Tricked by a False Summit

Peter had light alloy crampons that didn't work but a good axe...

Lee had a light walking axe that didn't work but good crampons...

We left the rope and rack...

“I know of an easy, unclimbed six thousand meter peak that I might try up Chapursan way” mentioned Peter. To date the unclimbed peaks above 6000m that we had tried to climb during our long summer in Pakistan had proved to be either very hard or very dangerous – or both! Twice we had summited a virgin peak only find the altimeter reading less than 6000m.

Much of the summer had been spent climbing soft snow, sugary ice and poor rock. I was tired of crap climbing conditions. The walk-ins had been long and many-a-day had been spent crossing glaciers and climbing endless scree. One peak had involved a day and a half walk from base camp just to start the climb! I looked forward to being abe to take a cable car from Chamonix up to the Aiguille du Midi station and be on a route next morning without too much effort. I liked the sound of the peak Peter had in mind… short walk-in… over 6000m… easy… unclimbed… exactly what I was looking for to round off the summer!

My flight home was in two weeks. The original plan to finish off the summer had been to climb Punji Peak, an easy 5800m mountain in the Hindu Raj. The trip would be a good reconnaissance as I had still not visited the Hindu Raj in four trips to Pakistan and the area’s remoteness attracted me. My peak plans were limited however by the fact that I knew little about the Hindu Raj and it would be another minor peak under 6000m on the climbing CV. Peter’s plan seemed better thought through, Peter having first seen the peak in 1999. We were due to head our separate ways that day for the last couple of weeks of our trip but I decided to stick around and join Peter to try the aforementioned peak in Chapursan.

View from our base camp. Our objective was the snowy summit in the left of the photo.

The area of Chapursan is located in the far north of Pakistan’s Karakoram, close to the Afghan border. It is on the south side of Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor from where the Tajik Pamir rises to the north side. While the area is technically the Karakoram the transition to Pamir is evident as the densely packed aggressively angled peaks giving way to rolling mountains and broad grazing pastures.

The Lupgar valley east of the the Lupgar Pir pass

It had been a two day 1500m climb to base camp from the village of Raminj along a beautiful, narrow canyon that opened up in to a broad valley as we approached our peak. Soon after leaving Raminj I some how I managed to sink my left foot in a water channel to the right of me then fall on my right rib! I untwisted myself and picked the grit from my cuts cursing my lack of attention to the path. Weather had been dire during the walk-in just as it had been for weeks but looked to have improved just at the right time. Our peak looked impressive from base camp and we reckoned it was the highest in the valley. Next day we moved further up the valley beneath the mountain in preparation for an ascent next morning…

Approaching our bivi site during early evening

We rose at 1am and started climbing at 2. Our starting point was a significant distance east of the summit and the first half of the climb involved a combination of ascending and traversing to a col at around 5300m. We had chosen to bivi further east because to get right under the mountain would have taken another hour’s walking and we would have descended one hundred meters in the process. A traverse line looked just as easy.

Our Ascent Route

From the bivi sight we avoided an immediate steep section of ice by skirting to the left of it before straightening up. I initially broke the route. My torch light was weak but I had studied the route the previous evening. I knew I had to initially climb in a straight line, passing between a couple of gigantic crevasses, then start traversing towards the col. We climbed quickly. For the first time this summer there had been a proper freeze in the night prior to ascent and the snow under foot was solid. Having started the traverse I momentarily had to straighten up again to skirt round another large crevasse that dropped down the mountain. Once past this I continued the traverse west.
Traversing towards the col at around 5300m

Mountains to the east at sunrise

View towards the peaks above the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan

Towards the col we had to traverse above a couple of crevasses. On the second occasion it would have been easier to have stayed below the crevasse. Peter led the latter half of the traverse. Despite the excellent snow conditions he was struggling to get his alloy crampons to bite in to the ice. I was also having minor difficulties getting the pick of my walking axe to stick in the hard ice. The good snow however meant that we were able to kick in a good ledge so never really felt vulnerable. It was the first sign of having bought the wrong equipment though. By the time the sun had risen we were on the col with everything going to plan.

I took the lead for the most remaining climb. After the exhausting walk-in I was feeling revitalised and glad to be above the snowline again in the high altitude coolness. We climbed the north-east ridge with ease, a tricky small rock buttress being the only obstacle. The gradient was only 30° to begin with but this increased to 45° half-way up and then to 50° towards the top of the ridge. While climbing there were great views of Peaks 6156m and 6105m to our left. The ridge then broadened out towards the summit and the final hundred meters was easy climbing. From a plateau we climbed a small cone to what appeared to be the highest point. Peter led the last few meters and soon we were shaking one another’s hands on the summit. Views north towards Kuk Sar 2 (6925m) were awsome. I set about setting my tripod up for a few photos. “I don’t believe it!” exclaimed Peter. He was looking at the same step of ice that had caught my eye. On the other side of the plateau below us was a point that looked a few meters higher than where we were currently standing. The peaks to both our left and right were both also clearly higher than where we were standing. The altimeter also read 5800m and so our summit proved a bit of an anti-climax.

