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 American Gasherbrum 2006: Back in Pindi


August 9th: Back in Pindi, finally. KKH and Skardu road were passable 8/7 and 8/8, with porters ferrying loads between vehicles twice on the Skardu Road. KKH was open from Gilgit to Pindi with a temporary bridge in place above Chilas. Travel is still slow with many sections still to be completely cleared.

August 6. The question is, of course, where are we? Well, I'm sitting in the restaurant of the Masherbrum Hotel in Skardu, swatting at a fly and sucking computer power from the only power outlet. I should be halfway to Islamabad by now, but I'll get to that later.

We left Base Camp for our trip over the Gondogoro La. This is one of the 'Top Five Treks in the World' and I'd been over it two years before. It takes you down a different valley and is shorter as well. I thought we'd all agreed to take it easy on the trek down--three and a half days down, including two easy days at the end.

We left Base Camp on August 1, which was a bit of a surprise as the porters didn't arrive until that morning. I was carrying far more stuff than I wanted to carry; all of my photo gear, tripod, computer, plus a jacket and water and sundry other stuff. Close to 30 lbs. The major obstacle of the day was to cross the Abruzzi glacier. There was some fairly tricky climbing up and down the ice in running shoes, and the pack didn't help. After we got across the glacier (which took three or four hours), I slowed down and walked at my own pace.

We turned the corner and headed up the Vigne Glacier. I was now back on terrain I'd walked before. I followed the cairns up the moraine and knew I'd have to cross the (flat and easy) glacier to reach Ali Camp. Well, somehow I missed the actual turnoff. No problem, just turn right--I could see the camp in the distance. All was well until I hit a major glacial stream. Melting during the day produces a lot of water, and it collects in these streams. This one was about 6 feet wide and 2-3 feet deep--a real torrent. Crap. I assumed that if I walked upstream that I would find the crossing. Well, I walked and walked. I finally found a spot to cross with difficulty. As the light began to fade I finally made Ali Camp, about 90 minutes after the others.

August 2 turned into an exhausting day. We arose at 1AM for the crossing of the Gondogoro La. This meant the shouting (by staff) actually started about 11:30. After a miserable 'breakfast' we started out. My pack proved a curse as I moved slowly, along with our cook. However, I knew that we'd left too early and that speed meant arriving at the pass in the dark.

After crossing the glacier flats we started uphill. The pass has fixed ropes and steps cut by the local maintenance crew. Our cook, in the dark, didn't follow the best line to the ropes. A few feet shy of the ropes I heard a girlish scream and he disappeared down the slope. I wasn't worried (no danger) and was a bit glad he got a fright (we didn't really care much for him). He climbed up the right way and followed me up the ropes.

I arrived at the top at about 4:30, and others had been there for a while. We could see all four 8000m peaks on the Baltoro, but clouds hid some summits and the photo opportunities were poor. We worked our way down to the other side and found a long line of porters and hikers waiting to descend the fixed ropes.

The hard part is getting down from the pass. The first 1000 ft. are fixed rope down loose, steep rock and ice. The danger is getting hit by falling rock. I decided to wait for a while--just too many people--while the others went ahead. After an hour I started down, and in another hour I was down on the glacier. One more hour through some rock, grass, and flowers let to Xhuspang Camp.

I thought I only had a couple more hours to walk, but on arrival the other guys said they wanted to press on to Shaicho, probably seven hours ahead. This would save a day. I was not pleased because this violated our agreement--I wanted to enjoy the trip down! It turns out that our porters weren't provided with the food they needed and really did have to get down. So I put my head down and hiked. I did insist that a porter be hired to carry my pack as I knew it would crush my soul to carry the thing another seven hours.

So I hiked. We were held up for an hour at a stream crossing. The glacial melting was immense and the river was about two feet higher than normal. Boulders and rocks were grinding, and the water level would surge by a foot from time to time.

Finally across, we trudged the last hour or so to Shaicho through a mini-sandstorm and down a ridge wooded with junipers/cedars and tree roses. I arrived at Shaicho Camp at 4:30, unhappy with the 15 hour day. The local 'restaurant' killed a couple of chickens and fixed french fries to accompany them.

The next morning we left for Hushe, the beginning of the road. After 2.5 hours I arrived (again with my pack), accompanied by a small horde of kids asking for stuff (and taking stuff off of my pack. I arrived in town and found our group.

We headed down the valley and stopped at Manchula Rest House for delicious fried chicken and french fries. Soon thereafter we stopped again for our 'real lunch' (don't ask...). We finally got to the K2 Motel in Skardu about 6:30pm.

