Falling…A subterranean ice world greeted me. A microsecond of terror was displaced by relief as I found myself firm on a snow bridge. Avi above had watched me disappear from sight and was shouting out ‘Grace, Grace’. I unfazed, looked curiously downwards as my Patagonia hat lay 3 feet below and I wondered how I would retrieve it safely. Only extracted an hour later, would I feel shaken and troubled by my first major crevasse fall.
August 3rd, 2012 - Skardu
Team MAC as I later dubbed us from our nationalities, met in the afternoon of a dry and dusty Skardu in the Baltistan region of northern Pakistan. A Mauritian (Avi), 2 Aussie guys (Noel and myself) and a Canadian (Grace), we made an eclectic small group. Our goal was to climb Spantik in the Haramosh Valley of Baltistan in Pakistan. Dubbed an easy 7,000 m, we had high hopes, especially for Grace and I as we had just come of Broad Peak the week before.
Grace and I were smarting as Noel and Avi had managed to catch the infamously unavailable PIA* flight from Islamabad and had not had to endure the 30 hour minibus ride up the Karakorum Highway. In jest, we mocked that they could not be real mountaineers unless they had made the rite of passage up the ol’ KKH.
Noel and Avi had some last minute items to get and we scoured the mountaineering stores of Skardu. For any potential climbers in the Karakorum, be warned that Skardu is nothing like Thamel. Aside snacks and climbing items such as snow pickets, Russian ice screws and pitons, I would recommend bringing everything from home to ensure availability.
August 4th – Skardu to Arando
We were promised a leisurely 6 hour drive to Arando but circumstances conspired to the extent that although we left at 8am , I didn’t reach camp site to 8pm that evening.
The day started innocently enough. Our favorite jeep which was stenciled with ‘ Oh my Cod’ , (an apparent ode to seafood?) arrived on time and we piled in with, Grace and Avi squashed in the front and Fida (our escort for the trip) Noel and myself in the back. We passed the police checkpoint on the outskirts of Skardu without incident and made our merry way to Shigar. This time we stopped off at Shigar Fort and took a brief tour of the 460 year old building and surroundings.
The journey continued and we started to cross the numerous wooden cantilever bridges that connect the villages of Baltistan. After several hours we came across what seemed like a migrating sand dune crossing the road and both our jeeps promptly became bogged.
Much to-ing and fro-ing ensued as the jeeps managed to reverse and took big run ups to get momentum across the sand. At one stage, I thought we would have to deflate the tyres to get additional grip but after about the 5th attempt, our fearless driver got us across. Prior crossing, Avi had got out of the jeep, to take a video of the attempt. To our complete hysterics, he started chasing after the jeep after we crossed the sandy area thinking we were leaving him behind.
At the next village, we had a bit of incident as some very exuberant potential porters wished to clamber on our jeep and sat upon our duffle bags. I was requested by Deedar to have a bit of a word to these guys, to get them of the jeep. I walked up to the crowd of porters and shouted at the top of my voice ‘Get Down Now’ and to my and everyone’s surprise they complied and got off the jeep.
The road become more treacherous and we were reminded of the later part of the journey to Askole. At one village, we had to temporarily repair the bridge with logs and rocks to cross but at the village of Doko the bridge had warped to be impassable. Our jeeps were stranded on one side of the bridge and we had to manually ferry our gear across the bridge and wait for other transportation on the other side. Our delay in journey was the Doko children cricket team’s gain. As we waited for a jeep, on hearing Noel’s and my nationality, a home made bat and ball was produced and we played some cricket against the locals. Even Grace had a go, doing her best for Canada and we forgave her for referring to bowling as pitching.
After cricket we were invited to what I believe was the village chief’s house and sat in a room and was served tea and biscuits. The wait for transport dragged on and we all attempted to snooze in the room. This though was difficult, as it seemed every villager under 15 opened the door into the room to have a peek and then slammed it shut. This happened easily over 100 times.
After several hours, a lone jeep appeared, and it soon became apparent that we could not all fit in the jeep without causing severe some DVT’s. I volunteered to stay behind, and Grace, Noel, Avi, Deedar and Fida went forth to Arando. I returned to the Village Head’s room. In the absence of anything better to do, I fired up my MacBook Air and watched “John Carter’. Me and half the village of course. By 6:30pm, the lone jeep returned. Pretty good timing really as I started to watch an episode of ‘Archer’ and I was having an internal ethical quandary wondering if I should allow these village kids to watch. Just watch any episode of ‘Archer’ and you will understand what I mean.
I bundled myself into the jeep and we made our way to Arando. Some nervous moments as night fell and I wondered why the driver insisted on not using headlights. Perhaps the cliffs and overhangs looked less menacing in the absence of light. Then at what seemed to be like some pre-determined time, the headlights come on along with some ear–splitting screeching Pakistani music and I arrived at camp at 8pm, lucky not to be in a homicidal rage.
Noel, Avi and Grace had just started dinner and I gratefully returned to my team. Went to bed early, knowing the next day, we would have all the porters arrive to take our gear on the 3 day trek to Spantik base camp.
