In Memory of Ben CheekThis page is dedicated to my friend Ben Cheek who tragically died during an attempted climb of the North-East (aka North) Face of Shimshal Whitehorn in July 2008.
Back in PakistanI was going back to Shimshal, the remote mountain village in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, home to an amazing twenty villagers (at last count) who have summited an 8000m peak. It was only twelve months since I had first visited the village and I had seen enough in the area to encourage me to promptly return the following season. Our main goal was to climb the beautiful Shimshal Whitehorn whose intimidating north face rises above the village. The first objective however was Yazghil Sar which was intended for acclimatization. The previous year I had identified this as a good peak for acclimatisation due to its limited exposure and easy gradient to 5964 meters.
The expedition consisted of Peter Thompson and me (Lee Harrison), who were in Pakistan for the duration of the 2006 summer, along with Greg Nunn and Ben Cheek who were in Pakistan for the initial Shimshal leg. Greg is a fellow climbing club member at Salford University.
We had rendezvoused in Gilgit. Greg, Ben and Peter had flown to Islamabad and made the hellish 16 hour bus ride north together whereas I had landed in Hong Kong and made a subsequent four day crossing of China by plane, train and bus. After long journeys by all of us we were finally in the mountains and keen to get some climbing done…
21st June: Shopping in GilgitMost of the day had been spent food shopping in the bazaars of Gilgit. Among other things we bought 25 kg of dried apricots, (I had calculated that we could get through a kilo bag a day on the assumption that everybody had the same appetite as me), twenty boxes of porridge, eighty packets of biscuits and twenty-five packs of happy cow. On completion of the food shopping we went shopping for some shalwar kameezes, the baggy clothes worn by locals. I bought an unusually glossy silver (not grey) number was the only one I could find in my size. By the time we had finished our shopping the day was pressing on and we had to hurry in order to catch the last minivan heading north to Hunza. Because there was no gas in Gilgit we had to travel to Karimabad, the capital of Hunza to buy some there. I had previously bought a case of gas canisters in China but these were confiscated by officials when I tried to board the Urumqi to Kashgar train on the grounds that they could explode (?). I had confidently demonstrated that the canisters could take impact without exploding but then realised I had better stop else I might be arrested on terrorist charges! Fortunately there were loads of ex-expedition gas canisters for sale in Karimabad although many were half empty. Peter and I spent time weighing, shaking and comparing canisters before eventually making our final selection.
22nd June: Travel to Shimshal village
Peter comfortably travelled direct to Shimshal in a hired Jeep with the food and gear while the rest of us roughed it on the local public transport to Passu on the Karakoram Highway where we could catch the passenger Jeep onward to Shimshal. Despite our early start the Shimshal Jeep had already left at 9am. Not wanting to waste a day in Passu we hired a second Jeep which blared out a kind of bangra trance music for the duration of the journey. We arrived in Shimshal not long after Peter and checked into the Sifat guesthouse.
Lunch was due and Greg and Ben were to experience chelpindook, the popular local delicacy, for the first time. This was their first trip to Pakistan and so far their diet had been lentils and chicken karari washed down with copious amounts of chai.
The evening was spent sorting gear and packing porter loads ahead of our departure for Yazghil Sar. It quickly became apparent on our first day in Shimshal that no one wears the shalwar kameez – at least until we arrived! Westerners trying to dress as locals and locals trying to dress as Westerners…
23rd June: Trek to Goat Camp
Our youthful, amiable porters Atabar and Manzur arrived at 8am. Having painstakingly packed everything in sacks the previous night they proceeded to transfer everything out of the sacks into there own rucksacks. Not that I blame them as the wooden frames that most porters use look far from comfortable. We clumped out of Shimshal wearing our climbing boots in order to keep the pack weights down. Ben who only had a 35 litre rucksack appeared to have more items on its outside than inside. The base of Yazghil Sar was a short day’s trek east along the broad Shimshal valley crossing the Yazghil Glacier immediately prior. Unlike most of Pakistan’s glaciers the Yazghil glacier is a beautiful white river of ice descending from some of the highest mountains in the Karakoram. It was relatively easy to cross although on the far side the ice was littered with rubble and the going was slightly harder. At the small ablation valley on the far side of the glacier Greg fell asleep while the rest of us made tea.
Views north up the Yazghil glacier towards the Hispar Muztagh from the camp were astounding with the Kunyang Chhish, Pumari Chhish and Distaghil Sar massifs all partly visible. Having set up camp it transpired that the camp had no water but we were assured that water was relatively nearby. I volunteered to climb the hill to where water was supposed to be but after an hour of searching I gave up and headed back to the tents around dusk. Fortunately the shepherdesses had a tankard of water that they could spare us so we were not short for the night.
24th June: Goat Camp
Having released our porters yesterday our plan was to carry our gear up to the base camp at around 4600m and then return to 3900m for another night’s sleep.
