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.
Rocked by 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 bergshrund 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.
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!
Close to the col my thoughts switched to how far we could make it up the NW ridge of Whitehorn before condition deteriorated significantly and we would 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.
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 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 made it off the couloir with some relief.
Back at the bivi sight we packed everything and took it back to our base camp a further 200m further down and across another two ice falls. 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 now I have other peaks in mind and new objectives. The couloir that we climbed is 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!
Expedition members: Lee Harrison (myself), Peter Thompson and Ben Cheek
My Other Trip Reports from Pakistan 2006
Ascent of Yazghil Sar
First Summit of Haigutum East
First Ascent of Ghorhil Sar