• 31-JUL-2013

Pakistan 2012 Karakorum Twenty-Twelve Journey to the Heart of the Mountains

"If you never travel, you can never come back home!" is what I wrote at the beginning of my travel diary. I am on the way to Pakistan – Karakorum, in fact – together with Max Berger, Christian Hechenberger, Simon Berger, Jakob Schweighofer, Hannes Leitner and Flo Dertnig.

A dream is about to come true because we originally planned the trip last year, but Christian "Hechei" Hechenberger couldn't travel due to injury. Because the band only plays well when it is complete, the rest of us decided to postpone it for a year. On 18 July the first part of the team finally boards the flight to Istanbul and then, after a 6-hour stopover, on to Islamabad. Now there's no going back.

Everybody looks tense, going into their inner selves, and when we finally arrive in Islamabad at four in the morning we realise for the first time that everything is very different here. Our contact man Iqubal from the Shipton Trekking agency is already there to meet us. At the airport we are treated as though a crew of aliens has just landed – we each get a garland of flowers hung round our necks and then it's off to the hotel, which is very clean and prestigious. Jakob and Flo arrive the next day so that we can really get started on the first big adventure: the 3-day drive along the infamous and dangerous Karakorum Highway. This road has in reality earned itself another name – "Highway to Hell" would be more accurate. Even our guide Shakoor says, "This street is much more dangerous than all terrorists together!" – and he should know. So, with stomach problems brewing, we tore along the nightmarish switchbacks, letting the feedback from the holes in the road flow right through us. Quite literally in the case of those with stomach issues.

After two days we finally reach Askole, the last small village three days away from base camp. The Jeep trip getting there was an experience that none of us are likely to forget in a hurry. The village is more than modest, the people are friendly, poor and radiate with personality. They offer us tea and biscuits and a tour of the so-called museum, which would easily have passed as an Austrian cowshed 200 years ago. Then we set up a place to crash for the night and look forward to the three days march through the wild and bare landscape.

On the third and last day of the long march we at last spot the objects of our desire – the soaring Great Trango and Nameless Tower. We are overwhelmed – this makes everything we have been through in the last six days worthwhile. The base camp is already pretty busy, so we pitch our tents in the spaces between the South Africans, Koreans, Slovaks and Poles. Even the billy goat we christened "Franzi", who had to carry on his back his own provisions – a sack of onions and a sack of potatoes – arrived safely to enjoy the greenery around the base camp and laze around before playing the lead role at the BBQ.

Now it's time to unpack, get organised, plan, drink tea, check the weather forecast, sort out equipment and get to bed early, because tomorrow we want to head for Little Trango (5,500 m) – a small free-standing granite pillar between Great Trango and Nameless Tower. The alarm clock tears us out of our sleeping bags at three o'clock the next morning. Breakfast, and then we start the long hike through the dangerous approach gulley. When we reach the ridge at 5,200 m, clouds appear and it starts to snow. We wait, enjoying the thin air and the wild atmosphere, before hiding our equipment away and heading back down to the base camp. We desperately need a day of rest!

After our rest day we head off fully kitted out towards the sun terrace, a large bivouac spot where you are in the sun all day at the start of the routes up the Nameless Tower. At last we get to grip some golden-yellow granite and start hauling equipment like mules. Max, Jakob and Hannes concentrate on the haul bags, while Flo and I take the lead to fix the ropes. Climbing feels good. Once we reach the sun terrace we are overwhelmed and unfortunately completely exhausted, everybody except Max, that is. Although Max is the oldest in the team, he is the one with the most metres of climbing under his belt, the most experience at high elevations, and it is he who could carry a porter up to the high elevation camp on an eight thousand metre peak if he wanted to. So he's definitely one of the toughest in the team. We cook and try to sleep, but none of us manage to get any shut-eye while headaches are an indicator that we are not yet acclimatised – no wonder since this is only day three. We leave our equipment where it is and abseil down. Two days' rest, drinking tea, reading, playing cards. Then Max and I strike out again up the steep gulley towards Nameless Tower. We want to attempt the Slovenian route in one go from base camp to the summit, ideally on-sight and in one day. 2,300 m of ascent, grade of difficulty up to 8+ and uncertain conditions on the steep rock face, all that and much more is waiting for us above. After around 7 pitches of excellent quality crack climbing our on-sight plans were unfortunately dashed: iced-over cracks, a thin layer of ice on the rock face, shadowy dihedrals, cold and wet weren't making life on the vertical wall any easier. We fought our way through the wet and icy sections and then about 100 m below the summit we decided to call it a day - we were burnt out, frozen through and conditions were so poor that we decided to throw in the towel. A difficult decision but a good one.

Back on the sun terrace we cooked, drank tea and soon crawled into our sleeping bags. It was a courageous attempt, nobody had tried to climb from the base camp to the summit in one push before and we both know that if the conditions had only been poor – rather than piss-poor – we might have managed it. In any case, we were satisfied with what we had done. At around the same time Hechei and Simon were successful on Little Trango and shortly afterwards climbed Great Trango via the standard route, while Flo, Jakob and Martin from Slovakia created a heroic initial ascent on the face adjacent to base camp.

* No pen, no picture!
Because a child in Askole asked Jakob for a pen, although he didn't have one, but still wanted to take a photo of the kid, whose immediate reply was "No pen, no picture!" our inspiration for the name of the route.

