To start with I want to thank a number of people and organisations:
Firstly, my climbing partner Chris, without whom we wouldn’t have got as high on the mountain as we did.
Secondly, Abdur Razaq and Proffessor Karim Baig of Tirich Mir Travel, who provided us with unsurpassed service as our expedition support. This includes a huge thanks our base camp manager, Irshadul Haq, our cook Hayat Ahmad and cook assistant Naseerudin, and of course the porters who got us too and from base camp. All of these people worked throughout Ramadan, for which we are all sincerely grateful.
And last, but certainly not least, our sponsors: Earth Sea Sky, Southern Approach, WLGore (Shipton Tilman Award), Back Country Cuisine and the New Zealand Alpine Club (expedition fund)– all of these organisations made getting to Pakistan that much easier.
Getting to Langua-tai-Barfi was rather an organic process. Originally we intended to approach the mountain from the north via the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan). I climbed in the Wakhan in 2011 and 2012 and love the place and was keen to go back. Then by chance we discovered that LtB (Langua-tai-Barfi) had not been climbed from Pakistan, had a good looking south face and there was a company in Chitral (Tirich Mir Travel) that could support an expedition. So we changed plans and decided to approach the mountain from Pakistan (the south) via the Roshgol Glacier. We found out that no one had ever been into the head of the Roshgol, so that clinched it.
The months leading up to departure were the usual: chasing grants and sponsorship, visas and peak permits. Getting a ‘trekking permit’ for the Roshgol proved difficult and it was only through Razaq’s dogged persistence that we managed to finally secure this, two weeks out from leaving. We also put out a call for two trekkers to join us, to help cover the costs of transport and basecamp support. Maryjane Walker from Queenstown, and David Carey (from Southland) were enlisted on the trip. We finally flew out of Christchurch, visas and permits intact, on June 20 2014 en-route for Dubai and then Islamabad. It was a long flight, but we arrived in Islamabad around 3am on the 22nd, to be met by Razaq. A day in Islamabad shopping and then we hit the road on the 23rd.
The twelve hour drive to Chitral was interesting for me, as I’d done the same route in 1986.We passed Peshawar, then the town of Dir and finally over the Lowari Pass and down to Chitral. For at least half the journey (from Dir) we had an armed police escort (a jeep, two armed policemen), which changed like clock-work every 20 or 30 kilometres. As it turned out we were to have two armed police with us all the way to the start of the walk in to the Roshgol Glacier, and on the return journey as well. The Pakistan Govt is definitely taking foreigners welfare seriously since the Nanga Parbat incident last year.
We reached the small village of Zondangram on the 25th, and stayed at Karim Baig’s home for two days to allow us to acclimatise and sort out the 25 porters who would accompany us into basecamp. Zondangram is a beautiful place at the junction of the Tirich and Roshgol rivers, and two days walk from our basecamp.The first day’s walk was hell for me: it turned out I had giardia, but a single dose of (something?) and I was fine the next day for the steep climb from Duru (3350m) up to our base camp site at Kotgaz (4200m). We arrived at around 2pm to find a stiff wind blowing and most of the tents already up. The goat that had accompanied us was promptly slaughtered and we were to have meat for the next few days. It was a stunning place, with a view up glacier to LtB (15km away), Udren Zom (7300m) and Shakawr (7100m) across the valley, and Sharaghrar (7300m) up behind us. The other mountains within sight were Langar (7100m) at the head of the glacier and Nohbaisnom Zom (6600m) just down valley a bit. Basically we were hemmed in by 7000m peaks- it was quite something! We were also surrounded by cattle, as it turned out Kotgaz provided summer grazing for the village.
The next day Chris and I started our acclimatisation in earnest, by walking 300m up a ridge above basecamp, to a height of 4500m. The n day after we climbed to 5000m on the slopes of Sharaghrar, to get fantastic views of the upper Roshgol Glacier and LtB. After a rest day, we tackled the 15km moraine bash to the base of the mountain, taking the First Light tent and spending two nights at 4750mm. We also climbed up the initial broad gulley of our chosen route to around 5200m , only to be chased back down by afternoon avalanches and rock fall. We determined at this point to try and get most of our climbing down by lunchtime, to avoid this.I also began the ongoing battle with my bionic ankle which did not appreciate the moraine bash one bit!