While Peter and Greg prepared their load Ben and I first went on another reconnaissance for water taking the 25 litre container that the shepherdesses leant us the previous night with us. Manzur gave us vague directions that were just as vague as the directions I received last night and off we went. Comically we climbed all the way to the base camp at 4600m before finding water. Even here we had to spend time channelling a small trickle of water into something useful that we could fill a bottle with. Peter and Greg soon arrived with their loads and quickly departed while I continued to fill the bottles. Ben meanwhile spent about half an hour building a gigantic cairn to mark the spot. Unlike the water close to the lower camp this water was at least clear. During the descent Ben and I took it in turns to carry the 25 litre water container on our backs using makeshift knotted rope for shoulder straps and Ben’s thermal trousers for shoulder padding. The best technique was to lift the container and run as fast as possible until the rope cut in too much and the container had to be dropped. We would then swap over. Carrying the water was hard work but we made good progress and were soon down at the lower camp after two runs each. To think the shepherd ladies carry these containers everyday! It’s no wonder the local women are so strong.
Having collected water Ben and I still had to carry our loads up to the base camp just as Peter and Greg had already done. We began climbing again at 4pm after a short rest and were not back until just before dark. Peter had been let loose with the stove conjuring up some stodgy pasta unfit for Oliver Twist’s workhouse (and nobody asked for more).
25th June: Ascent to Base Camp
The climb to base camp at 4600m was easy as we now knew the route well (particularly Ben and I). As a departing gift the shepherdesses gave us the some qurut, the locally popular hard yak cheese. They sung songs as we departed and Ben responded by dancing like a prat (Edit: Ben denies this point claiming his dancing left the shepherdesses weak at the knees).
At the higher camp views were again amazing. Our next objective the north-west ridge of Shimshal Whitehorn, which was supposed to finish at 6400m, was becoming worryingly longer and longer the higher we climbed dominating the surrounding peaks from our perspective.
In order to gain a view of our forthcoming route on Yazghil Sar Peter and myself scrambled up the ridge above camp to the top of a small arête consisting of dangerously stacked loose rock from where we could look down on to the glacier below. There appeared to be a number of ways to the summit but the straightest forward was undoubtedly up the left hand side of the north face. Descending our viewing perch proved more treacherous than the ascent and it was unwise to load any one rock more than necessary else it would likely fall down.
At dinner time Peter was mistakenly allowed near the stove again, this time conjuring up some thick green custard. Greg later noted that the box Peter had used was supposed to serve forty people explaining its lumpiness.
26th June: Ascent to High Camp
We woke at 3am. From the base camp we had to descend a loose scree slope 100m to the glacier. Once on the glacier we only had to climb a short distance before donning our crampons to cross some hard sloping ice. I traversed the ice first and promptly removed my crampons as the ice underfoot was now crunchy and easy to walk on. There was minor serac fall risk on the lower section of the glacier so I didn’t waste time in traversing to its left hand side away from the threat.
We climbed a horrible gully full of loose rocks after which the snow and ice started. Crossing a broad snow slope we followed an attractive snow gully up the left hand side of the glacial expanse. Climbing was relatively easy with the angle increasing to no more than 45 degrees. The gully remained in the shadows until late morning and so the snow was still firm under our crampon points. Soon it broadened out on to the slopes of the north face.
An hour later I looked down the slope from our position to see the grinning faces of Greg and Ben approaching. Ben and Greg rolled up to us and fell asleep within minutes of arrival. It was clear that we would be biviing where we were tonight! Both had fallen asleep during the climb although not at the same time. We levelled the slope and pitched the tents next to the rotten snow of a hidden crevasse.
The rest of the day was spent melting snow, drinking chai and eating. By dinner it soon became apparent that we were running out of fuel. Having seemingly bought with us to Shimshal half the oil from the Arabian Sea we had not bought enough fuel up the mountain. Cooking our evening dinner was an anxious affair to see if the kerosene went the distance. We pumped the fuel bottle each time the stove started to splutter and held our breath but on this occasion were spared having to eat raw noodles.
27th June: Summit DayWe slept through the 1.30am alarms and woke shortly after 2am. By 2.40am we were climbing. I broke the trail as I had a good idea of the route. The snow was soft and it wasn’t long before I reached a spot where I was treading snow and going nowhere. I tried traversing to my right but the snow was merely collapsing with each attempt to gain height. Peter took the lead and he soon found some snow that took his weight. I followed his footprints as nimbly as possible but Greg got stuck in the same spot that I had and quickly lost his temper. “I’m not having a good day”! We had only been climbing for around half an hour! I managed to haul him over his ledge on the rope and Ben soon followed. Thankfully that was the worst of the soft snow and soon we were approaching the main north ridge. Peter broke through the cornice and soon we were presented with a dramatic 360 degree panorama just as the sun was rising. West was the prominent peak of Karan Koh, and north were some of the Hispar Muztagh’s finest. Kunyang Chhish, Pumari Chhish, the Yazghil Domes, Yukshin Garden Sar, Kanjut Sar and Shimshal Whitehorn were all visible from the ridge among other lesser known peaks. The weather was perfect with virtually no wind on the ridge. The climbing became easier once on the north ridge due to the gentle gradient of ascent and considerably better snow conditions.