August 4 was a 'rest day' in Skardu. I walked back and forth into town doing errands, nothing much special happened.

We left for Islamabad about 9am on Aug. 5. Little did we know what we were getting into. First, one member of our party who is enamoured with medications (I'll call him Dopey) took a cocktail of four pills to knock himself out. On a normal drive that might have been OK, but this wasn't a normal drive. The road was blocked in multiple places and we followed the road grader for hours. Finally we reached an impassible landslide. Our guide went ahead and scouted, then recommended that we turn back. So we did. Four more hours of driving and we were back in Skardu.

In the backdrop of all this tension, we had 'Dopey' with his eyes rolled back in his head, staggering around, falling in the mud, He was totally incapable of taking care of himself. The climbers, our guide, and our driver were disgusted. Of course 'Dopey' thought he was acting normally, telling us how proud we should be that he takes so few drugs! Typical junkie rationalization. This is the second time in three trips that this has happened to me. It's not my job to shepard a junkie back to Islamabad. What a pain in the ass.

It's now 10am August 6. We are probably going to sit for the day and wait for the roads to improve. But maybe not...This is Pakistan...I'll let you know in the last dispatch.

Cheers, Mike

Dispatch #6: A Couple of photos, Finally

July 31: OK, I'm bored and am willing to spend a few dollars to put up a couple of photos. I take mostly film (not digital) so my selection is limited right now.

We are waiting today for our porters, who were supposed to show up yesterday. This is the second year in a row that I've waited extra days in Base Camp, and I'm not amused. There are a myriad of consequences to the date we leave (primarily rebooking air flights) and frankly we're all sick of the place!

I'll post again after we get back to Skardu. We are supposed to go over the Gondogoro La, which I crossed two years ago. Spectacular views (if it's clear) and it cuts a day off the trip back.

Ok, here are the pics. Remember, these aren't yours so you can't email them to others unless you have permission. Captions are beneath.

Nick Rice working through an awkward section in the lower icefall.

This photo is looking down the summit 'ridge', which is really more of a wide slope. I'm standing near the very top, just a few minutes from the summit. It's tough in this shot to show where the Spaniard fell, but he landed on the only level spot possible. The landing spot is about 300m (1000ft) below. Climber partway up slope is Nick Rice. Upper left, East Summit (~7700m), upper right is Gasherbrum 1 (8000+m).

Yours truly on the summit of G2. How can you tell? Use the skills you've learned on CSI to infinitely enlarge a bad photo, and check the reflections in my glasses. The truth is out there. Also note the fashion combo of wool hat over baseball cap.

Dispatch #5: A Summit, Finally

July 29: On July 25, I reached the summit of Gasherbrum 2. It's taken a couple of days to get down, and a couple more days to get up the energy to write a short description. Last night I seemed to have more lyrical prose ready for this dispatch, but it must have been the Scotch.

First off, I should say that with the nearly perfect weather we've had this year, almost everyone who has tried to reach the summit has done so. G2 is maybe the second- or third-easiest of the 8000m peaks, so the technical problems don't exist that you find on other peaks. That being said, it's still one of the tallest peaks in the world and I'm happy to have climbed it.

After the snowstorm that dumped on us from July 13-16, the weather broke for the better again and everyone prepared to head up again. On the 17th I was struck by a bit of 'bad stomach' which left me without energy (and also a day behind everyone else). As a result I didn't head up the hill until July 19.

A couple of days in Camp 1 while the weather remained ambiguous, a day or two in Camp 2, then decisions to make. I really wanted to make an attempt from C2 (6400m or 21,000 ft), but the chances of success were lower. In the end I opted to establish a Camp 3 (6900m or 22,600ft) and go from there. Rather than carry a single large load (20kg or 45 lb) from C2 to C3, I split it over two days. In the meantime, a number of Italian climbers on our permit reached the summit.

Finally I was ready to go on July 25. I decided to leave between midnight and 2am (simply because I didn't have an alarm clock). I slept with my two base layers of clothes on and draped my sleeping bag over me. When I got up I only needed to put on my down pants and jacket, fasten my harness, drink a cup of hot chocolate, and go. At 1:30 when I left it was perfectly clear and surprisingly warm. Of course I was wrapped in down clothing from head to foot.

The route from C3 to C4 sucks. It used to be all snow, but now is mostly a ramp of gravel, festooned with multiple crappy ropes. In the middle of the night, at 23,000 feet, alone, on bad ropes--I guess this is what I came for! It was a relief to pull up into Camp 4 (7400m / 24,300 ft). Except that I had an acute attack of minor diarrhea, so getting the harness and down pants off in time was challenging.

