American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Twice Lucky, Ascents in the Charakusa Valley of Pakistan

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  • Publication Year: 2008

Twice Lucky

Ascents in the Charakusa Valley of Pakistan.

Steve House

The skin around Vince’s eyes pinches into crows’ feet of concentration. The first shadows of age. His mouth is drawn tight and square, cheeks flat against his face. He wears an expression of concentration, of joy.

Finding the cam he was seeking, he looks upward and reaches to place it. He is breathing roughly, noisily now. The ice is mostly trash, and he hacks at it before finding a solid placement. Then he moves like a spring; if I had looked away, I would have missed it. He is up and over the last few feet of steep ice and rock, and running up the gully, ropes flapping behind him.

The next day dawns gray and slowly. The wind blows doubt into our heads. We’ve climbed thousands of feet and a few dozen pitches to get here. It’s a lot of effort to toss away at the first whiff of a squall. We pack for the day and I take off, leading as much to establish momentum as to climb.

I get it easy. Fun climbing, not too far out of our acclimatization. Vince gets it a bit tougher, climbing a few pitches interspersed with steep steps that get his lungs pumping. Marko gets sustained pitches of steep, brittle ice, 2,000 feet higher than we’ve yet been. Calves burn, tools feel heavy and dull.

When I take over the lead again in the early afternoon, I think I’ve got it made. We’re on an easy snow ridge; just gotta head up and around to the summit. Wrong again.

First there is awe. Then the dawn of understanding. Then goals and the hard work of organizing, training, packing, saying good-bye. Sometimes there is achievement. Always there’s the process. Going home is always harder than you think.

In August of 2007 I walk into Pakistan’s Charakusa Valley for the fourth time, the valley still swarming with potential. In 2003 and 2004, my teammates and I had made seven new routes here. But there is more to be done. Two of the highest peaks in the region, the west summit of the K7 massif (6,858m) and the west summit of the K6 massif (7,200m) are still virgin. Marko Prezelj, Vince Anderson, and I want to be first to both summits.

Taking advantage of the varied terrain, we warm up with a relatively easy ascent of the northwestern couloir on Sulu Peak (ca 5,950m), camping just a couple of dozen yards below the summit. After resting a bit back in the idyllic meadows of base camp, we head up to climb the southwest ridge of Naisa Brakk (previously known as Nayser Brakk, ca 5,200m). The very strong rockclimbers Jeff Hollenbaugh and Bruce Miller had been turned back in 2004 by thin cracks and difficult protection. We bring pins and a rock hammer, allowing me to protect the pitch above their high point, and we are rewarded with fine 5.11a climbing on solid stone. It is a true and rare pleasure to do such clean and fantastic climbing on a first ascent.

The next day the pressure drops. No matter; we head up again, intent on another unclimbed jewel, Farol Peak. The following day we sit in the tent in the rain. Seeking more supplies to help us wait out the weather, I descend to base camp, returning with food and a bottle of Marko’s homemade honey liqueur. Happily, we settle into the deluxe campsite that Marko and Vince have spent the day engineering out of the rubble heap of a moraine. After another day of lounging, however, we grow restless. Back to base camp.

The ensuing days are uninspiring. Cloudy and showery; we hardly ever see the peaks. One of our tents blows down in a gale, and the repair gives us welcome purpose. August 28 dawns brusquely, all gloom and despair. But by the time we’ve put away our morning tea and cakes, the sun is shining. Excitedly, we grab a rock rack and head out for an up-close view of our first big objective: K7 West.

In 2004, Marko, Doug Chabot, Bruce Miller, and Steve Swenson headed up to try this peak via a route from the glacier between K7 West and K7. The rock climbing near the bottom of their planned route turned out to be threatened by a serac. But Marko thought there was another way, a longer, less direct, but promising rock ramp well left of the serac danger. We would investigate.

Some easy scrambling brings us to the ramp, 150 feet wide and angling easily up and right in the direction of a splitter couloir that looks like it might deliver us, eventually, onto the summit. The climbing starts off well with a few 5.8 pitches on decent white granite. Then the wall steepens toward vertical and the crack pinches down. It’s Vince’s lead and his summer of guiding hasn’t contributed to his forearm endurance. Suddenly he is off, the rope wrapping behind his leg on the way down. The resulting wound on his ankle will bother him the rest of the trip. The scrapes on his helmet make us all glad we are wearing them.

