SCARPA athlete Raphael Slawinski is a professional alpinist out of Alberta, Canada who partakes in serious ice climbing, rock climbing, drytooling, and bouldering. Raphael has made many first ascents including: La Bastille, Mt. Rundle in the Canadian Rockies via traditional rock route on the previous unclimbed north face; Ali Chhish in Karakorum, Pakistan; and set a new mixed route on the west-southwest face of Denali among others. He has also competed in the ESPN Winter X Games and the Ouray Ice Craft Invitational three times.
Earlier this summer Ian Welsted and I traveled to Pakistan to climb in the wonderful Charkusa valley, and attempted to summit K6 (7,282 m) from the north. It’s hard to condense two months of intensity into a few paragraphs, but here is how it started.
In 2005 I went to Pakistan for the first time – my most recent trip was my fourth and hopefully not last. On that occasion Steve Swenson and I spent three weeks in the Charkusa valley, attempting trekking peaks (anything under 6,500 m is a trekking peak in Pakistan) and gazing at the giants at the head of the valley: K6 and K7. So when Jesse Huey, Ian Welsted and I started casting for a worthy objective last fall, the Charkusa came to mind. With its wealth of climbing, from bouldering to high altitude alpinism, it’s a wonderful place to spend a summer. And K6, never climbed from the north and with an unclimbed western summit (K6 West, 7,040 m), was one of the great remaining prizes of the valley.
A few days after our arrival in Islamabad, Islamic extremists attacked a basecamp at the foot of Nanga Parbat (8,126 m) and murdered ten foreign climbers and a Pakistani cook. We were stunned and questioned whether we should even be in Pakistan, much less spend two months traveling and climbing in the country. In the end, Jesse decided to return home while Ian and I continued. Having been to Pakistan before, we thought we’d be safe in Baltistan, which is ethnically and religiously completely different from the tribal areas around Nanga Parbat. And, we’d come all this way to climb in the incomparable Karakoram. I was still dreaming about those mountains.
Avoiding the exhausting and dangerous drive along the Karakoram Highway, we flew to dusty Skardu, the starting point for countless expeditions. A six-hour jeep ride through a rock dotted moonscape with occasional green oases took us to the beautiful village of Hushe. Masherbrum (7,821 m) loomed at the head of the valley. We were finally in the mountains.
Two days of trekking saw us in basecamp, located in a pretty meadow at around 4,300 m. The object of our desire, K6 West, stood nearly three vertical kilometers higher. Clearly some acclimatization was needed. It can be easy to become distracted in the Charkusa, and spend your days playing on granite spires rather than sweating on snow slogs. But we pushed thoughts of sunny granite from our minds and tried to get as high as possible while doing as little actual climbing as possible. It wasn’t always fun but it paid off.
The north side of K6 is a maze of vertical rock, fluted ridges and active seracs, with few reasonable lines – whatever “reasonable” might mean – but one possibility on the northwest face stood out. I’m probably biased but I thought it was one of the most aesthetic big mountain lines I’d ever seen: a ribbon of ice, interrupted here and there by mixed sections. Of course an unclimbed seven-thousander was a major attraction, but it also mattered a great deal to me how we climbed it.
K6 was front and center stage from basecamp, so we had ample opportunity to observe it through spells of good and bad weather. Slowly we got a feel for the mountain, and which aspects of it were safe and which were threatening. Based on our observations we decided to begin our ascent of the northwest face immediately following a spell of bad weather, when the grey, rock-pitted icefields would be coated with a friendly layer of neve.
While the climbing route was obvious enough, the approach wasn’t as clear. It looked ugly, a broken icefall leading up into a narrow valley with huge mountainsides rising on three sides. A few days before starting up, we walked up to the base of the icefall for a closer look and were happy to discover a more reasonable way around it. Now we just had to wait for the green light from Mohammad Hanif, our forecaster extraordinaire.
July 25, 4,300 m to 5,500 m
We left basecamp early in the morning carrying 20 kg packs. Going up the icefall and the cwm above it wasn’t the safest thing we’d ever done, but it could’ve been worse. For our first bivi we stopped in a safe bergschrund. While it was safe, it was also wet, with melt water dripping on our tent all afternoon and all night.
