Pakistan Debrief: What worked and what didn't

My one month trip to the Karakoram during summer 2015 could loosely be regarded as a success in that we climbed three small summits, two of which were first ascents. We had planned bigger objectives prior to the trip and we also fell short in this respect. The trip as a whole was far from being problem free and all too easily it could have been a disaster. There were lots of factors involved so I thought it was worth writing about some of the problems we experienced as well as things that worked well. As much as a reminder to myself for future trips. The original trip report is here for anybody interested.

Base camp with the Batura Muztagh in the distance

Porters

Lack of porters at the trail head in Passu was our first problem, which I had not anticipated away from the Baltoro region. It has been ten years since I last hired porters in Pakistan and maybe the numbers have dropped off because of the lack of visitors. Maybe we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A local cricket match apparently depleted availability but I'm not sure to what degree. Waiting longer in Passu would have been the sensible option had the trip been longer.

Porters are generally hired through a hotel manager via a series of phone calls. It's always been a simple process in the past and without need for too much critiquing of those who are to be hired. Often there's a local system in place to ensure fair distribution of labour, so I've always tried not to meddle with this. On this occasion there was definitely no system in place but we managed to hire six young porters in the neighbouring village of Gulmet after half a day's wait, which was no great delay. They were six college students from the cities who were back home for the summer and keen to earn some money. None of them had experience working as porters, or experience with crossing glaciers for that matter, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt having hired some similarly inexperienced but very strong porters in nearby Shimshal. The lesson learnt is that Shimshal is a special place in this regard where everybody is conditioned for portering because of the remote environment in which they live.

Porter loads bagged up in Passu, waiting for porters (Photo by Murilo Lessa)

The porters carried 25kg, which is the normal weight for this part of the world, but it quickly became evident that the they could not manage the loads. Lack of conditioning looked to be the main problem for they were twice as slow as us on the first day and by the second day the wheels were starting to fall off. Their slow pace meant we didn't see much of them. How far were they behind us? Had they given up? How would they possibly make it all the way to our planned base camp? The last question caused the greatest concern and obvious answer from midway through the second day was that there was no chance.

Besides pack weight there was also issues with the equipment that they were using. Porters usually use porter frames to tie their loads to, or at the very least rope that they can fashion into a kind a backpack. Our porters lacked frames and were short on rope. They also could not adequately fasten loads, although our guide helped them with this where possible. Often the porters would resort to carrying part or all of their loads without rope, either behind their necks or over a shoulder. This was despite us having agreed in advance to pay them each of them Rs 780 in equipment allowance, which was the standard agreed amount if not providing equipment directly.

The poor carrying methods resulted in the loads being put down in a less controlled manner, which didn't bode well for the contents. We had packed food in large rice bags purchased in Aliabad, which offered negligible protection but had been fine on other trips. Plastic barrels would have better protected the contents but these would certainly have required a porter frame, so it was a catch 22 situation. Much of our food was damaged but we fortunately managed to obtain a couple of barrels en route and repack everything.

Murilo repacked our damaged food into plastic barrels

It turned out that our porters also had no food, which was certainly the final nail in the coffin. By the time I learned this they had already jointly quit. Maybe Ramadan had made food harder to come by in the middle of the day at short notice. Maybe they were just disorganised, or thought they would find food en route, or that somebody would provide them food. I'm not really sure.

We were very fortunate to find replacement porters midway through the trek. These proved to be strong and probably better represented the typical standard of portering in Passu. Unfortunately there had been confusion between our guide and porters as to where our base camp lay and after a very long first day's outing our trek came to a premature end one stage short of our intended spot. The porters returned down the valley but fortunately two returned next day to help us complete the journey with the loads. All things considered, we were very fortunate to reach our base camp in light of the string of problems experienced en route.

