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, unable to scrub it off, however we ate our porridge with few complaints. Within minutes of donning my crampons my newly installed front points clumsily struck their first target 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 leant me.
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 range which lines 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 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.
Initially we actually had 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 to me was initially leading. It was clear that we had not studied the route as a collective 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 possibility of climbing a more direct and safer line to the bivi sight that Peter thought might be possible or at least look at the route we were climbing 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.
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 on in Kyrgyzstan only the previous year maybe I was 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 campsite. 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!
Expedition members: Peter Thompson & Lee Harrison (myself)
My Other Trip Reports From Pakistan 2006
Ascent of Yazghil Sar
Rocked by Whitehorn
First Ascent of Ghorhil Sar