A New Route on Yazghil Sar (5964m)

Back in Pakistan

I was going back to Shimshal, the remote mountain village in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, home to an amazing twenty villagers (at last count) who have summited an 8000m peak. It was only twelve months since I had first visited the village but I had seen enough to prompt a quick return. Our main goal was to climb the beautiful Shimshal Whitehorn, whose intimidating north face rises above the village. The first objective however was Yazghil Sar, which was intended to use for acclimatisation. The previous year I had seen this peak on route to the Shimshal Pamir and it struck me as being ideally suited for acclimatisation due to its easy gradient and minimal objective dangers.

The expedition consisted of Peter Thompson and me (Lee Harrison), who were in Pakistan for the duration of the summer of 2006, along with Greg Nunn and Ben Cheek who were in Pakistan for the first month to be spent in Shimshal. Greg is a fellow climbing club member at Salford University.

We had rendezvoused in Gilgit. Greg, Ben and Peter had flown to Islamabad and made the hellish 16 hour bus ride north together, whereas I had landed in Hong Kong and made a subsequent four day crossing of China by plane, train and bus. After long journeys by all of us we were finally in the mountains and keen to get some climbing done.

21st June: Shopping in Gilgit

Most of the day had been spent food shopping in the bazaars of Gilgit. Among other things we bought 25 kg of dried apricots, (I had miscalculated that we could get through a kilo bag a day on the assumption that everybody had the same appetite as me), twenty boxes of porridge, eighty packets of biscuits and twenty-five packs of happy cow. On completion of the food shopping we went shopping for some shalwar kameezes, the loose fitting clothes worn by many locals. They were not essential for customary reasons but comfortable to wear nonetheless. I bought an unusually glossy silver (not grey) number, which was the only one available in my size. By the time we had finished our shopping the day was pressing on and we needed to hurry in order to catch the last minivan heading north to Hunza. Because there was no gas in Gilgit we had to travel to Karimabad, the capital of Hunza to buy some there. I had previously bought a full case of gas canisters in Urumqi, China, however these were confiscated when trying to board my train to Kashgar on the grounds that they could potentially explode. With great annoyance I banged one of the canisters against the floor to demonstrate they do not simply explode but then realised I had best stop else face arrest on some sort on terrorist charge. Fortunately there were numerous ex-expedition gas canisters for sale in Karimabad, although many were half empty. Peter and I spent time weighing, shaking and comparing canisters before eventually making our final selection.

22nd June: Travel to Shimshal village

Peter comfortably travelled direct to Shimshal in a hired Jeep with the food and gear while the rest of us roughed it on the local public transport to Passu on the Karakoram Highway, where we could catch the passenger Jeep onward to Shimshal. Despite our early start the Shimshal Jeep had already left by 9am. Not wanting to waste a day in Passu we hired a second Jeep which blared out a kind of bangra trance music for the duration of the journey. We arrived in Shimshal not long after Peter and checked into the Sifat guest house.

Shimshal Expedition 2006 sponsored by Coca Cola

Lunch was due and Greg and Ben were to experience chelpindook, the popular local delicacy, for the first time. This was their first trip to Pakistan and so far their diet had been lentils and chicken karahi, washed down with copious amounts of chai. 

Guesthouse in Shimshal

Chelpindook was new information and their mixed facial expressions indicated this. The dish consists of stacked chapatis with each layer covered with clarified butter and melted qurut, a hard yak cheese that is somewhere between delicious and disgusting depending on tastes. I personally like the dish but then I also like Tibetan tsampa so maybe my opinions on cuisine should be taken with caution.

The evening was spent sorting gear and packing porter loads ahead of our departure for Yazghil Sar. It quickly became apparent on our first day in Shimshal that no one wears the shalwar kameez – at least until we arrived. Westerners trying to dress as locals and locals trying to dress as Westerners…

23rd June: Trek to Goat Camp

Our youthful, amiable porters Atabar and Manzur arrived at 8am. Having painstakingly packed everything in sacks the previous night they proceeded to transfer everything out of the sacks into there own rucksacks. Not that I blame them as the wooden frames that most porters use look far from comfortable. We clumped out of Shimshal wearing our climbing boots in order to keep the pack weights down. Ben with his meagre 35 litre rucksack appeared to have more items strapped to the outside than within. The base of Yazghil Sar was a short day’s trek east along the broad Shimshal valley crossing the Yazghil Glacier immediately prior. Unlike most of Pakistan’s glaciers the Yazghil glacier is a beautiful white river of ice descending from some of the highest mountains in the Karakoram. It was relatively easy to cross although on the far side the ice was littered with rubble and the going was slightly harder. Then at the small ablation valley on the far side of the glacier Greg fell asleep while the rest of us made tea.

