Friday, September 4, 2015

Climbing Changi Tower

After two weeks of bad weather we climbed back up through the icefall, this time to make an attempt on Changi Tower.  Out of the glacial basin where we had cached much of our equipment, we soloed up a thousand feet of easy snow and ice to the Polish Col.  Three Polish climbers had made the only previous attempt on the peak five years earlier had named this pass after their nationality.

Changi Tower with the Polish col on the left
From the Polish Col we ascended a snow and ice face then some mixed climbing up to 6100 meters (20,000ft) where the steep rock climbing started.

Route ascended the ice face and mixed climbing above Graham leaving the Polish Col and then up the wall above.
At the base of the first steep rock pitches, Graham and Scott scouted the route ahead while I started to chop and build a tent platform in the steep slope.  Getting decent shelter for the night is key to success on these higher colder mountains.  Spending several nights out in the open without the tent can mean little sleep and less effective hydration and eating - things that are important to recovery before another day of climbing.   
Scott back at the bivy site while I searched in vain for an easier place to chop a ledge for the tent

We brought an ice hammock, an innovative piece of equipment invented by Mark Richey that consists of a 2 ounce piece of fabric with webbing loops on each end that you fill with snow to make the ledge wider.  In the lower left corner of photo below you can see the blue corner of the ice hammock.
Graham and Scott helping to finish chopping the ledge for our tent
Originally we planned to move the tent up one more time on our second day of climbing above the Polish Col.  We thought that would give us enough time to go to the summit on the third day.  But that night Scott observed that the rock wall above was probably too steep to find a lower angled snow patch to chop another ledge.  He proposed that we get up early and go all the way to the summit from where we had our tent now.  Graham and I agreed, but I suggested we take a stove and one sleeping bag in case we didn't make the top before dark.  That way we wouldn't have to turn around if it got dark short of the summit.  We could survive a cold open bivouac on this minimal gear and go onto the top the next day - but that would be a miserable experience so we hoped we wouldn't have to do  that. 
The rock wall above our bivouac
Graham led the first day from the Polish Col and now it was Scott's turn.  I can't climb nearly as fast as these two young guys and speed was of the essence if we wanted to avoid a cold night out without the tent.  So I followed in support.   
Climbing on thin, but good ice up to where the wall steepened
I was pleasantly surprised at how good the climbing was.  Normally on these big peaks the rock and ice quality can be poor.  But on Changi Tower neither was the case.  The rock quality was almost as good as the best granite I'd climbed on in Patagonia and the ice was solid enough to take good ice screws for protection.
Scott finishing up the mostly mixed climbing. Around the corner was the bottom of the Great Dihedral
Scott kept leading and Graham mentioned to me that when he is on a roll like this it's most efficient to have him keep going.  He was getting the rope up quickly and at this rate it seemed like we might get to the top before dark. 
Graham looking up into the Great Dihedral
From below we had spotted a large corner system in the upper rock wall that I called the Great Dihedral.  If we could climb this feature, we thought it would take us up the steepest part of the route.  As Scott came around a corner to the base of it, he was faced with a thin wet crack capped by a large nasty looking hanging icicle so he did some clever rock climbing on the right wall to get around it.
Looking up into the Great Dihedral
Once Scott traversed left back into the main corner he sped away for another pitch up the ice filled crack system. 

Scott traversing left on face climbing out of the Great Dihedral

On the final pitch up the corner Scott had to change into rock climbing shoes from his boots and crampons.  It looked like the top of the dihedral was capped with a wide, overhanging, and icy crack.  To his delight, a series of nice edges in the granite appeared on the left wall and he was able to get on easy but exposed face climbing that avoided the heinous looking climbing to his right.

Looking to the north at K7 behind Hassin Peak in the foreground.  The unclimbed Link Sar is in the clouds on the right

Above the dihedral it was back to the boots and crampons and Scott quickly dispensed with a snowy granite corner.  As the light started to fade, the last pitch that took us to the summit provided a final sting in the tail.  Scott was faced with an insecure traverse along the top edge of a very exposed rock wall capped with snow that had the consistency and strength of a pile of BB's.  To Move up along the edge of the wall he had to excavate the snow away that wouldn't hold his weight.  As the wall ended he was forced to pull up onto the snow above the rock with insecure ice tool placements and protection that by now was far below.  Once he was up onto the snow he kicked steps up the easy snow to the summit and calmly let Graham and I know that he was on top.