August 5th and 6th – Arando to Munpakora to Balocho by Grace MacDonald.
After a night of rain we got a very early wake up from the dozens of porters who amassed directly outside our tents to begin discussions about the loads they were to begin carrying that day. I had been hoping for a bit more sleep and contemplated sticking my head out of the tent and telling them to SHUT UP but I decided since we would be spending the next few days with this crew it was best to just get up and start getting things ready. Porters are always up early and eager to get going to you’re lucky to even get your self out of the tent before they start dismantling it. After a quick breakfast and camp tear down me, Avi and Noel started off on the trail through Arando to Munpakora while Brad stayed behind to deal with weighing the porter loads. We took a quick break in Arando waiting for porters to make sure we took the right trail. The friendly local villagers and kids came out to surround us and run away every time we tried to snap a photo but we’d developed some stealth photo techniques and tricked them into the odd photo.
It was a great day for walking, sunny with some nice cloud cover and the trail was fairly gentle. We eventually came to a small treed area where the porters stopped for a lunch break. We sat and chatted with them for a bit and met another couple that was heading to Spantik. Always eager to keep moving, me and Avi headed out for the final push to our home for a night – a nice open field called Munpakora with a good water supply and flat camping spots. Our tents arrived at the same time so we set them up, this time far from where the porters would be in the morning, Brad and Noel came in about an hour later and after a simple lunch we all rested for the afternoon. Noel was suffering from a bit of a stomach bug and by the evening Brad seemed to have caught the same bug. We decided to segregate them in one tent for the night so I moved in with Avi and we prayed we both wouldn’t wake up with the same bug in the morning.
It rained again during the night so it was another wet camp teardown but the good news is Noel seemed to be on the mend and me and Avi were still healthy. Brad was slightly improved but still on the mend. So another quick breakfast and we headed out to our next stop – Balocho. We were told this would take 5 to 7 hours and this was one of the more challenging days with lots of up and down trails. Avi took it a bit slower today as he wasn’t acclimatized and we didn’t want him ruining himself running ahead with me. There was less sun this day and more cloud and the plan was to stop for lunch along the way but when I reached the lunch spot it got chilly and despite my hunger I decided to inhale a sport gel and carry on with the porters. Avi ended up doing the same a short way behind me but the rest of the team got the rain during their lunch stop. Luckily I was only 10 minutes out of Balocho and while we had no tents, the porters took me in to one of their shelters and plied me with Balti tea and chapatis – and I was very happy to accept food water and shelter as we waited for the rain to pass. As our tents arrived I tried to find spots away from the porter huts and got them set up. Avi arrived midway during that process, sat on a rock, watched me and inhaled a box of cookies. He did save one cookie for me! In fairness I was so hungry I would have been reluctant to share a box of cookies too. We laughed as he shared his story of somehow getting lost on the trail and having porter laugh at him as he tried to get back on the trail (eventually one of them went to help, but they tend to like to get in a laugh first). I also had a bit of help from a porter just outside camp when a took a step just a bit too long for my leg and found my self rolling and sliding down a steep slope towards the glacier. The porter who was in front of me quickly ran back (fast despite being fully loaded) and pulled me back up. These easy approach days never seem to be without the odd challenging moments. Brad and Noel strolled in a bit later and Noel seemed to be almost fully recovered but Brad was still dealing with the evil stomach bug so we continued with the tent quarantine for one more night. Me and Avi thought we had gotten off lucky.
Speaking of lucky - after the rain the sun came out and we really got to appreciate our beautiful surroundings. Across the glacier we would cross tomorrow we could see Laila Peak (Haramosh Valley), Malbuting and, our goal, Spantik. There was a beautiful sunset that night and a couple of us spent that time sipping coffee and watching the sun go down behind the mountains.
After a nice dinner with a great view, we settled in for another night of sleep, our last before heading over to base camp.
August 7th – Balacho to Spantik Base Camp
I woke up feeling better. Finally. I really had been offended at myself for getting sick in the first place. Not impressed. Grace had asked around and told us it was a 3 hour journey to base camp. To this day I cannot understand why we believed it would be a 3 hour journey to base camp.
Most of the trek was over glacier and admittedly the first 4 hours was benign glacial terrain. The last 2 hours, the glacier became heavily crevassed and the route became much more convoluted. Spantik base camp is perched on a ridge descending from the mountain and can be seen several hours before arrival and thus really seems to extend the time it takes to reach there. Unfortunately Avi, was not feeling very well on this leg of the trip, having developed symptoms of the stomach bug that had afflicted Noel and I the previous days. Personally, I find one of the uplifting aspects of travelling in the remote regions of the world, is seeing certain people’s resolve and dignity under difficult circumstances. Avi showed this with his tenacity in making base camp, as had Noel in making camp 2 days prior.
We made base camp in around 6 hours and Deedar and crew immediately went to task to make our new home. 2 porters from another team immediately set upon me asking for money and material for the fixed rope and in hindsight I should have waited before agreeing on terms and handing over the goods.