The next 300m of ascent was snow plodding. I reached a bit of a plateau where I left my down gear, stove, and anything else I could think of to minimize weight. It was warm, perfectly clear, and with no wind. Another 100m up snow took me to the base of the final long snow slope to the summit.

And here the fun started. I'm at 7700m / 25,300 ft. The track goes up the slope above in a wide zig-zag, first right, then left, then right again. To the right one can see far into China. Two people are sitting at the first zig, one is below me, and one at the top left. I'm plodding up to the right when I see a red flash above. The top climber (Spanish) had fallen and was pinwheeling down the slope. I stared directly into his eyes as he spun by only feet away from me, he protecting his head and I realizing that I was absolutely unable to help. Amazingly he landed on the only level patch of snow in the whole area. I yelled to his partner below to come up, and all of us converged on the groaning climber, afraid of what we would find.

He was alive, but for how long? He was conscious, could move his limbs, but very quickly it was clear that he had a sore neck and was having trouble staying awake. The two other climbers were Poles, including the leader Krzysztof W. (sorry I don't have his spelling correct). He yelled, "Here you go again, Mike, another rescue at 7700m." Last year I helped rescue his business partner Artur off of Broad Peak.

We had no rope, tents, or stretcher. If the fallen climber had serious injuries he was dead. I was afraid of skull/neck fractures, brain trauma, or internal bleeding. Krzysztof got on the radio and had a tent, sleeping bags, and doctor sent up from Camp 4. The uninjured Spaniard was on the radio with his doctor. It was about 1pm when the Poles descended. Should I stay with the Spaniards, go down, or go up? I told the victim's companion that there was nothing we could do (medically speaking)--his friend could die in an instant or could just as easily be OK. So I would go on to the summit and stop on the way back and aid as needed. Was that ethical? Even a skilled physician would only be able to describe what happened to the poor guy if he had internal injuries. Helpless in the face of a perfect day, I went one.

The remainder of the climb up the snow was in a well-packed track, the snow almost perfect in its hardness. There were no ropes (the Koreans had removed their ropes, but not all of their trash). Then there were ropes so I clipped in. There was one curious rope, very cheap-looking. I finally saw that the sheath was gone and I was hanging on the inner core only! Noting that fact with the disinterest that high altitude brings, I kept going.

I finally reached the top of this slope, expecting to find a longish summit ridge. To my surprise I peaked over and saw that it was less than 100m to the summit! I walking along the path below the knife-edge ridge and popped up to the summit at the criminally-late hour of 3:45pm.

A few minutes later another climber appeared on the ridge. As I thought, it was Nick, whose aversion to dark starts carried through to summit day. He almost caught me due to the time spent with the Spaniard. It was cool and breezy in our light clothing, but the views were astounding (sorry, but I'll post photos soon). All major peaks were visible. We each made a quick phone call home (thanks to Nick) and headed down.

I stopped a the 'rescue tent' and the victim looked much better. Still lacking anything in particular to contribute, I headed down at an easy pace, picked up my gear, and passed through a cold and windy Camp 4. The descent down the crap rock was accomplished with sparks (from my crampons) and curses as I hung on the frayed ropes. I managed to pull into Camp 3 about 9pm, after dark but only by an hour. Along with seemingly half of Europe, I'd summitted Gasherbrum 2. And I was the first American of the season by a whole 15 minutes.

Cheers,
Mike

P.S. The Spaniard descended with the help of his teammates and was flown off to Skardu. You certainly know more about his current state than I do. I'm very happy that he survived his fall with so few injuries. The Polish team deserves all credit for getting resources to 7700m as fast as possible

Dispatch #4: July 14 Gasherbrum Base Camp

Much has happened in the past couple of weeks. Lots of folks have summitted in the past week as the result of an extended period of brilliant weather (the best in the past three years in the Karakoram). We arrived a few days too late to make any serious summit attempt, and now we're stuck in the first major storm in  several weeks.

There are a couple of major 'issues' on G2 this year. First, the icefall and glacier between Base Camp and Camp 1 has deteriorated rapidly, and there are many large crevasses spanned by some very delicate bridges. So close attention needs to be paid to ropework, and even then most of us has poked a leg or more into a crevasse at this point, with little or no consequence. The second problem is the location of the route between Camp 1 and Camp 2. Only those who put in the fixed ropes have much good to say about it. The route runs right up the middle of the avalanche runout for the whole upper face.

