Almost a year ago, I started with a bicycle in Uzbekistan with a plan to cycle through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China, Pakistan, India and Nepal while climbing & skiing 7000m peaks along the way with the ultimate goal of skiing 8200m peak (Manaslu) towards the end. Stupidly ambitious? You betcha. These trips never go as planned, but deliver a guaranteed adventure.
For this journey, I am working backwards from my storytelling. I wrote a report on Manaslu here: https://www.summitpost.org/manaslu-ski-descent-of-an-8000m-peak-without-oxygen-or-sherpa-support/1049418. My time in Nepal was beautiful, physically challenging and a huge accomplishment (for me).... Pakistan was a much more intense journey and it has taken me nearly a full year to process and write about it. Pakistan was non-stop chaos. At times, it is difficult to relive. Cycling through the most rugged mountain range in the world, nearly losing my best friend to a glacier, soloing a 7000m peak in the Karakoram, exploring new areas never visited by westerners, gaining new friendships and challenging myself beyond my original mental capacity. Forgive me in advance as I did a poor job with my point and shoot camera and many of the minor details have been lost in memory. Inspired from friends who told me I need to document my travels better, here it is:
After cycling through the craziness of Western China and skiing a 7500m (24,600') peak called Mustagh Ata in a few days, I slowly made my way into Pakistan. Getting to Pakistan via the Karakoram highway was an adventure in itself. Western China is ODD. It's police state due to the Uyghur (a minority ethnic group) situation. I suggest reading about it sometime, as it is very strange story of opression. I put China in the back of my mind, as I was happy to have finally reached the Karakoram after months of slogging on my bicycle, riding in dirty vans and pooping/vomitting over myself too many times to count. While my American friends assured me I would be on the news for being "beheaded by terrorists" in Pakistan, nothing could be further from the truth. I experienced only kindness, love and generosity from the Karakoram people. I do feel I need to clarify, Pakistan is not without risks. It is a simply a country of extremes. This country captivated me and catered to my travel style. I hope others can open their minds to the wonders of the region, it's people and the most incredible mountains the world has to offer.
Initially I was forced to put my bicycle and skis on a van in Tashkorgan, China. I managed to cycle at least 150km (90 miles) through China before reaching the 'border' between the two countries. The border was a no-mans land of highway, powerlines, desert and glaciers. I was in awe at the remoteness and intensity of the northern Karakoram. The peaks towered several thousand meters above me and were covered in massive fields of ice and rock. The contrast was amazing.
The van in Tashkorgan transported me over Khunjerab pass at 15,000'. Most passengers were not acclimated to the altitude, so they were feeling pretty sick. Luckily, I had been spending the last few months building my red blood cells. The drive was pleasant until that point. From Khunjerab pass, the character changed. I felt our tiny van was teetering on the edge of death. The road was driveable, but the drivers were NOT. Pakistani drivers are the craziest people on earth. A Pakistani can seem reasonable and sound minded, but once behind the wheel, they turn into monsters. It felt like driving with an Italian on meth. Drivers pass 'slower' vehicles whenever they feel, failing to ignore oncoming traffic, rocks and bends. A quick honk of the horn is the only action taken to alert oncoming traffic. It's best to close your eyes and pray. 'Inshallah' is a common bumper sticker - 'If Allah wills it'. Yikes.
Not my image, but this is 'normal'.
We passed tiny villages with strange names, such as Hussain Abad to the tiny village of Sost, Pakistan. In Sost, I really started to feel the gravity of the range. I could understand why alpinists call this range 'The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods'. Peaks that would be declared a national treasure in the US, would not even have a name in the Karakoram.
In Sost, I began collecting my gear and reassembling my bike nervously. I was the center of attention and I hated it, with stares, gasps and laughs from the locals. A few locals stopped to talk to me and told me I need to get out of the village because there were people looking to take advantage of me. I hopped on my bike and slowly started making my way down the Karakoram highway to the city of Gilgit. The days were long and hot but with the Karakoram range looming above, I hardly noticed the heat. At the end of each day, my neck was the only sore part of my body, due to constant staring at the mountains above. I slept in dusty fields and old hotels if they were available. It was the best bike ride of my life.