Rappelling off the summit
Scott reached the top just at dusk and by the time he belayed up Graham and then me, it was completely dark.  Although it would have been imprudent to keep climbing up in the dark, we felt comfortable rappelling back down at night the way we came up.  Graham led the rappels and did a nice job finding anchors down the left wall of the Great Dihedral that kept us out of the main corner where our ropes could easily get caught on rock and ice protrusions when we pulled them down.  Further down we had a couple of rappels that wouldn't pull through the anchor or got snagged requiring us to climb back up to retrieve them.  It wasn't until 3AM that we reached our tent and piled in after a very long day.
We woke late the next morning and made rappels down the ice to the Polish Col and then down to the glacial basin below.  By then it was too late in the day to descend the icefall so we spent the night there enjoying the sunset on Changi Tower and the peaks off to the west. 
Sunset on Changi Tower at our camp in the basin

We had some goodies to enjoy at our camp in the basin

In the morning we descended the icefall when it was nice and frozen.

Descending the icefall in the morning

Below the icefall we walked back across the Lachit Glacier and reached our Advanced Base Camp around noon. 
Graham and Scott walking across the Lachit Glacier back to our ABC
We had already decided not to climb the south buttress of K6 Central from our ABC because the lower portion of the route was exposed to avalanches that came off of seracs above. 
The south buttress of K6 Central.  The two large seracs up high on either side of the buttress threaten the lower slopes

The next two days were consumed with moving everything from our ABC up and over the Hidden Col back to the East Nangma Glacier on the other side.  It was a serious and potentially dangerous process because the snow in the couloirs going up and over the Hidden Col had melted out and were now subject to more rockfall.  We had to move quickly during the shady times of the day to minimize this risk.

Getting back to the land of the living on our way back to base camp

We left most of our equipment and supplies at our cache on the upper East Nangma Glacier and walked back to base camp.

Hiking down the lower East Nangma Glacier back to base camp
Before leaving base camp for home, we had one more short good weather window and Scott and Graham had picked out a safer line on K6 via its west ridge.  I mentioned to them that I was too worn out from Changi Tower to turn around quickly and go up on K6 so I elected to stay in base camp for this next climb.  I also felt I would slow them down and they needed to go quickly because the forecast we had was for only three days of good weather followed by a major storm.
My next post covers the last week at base camp before our porters came back to retrieve everything. 


Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Icefall

The approach to Changi Tower was blocked by an icefall in the glacier.  An ice fall is where the glacier tumbles over a steep section of underlying rock causing it to fracture into a jumbled mass of tottering ice towers, overhanging ice walls, and deep crevasses.
The route went up the middle to the ice wall near the top then down and over to the right side
To get to the tower we knew it would be a challenge to find our way through this mess.  The Polish attempt on the peak in 2010 reported that "the approach caused distress: a massive icefall festooned with seracs, followed by a few hundred meters of snow slope, barred access to the col at the foot of the Tower’s northwest ridge".
In the lower portion of the icefall
We mistakenly went left at the ice wall on the first day
On the first day we made a mistake and went left at the ice wall near the top and went left.  Above we found that all our possible routes ended in overhanging ice walls. 
Climbing around crevasses where we could find solid ice
 We found a safe place to camp for the night since it was now too hot and the snow was becoming too unstable to climb.
In the middle of it

The following morning we reversed our tracks over to where we could drop down and cross several large crevasses over to the right side.  A trough up the right side led to a glacial basin below the Polish col. 

Graham sketching the landscape at our bivi
It took us two days to find a safe route through the icefall.  The same amount of time it took for us to climb the tower.  After finding a route though, it was much quicker travel.  On our second trip through the icefall it took two hours.
Coming out of the icefall into the basin below the polish Col
My next blog post will be about our successful climb of Changi tower!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Walk to Base Camp and Climb to Hidden Col

After spending the night in Hushe we rode in jeeps downriver to the town of Kande that sits at the mouth of the Nangma Valley.  It would be a two day walk up this valley to our base camp.  In preparation for hiring our porters, we laid out 44 duffel bags, boxes, and plastic barrels on the ground, each weighing 50 pounds (we had already weighed out these loads of our equipment and supplies in Skardu, and now we needed to hire 44 porters to carry them to base camp). 