Our replacement porters packing their loads

A lot of the problems partly stemmed from me not being hands-on enough with regards to hiring porters. This was the first time that I had hired a trekking guide and in retrospect I needed to take a little more executive control. I partly did not want to step on the guide's toes by assuming his role but a good compromise would likely have made our guide's job easier and saved us all some hassle. It's difficult to refuse porters based on their calf circumferences or shoulder broadness but we could have insisted on the right equipment and verified they had enough food for the journey. The misunderstanding between guide and porters as to where we intended to place our base camp could have been prevented by providing copies of a map directly to the porters. No doubt confusion arises more easily when making base camps in obscure locations. I think in future it would also be good to have more contingency plans with regards to climbing objectives in the event that we don't reach our intended base camp for whatever reasons.

Another major oversight was to not pack a tarpaulin so that the porters could make a shelter. Beyond the grazing settlements of the Batura Glacier there were no huts and so it was essential that a temporary shelter could be made. Even if things had panned out better with the porters a lack of shelter could still have unhinged plans.

The trek beside the Batura Glacier (The Kuk Sar massif directly ahead)

Solar Power

We purchased a Goal Zero Nomad 27M solar charger for the trip, which was recommended to me by Jonathan Griffith. The only inputs were a standard USB and 12V car charger socket, so a little thought was needed to ensure everything connected. The charger proved to be really powerful for our needs, even under cloud cover. It also folded down neatly to a portable size meaning we got a lot of power for not much luggage space. I had planned to sell the charger after the trip but decided to keep it for similar trips in the future. The benefit of having such a powerful charger is that next trip we have the luxury of taking more USB chargeable items should we choose. I'm not bothered about taking a laptop but items such as USB chargeable head torches or lamps are worth consideration. 

The Goal Zero Nomad 27M solar charger

Satellite Phone and Network / Weather forecasts

We knew that Thuraya were the best choice of satellite phone for Pakistan but were reluctant to make a purchase, given that Iridium are generally a better choice for most other destinations. Instead we rented a Thuraya Hughes 7100 satellite phone from our agent but the problems we experienced likely outweighed the hassles associated with buying and selling. This is a very old model of phone and I suspect our issues related to this.

We had a lot of hassle receiving weather forecasts via the phone. Our low-key trip did not warrant an expensive bespoke forecast and so we used the Batura Sar forecast from mountain-forecast.com. This peak lay in relatively close proximity to our base camp. Mountain-forecast provides forecasts for every 1000m elevation, up to its summit at 7795m but all this was too much data to practically send. We therefore used the forecast at 5000m, which would approximate to the base of many of the peaks. 

We wanted to limit the data sent to a single 160 character text message. A basic summary of the forecast together with precipitation were deemed the most important aspects and so we devised a simple coded letters and numbers system to summarise these details. For example THhs16 meant Thursday, heavy snow, 16cm. The oversight was that we were only including levels of snow and not rain, which at 5000m was actually a critical error.  We were receiving forecasts such as FRrs- meaning Friday, rain showers, 0cm snow and so the volume of rain was unknown to us. A pretty obvious flaw in hindsight.

Our coded weather forecasts

My girlfriend (and IT wizard) Anna had done a fantastic job at automating the forecasts to be sent to our phone. We knew that with the Thuraya network it was possible for an email to be received as a text message, although finding correct information on the net was another matter. Thuraya customer services confirmed the email address format was sms@smsr.thuraya.com with the satellite phone number added in the subject field. The content of the text needed to be placed in the message area. Our cc'ed email addresses were receiving the messages in a timely manner and our agent confirmed that texts were being received by the phone in Islamabad. The texts looked 'like a serial number' according to our agent, and so all sounded well.

Only after collecting the phone from the Islamabad office did it become evident that the texts received bore no relation to what had been sent. Instead of the expected <160 character texts there were vastly longer texts that were a jumble of random letters and numbers. Similar problems were experienced when texts were sent to the satellite phone from some 'smart' phones indicating the problem likely related to the age of the phone.

Thuraya also make it possible to text a phone via their website. By this point Anna was beginning her one month journey across Russia but fortunately her brother-in-law Sam kindly agreed to send these manually on a daily basis, for which we were hugely grateful. 

One last problem was that texts were not being received until a full day after they were sent. Consequently our next day forecast wasn't actually a forecast. Instead we needed to use the forecast issued around 48 hours prior to a given day, which was more of a problem during changeable weather (ie throughout the second half of our trip). From speaking to other people who have used Thuraya phones in Pakistan it sounds as though it was a phone issue opposed to a network issue but if somebody is more the wiser then I would be grateful to hear from them.

