The Shafat Fortress, Avoiding Conflicts with a New Route in Kashmir

Publication Year: 2008.

The Shafat Fortress

Avoiding conflicts with a new route in Kashmir.


Over 500,000 troops are stationed along India’s border with Pakistan in the disputed region known as Kashmir. Micah Dash and I traveled there to find an unclimbed mountain we had seen in a photo. Our journey took us from the peaceful town of Leh into the heart of the conflict zone, before dropping us south into the fairy-tale mountains of Zanskar. The Zanskar mountains are officially part of the Himalaya, but they buttress the Karakoram like a bridge between the world’s two greatest ranges. The cultures there similarly fuse two major religions, Muslim and Buddhist.

Our directions and maps were poor. We were looking for a walled mountain somewhere in the Suru Valley. As we dropped south from Kargil, signs of the border dispute became less prevalent: no more foxholes and razor wire, though we did hear stories of hostage situations and even the killing of Buddhist monks in the area less than five years earlier. After two days of jeeping along the Indus River and then bouncing over hard rock roads up the Suru River Valley, we were still unsure how to find our destination. Nevertheless, we encouraged our jeep driver to forge ahead. By late afternoon on our second day of driving, the mountain we had seen only in a picture and thought about daily as our trip developed came into view. We were awed by its beauty and scale. We wanted to be the first to stand on its summit.

Our first problem was that we were on the wrong side of the river valley. “We’re never going to make it across this river,” Micah said as we stared across Class V white water. We walked upstream about a quarter mile to a section of the river that was wider and braided. The most promising stretch was roughly 160 feet across.

I agreed to swim for it. We were at 13,000 feet, and the turbid glacier water wasn’t much warmer than the ice it had melted from. I ran a few hundred yards downstream to warm up before the plunge. Then I tied the rope around me, taped my sandals tight, and started in as Micah fed rope from a riverside belay.

The river was shallow for the first 15 feet, but this belied the crossing’s seriousness. One more step and I was in over my head, swimming with all I had. At 150 feet I could see the last sandbar approaching, but I was fading. A few last desperate strokes got me there. I clawed and plunged my fingers into the sand until I was standing, and then bent over to recover my breath for a good five minutes. I crossed the smaller tributaries, and then Micah and I walked downstream with the rope to set up a tyrolean traverse. It took us all day to ferry our gear and food across.

We set up base camp in a grassy meadow between a few giant granite boulders. The area was pristine, with no marks of previous camps except for an old stone windbreak most likely built by horsemen years ago. Due to the Kashmir conflict, this area has been mostly off-limits since the ’50s. Even as recently as the late ’90s, there had been bloodshed in the nearest villages. But now, to us, it was paradise. We settled into our new home, ate great food made by our friend and cook Phurtemba Sherpa, and acclimatized by bouldering on the fine blocks surrounding camp. We’d stare up at the mountain every few hours and watch the features change with the light. Over coffee we’d discuss the best potential route lines.

Each morning it rained or snowed for just an hour, and then the day would clear. The wall would be caked in rime ice and then melt. We were off exploring more boulders on our eighth day in camp when we saw a Kashmiri horseman in the distance. By his side was a brightly clothed European. We approached, somewhat shocked to see people in this area. Without much of a greeting, the European told us he was with an Italian team and that they (meaning not us) had the permit to attempt this peak. I let him know that we didn’t need a permit for this peak in this region. I’d done my research. They walked off.

On our way back to camp, another man appeared. It was Dawa Sherpa, an old friend I’d met a few base camps ago on the other side of India. He has that good mountain spirit about him. We laughed a bunch. Then Phurtemba walked up and told us that many people were crossing the tyrolean we’d set up. Dawa, having been hired by the Italians, nodded an acknowledgment. We walked through the long, high-country grass and over to the river. Indeed, 10 people in logo-covered uniforms were moving their mountain of haulbags across. We tried to introduce ourselves, make small talk, and help, but they would have nothing of it. Across came tents, portaledges, hundreds of meters of fixing line, barrels of gear and bolts, and bags. We just sat and stared as their liaison officer let us know that he was fine with whatever we were doing, so long as the Italians OK’d it first. This made no sense to us. But, legally, we had to bow to his authority. After all, he could easily contact the nearest army outpost and have us apprehended.

We gave the Italians one more chance to tell us directly that we could not climb this mountain. As they walked by our camp we introduced ourselves again. The team leader was cordial, and he didn’t say anything at that time about permits or problems. So we weren’t going to wait for them to powwow and figure out a strategy to shut us down. We had just heard that two of their team were taking the jeep to the nearest police station to report us…for something. Decisive action was needed.

