Hajji Brakk & K7
Alone among the granite spires of the Charakusa Vallley, Pakistan.
“Malo levo,” Marko requested, and I obliged. With a step I triggered the sweet spot, and we watched in awe as a slab avalanche rumbled down our up-track in the couloir. It would have been a fatal ride for anyone below, but we reasoned that it will be safe now, and so with the conviction of the damned, we held our breath and gingerly climbed down the crown of the slide and cramponed toward base camp.
Avalanches had been the defining events of the 2003 Slovenian-American Masherbrum expedition. Each time we left base camp we had been confronted by dangerous snow. After seven frustrating weeks our final attempt on Masherbrum ended at just over 20,000 feet when we were faced with a large snowslope spanning the hugely corniced ridgecrest. By this point we were resigned to belaying pitches on even the simplest snowslopes. On my lead I set off the expedition’s ninth human-triggered slab avalanche and it had traveled 200 feet and stopped at the feet of my belayers. Collectively, our idea of success had been evolving from climbing Masherbrum in alpine style to simply surviving the expedition and having the chance to return home. On this occasion it required little discussion to conclude that we were finished. But we lingered anyway. On a good day anyone could traverse this slope with a poodle, but on days like this the fact that alpinists reach any summits at all seemed like a distant and bizarre concept.
A week later, back in the oppressive heat of Islamabad I accompanied Marko Prezelj and Matic Jost to the airport for their flight home. And then I paid a visit to Pakistan’s Ministry of Tourism in order to draw another permit and surrender myself, once again, to the Karakoram.
In North America we would never call the Karakoram Highway a “highway.” Instead it reminds me of a windy logging road that I drive in my old Landcruiser. I go eight times a year and load a rickety wood trailer with rounds of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir to bank against the long North Cascadian winters. The Karakoram Highway makes even that road look good, and at home I can drive as slowly as I like. But not in Pakistan. Here I expect to be jarred from side to side, hour after hour, as the driver hurls his van around the famously narrow corners. It occurs to me that I have become numb to certain rigors of this place, which is to say that I have finally come to feel at home here, too. The thought gives me comfort. But 10 hours into the drive a sense of isolation finally sneaks up on me as it so often does through the clucking enunciations of an unfamiliar language. I listen to the Balti chatter and wonder what they are talking about and what would I be talking about had I company, which I don’t. This makes me sad and homesick, and the feeling sits there in the bottom of my gut, sloshing heavily back and forth with each new change in the minivan’s direction. We drive through the day’s slow dawn and I skip breakfast and again skip lunch and later start to feel ill, much the same as the ache that had festered in my sloshing gut. Then I start to think about where I am and where I’m going, and the “where I’m going” part makes me feel less sorry for myself and eventually it makes me feel happy.
My pack is built too lightly for this heavy load and it pulls me sideways and adds to the feeling of drunkenness as I weave across the rock-strewn surface of the Charakusa Glacier. This eventually brings me to a small feeder glacier where I add crampons to my clumsiness and hurry across underneath a serac that looms hugely from its position 2,000 feet above. I feel like a naked pawn running past a distracted queen.
At noon I reach the top of the glacier and scrape out a ledge in the snow, brew a large pot of sweet tea, and watch the sunlight cross the face of the unnamed peak above me. I’ve taken to calling this spire Hajji Brakk, after my good friend and cook, Ghulam Rasool, who became Hajji this past year. Hajji is the title given to those Muslims who have made the pilgrimages to the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina. When I first saw the spire, a few weeks earlier, I had thought of Chamonix’s Grand Charmoz standing sentinel over the Mer de Glace. The sweeping ice face starts wide and at first isn’t too steep. But soon it looks to be plenty steep before it narrows further and turns to rock. The rock is checkered with a few crack systems and chimneys, and some of these contain ice, which I could see during the approach. The face concludes on the mountain’s northeast shoulder and is capped by a pyramid of granite rising to the point of a Karakoram needle. As soon as I saw it I knew I had to climb it, but at that time I had been hiking out from the successful (i.e., survived) Masherbrum expedition.
Now I’m back.
The sun sets early when you’re bedded down at the base of an Asian north face, and I doze until 2 a.m. My watch alarm goes off inside my knit hat, and an hour later I find myself struggling with the bergschrund with one light on my helmet and one strapped to my thigh. Breathlessly, I clear the ‘schrund and within 10 minutes I am forced to halt twice—gasping for breath each time—before I find exactly the right pace to steadily take me up the snow and ice and into the growing light of dawn.