Hiring porter in Kande
Scott was in charge of recording the names, village, and fathers name of each porter who was assigned a numbered load.  All the porters had similar names so Scott handed each one a playing card to tie all this data about them to one simple identifier.  Once the porter delivered his load to base camp he would produce his playing card and get paid.  The hiring process took about three hours and our caravan was underway at 10AM.

Crossing the Hushe River before heading up into the Nangma Valley

The trail up into the Nangma valley began with a steep climb that took us to a series of meadows.  We walked along under granite walls that belonged to peaks whose summits towered five to six thousand feet over our heads.  We pitched our tents on the grass in a grove of trees where we spent our first night.

Walking up the Nangma Valley
We reached base camp on July 10th in a rainstorm.  Only about two or three expeditions had been to the upper reaches of this valley and no one was exactly sure where to put the base camp.  It was important for us to pick a good spot where we would live and climb from for the next six weeks.  But we needed to do it quickly so our porters could leave before they were hypothermic.  I quickly chose a spot amongst some boulders that looked to have good water and places we could make platforms for our tents.  With help from Fida Ali, Graham and Scott paid the porters and they quickly disappeared down the hillside, leaving us to wonder what was in store for us now.

Base Camp

The mountains we wanted to climb were on the other side of a pass over a ridge that extended south from the flanks of K6.  Our maps were given to me by a Polish cartographer and showed the pass to be above the upper end of the East Nangma Glacier.  On July 12th Graham, Scott and I made a reconnaissance of the area to find a route up onto the glacier and across it to where we could climb over what the maps called the "Hidden Col".

Looking down towards base camp from the lower part of the East Nangma Glacier

By the 14th we felt our route was safe enough to bring Nadeem with us to help carry supplies along with Ibrahim.  Ibrahim was one of the stronger porters we kept on to help us carry loads up the glacier for a few days.  After we completing this work we would pay Ibrahim and send him back to Hushe.

Graham, Nadeem, Ibrahim, and Scott up on the East Nangma Glacier
The upper East Nangma Glacier was heavily crevassed so we roped up each time for this section.

Scott and Graham on the upper East Nangma Glacier

Snow conditions on the upper East Nangma Glacier would prove to be terrible for the most part.  The temperatures were very warm compared to what I had experienced in the past.  It didn't freeze at night up on the glacier leaving the snow soft and breakable even in the early morning.  It wasn't uncommon to sink up to your crotch every few steps.

Approaching the Hidden Col above and to the left of the climbers
We put a hand line up and over the Hidden Col to assist us carrying loads to what would be our advanced base camp (ABC) on the glacier on the other side. 
Climbing up to the Hidden Col
On July 16th we crossed over the Hidden Col onto the Lechit Glacier and walked over to where we placed our ABC.  The Austrians had used this site for their ABC in 1970 when they made the first ascent of K6.  A Polish expedition had also used this site in 2010 when they made an unsuccessful attempt on Changi Tower.  We were the third expedition to ever visit the upper Lechit Glacier.

Advanced Base Camp with the icefall leading up to Changi Tower on the other side of the Lechit Glacier
Our next job was to find a way up through a labyrinth like icefall to get to the unclimbed 6,500 meter Changi Tower (21,325 feet).  This spectacular granite monolith was our first objective - a great prize on its own.  But we were also going to use the Changi climb as a way to acclimatize for our second objective, the 7100 meter unclimbed Central Summit of K6 (23,293 feet).


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Friends in Hushe

From Skardu we drove to Hushe where my friend Rasool lives.  Rasool has been cooking and taking good care of us on all my trips to the Pakistan Karakoram for the past 28 years.

I first met Rasool in 1987 on an expedition to K2 where he was working for us as a cook.   One evening our porters gathered in a big circle singing and dancing to the beat of hands pounding on five gallon plastic kerosene jugs.  Rasool got up and moved to the center of the circle and began to dance.  He was small and wiry and had already lost the hair on top of his rounded head and wore a close cropped beard.  His dancing told a story about a devious woman who was trying to lure a young man into her bed.  Rasool propped small sticks between his nose and lips to create a fiendish look and dressed up to impersonate a woman with a head covering and tin cups placed strategically under his shirt to simulate breasts. As his dance progressed Rasool spun and flailed his arms wildly and worked himself into a frenzy.  Eventually he reached a point of total exhaustion and he collapsed on the ground completely oblivious to everyone and everything around him.

