On the edge in the Karakoram


PAKISTAN

 Yukshin Gardan Sar – the Ogre of Shimshal,

Karakoram Mountains

The rope is fully tensed. Matthew must have fallen in another crevasse. I hold my belay system diligently and kneel down in the soft fresh snow to better control the forces that are pulling me across the edge into a deep abyss. All around us the blizzard has completely engulfed the giant, jagged peaks of Shimshal valley, many of them over 7500m high. Visibility has been reduced to less than 20 meters. I feel so weak that I can barely manoeuvre the rope to rescue Matthew out of the ice tomb. The last 2 days have been particularly hard, as we had no chance to make water and prepare water. If it wasn’t for the towering seracs marking the crevasse edges, we would have been long dead. Where are we you may ask? It must be hell…

In the summer of 2015, as part of a multidisciplinary project entitled the Karakoram Anomaly Project, Mathew Farrell and Sergiu Jiduc attempted to climb a remote and poorly explored 7000m+ peak in the Hispar – Muztagh Group, a sub range of the mighty Karakorum Range of Pakistan. Known as Yukshin Gardan Sar, the mountain measures 7530m above sea level and lies about 15 km northeast of Khunyang Chhish (7852m) and 5 km northwest of Kanjut Sar (7760m), – two other giants of the of this planet, barely missing the membership of the 8000m+ club. Yukshin Gardan Sar is flanked on the northwest by the Yazghil Glacier and on the northeast by the Yukshin Gardan Glacier, which both drain into the notorious Shimshal River. Yukshin Garden Sar is a technically difficult mountain that had not been climbed since 1986. With only three small teams attempting their luck on the mountain it is fair to say that the peak is poorly documented in literature. In fact most peaks of Shimshal valley, have neither been climbed nor properly described. The route via the south face of Yukshin Gardan Sar that we attempted had never been climbed before and no information whatsoever was available about this face. Therefore our risk assessment was primarily based on Google Earth Maps and on site observations. It is worth mentioning that the sense of perspective in the Karakoram can change dramatic.

  • KAP SJ-30
  • KAP SJ-31

The mission to reach base camp some 15km up the valley from Shimshal village with our 1000 kilos of supplies and equipment took some serious logistics problem solving. First we had to find sufficient porters and animals available to come with us to Yukshin glacier. During this time of the year, most villagers are busy with ploughing the fields. Next we had to negotiate a fair price and weight for them each to carry. It is here that the resourcefulness and negotiation skills of our guide, Ali Saltoro, proved invaluable. Nevertheless, the agreement was by no means what we expected. Each porter decided to carry only 20kg instead of 25kg as communicated to us prior to our arrival in Pakistan, and the pay, well they basically wanted double the money.

We left early the next day with our convoy of 50 porters, 10 donkeys, 2 yaks and a goat that we ironically named Rambo. The trek takes us skirting Yazghil glacier – a 33km long white beast, opening like a spanner near Shimshal river. The excruciating afternoon heat burning the desert valley, made our progress quite slow. We stopped late afternoon near the snout of Khurdopin glacier – a giant (47km long) glacier originating from the white slopes of “Snow Lake” – a high altitude glacial basin at the head of the Hispar and Biafo glaciers that is snow covered all year round. The next day we continued our journey to Yukshin glacier.

Mid afternoon we arrived at the glacier. In reality, what we researched on Google Earth is a large white shoulder of ice covered with a thick layer of debris. We couldn’t see over it or even determine the shape of what lay ahead. Trust is another form of surrender. We trusted each other completely and laddered out onto the snow on two ropes moving like articulated pieces of a single mind. The glacier is ancient, vast, hot and reeking of history. Centuries of dust striate its powerful contours; a mass of compressed weather events, evolutions and time. Insignificant at best and entirely irrelevant, we explored this torn white carcass and were sent down its various tentacles and over bridges. We adapted to the new method of travel. And without understanding why, we were silent. This felt like an apprenticeship, or an evaluation. And then at the end of our crossing, we were invited inside this massive being. Scattered around the terminal end of the glacier are stranded chunks of blue, exposed to the sun and disappearing. Inside the cave where it hangs from the mountain, the space is cool, intimate and quiet. There is an undeniable presence. It was like being close to another person. We listened to the glacier breathing, and dying. It was impossible not to feel sad. It was impossible not to feel elated.

