Steve Su, Bruce Miller and Doug Chabot just returned from Asia after having complete the first ascent of Hispar Sar (6400 m) via the SW Couloir in Karakoram, Pakistan in August. The three climbers were winners of the Mugs Stump Alpine Climbing Award which supported their expedition. They used the SCARPA Phantom 6000 and Omega boots. Su provides the following account of their adventure.
Big expeditions are notorious for their low success rates. Some of the usual culprits include bad weather, partner breakdowns and sickness. Our expedition very nearly had the unusual end of being flushed into the Hispar River and out into the Indian Ocean.
Halfway between Karimabad and Hispar, the tractor carriage, in which all our gear was loaded, threatened to topple over the edge of a steep crumbling dirt embankment and into the raging torrent. The tractor driver, a borderline psychopath, was violently bucking the machine back and forth in his efforts to get up the road’s rutted ten percent grade. The wheels were jumping in and out of the rut every time he bucked the machine such that he nearly bucked the carriage right over the deep end. Bruce and Doug shouted for him to stop and demanded that the carriage be emptied to reduce the load on the tractor. Eight of us then pulled the tractor with a rope and unbelievably got the whole rig up the hill. After a few more snafus along the way, we made it to the village of Hispar and eventually to base camp.
Here, my partners, Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller, and I settled in and prepared for an attempt on Hispar Sar (6400m). It was an unclimbed peak with huge steep ridge lines and beautiful steep faces. I had first seen this peak on a 2007 expedition while attempting nearby Pumari Chhish East (6900m) which was our original goal (serac activity prevented an attempt). Hispar Sar stood out amongst its neighbors with its huge throne-like North Face. It was definitely on the to-do list.
In the past 20 years Hispar Sar has had a handful of attempts, two times by well-known British climber Simon Yates. Our route took the South West Couloir which is the same line Yates attempted. The line was a striking 1,100m couloir which split the SW Face and terminated at the South Ridge. From there, the route continued up another 300m of airy climbing to the summit for a total of 1,400m vertical gain. The couloir was completely bounded by steep rock on both sides and pinched down in spots similar in nature to that of the Super Couloir on Fitz Roy.
After a full day hike from our basecamp we put in our ABC. Here we scoped the line and noticed a lot of debris falling due to afternoon heat. Because of this, we made a midnight run for it while the couloir was still frozen. Bruce led the first block of technical terrain starting just past the bergshrund.
The climbing was remarkable with varied terrain ranging from cruiser ice to delicate mixed ice pitches up to WI4+ and M6. The steepness ranged from 60 degrees to nearly 90 degrees. Doug led the next block which was endless calf burning simul-climbing madness at his pace. He led us all the way to the final 300m of the couloir, where we noticed we were under the combined threat of afternoon heat and a large cornice balanced at the top of the gully.
To avoid being flushed out, we veered right and exited onto the face where we may have departed from the original Yates line. Our pace slowed down as we negotiated up through sections of M6 climbing on steep loose rock. This was my block and the climbing reminded me of groveling on my home winter training ground of Hallet’s Peak in Colorado. It had prepared me well as I successfully tiptoed my front points around desk-sized blocks and avoided certain death for my partners. After the seventh pitch and in full darkness, I finally reached the south ridge where we bivied.
After a long night with little sleep, we regained strength by the beams of morning sun, hot drinks and a clear view of the Karakoram Range under clear blue skies! K2 and the other giants like the Gasherbrums and Nanga Parbat were in view even though they were over 50 miles away. I’m guessing Simon Yates would be cursing had he read this article. He and Andy Parkin made it to this spot but were driven away by an intense snow storm.
From our bivy, the remaining 300m to the summit appeared to be straightforward snow climbing, but in reality much of it was snow-covered rock. Bruce volunteered to lead us up to the top and I did not object as I was feeling worked after not having slept much in the last 32 hours. Near the summit, the exposure was incredible as we peeked over the other side of the mountain and looked down the near vertical direct North Face. The summit itself was an unstable tsunami of a cornice. We climbed separately to a point just shy of toppling the whole rig. After congratulatory high fives, we rappelled back to our bivy spot as the sun was about to set. After another open bivy followed by 20 or so rappels, we were back safely on the glacier.