Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Øvredalsrenna, Hemsedal

The pressure to get something climbed on Sunday was on after the volume of food consumed Saturday night. Half a box of ice cream, a large tub of cottage cheese, and a skolebrød were the trimmings to the main course of tacos. The reason for so much consumption related to the total lack of energy and fatigue during Saturday. Grand plans made on Friday had whittled down to getting nothing done the following day. The battery felt flat midway through the walk-in and by the time we were under a route I was ready to leave. Didn't see that coming...

Sunday morning I didn't feel a huge deal better but then at 5am on a Sunday things rarely do. Clearly I hadn't recovered from the previous weekend. The basic plan was aim low, take the walk-in at a gentle pace, and hopefully reach the top of something before the battery ran flat again. The fine weather a major motivator for trying again. The low of -22 degrees on the car temperature gauge suggesting it would certainly be cold enough.

The walk-in, with friends heading to Skurvefjell
Entering Øvredalen

As it happened we got an excellent short route called Øvredalsrenna climbed. I had backed-off the start of this route the previous weekend due to its poor condition but sensed a further week would be enough to sufficiently improve things should we return. Reaching my previous high point of 5m was an easy affair given that the first 5m were now buried under a funnel of snow.

Øvredalsrenna (again)

The lower portion of the gully was filled with ice but the character of climbing remained very much mixed. Thrutchy, awkward and cramped. The thin streak of ice generally wide enough for one crampon, which made for some interesting bridging onto rock. At times the ice was particularly thin, for which my roughly sharpened mixed picks were ill-suited. There wasn't much in the way of solid rock protection but surprisingly some excellent screw placements. Also some not so good screws where the streak of ice became really narrow.

The start of Øvredalsrenna (again)

The guidebook described the difficulties slackening off after the initial climbing but in current early season state the challenging climbing kept coming. Below half height the ice quality had transformed into one of the worst of types. Poorly formed snowy ice suspended above unconsolidated powder. Ice just a few inches thick and useless for placing screws into. I kicked my feet into where this ice commenced and mounted it but quickly the top sheet deformed and then fell apart leaving my feet momentarily scrapping amongst powder for footing. The ice a little higher, where my axes were placed, was fortunately better but still required a some delicacy. Towards the the centre of the gully the ice was best for axes but at the edges I could easily punch foot holes through the top layer, which felt secure enough to weight bear.

One of the falling blocks, which had collapsed under my feet, had unfortunately hit Anna on the back of the hand. Evidently her belay wasn't out of the firing line. At first there was concern that it was broken but after a little pause things began to improve and she was able to enjoy the climb.

Gear wasn't great after the initial good ice. A poor screw in hollow ice. A number 1 nut that seemed resilient enough despite not looking so. I spent a long time trying to seat a large nut only for it lift once into the moves. Another nut sitting a little too shallow for comfort. Nothing totally reliable and everything fairly spaced from one another. Much of the rock was too compact. To be fair, I passed what looked to be a solid large cam placement but we had left all the cams to minimise weight. Just nuts, hexes and tricams.

The upper half of route was largely ice free, apart from the occasional thin covering on rock. The snow offered little help on steeper sections and in addition to this some large black holes were appearing through the snow beneath my feet. Fortunately I was able to patch these with the snow that I was sweeping from higher up. A couple of steep steps proved harder than anticipated. The poor snow forcing me to commit to some very fun mixed moves with a nice blend of solid hooks and holds more delicate. The route was probably all the better for this and very Scottish in character.

Anna climbing the second of two awkward steps

The steep, interesting climbing only lasted for around 60m. I looked to have just enough rope to exit the main gully but chose to make a belay just prior. Partly because this was the first decent rock gear that I had placed since near the base of the route and partly because I was unsure how soon a belay would present once onto easy ground. The final moves at the top of the route heralded bomber frozen turf at which point I knew I was home and dry.

The belay just below the top of the route

I needed to continue up the broad snow slope for maybe another 40m until a belay presented around some large boulders. Maybe this is what qualifies the route as being 100m but really the main climbing is just 60m.

Easy ground above the main climbing

I don't really have a feel for M-grades I will admit. Partly because the few M-graded routes that I have climbed have felt all over the place with regards to grade consistency. With my limited knowledge I would hint that this was hard for M3 in current conditions. It felt Scottish Tech 5. Arguably V,5 with the lack of good gear but possibly more like IV,5 with better ice and good neve in the upper half.

Thus I managed to finish a route this weekend... In fact once on the route I had felt quite fresh. We even set about continuing up and over Nibbi in order to return to the car but later changed tack upon seeing how the easy the descent back to our tracks in Øvredalen would be.

The descent back to Øvredalen (the long way)
Moonlit descent

A trip to the legevakt on route home confirmed fortunately no broken bones in Anna's hand.

Next weekend is going to be largely rest. The mixed routes on Skoghorn I imagine will have become a little too dry for my liking and there looks still to be limited options for ice yet. A few photos below to illustrate conditions from last Saturday. Probably a good opportunity for me to have break. Then full gas the following week with a bit of luck.