We are sharing base camp with French, Basque, Dutch and New Zealand teams but at this point, it is just the Dutch and ourselves climbing as the other teams have finished their attempts on the mountain.
August 8th – Rest day at base camp
Chatted with Andy and Clare from another team. Continues to sort out tents and group gear. Played iPad monopoly. Avi and Noel almost completely recovered from some lingering ailments.
August 9th – Carry to Camp 1
Antoine from the French team was going up to camp 1 today to retrieve his tents, so we decided to tag along and take up some tents and gear. Andy, an English geologist from a previous FTA expedition also decided to tag along. Breakfast was at 8am and we decided to depart at 10am.
The climb to Camp 1 is a meandering scramble up an interesting rock face along several ridgelines. It was fun without being too exposed and was diverse in terrain preventing any kind of monotony. We really lucked out with the weather and had high cloud that prevented the day from getting too warm but also meant that I just wore a Patagonia sun shirt for the day. Grace and Andy set the lead with 1:45 minutes to Camp 1 and Avi and I followed at 2:15 minutes. Grace and I managed to get up 4 tents, 2 stoves, a rope and some food to Camp 1 and we gave Avi and Noel the task of setting up 2 tents. A bit of practice if they needed to set up the tents for themselves later.
It really was a wonderful day climbing in perfect weather conditions. At Camp 1, we had great views of most of the Spantik ridgeline and could see in the distance several members of the Dutch team making their way to Camp 3. The Chogolungma glacier meandered beneath us and 22-degree rainbow halos ringed the sun.
After 2 hours of setting up tents and general chatting, we made our way down. We helped Antoine carry some of their group gear down. The descent was fun and fast. Steep enough to get a good pace but not steep enough to risk serious injury. I luxuriated in for once having a light pack. I sped down the second half of the mountain after having traversed the ridges.
Arriving back at base camp, we were greeted with grape tang and then we bundled ourselves into the dining tent for soup, samosas and another round of delicious Pakistani mangoes. A quick nana nap in the afternoon and then dinner at 8pm. Overall, a superb day.
August 10th - Rest Day
August 11th - Climb to Camp 1
Once again back up to Camp 1, this time to sleep. Little did we know that we wouldn’t sleep again at base camp until the expedition was over. Second time round on the scramble to Camp 1 was a lot more fun as I knew the terrain and was more confident traversing the ridge lines. Knowing that I could climb the 700 m in around 2 hours, I was in no rush to leave cosy base camp too early. I left later than the rest of the gang to ensure all my electronic devices were charged up. The day before Noel had not unexpectedly retired from the expedition. He was having troubles with his knees and the rigors of climbing to Camp 1 were he believed, the extent of his abilities. I thanked Noel for his honesty and felt relieved. I had been very concerned as to how Noel would have travelled between the higher camps. That night Avi and bunked together and Grace slept solo in our 2 x 2 person tents we set at Camp 1.
August 12th - Departing Camp 1
Not having to pack up tents as we were leaving the 2 persons at Camp 1, we got up late at camp 1 and sauntered around camp unaware of the terrors that lay ahead. A lovely yet hard-core French couple had told us that to travel between camps 1 and 2 only took 3-4 hours and we had this in our minds as we departed at 8am. A very bad decision. We were loaded with 2 x 3 person tents, allocated for camps 2 and 3, food, ropes and fixed gear for the upper mountain. We were heavily laden and late in the day and therefore entirely the worst situation to be travelling. The first 100 or so meters were innocent enough and then the games began. Grace was leading the trail, the lighter of us three, so she would plunge through first forewarning Avi and I to the struggles ahead.
Despite Grace plunging in snow, Avi and I would still plunge further up to our waists. As the day progressed, not only would we plunge but Avi and I would get our feet stuck. Our packs conspiring against us, we would wriggle, shake and gyrate our legs and feet to extract ourselves from the ‘quick-snow’. Groans of frustration as we extracted one leg only for the next step to be captured. It was exhausting and tiring work and a prelude for things to come. At midday after a particularly exhausting ridge, Grace suggested enough was enough and I quickly agreed to set up a Camp 1.5. In 4-5 hours we had only travelled half way to Camp 2 and the last ridge has been particularly brutal. In an effort to ascend, I had resorted to crawling in many parts, relying on my elbows and knees to offer less force on the sludgy snow to stop sinking through.
On reaching an oasis of rock in the middle of the snow ridge, I encountered a second wind and ‘went to town’ on building a snow platform for our 3 person tent. The rock was flat and shale-like, perfect for building a flat platform. In doing so, I was also keeping an eye on Avi. He was wiped out from our efforts and was very worried, he too might pull out. He was very quiet and listless. Grace made sure he ate and drank to recuperate. Once again, I was aware that Grace and I made a great climbing combo. With little to no communication Grace would pick up where I left off and so if I was concentrating on setting up the tent, Grace would look after Avi and start getting our gear ready for the night.
