Many good adventures start over a pint. Nursing a throbbing head the next day, the previous nights discussion is written off as the beer talking. I never really believed this trip would happen.
iPhone ringing. No it wasn’t the beer. Oh bollocks. I was picturing the scene:
Husband: “I’m going away climbing for 2 months”
Wife: “I’m going away with my new non climbing boyfriend for 2 months”
Employee: “So Paul, umm, I kind of need 2 months off to go climbing”.
Boss: “You’re fired!”
Climber whilst leading: “Steve, I have to bail on Yosemite this year”
Climbing partner whilst belaying: “Off belay”
Fortunately the news was received quite well by all and none of these scenarios happened as expected.
The team was to consist of a bunch of lads and one lass with loads of big walls between them; Alard Hufner, Douard Le Roux, Shelly Hufner, Adam Liebenberg, Carter Jensen and Rob Powell (all from South Africa except Carter who is from Salt Lake, Utah, but who we later decided could be classified as a honorary South African after mastering the full repertoire of Afrikaans slang and swear words). Dobek Patek and Neil Grimmer accompanied us to base camp before carrying on the gruelling trek up to Concordia.
Our initial plans were to work as a large team to establish on high camp on Sunny Terrace. From here we would split into two teams. Douard, Alard and Shelley (Team Ard) were totally psyched for the Slovenian route as there was lots of free climbing. Adam, Carter and I (Team Cowboy after Adams hat) were up for attempting the first South African Ascent of Eternal Flame.
We’re all based on different continents so once we all arrived in Islamabad and after handing over $24,000 in cash (for with which we received a hand written receipt?!) the real trip got underway. Islamabad is hot and rather boring so we were all happy to get going. We drove along the Karakorum highway for two days, which is absolutely spectacular. This took us to Scardu.
A couple of days in Scardu where passed with a day’s cragging at a local crag where Carter, Rob and Adam opened a new 2 pitch line which was named “Dribble bum”, 6a / 18. A days’ 4×4 drive and three days walking got us to the Trango Glacier and Trango base camp.
The Trango approach gulley is a nightmare! The gulley is between 40 and 45 degrees steep packed full of loose scree, boulders and avalanche debris. Rocks cascade off both of the sidewalls but after going up and down a couple of times, we worked out a reasonably safe route away from the rockfall areas.
Establishing a camp at the base turned out to be much harder than expected as the snow at the top of the gulley became soft by the time we got up the gulley. We did three trips taking loads up the gulley.
We agreed that Team Cowboy would start establishing the route and the following day the Team Ard would start hauling the gear up to establish a high camp on Sunny Terrace.
As luck has it, the day we started climbing, two Austrian teams had the same idea and the traffic proved time consuming and prohibitive. We established three pitches up including a 7a+ / 25 and 7a / 24 (mixed free and aid) and decided to continue the next day. The memorable moments being Carter taking two factor-two falls on the 7a pitch crux that had turned into a waterfall because of the hot weather.
We resumed the climb the next day in perfect weather. The next pitch was a steep ice gulley that proved to be very interesting, great ice to start but turning very thin with mixed climbing from mid way and a crux right at the top. Rob climbed this pitch at about M4. There was a snow mushroom in the sun at the top that turned the pitch into a waterfall as it gets direct morning sun. Next it was Carters turn to climb a waterfall on the next pitch which was a moderate pitch but running with water and sparse gear in the chimney.
A couple of easier pitches and a 6b / 20 took us to Sunny Terrace. What a spectacular ledge and quite generously stoked with previous teams supplies. We fixed the ropes and bailed back down to base camp. Team Ard did the hard work of hauling the following day and established our high camp on Sunny Terrace.
Team Cowboy headed back up after a day’s rest in base camp and we spent our first night on Sunny Terrace. Both teams set off the next day.
Team Ard were the first to set off. Douard jumped straight into the lead and established the first four pitches up the Slovenian route while Rob led the first 6 pitches of the Eternal Flame with the first pitch being a pendulum. After the pendulum, the route follows an amazing series of cracks. On the first move of the first crack pitch, I stood up on a piece of ‘bomber gear’ which blew just as I started moving up off it resulting in a factor 2 fall and loss of chunks of finger that stayed behind in the crack. The view across to Douard leading the steep first pitches (1 easy approach pitch and 3 x 7b’s / 26’s) of the Slovenian route was amazing. Both teams fixed the pitches and bailed as the weather was taking a turn for the worse.
The weather wasn’t being friendly and stayed unfriendly for about five days. Time was running short for Carter and Adam as they were leaving early. After five or six days in base camp we headed back up with less than perfect weather.
The fun really started when we arrived at our fixed lines going up to Sunny Terrace. The ropes were covered, encased with water ice! I jugged up first scrapping away the ice with a nut key that wouldn’t succumb to bashing the lines against the rock.
What ensued was a long and nervous period spent wondering when the teeth of the jumars were going to lose their grip on the ice coating the ropes. On the final rope, the ice had frozen the rope onto the rock and as I was jugging up, it suddenly pulled free resulting in a lot of slack and a resultant fall. My initial thoughts were “oh shit, the anchors have pulled”. I fell about six meters back onto the ledge standing upright as if I had never left. A lucky escape.