July 26, 5,500 m to 6,000 m
We spent the day climbing seemingly endless 50 to 60 degree icefields, with occasional vertical pitches thrown in for variety. These would have been easy enough back in the Canadian Rockies, but here, at nearly 6,000 m and with heavy packs, we were breathing hard. We bivied in the shelter of an overhanging rock wall, on a narrow ledge laboriously chopped out of hard ice.
July 27, 6,000 m to 6,300 m
The three pitches above the bivi, up a gash of thinly iced, shattered granite, were the hardest on the route. The first, up a sandy trough, had bad protection and the third overhung slightly. While exiting the overhang and desperately swinging at thin ice, I thought I could come off at any moment. I suppose we got what we wanted: hard climbing above 6,000 m. The angle kicked back above, but between altitude and increasing fatigue we moved slowly. We’d originally hoped to make it to the ridge and flat ground, but as it was, we ended up chopping another ledge well into the night.
In the morning it took us another few hours to reach a notch in the ridge. For the first time in over two days we were finally on flat ground. After a brew we left one of the ropes and most of the climbing hardware behind, and headed up the easy snow ridge above. We’d been burned before by trying to summit from too low down, so this time we left nothing to chance and planned to bivi again before topping out the next day. Unfortunately, the easy snow ridge soon degenerated into a corniced knife edge of smooth granite. There was nothing for it but to return to the notch where we’d first gained the ridge.
While we set up the tent and made mashed potatoes, we talked about what to do. The only viable option appeared to be dropping down the south side of the ridge and outflank the offending knife edge on a glacial bench. We weren’t keen on losing elevation we’d later have to regain, but there seemed no other way. It was decided. In the morning we’d try for the summit without bivi gear. Success, seemingly so close a few hours earlier, now seemed like a long shot.
July 29, 6,500 m to 7,040 m
We left the tent before sunrise. With the sun still below the horizon the cold was almost Alaskan. We started the day by frontpointing down a steep, icy slope to reach an easy glacier. The summit now stood even higher above us, but fortunately snow conditions were good and we made fast progress with only occasional wallowing. After a few hours we regained the ridge above the knife edge. We were still in deep shade and found it difficult to move fast enough to stay warm. A puffball, a shell jacket, a big parka: we were wearing every stitch of clothing we’d brought and we still had to stop every few minutes to swing some circulation back into our hands and feet. Luckily, after another half hour we were greeted by the sun, and not long after that we arrived on the summit: a gentle slope on the south side and a huge precipice on the north. For a long time we sat in the warm sunshine, savoring the moment under a dark blue, cloudless sky.
July 30, 6,500 m to 4,300 m
We packed up early and headed down, hoping to be off the face before the day heated up. One v-thread, then another, and another, until we lost count. In the end we probably made close to thirty rappels. As we’d feared, once the sun hit the face, rocks started to fly, mostly small ones but also some big enough to take our heads off. But our luck held and we reached the begschrund we’d left a few days earlier without incident. We stayed there all afternoon, while all around us the mountains fell apart in the heat. Finally, near evening we made a dash for basecamp, reaching it long after sunset. We were greeted by our cook Rasool, his helper Iqbal, our liaison officer Farhan, and our English mates Andy and Jon. There was rice, tea, single malt… Life was good, very good indeed.
What else is there to say? In the end, after a hesitant start, we had a fantastic trip. We did lots of climbing: snow slogs to acclimatize, K6 West, then even a couple of granite spires for the complete Charkusa experience. Our experience from previous trips to Pakistan paid off, and we were finally able to put our alpine skills to good use at high altitude. It was also wonderful to spend time in friendly Baltistan. I’d encourage everyone to look beyond the negative news headlines, and not to paint all Pakistan and all Pakistanis with the same brush.
Our expedition was supported by the Goretex Shipton-Tilman Grant, the Lyman Spitzer Award and the Mugs Stump Award. We thank them for making our trip possible.