Peter climbing the NE ridge to our finishing point at 5800m

Peter close to the summit

Me at our high point

“We’ll just have to climb that over there as well” I stated. If we could gain the step I was sure we could climb the ridge to the summit of the next peak further east with no problem. The step was about six meters high and overhung however. With no ice screws a direct climb was almost impossible without two technical axes. Had I bought some screws and slings I could probably have aid-climbed my way up. The only option was to traverse round on to its back side where there was a slope to the top. Shortly after we started Peter backed off not trusting his crampons enough in the sugary ice. I continued alone but soon had to back off myself as the ice was deteriorating the further I traversed. “Can I borrow your axe, Pete”? “Sure”. I had two axes but my walking axe wasn’t suited to the conditions so was really only a backup for Peter’s short axe. I tried to traverse a lower line, determined not to give up. Again the ice deteriorated the further I traversed. Close to where I could gain my intended slope the ice became too fissured for comfort. The harder I swung my axe the bigger the holes that I would find under its surface. I found myself delicately hooking on brittle ice. One of my crampons slipped from its hold. I glanced across at Peter who was anticipating having to descend to the Yoksugoz glacier after I had fallen to verify I was dead! “Are you sure about this?” Peter enquired. That was all I needed to hear to make me back off for a second time. “No! I’m coming back”.
In light of my failed attempt to gain the ice step I started the descent in a subdued mood. The ridge had to be down-climbed, facing inwards for much of the way as both our crampons were balling up. After a long summer climbing in the Karakoram my anti-balling plates had developed small holes that were causing them to be ineffective, evidence that some of my equipment was approaching retirement. Peter’s crampons on the other hand simply didn’t have anti-balling plates. The first half of the descent therefore took longer than would normally be expected. A couple of times when I tried to down climb facing outwards I soon slipped as a result of the build-up on the underside of my boots. By the time we reached the col it was late afternoon.

The snow was becoming very soft in the afternoon heat and a straight descent from the col definitely looked easier than trying to traverse across and down the way we had come to the bivi sight. We opted to make a straight descent however much of the col was corniced and below the col lay steep ice and crevasses. A starting point was not obvious. Peter identified a break in the cornice but when we tried to traverse above a crevasse in order to gain a snow slope we were forced to back off as the snow conditions became more and more desperate. With a rope we could easily have abseiled off a snow bollard and been on easier ground in no time.

Another possibility to get off the col was via a short, steep ice gully that lead to easier ground after only ten meters. This seemed our best bet. Peter went first, taking his time to find good axe placements in light of his crampons’ ineffectiveness to bite in to the ice. It looked desperate! There was a loose top layer of snow that skated down the face like water each time Peter disturbed it with his feet however we were not overly concerned due to its shallow depth. Once off the initial ice section it was my turn. I descended trying to hook my walking axe into Peter’s placements with little success. In light of my axe’s ineffectiveness my forged crampon front points were my saviour allowing me to kick in firmly where Peter had been unable to do so… that was until I had kicked in hard and one of my crampons fell off!

The crampon hung from my boot by its bindings. I tried to place weight on the boot that had lost the crampon but the ice was to hard, steep and smooth to be able to gain any footing. I held on to the ice with one crampon and one axe that didn’t work. Lactic acid was quickly building up in my calf through which all my weight was being applied. I flexed my knee so as to take some of the weight at my hip. Peter had no choice but to climb back up to me to reattach the crampon. Fortunately Peter was able to reattach the crampon quickly and efficiently but could only do the binding up loosely from below. The crampon felt secure however and I was able to down climb the remainder of the section where I could tighten them properly. Had I led the descent then it would have been virtually impossible for Peter to manoeuvre around me and reattach the crampon and I would have probably fallen a long way, unable to continue down-climbing with one leg and one ineffective axe. Why the crampon fell off I am not sure. Maybe the front clip on my step-in crampons was not contoured closely enough to my boot. Whatever the case my crampons are in the process of being replaced for obvious safety reasons!
We were soon both on easier ground however the descent route through the seracs and crevasses was still not obvious. Peter led the way but soon fell in to a crevasse up to his hips a few hundred meters down. It was the first of many! His hands were becoming cold as a result of his mittens becoming soaked through so I lent him one of mine. As the gradient eased I was able to down-climb quicker due to my crampons greater effectiveness. I moved ahead searching for a way down. Crossing a large crevasse filled to the brim with avalanche debris, I bared left to a spot where I was able to see the general lie of the slopes. To continue descending on our current line was impossible due to imminent seracs below. The lower slopes to the left looked a good exit however the crevasses and seracs in-between were certainly impassable. To my right there appeared to be a way down following an initial traverse in order to gain the decent line.

