Khunyang Chhish East, Attempt

Pakistan, Karakoram, Hispar Muztagh
Author: Steve House. Climb Year: 2006. Publication Year: 2007.

Vince Anderson and I had a tough go of it in the Hispar region of Pakistan, mostly due to bad weather. However, we still managed to get to within 300m of the summit of Khunyang Chhish East, which at 7,400m is one of the highest unclimbed peaks in the world.

Our route to base camp was not easy; four separate road washouts set us back in both time and budget. Then, once at the roadhead, we had to deal with the problem of unseasoned porters. Compared to porters for hire to more popular expedition destinations in Pakistan, those here were relatively inexperienced and therefore high maintenance, with a lot of extraneous demands. And they charged roughly double the going rates found on the Baltoro or in the Nanga Parbat region. This caused an instant swelling of our budget to more than 120 percent of our funds. I can’t blame them for wanting more money; it's hard work. But a day's carry cost us $50 per load, which is almost U.S. wages.

Arriving at base camp with three friends, Chris, Ian, and Katharine, we first attempted to acclimatize on a 6,000m peak above base camp but came up short due to bad weather. Vince and I then tried to acclimatize on Ice Cake Peak, a 6,500m snowy tower on the long south ridge of Khunyang Chhish itself. After two weeks of attempts we had only reached 5,900m, hampered by weather and wind, which left much of the route dangerously avalanche-prone and kept us well clear of the summit.

With less than 10 days remaining, we decided to go for it and try to climb Khunyang Chhish East. We weren’t properly acclimatized but were simply running out of time. With a decent if not perfect weather forecast, we started up on September 10. The climb up the southwest face went relatively smoothly, as all but one pitch was easy, or at least easier than I thought it would be. Although an earlier attempt had reported climbing up to M7 midway up the face, we had better (colder) conditions and were able to simul-climb or solo on good firm ice and névé the entire way to our second bivouac. At the M7 section we went a bit farther left and found 60-80° ice, eight to 10cm thick. The next day the most difficult climbing of the ascent came immediately: one pitch of M6+, followed by another of M6, and then progressively easier ground as we climbed toward our third and highest bivouac. We had surpassed the previous team’s high point and made our top bivouac 600m below the summit. The weather was clear but windy.

The next morning was brilliantly clear but incredibly cold, and we headed out as soon as the sun came up. We took six hours to climb the next 300m, reaching the top of the face at around 2 p.m. Here we were stopped on the crest by a steep step that we could just not avoid. To the right was a massive cornice; to the left was steep, blank rock. Vince tried for some time to figure a way to climb directly up the edge between snow and rock, but with no real gear, bad rock, strong, cold winds, and tired bodies, we turned around. In hindsight we agreed that lack of acclimatization contributed to the retreat. We were both really cold (and it got colder on the ridge), and I wasn’t able to keep down food or liquid. I have no regrets about turning around, as I have a feeling that had we continued, something bad would have come of it.

The next day we did about 10 rappels to regain our second bivouac. Then it started to snow really hard. After about an hour (of wishful thinking), we called a halt to our descent and repitched the tent on the tiny site. A sleepless, stressful bivouac followed. It continued to snow hard all night, and we had to dig ourselves out once per hour. It was the worst bivouac I’ve had since that night on the summit of North Twin a few years ago with Marko Prezelj.

At 5 a.m. it cleared, so we quickly crammed our sodden gear into our packs and started to rappel. It was a good thing, too, because by the time we were stepping off the face eight hours and many, many rappels later, it was starting to snow again.

Steve House, AAC