2015 Pakistan Expedition Report
“Would you like to join our expedition to Pakistan this summer?” My climbing partner and friend Bruce Normand asked me while hiking down a glacier somewhere in western Sichuan along with American alpine climber powerhouse Kyle Dempster. We had just tried to climb an unclimbed peak, but failed due to high winds and cold temperatures. Even though we had failed and it was still winter, we were already thinking about plans for the coming summer. Life is too short to dwell in failures. Thoughts started rushing through my head as I tried to remember what mountains are located in the Karakoram. K2 came to mind really quick as well as the famous Gashebrum group along with other 8000 meter peaks. However what they had in mind for their expedition in Pakistan were not the great 8000 meter peaks of the Karakoram, but something much harder but equally famous mountains of the Choktoi glacier. Without much hesitation I replied “let’s go!”
The Choktoi glacier is a tributary of the great Biafo glacier which is a 67 km (42 mi) long glacier in the Karakoram Mountains of Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan which meets the 49 km (30 mi) long Hispar Glacier at an altitude of 5,128 m (16,824 ft) at Hispar La (Pass) to create the world's longest glacial system outside the polar regions. The Biafo and Choktoi glaciers presents a trekker with several days of very strenuous, often hectic boulder hopping, with spectacular views throughout and Snow Lake near the high point. The Biafo Glacier is the world's third longest glacier outside of the polar regions. It is here in the Choktoi where the Ogre group and Latok group of mountains is located.
These two mountain groups contain some of the hardest and most technically challenging alpine climbs in the whole world.
Latok I alone has defeated over 40 expeditions in the past 30 years. From the Choktoi there were over 100 expeditions with only on successful ascent up to now. Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy ascent of the south face of Ogre I in 2012.
Our expedition would include Bruce and I in one team, Kyle and Scott Adamson in another and two other Americans, Billy and Jesse on a separate team for a total of 6 members. Our targets would consist of 3 north faces: the north face of Ogre I, the north face of Ogre II and the north face of Latok I. All three faces are over 2000 meters of vertical terrain, unclimbed and tried several times over the years.Since Bruce and I both live in China we decided to meet up in Kashgar and go over land to Pakistan by taking a bus to Tashkurgan and crossing the border to Pakistan.
On June 9th we flew to Kashgar, met up, rounded up some gear Bruce had left behind the previous summer, went shopping for expedition food, dried fruits and local goods and got ready to take the bus to Tashkurgan the following morning.
The next day we took a beautiful drive through the Xinjiang desert, passing the famous 7500+ meter MustaghAta and a pristine lake on the way to Tashkurgan.
We were expecting to cross over to Pakistan the following day but since it was a holiday in Pakistan we ended up stuck in Tashkurgan for an extra day. On June 11th we crossed the border into Pakistan and drove to Karimabad (where we met Billy). It was a long 8 hour drive with the first views of the big Karakoram mountains.
We also passed Attabad lake that was formed due to a massive landslide at Attabad village in Gilgit-Baltistan, 9 miles (14 km) upstream (east) of Karimabad that occurred on January 4, 2010. The enormous landslide killed twenty people and blocked the flow of the Hunza River for five months.
The lake flooding has displaced 6,000 people from upstream villages, stranded (from land transportation routes) a further 25,000, and inundated over 12 miles (19 km) of the Karakoram Highway (now being rebuilt by the Chinese thanks to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor ‘CPEC’ agreement). The lake reached 13 miles (21 km) long and over 100 metres (330 ft) in depth by the first week of June 2010 when it began flowing over the landslide dam.The whole ride from Kashgar to Karimabad took a total of 4 days instead of the planned 3.
Karimabad is home to a few very high mountains. In particular Rakaposhi a 7788 meter high mountain ranked 12th highest in Pakistan and 27th highest in the world. Rakaposhi has an uninterrupted vertical rise of approximately 6000 m (19,685 feet), making it the tallest mountain on Earth when measured from the base to peak. it is an impressive looking peak. We decided to stay around Karimabad for 3 days to start acclimatizing on a peak just across from the mighty Rakaposhi.
Bruce, Billy and I left for Rakaposhi basecamp in the morning. On the way up to basecamp we were surprised to meet a group of local school children and their teacher on the trail.
