I first caught sight of Karim Sar (6180m) in 2007. My friend Lydia and I were on top of a small, previously unclimbed peak between the Baltar and Toltar Glaciers in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, with our new Italian friends, Giampi and Lorenzo Corona. The peak was a consolation prize for both teams after failing on our primary objectives.From our huddle on the summit we could see a lovely ice capped mountain to the south. Lorenzo and I identified it as the peak his friend Ivo Ferrari was attempting with his two mates: Lorenzo even had the expedition postcard! I took photos and stored the peak away in the back of my brain.
Two years later (2009) and our Pakistan plans were to attempt the first ascent of the south face of Kampire Dior (7000m) via the Batura Glacier- an ambitious, remote and lengthy expedition. But in May the Taliban invaded the Swat Valley, our expedition outfitter became reluctant to take us to an area close to the Afghan/Pakistan border, and there was talk of a compulsory and expensive accompanying government liaison officer. Two team members pulled out. Time to change plans! I remembered Karim Sar and emailed Wolfgang Heichel to establish it?s status. Still unclimbed, he said
On June 52009 Paul Hersey and I arrived in Islamabad to discover security in the city at an all time high. Soldiers with AK47?s, roadblocks and a wary population had emptied the streets and our anxious guide Baig (Nazir Sabir Expeditions) saw us as a potential target for every kidnapper, suicide bomber and insurgent in Central Asia. He wouldn?t let us out of his sight.
We drove north up the Karakoram Highway against an endless tide of refugees fleeing the Swat Valley, Baig breathing a nervous sigh of relief when we reach the relative safety of Gilgit. Three days later we were ensconced at basecamp beside the Shilinbar Glacier, under the south face of Karim Sar. The face was a confusing mass of steep snow slopes, hanging glaciers and granite rock bands culminating in the summit ice cap. With an elevation of 2600m, it?s was a daunting sight
A week later we arrive back at basecamp, cold and damp after an extended acclimatisation sortie into the head of the glacier. Paul had struggled with the altitude and we?d moved slowly in snowy, unsettled weather. I had a headache and was feeling the cold. Summer was late to arrive and there was infinitely more snow than the two years previous (we learned later the Karakoram hadn?t seen as much winter snow in 30 years!)
At base camp Paul came down with an undiagnosed illness, recovered, and then decided he didn?t want to go onto the mountain. I felt a strong mix of despair, anger and anxiety?the expedition was heavily sponsored, and for me, giving up without an attempt wasn?t an option. I decided to try the mountain alone and succumbed to some angst ridden, sleepless nights. I was scared of the prospect!
The morning of my departure for the summit Paul announced he would come back up the glacier to advanced basecamp (4200m). I felt a flood of gratitude ? even if Paul was thousands of feet below me, it would be a huge relief to know he was there in some capacity.
Moving up through a dangerous section of the icefall Paul climbed with a new speed and confidence. The next morning he agreed to come a few hundred metres up the face to belay me through a rock band, but when we got beneath the short granite pitch I realised ice cliffs 1500m above ringed the terrain. I decided to follow a gully system out to the left which appeared to finish on a small saddle at about 5100m. The gully was overhung on the right by a massive, but seemingly stable ice cliff and the route seemed the better of two evils.
To my surprise Paul decided to continue, even though he had no overnight gear. I arrived at the saddle at about 3pm, dug a tent platform and watched him slowly work his way up the steepening slope. The location was breathtaking: Rakaposhi and Diran to the south, Sangamarmar only a couple of kilometres east and way in the distance, the massive Hispar Glacier.
We both spent a sleepless night: Paul because he was in a large plastic pack liner, and me because I was so damn nervous. But 4am arrived and I brewed up, handed my sleeping bag to Paul and headed up a steep snow slope to the first obstacle ? a small granite rock band covered in loose snow. I bridged up a gully for a few metres, had an ?I can?t do this? moment, and climbed back down. Thwarted only half an hour from the tent! Taking a deep breath I tried again and this time made the 20m to the top.
Another steep snow slope led to a 100m high granite cliff.I headed right to circumvent it, then realising I would have to traverse a steep rock gully with a large drop beneath it, scurried back to the left. Above me were two ice cliffs, and between them a steep narrow gully of snow about 100m high. I front pointed up the gully and half an hour later found myself in a wide cwm, rimmed by huge ice cliffs 300m above.
The cliffs seemed quiet, but it was early, and as there were plenty of big ice blocks strewn around I decided to climb up onto a broad ice rib on the right of the cym. I tried to hurry but with snow was almost up to my knees progress was glacial. However, up on the rib conditions were better and I sped up dramatically (in my mind, anyway
Two raps off V-threads got me close to the base of the ice slope, and another three off rock bollards saw me back at the start of the traverse, my heart in my mouth. The snow had deteriorated further and by the time I reached the far end and climbed back up onto the broad rib, I was in tears
But progress down the rib was rapid and I soon cheered up. In no time I was back in the cwm. I sat down behind a large block of ice and had a couple of those gu-things and started to feel smug and pleased with myself. I set off again with a big grin!
Reversing the steep narrow gully between the ice cliffs required concentration, followed by a nasty traverse back to the slope above camp. I spent forty minutes cold welding a number six BD stopper into a rotten crack for an anchor, then 30m later repeated the procedure to rappel the final rock band. At this stage I could see the tent, and soon Paul stuck his head out the door, waved and disappeared again.
I felt such an enormous sense of relief when Paul hugged me I burst into tears for the second time. He had water melted and food ready and I was so appreciative, knowing how hard he had had to work to get to that height, sleeping in a plastic bag and all. After forty minutes he left to descend to ABC 1000 metres below-two nights in a plastic bag definitely beyond the call of duty! I fell sound asleep on my stomach in our BD First Light. On dusk I woke again, made another brew, and then passed out till 7am.
Descending the gully next day my legs were like jelly. Two 1000m days in succession, breaking trail, were beginning to take their toll. Paul was waiting at ABC, and we packed up and made our way slowly back to basecamp, Baig and our cook Naseer.
Back in Islamabad several days later, I was happy to spend the time before our flight watching Wimbledon on cable in my hotel room. While we?d been in the mountains there had been further bombings in nearby Peshawar and Rawalpindi and Nazir Sabir Expeditions was adamant we keep a low profile. But when Paul and I did venture into the city, time and time again we were approached by locals thanking us for visiting Pakistan in troubled times.
For me the expedition was extremely satisfying: a first ascent of a beautiful mountain, the opportunity to see Pakistan history in the making, and to support a struggling mountain based industry. Many thanks once again to Nazir Sabir Expeditions for their superb logistical? support and to Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC Hilary Expedition Grant), The Mount Everest Foundation, WLGore Ltd (Shipton Tilman Award),Mountain Hardwear, Southern Approach/Black Diamond, Berhaus, DHL and the New Zealand Alpine Club for providing the funding and equipment to make the expedition happen