Back on the sharp end, Massive Vinny is out for blood; quickly he is on top of the 5.11a pitch. A couple more 5.10 pitches and we are on a broad shoulder looking directly at the couloir we want to climb. There is a huge place to camp here, room for hundreds of tents. We rap back down the ramp, gleeful about our discovery.

The last days of August are all gray. Someday, I think, I’ll spend a summer someplace hot. A crag with a beer vendor near the base. Somewhere I’ll beg for a break from the rays and cringe at my tanned hide. For now, though, I’m stuck in the Karakoram. My belly white. The sun only a rare guest.

The barometer creeps up; we pack. The packs feel light; I even decide to take our little video camera. The first day of September is absolutely flawless, the first such day since we arrived. We virtually float up the glacier and onto the base of the ramp.

Reclimbing the pitches we’d done earlier, each carrying a pack weighing 30 pounds, proves to be a lot of work. We’re climbing in rock shoes, boots in the packs, which makes the rucks top-heavy and cumbersome. On the pitches too hard for the leader to climb with a full pack, one of us belays while the other raps down and climbs back up with the third load. Only the crux pitch doesn’t yield to these tactics. Using a Tibloc and a prusik, Vince ascends the rope with the third pack on that pitch. We’re glad to reach the spacious spot on the shoulder, where we pitch the tent near a protective rock wall and go to sleep by eight.

Aday and a half later, it feels like we’re getting close. Yesterday, after soloing 1,000 feet of moderate ground, we had climbed about a dozen pitches up the ice couloir and then chopped a ledge from the icy ridge for our second bivy. Today, we’ve each already led a block, with increasing difficulty, and now I lope up the summit ridge, anxious to beat an incoming storm. I round the first snow peak and am stopped dead. The gargoyle before me is ugly. Now, I’ve climbed some bad-looking snow and ice gargoyles. Taulliraju’s summit ridge saw me in a slow-motion fall through snowy lacework before a firmer bit of the ridge lodged in my crotch and saved me from taking the big whip. Robson’s got some infamous rime features, too. But this thing looks bad.

First I try the right side; if it is firm enough for me to climb 20 vertical feet to the top of the mushroom, I’ll be able to happy-cowboy 100 or so feet to where the ridge looks more substantial. I plunge the shaft of an ice tool into the gargoyle’s soft surface. It wouldn’t hold a swallow’s nest.

Mmmm. What about rapping down a few hundred feet, traversing underneath the mushroom, and climbing back up. I start to dig for an anchor. Nothing. Super-soft snow for miles.

That leaves the left side of the monster. Looks bad, I think, but I’d better check it out firsthand before I call this whole thing off.

As I start, Marko pops up behind me. We’ve been simul-climbing, and 50 meters of rope lie in the snow between us. He picks it up, worms his way down into the snow ridge, and puts me on belay. I chop and clean and kick, working down and behind a smaller, car-size chunk of the ridge. It’s nice because I can lean back on it.

Once past this, I am urged on more by Marko’s encouragement than by any sense of optimism. I swing and sweep and pull hard on the plunged shafts of my axes. Who thought snow climbing could be 5.11? I stem out left and start to wiggle between the ridge and a land yacht-sized chunk of snow that has split away and is leaning 15 degrees over the abyss to the south. It’s like climbing horizontally through a crevasse. The snow on the ridge side is pretty hard, and I’m moving along, stemming the gap, tools stuck in the right side of the fissure, when it happens.

I feel movement, but snow compresses so I don’t realize at first that the block I’m stemming against is falling away. By the time I do understand what is happening, my stemmed foot is swinging back in, throwing me off balance. I’m holding on for dear life, and my tools stay put in the harder snow of the ridge. Then the noise comes. Loud. Booming. Then rolling away. What thunder would sound like if you were inside the cloud. The massive block hits the slope a few hundred feet below me and is atomized.

Marko is yelling something. I’m yelling, “I’m okay, I’m okay!” Not so much because I’m okay—I’m scared shitless—but I’m not dead, and right now anything other than dead is okay, so I keep yelling as the sound falls away.

Marko understands, and I resume climbing. What other choice do I have? A few yards farther along, the snow gives off the blue tint of ice. Well, almost ice. Where the big block split off from the wall, the cold heart of the gargoyle is exposed. I turn a few screws into the beast and belay Marko and Vince to me.