I found the highway smooth (thanks, China!), fast, downhill with the occassional long slog upwards. Loaded up at over 100 pounds, it was not fast travel. Curious locals were always stopping to check in on me, practice their english and ask me if I needed anything. I never made it further than 20km at a time without being stopped to chat with a Pakistani or take a selfie so they could share with friends. To share a story about how friendly the locals were: at one point, I was stopped by a motorcycle gang, which made me incredibly nervous. Turns out, all they wanted was a group photo with the strange American cyclist. One of the motorcyclist had a Joe Flacco Baltimore Ravens jersey on, I told him I am from Baltimore and it's an awesome jersey. This man proceeded to take off his jersey to give to me! I was shocked, I never thought I would experience the kindness of someone literally giving me the shirt off his back. I told him I was happy to wear my incredibly dirty and smelly bike shirt, but the kindness was much appreciated. Amazing!
The valleys were filled with delicious & in season apricot trees, which I used as my source of fuel. I quickly realized that overdosing from Apricots is a very messy affair! Too much fiber.... Whoops.
On a particularly hot day, I stopped at a locally built swimming hole to go swimming with the local children. They were hilariously shy, friendly and competitive. The children were in awe of my mediocre swimming and backflips. Learning to swim well is something most westeners take for granted. Most Pakistanis cannot swim. In fact, they are afraid of the water! The children invited me to their fathers farm, which the old father showed me the fruits he had been growing, fed me and let me meet the entire family, what a treat.
Continuing down the Karakoram Highway (KKH), I reached the beautiful Hunza valley, where I felt like I could stay forever! Note: I need to come back here... with a paraglider :)
This city of Hunza was much more liberal and vibrant than many of the other areas I was cycling through. It seemed to be occupied by a richer crowd of people who owned cars and were visiting for vacation. I was treated less as a crazy cyclist, which I was happy about. In the city, I met up with my friend Jam Allam, who took care of me and showed me some incredible viewpoints of the surrounding mountains.
I even got a nice viewpoint of the next mountain I planned to climb and ski, Spantik (from the wrong side!)
I regretfully only stayed two days in Hunza before jetting down the KKH. The views never stopped. Continuing towards the imposing Rakaposhi...
Admittidely, I was a bit rushed. I planned to meet my best friend, Will, in Skardu. Will was flying in from Seattle to join me on a ski descent of 7000m (23,000ft) Spantik. He is a strong splitboarder and the only splitboarder I've ever met who can keep up with skiers. We've been on countless expeditions together from Denali to New Zealand. I was excited to have some close friendship for a few weeks and an epic adventure with such a solid partner. It had been months since I've had any close connections, so meeting Will was something I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, our time together was cut short due to a horrible accident, which I will tell in detail later.
Once I finally reached Gilgit, the character of Pakistan became much more dark. I started noticing buildings painted with words like 'Down with USA' and 'Death to USA'. Locals were no longer friendly. I felt the tension building. This was concerning and Gilgit is where I ultimately decided to abandon my bicycle. After cycling through 5 countries, the bicycle became more of a burden and I felt like it was starting to infringe on my ultimate goal. Additionally, I no longer felt safe and was receiving more warnings/signs that I should lower my profile a bit. I met my 'guide' and friend Abdul Ghafoor here and asked him to hold on to my bicycle until I came back to Pakistan one day. I had heard about Ghafoor through friends & climbers back in Utah. The legendary Kyle Dempster always took Ghafoor with him on his expeditions as a cook, friend and translator. Ghafoor started his own trekking company, Higher Ground Expeditions (https://highergroundexpeditions.com/), in honor of Kyle. Kyle started a coffee shop in Salt Lake City called 'Higher Ground Coffee'. A beautiful connection.
In Gilgit, I met a woman named Salima, from Seattle. She is doing amazing dentistry work in Pakistan and living in Karachi. The thing I love about cycle touring is the connections it brings and the inspiring people who decide to show up in the journey :) https://sph.washington.edu/news-events/news/alumni-profile-salima-alibhai
Giving up the bike was depressing, but I knew it would be in great care. In the end, it turned out to be a wise choice, as the roads only got crazier and more dangerous, as they are no longer maintained by the Chinese government. I hitched a ride to Skardu via an incredibly long and slightly scary car ride along the Indus river. Rockfall and landslides often killed drivers on this road and would shut it down for days.
Once in Skardu, I finally managed to get some rest for a few days while I waited for my partner Will. It was a much needed rest before a big objective. Maybe my butt blisters would finally heal?! Skardu in itself is quite beautiful, although very dusty. I was invited as an honored guest at an exciting polo game and did a lot of reflecting on the river. For a few days, I was happy to do absolutely nothing.