Skogshorn Saturday morning
Lanciakaminen looking dry

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Semi-winter conditions on Siluetten

Getting some proper winter conditions this weekend looked too be a marginal affair but Anna and me were more than keen to try our luck. Hemsedal the natural place to poke around in high places. On Saturday however I managed just 5m of climbing before backing off due to cruddy ice. The route in question being Øvredalsrenna in Øvredalen. The light trickle of water behind the bad ice meant that much of the ground also wasn't frozen sufficiently. Elsewhere nothing really looked in proper winter nick and so we retired to the local swimming baths to review our strategy for Sunday.

My 'high point' on Øvredalsrenna

The biggest incentive for sticking around on Sunday was the fine weather forecast. Clear skies and freezing temperatures expected, so potentially a good day to be in the hills. Both Skogshorn and Skurvefjell had looked to be in a semi-winter state on Saturday. Fresh snow had fallen through the late morning and early afternoon but temperatures felt barely freezing. The harder mixed lines on Skogshorn would need to wait if I wanted the full winter experience. Better to lower the bar and finish a route and get the season kick-started on a positive note. Siluetten was the natural choice as I suspected it would be climable in any condition.

We did half the approach with the cat from Ulsålstolen before it got bored. Or maybe it just didn't fancy the loose slippery rocks for the remainder of the climb. A thin coating of snow covered the slopes beneath the cliffs but the cliffs themselves were looked fairly bare. It felt suitably cold at least and the beautiful sunrise that greeted us suggested a fine day in store.

Approaching the route

The summer and winter guidebooks show a radically different line for Siluetten and so I presume the route has many variations. The line that we climbed lay midway between these two described variants.

The lower rock was largely free of snow, and so we were spared the need to unpack the crampons and axes. Just boots and gloves required. Our line up the initial buttress largely involved steep scrambling with the occasional harder move. A strong, chilly wind picked up at the top of the first pitch and encouraged us to traverse a little bit rightwards across broken ground to find some shelter. Fortunatly the wind soon abated for the remainder of the climb.

View towards the central buttress from low on the route

At roughly one third height greater snow coverage was causing the rock to become a little more slippery and so we donned crampons. A short chimney offered a thrutchy crux in such conditions. Particularly with a backpack to further cramp my space.

The awkward chimney

The climbing then became much easier and we were able to move together for the next 100-150m to where the final section of ridge began. The clean sections of rock were snow free but snow lying on the less steep and sheltered ground meant crampons were still of benefit. Our axes were just with us for the ride though. The sunny weather allowed a couple of moves without gloves but these needed to be replaced soon after. The requirement for crampons at least meant we could claim a 'mixed' ascent.

Close to the top of the route
The final section of ridge

We finished the route just after the sun had dipped out of sight and so without lingering we started our descent whilst twilight lasted. We made the error of descending down the Eastern slopes, believing this would be a romp. It had been in May, when many people were skiing the slope, but in November it proved time-consuming and needed both axes and crampons for some steeper sections. We should have used the Milarenna gully in hindsight, which neighboured our route.

Conditions in summary were more alpine than full winter. Worth noting that my idea of full winter mixed conditions is based on a Scottish algorithm consisting of frozen turf, hoar frosted rock, and a sporting amount of snow coverage. It's probably harder to get this full mix on a south facing cliff, where maybe a period of less than perfect weather is going to be needed for such conditions. Hopefully in the next few weeks I'll catch Skogshorn at the right moment to get a good tick in the bag.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Dry Tooling at Heggedal

The previous weekend had been a strong indicator that winter training should begin in earnest. I had managed just one rock route in two days due to wet rock. Ideally my winter preparation should have begun sooner but the fantastic autumn rock climbing conditions around Oslo and Drammen had prolonged my motivation for climbing in rock shoes.

Dry tooling hasn't really caught on in Norway and there is very little development. Heggedal looked the obvious place to start though. The local Drammen guidebook described it as a collection of ice and mixed crags but the simple topos suggested a handful of bolted routes might be possible without ice formation. I made further investigation with Anna and Stig.

We first visited a crag called Mullaveggen but the bolted routes here were under perpetual shower. How much this related to the overnight rain I don't know, however the cracked rock appeared otherwise ideal.

We moved on to another area called Buldreveggen. After a little searching along the base if the cliff we found the short wall containing three routes. They were vertical to slightly leaning, only about 6m high, but at least looked suitable to hang on axes. And dry.

We started with the awkward wide crack called Burka express, the easiest route on offer and graded M5. My onsight attempt proved an abysmal affair. Maybe futile in light of the amount of fallen leaves and dense moss that decked the upper half of the route. Much gardening amidst popping axes and skating crampons. Without lower-off bolts I topped-out onto soft forest slopes and delicately padded my way up the nearest tree.