Crossing the Yazghil Glacier

Greg on day 1...

We climbed a further 600m to our first camp at around 3900m, adjacent to a shepherdess’s hut that we nicknamed “Goat Camp” for obvious reasons. Greg was feeling exhausted from the effects of the altitude but Manzur was on hand to help him with his rucksack while one of the shepherdesses related to Atabar and Manzur was on hand to run (literally) up the hill with Manzur's porter load.

Climb to 'Goat Camp'

Views north up the Yazghil glacier towards the Hispar Muztagh from the camp were astounding with the Kunyang Chhish, Pumari Chhish and Distaghil Sar massifs all partly visible. Having set up camp it transpired that there was no water locally, however we were assured that some lay relatively close by. I volunteered to climb the hill to this location but after an hour of searching I gave up and headed back to the tents around dusk. Fortunately the shepherdesses had a tankard of water that they could spare so we were not short for the night.

Goat Camp

The Yazghil Glacier and Hispar Muztagh

24th June: Goat Camp

We had released our porters the previous evening and now set about moving our gear up to a higher camp at around 4600m, before descending to spend another night at 3900m. Ben and I departed first with the plan to again try and find the water source. We took with us the 25 litre container leant to us the previous evening. Manzur gave us vague directions, which were just as vague as the directions from yesterday evening and off we went. Comically we climbed all the way to our next camp at 4600m before finding water. Even here we had to spend time channelling a small trickle of water into something useful that we could fill a bottle with. Peter and Greg soon arrived with their loads and quickly departed whilst we continued to fill the bottles. Ben meanwhile spent half an hour building a gigantic cairn to mark this spot. Unlike the water close to the lower camp this water was at least clear. During the descent Ben and me took it in turns to carry the 25 litre water container on our backs using makeshift knotted rope for shoulder straps and Ben’s thermal trousers for shoulder padding. The best technique was to lift the container and run as fast as possible until the rope cut in too much and the container had to be dropped. We would then swap over. Carrying the water was hard work but we made good progress and were soon down at the lower camp after two runs each. To think the shepherd ladies carry these containers everyday! It’s no wonder the local women are so strong.

Having collected water Ben and I still needed to carry our loads up to the base camp, just as Peter and Greg had already done. We began climbing at 4pm after a short rest and were not back until dusk. Peter had been let loose with the stove, conjuring up some stodgy pasta unfit for Oliver Twist’s workhouse (and nobody asked for more).

Ben climbing to our second camp (for the 3rd time)

25th June: Ascent to our second camp

The climb to our higher camp at 4600m was easy as we now knew the route well (particularly Ben and I). The shepherdesses gave us the some more qurut cheese as a departing gift and sung songs as we began our climb. Ben responded by dancing like a fool.

Views were again amazing at the higher camp. The north ridge of Shimshal Whitehorn, which was our next objective, looked worryingly longer and longer the higher we climbed. It supposedly finished at 6400m but dominated the surrounding peaks from this perspective.

In order to gain a view of our forthcoming route on Yazghil Sar Peter and I scrambled up the ridge above camp to the top of a small arête consisting of dangerously stacked loose rock. From here we could look down on to the glacier below. There appeared to be a number of ways to the summit but the simplest looked to be up the far left hand of the glacial slopes, staying west of the rocky north-north-westerly ridge. Descending our viewing perch proved a more treacherous than the ascent, as loading any given rock more than necessary would likely lead to its collapse.

At dinner time Peter was mistakenly allowed near the stove again, this time conjuring up some remarkably thick custard that was green coloured. Greg later noted that the box Peter had used was supposed to serve forty people rather than four, which explained its consistency.

26th June: Ascent to High Camp

We woke at 3am. Firstly we needed to descend a loose scree slope 100m to reach the glacier. Once on the glacier we climbed only a short distance before donning our crampons to cross some sloping hard ice. I traversed the ice first and promptly removed my crampons as the ice underfoot was now crunchy and easy to walk on again. The lower section of the glacier presented a brief exposure to seracs high above, so there was cause not to delay until safely out of their range to the left.

We climbed a horrible gully full of loose rocks before the snow and ice commenced proper. After crossing a broad snow slope we followed vague but this time attractive snow gully on the far left of the glacier. The climbing was relatively easy, with the angle gradually increasing to no more than 45 degrees. The gully remained in the shadows until late morning as so the snow remained firm. We then met the broad expanse of the north-north-west slopes, where the going became harder.