It turned out that in addition to being a good entertainer he was a pretty good cook.  These attributes led me to hire him again.  By the time we were together again on our 2015 trip to the Nangma Valley, Rasool and I had been on ten expeditions together.  He and his family have really become part of my larger family.

Together with Rasool in 2015 in the Nangma Valley

Hushe is a beautiful village and sits at over 10,000 feet in elevation in a tight rocky and dry valley with a great view of the south side of Masherbrum (25,659 feet high).  It has a short growing season in the summer for the crops that are irrigated by glacier fed streams flowing out of the mountains.  In the winter it doesn't get a lot of sun and is bitterly cold.

Masherbrum above the village of Hushe
Life in the village is hard and my relationship with Rasool has included helping his family with various health and education issues.  Although things have gotten much better, these services in Hushe are poor.  For example, before she died in 2010, Rasool's wife Bedruma had delivered eight children, of which only four survived through infancy.
On an expedition in 1992 Rasool was supposed to meet us in Skardu, but he didn't show so I went to Hushe to find out what was wrong.  He was there with his family heartbroken over the recent death of one of his children - an eight month old baby boy.  Since I had come all the way to Hushe looking for him, Rasool insisted on coming with us to cook.  In Skardu there was access to health care, so during the expedition we came up with a plan to help Rasool and Bedruma by encouraging and offering to pay for them to spend a year there after their next child was born.  All this came to fruition and their son Fida Ali was born and is now about 21.  Fida Ali helped us out on our 2015 expedition to K6 and Changi Tower as a porter on the way into base camp and organized all our porters on the way out from base camp.
Fida Ali and Rasool in Hushe in 2015
Rasool brought along his son-in law Nadeem to serve as the assistant cook on our expedition.  Rasool is getting older and we wanted to have a younger helper to do the heavy work.  Nadeem's father died when he was around 9 or 10 and his mother remarried a man in the village who didn't want her to bring her children into his household.  So Nadeem was raised by his grandparents.  He didn't have the opportunity to attend school in the village because he had to work to support his younger siblings so they could go to school.  I had worked with Nadeem before and he is a very hard, honest, and sincere worker.  He and Rasool have a great working relationship and we were fortunate to have both of them along as our kitchen staff. 

Rasool's daughter Sultanbe with her husband Nadeem and their boys Hasanan Ali and Kashanan Ali

  Late one night in 2010 Rasool called me in Seattle from Skardu crying.  He told me that his wife Bedruma had died.  I found out later it was from cancer and it seemed that treatment was not available to these villagers so she had died quietly at home.  At the time I had been focused on a climbing objective in the Eastern Karakoram on the other side of the Line of Control in Kashmir in India so I hadn't been to Pakistan for a while.  We kept in touch through friends and I could sense that after Bedruma's death he was lonely.
 A few years later I learned that Rasool was remarried to a much younger woman from the village.  At first I felt that it was inappropriate for a sixty-something man to get married to a woman the age of his older daughters - especially because he now has two small children with her the age of his grandchildren.  But I realized after visiting him in Hushe this time and meeting Amina, that I was applying my Western cultural norms to life in Hushe.  I don't know enough about the demographics or lives of women in the village to comment on what was most likely an arranged marriage.  I do know that Rasool is grateful for the company and is good to Amina, his other children have accepted her, and talking about Bedruma still brings him to tears - he still misses her deeply.

Rasool and his wife Amina

Fida Ali is now a father as well.  His older daughter is named Bedruma after his mother and while we were on our expedition his wife gave birth to another daughter.  There are two doulas in the village now to help the women with their pregnancies and birth which has significantly improved infant survival for the parents of Fida's generation.
Fida Ali with his daughter Bedruma
Rasool and I have been through a lot together over the years and his lively willingness to help us in any way he can has been a significant contribution to any success we have had climbing here.  I'm grateful that my old friend has a beautiful family to nurture him as he now becomes "appo" (a respected elder).

Rasool with his young son Rosi

My next post will be about our walk to base camp. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Getting to Hushe

In the July and August of 2015 I led and expedition to the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan to attempt two major unclimbed peaks.  They included Changi Tower, a 6500 meter (21,325 feet) granite tower; and K6 Central, a 7100 meter (23,293 feet) snow and ice massif.  I returned to Skardu recently, the closest city in Northern Pakistan with even slow internet, and over the next week or so I will make several blog posts telling the story of our expedition.  To make it fun I will post lots of pictures and enough text to give you a sense of what exploratory climbing is like in one of the most remote, rugged, and politically challenging mountain ranges in the world.