Having already established a base camp on the western lateral moraine of Yukshin glacier, the next important leg of the mountaineering quest was to set up an advanced base camp (ABC) from which we could attempt several ascents up the extremely fragmented ice fall that was separating us from the col. The terrain was very complex, riddled with hanging seracs and menacing crevasses, but so remote as to make any hope of help impossible. No wonder no one has ever tried to climb this route. After establishing ABC at 4100m under the icefall and equipping it with gas, food and climbing kit, Mat and I decided to make an attempt and so packed with supplies, camping gear and warm clothes we began climbing the steep maze of towering seracs and bottomless crevasses. Often we would look back on the slope that we had already traversed; they appeared impassable. So could tomorrow, until tomorrow turns into yesterday. Instead of reaching our proposed camp I in one day as estimated it took us 2 full days of climbing unstable crevassed terrain, jumping from and climbing giant seracs the size of buildings. This was the icefall climb (from advanced base camp at 4100m to camp I at 5150m), by far the most dangerous section of the whole climb. When you venture into these uncharted landscapes, you have to surrender and just put your head down. It took two days to work through that maze of crevasses; it felt that I could get through anything.

In addition to the objective hazard posed by the nature of the glacier, the changing and unpredictable weather conditions and the extreme cold were not on our side especially in the high camps. Every big mountain constructs its own micro climate, which can be very unpredictable. Therefore, weather forecasts for big and remote mountains, are only 50% accurate, making decision-making quite difficult. Experience, and on-site observations as well as intuition play a major role in deciding whether to push forward or abandon a climb. We tried twice to reach the summit from camp 3 at 6400m. However, our contingency time ran out and so did our supplies. Two failed summit attempts due to the extreme cold (-35ᵒC) and high avalanche risk resulted in an over consumption of our supplies. We decided to get off the mountain as soon as possible. On day 10 on the mountain we were in camp 2 (5800m) and here we realised that our gas was used up. This marked the moment where our situation became very problematic. In addition, all around us the mountain was strongly expressing its presence with frequent rock and ice avalanches blasting from the rupture of hanging ice seracs and running down the south face barely missing us. To make matters worse the blizzard, which started during our summit attempts, was omnipresent.

Not having enough gas to melt snow in order to make water and cook food was a huge problem especially since we were a long way from safety (2000m level difference to be precise). In addition we were experiencing whiteout conditions, and feeling exhausted and lost. The survival mission back to advance base camp took us 3 days and involved no water and food whatsoever, falling in dozens of crevasses, and dragging ourselves through fresh deep snow on possibly the worst glacier we have
ever been on in our lives.

We even tried to call for a rescue helicopter from the military, but these issues take time, a commodity we could not afford at that time. However, in the end our strong motivation, good teamwork and luck pushed us to safety. We descended safely to ABC without being rescued by a helicopter. This was due to an inspired decision to cross the icefall laterally and enter the north face of the mountain where we found water and abseiled in a steep and gigantic gully using some 40+ rappels. Fatigue is a moment of surrender. We are more aware of our surroundings; we feel rather than think and this leads into our first discovery, an icy couloir, carved into the vast, limestone north face of the mountain. Inside this gully, a voluptuous world made of calcium carbonate and hundreds of million years old little fossils. Long and sinuous, the gully has holes in its fabric and a white snow and blue ice cover. In its details, we see beauty that is the result of consequence. Everyone should be so lucky to witness such grace.

My quest for beautiful lines up mountains where I find peace and clarity through intense mental focus where I can tune everything else out and just focus on that next step will continue. Risks are always calculated but there are moments when it just doesn’t feel right. Having a passion can be both a great uplifting thing and a curse.

Motivation for Climbing Yukshin

Why did we attempt this mountain? Nobody has been on it since 1986 when a Spanish team comprising Alejandro Arranz, Iñaki Aldaya, Alfredo Zabalza, and Tomás Miguel climbed via the southwest ridge. In fact only three teams have ever attempted this mountain and no human being has ever set foot on the southeast face. A world first on this face sounded like an interesting mission. However, world records are not quite our cup of tea. Yukshin is one of the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen in my life. A rock and ice pyramid, almost perfectly symmetrical towering more than three and half kilometres above Yukshin glacier, it cuts the sky like Poseidon’s trident. Climbing this majestic peak would have been a great honour. We also appreciated the fact that the mountain is located in the valley where our scientific research was being carried out and thus an attempt to climb it meant easier logistics as we could avoid moving our camp to another valley.

Reflections while on the mountain

Our real lives are a night sky, full of constellations. Everything we anticipated is only half of what happened; remote is a definition, not an emotion. Connecting to the endless is possible; out in the dark and in the wild is where we allow it. Packed up, listening for an engine, it was a lifetime ago that we were friends. Now we are a family whose only purpose is to keep moving. If we could, we would stay out here, forever. This is our real life. This is where we belong. Lewin’s equation described human behaviour as a function of personality plus environment. It was the first theory of understanding human nature that gave importance to a person’s momentary situation, rather than relying entirely on the past. As humans, we have all encountered turning points, moments of decision-making that will affect the course of our lives, whether we recognize it in the moment or not. To be steadfast is to have known the weakest part of yourself and moved through that territory into an unwavering commitment. No one here is rough or raw. They are unshakable, tightly bound, like industrial cable that will not fray, meeting whatever happens with muscle and guts, humility and
grit.