They were heading up to a waterfall on the way to the basecamp to have a picnic. A great outdoor class activity! It was a very hot day and I was amazed to see the kids going up the trail with nothing but their clothes and plastic bags carrying only what they intended to consume in the picnic.
Getting near Rakaposhi basecamp.
They would stop at every stream to cool off and drink. We hiked together for a good 3 hours communicating in broken English. These kids had quite a lot of energy!
From Rakaposhi basecamp we crossed a huge glacier and after 2 more hours we reached a moraine field that would lead us to our intended basecamp at around 4400 meters.
Approaching the Rakaposhi base camp before crossing the glacier.
Since the weather was extremely hot we realized that we would have to start hiking early in the morning in order not to sink in the snow in the upper snowfields.
Our route was pretty straight forward and would go up a wide snowfield up to a ridge that would lead to the summit. We got up at 3am, had breakfast and left camp by 4am. Steep steady snow climbing lead us up to the ridge in 5 hours and 40 minutes later Bruce and I were in the summit.
Billy had been feeling tired from the approach and decided to head down at around 5000 meters. We reached the summit at 5510meters at around 11am.
Bruce approaches the summit on our acclimatization peak. 5510 meters
We are not sure if this was a virgin peak, but the proximity to Rakaposhi makes me believe other parties have used this peak to acclimatize.
After enjoying the view on top we made our way down and by 2pm we were back at camp. Since it was still early we decided to head back to Karimabad.
What felt like a good idea at the time turned out to be a very painful idea. The long hike made it a very tough day for the first acclimatization climb. We finally made back to Karimabad at 8pm.
I was sore for 2 days after this intense hiking/climbing excursion. Good thing we had a day drive to Skardu where we would meet the other members of our expedition and our Liaison Officer (LO).
Karimabad to Skardu: The drive to Skardu (where we would meet the rest of the team) is a long 8 hour drive. It runs down the infamous KKH (Karakoram Highway) sometimes referred to as the highway of death. The road is narrowly carved in the side of the mountain and on the opposite side a steep drop awaits to the rushing river below.
The drops get as high as 400 meters and the fiercely rushing river below makes sure that nothing that falls in will ever get out alive. I am used to bad road conditions and this didn't scare me much, but made for some impressive driving experience. Our van was a big van for around 14 people, but it was empty since only Bruce, Billy and I had the van all for ourselves along with our very good driver.
When we got to Skardu the wind was blowing quite strongly lifting the sands of the nearby Indus river bank turning the weather into a full blown sandstorm.
All flights to Skardu had been canceled and it seemed like the weather would remain unchanged for a couple of days which meant our expedition members and our liaison officer would be late, consequently making our departure to the mountains late as well.
Knowing that, we wasted no time and planned a hike to the nearby Deosai plateau (which is the second highest plateau in the world only behind the Chang Tang in Tibet) that averages about 4200 meters high.
A day hike would allow us to get a bit of exercise, get our heads off the expedition delay as well as keeping us somewhat acclimatized. During the hike we found really soft snow and extreme heat and sunshine. Hiking was hard under the harsh sun and sinking in the snow was inevitable even while wearing snowshoes. We definitely got the exercise we intended!
Two days later our team member Jesse Mease finally made the flight to Skardu along with our liaison officer, however due to bureaucracy we weren't able to leave to the mountains for another 2 days and had to wait for more paperwork to be processed. On June 20th we finally got clearance and left early in the morning to a city called Askole.
This would be the last city before going into the mountains and also where we would meet the 44 porters that would carry our supplies to basecamp. The hike from here is usually done in what they call “stages” which means one stage is equal to one day, however we would do ours in 4 days, but still have to pay the porters for 7 “stages”. Like many things in Pakistan, I still don't understand how this works…
On the drive to Askole we stopped at a local restaurant for some chapati (local flour flat bread) and dal (lentils). This proved to be a huge mistake since by night time I had diarrhea and a high fever. People had warned me not to eat the local food, since it was common for tourist to get sick, but I had gone to India and didn't get sick. I knew this would make the hike the next day quite challenging.
On June 21st we started hiking to the mountains. The hike is mainly flat all the way to basecamp with not a lot of elevation gain. The first day we hiked for 6 hours on mostly flat ground, but having woken up with high fever and bad stomach flu I found the hike extremely difficult. My body and joints ached and I struggled to reach camp. The next 3 days hiking was easier as I started to get better and my fever went down.