By the time I switch the lights off, I’m on my frontpoints and being careful—the exposure has grown below me. The ice is good and hard and fractures into slabs like chunks of a shattered mirror that go skidding and then whirring down the face before I can see what is reflected there. When I do catch a glimpse I see possibilities unrealized: my own body sliding against the ice and making a nylon zipping sound and then going airborne in an unwitnessed blur of color; me here with another partner, climbing more slowly as a team of two, but without any sense of doubt; showing pictures to the Piolet d’Or committee on a distant and cold evening in France—and even while I stand in front of them, wondering if I need or even care about their approval. Then I see myself on a summit alone above the clouds and beyond all the noise.
Sometimes the climbing kicks up a notch before a mental movie finishes, and I focus as I should on the tools swinging from the shoulder-elbow-wrist-grip and pay attention to my front-points as I tune into any possible looseness in a crampon or unnoticed fracturing in the ice that holds me here.
I chop a step in the ice a few feet below the rock wall and move up to stand on it and start to place a screw. A powerful noise cracks the stillness and I realize that the biggest risk up here isn’t falling off due to my own failing, but to be hit by even minor stone- or ice-fall. Before I can conclude the thought, the remains of a cornice have disintegrated 30 feet to my right, gravity pulverizing tons of frozen water into millions of harmless ice crystals. The cornice fell down a frozen waterfall I had considered climbing. I reverse the ice screw, tap out the core, return it to my harness, and climb further up and left. After 100 feet I stop, repeat the process with the step and the ice screw, add a second screw, and clip myself in.
I look up as I flake out the rope. It doesn't look too bad: a small chimney is choked by a snow mushroom and capped by a solid-looking chockstone. Sorting the rack, I rig a self-belay system and climb up to the mushroom and place a screw just beneath it. I don’t touch the snow. The mushroom is big and I know from experience that it is much, much heavier than I am.
The chockstone’s right side looks to be steep mixed climbing; I avoid it by moving up left. But after a little effort I can’t get into any of the stemming positions I thought I saw from below, so I back slowly down to the top screw. The right side it is, then. A good pick torque for my right tool and a shaky edge for my left, and then up with the feet; it feels as steep as it looked. Foot shuffling reveals a better stance, and I clean dry dirt out of a crack and place a small cam.
This climbing feels much harder than I want it to feel, which makes me stand cautiously with my back leaning against the mushroom. I look down at the anchor I am backroped to and wonder if I should descend. Should I give up now without demonstrating to myself that the climbing really is too hard for me, alone, so far away from anyone else that I might as well be on the moon?
“But what do I need?” I ask myself. “Do I need to fall off? Do I need to push right past what I can actually do in order to learn my limits? Isn’t that why I have judgment?” It would be truly stupid to fall up here self-belayed to the clove hitch on an 8mm half rope. No matter how much I can live inside my own cerebellum right now and divorce myself from physical discomfort and exertion, I won’t be able to divorce myself from the pain of actual injury. And once I’ve bounced to a stop on the end of this cord, my goose might be cooked. Of course I knew all this coming up here, so what has changed?
I don’t have the answers.
I look up and study the moves ahead of me. I can’t see more than 10 feet because the terrain is so steep it blocks my view, but below the chockstone I can see some horizontal edges wider than my picks and a couple of discontinuous knifeblade cracks and some good dry-tools in the spaces alongside the chockstone itself. I look down again but this time I don’t look past my feet. I whisper to myself: “Don't fall.”
Above the chockstone the ground slackens a bit, but 20 feet further the business begins again. I slow down and take care to keep my cord straightened out and to use every opportunity to place gear. It isn’t much, but what there is seems good. I break the pitch down into sections that my mind can understand—better to avoid a repeat of the earlier internal discussion. After a sloping ledge I come to a good horizontal crack and nest four pieces together to create an anchor. I try to rest on the narrow stance for a few minutes before going down to clean the pitch.
Standing by my second anchor, I scratch around the shallow cracks and corners above me like a dentist probing for flaws in enamel. I don’t find anything, so I climb down five feet to a stem from which I can pull myself to the right into another crack system, and two hours later I emerge with my eyes encrusted in dirt and a torn pant leg and no more rock gear. Then it’s past yet another chockstone and onto a fat runnel of ice. The dirt in my eyes reminds me of being 15 and working as a potato picker all day under the end-of-summer Oregon sun in a 40-acre field that was planted too deeply. For that I got 18 dollars and my own 50-pound sack of tubers, but for this I get an undignified pitch on less than perfect rock completely devoid of ice until the very top. Both experiences are the same in that I emerge feeling worn from self-abuse.
