Thursday, 27 July 2006

First Summit of Haigutum East

26/07/06: Day one

I slept through my alarm which sounded at 1am but was woken soon after by an avalanche somewhere on the slopes above our bivi sight. Not sure if it had been a dream I rose, packed my sack and had breakfast. Our bowls were still lined with grease leftover from the fatty Chinese noodles from last night having been unable to scrub it off. We ate our porridge with few complaints however. Within minutes of donning my crampons my newly installed front points clumsily struck their first target of the day in the form of my only platypus water bottle putting a big splice in its side. Fortunately Peter, my climbing partner, had two one litre water bottles, one of which he kindly leant me.

Crossing the Hispar Glacier before sunset
We had bivi’ed at the bottom of the glacier descending from the unclimbed peak of Haigutum East that we were to attempt. The mountain forms part of the stunning Bal Chhish peaks on the southern side of the Hispar Glacier. Our route to the high bivi, which we had identified from our base camp on the north side of the Hispar Glacier, involved a significant rising traverse from west to east with apparent serac fall danger for much of the way. We had only arrived at base camp yesterday morning but with good weather having lasted for almost a week we were keen to get something climbed before it changed for the worst. Having identified a potential route we had crossed the Hispar glacier that same evening arriving at our bivi sight shortly after sunset.

The route we took to the summit. The red line marks the route we should have taken. The blue line indicates the route we did take to the summit.
Initially we actually needed to climb away from our peak in a south-westerly direction, skirting around a broad area of impassable crevasses until we were almost beneath the 6000m peak to the right of Haigutum East. Despite our best efforts we soon came face to face some huge crevasses. ‘I thought we were going to skirt further west’ enquired Peter on the tail of the rope. It was clear that we had not collectively studied the route closely enough the previous day and both had our own ideas about how we were going to navigate the lower slopes. I started to think we had been too hasty in trying to climb this mountain. Maybe we should have taken a day to explore the possibilities of climbing a more direct and safer line to the bivi sight that Peter thought might have been possible, or at least look at our current route a bit more closely. I let Peter take the lead thereby cleverly relieving myself of all responsibility of getting us lost amongst the many crevasses. In places the crevasses were up to around 6 meters wide but we managed to skirt around those that we encountered or cross them via a snow bridge and continue climbing.

Crevasses were numerous near the base of Haigutum East
Another avalanche was heard crashing down somewhere above us and we both stopped in our tracks. ‘I think that avalanche fell on our route Pete.’ You think so?’ Peter was peering in to the darkness ahead clearly unsure where it had come from. I wasn’t 100% sure myself. ‘Maybe tonight is a bad night to be trying to climb this mountain.’ I thought aloud. The night was a warm one and there had not been a freeze. It was only 4am yet the ice was wet and streams were flowing down the glacier. Having been avalanched by a large cornice in Kyrgyzstan only the previous year I was maybe slightly more cautious than Peter. In the end we made the decision to climb a little further as sunrise was at hand and soon we would be able to make a more informed decision as to what to do. The avalanche incident was soon forgotten however and we refocused on climbing the mountain.

Haigutum East's north face from close to the base of the mountain
When the time was right we switched direction and started heading east as we were above the worst of the crevasses. We picked a good spot to begin the traverse however made life hard for ourselves by climbing higher than necessary. Convinced I was too low on the mountain we climbed an awful route riddled with crevasses hidden amongst soft snow that proved to be the crux of the day. Near the top of the section I heard something fall off the side of my rucksack. I glanced round to see the water bottle Peter had leant me sliding down the slope we had just climbed and come to rest in a patch of rotten snow below. Expletives run from my mouth. We now only had one litre of water between us thanks to my carelessness. Fortunately the warm night proved a blessing in this respect because we found water a short distance higher at around 4800m. We both sat and drank for five minutes making sure we were fully hydrated before continuing.

Our route had brought us out on an extensive snow field covered in a blanket of avalanche debris. The prospect of traversing it with seracs lining the route above us was not inviting but the snow field descended gently down to meet the way we should have come and probably wouldn’t take long to cross. Some of the snow looked fresh and I put two and two together to conclude that we were walking through the spot where we heard the avalanches fall earlier in the morning. The crossing fortunately passed without incident and we were soon on easy ground leading to the high bivi. Only a number of isolated crevasses presented an obstruction however these could all be skirted around. The only real tricky spot was crossing a thin strip of snow between two crevasses which looked undercut. Peter reminded me to jump the opposite way to him in the event of a fall but things passed without incident. Having been ill only a few days before this climb I was feeling more tired than normal as we approached the bivi sight and was glad that the day’s climbing was nearly over. A short distance before we reached the bivi another avalanche hurtled down the avalanche field we had crossed only an hour ago. Judging by its volume, and more to the point the high speed at which it tumbled down the mountain side, it would likely have been fatal had we been in its path.

