Trying to justify expedition climbing in the Greater Ranges to a non climber is sometimes hard, but to justify travelling half the way around the world to fail for the second time on a chosen peak can be particularly torrid. Throw in the fact you?ve been climbing in country renown as a stronghold for Islamic terrorism, and most people shake their head in miscomprehension.
On July 2nd my climbing partner Malcolm Bass (UK) and I turned back at 6400m on our attempt to make the first ascent of Beka Brakkai Chhok (BBC) (6940m) in the Batura region of northern Pakistan. For me it was the second retreat – I?d failed on BBC the previous year with my friend Lydia Bradey. I was devastated – to the point of not wanting to return home because of the reaction I thought Id get from friends, family and sponsors. Malcolm dealt with our failure more philosophically. The climbing was too dangerous to be justifiable, he said, and anyway, lots of well known climbers have failed on routes twice, Mark Twight and Nick Bullock for instance.
That was two weeks ago and in the interim I have come to the realisation that maybe the summit isn?t as important as I was making it to be. I?m starting to look back with fondness on the expedition ? the people around us, the beautiful area, Malcolm?s company and the time we spent on the mountain, the whole experience of being in a country as exciting as Pakistan.
We arrived in Islamabad at the beginning of June, Malcolm a few hours ahead of me. He was just settling into his hotel room when there was a rumble, the floor jumped and the windows rattled. A suicide bomber, targeting the Danish embassy had just blown himself and 19 others, to smithereens! I?d tried to warn Malcolm something like this might happen- during our expedition the year previous, 100 people had died in the Red Mosque incident, and another 20 in a blast outside the Islamabad High Court, just minutes from where we were staying- but even so, for him it was a shock.
Baig, our ?guide? from Nazir Sabir Expeditions, who?d accompanied Lydia and I and who I now considered a close friend, hustled us through the initial formalities with the Pakistan Alpine Club and soon we were driving north up the Karakoram Highway.
The first stop was Besham a seedy, scary town of bearded men with fanatical stares and, apart from myself, not a female to be seen on the streets. Besham is in the Swat district, hotbed of Al Quaeda activity, and we were both glad to move on the next day for the start of our walk in to basecamp.
Our porters, from the village of Barkot, were of Nagar descent, and renown for being difficult. The year previously Lydia and I had a strike on our hands after the first days walk, and were ever grateful to have Baig with us to smooth things over. This year they demanded Malcolm and I buy them a goat (to eat ) at the cost of US$100. We made a deal they get us to basecamp in three days (rather than four), and paid up. Even so the walk in was glorious, and we both agreed the shepherds village of Bar Meadow one of the most spectacular places we had been.
Arriving at Basecamp I was pleased to see nothing had changed. BC is situated on a small grassy area at the junction of the North and South Baltar Glaciers and sports a small lake for swimming and millions of wild flower. I pitched my tent in the same spot as last year. The weather was stunning.
The first couple of days we spent walking up the glacier to 5000m for acclimatisation and route scoping on BBC. We quickly decided on a different route to last years attempt, which would have us avoid a difficult rock buttress at about 5800m. Then we spent five days acclimatising, camped on the slopes of Baktoshi Peak (6100m), the base of which was only two hours from basecamp up the South Baltar Glacier.
For me acclimatising is usually difficult ? I need to spend a good three nights at around 5500m, suffering a splitting headache and resisting the urge to head down, before I am fit for the rest of the climbing- and this expedition was no exception- but it was worth it in that neither of us felt the altitude again.
Back at base camp we had a couple of days packing and planning for our ascent. We were trying really hard to lighten our loads to a manageable weight, and decided on seven days food (which we could stretch out to ten or so if necessary),10 days gas and minimal clothing. Food was a few dehy meals but mainly protein and carbo bars and those ?gu? things. We were still carrying 20kg plus when we left on June 20th but for some reason (maybe my new Mountain Hardwear pack) the weight felt ok.
The 22nd was spent moving up the glacier, then climbing up to the snout of a large ice fall coming off BBC?s south west flank. We put in a comfortable camp on a small terrace and had a good night. Three days later we were still going well, having climbed up to around 6000m in fine weather, the only hiccup being a big fall taken by Malcolm, anchored by two melting-out ice screws. Regardless, the climbing was enjoyable ? moderate snow slopes interspersed with steep ice walls -and the weather remained superb.
?On the 25th we set up Camp 4 several steep pitches below the SW ridge and prepared for summit day which would see us climb the final 900m and return to camp in what we hoped would be no more than 24 hours. But sometime during the night the barometric pressure dropped sharply and it started to snow. Never mind, we could do with a rest day, we surmised, not realising that the pattern of intermittent snow storms was going to continue for the next seven days. On Day 2, after an aborted try for the summit in a brief clearance, we made a pact we would stretch our food out for as long as possible, hunker down and wait for the weather to clear. Thus began a pattern of watching the barometer for any sign of a rise in pressure, packing each night for an early start and fruitlessly setting the alarm to wake us periodically to check the weather. It was a nerve wracking time to say the least ? we could see our opportunity slipping away as the bad weather continued and resources dwindled, and our moral fluctuated with the barometer!
But on the afternoon of July 1st the weather suddenly cleared and the barometer rose! By this stage we were eating very little, trying to hold some food back for the summit bid, but at 1pm we threw caution to the wind, ate the last of the porridge and headed off. We climbed through deep fresh snow to reach the SW ridge, then began traversing the ridge as the sun rose. The climbing got harder and harder the further we traversed towards the summit, the ridge steep and corniced and the snow becoming more and more unconsolidated to the point we could no longer build anchors. Malcolm led out, then after half an hour yelled out he was coming back. This will go on for several hours and I don?t think we can justify the danger, he said. I agreed. I was desperately disappointed but wanted to live to climb another day.
Two and half days later we were back at Basecamp, wobbly from lack of food, but much to the relief of Baig and Javed our cook, who had been unable to see us on the mountain for a week. A week later and we were back in the Islamabad heat. Already the climb was fading into a distant memory.
Back at home I?m realising failing isn?t as bad as I initially thought- the people that matter don?t tend to pass judgment and those who do often have little concept of climbing in that part of the world. The summit is only one part of the whole expedition experience. And anyway, there is always next year!