Our expedition included Scott Bennett (30), Graham Zimmerman (29), and myself (61) as the leader.  Over the past 35 years I've led or participated in 15 expeditions to the Karakoram.  For Scott and Graham this was their first trip.  Mark Richey who is much closer to my age was originally part of the team, but for business reasons he was not able to attend so I became the senior member of our team, albeit with a lot of experience that was the only thing that gave me a fighting chance to try and keep up with my much younger partners.

This trip was made possible for Scott and Graham, the two aspiring Himalayan climbers in our expedition, by the generous support of the American Alpine Club's Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Award, The Mugs Stump Award, the New Zealand Alpine Club's Expedition Fund and the Mount Everest Foundation.  I believe these grants should be used to help young talented climbers like Scott and Graham have these kinds of opportunities and that old farts like me should pay for their own trips (which I did).
This trip could also not have been possible without the help of Nazir Sabir Expeditions (NSE) who ran the in-country logistics, the teams amazing cook Rasool and assistant cook Nadeem who kept the team healthy and psyched throughout the trip, Jim Woodmency ( who's spot on forecasts allowed the team to send with confidence, and our Liason Officer Major Abbas.

Big thanks also goes to the team members sponsors Arc'teryx, Outdoor Research, Rab, Petzl/Alta Group, Camp, Scarpa, Exped, Thermarest, MSR, Edelweiss, Julbo, Iridium Telecommunications, CW-X, Trail Butter, Redd Bar, and Goal Zero.


The three of us flew out of Seattle on July 2nd and after a brief stop in Dubai arrived in Islamabad in the fourth of July.   NSE staff had our itinerary well organized and other than performing a couple of errands like changing money and buying foods at the Western Store (grocery store for expats), we headed to the airport the next day to fly to Skardu.

Graham our treasurer changing a stack of Ben Franklin's for Pak Rupees

Shopping for goodies at the Western Store in Islamabad

We had promised our friends and family that we would fly from Islamabad to Skardu because in recent years the security situation for foreigners to travel by road along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) has deteriorated.  Violence from the war in Afghanistan has spilled over in the tribal areas along the border with Pakistan which are close to the KKH in places.  We intended to avoid the road.
The problem is the Pakistan International Airlines flights to Skardu are weather dependent and therefore irregular. 
Flying past Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, on our way to Skardu

We were fortunate that PIA started flying large jets on the weekends so there was plenty of space and the weather was nice the day we left Islamabad.  The flight over part of the Himalayas to Skardu is spectacular. 
Graham is psyched after landing in Skardu one day after reaching Islamabad
 Skardu is the launching place for most expeditions to the Karakoram and is the capital of Baltistan.  Once in Baltistan we didn't have to be that concerned about security because the people here are peaceful Shia Muslims.  The majority of people in the whole of Pakistan are Sunni Muslims and the majority of those people are peaceful as well.  The perpetrators of all the violence along the border with Afghanistan are militant Pashtuns, a small part of this ethnic group of Sunni Muslims who do not live in Baltistan.  Once we reached Skardu we were surrounded by friendly and peaceful people who have gone out of their way to make every one of my trips to the mountains here an absolute pleasure.  Although we felt it was unnecessary, the Pakistan Government in the province of Gilgit-Baltistan assigned a police officer to each expedition to let us know they were doing everything they could to ensure our protection. 
Nawaz, the police officer assigned to us in Skardu.  He was a very nice man looking serious here for the photo 
From Skardu we drove to Hushe, the village near to where we started our trek.  There had been a lot of rain so the road was washed out in several places.  We were glad that we had very skilled jeep drivers! 
Approaching one of the many washouts on our drive to Hushe
Backhoe repairing a damaged road section
The Karakoram mountains also provide a natural barrier between Pakistan, India, and China whose borders come together here.  The borders between several of these countries are heavily disputed and militarized.  To ensure we had all the necessary permits to travel into these high security restricted areas, we had to show we had the necessary permits and sign in at several checkpoints along the way.
Graham signing in at a check post
Getting through road damage from a rain swollen creek.
 Stay tuned for my next post about my friend Rasool who has been accompanying me for 28 years as a cook on expeditions to the Karakoram in Pakistan.