The avalanche that missed us by 1 hour
We reached our bivi sight at around 5150m by 9am and were promptly greeted by a stunning panorama with the Hispar La and peaks around Snow Lake visible to our east and the Kunyang Chhish and Pumari Chhish massifs rising in the other direction. Above us all we could see were seracs however we fancied our chances of navigating through them along the north-eastern ridge that started directly above our bivi spot. A face route looked possible to the left of this but it was steeper and after the warm nights figured it might prove problematic.

Peter and I spent the afternoon in our bivi bags sleeping and watching nearby avalanches go off. The avalanche that had crashed down our route after we had crossed it was plaguing my mind. After being avalanched on Khan Tengri the previous year I was supposed to be adopting a less gung-ho approach to Alpine climbing but it was clear that I still played the odds too much.

I had slept poorly the previous night but found it hard to sleep in the baking midday sun. Peter on the other hand had no problem. I managed to finally get some kip after I used my walking poles to create a canopy inside my bivi bag and provide some ventilation. After more fatty Chinese noodles and a beautiful sunset where the mountain turned a lilac colour we retreated to our sleeping bags.

View west to the Kunyang Chhish and Pumari Chhish massifs 
View towards Snow Lake from high camp at 5150m 
Sunset over Haigutum East from our high bivi at 5150m

27/07/06: Day 2

The alarm sounded again at 1am and by 2 we were starting our ascent. After days of good weather my first thoughts of the morning were pessimistic ones as I looked upon the lightning storm in the west. Hopefully it was too far away to interfere with our summit attempt I told myself.

Route to the summit from our bivouac
Our route to the summit ridge weaved in and out of crevasses and seracs and through deep snow. The night was warm again and it quickly became apparent that the snow was frozen only superficially. I initially lead the way and within minutes we encountered our first tricky crevasse to cross marking the start of steeper snow and more crevasses. A short climb further another crevasse caused particular problems. I tried to step over it and mount the steep, soft snow directly above but found it difficult to do so without collapsing in to the crevasse. With perseverance I passed it but soon my feet were sinking like the Titanic and I was wasting a lot of energy and going nowhere. Peter took over the lead as he seemed to be coping with the conditions better. The steepest sections on the ridge were in the latter half and the seracs became harder to navigate through. As we approached the main ridgeline we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise.

Haigutum East's summit ridge
The main ridge that approached the summit from the east involved a moderately steep traverse for half of the way followed by some more steep snow slopes. Snow conditions improved and did not take long to complete compared to the main north-eastern ridge. One mixed section required particular concentration however as all the rock was loose. Cloud moved in as we approached the summit and I considered that the main event of the day might be getting off the mountain and back to our base camp. By the time we reached the summit it was 7.30am. Peter and I congratulated one another and I whipped out the camera and tripod for a few photos. I for one was particularly chuffed to have climbed my first virgin peak. While it was only 5783m the route had been an interesting one that was less than straight forward. To have climbed a peak on the Hispar Glacier, one of Pakistan’s most famous glaciers also bore significance for me.

Me and Peter on the summit of Haigutum East
The weather appeared to be stable for the time being however we were both keen to get off the summit with relative haste. An abseil was initially required to get us on to easier ground however a further three more abseils were later needed. Having only bought one 60m half rope all the abs were relative short. The Abalikov threader had also been left at base camp however Peter managed to hack out an ice bollard so as to avoid leaving an ice screw behind which looked particularly precarious but served its purpose. We down-climbed most of the ridge back to our high bivi sight as the snow was becoming increasingly unstable. Not far below the main summit ridge I fell through soft snow into a crevasse but fortunately didn’t fall far. I was fine and easily climbed back out again. It seemed the safest way to cross crevasses from here on was to leap them often in an ungainly fashion. We reached the high bivi sight at around 1pm. With only one litre of water I had been munching on snow for much of the climb and so prompted melted some snow.

