Trip Report

Here is the trip report that Willy submitted to the American Alpine Club as part of the follow-up for his Mountain Fellowship Award.

The evening of the 2011 summer solstice found me in the village of Hushe in northern Pakistan’s Baltistan region.  The next morning, June 22, I began walking into the Charakusa Valley with my teammates Ben Venter, Jake Tipton, and Josh Beckner.  We were accompanied by Haji Ibrahim Zahid, our local guide, and by roughly twenty local porters loaded with food and climbing gear.  A few days of easy walking landed us at our base camp in a grassy meadow below the K7 massif.  From here, the porters departed, and we set our sights on our main objective: a new line on the beautiful SW face of Nafees’ Cap.

To the best of our knowledge, Nafees’ Cap had been climbed only two times—first in 2007 (Ledgeway to Heaven, 28 pitches, 5.12d, Favresse-Favresse-Pustelnik-Villanueva) and then in 2009 (Naughty Daddies, 20 pitches, 5.12, Lang-Standen-Dowrick-Sedon).  Both of these impressive ascents utilized the SE shoulder of the huge granite pillar, but no prior team had successfully climbed the clean, steep SW face.  We knew of a German team that had attempted a line up a prominent corner system on this face, and at first we considered following this line and trying to complete it.  However, our initial scouting revealed that the German line was quite vulnerable to falling snow, ice and water, but that a completely unexplored line to its immediate left offered more shelter and continuous cracks from the glacier to the summit several thousand feet above (see photos).  We happily set our sights on this line and began preparing for an alpine-capsule style ascent that would afford us enough time and flexibility to attempt freeing the entire route.

We spent the next ten days acclimatizing and shuttling gear up the glacier to the base of our proposed route.  We wanted to be able to wait out bad weather on the wall if necessary, so we chose to bring two weeks’ worth of food and fuel in addition to portaledges, sleeping gear, and abundant climbing equipment.  It took no small amount of elbow grease to carry all of this gear from base camp to the start of our route—the approach took roughly four hours and involved relatively complicated routefinding around, across, and inside of crevasses below and above firn line.  We spent several days humping loads and then ended up hanging out in base camp for a few days of rainy weather.  Jake and I also took a day to acclimatize further by climbing the beautiful British Route up the knife-edge north ridge of nearby Nayser Brakk.  Finally, on July 2nd, we left base camp under clear morning skies and headed up the glacier to begin our first attempt of Nafees’ Cap.

Snow began falling that afternoon, just after we crossed the bergschrund and began establishing our first portaledge camp at the base of the wall.  A minor hauling mishap resulted in one of our shelters falling into the bergschrund, but fortunately Ben was able to retrieve it after venturing down into the abyss.  The four of us were damp and cramped in our two portaledges during that first night on the wall, but we slept with confidence and excitement about the climbing ahead.

We woke the next day to find that snow was still falling and soaking our route.  The same was true the next day.  At some point, we decided we were done with sitting around and began climbing, weather be damned.  Our ambitions to free the whole route gave way to the pragmatic decision to free what we could, but to prioritize upward progress—even if it meant aiding wet, dirty, snowy rock while wearing boots. Thus began the shift in mentality that would characterize the ten days and nine nights that we spent on the wall.  We encountered moderate to heavy snowfall during seven of these ten days, and spent several days completely shelter-bound.  On better days, we would forge ahead as much as possible, but the conditions prevented us from climbing more than two or three new pitches in a day.  Still, we were excited about our line: a gorgeous, continuous crack and corner system that seemed like it would carry us nearly a thousand meters from the glacier all the way to the summit.  We held out hope for better weather and the opportunity to go back and free some of the beautiful pitches that we had begrudgingly aided.  At the least, we held out hope that a break in the weather would allow us to accelerate the rest of our ascent and complete the new route.

On the ninth day, we woke in our portaledge shelters several hundred meters above the glacier and realized that our shelters were collapsing under the weight of fallen snow.  After a wet morning spent trying to dig out the shelters before they became buried under more spindrift coming down the wall, we spoke for the first time about bailing.  We discussed the fact that our diminishing supplies meant that the summit might be a stretch even in good weather.  Still, the idea of going down felt unpalatable, and we decided to wait longer.  A brief break in the weather lifted our spirits further, and I went to sleep that night under what seemed like a clearing sky.

Alas, we awoke the tenth day to the heaviest snowfall we had yet encountered.  Visibility was just far enough for Jake and I to look out of our shelter and see snow pouring down the wall and pummeling our teammates’ shelter.  For the second day in a row, we spent the morning digging ourselves out from under a pile of powdery spindrift that seemed to replenish itself faster than we could sweep it away with our gloved hands.  Later that morning, we spoke again about the option of going down.  We all agreed that the weather seemed unlikely to get better anytime soon, but we disagreed about if this were sufficient reason to bail.  Still, after a difficult conversation that I’m sure we’ve all revisited countless times since, we arrived at the decision to descend that afternoon.

That evening, after hours of rappelling through a snowstorm, we walked down the glacier towards base camp while stars emerged over our heads.  Soon we were stumbling in stunned silence under the clearest sky we’d seen since walking up to the wall ten days earlier.  To make matters worse, Josh tripped during the descent and injured his Achilles tendon.  When we finally arrived at base camp around midnight, the sense of irony was almost too much to bear.  There was nothing left to do but scarf some food and go to bed.

The next morning brought a brilliant blue sky and a happy surprise for our guide Ibrahim Zahid, who had been anxiously waiting in base camp during the previous ten days of bad weather and been asleep for our midnight return.  We ate breakfast quietly, and then Jake announced that he would be going back up to Nafees’ Cap to give it another try—this time in a different style: no ledges, no shelters, no hauling.  Three days’ worth of food.  We would move as fast as possible to try to capitalize on the weather while we could.  Ben and I were in.  Josh’s injury wouldn’t allow it.

We spent the day resting and trying to sleep, and left base camp at one in the morning—hardly twenty-four hours after coming back.  By daybreak, we were roping up at the base of our route.  We climbed all day, and passed our previous high point in the early evening.  We bivied that night on a small natural ledge, sharing two sleeping bags between the three of us.  The sky was clear again the next morning, and we pushed ahead into new terrain.  Wide cracks, a huge right-facing corner, a bulge, a slot, a beautiful left-facing corner—suddenly the summit seemed not so far above us.  We bivied on a snowy ledge and fell asleep with the tentative hope that one more day of good weather might allow us to complete our route.

Snow started falling at some point in the middle of the night, but we ignored it as long as our exhaustion and optimism would allow.  By daybreak we were socked in, and it was clear that this was not a passing flurry.  We were fourteen pitches above the glacier, at an altitude of roughly 18,500 feet, with no shelter, one day’s worth of food, and deteriorating weather conditions.  Hunkering did not seem like a good option.  For the second time of our expedition, we decided to bail off of Nafees’ Cap.

I feel no need to pontificate about the flimsiness of terms like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ when trying to describe experiences with good friends in big mountains.  Suffice it to say that we all returned from Pakistan with a mix of emotions piled atop a strong foundation of gratitude—for the hospitality of the Pakistani people, for the beauty of the natural world, for our friendship, for the support of our friends, family, and sponsors, and for the simple opportunity to have spent several weeks pushing ourselves upwards into vertical terrain that was wild, unknown, and beautiful.

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