With the route now cleared of vegetation we each practised it on top-rope. Quickly the moves linked together and after a couple of practise runs I cleaned it on lead. Some difficult footwork for M5 but I suspect the grade assumes presence of ice.

 Anna on Burka express
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
Burka express on lead
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)

The opening route had naturally raised my guard and so the neighbouring M7, called Haken, I tried on top-rope from the outset. It felt in fact only a fraction harder but more pleasant. Strong hooks, interesting reachy moves, and a balancy layback off a torqued axe shaft towards the top. Topping-out without lower-off bolts felt an almost impossible affair with little purchase from the smooth final rock or forest bed. The lead attempt would need to wait until next visit though.

Pleasant footwork on Haken
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
Midway up Haken
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
That was all we had time for but the place certainly warranted a return as the short routes contained a fair number of moves of sustained difficulty for their height. "Grades" and "lower-offs" were probably the keywords to take away. Bringing some hardware to knock together a temporary lower-off seems a sensible approach and grades need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Den Hvite Stripa (n6), Andersnatten

I was more apprehensive about Den Hvite Stripa than any route for a long time. The crux pitch I understood to be very bold, with just a couple of bolts on the crux pitch and no possibility for supplementary gear. A bold n6 grade would probably equate to something like UK E2 5b, and so right on my limit. The lack of an adjective grade with the Nordic grading system meant this was just an educated guess though.

Den hvite stripa (the white stripe)

How big would the run-outs be?

Big enough to pass my belayer on the way down?

Where did the actual crux moves lie in relation to the bolts?

One thing I did know was that my slab climbing abilities had only slightly improved in recent years and so felt close to a plateau. Now or never.

I lost the paper, scissors, stone contest. 'Lost' in so far as my partner Sten would lead the first pitch leaving the crux second pitch to me.

The first pitch

Just mounting the short wall at the start of the second pitch in order to gain the slab seemed an ordeal. Where were the hand holds? Maybe it was the nervous anticipation of what was to follow. Some high crimps ultimately gave me the leverage to throw a high leg and rock over. How short people would manage I am not sure. Better technique maybe?

I had envisaged some heart-stopping, sweaty-palmed, marginal slab padding with too little friction to contemplate a reversal if things became a bit too spicy. The only way would likely be up. In reality things were much more steady. The rock was surprisingly featured with plenty of small crimps and only a few moves relying on blank slopers. Plenty of time to consider each move in turn. The three bolts were nicely spaced, with always a bolt to focus the attention upwards rather than worry about what lay below. The first bolt was easy to reach, and the third bolt spanned what was maybe the hardest section. The fist pump at the end of the pitch was as much about overcoming my personal fears as it was about the actual difficulties.

The crux second pitch

My personal opinion is that the technical difficulties of the pitch are at the easier end of n6. Maybe even n6-. As a comparison I would say Ich hatte viel bekummernis at Vardåsen is maybe a little harder and certainly has poorer protection low down. The pitch was certainly not 'bold', with the worst case scenario being some brief backward peddling. 'Gripping' would be a more appropriate word. Three bolts doesn't sound much but then the pitch is only around 20m. The lack of any truly bold routes in the general Oslo/Drammen area maybe makes this route a comparatively serious affair by local standards I guess. Or maybe it's boldness is just a thing of myth. Etive Slabs it is not.

The start of the n6- third pitch was protected by another bolt and contained a single move that was probably as hard as anything on the second pitch. Add to that the fear of blowing the onsight with a single unexpected slip... Then the difficulties eased back as the holds increased in size.

The third pitch

I had read little about the remaining pitches, although knew that the profile of the climb became steadily steeper. They were in fact a beautiful affair with big features needing athletic moves to link. My favourite sort of climbing. Perfect rock with with hardly any vegetation. Flakes, corners, small roofs, traverses, all a real joy with nothing massively hard.

Start of the fifth pitch

One thing worth pointing out is that the fourth pitch does not follow the roughly straight line shown in the latest Oslo guide. It is actually a big S-shape and so rope drag proved more of an issue than expected. The former Oslo guide actually shows the pitch in a truer form.

The top of the route brought to an end a fine adventure before an easy abseil down the neighbouring Den Svarte Stripa installed us back at our starting point. I'd say this is one of the best multipitch trad lines that I have climbed since arriving in Norway. The delicate slab pitches low down contrast beautifully with the more agile pitches higher up. I'd put it up there with Mot Sola, which is maybe slightly harder.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Via Lara, Hægefjell

My girlfriend Anna had undergone a SLAP tear repair in March. For those unfamiliar, this entails the ring of cartilage lining the shoulder socket being reattached. In Anna's case two thirds of this cartilage had become detached through a multitude of injuries over the years. Amazingly she had climbed her hardest ice pitch immediately prior to the operation.

Six months later her gradual recovery had reached a stage where she was ready to begin climbing again. We climbed Via Dolorosa, the easy slab climb at Vardåsen, a matter of hours after being given the green light to climb by her physio. It passed without drama and so Via Lara at Hægefjell seemed the suitable progression the coming weeekend. Another easy slab climb of no greater difficulty, only seven pitches instead of three.