Peter climbing north-north-west slopes. The vague gully is visible on the left

Peter took over the trail-breaking, as the snow had become softer through the morning. We began to feel the affects of altitude. Ben and Greg gradually fell behind while Peter up front regularly prostrated in the snow in response to exhaustion and breathlessness. I felt like I had it easy following Peter’s prints behind him. Peter and I reached the heavily corniced north ridge, which would eventually lead to the north-east ridge and then the summit. We followed the ridge a short distance before reaching a flat area where we rested. The previous day I had envisioned a high camp directly below the summit ridge, which was still a couple of hundred meters above us, and so was happy to push on. I broke the route a further fifty metres before being struck by concern as to where Greg and Ben were. I had last seen them not far below the start of the north ridge, so figured they should have been in sight by now. I peered down but saw nothing. Had they given up and descended because of altitude sickness? I stopped in my deep tracks and descended back down to Peter who was still resting.

Peter approaching high camp

An hour later I looked down the slope from our position to see the grinning faces of Greg and Ben approaching. As soon as Ben and Greg reached us they fell asleep within minutes. It was clear that we would be camping where we were tonight! Both had fallen asleep during the climb although not at the same time. We levelled the slope and pitched the tents next to the rotten snow of a hidden crevasse.

Greg & Ben climbing to high camp

The rest of the day was spent melting snow, drinking chai and eating. By dinner it soon became apparent that we were running out of fuel. After seemingly bring to Shimshal months of kerosene fuel supply we had not bought enough gas up the mountain. Cooking our evening dinner was an anxious affair to see if the kerosene would last the distance. We pumped the fuel bottle each time the stove started to splutter and held our breath but on this occasion were spared the need to eat raw noodles.

Summit viewed from high camp at sunset

27th June: Summit Day

We slept through our 1.30am alarms and woke shortly after 2am. By 2.40am we were climbing. I broke the trail as I had a good idea of the route. The snow was soft and deep and it wasn't long before I was treading snow and going nowhere. I tried traversing to my right but the snow was merely collapsing with each attempt to gain height. Peter took the lead and he soon found some snow that took his weight. I followed his footprints as nimbly as possible but Greg became stuck in the same spot as me and quickly lost his temper. “I’m not having a good day”! We had only been climbing for around half an hour! I managed to haul him over his ledge on the rope and Ben soon followed. Thankfully that was the worst of the soft snow and soon we were approaching the main north-east ridge. Peter broke through the cornice and soon we were presented with a dramatic 360 degree panorama, just as the sun was rising. West lay the prominent peak of Karan Koh, and north were some of the Hispar Muztagh's finest. Kunyang Chhish, Pumari Chhish, the Yazghil Domes, Yukshin Garden Sar, Kanjut Sar and Shimshal Whitehorn were all visible from the ridge among other lesser known peaks. The weather was perfect with virtually no wind on the ridge. The climbing now became due to the gentle gradient and considerably better snow conditions.

Start of the north-east ridge
(Photo by Peter Thompson)

Yazghil Sar's north-east ridge

Sunrise over Distaghil Sar, the Yazghil Domes and Shimshal Whitehorn

The Khurdopin Glacier from the North Ridge

I took the lead for the remainder of the climb but breaking the trail had become a relatively easy affair. The cornice on the ridge was significant and needed a safe margin. There were also a few hidden crevasses, one of which was introduced to my right foot. Tiredness from altitude began to set in as we moved along the ridge. Breaks became more frequent and the rate we were climbing became slower and slower. Meanwhile the snow was evidently starting to soften under the intense sun rays as the morning progressed. I was becoming frustrated and eventually raised my concerns that none of us were going to summit at our current rate. The upshot was that Peter and I un-roped and soloed the final steeper section from the north-east summit to the main south-west summit, whilst Ben and Greg stayed put and soon fell asleep again in our absence. We climbed the remainder of the mountain without a break and by the time I was on the summit I felt exhausted. Peter was much the same. We shook hands and took in the stunning views that greeted us in all directions. The weather was perfect and the scenery had to be savoured. It was good to get the summer Pakistan expedition off to a successful start and I was happy to be back in the Karakoram. It was a shame that Greg and Ben didn't make it all the way but I'm sure they will have other opportunities in the future.

Approaching the summit (left)
(Photo credit: Peter Thompson)

The Summit!