Lastly, many texts sent from the phone were not being received. Likewise neither were texts sent to the phone. At least sending messages via the Thuraya site proved reliable, as was making calls to and from the phone. 

In summary, next trip I think we need to buy a phone to avoid these unexpected problems and also to test everything thoroughly before boarding any planes. 

Bivi Gear

During my last trip to the Karakoram in 2006 I had solely used a bivi bag above base camp, which had worked fine on modest sized peaks and kept the pack weight to a minimum. I naturally used a bivi bag again for this trip. The difference with this trip was that the advanced base camps were much further from our base camp than anything previously and so we were more vulnerable to bad weather when at the high camps with just bivi bags. The wet night spent near the head of the Yokshgoz glacier suggested that maybe some sort of lightweight erectable tarp would have been a good accompaniment. Once on the mountain we could have resorted back to just bivi bags. Of course if we were confident of reaching the summit and descending the same day then a simple lightweight tent with a flysheet left at the base of the climb would be an alternative approach. I considered lightweight single skin two man tents in the aftermath but my conclusion was that they would be a poor choice where rain might be encountered (given they are not properly waterproof).

Our high bivi at 4930m, beneath Khust Dur Sar and P 5665

The morning after a grim night of rain and sleet at 4900m, above the Yoksugoz Glacier

Our high bivi at 5050m, beneath Qalha Sar... expecting rain in the night

Cooking equipment

We used an MSR XGK multifuel stove burning kerosene at base camp for all cooking. I've used this stove on past expeditions and main advantage for me is that it doesn't block up. Other stoves, such a the Whisperlite and Dragonfly models, haven't coped well with kerosene and have required a lot cleaning during a trip. The XGK easily saw the trip out without the need to strip and clean it. 

For our high bivi camps we had too much cooking paraphernalia. Murilo had a Jetboil, only suitable for boiling water, meaning a second stove and saucepan was needed for actual cooking. In hindsight we should have just prepared meals that required hot water and next trip I think dehydrated meals are definitely the way to go in this respect. It means bringing this food from home but I don't think this will add too much weight to the luggage. With this approach we'll be able to take one Jetboil stove beyond base camp like most normal people whilst minimising the amount of gas needed due the Jetboil's boiling efficiency.

Making chapattis at lunchtime with the XGK stove

Food

Compared to my last trip in 2006 there was significantly less choice of food in the grocery shops. Tinned tuna was the only source of fish or meat available and it was low grade tuna mush rather than proper steak. The fresh vegetables on offer also looked at the end of their life but we did find a suitable stock of tinned vegetables. If I went back to Pakistan then I would consider hiring a cook to broaden the cuisine, else learn a few recipes in advance to better make use of the limited ingredients. Bringing some food from home would be a strong consideration to broaden the meals.

Food shopping in Gilgit. Not much selection.

Clothing

Climbing-wise we took nothing 'extreme'. Karakoram temperatures are pretty mild in relation to altitude so we didn't need too much in the way of warm layers. No more than with winter climbing in Scotland and on clear sunny days the layers were stripped right down. Excessively warm temperatures were a greater problem than excessively cold temperatures so flexibility with layers was the key.

Footwear

One of my biggest problems on this trip was my newly purchased Batura 2.0 boots. Great boots, just tragically a little too small. I had used Scarpa Omega's for many years prior without problem, until spring the same year when a couple of outings left my toe nails badly bruised from kicking into ice. Maybe the liners had thinned a little bit and I was now slipping forward in the boots slightly more than previously. Maybe I've just been doing more ice climbing and less mixed climbing, and consequently kicking in a lot more. It was right at the end of the season anyway, which meant my new replacements boots would not be tested properly until this trip. The shortness was at least only a minor problem during descents and I coped ok for the duration of the trip. For the approaches to the high camps I used my trekking boots, as much for comfort as to preserve the secondhand value of the Batura 2.0s. Murilo had a similar problem with his Spantiks, which were digging into his shins.