Saturday's forcast was expected to be dry until around 7pm, meaning rain would affect only the BBQ rather than the climbing. Hægefjell's campsite lacked mobile signal though, so Friday evening's forecast was our last update.

Top of the second pitch - blue skies
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

Low on the route I noticed the winds were blowing from the south instead of the expected north. Dark clouds began to gather in the vicinity. Then at the top of the third pitch, midway up the route, it began to rain. Only lightly but the slabs caught every drop.

The fourth pitch was reportedly the hardest, and so with haste I pressed on, keen to complete it before the rock became slippery. Fortunately the climbing largely followed easy steps that were less reliant on friction. The cracked rock also meant plenty of opportunity for protection, meaning I could bypass all but the best gear placements for greater efficiency.

Anna climbing the third pitch

Anna hinted we try and abseil but the absence of in-situ anchors meant the easiest way off the route was via the top. One more pitch and the climbing would become easier still.

Water was soon flowing down the slabs either side of us, forming streams that were growing in size. There was the concern that our route could become awash but for the large part the water remained deep in the cracks. I made best effort to dry my soles at first but this soon became futile. In spite of the saturated nature of the rock there remianed enough friction on its easy angle.

Climbing in the rain near the top of the route

From the top of the route I made the traverse towards the nearby route of Reven. I had climbed this back in May and so was familiar with the abseil points. Abseiling proved a very wet affair, our belay plates wringing the rope as we descended. The first couple of abseils passed without trouble, apart from the occasional slip, but for the third abseil we needed to amend plans. The next abseil involved an angled descent via an overhang, for which there was the risk of penduluming in the event of a slip. Better to traverse the ledge that we were on to another route called Gone with the Weed, from where a more direct descent was possible. It meant an extra rope length but less potential for drama. Then back to Reven for the remaining abseils.

Our teeth were both chattering by the time we reached our bags. Clothes and gear soaked through. Plans of camping and climbing the following day now forgotten. A warm home was calling us.

Top of the route
Downward skating

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Karakoram First Ascents in the Lupgar Mountains


Murilo Lessa and myself (Lee Harrison) visited the Lupgar Mountains of the Karakoram during July 2015. We climbed three sub-6000m summits in Alpine-style from the Yokshgoz Valley. P5702 and P5589 we believe are first ascents with the ascent of P5665 suspected to be a second ascent via a new route.

This photo from 2006 shows the three peaks that we climbed in 2015.
The view is looking East.


The Lupgar Mountains lie in the North-West corner of the Karakoram, between the Batura Muztagh and the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. I first visited the area in 2006. On that occasion I failed to climb a proper summit via the Lupgar Valley but at least gained enough elevation for fine views of the peaks at the head of the Yokshgoz Glacier as well as the neighbouring valley running parallel to the North-East. Nine years passed before I returned for further investigation.

Our plan was to set a base camp midway along the Yokshgoz Glacier so as to make both the upper reaches of the Yokshgoz Glacier and the unnamed valley accessible. The 45km approach would involve trekking partway along the Batura Glacier, the fourth longest glacier in the Karakoram, and then branching North into the Yokshgoz Glacier. The trek was expected to take around three to four days leaving us just shy of three weeks at base camp.


(Lack of) Porters

We were fortunate to even reach base camp. A local cricket match was taking precedence over our job vacancies for porters, creating acute difficulties with finding workers in Passu, the nearest village to the trail head. Alarms had been set for an early morning departure but the absence of a labour force meant much of the day was spent in limbo. By early afternoon six porters had been found from the neighbouring village of Gulmit. They were students on summer leave with no experience working as porters or knowledge of the trekking route but were keen to work.

We used what remained of the afternoon to trek to the dusty camp site of Yunzben, which lay no more than a couple of hours from the Karakoram Highway but 450m in steady height gain. In the searing afternoon heat our porters quickly fell behind. Their arrival in strung-out formation started one hour after ours but of greater concern was the general look of discontent on their faces with carrying the loads. It didn't bode well for the longer days that would follow. Today was a leg stretcher in comparison.

Next day we rose just prior to sunrise at 4:30am in order to maximise the hours of daylight. Based on yesterday's pace we would need all the daylight available, despite the trek to our next camp of Yashpirt typically taking no more than seven hours and being of only moderate difficulty. Trekking during the first hours of daylight was also the coolest and most pleasant time before the sun hit the valley.

The day's trek would follow the south side of the Batura Glacier before making a straightforward crossing to the North side. As with yesterday all but one of the porters immediately fell behind. We paused at the next settlement of Mulungeen to regroup but were quickly separated soon after. We took lunch at the last settlement of Kirgus Washk before the glacier crossing. An hour had passed but our porters failed to appear.