A “normal” 25kg porter load. Porter carries tarps and mattresses to a separate expedition.
Day 3 was really nice as our camp was littered with boulders. I was feeling a bit better and was craving some climbing. I managed to clean a couple of boulders and even though I was not fully cured yet I did a couple of nice boulder problems.
Day 4 was our last day of hiking, but it was a long grueling 8 hour hike. The last 3 hours of hike we needed to hike in very deep snow. Bruce fell in a frozen stream twice while breaking trail to basecamp. Luckily temperatures were high otherwise he would have been truly in a life threatening situation as hypothermia would have been a real threat.
Approaching the Panmah glacier on day 3 while a storm is brewing on the Choktoi on the left.
Camp was set right across from the mighty Latok I. This is one of the long lasting unclimbed north faces of the world and now maybe the most coveted climb in the alpine climbing world. Several expeditions have tried and none succeeded. I was eager to see this iconic peak with my own eyes for the first time, however bad weather and clouds kept the peak hidden, but somehow I could feel its massive presence.
For the first couple of days we stayed at camp and ate lots and rested while waiting for the weather to improve. As soon as the weather improved we organized our first acclimatization climb in the Choktoi. We headed to the glaciers just East of Biacherahi towers. There was a easy 6000 meter peak we wanted to climb if the weather held up, and if not we could at least sleep on top of the glacier at around 5400 meters.
Snow was extremely deep and soft. Even with snowshoes we sank quite deep and progress
was slow. A hike that should have taken us about three and half hours took us almost 6 hours. By the time we were on top of the glacier clouds came in and started to rain. Summer in Pakistan was extremely warm this year and what should have been snow at this altitude came down in rain. Our lightweight mountain tents (not made to withstand rain) got completely soaked. If it were not for my new Kailas sleeping bag (Mountain 6000) water resistant shell I would have been soaked too. So we decided to go down the following day and wait again for the weather to improve. The next weather window we would go climb a virgin 6400 meter peak called Baintha Artha.
There’s something strange about being in a basecamp for a week surrounded by big, inspirational mountains and not being able to climb them. I know some expeditions go much longer without being even able to get on the mountain as bad weather can last for very long spells. I was already feeling restless that we had been in camp for a whole week and all we managed to climb was a glacier. We hiked up the glacier to sleep a night and came back down. No summits since the weather was horrible. We retreated down to basecamp and started praying for the weather gods for some sun. In the meantime I spent some time digging up a boulder out of the snow so I could try some boulder problems and stay in shape.
Soon enough our prayers were answered (and we got way more sun than we actually wanted as summer temperatures soared and freezing levels rose as high as 6800 unleashing mayhem of avalanches and rockfall but more on that later) and we had a 4 day good weather spell.
It was time for climbing!
We headed up to a minor glacier off the Choktoi where Bruce and Jesse had acclimatized in 2012. There were a couple 6000+ mountains there. One which had seen a couple of ascents and looked a bit like the famous Alpa Mayo of the Andes and one other that had been climbed solo by Bruce Normand but not to the summit as the last 80 meters are made of soft, steep insecure snow along with a corniced summit. Not a good idea if you are soloing.
We decided we would go for this peak baptized “Baintha Arhta” or “Horse peak” and see if we could snatch the first ascent. It would also be great acclimatization for us as the peak stood at about 6410 meters high. We would be a team of 4 trying this peak. Jesse, Billy, Bruce and I. We packed up our bags and strapped on our snow shoes and began hiking by 3 in the morning. Snow was firm and we made good progress until the sun came up at 5:30am. The moment the sun hit the snow it began softening and soon we were sinking down to our knees, even with snowshoes on! It was really amazing how warm it was!
We managed to climb to the top of the glacier and started climbing a second glacier in order to arrive at the base of the mountains. At this point the sound of rockfall and avalanches became quite regular and we could hear it all around us. While traversing to the base on and managing a few crevasses a couple avalanches ripped past where we had climbed.
“The next time we climb we better start even earlier” I thought. We finally manage to reach the base of the climb on top of this high glacier. It was around 9am and the sun felt like 40º Celsius. We pitched our tent and tried to get shelter from the scorching sun. The inside of the tent felt like an oven!
