By Graham Rowbotham
As I pull some gear from my rucksack, there is a crashing sound behind me. I spin around to see that a large boulder, bigger than a refrigerator, has toppled over, and is now rolling down the snow slope towards our tent. Tom is lying in the tent on the uphill side. I shout a warning to him as I scramble to get clear. The boulder continues on its path, crushing several items that have been left strewn around our camp. It comes to rest on the tent, flattening the upper half of it. There is a moment of silence, then to my relief Tom emerges. He has managed to roll over to the downhill side just in time to avoid being crushed. Sadly, he has not avoided injury entirely. He clutches his right forearm, obviously in some pain. I carefully examine his arm. There is no wound, but it seems likely that it is broken.
We are a long way from home, at around 4800m on an unnamed, unclimbed 5700m peak in the Hindu Raj Range in Northern Pakistan. Simon and Jock are away from camp, reconnoitring a route through the icefall that blocks our passage to the upper section of the mountain. They are already acclimatized, having spent the previous month climbing in the Chitral region, to the west.
Tom and I had decided to return to our Advance Base Camp to sleep, and then move up to Camp 1 today. The incident has occurred only a few minutes after our arrival. After fixing a sling for Tom's arm and administering some painkillers, I start to prepare for our evacuation. I also cautiously inspect the boulder. Miraculously, a triangular shaped rock had stopped the boulder from rolling right over the tent - and Tom. Ironically, we had thought that the large boulders around camp would offer some protection from potential rock fall hazard. It's as if the mountain has read my mind and a few minutes later we are greeted with the sound rock fall. Boulders are crashing down the cliff above us, one ricochets and hurtles straight towards us. Now, as Tom and I crouch behind the toppled boulder, I think to myself that it is at least offering us some of that protection. The barrage stops. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Simon and Jock return and we hurriedly prepare to leave. Before settling off we attempt to push the boulder off the tent. It doesn't budge a millimetre. Leaving Jock to finish stashing the rest of the gear in a safer place, Simon and I start off down with Tom. We negotiate the glacier, boulder slopes and river crossing that lead back to base camp. It's well after dark by the time we arrive, but we we're glad to be home.
Base camp is at a place called Doaw Jrabe, at the end of a side valley to the west of the Karambar river, beyond the village of Bhurt. It's a beautiful pastoral setting, where a few families of shepherds bring their flocks for summer grazing, but the weather is crapping out. The following morning two porters and I set off in the rain with Tom, aiming for the road head at the village of Bilhanz. Upon arrival we camp in a field near the village, waiting for a jeep to take Tom back to Gilgit the following morning. Tom and I are THE entertainment in Bilhanz that night. (I guess the bingo must have been cancelled). A large crowd of onlookers gathers a few meters away. They watch in fascination as I set up the tent and prepare a meal. Westerners are still something of a curiosity in this part of Pakistan, especially a westerner with only a one arm. Tom clowns for the crowd, waving his empty jacket sleeve. Despite his injury and the curtailment of his climbing trip, his spirit and his sense of humour seem undiminished. The rest of the trip was going to be a little quieter without Tom's infectious laugh, which seems to explode and take on a life all of it's own.
As I start hiking back alone to base camp the next morning, my mind begins to drift. I wonder just how long the boulder had been standing there before it toppled, just minutes after our arrival. A few moments later and I would have been inside the tent as well. We had borrowed the tent from the Canadian Himalayan Foundation. I imagine my telephone call on our return. "About that tent you kindly loaned us. Well, um, we know where it is, and it's not going to blow away in a hurry, but there's this little problem ….". I am reminded of the board game of Snakes and Ladders that I'd played occasionally as a child. You throw the dice. If you land on a ladder, you go up it. If you land on the head of a snake, you slide down it. We seemed to have climbed a few ladders, but had now slithered down to the bottom. I was starting up all over again. But somehow my resolve to climb this peak was now stronger than ever. I pondered the risks and rewards of mountaineering. What was drawing me back? As if in answer, the clouds began lifting and the surrounding peaks came into view.
A couple of days later Simon, Jock and I, now accompanied by Bryan, are back at Camp 1. After several hours of careful excavating, we eventually manage to roll the boulder off the tent by using our ice axes as levers. We are able to retrieve the tent and the remainder of Tom's belongings that had been pinned underneath it. One thing is for sure, we're not camping anywhere near this spot again. It starts to snow. The next day it's still snowing as we weave our way through the icefall, following the route that Simon and Jock had found previously. Our high camp is established above this icefall at around 5200m. Above us there is another icefall, a plateau, and then a steeper face that hopefully leads up onto the summit ridge. I am concerned about the amount of snow that has fallen over the last few days and the condition of the upper face. The weather seems to be clearing, but I suggest a rest day in the hope that it will give the snow a chance to set up a little. I also feel that I'd benefit from another day of acclimatization before attempting the summit.