Trekking the South side of the Batura Glacier

I learnt whilst taking lunch that none of the porters had crossed a glacier before. At least this one was considered non-technical and safe. Our trekking guide Ahsan described the route across the glacier to the only porter who had kept pace. He would observe our path whilst waiting the remaining porters to catch-up. We would also mark the way with cairns. Hopefully all of this would be enough.

Descending to the Batura Glacier
Crossing the Batura Glacier

Midway across the glacier there was still no sign of the porters on the south bank and so we paused again. Ahsan looked twitchy but we were all concerned. At current pace we would not reach Yashpirt by nightfall. The only option would be to turn back and help the porters with the loads for everybody's sake. Ahsan valiantly carried about a load and a half whilst Murilo and myself shouldered what we could from the porters.

Murilo shouldering extra load on the approach to Yashpirt

The lack of conditioning of our porters was not the only issue. Equipment was also contributing to their slowness. None of the porters had porter frames, which are regularly used for strapping loads to. Even sufficient amounts of rope with which to tie loads to themselves they lacked. As a consequence our porters were carrying sacks and bags underarm, behind the neck, and over the shoulders, as though a bunch of fleeing refugees. Not only did this make the loads more cumbersome to carry, and the porters more prone to having an accident on the glacier, it also meant a less controlled drop whenever they paused for rest. Not good for the contents as we would discover later in the day.

The porters reached Yashpirt shortly before dusk. We were not even halfway into the trek but already they looked shattered. Not surprisingly they quit in unison that evening. Apart from the problems with carrying the loads it also transpired that they had no food. They were friendly lads trying to earn some summer money but in hindsight we should never have hired them given their lack of food and equipment (the meat and equipment allowances were due to be paid for the record). Ultimately Murilo and myself were to blame as their employers. All this distracted from the beauty of Yashpirt's location, which was one of the most idyllic that I have seen in the Karakoram.

The Batura Wall from Yashpirt

A porter exodus midway through a four day trek would normally spell disaster for a trip on such a tight schedule but fortunately good luck was shining brightly. That evening a lone trekker at Yashpirt had changed his plans from crossing the nearby Werthum Pass to remaining at Yashpirt a couple of days longer, after which he would descend back down the glacier. This temporarily freed his porters to carry our loads to base camp. A very lucky coincidence for our sake.

Our sacks of food had been badly damaged during the day's trek due to their repeated dropping. Many of their contents were split open but fortunately we were able to borrow a barrel for the remainder of the trip in order to better protect them. Using plastic barrels from the start of the trek would have better protected the food but these needed porter frames with which to carry, of which none of our initial porters possessed.

Repacking the broken food


The Super Subs

Our new porters planned to reach base camp the following day. Given that we were not even halfway through the trek this seemed ambitious but if they were motivated to try then so were we. The confident approach was particularly welcome after the last couple of days. It would mean a gain in height from 3300m to 4150m and likely some sore heads to follow.

Our progress next morning was swift without the long stoppages to regroup.Our replacement porters were a different breed and reassuringly confident. No longer did we need to overly concern ourselves with their condition or whereabouts, which meant we could relax and enjoy the scenery. In particular the imposing 10km long Batura Wall on the South side of the glacier, culminating in Batura I at 7795m. The Batura Glacier has some of the finest scenery that I have seen in the Karakoram. We followed easily an ablation valley for much of the day until descending to the glacier a short distance before the Yokshgoz junction. Progress slowed but reaching the Yokshgoz glacier felt like a moderate victory in itself.

The Batura Wall, a short walk from Yashpirt
Trekking beside the Batura Glacier

A short way up the Yokshgoz Glacier another setback presented. A misunderstanding between our trekking guide Ahsan and the porters meant that our final destination was a camp known as 'Yokshgoz', a long way short of our intended camp. This explained the single day push. It lay low on the hillside on the West side of the glacier, beneath P5735, which forms part of the Kuk Sar massif. It was a beautiful spot with a large waterfall flowing nearby, however our greater distraction lay with how we would continue to our intended base camp. We had already marched ten hours to this point and continuing further was unrealistic. Particularly given that the porters needed to return to the last set of shepherd huts on the north side of the Batura Glacier before the day was out. Nothing more than vague plans were made ahead of the porters departure about a handful of them returning in a few days. Our guide, who also had no food, departed with them. It was the low point of the trip. Realistically we were still out of range of our planned objectives with few option in the immediate vicinity. At best we could use the following days to acclimatise.

The Trek to Base Camp: Part 3

The following morning two porters unexpectedly returned. A pair of brothers who were probably the strongest and most assured from the previous day. One of them had used a camp site in our planned base camp vicinity and so everything was looking positive once again.

Together we moved the six loads in short relays towards our intended location. Firstly following the low hillside along the Western flanks of the Yokshgoz Glacier, before descending and crossing the glacier back to its Eastern side. Our base camp, known as Khush Dur Gush by our porters, meant 'Mouth of the Happy Valley'. It was ringed with small pools of clear water and looked a beautiful spot to spend the next few weeks.