When Max and I arrived back at base camp there was again a turn in the weather, except this time it lasted for ages and was pretty nasty - 12 days. First half a day OK without precipitation and then two days really foul weather with heavy precipitation.

This would have nearly caused camp psychosis were it not for the fact that we had brought the crash pad with us. This meant that we could go bouldering on the short walls in the immediate vicinity of the base camp. In addition, Hannes and I managed an incredibly classic first ascent on Severance Ridge, a 700-metre-high wall not far from base camp – a beautiful route with cracks of all sizes and difficulties up to grade 9. "No pen, no picture!"* as we named our creation, would already be an overrun, highly-praised extreme classic route back in Austria, probably already refurbished, rebolted, refurbished again with shiny new bolts and a topo at each belay point. But luckily this cool chunk of rock is located in safe seclusion in the furthest corner of Karakorum and might perhaps be repeated one day. Because departures have to be celebrated to the limit we toasted the last few hours together with Max, who was heading home the next day. If Hannes and I saw correctly, Max even had tears in his eyes, or maybe he just had something in his eye. ;)

Waiting for better weather gets on your nerves; we don't want to lay eyes on another playing card and we are running out of reading material, but at last we receive uplifting news of splendid weather on the horizon, that is set to stay for some time. Full of motivation, Hannes, Simon, Hechei and I stuff our backpacks with the essentials for three days to reach the summit of Nameless Tower. While Hechei and Simon want to attempt the "Slovenian route", Hannes and I opt for "Eternal Flame", the Güllich and Albert extreme classic and without doubt one of the most famous routes in the region. Any ambitions for free climbing have already been thrown overboard because the conditions just wouldn't permit it – too much snow and warmer temperatures have created too much water on the rock face, meaning that you can hardly get a firm hold anywhere – so we are going to make the best of it anyway; the main thing is to get safely to the summit and back down again.

The South African team have spent the last eight days windswept in tough weather conditions completing the "Eternal Flame" route to within six pitches of the summit with fixed ropes so that they can make it to the summit in one day, using the ropes they have already installed. They started at 3.30, reached the end of the fixed ropes by 8.00 and finally cracked the summit at 19.00.

Hannes and I didn't want to start climbing on the same day as those three and so waited until a day later for our attempt. We started at 6.30 and at 18.00 reached the 6,250-metre summit of the most wonderful mountain we have climbed so far. The mountains around lit up more intensively than ever before and it was truly an unbelievable moment – simply to be there. We wanted to take a photo of us at the top and then start abseiling down, but reality stopped our euphoria in its tracks. The camera battery is flat, but it's better to have a summit and no photo than have to turn around. "Eternal Flame" really is a climber's dream with golden granite and cracks of all shapes and sizes that presented us with a hefty challenge. Respect to Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert and Co, who first climbed the route in 1989 – at a time when we still believed in Santa Claus – and to the Huber Brothers, who climbed it redpoint in 2009. The same day Jakob and Flo also had success: after three days' climbing non-stop they stood atop Trango Ri having managed the first ascent of the mixed, previously untapped route "Ciabatti is enough".

On arriving back at base camp we received some bad news. The "road" (you'll understand the quote marks if you know it) has been cut off in four places due to landslides and the whole Karakorum "Hellway" has been closed due to political unrest. The only option is a domestic flight from Skardu to Islamabad, which takes a mere 40 minutes but only takes off if there isn't a cloud in the sky.

We finally arrive in Skardu – following a tough journey in the Jeep, which almost gave up the ghost while a landslide almost gave up our ghosts – and look forward to the fundamental pleasures of civilization, especially bed, showers and food. But you know what it is like with food: not everything that goes in stays in, and it was this first evening meal that turned our stomachs to such an extent that most of us were still rushing to the call of nature with greetings from Pakistan many weeks after we arrived back home.

Somehow we managed to get to the overrun military airfield at Skardu, where we found the noise and people armed to the teeth slightly disconcerting. When somebody smashed a window as well, we simply couldn't wait to get on board that flight. After 40 minutes we arrived in Islamabad, where Iqubal from our trekking agency faithfully picked us up and brought us to a plush hotel. In the evening we had beers at 7 euros a go and pizza from Pizza Hut: what more could you ask for! The next day we are heading home – we could hardly sleep due to anticipation…

At the airport we checked in our luggage and made our way cheerily to passport control where a "friendly" airport employee informed us that our visas expired 10 days ago. His final words "No flight today!" hit us like a left hook from Mike Tyson right into the middle of our stunned faces, instantly wiping out our good mood like an opponent hitting the mat. Our visas really had expired. Because Max took all our passports to the embassy in Vienna and was only staying in Pakistan for 30 days himself, the officials obviously assumed that we all intended to stay in Pakistan for 30 days. The problem was that a visa for 30 days clearly doesn't cover a 6-week visit. This was the first challenge on the whole trip for which we didn't have a witty response – and that was the way it was to be all day. It was like a conspiracy against us, against our good mood and our looking forward to finally coming home. The friendly gentlemen at the Ministry of the Interior were then not so friendly and made their point of view absolutely clear. They told us that if we wanted our A4-sized travel application to be processed today, then we would need to pay the sum of € 1,500, otherwise it would take 4 to 6 weeks…

Paid, cleared, booked, flown – on the next best plane, in business class, lie-flat seats, champagne, whisky, gourmet cuisine, beer; Oman, Munich and at last home sweet home…