Will arrived with no delays and seeing a familiar face at the airport in Skardu brought so much happiness. We spent the next two days catching up, getting our gear ready and talking about our upcoming climb. We ate a ton of food, courtesy of my friend Ghulam Mohammed, who is in charge of an organization promoting snow leopard conservation in the Karakoram. https://snowleopardconservancy.org/
The Pakistanis were curious people, especially when it came to skiing. They see climbers all the time, but a set of skis is a less common sight. I taught one guy how to repair core shots in my skis, which we both found very amusing :)
Finally, the day came to start our expedition and we were off on a 10 hour jeep ride to the village of Arandu. The travel was harsh, but we were happy to be diving deep into the Karakoram!
Along the way, we stopped at the Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson Middle School, a small school in a tiny village, dedicated to the legendary alpinists from Utah. Kyle Dempster had been a huge inspiration for me and Ghafoor was one of Kyle's best friends. The money used for their rescue was channeled into the IQRA foundation to help provide education for young women in rural areas of Northern Pakistan (https://www.iqrafund.org/). It was an emotional moment for all of us, especially for Ghafoor, as he was part of the rescue on the Ogre II (http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web16c/newswire-search-for-kyle-dempster-and-scott-adamson). A lesson I extracted from this visit was that we really take universal education for granted in America. Education is desperately needed in Northern Pakistan, and I hope I can be a bigger part of that one day.
After reaching Arandu, we went to speak with the tribe leader to hire our porters. Will and I would have prefered to complete the expedition without porters, but it's customary to hire a small 'army' for expeditions. I will admit, it made things very pleasant :) In the end, we ended up with 12(!!!) porters, a cook, and a trekking guide to base camp..... we also took goats, chickens and very ancient tents. Siege tactics, indeed.
Camp in Arandu, with our 'Army'
The next day we woke up early and began our trek to the Chomulunga glacier. Passing through the village was a step back in time. No electricity, phones, plumbing... Just the land. The children were very curious and followed us for a few miles, always asking for chocolate. Finally, Ghafoor had enough and told them to stop begging for chocolate in stern Balti. Apparently they are well fed with sweets when the westnern climbers visit :). Their fathers were our porters and it was fun to pick out a matching porter with their sons.
We walked for 2 days along and on the Chomulunga glacier. The walk was pleasant and a bit spooky. It was a 30 mile long glacier, dry and littered with bottomless crevasses.
There was no risk of hidden crevasses, but we noted that a fall would be game over as we traveled unroped. Our porters even traveled on the glacier carrying chickens and walking in sandals. The risk was low, consequence fatal. Of course, there was no way someone could possibly slip and fall......
Finally, we could see base camp less than 2 miles away. I was walking ahead and chatting with Ghafoor when Jaff, our cook, started screaming. I did not see Will with him, so I came the the conclusion that he had slipped, fallen into a crevasse and would never be seen again. I was frantic and in tears. We ran about a half a mile backwards, jumping over crevasses and trying to get to the location where he was last seen. Jaff had seen Will fall, but in panic, he had forgotten which crevasse he had fallen into. My hope was crushed. Ghafoor went into an animal state and started jumping from crack to crack screaming Will's name. Miraciously, he heard Will screaming from an unknown depth. We peered into the crevasse he had fallen into and could see nothing but blackness and ice. Will was screaming 'HELP!!!' and I could tell he was being showered by meltwater. Through all the chaos, I learned he had dislocated his shoulder and was in a bad spot, wedged between two icy blue walls.
Our porters had our ropes, harnesses, and all crevasse rescue gear and they were far behind us. Jaff ran as fast as he could to get them moving. With one porter with us, we used his hemp rope and tied a tea cup to it to determine Will's location. By the time we located him, the porters arrived. I started ripping the bags open to find our gear. My adrenaline was surging, I knew Will only had about an hour until he succummed to hypothermia. I tied his harness to the rope and lowered it down to him. I started building an anchor and pulley system, as I was traditionally taught, but realized none of this would be necessary with 12 strong porters on our side. Once Will was tied into the rope, Ghafoor started yelling at the porters to pull. Slowly, Will came to the surface and the hope returned. As I was straddling the crevasse, I could see he was hung up on an ice lip, which was crushing & killing him. I told the porters to hold the rope and slowly lower him. He then dropped his pack with all his essentials into the depths of the crevasse. With a dislocated shoulder, he somehow managed to maneuvre around the lip and was pulled to safety. Will was in a very rough state, his entire body was white and he was shivering uncontrollably. His shoulder was displaced several inches. Not good, considering where we were.
