American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Karakoram Summer

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005

Karakoram Summer

A prolific month of new~routing in the Charakusa Valley, Pakistan.

Steve House

September 2003, Hushe village, Baltistan

As I clean, dry, and pack expedition supplies into plastic drums, I review the climbing season that just ended, highlighted by a near-miss on K7 (6,934 meters) and the first ascent of Hajji Brakk (5,985 meters) (see AAJ 2004, ppg. 95-105). Packing the drums into a stone- and-mortar hut that I rent each year in Hushe Village, I take careful notes for next year’s return. Five jugs for kerosene. Two pressure cookers. Folding table and eight chairs. Twenty-seven foam sleeping mats. Five dome tents. Two large canvas cooking tents. Hundreds of other things that an expedition requires, things that a group of Karakorum regulars, including myself, have accrued since 1999. The list fills 12 pages. I leave a lot in Pakistan, but I know I’ll be using it.

June 2004, Hushe village, Baltistan

Back again, on a sunny, dew-kissed morning in Hushe Village, in the foothills of the Karakoram. This time it’s with Marko Prezelj (from Slovenia), Bruce Miller, Doug Chabot, Steve Swenson, and Jeff Hollenbaugh (all from the US). This is the best group of people that I could ever imagine going to the mountains with. Collectively we’ve been on more than 100 expeditions. Everyone is fit, healthy, and happy, and we hold permits for four mountains: unclimbed K6 West (7,021 meters); unclimbed Kapura Peak (6,544 meters); magnificent K7 (6,934 meters); and monstrous Nanga Parbat (8,125 meters). The first three peaks all lay within striking distance of the K7 base camp and should provide acclimatization for the end-goal, Nanga Parbat, which lies some 160 kilometers south of the K7 group.

My recent and frequent experience in the area have made me the logical choice to organize and lead the group. And things work like clockwork right into base camp. Soon we are stalking the scree slopes near base camp, hiking the Charakusa Glacier, and bouldering. The Charakusa Valley is perfectly suited to this type of expedition, with fun and interesting ways to acclimate. And there is nearly every type of climbing, from superb granite bouldering to super-alpine objectives to be reserved for the twenty-second century.

Nine days after arriving in base camp (at about 4,200 meters), I belay Marko and Steve up the final pitch of the superb route we name Tasty Talking. Of the 11 pitches, 10 of them have come in at 5.10, and the final pitch up an arête to the summit stands as one of the most memorable 5.8 leads of my life.

Two days later, Steve, Doug, and I cross the Charakusa Glacier to the Drifika Glacier. We set up our tent on a moraine on the right side of the Drifika, and the next day we ascend easy snowslopes on Kapura Peak’s southwest flank. These slopes steepen to 50 degrees and turn to ice, so we get out our ice tools and gain a large snow ledge that we follow back to the mountain’s west ridge.

At the ridge we negotiate a tricky section of seracs. We rope up and, with Steve leading, simul-climb for two ropelengths across snow-covered ice. On the far side we elect to keep the ropes on, and I lead off through deep snow to an eventual bivouac site at 6,160 meters, a place protected from the southwest wind. The sun sets on our last clear day. The views of Masher- brum, K2, the Gasherbrum group, and Chogolisa make us all feel resolute to spend the summer climbing in the incomparable Karakoram.

We awake to clouds and wind and the fourth of July. Our thoughts are far from watermelon and water sports. Instead, we are focused on getting up this mountain. I sense the need for momentum and grab the rope, tie in, and start off up the snowslopes above camp. After half an hour of trailbreaking I stop at the first technical section and hand the sharp end to Doug. He climbs a fine M4 pitch to the right of the ridgecrest and belays us up. While Doug climbs, Steve expresses concern that he wouldn’t get his share of the leads as he felt that he might be the slowest of the three of us. “Well” I say, “in this group if you want to lead, you’d better speak up.”

And so it was with assertion that Steve volunteered for the next pitch, a tricky lead along the left edge of the ridgecrest. We swap leads a few more times but the higher we get the worse the weather gets. By afternoon it’s blowing and snowing hard, and I realize we are on the verge of deciding to descend.

I belay the boys to me and, without allowing a “descent conversation” to begin, grab the rack and start out on the seventh pitch. Higher, the eighth pitch follows a lovely ice runnel past the last visible rock. The next pitch climbs near-vertical Styrofoam-névé, perfect to climb but impossible to protect. I belay off pickets and ice tools under a six-meter overhanging wall. Starting the last pitch, I lever out a cooler-sized chunk of ice from a horizontal crack, then begin arm-barring the ice crack. This leads to steep snow where, with exaggerated breaths, the shafts of my tools sink as deep as I can stab them. The terrain suddenly goes horizontal and I am caught by surprise. With a mixture of joy and astonishment, I yell to Doug and Steve, “we’re on the summit!”

They come up and it is true: In the storm we had not been able to discern summit from cloud, but now we can make out the skyline falling away from us to the north and south. Together we stand in the wind atop the giant corniced fin of Kapura Peak’s summit.

A careful descent leads us back to camp where we find Marko, Bruce, and Jeff ensconced in their tent. The next morning we head down with Jeff, while Marko and Bruce retrace our route through continued stormy weather to the summit.

Back in camp, I ask our beloved cook Hajji Rasool what “Kapura” means. He giggles into his palms and looks down at his shoes. He is blushing and I am even more curious. Kapura Peak, when translated, means “goat-testicle mountain.” We have a long laugh at the fact that our efforts had been for something so ignobly named.