That night it became clear that an early start would not be on the cards due to snow and high winds. This essentially made the decision for Carter and Adam who no longer had the time to allow for a summit bid. We were totally gutted for the lads!
Team Cowboy and Team Ard merged and decided to continue on the Eternal Flame as the Slovenian Route was suffering from lots of snow melt causing some additional ice and snow that would hamper the free climbing.
We managed to lead another three pitches that day before the weather again turned bad. The first pitch of the day came with some dodgy aid moves off wobbly pegs and shallow peckers (a type of piton). I used two peckers on this pitch, the only pitons used on the whole climb. The second pitch turned out to be the crux of the route with scary aid and obligatory free climbing between dodgy aid placements. Add to this the water streaks running all over the pitch and you have a perfect recipe for frayed nerves a la Trango. The free grade of this pitch is 7b+ but we clean aided it at C2+/3 6c+ / 23. The third pitch of the day was a free pitch going at 20/21 but was flowing with water and had lots of ice on the holds. But as was the norm by now, the weather closed in and we bailed.
We managed to get on the wall again the following day. Douard lead off and linked the first two pitches with the first pitch starting with a nice free layback flake into a pendulum to a bolt ladder. I led the next pitch that started with a great hand splitter crack leading to an ice chimney. The ice chimney was overcome by ‘back and footing’ in rock shoes using the ice axes in the ice. This took us to the bivy levy.
An easy pitch lead to the first of the headwall splitters and Douard lead this as the snow swirled around us, meanwhile Alard was freezing whilst waiting on the bivv ledge. I led off on another perfect splitter but the weather was too cold to free climb and this was aided as quickly as possible before we again decided to bail. We managed to get seven pitches before bailing.
We decided to try waiting out the weather on Sunny Terrace as the bad weather periods had been typically short but as luck had it, this one lasted about six days. We spent three days in the tents playing the only two card games we knew, Hearts and Shithead. Supplies running low (toilet paper!) and resilience in short supply, we abseiled our now inch thick icy lines back to the col and headed to base camp. Alard drew the short straw and cleared the icy lines by heading down first.
Finally after three days in base camp, our weather window arrived. We had the walk up the gulley wired by now and were managing this in three and half hours.
We woke at 2am on our summit day, jugged up to the bivy ledge, had a freeze dried meal (tried too anyway) and headed upwards. We once again encountered some ice ropes but we made it to the bivy by 7.30am. Shelly jugged up almost to the bivy ledge before making her decision to cash in her chips as whe was suffering with the altitude. We were all totally proud of her for making this hard decision. To the best of our knowledge, she got the highest out of any woman up the Nameless Tower in 2012.
The first pitch of the day involved good free climbing and a led out slab but on easy ground leading to the final headwall. Everyone wanted a headwall pitch. I aided the 7c+ / 29 (which you can free climb if your surname is Huber), a great looking finger crack but very hard indeed. Al did the next pitch in lightning speed, a 7c / 28. I lead the next 6c+ / 23 pitch that involved some free climbing around a small roof onto and expanding flake that wasn’t suitable for aiding so some scary free climbing ensued, but the reward was an amazing splitter on the top two thirds of the pitch. Time for Douards birthday present, the Eternal Flame pitch which is the last pitch at the top of the headwall, this involved a small pendulum to start and then amazing splitters up to a mantle onto a slab.
Time for the easy climbing? Not quite. The rest of the climbing from here was interspersed with ice and snow with some offwidth and chimneys thrown in for good measure.
The first of the “easy” pitches involved laybacking up a slabby crack with the slab covered in verglass (always good for friction..). We actually ended up splitting this pitch in two because of rope drag. The final section was loose and steep with poor gear. It involved a scary step up 5 meters of loose rock into less than perfect ice before being able to get any gear in. The ‘bum clenching‘ factor was somewhat amplified by the belay being a cam 6 behind a dubious block off which the two seconders were anchored.
The light being a factor weighing on my mind, I tried to lead these pitches as fast as possible but this is when the climbing really turned icy. An easy looking snow ramp headed off interspersed with some rock blobs. I made the mistake of thinking this very easy and left my rock boots on.
Mistake number 1: Errors in judgement often coincide with lack of gear. The snow got quite steep and thin over bullet hard ice and the rock blobs provide little gear. This whole section would have been a doddle in big boots and crampons.
I linked the last two pitches (now that I had by boots and crampons on) involving some good moderate mixed ground a nice little ice chimney. My GoPro decided to die on the last pitch, totally gutted.
Mistake number 2: Not taking my big gloves. My thin ice climbing gloves were soaked and my hands were turning various shades of purple by the end. A serious case of the hot aches ensued while Douard and Al came up to the belay. Douard offered to warm them up between his legs but I gratefully declined (not actually true!).
