We made the first carry up to the base of Nafis’ Cap. I had a feeling of incredible awe and gratitude when I popped out through the first few fins and cracks at the base of the glacier and had the first unobstructed view of the tower. I sat there a while and looked at it. Willy came up. He looked. There is something sublime about first coming into view of a goal held for so long. The size impressed us. The scale of the work ahead of us impressed us too.
Willy and I carried some more loads up to the base of Nafis. Ben and Josh were feeling much more fit so they took a large portion of the rack and a couple of ropes ande went up to tackle the first few pitches of the route; see what’s in store for us. It took them five hours to get up through the icefall to the start of the climbing. We hoped we could cut that time down as time went on…. we cut the time down, but the approach never got funner. They got a pitch up before ice started falling from above – golf balls, footballs. They hung the rope and went down. The pitch they climbed was the first pitch of an uncompleted German line. In the end, we decided on a route that went farther to the left.
Meanwhile….. Willy and I made like donkeys and carried a bunch of garbellion up to the gear dump we’d made two days before. We dropped our loads there and went up to explore a route through the icefall.
The partial route that we found was somewhat direct, and kind of steep. In one spot we fixed a rope to aide the huffing and puffing. We found a good staging area mid-way up and made two carries to there. Hopefully we’d return for our stuff before a serac fell on it.
As we were on our way down we encountered Ben and Josh, who’d found a good route through to the base of the wall. We all walked back to camp together.
By this time our heads weren’t feeling so headachy and our appetites were getting pretty healthy. And we’d had several good days of activity so we decided to take a rest day. Read: eating day.
We had two goats between our expedition and Matt McCormick’s crew, so Zahid, Fita and Abas butchered up some fresh meat. Josh and Ben worked on drawing up a topo which we would never use in the end; Willy helped Zahid cut up meat. We talked itinerary for the wall. Strategized. Made a list of food to carry up. Decided what more gear we’d need up there. Talked about how we’d dispose of human waste. Ate rice and Goat Boy curry for dinner.
This is about when the weather began to really deteriorate. The clear blue skies we’d had while we hiked in and carried loads went the way of all flesh. We were packed and ready to go with the last carry up to Nafis, but we waited a few days before departing:
I woke up 4:45 and 5:00 but I didn’t crawl out of my sleeping bag. Little droplets of the past night’s rain were frozen in place on the fabric of my tent. It was overcast but the clouds were at least high. K6, Kapura, Badal, Beatrice – all covered in a robe of white. Vanilla ice. Bling. Gangster rappers dressed up for the Grammys. They emanated austerity. Cold. Unwelcoming. Beautiful. I sat up in the doorway of my tent and looked out to behold the country. Tent zippers ripped the still air to my left and a second later Ben and Willy walked over. We had a truncated conversation about the weather. The upshot was to wait a while and see what the weather did – see if the walls would have a chance to shed some of their white coating. That didn’t turn out to be the case.
We decided to hike up to Nafis’ Cap for Good. The hike up was much the same except with lighter packs. It started snowing about the time we arrived at the base. Figures. We stood straining our eyes up into the snowflakes. We talked about switching to a different crack system to the left of the German line we had had in mind. We settled on a beautiful curving corner system that carried the whole height of the wall. To look up at it is stunning.
For a while, we dickered around in the snow. There wasn’t much water to be had. Ben chopped two stills out of the icicles in the bergschrund and set the jetboil pots under the drips. Clearly we would have to come up with something better.
Josh went up the rope they’d fixed the other day to clean in and I busied myself with hauling up the portaledges and tents. The German team had placed a few bolts at the base of the rock, just above the bergschrund in a spot that made a decent ledge camp, but was a little exposed to ice falling from above. We hung our ledges from those bolts. I was hauling off of one of the bolts that were there, just to pull our gear across the ‘schrund and up the easy snow pitch to the rock.
The ‘schrund itself was about 10 meters wide at the spot where the load ledges and tents flopped across and banged into the lip on the uphill side. I hauled away and they dug into the overhung lip and the rope cut it’s way into the snow and Josh and I simul hauled for all we were worth (dumb) and the rope cut still deeper and the load beneath the lip dug and crushed itself into the snow until one of the tents ripped free and dropped into the silent blue-black bergschrund and disappeared into the abyss.