The way is clear to the shoulder but the climbing isn’t over, just the hard stuff. I need to eat and drink now because it’s been too long. For the first time since I had that talk with myself I am aware of time’s rapid passage. I need to get going because it is already early afternoon and I still plan to get down tonight. The climbing is easier and I enjoy it. I also enjoy the climbing-induced tiredness that is starting to pull on my shoulders. Unfocused thoughts and made-up movies no longer play in my head, and my mind has cracked open to where I feel the snow and ice and rock under my tools and crampons without having to search for the sensation. I concentrate on where to swing and where to kick and before I know it I’m at the end of my 75-meter rope and building a three-piece anchor of an ice screw, a piton, and a stopper.
I belay three more pitches, climb ropeless for a while, and then belay a short, 20-foot pitch and land myself on the near-flatness of the shoulder.
“Tick, tock, tick, tock,” I whisper to myself.
“Why do I whisper to myself?” I say aloud and as the words come out I am taken back by the strangeness of imposing my full voice onto the stillness and I don’t speak out loud again.
My crampons grate noisily on the rock as I hoist onto a ledge and use my knee to gather my feet underneath me and hold onto both sides of the rock fin while I slowly stand up. I touch the pinnacled summit and sit back down. Now I can look around to count all the eggs in my basket: K6, Link Sar, K7, Chogolisa, Broad Peak, K2, Mustang Tower, Masherbrum looking massive, and Nanga Parbat hanging like a dream on the southern horizon. I snap some photos and think that I’m being too quick about this part and take a last look at K6 and K7 and maneuver onto my belly to stretch my legs down, crampons scratching for the ledge that is there somewhere just below me.
I am awakened at 5:30 on the morning of my thirty-third birthday by the ignoble bowel pressure of someone who has spent all summer in Pakistan. In the same moment I also register that it is raining in a determined, incessant way that means today will be another rest day. The first act of my thirty-fourth year in the world is to squat in the cold rain and half-dawn and try to keep from spraying shit all over my shoes. It occurs to me that it can only get better from here.
The next day is full of sunshine. I am hiking up the glacier with a rucksack full of courage, which means I have too many ice screws and ropes and spare picks for my three tools. The clear sky reveals the full strength of the Karakoram sun, which has already been at work for hours on the ice of my next climbing objective. By the time I round the ridge and see the east face of K7, a big chunk of ice is gone. A long crucial section. The route is out of shape and no longer worth trying.
When alone I seem to be visited more easily by the blessings of equanimity, and now I wonder whether I am experiencing good or bad luck. Good luck that the route is so clearly out of condition that I won’t waste my precious time in a futile attempt? So out of condition that I won’t unknowingly climb underneath precariously bonded sheets of water ice? Or bad luck that I wasn’t here a day or a week earlier and been up the route and safely back down by now?
I have to decide that it is good luck and that I have more to accomplish in my remaining time here, and so I return down-glacier, scouting for other weaknesses in K7’s outer wall. Eventually I find a possibility to explore the next day.
It is early when I begin climbing K7’s southwest face in crampons. I ascend frozen runnels of ice, stopping on ledges to haul my small pack. In the pack is a parka, a bivy sack, a stove, pot, a small amount of food, a light, and two pairs of gloves. For equipment I carry rock shoes, two slings, five nuts, nine titanium pitons, and a single ice screw. After several hundred feet I switch to my rock shoes and tie the boots to my harness. The morning light is still gray and the temperature is cool and I’m making great time for several hundred feet. But the next pitch is harder and I self-belay despite the dangerously skinny static rope, and I slow way, way down. I finish the pitch but the climbing was harder than I had been ready for: 5.10 moves a few feet above my gear. I clean the pitch on rappel and reclimb it with the pack and a skinny, jerry-rigged 6mm static rope that twangs over sharp crystals.
The next pitch looks harder and I climb a body length above my belay to a steep crack leading to a chimney and a chockstone. I make it there and look around the corner at more difficult climbing ahead. It is said that samurai warriors were able to make all decisions within the space of seven breaths, but it doesn’t even take me five: I rig my rappel and leave. I have finally gone too light on gear and the climbing is too hard.
Back on the glacier it is just noon. I feel good having gotten up and down 1,000 feet of steep granite alone with my light gear and one skinny rappel rope in the space of a morning. Judgment had won out and I hadn’t fallen. I might not be climbing, but I am learning. But now I have only five days before my porters arrive, and there isn’t time to waste. I head back around the end of the southwest ridge and follow a hunch.