The sun was setting as we headed up the final easy snow slope to the summit. The whole summit was covered in a reddish orange glaze. The view was amazing; K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrums, Masherbrum, Cats Ears, the Flame, Uli Biaho, Shipton Spire, Trango Ri, Great Trango and more all laid out in the amazing light.
We were all super stoked to summit and doing it with such a good bunch of lads. On climbs like this, teamwork is probably the most important factor and the guys totally showed why they are some of the best bigwall climbers in South Africa.
Some summit celebrations and we headed off doing a series of shorter abseils to avoid getting the ropes stuck followed by double rope abseils from the headwall down to the fixed lines which we descended fast as possible with the promise of a nice cup of rooibos tea.
The next day was another stunning weather day. We spent the morning watching the other teams make their assault and then jugged up and cleared our lines and gear. We packed up and gathered together all the rubbish we could fit into the bags left behind from previous expeditions. We restocked the food and gear stash with our remaining gas and freeze dried meals and headed down the next morning. The gear loads were super heavy and that made the descent a serious and hard process but we finally got to the base of the snow slope in the col and then finally to basecamp.
A nice celebration ensued between all the teams in basecamp regardless of success or not. The different expedition chefs all got together and made an exuberant display of food which was woofed down by hungry climbers followed by Jim Beam, Whiskey and Schnapps.
It’s worth noting that even with the good weather, three teams bailed on the day after we summited and two teams, one Austrian and one Polish summited.
We walked out in two days. Totally looking forward to some meat, we got to Askhole and bought a chicken for approx $15 (+- R125) even after a considerable attempt at haggling.
But the adventure wasn’t over yet, the roads were blocked from rockfall and we had a slightly scary incident trying to run the rockfall gauntlet. We had also heard that there was sectarian violence on the Karakorum Highway and the military had closed the road. No way out so we were stuck in Scardu for five days trying to get onto a flight. Douard managed to sneak onto a flight with a ticket in someone else’s name and we got one the next day. The whole airport was chaos as the students who had finished a term at college were also trying to get onto the plane and were rioting outside. Our bags were going via the road but the violence flared up again and the driver had to turn around and head back to Scardu leaving us with only one day to get the bags to Islamabad. Fortunately Asgar (Jasmine Tours big wig) managed to get them onto a plane and our bags arrived the evening before our international flights.
Some things worth considering when planning or undertaking a trip of this sort: –
- Don’t get too attached to your goat.
- After a week or so, non-refrigerated goat WILL make you sick.
- You will definitely get fed up of freeze-dried food, and this will happen sooner than you expect!
- Freeze-dried food farts smell like freeze dried food and are totally gross in confined spaces!
- Two things worth packing on an expedition: Biltong (lots!!) and more alcohol than you think you’ll drink.
- Moisturiser and hand creams are essential.
- All the chocolate you buy in Skardu will be really old.
- Learn more than two card games.
- Take extra socks to give to the porters. These guys do an amazing job in footwear that no one reading this would wear anywhere! They will amaze you.
- Don’t play scrabble against Carter or Douard.
- Play scrabble against Adam.
- Never have a jugging contest against Alard.
- Take a laptop, Sat Phone and two camera’s.
- GoPro’s rule but take them off for your summit photos – thanks to Voytek for pointing this out on the Facebook Page.
- Take Shelly Hufner, she does sports massage that is totally awesome. Thanks for all the massages Shelly!
- Climb dangerous gullies super early when it’s cold.
- If you intend to play cricket with the kids, brush up on your batting before you go, they love to put in the 12 year old ‘Alan Donald’ like bowler who will send you out for a duck much to the delight of the locals.
- Take some pens and tennis balls (cricket) for the kids.
- Don’t forget your South African flag on the bivy ledge!
- The topos can be really hard to find, email me if you need them.
We would like to thank our Sponsors for their generous support.
The Mountain Club of South Africa really helped us out. Join. It’s a great organisation that does huge amounts for South African climbing and really supports it’s members.
Ram Mountaineering helped us with gear. These guys import some great stuff from some the best climbing gear manufacturers including Black Diamond (who doesn’t love Camalots?) and Jetboil.
Vertigo gear run by Tristan Firman helped us with some awesome Julbo High Altitude Sunnies that are now a permanent fixture in my alpine climbing bag. They also do great other sunnies. The import Edelrid gear, the climbing shoes which will become instant favourites. I got a pair of the Typhoons that are destined to be resoled many times.
Columbia UK helped out by providing Doaurd and me with their new Omnitech Waterproof Shells. Love them. Light and very breathable.
Igor & Frankie, a UK based brand which makes ‘ethically soursed’ climbing clothing gave us some cool and funky chalk bags.
Petzl USA gave us a bolt kit which we fortunately didn’t have to use but can prove essential for new routing in the big mountains when that 10 feet of blank rock blocks your way to the summit. However, please be responsible with your bolting.
Baris, a leading UK cladding company, helped us out and gave us some cool merino wool tops.
You can catch up with all the news and updates as it happened on our Facebook Page and Website:
Facebook Group: Trango Towers 2012
Author: Rob Powell
Climb.co.za username: Rob P