Life back at basecamp was very easy. Tirich Mir Travel had supplied us with really good sleeping tents, and Hayat was cooking great meals, plenty of fresh vege. Chris and I spent three days resting while the weather cleared. The weather had turned to the south for a few days and was unsettled- there were snow showers up valley and it was cold and windy. We sorted our food, read and I did a bit of sketching. But on the 8th July it cleared again, and we finally packed up and left basecamp, with lots of farewell, to tackle the 15km moraine bash for the second time. This was no easier for me, probably more difficult because we were carrying full loads.I swore a lot.The First Light was where we had left it (Advanced Basecamp), sitting on a patch of snow, beside a small glacial stream. We settled in for a comfortable night, intent on having a good feed. At this point Chris re-thought the amount of food he was carrying and ditched some of his lunch. I have learned over time that I don’t eat a lot at altitude, plus I’m at the stage in my life where I really have to cut the weight I’m carrying down to a minimum ( less food, fewer clothes, lightweight sleeping bag) if I’m to manage, even if it means I go a bit hungry or get a bit cold. For me, weight is everything!
We were up about 3am next morning, intent on reaching a camp on our route at about 5500m where there appeared to be a flat spot on a small subsidiary ridge to the right of the big gully. It look a couple of hours for us to reach the base of the gulley, then we moved up the right hand side for several hours, very aware of the avalanches we had seen on the previous visit.When the snow softened we moved onto the ridge itself and climbed loose rock to a point just below 5500m- reaching here sometime in the early afternoon. We dug a platform for the tent above a comfortable rock ledge which we could use for cooking, and settled in. The weather was perfect- not a cloud in the sky, not a puff of wind.The next morning I woke with a headache- a dreaded altitude related headache- and although we set off up the gulley again to a point where it narrowed and steepened considerably, the headache only got worse. I was very annoyed with myself- I don’t usually get altitude related headaches at such a low altitude- but we decided to stop and wait for it to go away. After only a few hours climbing we made camp on a perfect site at the top of the ridgeline we had been following the day before and sometime late in the afternoon the headache went away, thankfully. We made a really early start the next morning (2am) intent on reaching the ridge running off the western side of the summit. We climbed to the head of the gulley (now narrow and steep) in the dark, then took a leftward trending lead up some ice which put us at the bottom of the snow slopes leading up to the ridge. Chris plugged steps all the way up the now softening snow and on to the ridge, which we reached at about 2pm. We found a great campsite in a small alcove at about 6130m. We had spectacular views across to Langar and Sharaghrar, and Shakawr, which was just to the south of us. We could almost see basecamp, but not quite. We were actually camped on the Pakistan/ Afghan border.
Because we had climbed over 700m the day before and I was again suffering an altitude headache, we decided to stay put the next day and rest up for our go at the summit. The day started off with unsettled weather, but improved into the afternoon, as did my headache, and it became sunny and warm. Somehow the day passed quite quickly. We patched the tent. I really need to replace my First Light, which has done me well for about 8 years but is now wearing out.Chris wrote in his dairy/log. We cooked ( we were using a Jet Boil) and dozed. We decided on an 11pm start for the summit and went to sleep late afternoon.
I always hate summit day-success rests on so many things- the weather, snow conditions, steepness, whether you are feeling tired, or well rested. So many things come into play and any one of them can mean that all your efforts so far have been in vain.Chris and I were away by 1am. Straight away we realised that snow conditions were going to be deep and cold and hard work. Chris was climbing really strongly, much more so than me, who was struggling with the ankle and the altitude and reduced to following. On daybreak (5am) we reached a flat spot on the ridge where we had fantastic views down into the Shakawr glacier in Afghanistan, and the Wakhan Corridor. This was a really special moment- here we were in one of the most remote corners of the earth, somewhere where no one else had been, and looking into a valley that had not been visited since the early 60’s, the heyday for climbing in the Wakhan.