We're up at midnight. Simon starts breaking trail towards the base of the icefall. He trades off with Jock who does an impressive job of finding a way through by headlamp. At the top of the icefall, I volunteer to take over, and trudge up towards the upper face. From what I can make out in the semi-light, it appears to be less steep over on the left-hand side and I head in that direction. It's heavy going and as the angle steepens, I'm happy to turn the lead over to Bryan. A short way up he stops and shouts something about not liking the snow conditions. We dig a couple of pits. None of us like what we find. We elect to descend in the hope of finding a safer route. Someone suggests checking out the far right-hand side, where the aspect is slightly different. We traverse over for a look, but the bergshrund is ugly. It seems we might be defeated, then Simon says that he's seen a possible line a little to the right of where we'd first tried. The slope is icier there and hopefully more stable. We pass some ice gear to Simon, and he starts up. Three pitches of rather rotten ice bring us to the top of the slope, from where a fine ridge leads up to the summit.
Clouds are blowing in and out. There's a brief blizzard on the last rappel down the ice slope. Then the sun breaks out and the snow rapidly starts to ball up our crampons. As we weave our way down though the icefall in the sunlight, I am even more impressed by Jock's night time route finding. After thirteen hours on the go we are back at high camp. We sleep for the next thirteen.
A few days later we load up our packs again for an attempt on a second peak. We have finally figured out that this is one of the peaks that Simon had photographed the previous year from base camp on the Karambar Glacier. We reckon it's probably around 5500m. On the first day, now fully acclimatized, we are able to gain over 1000m from base camp. There is one dicey section involving a traverse below a large serac band. We run one at a time, as fast as the altitude and our big packs will allow. On the second day we round a corner and get a view of the summit. It looks as though a fairly straight forward snow slope will lead us up towards it. We are able to simul-climb this early the next morning, reaching the summit just before dawn, where we are treated to a fabulous sunrise. Hero shots all round. We head down and are able to descend all the way to base camp the same day. While we were "upside going" (as our cook, Gari Khan would say), he was "downside going" to fetch more supplies. Alcohol is not readily available in Muslim Pakistan, but Gari returns with some home-brew, "Hunza water" as he calls it. (Believe me it's definitely not water). The smile on the face of Sahan, his assistant, stretches from ear to ear as he catches sight of this and the hashish that Gari has also brought with him. That night is Jock's last before starting back to New Zealand. Fortunately no one falls into the fire during the partying.
From the summit of the second peak, we had seen an elegant snow arête that led up to the summit of the adjacent peak to the west. The image of this arête haunts me during the next few days of unsettled weather at base camp. We know the approach might be problematic, but the remaining three of us are keen to take a closer look. Our plan is to climb back up passed our previous high camp, go up and over the ridge, then drop down onto the glacier that leads up to the arete. Unfortunately, on reaching the ridge top we discover that the steep slope leading down onto the glacier is a horror show of tottering piles of garbage rock. There are a couple of gullies, but the prospect of descending and re-ascending one of these appears suicidal. None of us want to go anywhere near them. This peak was going to be left untouched.
We packed up base camp a few days later. Simon had to return to England. As he, Gari and Sahan headed back to Gilgit, Bryan and I stuffed ten days worth of food into our packs and turned north, following the Karambar River up towards the border with Afghanistan. The Hindu Raj range is essentially an extension of the Hindu Kush into northern Pakistan. The Karambar River forms the divide between the Hindu Raj range to the west and the main Karakoram Range to the east. Our destination was the Karambar An and a beautiful lake at the pass leading into the Chitral region. This proved to be a magnificent hike, passing Koz Sar, at 6677m one of the highest peaks in the area, and many other unnamed ones.
Crossing the Karambar river on day three, I blew it. As the water level suddenly rose up to my waist, I discovered too late that it was too deep and the current was too strong. I needed the wash, but I can't say I'd recommend swimming in fast flowing, glacially fed river with a 60 lb pack on. After Bryan helped fish me out, and I stood shivering on the far bank, emptying water out of my camera, a couple of locals turned up and showed us the place where we should have crossed.
Further up, the Chattiboi glacier comes down right across the valley and the river disappears under it for a couple of kilometres. At base camp I'd quizzed Gari about this section, since he had been up that way before. He'd assured me that ice axes and crampons were unnecessary. "They take animals over the glacier" he'd informed he. As we slithered down the steeper section of ice at the western end of the glacier in our lightweight hikers, I was feeling decidedly under-equipped. On our return we were just contemplating picking up some rocks to chip steps with, when two locals showed up with a donkey. Gari was right; they did take animals over this glacier. What he'd omitted to mention was that they use an axe to chop steps with! Of course this was a regular axe, the sort you'd use for chopping wood, rather than an ice axe, but it proved to be a very effective tool for chopping steps, though somehow I doubted it's self-arrest capabilities. With the aid of the steps and much pushing and pulling, the donkey was coaxed up the ice. At times its four legs were sliding in four different directions at once. Did this episode confirm some of the things I'd heard about ice climbers and asses?
Returning to Bilhanz, we got a ride back to Gilgit on a short-wheel base Toyota Land Cruiser. Already fully loaded with produce and a dead motor-cycle slung off the back, us and fifteen or so others climbed on top of, or hung off, various parts of it for the six hour spine jolting journey. At least it appeared to have brakes though. Bryan and I spent our few remaining days in Pakistan playing the tourist in the Hunza region and ogling Rakaposhi and Diran peaks.
At Vancouver airport my wife met me and broke the news that a close friend and climbing partner had died a few days earlier as a result of an accident in the Tantalus Range near Squamish. Once again I reflect on the risks and rewards of this game we play.
If you are interested in visiting this region and would like to read the full expedition report, it is available for download here (26kb zip file).
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