Leaving Yokshgoz camp
View South towards the Batura Wall from base camp


Failed Attempts but Good Acclimatisation

We spent a couple of days acclimatising around base camp before our focus switched to trying to summit something. This was Murilo's first outing in anywhere higher than the Alps and so a gentle acclimatisation looked the sensible approach to start the trip on a positive note. The moderately sized peaks at the head of the unnamed valley North of base camp looked technically straight-forward and potentially ideal for some gradual ascent.

The mouth of the unnamed valley followed a fast moving river tightly hemmed by steep earthy slopes covered in a thin layer of scree. The main difficulties fell within the first two hundred meters of elevation before the valley progressively broadened. Our first outing was a relatively benign affair as the water levels remained low enough to permit scrambling over the large boulders directly lining the water's edge. Snow bridges allowed us to cross the river in order to follow easier ground. In the coming weeks the water levels progressively rose in response to the warm temperatures and the snow bridges collapsed in succession making each passing progressively more fraught.

Waterside scrambling near the start of the unnamed valley
The valley broadens
(P5589 left, P5702 right)

We made a high camp in the first of two side valleys branching north from the main valley, a short distance below its glacier terminus at 4930m. Our plan was to climb P5665 the following morning, which lay directly to our east in close proximity. Its foreshortened view disguised the whereabouts of the summit but we anticipated easy ground without too many navigational difficulties. That night we tended to sore heads and made best efforts to sleep until the alarm clocks sounded at 1am.

We followed the centre of the glacier towards the valley head so as to gain easy height before tacking right towards the peak. Our critical error lay with the assumption that the summit would lie somewhere above the broad glacial expanse descending its slopes. This led us to what is best described as the south summit at c.5600m. Sightly lower than both the rocky pyramid further north as well as a blunter outcrop immediately to its south. It was more of a broad shoulder than a summit, consuming the bulk of the mountain's mass but critically lower. We had reached the third highest point on the mountain, which wasn't much to shout about. Maybe smaller by just 50m but a significant distance south. Coordinates 36.70252, 74.54051.

Easy slopes towards the south summit of P5665
View from the south summit North to the main rocky summit
P5702 pictured on the left

We made best efforts to traverse to the main summit but the extent of the loose mixed ground along the western side of the first outcrop dissuaded us from continuing further.

Instead we descended back to the glacier floor at 5400m and in desperation switched our focus to neighbouring P5702 to our North-West. A greater distance to reach but less steep and consequently deemed more feasible for our poorly acclimatised puffing bodies. We gained the ridge linking P5665 and P5702 at about 5480m but by this point our tanks were virtually empty in a way that only lack of sufficient acclimatisation can bring about. Another 200m looked insurmountable given the effort we had needed just to gain the ridge. Reaching the South Summit of P5665 was excellent acclimatisation but a frustrating outcome. On our tight schedule it felt like a missed summit opportunity.

View from the South summit of P5665 towards the Batura Wall and Kuk Sar massif

First Ascent of P5702

Fine weather prevailed so fortunately there was little reason to dwell on our misfortune for too long. We rested for one day at base camp and on the second day returned to the same high camp, this time to try P5702. The lower stretches of the valley now proved a more treacherous affair to pass through due to a surge in water levels from rapid snow melt. Snow bridges spanning the river were also beginning to break away, their absence leaving behind sections of hillside with little substance. No longer could we directly skirt the water's edge and instead were frequently forced onto the eroded slopes a little higher with just the water to catch us.

Crossing a snow bridge spanning the river near the start of the unnamed valley
Loose eroded slopes above the water

That night I did not sleep, unable to relax my breathing to a steady rate, periodically needing a big inhalation to find equilibrium. Something I had never experienced before. A poor state of affairs given we had yet to start climbing. The 1am alarm was not met with the usual enthusiasm. A short distance above camp though my breathing settled and I found my acclimatisation to actually be much improved compared to the last outing.

Again we used the glacier to gain easy height before following a curving line of snow on the south-east face to the right of the summit. It was between 35 and 45 degrees with the steepest snow where the slopes began to broaden above half height. It was a hazy sunrise that greeted us after so many days of dry weather, the sun reflecting beautifully off the rippled snow towards the top. However its beauty disguised the danger of a deeper layer of soft snow beneath. We joined the east ridge a short distance below the summit and soon we were on the mountain's highest point. A first ascent as far as we are aware and grade AD- by our chosen route. We named the peak Khush Dur Sar, in relation to the given name of our base camp. Coordinates 36.7151, 74.5228.

Rippled snow towards the summit
Summit of P5702
Our route on the SE face of P5702

With the time still only 7am we made the spontaneous decision to attempt P5665 again. We would traverse the long ridge connecting the two peaks and then climb the relatively short distance up the side of the pyramid, mostly on snow. It looked a classic outing.