The next day we got up early and started up our route. It consisted of a perfect snow gully for 1200 meters almost all the way to the summit. Then one pitch of about M4 mixed climbing on lose blocks due to the melting snow, and the last 80 meters were unconsolidated snow over steep rock followed by a corniced ridge.
Jesse was not feeling well and decided to bail at around 6000, Billy climbed with us to about 6300 meters, but thought the heat would make the last couple of pitches too dangerous and decided to wait for Bruce and I below. Bruce and I shot for the summit and battled soft snow and scorching sun to snatch the First Ascent of “Baintha Arhta” at 11am. We topped out and began to rap quickly reaching our tents at 2pm under fierce sunshine. We ate and rested until the next morning.
During the climb I was wearing a new pair of sunglasses, but what I didn't know is that they were not dark enough. I had no problem during the climb. It was bright outside, but I didn't feel uncomfortable. Little did I know that I would go snow-blind because of the bright sun.
The next day when I woke up I could not open my eyes. An hour later as I finished breakfast my eyes would progressively feel worse as if there was pepper, sand and salt all mixed in my eyes. The pain was excruciating… I was snow-blind. I had to rely on my partners to down climb the 400 meter vertical section on the glacier and hike the whole 6 hours back to campcompletely blind. Thanks to my partners I made it back safely. Lesson learned! From now on I would climb with my dark skiing goggles only!
After returning to camp it was time to rest up and recover. Our acclimatization climb was a success…now it was time to climb the big peaks. We would wait for the next window and try one of the main targets. Target number 1- The unclimbed north face of Ogre I.
After a couple days of rest the “good” warm weather was back again. We were all in high spirits and psyched to get back to the mountains. Feeling well acclimatized we wanted to go straight to our main target. The unclimbed north face of Ogre I. The north face of Ogre I is actually in a different valley than the Choktoi where we were camping. It is located on the east side of “Snow Lake”, a long, snow covered flat valley that resembles a stretched out lake.
In order to reach Snow Lake we would have to hike for 4 hours, then climb the same glacier we used to approach “Horse peak” then break southwest and climb over a 5,300 meter pass named “Simla pass” then descend 300 meters into the far east of Snow Lake and hike another hour. A total hike of 7 hours with good snow conditions. However as I mentioned previously it was blazing hot the whole time we were in Pakistan and the heat tends to make snow conditions horrible. We knew we would have to start hiking very early in the morning in order to make use of the short hours the snow was actually frozen. Even though we would use snow shoes not to sink too deeply in the snow, hiking over frozen snow can make an enormous difference. So we prepared our bags and asked our great cook Ghafoor to have breakfast ready at 2:00 am so we could leave camp by 2:30/3:00 am at the latest.(we would have liked to leave earlier, however due to the heat the snow would not freeze completely until very late, usually the coldest part of the night is just a couple hours before sunrise.)
Off in the the night we went, hiking at a steady pace we made our way to the top of the glacier and just under “Simla pass” as the first sun rays were shining. Our previous trail was still in place and our footprints had somewhat hardened the snow making the first part of the approach a breeze. By the time we were half way up Simla pass the sun was out already and the snow was beginning to melt. Thoughts of avalanches crossed my mind as the sounds of rock fall and small snow slides filled the air. It is amazing how the mountains come to life when the sun is out. It’s like they are being awaken from their cold sleep by the warm morning sun. We had an extra 45 minutes of hike to reach the top of the pass but the deep avalanche marks in the pass also didn’t inspire confidence.
Eventually we made it over and into the mellow hike of snow lake. We reached the base of Ogre I by 9:30am or so and established camp. We would have to spend the rest of the day roasting inside our tents as the heat of the sun would become unbearable. How ironic that we would be worrying about heat in a place called Snow Lake. Ha!
Our climbing plan was similar to our approach, we would get up really early and make use of the short window where the snow was in acceptable condition. Even though this is a north face, the face would get a lot of sun throughout the day as we would be climbing fairly close to the summer solstice where the sun is highest in the sky.