The rock face was not in great shape. Rime was still crumbling off, and meltwater was running down through major crack systems. But we had little choice. We decided to go for it. Climb now and deal with the consequences later was the idea. In retrospect, that’s a theme that seems not too uncommon in our lives.

We quickly loaded our packs and started up the talus and glacial moraine without looking back. As we walked, we talked in our best cowboy accents because we’d been reading Cormac McCarthy novels.

“I cain’t believe them there Italianos,” Micah said.

“I love them Italianos,” I replied.

As we crested the first ice bulge in the glacier, we started chanting “I love the Italians, I love the Italians!” as a way to rid ourselves of the feelings of conflict. We didn’t need any of that crap on our minds when facing the challenges ahead.

High clouds streaked across the sky the next morning, a sign that a storm might be on its way. But we were determined to start up the wall, rain or shine. We chose a beautiful finger crack to start, and that drove us into a six-pitch, left-facing corner. From there we beelined up a thin face with run-out 5.11 climbing. Then the line trended right into a leaning crack, bringing us to the base of some snow, ice, and exfoliating rock.

It was still my block of leads, so I traded out the rock shoes for crampons and ice tools. The next pitch had only one good piece of gear. I didn’t want to clip the main line into all of the bad gear in deteriorating rock and ice because Micah would have ripped a lot of it while jumaring with the pack. This would have been dangerous. So I mostly used the tag line for protection. I cammed axe picks under loose fins of rock, chopped into snow blobs to gain some leverage for a move or two, placed cams between rotten rock and snow. I made it to the top of a small snow cone below overhanging rock just as it was getting dark. We had no choice; this was our bivy.

We chopped the best ledges we could in the meager cone. Neither of our stances ended up as much more than sitting spots. We traded off our one sleeping bag throughout the night. Micah’s leg cramped at one point, and he startled me awake with a howl. We talked about the practice of “onsighting” big mountain routes like this. We didn’t know what was coming—the difficulties or how to get down. I like the gamesmanship of that cragging ethic. And throwing in all the objective hazards and variable conditions of alpine-style climbing on big peaks makes the game an even better mix of luck and skill.

We tried to sleep but checked our watches too frequently, longing for morning and the encouraging glow of the sun to bleed into the blackness. As soon as it did, we fired up the stove for coffee and stood up, careful not to collapse our stances. Within minutes of coffee hour, it had started snowing.

The cloud ceiling dropped. But we were not going down. We were not going to the Italian-occupied base camp, and we were not going to a Kashmiri police post. So we pendulumed out of our bivy and into a corner system. From there I led two mixed pitches into the cloud and found the best bivy site on the wall, big enough to pitch our small, single-wall tent. Like a big hold where you can shake out on a rock climb, this was the crucial rest spot for the second half of the wall. We poured hot soup down our throats and squeezed into our one sleeping bag with all of our clothes on—we had to dry out.

Waking at four the next morning, we decided to try for a push without bivouac gear. More mixed climbing brought us to the base of a gigantic offwidth system. It was time for Micah’s block. As he cammed and grunted his body into the striking feature, I could see ice and water falling out of the crack.

Micah later recounted the epic pitch in an article in Climbing. “The first few pieces were solid, but soon the crack widened. Instinctually, I pressed myself into it, my right foot heel-toeing on the outside while my left side pressed against the icy, crumbly inside wall, which grew wetter by the minute. Soon, I was soaked from head to toe. My hands and feet were frozen, and hypothermia slowed my progress.”

After an hour and a half, Micah had gained only 100 feet. I was looking at the watch but not saying a word. Except for the first few nut placements, his gear lay slotted between iced-over, loose blocks in the back of the crack, which was running with water.

“My brain would tell me to go, but 30 seconds would pass until I moved,” Micah recalled. “I tried to weasel in a few pieces, but they were no good and merely slowed progress. Eventually, I settled for an ice screw in an aerated ice amoeba. Not far above, the rock looked as though it kicked back, so I punched it 25 feet above the screw to a point where the fissure pinched down. On the wall behind me, I spotted solid, though very wet, handholds…and maybe even some decent gear. ‘Oh, my God, I need to switch sides!’ I yelled to Jonny. But, 150 feet below and under a roof, he couldn’t hear. Twenty minutes later, after tinkering in a small wire, I took a deep breath and switched sides, only to watch the Stopper pop out. I screamed aloud. Nothing felt solid except for my wooden fingers, but in an instant everything became crystal clear. Either I calmed down, relaxed, and climbed, or I fell off, took a 50-foot screamer onto the ice screw, tore it, and likely fell to my death on the small ledge below.”

