K7 Alpine Style
The Karakoram Summer continues with a rapid second ascent of a 20~year~old route that originally took 40 days to climb, Charakusa Valley, Pakistan.
We were climbing even lighter than we intended. I reached for a cam and realized Bruce had accidentally left two of them at base camp; this was one-fifth of our rack. It was day one, pitch one, already 900 meters up K7. Before the day was out Bruce dropped another, leaving us seven. There’s no sense making a climb too easy by carrying more gear than necessary.
Bruce Miller and I had set our sights on the Japanese Route on K7 during one of our recons up the Charakusa Valley. Its golden granite turrets stacked one on top of the other looked enticing. The largest of these formations, aptly named the Fortress, is a 300-meter wall that was the crux of the Japanese ascent in 1984 and the high point of a British attempt in 1990. The Japanese took 40 days, using 450 bolts and pitons and 6,500 meters of rope. Bruce and I had three dinners, three fuel canisters, no bolts, and an ever-shrinking rack.
After a spell of bad weather, a false start, and an obsessive amount of re-racks, we left base camp at 3 a.m. on July 24. We were glad to be climbing together again. Over the years Bruce had become my main alpine climbing partner, with trips to Alaska and India under our belts. He’s my secret weapon, falling into the “silent but deadly” category.
The first 900 meters consisted of a frightening-looking gully. Avalanches had scoured a 1.5-meter-deep half-pipe that we followed. We soloed upward on frozen snow, anxiously watching the sunrise. We needed to be out of this luge run before the sun warmed the terrain above. At 10 o’clock I was contemplating crossing the gully to easier ground when a huge wet slide launched over the cliffs above us and gouged out the runnel. So much for that idea. Instead, we decided to climb the rock bordering the chute. I grabbed the rack, noted the missing cams, and headed off on the first real pitch of the climb. The rock was high quality, with M6 moves and awkward stemming off the first belay. I led the rest of the day, finally reaching a snowy perch at 5,600 meters where the Japanese had put their Camp II. We expected to see loads of bolts and old fixed line from their climb, but passed only an occasional anchor.
Bruce was nauseous and had not eaten all day, a concern to us both. Additionally, the snow was dangerously soft, and the ice pitches leading to the Fortress were being hammered by slides. We opted to make camp, eat, rest, and leave in the wee hours of the frozen morning. To save weight, we had bought only one sleeping bag for us both. Spooning together, we slept restlessly.
At 2:30 a.m. I began climbing ice and snow to a ridge leading to the Fortress. We watched the sun rise again into a cloudless, breathless sky. We saw Masherbrum and Nanga Parbat for the first time, which further stoked us. A few pitches of M5 A0 climbing brought us to the base of the Fortress, which Bruce aptly described as a “little big wall.” We saw where the Japanese climbed, but it was out of the question. With so many bolts at their disposal we envisioned a bolt ladder, but instead they had climbed A3 seams. Not equipped for serious aid, we looked for a line that would go free.
Bruce, who up to this point was more silent than deadly, was feeling better and led off to the right in search of a weakness. Out of view and tucked in a hidden cleft was a 70-meter, Grade V+ ice chimney splitting the steepest part of the Fortress. The walls had no cracks and thus no protection. Bruce grabbed our four ice screws and headed up the meter-wide, occasionally overhanging flow. For the next hour he delicately climbed ice, placing three screws in 70 meters, saving one for the anchor. Sporty. Bruce commented with his dry wit that it is ridiculous to travel halfway around the world to spend only an hour doing the type of climbing he’s good at. The next few pitches were mixed, with the crux of K7 being a poorly protected steep corner (M6) that we dubbed “The Miller Come Again Exit.” With a new route up the Fortress, the climb was exceeding our expectations.
As the afternoon wore on, the snow got soft and we triggered wet slides. At one point Bruce sent a dump-truck load of snow onto the slope just a meter away from me. I was scared and contemplated how bad it would look for me, an avalanche forecaster, to die in a wet avalanche.
That evening we chopped out a tent platform under a cornice at 6,100 meters. The next morning dawned clear and we began negotiating the massive snow flutes that capped the buttress. After a traverse we could see that easier, faster climbing was below us. We reached it in five rappels. Two more pitches of ice climbing brought us to a huge bench at the same elevation as our last camp. This plateau was safe and luxurious and we spread our gear out to dry in the afternoon sun. We were going to the summit from here and needed a good rest.
Steve House had soloed K7 by an obvious, mostly unclimbed, line that passed below the Fortress and intersected the Japanese route at this plateau. He left the day after us and we were unsure of his progress until that afternoon when we saw his tracks leading up and then down again. We found out later we missed him by 12 hours.
The next day we were climbing by 2:30 a.m. Ice gave way to snow, and Steve’s trailbreaking helped us conserve energy. After snaking along a snowy ridge, we came to a huge rock tower called the Gendarme. The Japanese had pioneered a route up this that involved 10 meters of Al, an ice slot protected by bolts, and then another Al section. This 50-meter pitch was the key to accessing the upper slopes. Once again, Steve’s four previous recons benefited us in routefinding. The pitches were mixed and we saw more evidence of the Japanese: bolt anchors and bleached fixed lines pointed the way.
At 3:03 p.m. Bruce and I stood on the summit; K7’s third ascent. We were ecstatic and drank in the views. After a round of high-fives and self-portraits, we started down. Since we had brought only one rope, we were forced to do about 30 half-rope raps. We reached the bottom of the Gendarme by 7:30 and our tent at 11:15. Sleep came easily.
The next morning we descended Steve’s route, which required hundreds of meters of downclimbing on ice and setting the occasional rappel. When we finally hit the safety of the glacier, we were elated and relieved to be down.
I have to hand it to the Japanese for their vision and stamina to pull off the first ascent. The fact that they were young and inexperienced university students on their first big climb makes it even more impressive. We found only a fraction of their bolts, and the only fixed rope we saw was on our summit day. My guess is that most of the ropes were avalanched off long ago. The route Bruce and I did was a beautiful line with hard mixed climbing that’s worthy of another ascent.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Pakistan Karakoram, Charakusa Valley
Ascent: Alpine-style ascent of the Japanese Route on K7 (6,934m) (2,400m, VI Al M6 WI5+). Significant new pitches added on and below the Fortress. Bruce Miller and Doug Chabot. Four days to the summit, one down; July 24-28, 2004.
A Note About the Author:
Born in New Jersey in 1964, Doug Chabot learned how to climb and ski at Prescott College. He migrated north in 1986 and made Bozeman, Montana his home. During the winter months he's director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, while in the summer he works for Exum Mountain Guides in Grand Teton National Park.