Light was fading and I was keen to descend as far possible before it was lost altogether. Peter was struggling with his crampons however and not keeping in touch with me. Snow conditions were starting to improve however and as the sun was setting it was already starting to refreeze. We managed to make the traverse just before dark. By the time darkness fell we appeared to be on a good line off the mountain and I descended towards a prominence I had observed from my aforementioned viewpoint. The ground was heavily crevassed and I fell in three narrow crevasses in succession which were a matter of meters apart. Next it was Peter’s turn to fall in the biggest crevasse up to his waist. With a bomber deep axe placement he was never in any risk. Then I fell in my fourth! It was becoming a bit of a joke with regards to the number of hidden crevasses on our descent route. A lot of snow had fallen in the days preceding our climb and many of the crevasses were still well hidden.

Our descent route from the col

I was struggling to route find due to my LED torch’s short range. From the prominence we bared right and continued descending only to encounter deep crevasses. A steep descent line looked possible close-by however we were reluctant to follow it due to being under equipped for such steep slopes. The ice was of the sugary consistence that we had become familiar with in the Karakoram and the prospect of down-climbing it was not a pleasant one. We tried to find an alternative way through the crevasses but it quickly became evident that we were wasting our time. We reluctantly opted for the steep line. Peter went first but didn’t look comfortable. He backed off then tried again. “Pull yourself together Pete” he muttered under his breath. “We could always see the night out and descend in daylight Pete”, I pointed out. Peter immediately backed off for the second time feeling as though he could fall at any time. The night was calm and roughing it on the mountain’s lower slopes didn’t seem that desperate. I proposed that we climb back up to the prominence where it looked slightly flatter than our current position and without the company of crevasses. I also felt that this was the point where we had taken our wrong turn and from where we could resume our descent in the morning.
The spot didn’t look so great for spending a night on second inspection however. To our left there looked to be an easier route down. Figuring that we would not get any sleep during the night we decided to try it immediately. The descent line thankfully proved fruitful although the ice became steeper as we approached the main glacier. I became increasingly annoyed with my axe’s ability to stick in the ice as it became steeper but my crampons felt secure with each step down. By the time we were off the mountain it was 10pm… twenty hours after we had set foot on it!

Peter immediately proposed that we crash nearby for the night but I was keen to find our bivi bags and get a proper night’s sleep. We spent an hour weaving in and out of crevasses trying to recognise the landscape and identify the spot where we had started climbing in the morning. In the end we gave up. Peter looked exhausted and didn’t want to walk any more. I felt much the same. We found a spot where the ice was covered by moraine and there were a few large rocks. I found a small rock just about big enough for me to curl up in the foetal position. Peter meanwhile made a flat area on the rocks to sleep even finding a suitable rock to use as a pillow. It was a fairly mild night but even wearing all our clothes we were still not warm enough and both of us slept little. When we did manage to sleep we would soon wake up feeling colder than ever. Both of us used our rucksacks as a kind of sleeping bag although I don’t think it made any difference.

The sun began to rise after 4am and we made ready to move. Having removed his rucksack from his legs Peter was struggling to stand up. Every time he tried he would loose his balance and fall to the ground again which was quite funny for me to watch. By 4.30am it was light enough for us to effectively navigate and by 5am we had already found our bivi bags… which proved to be only a few hundred meters away! Packing everything up, we headed back to base camp. The good weather through the night extended into the morning with clear blue skies above all the surrounding peaks. Not surprisingly I spent much of the day in my sleeping bag, rising only to eat food. Despite the epic I was proud of my efforts on the mountain. After feeling totally exhausted during the walk-in I felt I put in a good performance on summit day with renewed energy. The route we climbed was definitely not the easy line that Peter saw in 1999. That was higher up the valley towards the Lupgar Pir Pass.

After a good night’s sleep we trekked backed to Raminj stopping at the stone huts at Ghorhil to share tea with a friendly shepherd called Rahmet Karim. Weather deteriorated in the afternoon again. Having reached the water channel that I fell in to during the walk-in we expected to be in Raminj soon after. A full tide of rocks was falling on our path however and many section of the path were now buried in scree. We often found ourselves waiting for rocks to stop tumbling down the scree before making a dash to safety.

We reached Raminj by 6pm and found a Jeep to charter back to Sost soon after. As with many ‘private hires’ in Pakistan it wasn’t so private and having agreed a price a number of locals jumped aboard for the free ride. I have never been happier to spend a night in the awful border town of Sost. We were in bed by 8pm and quickly fell asleep despite a loud generator outside our room.

I dreamt of taking that cable car down from the Aiguille du Midi on my next climbing trip!


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