The beautiful WNW ridge leading to the summit of P5665
The summit of P5665

The traverse passed pleasantly and without difficulty but the steeper slopes leading to the summit were quite the opposite. They had immediately caught the sun at dawn and already the snow was very soft. We were forced to pitch the remainder of the climb as a consequence but this naturally slowed our pace further. Our axes were rendered useless in the absence of substance for them to bite into and even the steps that we kicked felt less than reassuring. Particularly in the absence of reliable runners. The snow on the second pitch totally lacked stability to the point no longer being trustworthy and so we sensibly made the rappels in retreat from midway up the pyramid. Just 30m below the summit with the time only 10am.

We climbed as a far as <here>


A Brief Foray into the Upper Yokshgoz

Relentlessly fine weather had predominated up to this point in the trip but through the latter half the weather would become decidedly wetter and more unpredictable. Our first rest day remained sunny but during the second day it rained from lunchtime onwards, meaning much time spent in our tents. Rain showers were forecast throughout the following day but up to 11am the weather remained settled. Similarly sporadic rain showers had been forecast during our trek to base camp but these had not materialised either. All this suggested that maybe our forecast was a little too sensitive to rain. With the next two days expected to be a mixture of rain showers and partial cloud we decided to roll the dice and try our luck at something. Particularly when after this period the weather was expected to dramatically worsen. We packed our things and departed after lunch.

Our focus had shifted to the peaks at the head of the Yokshgoz Glacier. We would try to reach a high camp near the head of the glacier by nightfall and then climb something the following morning. Maybe making a bivi on the mountain. Initially we followed the Northern edge of the Yokshgoz glacier before leaving its confines to climb a boulder-strewn hillside. This acted as a short cut and bypassed a nasty section of icefall where the Glacier swung in a more northerly direction. Rain threatened just a few hours from base camp but instead it entered the neighbouring valley.

High scree slopes in the Yokshgoz valley

The relative closeness of our objectives on the map disguised the approach time needed and by nightfall we were shy of a suitable high camp by maybe a couple of hours. In hindsight probably nine hours was needed. The biggest problem with not reaching the base of the peaks by nightfall was that we could not assess their possible lines and objective dangers, although the low cloud possibly made this academic. The view from Khush Dur Sar had shown an increased number of seracs compared to 2006 and so further investigation was vital. We climbed a hill adjacent to the glacier as nightfall approached in the hope of at least viewing the peaks in question but there was little to see from its top. In truth I sensed our base camp was far from being ideally located to climb these peaks but we had largely spread our bets with the wider options of the lower camp. Then rain fell unexpectedly through the night, until a break at 4am encouraged us to high tail it back to base camp. The forecast had proved to be not so pessimistic after all.

After 7 hours' trekking this was our view towards the upper part of the Yokshgoz immediately before sunset.
Our planned routes were still out of sight and shrouded in cloud.

Early morning descent back to base camp

Poor Forecast or Forecast Poor?

The problems with unpredictable weather were being magnified by our ageing satellite phone. A daily text sent to the phone provided a basic five day forecast at 5000m but critically failed to detail the actual volume of rain. Only snow, which at 5000m was 0mm for nearly every day of the trip. The percentage chances of rain were also unclear. Showers were forecast daily through the latter half of our trip but in reality these ranged from prolonged rain to no rain at all.

Text messages were not being received until a day after sending. The forecast for the night spent near the head of the Yokshgoz Glacier had advanced from rain showers to more prolonged rain but we did not receive the vital update until after the event. When planning forays we were operating from a 48 hour forecast instead of a 24 hour forecast, which became more of a problem amidst changeable weather.

The poor forecast for the remaining time at base camp ruled-out anything committing but we were keen to try our luck with some more smaller peaks that would be possible in a single day. We waited a couple of days at base camp for the worst of the expected weather to pass. Thereafter we ascended the unnamed valley with a tarp to bolster our bivi setup and enough food for two days and two nights. With good fortune we would attempt a couple of peaks. If bad fortune then we would at least stay dry.

This time we made a high camp in the second side valley branching North at about 5050m. Our plan the following morning would be to attempt P5589, which lay West of Khush Dur Sar along the same ridge. Another attempt at P5665 on the second day was also at the back of our minds were luck on our side.

Prepared for rain

First Ascent of P5589

The weather cooperated through the subsequent night and day and P5589 proved an easy affair. Akin to a moderate day in the Alps in fact. We made our ascent via a snow slope in the centre-right of the the South-East face, initially via a dry stream before gaining snow slopes 100m higher. The gradient remained around 45 degrees, increasing to a maximum of 50 degrees. Murilo came under fire from some minor rockfall midway up the climb but escaped with just minor bruising to his forearm. From the top of the face we followed a gentle snow arête and soon reached the summit by 6am. We named the peak Qalha Sar, which translates as bastion peak and refers to the top-down shape of the mountain. Our route was grade AD. Summit coordinates 36. 71401, 74.50592.