After 26 days in base camp I at last get the chance to make my first serious attempt on K7. The weather breaks and I set out in the afternoon and climb through the rock crux to make a bivouac at 5,200 meters. The next day, July 17,I climb to approximately 6,650 meters but turn back after spending considerable time figuring out how to negotiate the crux at 6,600 meters. I’m faced with less than two hours of light, more than two hours of climbing to the summit, and threatening-looking clouds approaching from the south.

I retreat, for my lightweight tactics don’t allow for errors. I am carrying eight pounds of equipment. This includes: 80m x 5mm of rope to rappel, a lightweight harness, seven carabiners, one ice screw, one wire Abalakov-puller, six titanium pitons, three nuts, six slings, one 5m x 5mm cordalette, two ice tools, crampons, a titanium stove and small pot, 12 packages of energy gel, 4,000 calories of powdered energy shake, a headlamp, spare batteries, a three-ounce windshell, a synthetic DAS parka, two pairs of gloves, one pair of mittens, one hat, and a neck gaiter.

On July 24, seven days after my failed attempt, we record an expedition-high barometer reading in base camp, so we split off into three groups. Doug and Bruce awake early and depart to attempt an alpine-style ascent of the original Japanese route on K7. Later, Marko, Jeff, and Steve leave to attempt the west ridge of the unclimbed K7 West. And at five in the afternoon, after a day of napping and snacking, I leave base camp to try my route on the southwest face of K7.

My equipment did not change, though my timing did. This time I intend to make a single-push ascent from base camp. Starting in the afternoon allows me to do the technical rock climbing (5.6-5.10a) down low in the late-afternoon warmth. This leaves the easiest climbing to do in the dark. I plan on a late-morning brew stop around 6,500 meters and then to start the hardest climbing at 6,600 meters fresh and in the warmest part of the day.

The plan works perfectly. The weather is flawless and I climb quickly throughout the night, stopping at mid-morning to brew and eat. I pass the aid crux by eleven, and the early afternoon sees me negotiating new and tedious terrain. I proceed carefully for the last 400 meters to the summit. Short mixed cruxes. Steep snow traverses. One collapsing cornice. At six, two hours before darkness, 100 meters of lowangled but snow-laden slope lies between me and the summit. The snow is waist-deep but I am determined to succeed. At 7:45 I reach the summit of K7, nearly 27 hours after I had started. I snap a few pictures of the crisp Karakoram skyline, carefully flip on my headlamp, and start back down.

I follow my tracks downward for most of the night. At sun-up, below 6,000 meters, I sit down on a small flat spot. Forty minutes later I awake with a very wet seat. At 10:45 I walk into base camp, almost 42 hours after I had left. I enjoy my first can of beer in a month, a welcome gift left by Marko.

Two days later Doug and Bruce return from their successful climb of K7 and the others return from K7 West, having been thwarted by dangerous snow conditions near the summit. On August 1 the porters arrive to take us back to Hushe and eventually Skardu, where we reorganize, sleep, and gorge on salad, apples, and grilled chickens for a week before loading up the jeeps for the Nanga Parbat leg of our Pakistani summer.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Pakistan Karakoram, Charakusa Valley

Ascents:

Nayser Brakk (18,000ft.), southeast ridge: Tasty Talking (600m, III 5.10+). Steve House, Marko Prezelj, and Steve Swenson. June 30,2004.

Nayser Brakk, southeast ridge: No More Tasty Talking (1,000+m, IV 5.10+). Bruce Miller and Marko Prezelj, June 31, 2004.

Nayser Brakk, British Route: solo ascent by Jeff Hollenbaugh. 5,000m peak immediately down from Nayser Brakk, south buttress: Jeff Hollenbaugh and Bruce Miller. July 1, 2004. Kapura Peak (21,500ft), first ascent, southwest face and west ridge (1,500m, V M4). July 3-4: Doug Chabot, Steve House, and Steve Swenson. July 4-5: Bruce Miller and Marko Prezelj.

Drifika, west ridge, attempt: Steve House, Jeff Hollenbaugh. July 8-11. Rock tower on southern flanks of K7 West, first ascent: Bruce Miller, Marko Prezelj. July 14,2004.

K7 (6,934m), south face, new route (41:45-hour round trip, 2,400m, VI 5.10- M6 WI4 A2): Steve House, solo. July 24-25,2004.

K7, third ascent, first alpine style ascent Japanese route, plus new pitches (2,400m, VI M6 WI5+ Al): Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller. July 24-28,2004.

K7 West (7,040m-unclimbed), northwest ridge, attempt (2,400m, VI M6 WI4): Jeff Hollenbaugh, Marko Prezelj, Steve Swenson. July 24-26, 2004.

Nanga Parbat, Mazeno Ridge, first ascent to intersection with Schell Route at Mazeno Col (6,940m): Doug Chabot and Steve Swenson. August 12-18, 2004.

Nanga Parbat, Direct Rupal Face attempt to 7,500m (VI M5 90° ice). Steve House and Bruce Miller. August 12-17, 2004.

For a more complete summary of the 2004 American-Slovenian expedition to Pakistan, please see Climbs 8c Expeditions, Pakistan in this Journal.

A Note About the Author:

Steve House works as a mountain guide and as an ambassador for Patagonia. He has recently relocated to Bend, Oregon, where he is developing a taste for sport climbing. He has plans to return to Pakistan in the summer of 2005.

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