With Avi coming back to life and safely nestled in the tent, we wondered how much further to Camp 2 and swore we would leave earlier the next day.
August 13th - On to Camp 2
The next day I jokingly suggested that Camp 2 may just be over the next ridge. This was not to be. We got up an hour earlier than the day previously but with time taken to dismantling the tent, we were not travelling until 6:45 am. Still too late for these conditions.
My heart absolutely sank when on reaching the top of the rock ridge, I saw Grace sinking to her knees. I expected another day of exotic leg maneuvering, with my laden pack conspiring against me.... but today it wasn’t walking that was the biggest threat.
About an hour from camp.
Falling…A subterranean ice world greeted me. A microsecond of terror was displaced by relief as I found myself firm on a snow bridge. Avi above had watched me disappear from sight and was shouting out ‘Grace, Grace’ to help in my rescue. I unfazed, looked curiously as my Patagonia hat lay 3 feet below me. I wondered how I would retrieve it safely. Only safely extracted an hour later, would I feel shaken and troubled by my first major crevasse fall.
Seconds prior, loaded with heavy packs and lulled into a false sense of security from the ‘word’ of safe passage at base camp, we had been travelling un-roped even after Grace un-witnessed by Avi and I had partially fallen into a hole the day before. On seeing a further hole and evidence of a depression in the snow I warned Avi “ not to put his foot here”. My next step resulted in my disappearing from view. Once landed, I found myself in the interesting situation for a crevasse rescue of having to take the rope out of my pack, tie in and throw the rope out of the crevasse for Avi and Grace to make an anchor.
Once the anchor was secure, I did indeed drop down to retrieve my trusty hat and managed to crawl/roll out of the crevasse. We then rigged up a belay system and got Grace and Avi over the crevasse with once Grace safely across, we pulled our packs across and then I did a very inelegant leopard crawl across the remaining snow bridge.
The second half of the trail to Camp 2 wove its way through several corniced ridges and there were some harrowing moments, as it seemed that one could just drop straight through the cornice. About an hour out from Camp 2 we found a bergschrund on/near a cornice and Grace simply and aptly dubbed this area. ‘Bernice’.
Much more cautious now, we again roped up to cross Bernice with Grace our fearless Recon Scout going first, then Avi. Some hilarious moments ensued as Grace tried to teach Avi how to do a body belay and Avi kept trying to what it seemed to us to coil the rope. I just assumed I was a goner if the bridge on ‘Bernice’ failed but it held. An hour later, Grace made the customary ‘Happy Dance’ on seeing the Dutch tent at Camp 2.
The supposed 3-4 hour trip to Camp had taken us 2 days for a collective 9.5 hours. We could see the remnants of the Dutch tent platforms and I set to task on stomping snow for our Eureka 3 person while Avi and Grace unloaded backpacks and started setting up for camp. It turned out to be a glorious afternoon and as soon as we were mostly set up, the Thermarest Z-lites came out and we did some sun basking, enjoying the great weather and the wonderful views.
Later that afternoon, 3 HAP’s from the Dutch team arrived and began to set up tents. Their team has been waiting at Camp 3 for 4 days and had run out of time. We began to see a trickle of climbers and were quite shocked at how exhausted many of them looked and the passage of time it has taken them to descend from 3. We met the leader of the team Maaike who was awesome and had a great chat about conditions and what to expect higher up. We made the decision that Grace and I would head up to camp 3 the following day with our second 3 person tent and give Avi a rest.
August 14th - Carry to Camp 3
Frightened by the Dutch team's performance, Grace and I packed light for our foray up to Camp 3. I even left behind my camera, a rarity for me and just carried the tent and some daily provisions. We got up at 4am, still dark and began to hear the Dutch emerging from slumber as well. Being light and with no gear we were ready by 5 am after ensuring we had our daily coffee.
Hallelujah... the snow was firm and we were fast. We were at the start of the snow slope in 2 hours and up the fixed lines in a further 2. The joy of travelling light on firm snow was exhilarating. Grace forgo her Junar to get up the lines but I guess Im a creature of habit. If I see a fixed line, out comes my ascender. We were at Camp 2.5 and stopped to have a red bull and soak in the visual delights. Kind of like our dash up to Camp 1 days earlier, we were reveling in being acclimatized.
Within 5 hours, Grace was doing her happy dance as we spied Camp 3, closer than we had expected. We dropped the tent, marked it with several left behind bamboo wands. Grace as an added precaution marked the tent's location with her GPS.
The trip down was just 2 hours. The top section of the snow slope, Grace and I down climbed in parallel, sharing a laugh as we attempted to have a conversation while synchronized down climbing. We were on fire. Having a lot of practice on fixed lines, we zoomed down unhindered by a weighted pack. Grace has a handy little whistle on her backpack (Wish you did Cilogear) and as the clouds rolled in she would ‘toot’ once she was down. In good conditions, I can descend a mountain very quickly (as can Grace) and once again was simply having fun dropping down as the snow was just soft enough to really get a good speed down the hill.