After removing his wet clothes, his back looked like it had been mauled by a bear. At that moment, I was the happiest person in the world. It was a gift to see my best friend still alive, despite the fact that he should have been dead. We managed to get him warm again, after about 2 hours, and I could finally work on his shoulder. My attempts were futile, even with 2 or 3 porters tugging on it for hours. I was only causing more damage and pain. It soon became apparent he would not be able to walk out and manage the 10 hour jeep ride back. In reality, I believe we could have managed the approach back. Will thought differently. I pressed the SOS button on my InReach and started working to get him extracted by helicopter.... This turned out to be quite the ordeal. We determined Will fell approximately 40 feet. Survival was something more than luck. While sitting on the glacier in silence, Will had me send a message to his parents... Something along the lines of 'I love you guys so much'. I broke down in tears. Thinking of what his parents were going through and thinking of my own parents... what I put them through on my adventures. It was one of those times where I could view the circumstances from an outside perspective, and it was emotional.
The next day I rappeled into the crevasse to find his pack, which included his passport to get out of the country. I found his pack 60 feet deep and frozen into the walls of the glacier. After a few minutes of chipping away at the ice, I finally managed to attach his pack to my harness and ascend out of the crevasse. Looking into the blackness gave me shivers, thinking about how close he had come to death.
Despite bluebird weather, rescue was not possible until the Pakistan army could get confirmation that his insurance would cover the $25,000 rescue (a good reason to have insurance, folks). Coordinating a rescue with Will's girlfriend, parents, my family, the Pakistani army, Global Rescue and an insurance company was a bit like the analogy of herding cats. Thankfully, our families and Will's girlfriend did an excellent job, despite the time zone differences and logistic nightmare. Shout-out to Global Rescue as well, although we ultimately did not use them. It took nearly 3 days to get him off the glacier. Will did not sleep and he was slowly deteriorating. His pulse was weakening, as well as his mental state. I was happy to have carried a bottle of prescription painkillers, which helped immemsely. He ate them like they were candy. The time delay went from annoying to scary, until finally, we heard the helicopters above us. This was a good lesson as to the seriousness of a relatively minor injury in a remote zone. Food for thought and a lesson I will always remember.
Back in Skardu, a military doctor managed to put Will under and fix his shoulder. He told Will that he had never seen a dislocation that bad, despite all the years he had been in the army. Once Will had returned to Seattle, further analysis showed he had torn both labrums. A year later, Will is healthy and has had a ton of reflecting. Some residual injuries, but still crushing. He ran a 100 miler after his recovery and is climbing with a new mindset and a ton of gratitude for his family and his life. He calls this day his 'Second Birthday'. Love you buddy.
As I watched the helicopter fly away with my friends and our porters heading back to their village, I had no intentions to continue. I looked back at Spantik and watched the mountain for an hour, thinking of my decision to go home. While I didn't have a partner, this trip was a personal choice and I had originally planned to go alone. Climbing Manaslu without oxygen was a more serious undertaking, I knew this. I knew the incident was a freak accident, but I was still torn between the justification of risk, my families mental turmoil and my own selfish ambitions. A decision was made to continue alone. I told Jaff we would carry all the gear to base camp ourselves. Thankfully, another group of porters came down and lightened our load. I was thankful for them and paid these porters well for their hard work and generosity.
In base camp, I packed my gear and went straight up to Camp 1. It was moderately technical travel through scree and rocks, but took only about an hour, as I was very acclimated. I spent the night here alone and was rewarded with spectacular views of the approach.
In the morning, I met a team of two (a Scottish man named Graham and a Dutch woman named Andra). They were friendly and fit, I asked them if I could join their rope team to Camp 2. The travel to Camp 2 was very dangerous along an exposed ridge scattered with crevasses, blue ice and mushy snow. Unfortunately, our speeds were very mismatched. I was on skis and was much more acclimated than my new friends. It took over 7 hours to go from C1 to C2, so I told them I would continue alone. Speed is safety for me in the mountains and I knew the larger surface area of skis would help me stay on top of the snow. They understood and wished me luck. I slept at Camp 2 that night, soaking in the views.
Sleeping at 19,000' is never pleasant, so I try to avoid it. The night passes slowly, constantly waking up and gasping for oxygen. My strategy is always to sleep as low as possible, and push while I am awake and alert. After a dreadful night of sleep, I woke up and skied Spantiks SE ridge back to base camp. In base camp, I caught up on sleep and loaded my body with calories for the upcoming days ahead. My plan was to push to Camp 2 the next day and summit the following day. From the summit, I would go all the way back to base camp. On foot, this is an ambitious goal. On skis, it's just fun :)
I woke up at 4AM the next morning and ran to Camp 2. Travel was fast as my pack was light and altitude fitness was solid. It took me roughly 3 hours. I had the rest of the day to study my ski line and relax. The crux is found right above Camp 2. This section is the climbing crux and definitely the ski crux. From a climbing standpoint, it's pretty easy. Spantik is not a difficult mountain, it is just objectively dangerous. The pitch is roughly 45-50DEG, covered in ice and crevasses.