Our descent back to the Hispar Glacier was problem free, avoiding the avalanche fields that we had crossed during our ascent. I also managed to retrieve Peter’s water bottle that I had dropped the previous day. By the time we reached the Hispar glacier it was 5.40pm. With over two hours of daylight remaining I could potentially have reached base camp by nightfall, however I was tired and dehydrated and soon fell behind Peter. Within days of climbing Haighatum East I was feeling sick again and it became apparent that I had climbed the peak between bouts of gardia. I stopped to rest and to drink water however urgency soon enveloped me and the thought of spending the night on the glacier was not an appealing one. A highway of ribbed white ice weaved its way along the centre of the Hispar Glacier and was broken up by numerous streams. I donned my crampons so that I could follow a direct line across the ice however a small glacial river on its northern edge with steep banks on either side blocked my path. I impatiently walked up and down its bank a short way hoping to find an easy way across or, even better, find the easy way by which we had come two days ago but could find neither. Dusk was closing in and I opted for a precarious crossing across some large boulders. I also split the seams of my sallopettes during the cross after stretching a few inches more than they would give at the crotch.

Descent across the avalanche fields on Haigutum East
Descent route
 The final leg across the glacier was a nightmare. With little energy I stumbled in the dark across loose scree and rocks in the vague direction of our camp site. Peter was already across by this stage and shined his torch so as to provide me with a bearing. The final hundred metres was the most frustrating of all as the way appeared to be blocked by a wall of steep black ice that descended to a stream separating me and the base camp. I walked back and forth, stumbling and tripping frequently on rocks becoming increasingly frustrated at not being able to find a way off the glacier. Finally I spied a patch of glacier with enough embedded rocks on to act as stepping stones down and off the ice. I still had no idea where the camp sight was in relation to my current placement however, fortunately for me Peter came in search of me. I was totally exhausted on reaching the camp site. It was 9pm - 20 hours after we had woken at the high bivi sight this morning. Since then it had been poor conditions underfoot for much of the way. My salopettes were in tatters with the stitching having burst from the crotch down to the knees (I would later have to dedicate a full day re-stitching and gluing the seams only to bin the pants before my flight home). For dinner we had some tinned Chinese pork that we had bought in Karimabad that proved to be disgusting, resembling dog food. I promptly went to bed after tipping half of my dinner in the bushes. 

I slept for about 14 hours!

The Chinese tinned pork we bought in Karimabad that I wouldn't feed to a dog! 
I spent a day stitching my salopettes back together after the climb

Monday, 3 July 2006

Rocked by Shimshal Whitehorn

The morning started in the worst fashion! Both Ben and Peter failed to hear their alarms sound at midnight and it was not until I happened to look at my watch at 12.45 that we rose. We ate and packed quickly however, and were soon climbing towards the ‘couloir of 1000 gutters’, nicknamed by the previous French expedition because of the constant rock fall that hurtled down the couloir’s numerous runnels. Despite the late start I was feeling fresh having retired to my bivi bag before sunset. We had bivied at approximately 4600m on a patch of glacier beneath the north face of Shimshal Whitehorn where we figured we would be safe from any rocks or avalanches hitting us in the night. We initially made good progress towards the couloir however more delays were soon to arise. Ben who was leading the way at a good pace dropped his pack close to the bergschrund and started sifting through its contents. 'Shit, I’ve left my bivi bag behind!' he confessed. I sat on my pack beside Peter saying little, and waiting for his return frustrated and eager to push on. As I waited I looked at the skies. The weather looked good and the stars formed a blanket from east to west. It was an hour before Ben reappeared and the time was now 3am. In about 1 ½ hours the sun would start rising and snow conditions would slowly begin to deteriorate. Ahead of us still remained 800m of steep climbing before reaching the col at the top of the couloir.

Shimshal Whitehorn at night
We climbed in a solo fashion making good progress taking less than three hours to knock off 700m and to bring us within reach of the top of the couloir. We followed the many deep runnels that descended down the couloir taking it in turns to lead the way. Snow was often thin but the crunchy underlying ice was easy to kick into. We approached the top of the couloir in a blaze of sunshine and it looked to be beautiful day ahead of us. Up until now the mountain had been well behaved!

Peter climbing the Couloir of 1000 gutters
Ben climbing Shimshal Whitehorn's Couloir of 1000 gutters before it all went wrong! 
Close to the col my thoughts switched to how far we could make it up the NW ridge of Whitehorn before conditions deteriorated significantly and we would be forced to find a bivi. If we maintained the momentum of the last few hours then we would certainly be in range for a summit attempt tomorrow, I considered to myself despite the late start. Peter led the way, bearing up the right side of the couloir to bring us to an easy finish.