There were a few minutes where we were all kind of quiet. So much for forcing things. Ben climbed down in there after the runaway tent, as Josh and I carefully finished bringing up the ledges and began to set them up. Every now and then we’d get an update from below: “I can’t see ’em” “There’s two different channels where it could have fallen into” “Ah, I see it” “I can’t reach it” etc. Willy belayed him from above. I fooled around with a ledge, applying my sluggish mind to untangling the mess of poles and straps which are a dismantled portaledge. The snow never stopped falling. Ben eventually did fish the tent out of the crack, and we were all psyched. He didn’t have any kind of a sense of humor about it though. I know because I asked him if he was ready to go down there after a ledge. He didn’t laugh.
I don’t think it’s been mentioned yet that we found out when we arrived in base camp that the flies we’d brought didn’t fit the new model BD ledges. Due to the confusing nature of how we all arrived in Pakistan, Ben had been sent the flies and Josh the ledges, and they’d never been set up together. So when we hung one from a boulder on our first day in base camp we found out the good news: THEY’RE NOT COMPATIBLE!! Luckily the little tents that Rab had send us were. So that’s what we used.
Josh and Ben teamed up in one ledge and Willy and I took the other – unintentionally spooning. We had a jetboil for both ledges so the setup was that J + B would fix food, W + J fixed drinks and we passed back and forth – snow sifting inside as we did so.
Another anecdote: when you want to set a tent up on a portaledge, you have to remove the outside middle suspension strap. Take it out of the equation. If any of you hardcore wall dudes are reading this you’re probably thinking “Well…yeah. Duh.”. But somehow this wasn’t super intuitive to us as first, and we spent the first night or two dealing with a sagging dilapidation of nylon and twisted poles. We were up around 5000m at that point. This of course was the highest we’d slept and we all had splitting headaches. So between the the headache, and the wet sagging body of the tent hanging in my face and being crammed up next to willy with his legs on top of me and vice versa… I didn’t sleep much and I’m sure none of the others did either. Not allocating a piss bottle for the 2am call was a sad oversight as well. All night I listened to Willy fight for air – 3 or 5 shallow breaths then a tremendous gasping, like Chain-Stokes Syndrome.
Naysa Brakk means arrowhead tower. It’s a fitting name because that’s what the peak appears like. Or a pyramid; a symmetrical, three-dimensional triangle. Willy and I climbed the north ridge on the 25thof June. We left camp at first light, just after 4am. It took us 4 ½ hours to huff and puff our way up the gully to the notch where the route starts.
We wasted about an hour when Willy took my suggestion to find a detour around a spot where the gully bottlenecked and steepened to form a small waterfall. I had climbed up it; icy water running down my sleeves and soaking my pants took my breath away. I tried to climb quick as I could but it was trickier than it seemed from below. There was ice on the rocks and everything was slippery. I got to the
top and yelled down to willy to go around. But he couldn’t hear me too well and I was too winded to holler down any details. When he yelled back up to ask: “WHAAAT???” I just made some vaugh circular gesture with my arm and went to find a place to sit for a second. Willy disappeared…. for a while. He had angled to climbers’ right, up a low angled corner. But he got dead ended by a muddy chimney. I waited for some minutes – 20 maybe. Then I started to yell to figure where he’d gotten to. When I finally heard him reply, I realized he was in the next gully system over, and I climbed up to the top of the arrete that separated us. He was down there drying to creep his way up a sandy slab that would take him around and above the chimney that stood in his way. I was carrying the tag line, and eventually I threw that down to him and gave him a hip belay up to me. That little adventure probably cost us an hour.
We started climbing around 9am. A sharper ridge I’ve never seen. There were one or two face traverses that were exciting since the gear was a little tricky. Maybe the hardest moves were 5.10a – that’s what the Alpine Journal calls it. But there wasn’t much of that. Most of the route is really cool ridge climbing. The final 150m or so, on average, are not far off of horizontal. But the crest of the ridge itself is so sharp, that you just hand traverse the ridge with lots of air beneath you on both sides. I heard it compared to Mathers’ Crest, but I haven’t climbed Mathers’ Crest so I wouldn’t know. I just know that if the north ridge of Naysa Brakk were to be in the Alps or the Sierras, there would be a queue on it all summer long.