By 2am we were packed and began our approach to the face. The first day of climbing would consist of crossing 2 large bergschrunds, climbing a steep icefall and doing a quite long 300 meter traverse into a gully that would take us to the bottom of a rock wall. The first bergschrund was a bit tricky to cross, we couldn't find a narrow gap and ended up having to traverse quite a long way out of our intended route to find a place we could cross and even so, the snow around the edges were very soft making the crossing quite exciting! The rest of the climb was uneventful and we climbed fast and unroped until the end of the long traverse. When the ice got steep we roped up and started simul-climbing. Bruce and I would form one team and Jesse and Billy another. As I was leading the long ice gully the sun had been out for about 30 minutes and snow, ice and small bits of rock started raining down the face. I tried to climb as fast I as could and find place for shelter. The only problem is that the nearest shelter I could find was under a steep rock face 80 meters above me. I did not hesitate and blasted my way up even though all I had were 4 ice screws left. I felt confident in the ice and decided that building an anchor in the open ice gully would be much more dangerous (due to the increasingly frequent rock fall) than doing a few long 20 meter run outs on steep ice. By the time Bruce reached me he was angry and yelling at me for not stopping earlier. I told him I didn't want to risk being in the exposed face, but he didn't seem to agree until a large boulder came flying over our heads and smashed in the ice field below where he wanted me to stop. I didn't say a word and continued to climb. Our priorities now would be to find a safe shelter as conditions would only worsen and retreat at this point would result in certain death. I climbed around the rock face, up and out of the gully to a long snow rib. As Jesse and Billy followed closely I could hear Jesse yelling as he got hit by rockfall. By the time we reached to top of the snow rib Jesse had been hit by rockfall 5 times. Once in the shoulder by a tennis ball sized rock. We were lucky nobody was seriously injured.
We dug a deep snow cave on the side of this large snow rib and hid inside it for the rest of the day. Climbing during the day was impossible and extremely risky. As we waited for nightfall we made the decision to retreat. Climbing this face under these conditions was suicide.
We down climbed and rappelled the face under the stars. The dark cool night kept rockfall at minimum and provided us safety.
By sunrise we were back at the first bergschrund and a short 40 minute hike back to our tents.
“Dude, this weather sucks…I think we should go rock climbing” I told Jesse while we were back at basecamp. We were all feeling a bit frustrated, being unable to climb 7000 meter mountains because of the heat was something I never thought would happen. I guess global warming is real!!
So Jesse and I decided to pair up and try to climb one of the Biacherahi towers. They are a group of 3 granite towers with 1000 meter vertical granite walls and a mere 2 hours hike from camp. We racked up and the next day we were repeating a route Jesse had climbed in 2012. It was a very nice line with 5.11 finger cracks, and corners the whole way. We did not reach the summit as we planned a day climb only and were only able to climb about 650 meters up the face. However we descended happily as we got a nice day out rock climbing!
Back at camp it was time to decide what we would do as a team the next few days. Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson had arrived at camp as well and were psyched to go out in the mountains. The weather was a bit unstable for the week providing only one or 2 day windows, so climbing anything big was out of the question. Bruce and Billy showed interest in going back to the Ogre I north face when the weather improved. I didn't want to risk my life again on a mountain and decided I would not attempt the Ogre I again under those conditions. At least not that route…maybe a ridge line. Kyle suggested that we try the northeast ridge of Ogre II. The line had been tried a few times but it had no successful attempt. It was mostly a ridge, so climbing under warm weather would be safe. Jesse liked the idea and we decide to go for it.
A week later the weather improved and we went to try the northeast ridge of Ogre II. Kyle and Scott decide to try the north face of Ogre II, so we all hiked together to the base of the Ogres.
The climb was quite complex. In order to reach the ridge had to climb an icefall to the upper glacier that divides Ogre I and Ogre II. Then we climbed a second ice fall/ gully to the pass between the two Ogres. After that climbed a steep glacier in order to reach the snowfields above that would lead us to the ridge. Once on the ridge the climbing would be mostly snow with rock and mixe sections. Or so we thought…
We climbed together as a party of 4 to the upper glacier between the Ogres. Kyle and Scott would camp here, but Jesse and I wanted to make it to the top of the notch in the same day. We realized that was not going to happen as the usual rock fall and avalanches began as soon as the sun was out. We had no choice but to camp with Kyle and Scott and climb to the notch the morning.