Near the top of the South-Eastern face of P5589
Summit of P5589

We had pre-emptively considered a traverse from the summit to P5400 further west in order to tick another peak. It looked no more than a vague rise on a steadily descending ridge though and would involve a fairly substantial loop back to our bivi site. With the forecast now looking much improved it made more sense to save our efforts and try P5665 the following morning. We descended the North-East Ridge of P5589 to meet broader slopes less prone to rockfall and by 9am were back at our high camp. All that remained was to skirt back to our initial high camp in the preceding side valley and prepare ourselves for P5665 yet again.

Our route on the SE face of P5589


A Third Attempt at P5665

With the pyramid summit of P5665 now our primary objective we could attempt a more direct line than previous. Easy snow slopes quickly gained the west-north-west ridge again from the head of the glacier basin but despite our 7am arrival the snow conditions again were poor. It suggested no proper refreeze during the night but at least the snow was better than last outing. On this occasion just the upper part of the ridge needed to be pitched with the lower half now firm enough to solo.

We carried just three ice screws and so sparingly used just one for the belay together with axes. Murilo was keen to lead the pitch whilst I was ambivalent. The snow ramped from around 55 degrees to 70 degrees but the trench that Murilo dug made the climbing feel all the more steeper. By midway up the pitch no ice screw placements had presented with little evidence of any to follow. Murilo zipped one of his two remaining screws down the rope so that at least I could strengthen the belay. I could only hope that Murilo's judgement of acceptable risk was not being compromised by his eagerness to finally reach the summit. Fortunately he made fine work of the lead in what were very bold snow conditions.

P5665 at dawn
Dappled clouds over the summit of P5665
Murilo leading the difficult pitch on P5665

To our surprise the final section of rock was adorned with abseil cord to indicate a probable previous ascent. Despite our multiple attempts I felt surprisingly nonchalant about the discovery as ultimately it hadn't lessened the adventure.

The final rock was disturbingly loose and so we ventured one at a time to the very summit. The technical difficulties were no more than about VDiff but the untrustworthy nature of the rock combined with the high exposure made the climbing a gripping finale.

Murilo midway up the final rock to the summit of P5665
The cord of the right was in situ upon our arrival
Summit of P5665

Our porters knew of no other expeditions to have visited the Yokshgoz side for around nine years. Given that the peak can also be approached from the Lupgar valley in half the time it is our assumption that the previous ascent was likely from this northerly direction (until further information is known). We therefore suspect that this was a second ascent but likely via a new route. We graded the route Alpine D. Summit coordinates 36.71002, 74.5403.

Our route to the summit of P5665



That left just a day at base camp to finish books, burn rubbish, and eat as much of the surplus food as possible before the porters arrived. The trek to Passu took just two days in reverse. A couple of days rest followed in Karimabad before our cancelled flight to Islamabad meant enduring an 18 hour taxi ride. Once again the most dangerous moment of our trip to Pakistan didn't involve the climbing or the security situation. It related to our driver between Gilgit and Islamabad. No corner was was too blind for overtaking, no road was too wet. He even fastened his seat belt on a couple of occasions, which really stated his intent.

From climber to tramp in 3 weeks

Upon Reflection

This was my first climbing trip to the Karakoram in nine years. We managed three modest ascents but in light of the erratic forecast through the second half of the trip it felt as though we had achieved par. I also felt we showed a fair amount of tenacity in trying P5665 three times. With a bit more positivity there was the opportunity to try something higher than P5702 after our initial acclimation though, however conservativeness got the better of us. As a pairing we also lacked alpine experience together, which at least for my part meant focusing ultimately on more conservative objectives so as to better control the situation. I maybe consider worst-case scenarios a little more than in the past and am naturally more cautious as a consequence. Besides one pitch on P5665 all the climbing felt very steady.

We agreed upon this trip at fairly late hour, which certainly affected the planning and led to a more urgent decision-making process than I would typically like. The navigational problems on our acclimatisation climb stemmed from a disorderly planning process as the South summit of P5665 was evidently lower on Google Maps. Some problems such as those experienced with the satellite phone were difficult to predict in advance but can certainly be put right for future trips. I hope to write another post focusing purely on some of the problems experienced on the trip.

On a safety note the Gilgit-Baltistan area felt as safe as on previous visits and the local people just as hospitable. The foreign tourist numbers have evidently plummeted but domestic tourists looks to have increased. Travelling the Karakoram highway South of Gilgit felt a different matter and certainly not a place to linger. Likewise I felt a much greater need to keep a low profile whilst in Rawalpindi but a lot of what I write is just perceptual.

There are still ample opportunities for first ascents in the Karakoram, however I felt a definite familiarity with its culture and surroundings on this trip, which naturally removed a little of the adventure for me, despite visiting a rarely trodden part of the range. I think I need a clearer, more challenging objective for any future visits to the Karakoram in order to offset the lesser degree of new experiences and to maintain the climbing psyche. Next year I'm focusing on rock and then hopefully another 'expedition' style trip in 2017 so will see what my psyche is searching for nearer to that time.