The next couple of pitches are slow and insecure. But I’ve seen worse, so it’s just a matter of keeping my concentration and not screwing up. At the top of the second pitch the angle eases and I crest the ridge. It’s as wide as Fifth Avenue and only slightly steeper. I walk till the rope comes tight and then keep walking.

It’s stormy now—hoods up, walking with a shoulder into the wind, yelling from six inches apart to communicate, barely a rope length’s visibility. The ridge peaks and tilts downward. I stop and pull in the ropes. There is hugging. Posed photos. I get out the video camera and the Pakistani flag that I took to K7’s main summit during the second ascent of that peak three years earlier. In the midst of our celebration, the clouds blow apart for a few seconds and everything stops. We aren’t on the summit.

But it’s close. So we toss everything back into the packs. By the time I’ve stowed the video, Marko is tugging at me with the rope. I scramble to catch up, gasping at the effort. The clouds close back in. I lose sight of Marko 100 feet in front of me. Suddenly his rope stops. I pause for a few moments. Some of his rope slides back down the hill out of the cloud. Then it gets pulled in quickly. He’s on top.

Quickly I join him. He’s wide-eyed. Excitedly quiet. It’s too windy to talk, so he gestures at a crack right by his last tracks, a few yards higher. I understand: We’re on top of the corniced summit, and the cornice had cracked right between his feet when he groped upward the last few feet. We’re twice lucky.

I back away from the summit and pull in Vince’s rope. When he arrives I explain what happened; he looks at Marko knowingly. Marko shrugs. No celebration is forthcoming. Vince spins and starts down.

At base camp it snows each day for the next six days. On September 11 it clears enough to start to dry out some things. The next day we head out across the wet meadows and climb a long, rambling rock ridge behind Naisa Brakk. The views are painful. What are we doing rock climbing when we should be starting up K6 West? In my mind I know Marko’s right. The last storms must have deposited many feet of snow on the big mountains, leaving our intended route dangerous for days as it avalanches and cleans itself. But in my heart, where decisions are made, I am in anguish.

I don’t enjoy the ridge climb and am almost relieved when we find slings on the first summit. It justifies my feelings that we’re wasting time; we’re not even getting an FA.

The next day at breakfast I announce: “I’m going to check out K6. Anyone want to come with me?” Of course they do. We have five days before the porters come to pick us up and start us on our trip home. The next day at noon, still under a blue sky, we head off.

Up close we can all see that the mountain is lying under a deep blanket of white. The ice we’d hoped to climb isn’t even visible. We pitch the tents in the only safe spot, between two icefalls, and Marko and I head off to try to find a way through the second icefall.

I like it when failure is unequivocal. Nothing short of a high-altitude helicopter would get us through that icefall. Every option is totally blocked. As if to illustrate the point, after we descend to Vince at the bivy tent, the left side of the upper icefall collapses in a solid whump, right where we had considered climbing.

In the morning we sleep late, watch the sun come up on the mountains around us, and enjoy the place. Slowly, we pack and start down the glacier. The next day, Vince and I pack while Marko joins Maxime Turgeon for a final rock climb. They rap off the summit of a fine little rock spire an hour after dark. Their route would be a classic Grade V anywhere else. It’s like a 25-meter sport climb compared to the still-unclimbed monsters looming above. We’ll be back.

Summary

Area: Charakusa Valley, Pakistan

Ascents: Northwest face of Sulu Peak (ca 5,950m) via a probable new route up a couloir (950m, 60°), August 18–19, 2007. First ascent of the southwest ridge of Naisa Brakk (ca 5,200m), with about 900 meters of rock climbing up to 5.11-, August 21, 2007. First ascent of K7 West (6,858m) via the southeast face (2,000m, 5.11a WI5), September 1–4, 2007. All ascents by Vince Anderson, Steve House, and Marko Prezelj. Prezelj and Maxime

Turgeon also climbed a rock spire (900m, 5.11 A0) on the east side of the south face of K7 West on September 18.

A Note About the Author:

Steve House has completed nine climbing expeditions in Pakistan. This year he plans to try his luck in the Nepal Himalaya, with a post-monsoon attempt on Makalu's west face. House, 37, is pleasantly ensconced in Terrebonne, Oregon, near Smith Rock, where he did his first multipitch climb and where the sport climbing is a pleasant antidote to alpinism.

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