Having crossed the corniced ridge, which was the last obstacle to Camp 2, Grace called Avi on the radio and asked him to look outside the tent. We had gone up and down before midday, far surpassing my pessimistic view that our turnaround time should be 2pm. Avi of course as always greeted us with his incredibly infectious grin and we looked forward to having the rest of the day to rest and lounge about camp
A phone call that night to Stu revealed an imminent weather window. At the back of my mind was always a traditional plan to return back to base camp and then have a couple of rest days before our summit push. Some quick calculations and use of some calendar apps, showed that this was not an option. To have a realistic chance of success we needed to be at camp 3 ASAP waiting on a window. We didn’t have the food or stove gas to do this, so that night I mulled over several different scenarios of what to do. Grace’s idea was the best one but did we have the energy?
August 15th - Return to Base Camp and sleep at Camp 1
Ok, the plan was for Grace and I to drop down to base camp in one push, resupply and then return to Camp 2 the following day. It was an audacious plan and I was weary even thinking about it but Grace was enthused and the weather window was approaching.
Traumatised by our trip up to Camp 2, we left early, now getting accustomed to early starts as we had been on Broad Peak. All ‘Coffeed up’. Thank you Nestle 3-in-1 packets we left once again on firm snow…and then holy shit…”Bernice’, the corniced ridges, the crevasse I fell into.. and Camp 1.5 …in just 1 hour. Once again unweighted and without to extract ourselves every second step, we raced down the mountain. To cross the crevasse which had now sunken in quite dramatically. I jumped across and landed in the soft snow on the other side in a very undignified but effective belly flop. Probably won’t find that technique in ‘Freedom of the Hills’.
From Camp 1.5 just another hour to camp 1. 9.5 hours ascent had shrunk to less than 2 hours on the descent. Initially there had been talk that Grace would hang out in Camp 1 while I descended to BC to resupply but being at camp 1 already before 7am, Grace made the easy decision to come down as well.
Now the fun really began. Grace started to run down to BC and I followed suit. Following in her footsteps making microsecond decisions on where to place feet, I once again was in my element. It was great until Grace had the audacity to have a coughing fit halfway down and sat and watched .Grace reminded me later, that I probably should have offered her some water. Coughing fit over, we resumed and then Grace let me pass her on the final third of the route where the terrain is less steep and I could really let out a full gallop. At spot on 8am, I opened the kitchen tent door to say hello to a surprised Deedar with Grace minutes behind me. We reunited ourselves with Noel and sat in the tent, finally having someone else doing the cooking with real food.
We felt bad for Avi, sitting by himself in the tent at camp 2 , but these feelings soon forgotten as Deedar drowned us with food. Breakfast completed and stomachs bursting we popped over to visit the Dutch team and gave them 6 gas canisters that we had been given by them at camp 2. Later that morning Maaike escaped her team and visited us and we had a good ol’ session as we caught up and gossiped about various people on expeditions. The commercial mountaineering community is a very small with very degrees of separation separating everyone.
Grace then bough her organizational prowess to sorting all the food and gear to be taken up to Camp 2 and even was brave and kind enough to get a new pair of underwear for Avi.
That afternoon we watched another episode of “Breaking Bad’ and munched merrily on an interesting combination of French Fries and Mangoes. We discussed how we would tell Avi of the luxuries we enjoyed at base camp, including our wonderful showers.
Around 4pm, all packed up, we made our way back to Camp 1. Our stay at base camp had been oh so brief but highly recuperating. Stomach full of fries and Mango, Grace for once was uncharacteristically slower than I. The effect of the food was more of a rocket effect on me, as I propelled myself up the mountain on my exhaust fumes. Just over an hour and half and I was back at camp 1 and set up our remaining tent for the night. Earlier that afternoon, our very incredibly nice and keen assistant cook had taken up some supplies and bought down our second tent at Camp 1. Noel had also taken the opportunity to take some supplies to camp 1, so that Grace and I could walk at least back to camp 1 relatively unimpeded.
After eating all day, we declined the dinner option. Fairly whacked, we were nestled in sleeping bags by 7pm and psyched ourselves for the carry to 2 the following day.
August 16th - Return to Camp 2
It was getting routine now. Up at 4am, although we seemed inclined to hit the snooze and get up at 4:10am. When Grace gets up, she gets up, like a Jill? in the Box. I have a more gentle approach to the start of the day and tend to hide in my sleeping bag till Grace stops flailing her arms about. With no tent to pack and packs basically packed from the night prior, we left our tents to be greeted by light snowfall, wind and an overall fairly grim looking day.
Our packs were heavy again, laden with about a weeks worth of food and gear for our summit push and I was concerned that a marathon session of post holing deep snow lay ahead.
My fears were mostly unfounded, yes we did sink but our previous footsteps plus those of the returning Dutch team, really had helped. It took 4.5 hours to get back to Camp 2, so much much better than our 2 day slog previously.