We were on top around 2pm. Sweet views of K7, K6 and out to Mashabrum II.
We simul down-climbed the upper section of the ridge, then made 4 or 5 30m rappels and one 70m rappel back to the notch.
It only took us an hour and forty minutes to descend the gully. It wasn’t long before we were back in camp sipping tea. That would be our only Karakorum summit.
The evening we arrived in Hushe, we had dinner with Zahid in the house of his second wife. In the guest room the walls are lined with memorabilia from past expeditions… Peter Croft’s backpack, Jimmy Chin’s headlamp, etc. We sipped chai as we sat on the floor, and he pulled out an old binder that contained all the recommendations of climbers he has worked with. He held it out with obvious pride and we read through them; a had written note from Steph Davis, formal type written letters from famous Japanese climbers, some scraps of paper torn from anything handy with a few lines of praise scribbled on them. Zahid’s logbook.
The house is small. Livestock are kept in the cellar. The front door opens to a small dirt floored courtyard as it were, open to the sky, with a ladder going up to the roof where firewood is kept. Small rooms branch off to the left and right. The guest room floor is covered with blankets, and foam sleeping mats from expeditions. Zahid’s brother is the porter sardar – the boss. He’s in charge of hiring the porters – sending word to people’s houses saying: “you’re strong…. we want you.” He collects their ID cards and brings them to Zahid’s house where we are visiting. Zahid scrutinizes them. Gives his OK.
Zahid has six daughters, one son, two wives. In Pakistan – as he explained to us – the custom is for the daughters to go to the household of the husband’s family, and sons stay with their parents to look after them as they grow older. It is not common for polygamous relationships to exist in Pakistan, but it is acceptable in special cases; the burning cultural need for sons constitutes a special case. Zahid took a lot of pressure from his extended family, after his first wife bore him four daughters. So reluctantly he took a second, who gave him a fifth daughter, then a son, and finally a sixth daughter. His sixth daughter was born with cystic fibrosis. If a child in Chicago has this condition, this is reason enough for sadness. But Hushe is far from Chicago and within the context of life in Hushe, this little girl’s struggle for life is heartbreaking. Zahid poured his heart and soul and energy into finding a way to heal her; to make her stronger. The many trips to visit doctors in Skardu sucked away his savings, made his hair go white, broke his heart. Zahid says that now, in a way, he doesn’t care about his long awaited son, the five other daughters. Only for his one broken child. A climber from Czech Republic, or Poland (I don’t remember) who Zahid worked with on an expedition, arranged for a doctor to travel from Europe to Hushe to examine her. He sent an exercise machine for therapy. It doesn’t help much.
Zahid’s son is first in his class at school. He brought home a small trophy for that. This makes Zahid very proud. His other daughters tend to the cows and Dzos up in the high pastures on the way to the Charakusa Valley. The dry, rocky soil strains itself to support the needs of Hushe, and each year the crops and milk and butter that some households produce are not excessive enough to sell any. It becomes harder to find pasture land to rotate the livestock to and from, and this, interestingly is the second edge of the tourism sword. Because travel to high valleys to climb or trek, and base camps are often located in the same places where people from Hushe have been bringing their livestock for years. It’s impossible for the daughters who traditionally tend the livestock up there, to coexist with expeditions full of foreign men and porters. Once upon a time, Zahid spent months with his mother at Galen Rowell camp on the way in to K7 base camp. The grazing there is good. But no one takes their cows there any more. At the same time, Hushe is inhabited by porters – men who do little or nothing else to make a living. Many of them worry that they and their families would starve if climbers and trekkers cease coming.
In 1992 Zahid traveled to British Columbia to act as an extra for the movie “K2” which was filmed on Mount Waddington. The producers paid for a certain number of Balti porters to be flown over from Pakistan, then made up the difference for their movie porters by hiring a bunch of Native Americans. What North American would know the difference? Now this little episode was a stroke of luck for Zahid because he came in to some cash. So, he went back to Baltistan and took his aging father and mother to Mecca – something very unusual for a Muslim from Hushe to be able to do. They stayed in Mecca for 40 days. Every morning they would arise at 3am and begin to pray. They would pray all day until 9pm at the Mosque, with only a short break at noon for lunch. So Zahid has the title Hajji,and when he speaks of Mecca, it’s with great reverence.