our route the Kanadahn Buttress (Family Buttress in Urdu), after our supportive family and friends who had chosen to stand behind our trip. It came out at VI, 5.11 + X, C1.

We made the flight.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Trango Valley, Bal- toro, Pakistan

Ascents: Under Fire (V+, 5.10+X A3 M5 AI4) on The

Flame. Brian McMahon and Josh Wharton.

Kanadahn Buttress (VI, 5.11+X C1) on Shipton Spire. (More details on Kanadahn Buttress in Climbs and Expeditions.) Brian McMahon and Josh Wharton.

Josh and Brian would like to thank The American Alpine Club for the Lyman-Spitzer Grant, the Mountaineering Fellowship Grant, and the Robert H. Bates Youth Climbing Award.