After hours of belaying I heard a scream of true animal terror. I knew what it meant. I knew how it felt. And I knew all I could do was continue belaying. The rope inched out a few more feet, and I finally heard an exhausted “off belay.” Micah had found a small stance and concocted an intricate nest of RPs and small TCUs. The pitch had absorbed almost three hours.

I jugged to the belay as quickly as possible. Then we climbed another short pitch. The day was half over and we still had at least 1,600 feet of hard climbing to make the 19,500-foot summit. Micah was soaked and going hypothermic. He’d done an outstanding job. But even if we warmed him up, facing an open bivy in these conditions would be dangerous. We made the tough decision to rappel to our bivy site and hope for the best for the next day.

We set up the tent and soaked up rest and hot fluids like sponges. We pulled our sleeping bag over us and all of our clothes, and settled in for a two-pigs-in-a-blanket snooze that lasted until one a.m., when the alarm went off again. We had our two ropes fixed above. Headlamps and stomachs bounced in the dark as we jumared, especially on the free-hanging 8mm tag line that ran over a roof.

It was now my block of leads. The wet corner above our high point was coated in verglas. In the dark I aided an overhanging section and then free-climbed, stemming around iced-up sections. Eventually the sun hit and lit up the vast, golden expanses of granite. The warmth was a blessing and a curse. I didn’t want to get stuck in another waterfall. So we focused on climbing fast and efficiently. The higher we climbed, the colder it became.

One pitch climbed a Tuolumne-style arête to the right of the main corner. Another started in a right-facing rock corner and then turned to ice. Halfway through the pitch I hung on an iced-over chockstone, pulled up my boots, crampons, and ice tools, switched modes, and continued up beautiful mixed ground. Stretching the pitches to 200 feet was the system.

We weren’t thinking about Italians anymore. We weren’t thinking about world politics. We weren’t thinking about paying bills, or relationships, or who’s feeding the dog, or anything else except breathing hard in the thinner air and making the key movements and decisions necessary to go up. We were having fun.

If we kept pace we’d make the summit before sunset. Micah’s last block of leads started at around 19,000 feet. He stood on a snow dollop and psyched up to pull on cold, wet rock shoes. “Grit your teeth, boy!” I hollered in my best cowboy impression.

Three pitches later I found myself gritting my own teeth. I was standing at a small stance and belaying Micah on a traverse when the lights went out with a bang. As I opened my eyes, shards of ice and snow crystals were still cascading around me and I was on my knees. I was looking straight down into a crack on the inside of the small ledge. I instinctively stuck my gloved fingers into the crack and held on until my wits came back. Then I heard Micah yelling to see if I was okay.

“Yeah, I think so,” I yelled back.

A hunk of ice had slid off the summit. The end result was fairly minor: a cracked helmet and a solid headache for the duration of the route.

On August 11, an hour after the helmet cracking, we were on the summit. There had been real climbing all the way to the last five feet. We were elated. To the north we could see K2, Gasherbrum IV, and Broad Peak. And to the south we gazed into the Zanskar’s forbidden areas, mountains still closed to Westerners but that should surely hold some world-class objectives.

Climb now and deal with the consequences later, I had said. In the end, after an initial awkward homecoming at base camp, we made friends with the Italians. We shared our rum. They shared their imported meats and cheeses. And Raju, their Krishna-like liaison officer, taught us to blow giant fireballs with kerosene (not recommended to those with a sensitive palate). Our trivial international conflict had been diffused with a good ol’ party. Intoxicated, we wished the same for India and Pakistan.


Area: Zanskar, India

Ascent: First ascent of the Shafat Fortress (ca 19,500') via the east face, the Colorado

Route (1,000m, VI 5.11 M6 Cl), by Jonny Copp and Micah Dash, August 8–12, 2007.

Note About the Author:

Jonny Copp is a climber, photographer, and founder of the Boulder Adventure Film Festival and Dirt Days Environmental Fair. He was born in Singapore in 1974 and has lived in Boulder, Colorado, for 15 years. He credits his best ascents to great partnerships and friends who can laugh in the midst of a great struggle.

The climbers are grateful for the American Alpine Club’s Lyman Spitzer Cutting-Edge Awards and W.L. Gore’s Shipton-Tilman Grant for making this trip possible.