Avi of course, was delighted to see us. Alone on the mountain, the dark thoughts of us not returning apparently really hadn’t entered his head. Although Avi did admit on questioning that he did have contingency plans if we didn’t return.
With the window approaching on the 18th, Grace and I had did not have time to rest and we made plans to move to Camp 3 the following day. As now had become custom, we then ate our 3-course meal which consisted of soup, the main freeze dried food and then dessert. The desserts were surprisingly delicious and a real highlight of our day. Not only great to eat but fun to make. The cheesecake for example, specifically directed us to use 2 whisking forks, so we would have duelling forks in the bowl that Avi so luckily borrowed from Deedar and proved perfect for the task.
August 17th - Carry to Camp 3
We had some wins recently. The drop down to base camp and return to Camp 2 we considered wins, as they were relatively easy days with no unexpected hardships. We didn’t know if our luck was to continue pushing to camp 3, so we erred on the side of caution and once again set of reasonably early at 5am.
We left in the shadows but the weather was changing now for the better and it was getting warmer. Despite our glee at letting Avi know that we had not post-holed once on our previous trip to Camp 3, this time was not going to be the same. With heavier packs we quickly sunk into the snow and our journey to 3 was not going to be as rapid.
With the softer snow, we roped up at the first cornice and Grace delicately climbed up to the only corniced ridge on the section. Like a few places on this route this first ridge was easy to descend but more difficult to climb but we slowly managed to negotiate our first obstacle of the day.
Opposite us worrying lenticular clouds shroud Malubiting but the day remained calm and with little wind. I made a mental note that these normal harbingers of inclement weather may not affect conditions on Spantik although they did provide some wonderful photographic backdrops and snapped away as Avi was silhouetted against these contoured clouds.
Still roped after having crossed one major crevasse, we climbed a steepish 45-degree slope to a plateau that rose to the start of the fixed lines section. These fixed lines had been a source of tension between myself and the HAP’s who had supposedly fixed the lines. I would have been concerned about safety if I was leading a larger team but the 3 of us though were very manageable. Any time we did feel unsure, we would rope up or set up some kind of belay.
Avi had the 1 minute lesson on how to attach his Jumar/Ascender and safety and of we went. With pack, Grace this time did use her jumar and we hoped to repeat our previous rapid ascent. The snow conditions though conspired against us and this time it was much more difficult. Even with jumar, we slid back as the snow crumbled beneath our boots. The day was warm and with a full load on our backs our times were much slower.
At he top of the fixed lines, just prior to Camp 2.5, Grace appeared to post hole. She called out for me to help and despite the urgency in her voice; I continued to amble over towards her with my pack. It continued to appear to me that she was in no trouble. Grace then told me to take of my pack and come over fast. Now realizing something was wrong, I shed my pack and made my way as fast as I could to Grace. What I couldn’t see, was that Grace was in a hole and only prevented falling in further by virtue of Grace performing a kind of chest dip in the snow beside her. Her pack was also conspiring against her with her pack’s sternum strap pushing up against her throat.
Grace managed to extract herself before I got to her and in silence proceeded to Camp 2.5. I helped Avi and we roped up crossing the area where Grace fell in. The sun and soft snow had opened up areas that we had crossed over without incident days before and made the journey much more hazardous. Once at camp 2.5 I promptly walked up Grace and apologied for not recognizing the urgency in her voice. I indeed felt bad as after 2 months climbing together, I should have known better. Grace recognized my contrite tone and offered me half her Red Bull. We were good. As a further act of redemption, I broke trail the rest of the way to camp 3.
On our previous trip to camp 3 , the hardest section had been from Camp 2.5 to Camp 3 which had taken us without packs 2 hours. I was dreading the journey with heavy packs but counter-intuitively, the snow was in better condition and it only took us 2.5 hours. A momentary sense of foreboding as the tent we had left there was nowhere to be seen. Snow had completely covered the area but a stray bamboo wand and Grace’s GPS waypoint soon had the TNF VE-25 uncovered.
I had become the self-appointed master of the tent platform and proceeded to stomp snow. Grace set about getting the tent ready and a 3rd un-named person was tasked to assemble the tent poles. This un-named person then promptly dropped a pole and it slid straight down a slope into a crevasse. I wasn’t angry, more amused actually and said ‘shit happens’. I investigated the drop zone and then asked Grace to make an anchor. Once anchors was made, ever so efficiently, I lowered the rope into the crevasse and then rigged up an abseil with prussick lock. I managed to get the pole fairly effortlessly and we continued to set up the tent with un-named 3rd person must more fastidious of pole security.
The day had taken 10 hours and we were fairly tired, so we unanimously decided to put off summit day. What we did propose was to do a recon trip as we had no beta on how to actually get to the summit.
August 18th - Summit recon
Finally, some sort of sleep in. Today’s plan was to just investigate and wand the start of the route in daylight. We didn’t leave till about 8 am, mostly refreshed from the previous day’s big carry. The night had been clear after yesterday’s sun and the ground was reasonably firm even after we left. We initially had some tracks to follow (possibly from the senior French couple) but these soon petered out and we were forced to follow our intuition. On top of the first major ridge overlooking Camp 3 we had a clear view of the summit pyramid and realized that the best approach was by the left hand ridge. The day was wonderful, the sun out and we were very confident of a quick ascent the next day. How silly we repeatedly were in our estimations.