I took the lead for the remainder of the climb but breaking the trail had become a relatively easy affair. The cornice on the ridge was significant so I gave it a safe margin. There were also a few hidden crevasses, one of which was introduced to my right foot. Tiredness from altitude began to set in as we moved along the ridge. Breaks became more frequent and the rate we were climbing became slower and slower. Meanwhile the snow was evidently starting to soften under the intense sun rays as the morning progressed. I was becoming frustrated and eventually raised my concerns that none of us were going to summit at the rate we were moving. The upshot was that Peter and I unroped and soloed the final steeper section from the south summit to the main north summit while Ben and Greg stayed put and soon fell asleep again in our absence. We climbed the remainder of the mountain without a break and by the time I was on the summit I was feeling exhausted. Peter was much the same. We shook hands and took in the stunning views that greeted us in all directions. The weather was perfect and the scenery had to be savoured. It was good to get the summer Pakistan expedition off to a successful start and I was happy to be back in the Karakoram. It was a shame that Greg and Ben didn’t make it all the way but I’m sure they will have other opportunities in the future.
When I came to descend it quickly became apparent that I was significantly under the effects of altitude and dehydration as my vision was going a little two dimensional. I nervously stepped down from the summit back on to the ridge cautiously staying away from the immediate cornice. I retraced my footprints back down to the south summit taking care with each step as a big fall potentially awaited me on the slopes to my right were I to slip. Ben and Greg were out of sight and on their way down by the time we reached the place where we split so Peter and I continued down unroped. I managed to step in the same crevasse as on the way up but in a different spot having totally misread which direction it was running. My water bottle was dry so I was keen to get down to the high camp. Peter who was feeling the altitude even more than me descended more cautiously and we soon became separated. The way down was well-trodden now that we were back on the trail that all four of us had climbed. The descent down from the north ridge proved easier than expected. The anticipated problems descending the soft snow slopes above base camp never developed and I was soon back at the tents. Both Ben and Greg were out for the count in their tents but both were healthy.
I was keen to head down to base camp immediately as I knew the altitude induced nausea would start soon if I stayed put with no water. Greg said he would descend if I carried the tent and Ben said he would descend but in one hour. Peter arrived and crawled into his tent proclaiming that he was too exhausted to descend and would spend the night at high camp even though there was no fuel, water or food. I relented and climbed in to the tent to let my head start spinning. Ben was true to his word though and soon prepared to descend after an hour or so. Peter realising that we were going to leave him eventually decided to join us below the snowline for the night. We started to pack around 4pm and shortly after starting down found clear water running off some rocks. I stopped to drink a couple of litres before continuing down. The snow was soft in the afternoon sun but the descent didn’t take long. The final climb up the scree from the glacier to base camp was exhausting for all of us and the steep loose ground did not complement my rigid plastic boots. Peter, Ben and I arrived back at base camp around the same time but having started cooking dinner there was still no sign of Greg. The sun had set so Peter went to look for him. He soon found him near the top of the scree slope. Greg had got lost in the dark and was on the brink of rolling out his bivi bag and sleeping at the spot where he was. Peter did not cook tonight but my efforts were not a lot better and my spicy curry proved too hot for any of us to eat. Ben was also later sick in the night so my culinary skills were not fully appreciated on this occasion.
28th June: Descent to Shimshal
After a lie-in (relatively speaking) we descended down to goat camp and gave the shepherdesses our surplus food. In return we received more yak cheese and also some yak yogurt. Having hardened to a yak diary diet during my time my Tibetan nomads I made a better effort of drinking my yogurt (and Greg’s) than others.
Re-crossing the Yazghil glacier was largely problem free although there were some minor navigational errors that left us wondering aimlessly at times. I also ripped the stitching on the back side of my sallopettes after sliding (purposefully but uncoordinatedly) down a short ice slope.
The trek back down the Shimshal valley was slightly tedious and all our feet were starting to blister. It soon became more interesting when the broad trail that we were following stopped abruptly at a high stone wall. Was this an illusion? Whilst deciding whether to go back and loop around the wall’s perimeter or not Ben expertly climbed over the stacked stone wall without so much as rattling a rock. A fine boulder problem completed! Peter and Greg quickly followed. I on the other hand with the grace of a three legged elephant nearly bought the whole thing down.
Before Shimshal we took off our boots to cross a shallow river and were soon back at out guesthouse and changed into our shalwar kameezes. Dinner was dhal and chicken for the umpteenth day in Pakistan but after the culinary lows of the last few days no one was going to complain!
My Other Trip Reports from Pakistan 2006
Rocked by Whitehorn
First Summit of Haigutum East
First Ascent of Ghorhil Sar