We may need to move parts of the route to the more traditional slopes to the left.

However, the biggest obstacle I've faced so far is the heat. Even at C2 (6400m) the sun has been fierce! By putting our sleeping bags on top of the tents we've been able to languish the hours of 9 to 4 inside our tents.

I'm happy to have spent 6 nights on the mountain so far, 4.5 in Camp 1 (5900m) and 1.5 in Camp 2 (6400m). The 0.5's deserve an explanation. After a night at C2, the weather was holding so I decided to stay an extra night, then head down to Base Camp. About 7pm it started snowing, heavily, and the thought of descending the avalanche paths the next morning was not comforting. I consulted with some friends next door (who were also a bit jittery) and we decided to head down that night, before the snow built up. After a fairly straightforward descent in the dark (under 2 hours), we were at Camp 1 before 10pm. Of course, it was not snowing. However, in the morning we were 'redeemed' by some strong snow showers. I roped up with another climber and we picked our way through the crevasses which had become uncovered in the past week.

So now it's snowing (but the sun is charging my computer!) and we wait a few days for the weather to clear, hopefully in a day or two. 

One final note. I often say 'we', but I'm technically travelling alone. In respect for their privacy, I don't identify these folks I'm interacting with unless the need is crucial.

Cheers, Mike

Mike Farris is a Professor of Biology at Hamline University. He has previously reached 8000m on Kangchenjunga and 7900m on Broad Peak. His forthcoming book, The Altitude Experience, will be a practical guide to the art and science of travel up high. It will be published by Globe-Pequot Press in late 2007.

Dispatch #3: Base Camp at Last

Monday, July 3. We arrived in Base Camp yesterday. The trek from Paiju was mostly uneventful, in relatively good weather. We had some snow on the hike to Concordia, but by the time we stuffed about 20 climbers in a cook tent and ate some food, the weather cleared and the hike to our actual campsite was in good weather.

The weather has been quite variable. We're getting sun, wind, cloud, snow, then sun again. Luckily we've had some great views of the big mountains. Interestingly, I have yet to see my target, Gasherbrum 2!

The mountain is very crowded, with many more expeditions to come. There was a meeting today about the fixed (permanent) ropes. This issue is more difficult each year. Here's how it works. The first teams on the mountain must fix the ropes if they want to climb. Later teams (and individuals like myself) don't have to spend the time and money to fix the ropes, so these earlier teams want us to pay for the use of their ropes. On the other hand, there is enough rope in camp to fix the route 4 times, so why should we pay when we can set another set of ropes? At this point, I can proceed without paying anyone so in true local style, I'll ignore the problem until I need to deal with it.

I agreed to serve as 'expedition leader' as a favor to my friends at ATP, the trekking company that supplies all of our needs up to and including base camp. It's been as much work as I expected, and that's more than I cared for. I'll be happy to get up onto the mountain.

Speaking of climbing, tomorrow we're going to go drop a load of gear about halfway to Camp I. The goal over the next week is to get Camp 1 stocked with everything I'll need to climb the rest of the mountain.

I'll try and post some photos on the next dispatch.
Cheers,
Mike

Dispatch #2: The High Sahara

Wednesday, June 28. I'm sitting in the mess tent, drinking some milk tea and relaxing. We have had two days trekking in the usual numbing heat, and the rest day is good for all of us--porters, staff and members alike.

The jeep drive to Skardu was uneventful. We had an open-top jeep and I was able to stand up much of the trip, saving my butt and kidneys from a pounding. But it's always a relief to arrive in Askole. I didn't bother to walk around in the village, as I still had to pack for the porters. Each load has to be less than 25 kg (55 lbs). A porter earns 4000 rupees (about $66) for the seven-day trip to Base Camp.

The first day's trek is fairly flat but long. We arrived at the lunch spot, which has some trees, and waited and waited for the lunch supplies to arrive. Finally we find out that there had been some fights among potential porters for our loads, and our guide had to spend several hours sorting things out. Apparently the number of trekkers is way down this year, so there is not enough work.

After arriving at Jhula, the trip almost ended for me. We were standing around talking, and all of a sudden somebody said "Look out!". With my catlike reflexes I instinctively jumped to the side as two donkeys came racing through. I turned around to joke that I wanted more warning the next time, and then I heard "Look out!" and I jumped again as they raced back through again. Apparently the male donkey was lonely and his lady friend was not interested. Getting mowed down by an amorous donkey would have been an ignoble end to my trip!