Three hours later I am 1,500 feet above the glacier. This time I have found a workable route. Also, the faded fixed ropes make it clear that others have found it before me. After climbing several hundred feet, I return to the glacier, confident that I have discovered the drawbridge that will allow me access to K7’s watchtower.
Back at base camp Rasool, my cook, acts like the proverbial Italian mother, “Eat, Eat!” and the curry indeed is delicious. I declare a rest day and am not roused from my tent until the sun makes it unbearably hot. It doesn’t take long to pack now after so many consecutive days of practice. I know precisely what I need, and more importantly, what I don’t need. I take the essential 60 meters of 6mm static cord that I bought so many years ago from a shop in Chamonix the day before setting off on a memorable solo of the north face of the Dru. This climb cured me of hard soloing until this past year. I replenish a few wired nuts and pitons and this time bring two ice screws. I add a bivy sack and an old pair of down pants. In goes my favorite lime-green DAS parka, the titanium pot, a stove, energy food, and some soup mix. When I hang it all from my scale it measures 18 pounds, the traditional point where I dump it all back out on the ground and go through every item, checking that each has multiple uses, that all these uses are essential, and inspecting for things I can do to lighten the total load. But this time I break tradition and skip the gear dump—this is basically the kit I’ve carried the last two weeks, and I’ve made all the improvements I can.
In the morning the barometric pressure is low but steady, and a few clouds soften the light. I walk alone up the glacier feeling close to my full strength. Before noon I am again at the top of the initial rock barrier and climbing across a snowy ledge, into a short couloir, then onto an ice face. The climbing here is monotonous but I am tuned to my pace at altitude, and when I have to focus I focus on not stopping. The section is long, and as I reach the top of the ice face after a small battle with my own self-discipline, I stop to survey my options. There are two. One is a steep-looking waterfall that descends from a snowpatch to the upper right corner of my ice face. The ice is blue and shady and steep. From the other corner of the face leads a series of mixed steps that look less steep, but possibly threatened by an old serac. Since the climbing in these mountains seems always to be harder than it looks, and the right side looks quite hard, I elect to go left.
To properly judge the seracs I make a long traverse to the crest of the rib that bounds this face and look back at them from another angle. It has been a long time since those white and rounded seracs have calved down my route. I am happy for that and excavate a small stance to observe and eat and drink a little.
The climbing winds wonderfully back and forth on runnels and across occasional ledges. One small chockstone is steep and strenuous enough that I start to lose proper form just when I need it most. But a good swing, a lucky stick, and a deliberate stem bring my torso back into line. I’m up the rocky stretch and it is beginning to snow.
Next is ice and I head up marveling at its ancientness and feeling a familiar shiver of discovery at the magnitude and dimension of this world. I resent the need to move my body with purpose and care, detracting from the emotion of my world view. But this is neither the time nor place for resentment. The ice is getting steep and I can see that it will soon be steeper and so I chop a step for one foot, climb up to it, and rest there. I simultaneously inspect the terrain above me and gather in all the components of my quietest mind, and when everything is already complete in my head I gently loosen one tool and start climbing.
The climbing is steep, as is often the case with seracs, and I head up into vertical ice. Where it begins to overhang and become chalky I traverse right. I struggle to set a solid right foot to stem and move onto, swinging my tools hard and starting to feel the first burn of a pump. Instinctively I loosen my grip and for the sin of overdriving my tools I curse and forgive myself.
At the top of the step I find myself on moderate 60-degree ice with incredible exposure. I see a jutting serac up and right and remember the landmark from my last real break earlier in this day that already feels like an indefinite time ago. The visibility has dropped and it is snowing like it means it.
I climb toward the serac and notice a hollow beneath its cantilevered roofline. A hundred feet further I confirm the onset of dusk with my wristwatch and downclimb back to the hollow.
A slip of spindrift hisses toward me and I step into the hollow as the snow slides past and becomes airborne. The wind lifts it toward me where it dances on the air in front of my bivy site. I place a screw in the back wall and clip to it and start scraping a flat hollow in the snow. I dress in my wonderfully green parka that is exactly like the one my friends Barry and Rolo wear, and I don the puffy pants I used to wear for cook duties back in my Denali-guide days. I slide into the five-ounce bivy sack that Todd made from lightweight fabric, promising it would last only five bivvies but that was already 30 bivvies ago. I settle my warm self onto the empty pack feeling that I am not alone.
