Stories From The Karakoram

In the summer of 2018, Alik Berg and I traveled from the Bow Valley to Pakistan to attempt the unclimbed Pumari Chhish East. Below are a few stories from our expedition.

June 30, 2018. Zipping a last bulging duffel closed, a part of me couldn’t wait to be off. The prospect of a summer spent among the great peaks of the Karakoram fired my imagination. But now that the trip was no longer a distant plan but a stark reality, another part of me wished for nothing more than to stay home and play in the Rockies. Darker thoughts swirled too. We’d be throwing ourselves at huge mountains halfway around the world. Between high altitude, storms and climbing, a lot could happen. As I drove to the Calgary International Airport on a warm summer evening, I felt torn.

A one-hour hop over the mountains; a few hours at Vancouver International; an interminable dozen hours over the Pacific; another dozen at Beijing International; back into a cramped airplane seat for the last leg to Islamabad. As the plane icon on the flight map crossed into Pakistan, black and white peaks jutted above a sea of cloud: the Karakoram.

A suspension bridge over the Hispar River on the way to Hispar village. The further you venture up the valley, the rougher the road becomes.

September 2017 – June 2018. The adventure had started almost a year earlier. An expedition to Pakistan isn’t like going to the Bugaboos: “Hey, wanna run up to the Bugs next week?” There’s applying for visas and peak permits; arranging for flights and jeeps from Islamabad to the mountains; making long gear lists for weeks of living and climbing in complete isolation; and figuring out how much it’s all going to cost… To begin with, there were four of us keen to explore unclimbed peaks in the Kondus Valley, just west of the disputed border between Pakistan and India. But carving two months out of your life for an expedition to Asia isn’t easy, and over the winter two dropped out. That left just Alik and me.

Then, two months before our departure, the Pakistani military turned down our permit application. We scrambled to find another unclimbed mountain to inspire us. I remembered Pumari Chhish East, a 6900-metre peak I’d failed on in 2009: obscure, beautiful and unclimbed. Fortunately, it doesn’t sit near any borders and soon we had our permit. Now we could take that crucial step on any expedition: buying the damned plane tickets.

The Pumari Chhish massif from basecamp in a meadow at 4500 metres. From left to right: the main summit (7492 m), nearly obscured; the south summit (7350 m); and the east summit (ca. 6900 m). The main and south summits have each been climbed once, while the east summit is unclimbed.

July 10-12, 2018. Hispar village lies literally at the end of the road – a dirt road, blocked by landslides half of the time. The jeeps carrying Alik, me, our Pakistani companions Fida Ali and Nadeem, and everything from ice screws to bags of potatoes, rolled into the village early one afternoon. Plenty of time to hire porters for an early departure the next morning – or so we thought. Soon it became clear it wouldn’t be that simple. The night before, we’d agreed on the wages with an elder down-valley. But the Hispar villagers didn’t see it that way.

The negotiations dragged on all afternoon and the whole of the following day. The second evening, with no compromise in sight, we determined to leave the Hispar valley and go somewhere else. In the morning, all of our stuff was already loaded on the jeeps when suddenly the locals said they’d carry to basecamp for the original wages. Two hours later, thirty-some smiling porters and a couple of surprised climbers headed up the Hispar Glacier.

Wage negotiations in Hispar village. The talks switched back and forth between Burushaski, the local dialect; Urdu, the official language of Pakistan; and English.

The cable crossing over the Hispar River. It took a few hours to ferry thirty-some people and loads across the raging torrent.

Alik Berg descending from the summit of Rasool Sar (5980 m) after spending two nights on top for acclimatization. The flat-topped peak in the background is Khani Basa Sar (6441 m), climbed once.

August 7, 2018. After the first breathless forays above 5000 metres, after a later two nights spent on a small ledge at nearly 6000 metres, after days of board games in basecamp while it rained and snowed, we were finally ready for Pumari Chhish East. But first, we needed to find a way around the icefall guarding the base of the south face. After zigzagging around crevasses and climbing vertical granite, we gained the shattered glacier above the most tortured steps. From its rolls of sun-softened snow, we got our first close look at the lower half of the face.

Alik Berg rock climbing on the approach to the south face of Pumari Chhish East. Bypassing a shattered icefall made for a complicated and difficult approach.

The fields and runnels of pure white we’d glimpsed almost four weeks earlier on our way to basecamp were nearly gone. Dirty streaks of rockfall scarred what little ice remained. Maybe if we climbed at night, when this whole ruin was frozen together? But would we ever launch ourselves at a mountain back home in these conditions? And if the answer was a resounding no, did traveling halfway around the world make it a more reasonable proposition? We took a last swig of water, stood up and headed down.

The south face of Pumari Chhish East. We’d planned to start up the centre of the face but found much of the ice had melted by late summer.

August 15, 2018. A last burst of front-pointing and the angle of the slope eased. I sat down in the faceted snow to bring Alik up. With the midafternoon sun blazing down from a dark blue sky, in slow motion we walked across the summit plateau. The highest point was a cornice, a freeze frame of a breaking wave, and we took turns standing on it. A wistful look at Pumari at the head of the valley, a few photos and we headed down. We had a long way back to our bivouac and only a few hours of daylight.

Our consolation prize was an unnamed, previously unclimbed 5980-metre peak, directly above the gendarme in the photo. With the obvious snow-and-ice rib facing the camera being threatened by seracs, we climbed the long south (left-hand) ridge.

We managed to reverse the first ugly traverse before it got dark. Once our world shrunk inside our headlamp beams, our pace slowed dramatically. Where was the loose ramp that’d take us back to the ridge crest? Two hours and much up and downclimbing later, we found it. It was after midnight, and thousands of stars shone in a black sky, when we glimpsed the pale reflection of the tent. We smiled. We’d stood on a nameless not-quite-6000-metre peak no one else had bothered to climb before. It was a meaningless accomplishment but at that moment, we felt happy.

Alik Berg threading his way between towers on the south ridge of unnamed 5980.

Alik Berg approaching the summit of unnamed 5980. The snowy pyramid over his left shoulder is an unnamed, unclimbed ca. 6200-metre peak. The cluster of peaks behind it is the Kunyang Chhish massif. The main summit (7852 m) has been climbed twice, the east summit (ca. 7400 m) once.