‘Rock!’ came the call from the front as Peter swiftly ducked under it having seen it late. It whizzed over his head. Ben, who was second in line had little time to react. Barely had he heard the call before the large rock struck him directly on the thigh resulting in a string of expletives that clearly indicated he was in pain. From my position below it looked as though Ben had been struck directly on the side of his knee, no doubt causing significant injury to the joint capsule I calculated.

The ‘rock’ quickly proved to be ‘rocks’ with the majority of them tumbling down the very runnel that we were climbing. Peter opted to keep his head low and make himself as small as possible whereas Ben had somehow managed to scamper to the right away from the main bombardment clutching his leg in pain. I was the next to be struck receiving a direct hit on the back of my helmet that also left a large bruise at the top of my neck. Having never been hit by a rock of such magnitude before, I was convinced that my helmet must have cracked down the middle (it later proved that there was hardly a mark) and decided it would not be a good idea for skull to take any more impacts. I initially ducked down in the same fashion as Peter but quickly realised a second strike was inevitable if I remained in the chute. Another rock bounded over Peter’s head and I decided it was time to take evasive action. I leapt to the right out of the runnel but on 50° ice quickly began to side down the couloir having not considered my landing too carefully. With my axes flapping from my wrists, I urgently self arrested myself before I had travelled too far with some relief. At some point my Gore-Tex jacket incurred a five inch rip on the underside of the arm.

Shortly after Ben was hit by the rock
The rock fall only lasted about ten seconds but it had been intense and largely directed at the very spot that we perched. Ben was clearly in pain and I rushed to his attention. Peter, unaware of the events that had transpired behind him initially started climbing to the safety of the col. ‘Hang-on Pete’ I called up to him. ‘Ben’s been injured quite bad’. ‘How bad?’ Pete returned. ‘Bad’! Ben’s trousers were already soaked in blood, the rock having punctured a hole through three layers of clothing leaving a clean hole in his thigh below. First thing was to control the blood flow then get him off the mountain. The summit attempt was over and there were new priorities at hand. I cut the clothing away around the wound to expose a hole that went right down to the muscle but it was fairly clean cut. Strangely, despite the initial blood flow, the wound had virtually stopped bleeding within minutes. I cleaned the wound as best I could without iodine, bandaged it and applied a tourniquet (my base layer!).

In light of Ben’s injury a descent seemed the only sensible option despite the high risk of more rock fall in the couloir. Ben, who could not flex his knee on the injured side, lowered himself the 700m on his axes in a painfully slow manner using almost entirely upper body strength. He was clearly digging deep. ‘We’re almost there’ Peter optimistically remarked. We were barely half way down! I hung back checking for rock fall so that the others would have more time to react, however the only follow-up was a single rock that tumbled down a long way from where we were descending. After hours of down-climbing we escaped the couloir with some relief.

Retreating down the Couloir of 1000 gutters after Ben was hit on the thigh by a large rock 
Back at the bivi site we packed everything and descended to our base camp - a further 200m down the glacier crossing two ice falls on route. Ben couldn't down-climb one section so we set up a short abseil off an ice screw. We spent the night at base camp as Ben was not surprisingly too exhausted to make the 1400m descent back to Shimshal that day. After swabbing the wound with iodine it appeared clean at least and there were enough bandages for another day. Using elastic bandage I tried to apply some compression to limit the inflammation. The following day we descended back to Shimshal meeting the doctor of a German expedition on route who examined the wound. He also examined the wound again in Shimshal days later and was a great help.

A further attempt was made on the mountain by Peter and me however this went little further than the top of the couloir when bad weather resulted in a swift retreat. We did however have time to climb the neighbouring peak Shifkitin Sar (5750m) which was a minor result compared to the main objective that we had aspired to. Ironically this was the mountain that dropped the rock on Ben. Ben was keen to try the third attempt but decided his leg was too painful at the last minute on the morning of the ascent.

Within weeks of our failure to climb the mountain a German team summited from a different valley. With the quick access afforded by the Jeep road from Passu there will no doubt be future attempts by other parties, attracted to Shimshal by its beautiful mountains and hospitable people. I myself will no doubt return to the region, however whether I will ever try and climb Whitehorn again is another matter. Having tried three times I now have other peaks in mind and new objectives. The couloir that we climbed was potentially the most direct vs. easiest route to the summit but is also a dangerous route. There is no easy and totally safe way to climb this mountain however. The local kids were right when they shouted at us ‘Whitehorn, bad mountain, bad mountain’ prior to the climb!