After tea and soup and crackers and then more tea I have to pee, and this everyday act becomes a welcome confirmation that I am alive as I sit here under a roof of ice listening to it snow. A little time and snowfall and wind remind me of the unhuman and ultimately the inhuman aspects of life here on this face, and I begin to wonder if I would know it if I died up here. Would I notice if life gave out? Because there certainly isn’t anyone else here who could, and outside of a few thin physical connections there is damn little to anchor me to the world I left behind. I don’t know what death will be like, but I wouldn’t be surprised right now if it was just like climbing, except that I wouldn’t feel the pull of survival and so it wouldn’t feel like anything at all once my curiosity about the terrain had been satisfied. I would lie down and stop because there was no reason whatsoever to do anything else. I think of soloing and of the will to live and for the first time I think I understand something about the will being essential to feeling alive.
I am awake in my bivy at five a.m. and it is snowing still harder and the tongues of spindrift have become avalanches. It is obvious that this place is becoming more and more inhospitable. I contemplate my options. Rappelling from here would be long and tedious and exposed to avalanches from the wide face above me. Climbing up means I must travel through them, but it would be quicker and I might have some ability to run to higher ribs and the occasional rock for cover. And then I could rappel the line of the waterfall ice on the right side, which did not hold a steep snowslope above it.
I wait because for the moment neither is a good option, and I am safe for the time being and can wait all day if necessary. I eat a bar and consider the summit for a moment, but it seems abstract. Surviving seems concrete and important, which I remember is something I learned more about last night.
Two hours later I am packed and my pack feels lighter because I’m rested or because I used so much fuel and food or both and I head out into a clearing morning. There are six to ten inches of snow stuck to the ice slope that starts out steep enough that I can use my tools and then begins to roll back. I trend to the right where the slope seems crested and drive the shafts of my ice tools in because I know there is a risk of the top layer avalanching and I feel the wanting tug of survival very, very strongly for each and every moment of the long hour that it takes me to get to the top of the slope. By now the clouds have come back as suddenly as they had left. The snow becomes deep and the slope flat and I can’t see past the end of my arm.
I sit on my collapsed wet pack and stare at the gut of the cloud that shrouds this mountain and consider how I can’t climb if I can’t see. I get a brief clearing and see that I am immediately above the waterfall and only a few hundred feet short of the ridgecrest. There are crevasses between me and the ridgecrest, and cornices hang like Christmas lace over the other side of the ridge. It would be a 15-minute walk to the crest and then just a few hours up the ridge to the summit in good weather. But the weather is not good. Then the clouds close back in and I continue sitting until 9 a.m. I’m cold and damp and have nowhere to hide from the increasingly intense snowfall. I can admit now what I already knew before, and I stand up and begin flaking out my too-short rap line. Arranging hardware bits on my swami belt, I slowly plod my way across to the top of the waterfall.
I rappel methodically, looking for anchors that use the least of my small rack. The granite provides ample horns and the hard ice gives threads. A hundred feet at a time. On the twelfth rap I swear loudly to whatever creator is or isn’t listening and promise that I’ll never leave my leg-loops behind again. I continue and after 16 I loose track of how many rappels I’ve made.
The storm does not dissipate, but its strength does dissolve some as I lose elevation. I sometimes stop to rest and when I stop I count to 10 and remind myself that there is nothing for me here and make myself get up and carry on. It is as if my legs are heavier in descent than in ascent, and I get to the ice face and downclimb carefully, trying to focus clearly through the fog of dissipating motivation and creeping fatigue.
Before dusk I reach the glacier and once again I sit and this time I drink from a meltwater stream that runs so clean that it looks as if it flows with ultra-liquid properties. The mountains above me are shrouded in quiet storm and it rains lightly. The cold water sits in my gut as if it doesn’t know what to do with such abundance, and I feel a not-unfamiliar mix of disappointment and pride at looking up at where I have been. I count to 10 and stand up and sketch in my mind a picture of a glowing woodstove and a curled dog at my feet and the caress of 16-year-old Glenmorganie. I put one foot forward, back toward the direction of life.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Pakistan Karakoram, Charakusa Valley.
Ascents: First ascent of Hajji Brakk (personal name, approximately 5,985m), (1,200m vertical, 5.9). Steve House, solo. July 31, 2003. Approximately 19 hours round trip.
Various attempts at new routes on K7 reaching a maximum altitude of 6,200m. Steve House, solo. August 2003.
A Note on the Author
Steve House guides private climbs in Washingtons North Cascades and throughout the world. He is the training coordinator for North Cascades Mountain Guides’s guide development and continuing education program and is also the National Coordinator of Alpine Guide Education for the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). He has put up standard-setting new routes on McKinley and other Alaska Range peaks and in the Canadian Rockies, and has climbed so often in Pakistan that he rents a room to keep his expedition gear in the Karakoram.