We continued for another hour towards the summit and Grace and I kind of toyed with the idea of pushing on…but sanity prevailed and I called a halt as the snow started to soften up. I left some wands and a snow stake at that point as we had seen no evidence of crevasses and indeed we had no crevasses incidents from Camp 3 onwards. A quick descent and we made plans for our summit push. We debated various start times and settled on a 2am wake up with a 3am departure. After this recon trip, that should give us plenty of time.
August 19th - Summit Push
We did indeed get up at 2am. Earlier that evening there had been some wind but in the wee hours of the morning the night was still and surprisingly warm. Avi, Grace and I having sorted gear the night before, quickly and quietly prepared boiling water on the wonderful MSR Reactor and drunk our coffees and some oatmeal.
Headlamps were the order of the day as we followed our previous day’s footsteps in the absence of moonlight. We were very thankful of our decision to scout out the route the day before. I plodded in darkness, in the zombie state that night climbing involves and was waiting in earnest that ethereal glow of first light at altitude. I was not disappointed and we witnessed a magical landscape as the pink tones of pre-dawn stealthily crept across the landscape. The alpenglow came next, capping the peaks in warm glow and we saw Nanga Parbat afire in the distance.
At this point we had traversed the plateau and approached the summit ridge. The traverse had been pleasant and visually rewarding but as we approached the ridge, we all became very cold. So cold we wee all willing for the sun to rise as fast as possible. Half an hour on the ridge and we stopped to linger in the sun. Grace’s feet were cold and Avi could not get warm. I was cool but not cold but also highly appreciated the sun’s direct rays. As we had hit the ridge, a steady wind was upon us that had not been in existence on the plateau. This wind cooled us down rapidly and mitts came on and hoods up as we battled ot prevent hypothermia.
We had a second and for me even worse problem. Deep deep snow. On the plateau, the snow had been manageable but on the ridge it was depressingly deep. The snow was constantly up to our hips. I, and then Grace tried to find solid snow but there was no discernable visual reference between manageable knee deep snow and almost impossible to climb to hip deep snow. The act of wading through this snow made Grace’s feet dangerously cold, to the point that twice, we had to remove her boots and stick her feet in my armpits. For the curious, my lack of fat meant that her feet kept tickling my ribs and made me cough. We were also both pissed off with our La Sportiva Olympus Mons as in the absence of any tightening device around the calf area, snow kept getting wedged down our boots.
I couldn’t believe it when at midday; 9 hours on and we were still fighting deep snow and seemed nowhere near the top. I had expected a 6-hour trip to the summit, not the deepest softest that snow I had ever encountered. Avi still battling the cold and unable to get warm decided to turn back. He had reached a new personal altitude record of 6,700 m but made the very responsible decision to turn back . Avi based his decision on that he felt he would not have sufficient energy later to get down. I was very relieved he made this decision and I didn’t have to make it for him. I asked him to check in at 2-hour intervals on even hours and really hoped that I had made the right decision in letting him return to camp 3 solo.
Grace meantime was still a machine battling the deep snow. She had perfected a maneuver, which I dubbed the “Grace McDonald. This consisted of lifting her knee up and on top of the snow, compressing the snow with her knee, lifting up the same leg and then compressing with her foot. Effective but incredibly energy intensive and I was continuously amazed at her relentless assault. Let the record state that there is no way I would have summited without Grace’s extraordinary efforts.
Once Avi had departed, we continued our push but I was demoralized. I had in my head a turn around time of 3pm but thought any chance of summit was impossible in these snow conditions. Our only chance lay in a steeper snow slope ahead that straddled a rock band. I knew the rock band was about ¾ of the way to the summit but also knew that if the snow was deep we would have no chance.
Finally a break and we reached the slope and the snow was only ankle deep. We had a chance and my demoralized state began to dissipate. By 2pm we were well on our way to the rock band but I wasn’t sure what lay ahead. Our route to the top was completely based on a hunch. Grace passed the rock band and hurdled a small ridge and let out a whoop of excitement. I clambered to join her and we witnessed a rock strewn path. I was slightly befuddled as I couldn’t see an obvious summit but in fairness to Grace, there was no more obvious impediments in sight and we traversed the 20 degree slope in mostly consolidated snow. At the top of the rocks, yes the a summit dome was in sight. ‘No more up’ as they say. On the rise of the dome, I asked Grace to summit first as she had deserved the privilege.
Our other nemesis the wind, politely subsided at this point and we loitered on the top taking pics, congratulatory hugs and I gave a very groggy Stu a phone call. As is custom I guess for all Canadians, Grace whipped out the maple leaf flag for a photo and also a Turkish football team’s flag (Grace’s husband is Turkish). The time was 3:05 am , so a 12 hour bid just to get to the summit. It generally takes less time to summit Everest.