We got the usual early start and began hiking towards the ice fall. The climbing was really beautiful. After crossing a large bergschrund and doing a couple of mixed pitches we were at this really large ice gully. The sides of the gully had these huge overhanging mushrooms. It was both mesmerizing and terrifying. We climbed the 500 meter gully quickly and were up at the notch by sunrise. We took a quick pause for water and a snack then headed up to the steep glacier. In order to access the ice we needed to do a 70 meter traverse on a rock slab. The climb then was a steep ice line just in between the glacier and the overhanging rock wall. After taking a closer look we decide it would be a bit dangerous to climb it while it was warm as the ice fall was already breaking and collapsing under the sun. We decided to make camp in the notch and try the ice pitch in the morning. (this became the rhythm or our whole expedition in Pakistan. Climb at night, sleep during the day)
At 3am we began climbing and were able to finish the tricky rock traverse and reach the steep ice. The ice line was very exciting and we ended up climbing one pitch of slightly overhanging blue ice at 6000 meters followed by a vertical pitch. This would open up access to the upper part of the mountain and the ridge the we wanted to climb. Climbing would now be faster since risk of rockfall and avalanches are no longer present as we would be on the ridge.
We managed to climb quickly and efficiently and made good progress for 2 days following the ridge. On day 5 we reached the end of the ridge where a steep 300 meter rock pillar waited for us just below the summit. We now understood why this line had remained unclimbed. We made camp at the base of the wall and thought about the climb. Out of food and running out of good weather we both knew we would only have one chance at this face. If the face took us longer than one day to climb we would be in a very bad situation.
We began climbing early in the morning, after a couple pitches of easier mixed climbing we were on the hard stuff. Steep rock with overhanging sections of up to M7 at 6700 meters. No easy task. I led the pitches slowly while trying to protect as well as I could. We didn't expect to climb anything this hard on rock and so we did not bring much rock gear. Taking a fall and breaking an ankle or a leg was a very real scenario that I did not want to think about. After making a belay station under a small overhang I told Jesse that If I take longer than one hour in the following pitch we would have to bail. We were progressing slowly and the weather had started to turn…
I climbed 20 meters and soon was out of gear… I told Jesse that I could continue, but I would have to down climb and take some gear from the bottom placements if I were to continue safely. We both decided that it would take too long and with heavy hearts we decided to go down. We were no more than 200 vertical meters of the summit.
The moment we reached our tent the wind had picked up and snowfall was increasingly heavier. We packed camp and began our descent. After 3 hours of descent the wind was ripping over the ridge and snow fall was very heavy. We were both exhausted and decided to pitch the tent for a couple of hours to hide from the wind and melt some snow. As the wind died down we continued our descent down to the notch reaching our previous camp under a full blown storm in the middle of the night.
The next day the storm had ceased and the weather was overcast. Good news for us since we still had to descent two major ice falls before reaching the glacier safely. An overcast day allowed us to descend quickly and safely over the remaining two ice falls, a welcome gift from mother nature since we were already out of food and camping an extra day would suck!
When reaching base camp we got the news that Kyle and Scott had returned to the base camp after our initial approach climb and just a day before had gone back to try the north face of Ogre II again. 4 days later they stumbled back to camp. Scott had taken a 30 meter fall and broken an ankle and an elbow. On top of that on one of their last rappels a v-threat broke and they fell 100 meters over the bergschrund and slid down the snow only stopping at the glacier. Besides Kyle’s broken nose they didn't suffer any other major injuries, but the expedition was over!
In 3 days our porters were at our camp and our gear was packed. We were all disappointed, but Pakistani climbing permits do not allow an expedition to be split up. If one person leaves the whole team must go. And so we did…
Pakistan is an amazing climbing destination. Even thought this time we did not reach the summit I am glad I was able to experience such a wild place. This expedition taught me valuable lessons: how to deal with failure and objective danger.
How to make tough choices and to let go of my desires. Summiting is very important for me as a climber, but staying alive is much more. Learning how to make the right decisions can be extremely hard especially when the desire to achieve a goal and gain recognition clouds your judgement. I am glad I had this experience and was able to grow from it. I hope to become a better person and a better climber because of it. I am grateful for my sponsors, especially Kailas for making this trip possible.