American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Pakistan, Karakoram, Panmah Muztagh, Baintha Brakk, Southeast Ridge, Attempt; Choktoi Spire, Probable First Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 2007

Baintha Brakk, southeast ridge, attempt; Choktoi Spire, probable first ascent. In early June Paul McSorley and we arrived at a 4,400m base camp on the Choktoi Glacier, intent on climbing the southeast ridge of Baintha Brakk (a.k.a. The Ogre, 7,285m). McSorley’s luggage, though, including climbing gear, had gone missing during the flight, and he decided to return home. Over the next two weeks, between heavy snowfalls, we ferried gear plus food and fuel up the glacier to the base of The Ogre at 5,000m.

The icefalls and avalanche slopes above, leading to the 5,650m col between the Ogre and Ogre II, proved to be very active during the day, so we spent the next four nights sketching our way through this difficult ground. Despite fixing our four ropes to help ferry the gear, it proved grueling work for unacclimatized bodies. Each night wed carry three loads each as far as we could and retreat to the Choktoi before the mountains became alive and the snow too soft to bear our weight. Around June 20 we established an advanced base, stocked with 10 days of food and fuel, on the col.

We spent three days on the col resting and acclimatizing. Then, after fixing two ropes above the col, we set out for an alpine- style attempt on the ridge, taking two ropes, four days of food, and no tent. We climbed the 700m rock buttress that forms the first section of the route in one day. It gave excellent free-climbing on beautiful red granite, except for the 10m bolt ladder installed by a previous party. Sustained at 5.7, the hardest sections were around 5.10a and, where it was mixed, M5. Route-finding was easy due to three sets of old fixed ropes and other junk, shamefully left in place on earlier attempts. Above the buttress four rope lengths of ice/mixed led to a long horizontal band of 60° ice. Here we hacked ice from an abandoned portaledge at 6,350m to make a bivouac site. During the next day, in unsettled weather, we traversed right several hundred meters along the band to a better bivouac site below an overhang.

Despite a drop in pressure, the next morning dawned clear, and we set off for a lightweight push to the summit. A few more insecure pitches along the traverse led to a serac band guarding the upper snowfields. Excellent mixed and overhanging ice climbing led through the barrier to another traverse system (45-50°) leading back toward the south face. Bad weather arrived a little after midday. The westerly wind became increasingly strong, and the summit soon disappeared in cloud. Rationalizing that a night out in a storm at this altitude could prove fatal, we bailed from a height of 6,850m. The next day we arrived back at the col in full-blown storm, having been able to use old anchors from previous trips for most of our rappels. Spindrift and small avalanches became incessant, and we lost most of a rope. We continued down from the col when the storm briefly subsided and were back in base camp on the 30th.

When good weather returned, we had no more than a week left, not enough time for a second attempt. So we tried an attractive nunatak at the head of the glacier; it rose almost 1,000m on its south side and was around 5,900m in altitude. We dubbed it Choktoi Spire and chose a west-facing couloir leading to the southeast ridge. Leaving just after midnight on July 5, we reached the top of the 600m couloir (average angle of 50°) shortly after daybreak, then continued up the 200m rock ridge above in six pitches of excellent climbing up to 5.10. A short overhanging face just below the summit required a tension move from a piton. With rock shoes it would have gone free at mid-5.11.

We had planned to be down the couloir before the sun struck it, but we were an hour late. While downclimbing in the early afternoon, Relph was hit by a falling rock, which dented his helmet, split his forehead, and broke his sunglasses and his nose. Glass in his left eye compounded the damage. He hurried down to the glacier, where eight Steri-strips were applied to hold the skin together. It certainly could have been worse. We named the 800m route Pain is a Privilege and graded it 5.10 A2 (one point). During our 35 days at or above base camp and five out of the seven days on the approach, besides their local staff we never saw another person.

Jeff Relph and Jon Walsh, AAC

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