After climbing the crux, I thought the summit would be an easy grab. I was very wrong! Travel was only on moderate snow and crevasses were easy to spot. My skis made me feel secure, bridging any cracks and holes. However, the snow conditions were horrible. A 2 inch crust on top of sugar snow. I ended up post holing from 6000m to 7000m, with no tracks to follow and nobody to share the burden. Travel was slow and miserable. I was exausted and gasping for air. I knew it would make the skiing challenging. Finally, after 8 hours, I was on the summit and I felt a wave of emotion. I spent an hour on top thinking about Will and crazy journey I had taken to get here. In the distance, I was overlooking the Karakoram range and I could spot the Baintha Brakk (Ogre II), where Kyle and Scott had passed away a few years prior. They inspired me to come here, it felt full circle to be looking at Baintha Brakk.
A few hundred meters below the summit, the skiing went from breakable crust to supportable crust. It went fast and smooth until I reached the crux descent.
Excuse my language - yes, I am tired and oxygen deprived :)
I skied the line cautiously, occassionally taking off my skis to downclimb through 45DEG blue ice. A slip would have been fatal and I was not willing to risk it. I was enjoying the exposure and focus..... Descending 1000m had me feeling fresh.
After a tense descent, I packed up my camp and skied the South East ridge back to Camp 1. From there, it was an easy 30 minute run down to base camp. Seeing expressions in base camp was hilarious. The cooks and porters couldn't comprehend someone could summit so quickly and make it back down. I explained to them.... "It's all in the tools". Skiing is a beautiful thing :)
30 minutes later, Ghafoor made a surprise visit! He went from the hospital in Skardu, back to Arandu and trekked all the way back to base camp just to make sure I was safe. What a hero. I told him that I had made the summit and he didn't believe me, as it had only taken about 5 days. This is the beauty of being properly acclimitized, traveling light, alone and with skis. This strategy allows one to run up high mountains, extracting the most out of weather windows.
That night, Jaff barbequed our pet goat (R.I.P.). It was a glorious meal after such a difficult day. I met Italian Alpinist Giampoalo Corona (GC), who was heading up the mountain. We chatted about the route and he was on his way. GC was a boss. The next morning I woke up and heard Andra and Graham had a horrible experience. Climbing the crux through the night, Andra had slipped on ice and they had almost been taken off the mountain. Fortunately, Graham had somehow managed to arrest and save them both from certain death. I was glad they were both alright. Andra bowed out and Graham decided to continue up the mountain with Italian alpinist GC. Eventually, GC and Graham reached the summit (excellent work!). Link to Graham's trip report: https://grahamwyllie.blogspot.com/2019/08/spantik-7027m-altitude-style-and.html?fbclid=IwAR1t8thw64Jba8fNE-TcVAS61T725Tl3ll7-nmerXk-BDwex_gcw8tn67OU
My adventure on Spantik was over and I was satisfied. The rest of the trek back was straightforward, chatting with Ghafoor and Jaff and enjoying myself. In the village, I paid our porters and stayed to have dinner and chat with the village leader. The villagers came in to check on me, as they had all heard the story that unfolded on the glacier. 'Mashallah', an expression of joy, praise & thankfullness. The expedition was over and I could finally enjoy my cake (Thanks Ghafoor)! :)
Summitting so quickly gave me another two weeks in Pakistan, which I did not anticipate. I tried to make the most use of my time by finding new lines to ski and trails to run. In order to keep the report short, I will not write about the minor details. I went to explore a new valley, ski and climb a new peak and cross a few passes to keep myself acclimated for Manaslu. The zone I explored was just outside of the Kanday valley. It felt like a cross between the alps and the Karakoram. Here is a photo dump of some beautiful terrain.
After some more food poisoning and resting, I was ready to tackle my first 8000m peak. I will always look back on this experience with gratitude. So many lessons learned and experiences I will cherish forever. I am happy to have finally taken the time to write about it. I hope readers enjoyed the adventure and I hope it inspires others to open their mind and check out one of the most amazing regions the world has to offer. Much love.