Climbing boots on the backpacks for the approach to our high camps

The Climbing Rack

Tragically there was confusion about who was bringing what gear. It's maybe partly a problem related to arranging a trip with someone in another country where the main way of collating information was via FB Messenger and spreadsheets. Murilo thought I was bringing the majority of ice screws since he didn't own many. I thought he was bringing half of what we needed. Consequently we had about half the planned amount. With a lack of ice screws I was a little anxious about venturing onto steep slopes that might involve icy sections. On Shimshal Whitehorn in 2006 Peter and I encountered some horribly sugary ice that had necessitated pitching. With only a handful of screws it took us hours to climb a relatively short distance due to our pitches being far too short. I was keen to avoid such a situation again. Murilo and I hadn't climbed in an alpine setting before and it takes me longer now than when I was younger to build up the confidence to do things such as moving together on technical ground with an unfamiliar partner. A couple of partner fatalities has certainly made the associated risks of alpinism very real to me and measuring/managing risk levels is something I place a lot of focus on. I definitely haven't lost my nerve, I just consider the realistic worst case scenario a lot more and try to take precautions accordingly.


Gear laid out prior to departure. Note the lack of climbing pro.

Besides ice screws, the moderate rock gear that we brought was excessive of our requirements. We had just one set of nuts and three cams but the shale rock that we encountered offered nothing more than a few optimistic sling placements. Poor rock quality seems the norm in many parts of the Karakoram, including everything I've seen north of the central Karakoram belt. Next trip I would strip the rock protective down for similar objectives. Maybe just a few tricams with which I could fashion both nut and cam placements to a certain degree.

One thing I'd put more focus on next trip would be snow protection. I'm very conscious that snow conditions can deteriorate rapidly in the Karakoram and I'd like to be better prepared for this next time in case we find ourselves on more committing ground. Maybe some Petzl Sum'tec axes to allow easier plunging and better snow belays, plus a deadman also for stronger belays.

Murilo leading the crux pitch on P 5665. Not many runners, not a great belay at my end.

Pack Weight

Our packs were heavier than ideal between base camps and high camps due to carrying a pair of B3 boots. The extra cooking equipment also added a little space and weight. It was all too much to fit in my 50 litre climbing pack, which meant I needed to also pack this in my 100 litre pack and bring everything up to high camp. Without the extra pair of boots and cooking equipment I'm pretty sure everything would have packed into the 50 litre pack in the first place. With better planning we could also have left a lot of gear near to the high camps, rather than repeatedly carry everything down to base camp and back up again. 

Pack weight above our high camps was low due to us carrying no bivi gear.

Maps

We used the 1990 Swiss map and a custom labelled Google map. The Swiss map correctly showed the basic arrangement of the peaks but lacked any detail or contouring and was of no use beyond basic valley navigation. There's not many maps that cover this far corner of the Karakoram though. Our first summit attempt of P 5665 finished on the southern shoulder rather than the main summit, which could have been avoided if we had properly studied our Google Map which showed it to be around 50m lower. Our focus hadn't been on these peaks in advance of the trip so we were guilty of not researching all sufficient possible options.

Time

This is always going to be a limitation for me. The one month trip gave us a decent window for climbing but longer would have been better. We ran out of time before we ran out of objectives but that's a good reason to return at least. We climbed everything we attempted so there is no unfinished business. Next trip I think we need to better prioritise objectives as anything not near the top of the list is unlikely to get the time.

Comments

  1. Regarding freeze dried food our 3 man expedition used about 18kg over 4 weeks of climbing in the Karakorum. We also had the same phone problem with an older model thurya but the newer models did not garble the messages. For better mapping the Soviet military maps are good. They have one peculiarity that the spot heights are usually not located at peaks but near them. Presumably a limitation of the techniques used to make them. We found the Swiss map missed out an entire valley and was generally only good for trekking through Valleys.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Other network sat phones should work but we we're told were illegal to import. Thurya can be legally imported but there is a fee. We were told most people just smuggle in an illegal one.

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    2. Thanks, that's some good information about sat phones. The 1990 Swiss map wasn't too bad for our area. The detailed Soviet Maps actually don't go this far west.

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