Day two saw a very hot trudge through the sandy river bottom (hence the title of the dispatch). We took a little under 6 hours to get to Paiju, a forest hillside that is a haven from the sun. There is water, clean toilets, and a magnificant view. At night the porters danced and sang (and we danced some too). I recorded some of their folk music on my trusty digital recorder.

Tomorrow we move onto the glacier (which is completely covered by rocks, so we don't walk on ice). I've feeling fine except for some cracked skin on my heels, which I've dressed with a bandage. We have 3 Italians, 3 Americans (including me), and one Nepali, Dutch, and Dane in our group. We are getting along fine. Mike

Earlier: Update: Dispatch #1: Four beautiful words

Friday, June 23. "We flew to Skardu" may not sound beautiful to you, but they're music to my ears. I'm laying in a motel room in Skardu after a 45 minute plane flight, which allowed us to avoid two grueling days of driving up the Karakoram Highway.

So far the trip has paralleled my experiences the previous two years--long plane flights, jet lag, mind-searing heat in Islamabad. I've also seen a number of my Paskistani friends, and look forward to seeing others in the future.

On Thursday I gave the Alpine Club of Pakistan $500 donated by my friends and family for earthquake relief. The money will be used to help rebuild schools in the earthquake zone. The other $500 will go to the Central Asia Institute, to be used for the same purpose (see the link at the top of the page).

The weather has been generally clear, which was why we could fly today (Friday). The plane must fly by one of the biggest mountains in the world and land in a narrow, deep mountain valley, so bad weather prevents the plane from flying about 50% of the time. I had excellent views of Nanga Parbat (an 8000 meter peak) on the flight.

We have a variety of folks on our permit: A guided group of 3 plus the guide, a couple of Italians and a Nepali, and two solo Americans, Nick and yours truly. We travel and trek to base camp together, but will climb independently.

So far I've done little but eat, sleep, and shop for supplies. Avoiding the 100+ degree heat in Islamabad meant hiding in the air-conditioned room or in the restaurant of the Pearl Continental Hotel.

Saturday, June 24. It's 6am and I'm sitting on the terrace of the hotel, overlooking a river coming down from a side valley. The valley is fllied with poplar trees, and the surrounding mountains are mostly a uniform brown, the color of light mud, with occasional splashes of snow or grass. I'm only up at this hour because of the jet lag, but it's worth it to enjoy a few minutes of cool air and relative quiet.

Skardu is a town that has its own charm, I suppose. It's a frontier town at the end of the road, with eye-watering air full of diesel fumes and dust. There are hundreds of the shops common in the Third World. It does seems strange to walking around the dust, rocks, trash, and other filth and see shops advertising digital photo services.

The main goal today is to get my baggage repacked so that it is the right weight for porters to carry. We're also making sure that our outfitter (ATP) has all of the items we've requested. A walk through the bazaar, and probably a nap, and food, will complete the day. Tomorrow (Sunday) we will take the 8 hour jeep ride up to Askole, and we start walking the next day. I don't know when the next dispatch will be--maybe in 4 days, maybe a week

Wolf Göschl climbing near Gasherbrum La (G1, 6300m, 24. June)

copyright Gerfried Goeschl

Timeline:
June 19- fly to Pakistan
July 3- arrive at Base Camp
August 8- depart Base Camp
August 16- return to USA

From June 21 through August 16, I will be in Pakistan attempting the world's 13th highest mountain, Gasherbrum II (8,031/26,348 ft).

Gasherbrum 2 is located along the Baltoro and Abruzzi Glaciers in northern Pakistan. Four of the world's 14 highest peaks are found within a few miles of each other, including K2 (the world's second highest peak).

I will be climbing completely self-supported, without supplemental oxygen, without guides, and without high-altitude porters.

Many folks have asked about the political situation in Pakistan. While there are areas of Pakistan that are totally bad news, the main climbing areas have continued to be as safe for Westerners as anywhere in the world. The local inhabitants rely on expeditions for much of their yearly income, which helps. For two years I have found almost Pakistanis to be almost uniformly friendly.

While this route is not technically difficult, the combination of weather and altitude mean that even for the world's best climbers there is no certainty of reaching the summit.

Safety: Climbing the high peaks is not safe; but neither is driving to work. An interesting analysis shows that since 1990, these high peaks have become much safer than they were in the past.

The main difficulty in climbing these peaks stems from the lack of oxygen in the air . However, many climbers are prevented from summitting by more mundane problems. Mike Farris

 

 

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