Ultar (7,388m), southeast pillar, attempt. Christian Trommsdorff and I met at the beginning of October in Karimabad, Hunza. The earthquake did not appear to have done much damage, but enormous avalanches were sweeping the surrounding mountains. Our project was the unclimbed southeast pillar of Ultar, which I had tried to climb in 2000. On that occasion our expedition didn’t even reach the base of the pillar. One good thing about Ultar is its short approach, which would allow easy escape to the valley and prevent us getting trapped by autumn storms. However, we first needed to return to Islamabad for a permit. Once there, though, we found everyone preoccupied with the earthquake and headed back without the necessary signatures. My memories of the 2000 expedition were a bit hazy, and our “two-day” approach took four. We established base camp at 4,200m, just in time for a big storm to deposit 60cm of fresh snow and force us back to the valley.
The crux of the ca. 3,000m-high pillar is probably a difficult rock buttress at 7,000m. After a long discussion we decided to try the climb in two stages: first we would try to reach a small col at 6,000m in order to thoroughly acclimatize; then, if conditions allowed, we would attempt a four-day ascent to the summit. On October 21 we left base camp with seven days food and fuel, hoping to reach the base of the pillar and climb the long couloir on the left flank while conditions were still cold. To reach the pillar we had to cross a serac-threatened glacier plateau, only one hour but a race against fear. Then up the long 45-50° couloir, hemmed on both sides by granite walls. By the time we reached 5,300m, where the gully became increasingly narrow, the warmth of the day, which exhausted us, was also releasing a bombardment of ice chunks. After two hours I felt threatened by a gigantic stalactite hanging 150m above, so we decided to climb rocky ground to the left. On belay after two pitches, ca. 15m to the side of the couloir, I suddenly heard a rumble. At first I thought it came from the seracs just left of the 6,000m col but in fact it was a slope above us (that we had allowed to settle for several days before starting the route). The avalanche channeled into the terrible funnel that, on a hunch, we had escaped from just one hour previously. It was obviously time to bivouac and continue tomorrow, when it would be colder.
Next morning we headed towards the crux of the couloir, a vertical water-ice pitch. It proved rotten, so we had to force our way up a rocky pillar on the left, pitching our bivouac tent only 100m higher than the day before. Next day we hoped to continue to the col and back before nightfall.
The weather was perfect, but we were unable to find the diagonal line wed seen with binoculars from below and instead decided to climb to the top of the avalanche slope, which was now safe in the colder temperatures, and then traverse the arête to the col: a much longer alternative. Nightfall caught us climbing corniced terrain, and in this realm of vertical snow we felt it best to backtrack to a place where we could at least sit down. We hadn’t reached our goal and were already less ambitious.
Next day, October 24—my birthday—a radio message from base camp announced the return of bad weather. We began a series of rappels that eventually got us back to base before nightfall. But each one was torture: should we come back up or not? We had to decide whether to leave our gear at the second bivouac. In the end we didn’t and continued down. The expedition was finished. The first time I failed to set foot on the pillar. The second time I got half way. This story is unfolding in a mathematical manner: perhaps there will be a third time?
Yannick Graziani, France