So if it takes 12 hours to get to the summit, how long to get down? I was worried about Grace’s feet in the cooling hours of the late afternoon but I needn’t have worried. We get down in 3 hours to Camp 3. The snow that was so difficult to ascend was a breeze to get down with us retracing our footsteps and just sliding through some of the deeper stuff. At the bottom of the ridge, Grace waited for me and as had become customary, we shared half a redbull each. We then staggered like drunken sailors across the plateau and back down to Camp 3. We were exhausted but happy and I was soo relieved to see Avi poke his head out of camp when we shouted out to him. I had been tracking his footsteps in the snow so was fairly certain he had made it back but it was only till I saw him that I was completely assured he was safe.
We were too tired that evening to make our customary dessert after dinner and promised ourselves a sleep in the next door before making our way to Camp 2.
August 20th - Start of the descent
I think we started rousing ourselves from sleep at around 7am. The clear weather continued and at 7am , bright light was cascading through our tent. But we were in no rush to get out of our sleeping bags until the warmth became uncomfortable and/or bladders became too full to sleep.
We had to pack up the tent and did so at a leisurely pace. We knew that the later we left, the softer the snow but for descent this was normally less of an issue. We didn’t know that a late departure would have repercussions on the flat.
Tent packed, we set off and indeed the snow was soft. At the top of the fixed line, I watched as Avi rigged up for abseil over the crevasse at the top of the snow slope. I weighed down with tent and gear also opted initially for abseil.
To be continued.....
The abseil reminded me of the one I had fallen into on Broad Peak. I tried to be uber-careful but with a heavy pack sometimes your options are limited. This time I did manage to clear the gap and we proceeded down to rest at Camp 2.7. The area above Camp 2.7 was steep and icy to the extent that I turned in for a section and asked Avi to do the same. We rested at Camp 2.7 before roping up again in the area that Grace had fallen in a hole previously.
This time, the snow was less yielding and we hopped and jumped across the holes to the rest of the fixed lines. Grace popped down first and I got to teach Avi the wonderful world of arm rapping. Grace and I had spent so much time on BP arm rapping that it was second nature. For Avi this was less the case and I got to witness some interesting and unique manoeuvres down the slope before Avi got the hang of the arm rap. To be fair to Avi, I managed a spectacular movement where under a bit of steam I post holed and then flipped on to my back. Like Grace a couple of days before, my weighted pack slid down my back and the sternum strap ended up choking me until I was able to get myself parallel to the slope. I must say, mightily uncomfortable situation.
Off the fixed lines, we thought we were home and hosed back to Camp 2 but as always Spantik had a surprise left for us. Heading up onto the corniced ridge immediately prior to the descent to Camp 2, Avi once again witnessed one of us fall out of sight. This time it was Grace who fell down a hole. We had crossed this same ground 3 times prior without incident but I guess the cloudless days had really softened the bridges. This time though we were all roped up and to his credit Avi had been very good with his rope work and held Grace tight.
Like our previous crevasse incidents, while initially a surprise, the crevasse could be climbed out of without too much additional setup of anchors or retrieval systems. Grace popped out. We then asked Avi to take his pack off and we attached that to the rope and pulled that across. Unfortunately for Avi, his crossing of the crevasse was... let's just say .... would be judged poorly by his fellow climbers. The road runner effect of the scrambling of the crampons on the edge of the crevasse was particularly entertaining. After Avi crossed and the rest of us managed to stop laughing, I stepped across and what had taken Avi 10 minutes to do, I, managed to do in about 30 seconds. In fairness Avi had shown me what not to do. The contrast was so funny that we had a good laugh once out of the crevasse and safely on the other side.
After the crevasse extraction, it was an easy affair to jump over the ridge to the other side and make our way to camp 2. It was good to see our favourite tent. ( We much preferred the Eureka 3 person over the TNF version. It had taken us about 4 hours to get back down
In the afternoon, we packed up for our return to base camp the next day. The weather was perfect, so we unpegged the tent and packed up all everything we wouldn't need. After work was finished, we grooved to Grace's tunes. I had discovered 'First Aid Kit' and really liked them. We also listened to a lot of 'Florence and the Machine' That night we did have the cheesecake that we forgo on our return from the summit and once again thoroughly enjoyed our dessert.
The next day, once again back up to our early starts. Alarm at 4am, snooze till 4:10 am and then Grace would start flailing her arms about. I as usual focused primarily on getting coffee into me ASAP and lit up the MSR reactor once safe to do so. Avi was keen to get down as had been up the hill longer than any of us having not had the chance to return to base camp. We packed quietly and efficiently and was nice to have a well-oiled team.
Once again I had no idea of how long it would take to return to base camp. Previously it had taken 3 hours but that was 2 persons in good snow with no weight. This time, I was carrying 2 x 3 person tents and Grace and Avi had equally heavy loads. I took the tents as the Cilogear pack is especially adept at carrying bulky items.