We pushed on, the terrain steepened and we were climbing in deep dry snow laid over black ice. It wasn’t much fun- each step up resulted in two steps down- and I was having trouble following Chris’s footsteps. I couldn’t front point with my right foot because of damn ankle and was getting very frustrated. It was now 12 hours since we had left our camp, and the weather had turned for the worse, with frequent snow flurries and white out. At around 2pm we reached a spot high in a gulley between a rock spur and a small ice cliff- and we were really struggling to move forward. We figured we were only a couple of hundred metres from the summit- but that would probably take us another 4-5 hours- and the weather wasn’t improving, we could only see a few meters ahead. Going on would mean a night out, and as it was very cold anyway, we didn’t think we could risk this. So we made the decision to turn around.Turning around is always tough. When you get down, you often forget what it was like at that turn around point, and what your motivations were. But I’ve done enough high altitude climbing now, 15 expeditions in 15 years, to know that this feeling doesn’t last, and that after time you will look back on the climb and realise you did your best. I think Chris and I did our best- we really tried to climb the mountain- and I hope he realises this. Ultimately it’s the experience that counts- and for me the fact that I’ve attempted a mountain that no one else has, and given it my best shot- makes it worthwhile. People can criticise, sponsors will be disappointed, but I know in my mind that I couldn’t have done it any better.
We arrived back at our tent sometime in the evening, in a white out. Fortunately Chris’s new Sunnto watch with GPS led us to the camp, otherwise we might have been wandering around up there all night. We collapsed in the tent, and I cooked up our last meal. We had to get down tomorrow, or we were in for a hungry time! I was dreading the decent- if there was one thing my ankle didn’t deal with, it was reverse climbing. And it would be for several thousand feet.
We didn’t set the alarm, rather woke up sometime around 7am, and slowly began to pack up. I had nothing left to eat for breakfast, but Chris gave me a Gu. That day we down climbed over 1000m, right to the base of the initial gulley. It was very arduous, and we were so tired we could easily have made a silly mistake, but fortunately the weather was clearing and we could see where we were going. it remained cold, so we weren’t hassled by avalanche or rock-fall- we were lucky in this respect. We reached the base of the gully sometime around 9pm, and immediately made camp, ate the last dregs of our food, and crashed for the night.Unfortunately it was a very cold night, and I didn’t sleep much- a new sleeping bag is on the cards.
Next morning we headed off for the site of Advanced Base Camp where we’d left a cache. At one point Chris said, “I hear voices!” I said, “You are imagining things!” Next moment Hayat and Naseerudin appeared over a mound of moraine, and then Irshadul. They were incredibly glad to see us, had thought, because we were a day or two late, that we had perished on the mountain.It was great to see them, and we immediately headed off for basecamp. However I decided to hang on to the tent and cooker, spend a recuperative night at Advanced Base Camp, and come down the next morning. I waved them off, with Chris promising to come up the next day to meet me. I spent the afternoon lying on my stomach in the tent, in the sun, sound asleep, and limped slowly back to Basecamp the next day.In the short seven days we had been on the mountain the grass has grown and the wild flowers had come out in abundance. Chris bounced around taking photos but I was content to spend the three days before the porters returned sketching and dozing in my tent. I wanted to give my ankle some rest before the walk out; even so, the 27km, which we did in a day, was not easy for me. I hobbled along, holding everyone up.
Before the long drive back to Islamabad we spent a day in Razaq’s village of Bagram. It was at the very end of the road and one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Its the take-off point for expeditions heading into the Tirich Glacier to climb Tirich Mir (7700m), the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush range. The mountain can be clearly seen from the village, along with some other very impressive peaks. I have decided I would love to climb Tirich Mir some time in the near future, ankle allowing!
The highlight of the journey back to Islamabad was getting permission to drive through the Lowari Tunnel, which is the process of being built. This had something to do with our ‘visitor’ status and the fact we had an armed escort… and Maryjane going in to bat for us with the site manager. It was quite something- half an hour driving in the dark, wet rock walls, unsealed- like the Homer Tunnel but a lot longer and a lot rougher. We arrived back in Islamabad after a 14 hour trip to find the monsoon had arrived, and it was raining hard- not a bad thing- usually its in the high 40’s in July.
This has been my fourth expedition to Pakistan in eight years, but my first into the Hindu Kush. Ours was one of the few expeditions to this area since 9/11. Sadly Abdur Razaq was expecting two other expeditions (Swiss and Polish)this season, but they pulled out, worried about the fighting in Waziristan. Chris and I felt that the people we dealt with (Tirich Mir Travel and the police who travelled with us) had nothing but our best interests at heart. We were made welcome wherever we went and never at any stage felt unsafe- quite the opposite. But sadly we saw no other tourists or climbers during our trip. We can only encourage others to take advantage of the hospitality we encountered, and the fantastic mountains of the Hindu Kush which have been sadly neglected.
Abdur Razaq (Managing Director)
Main Bazar Airport Road,
Tele: +92-943 412761
Cell: +92-345 8746424