2011 Karakoram Expedition, Part II
July 20-21 On a snowy ledge at almost 19,000ft, Janet Bergman, Kirsten Kremer, and I curl together (Kirsten would say “snuggled up like hamsters”) to wait out a clear, cold night high above the Sakang Lungpa glacier in the Eastern Karakoram. We only half prepared for this forced bivy; we have a stove, a mini tarp, and Janet and Kirsten have insulated pants. I opted not to bring mine, hoping to save weight and bulk in my pack but now I shiver uncontrollably while waves of nausea intermixed with pangs of hunger wash over me. It took us more than twelve hours to get to this point but the altitude had exhausted me after only three pitches. I know we haven’t moved fast enough to summit in the morning…even if we had, we’re out of food. I try not to look at my watch; minutes feel like hours. I feel my feet freezing, losing dexterity, going completely numb. One toenail has barely grown back after being frostbitten last winter, I can’t let them get too bad.
Eventually I put my mittens on my feet and my feet in my pack. It doesn’t help much, I need calories but can’t choke them down. At some point I must have actually fallen asleep for a minute or two. I dream that one of our Sherpas has climbed up to us with a huge pot of oatmeal. In the dream I ask, “How long did it take you to climb here and he replies, only one and a half hours…I found a shortcut!” This dream is fitting of the situation; our Sherpas are remarkably strong and capable…I’m pretty sure they probably could have climbed up to us with a pot of oatmeal in one hand! Finally I give in and look at my watch. It’s 3:30am, only one long hour ‘til dawn. I’m pretty sure high-altitude climbing isn’t for me.
After our retreat from 6135 we walk three miles back to basecamp arriving just in time for afternoon tea. At 16,500ft and tucked into a pocket of grass and wildflowers complete with a babbling glacial stream, our basecamp is an anomaly in an otherwise high altitude desert. We spend the next three days here resting, eating, and playing round after round of Hearts to pass the time. We also strategize about our next attempt at climbing. Our first try, while mostly exploratory, followed the southeastern ridge of the peak and seemed to be increasingly loaded with loose rock rapidly melting out from under thin patches of snow and ice. Certainly not the clean alpine rock climbing we had hoped to find. It also seemed that from our previous highpoint we would have to continue through a section of complex terrain likely having to climb down, under, and around spires of discontinuous rock and other unstable features. We question the safety of this route, the value of going back at all, and whether we’re willing to accept a higher level of risk given the objective hazards. In the end, we decide to return.
July 25-27The alarm goes off at 1:30am and we quickly brew coffee, force down a little food, and throw a few final items into our packs. We’ve decided to head back up on the southeastern ridge this time with enough gear for at least two nights and three days. We’re also prepared to climb more at night when colder temperatures might keep the snow firm and the rock glued together. Unfortunately, our packs are heavy and this will not contribute to faster paced climbing. But once outside the tent we notice that the sky is no longer filled with stars and a hazy cloud cover moves in rapidly from the south, land of the monsoon rains. Unsure of the next move and not wanting to climb up high only to be trapped in a storm, we go back to bed. Peeking outside the tent every hour or so we find no change in the weather, just thick clouds and light wind. By morning, the weather has neither improved nor deteriorated and we opt to explore another route, this time a long ridge in the center of the peak leading directly to the summit 3000ft away.
Leading in blocks, I take the first three pitches. What looks like an easy gully turns out to be a never-ending, difficult to protect, ribbon of rotten ice and rock. Somewhere on the second pitch I hear rockfall and something whizzes by overhead. I’m pretty sure it’s in the next couloir over but Janet tells me later that it missed her by five feet while she was trapped at a semi hanging belay. Now on the third pitch with the rock ridge in sight, I encounter a 100-pound, missile shaped piece of rock aimed directly down the tight gully we’ve just come up. It teeters on a narrow bed of ice and will launch down the gully if I touch it or when the sun slants toward us as it’s about to do. I’m forty feet above my last piece of gear and balanced awkwardly one foot on ice the other smeared on rock. With little other choice, I wrestle the rock off its platform and into a depression of snow, all while hoping not to be pushed off my stance and into a tumbling fall. Though effective, the maneuver is desperate and leaves me wondering how many more rocks and boulders target us as this one has.
Having taken the next block of leads, Janet has gotten us to the base of the ridge and it is here where we decide to bail. Not just bail to our advanced base camp on the glacier but retreat altogether. We deem this mountain too dangerous. It’s a hard decision to make knowing we haven’t accomplished our objective, but the overhanging, corniced ridge up high and the continuous rockfall are more risk than we’re willing to accept. Moments later as we set up the rappel, our decision is reinforced when huge rockfall tumbles off the summit and ricochets down our line of descent, missing us narrowly.
The next morning, with the help of our Sherpas, we pack up and head for basecamp. Mark, Steve, and Freddie are there, too, having returned from acclimatizing at their advanced camp near the base of Saser Kangri II. They report that the South Shukpa Glacier is the place to be: higher, colder, and endless unclimbed peaks in the shadow of Saser Kangri II all only a days ski away. Perhaps the adventure will continue after all…