When I came to the descent it quickly became apparent that I was significantly under the effects of altitude and dehydration. My vision started to appear a little two dimensional with poor judgement of distance. I nervously stepped down from the summit back on to the ridge and cautiously gave the neighbouring cornice sufficient berth. I retraced my well-beaten footprints back down to the north-east summit, taking care with each step, knowing a simple slip could lead to a long fall down the slopes to my right. Ben and Greg were out of sight and on their way down by the time we reached the place where we split so Peter and I continued down un-roped. I managed to step in the same crevasse as on the way up but in a different spot having totally misread which direction it was running. My water bottle was dry so I was keen to get down to the high camp. Peter who was feeling the altitude even more than me descended more cautiously and soon we became separated. The way down was well-trodden now that we were back on the trail that all four of us had climbed. The descent down from the north-west ridge proved easier than expected and the anticipated problems descending the soft snow slopes above final camp never developed. Soon I was back at the tents. Both Ben and Greg were out for the count in their tents but both were healthy.

I was keen to head down to base camp immediately as I knew the altitude induced nausea would soon start if I stayed put with no water. Greg said he would descend if I carried the tent and Ben said he would descend but in one hour. Peter arrived and crawled into his tent, proclaiming that he was too exhausted to descend and would spend the night at high camp, even though no fuel, water or food remained. I relented and climbed in to the tent to let my head start spinning. Ben was true to his word though and soon prepared to descend after an hour or so. Peter realising that we were going to leave him eventually decided to join us below the snowline for the night. We started to pack around 4pm and shortly after starting down found clear water running off some rocks. I stopped to drink a couple of litres before continuing down. The snow was soft in the afternoon sun but the descent didn't take long. The final climb up the scree from the glacier to base camp was exhausting for all of us and the steep loose ground did not complement my rigid plastic boots. Peter, Ben and I arrived back at base camp around the same time but having started cooking dinner there was still no sign of Greg. The sun had set so Peter went to look for him. He soon found him near the top of the scree slope. Greg had got lost in the dark and was on the brink of rolling out his bivi bag and sleeping at the spot where he was. Peter did not cook tonight but my efforts were not a lot better and my spicy curry proved too hot for any of us to eat. Ben was also later sick in the night so my culinary skills were not fully appreciated on this occasion.

28th June: Descent to Shimshal

After a lie-in (relatively speaking) we descended down to goat camp and gave the shepherdesses our surplus food. In return we received more yak cheese and also some yak yoghurt. Having hardened to a yak dairy diet during my time with Tibetan nomads I made a better effort of drinking my yoghurt (and Greg’s) than others.

Re-crossing the Yazghil glacier was largely problem free although there were some minor navigational errors that left us wondering aimlessly at times. I also ripped the stitching on the back side of my salopettes after sliding (purposefully but uncoordinated) down a short ice slope.

Ben recently upgraded his 35 litre pack for a 45 litre model

The trek back down the Shimshal valley was slightly tedious and all our feet were starting to blister. It soon became more interesting when the broad trail that we were following stopped abruptly at a high stone wall. Was this an illusion? Whilst deciding whether or not to backtrack and loop around the wall’s perimeter Ben expertly climbed over the stacked stone wall without so much as rattling a rock. A fine boulder problem completed! Peter and Greg quickly followed. I on the other hand with the grace of a three legged elephant nearly bought the whole thing down. Carefully we rebuilt the wall to hide my presence.

Before arriving at Shimshal we took off our boots to cross a shallow river and were soon back at out guest house and changed into our shalwar kameezes. Dinner was dhal and chicken for the umpteenth day in Pakistan but after the culinary lows of the last few days no one was going to complain!

2016 Footnote

Ten years after climbing Yazghil Sar it became apparent to me from looking at further maps that our route differed greatly from the original first ascent route. After some further research it seemed that we had in fact climbed a new route. The map below shows our route in red in relation to the black dotted line of the first ascent route. Both routes are vaguely on the NW aspect, which largely led me to beneath our route was likely the same as the first ascent route described in the 1988 AAJ. Both are however completely independent, apart from maybe the final climb to the summit from the subsidiary northern summit. Our route is best described as the NNW Face and NE Ridge. The final NE Ridge measures 2.4km on Google Maps and made for a spectacular skyline finale in retrospect. Of course being so close to Shimshal there is always the possibility that a local climber may have already climbed our route nothing at least has been recorded or made public on the internet.

Our route marked in red. The black dotted line is the line of first ascent
Map cutting is taken from the 2005 Jerzy Wala Hispar map

Our Route: The NNW Face and NE Ridge
The original route lies to the right of the serac band

The NW aspect of Yazghil Sar.
Our route lay to the immediate right of the small rocky ridge in the left of the photo.
The first ascent gained the summit via a more direct line further right. Possibly via the ridge in the right of the photo


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