Hey hey! It’s on a windy autumn day in Chamonix that I finally began to write this story.
Like often in life, you don’t know when the right moment is until it’s upon you. As for my job, I always know what that is: great mountaineering.
Equipped with a large selection of forged, sharpened steel points, supposedly unbreakable but occasionally deformed by a hidden rock below the ice, our motley trio decided it was time to visit some distant lands. Places where just trying to look at the summits gives you a sore neck yet it’s impossible to tear your gaze away.
This place is the Karakoram, one of the planet’s most exceptional natural sites. If the prize for the world’s most beautiful mountain area was to be given out, surely the Hunza valley would be the unanimous winner.
Our trio were not content with twisting their necks to look at the summits but hoped to untwist them by climbing the majestic 7000m+ peaks of the region and looking down at the valleys from above.
With all this in mind Helias Millerioux, Patrick Wagnon and myself set off to Pakistan early last summer. With little money in our pockets, after the dismal year which saw the world grind to a halt and put a stop to most of our activities, arriving in the Karakoram was like passing into Lewis Carroll’s “Wonderland”, each mountain was a jewel in the eyes of our Himalayan climbers.
Once you’ve tasted the delights of these magnificent jewels, unending towers of snow and rock, it’s hard not to return and seek the delights of these high summits, a never ending attraction park for mountaineers like ourselves.
These kind of games do require a certain amount of commitment, you do sometimes have to put your life on the line but the best things in life rarely come without a little excess baggage.
First of all we went to check out the south face of Shishpare, a summit at 7600 close to Karimabad. A local shepherd showed us the way across the broken splintered glacier. An essential help. But the verdict was unanimous, the south face of Shishpare which we had been dreaming of and planning for these last few months was a death wish. Impossible to imagine an itinerary which would avoid the multiple mega avalanches which cascaded down the face throughout the day.
With our main objectif out of the equation, we decided to start at the beginning and acclimatize on Diran peak at 7260 m. We specifically hoped to climb the north ridge.
I’d already been to the area a few times so I knew my way around. The access was quick, just 1 day from Karimabad bought us to a flower filled meadow at 3600 m, surrounded by yaks and cows recently arrived to enjoy the summer pastures.
Our cook and his welcoming mess tent were waiting for us to arrive with the village porters. Once the porters were paid and had left we were alone. The north ridge of Diran appeared complicated, it was early June with large quantities of snow which didn’t make things any simpler. We had brought our skis with us, an essential tool at that time of year. What we thought was going to be an easy project took us a month and it was only in extremis with a very short weather window that we succeeded. There was never more than a day and a half of consecutive good weather. Snow showers and bad weather alternated with sunny spells during most days. It was impossible to make any serious plans for an ascent, so we spent three weeks acclimatizing up to 5400 m, unable to go any higher due to the large quantities of unstable snow begging to release beneath our feet.
The three characters of our Himalayan comic did allow themselves the luxury of heading back to the village in the valley for a few days, to rest and enjoy the fresh cherries, meat skewers and generally delicious food of Hunza, characterized by the aromatic apricot kernel oil which is used liberally in many dishes.
Back at the base camp with Jan, our cook and team member, fundamental to the success of an expedition in this remote place, we took one or two rest days each time bad weather came in. Mr Millerioux amused himself building a dam on the stream which ran by our campsite. I wondered what the point of his mini lake was, until it turned out ideal for some invigorating baths and washing clothes!
It would be easy to imagine our trio as Spongebob, Hello Kitty and Iceman, idling away the time, content and harmonious in this strange atmosphere.
Patrick "Iceman" in one of his lighter moments decided to come and study the glacier and reveal every last secret therein - studying glaciers was also his job.
While we were happy enough, there was the underlying current of pressure which precedes any big climb, and the self interrogation which goes with it -
“Will we make it? Are the risks too high?”
Time for a brainstorm in the mess tent -
“Hello Kitty, alias Helias, are you fine to go? Not too tired after a month of going back and forth?”
“No guys I’m good!” he answered
Patrick/Iceman was more indestructable than ever, he was in his element and all the surrounding mountains were an invitation.
“And you Yannick/Spongebob? Motivated?”
I was lagging a little bit behind the others after too many aperitifs and gastronomic meals before leaving Europe which had left me with a few extra kilos.
“I’ll be fine, these three weeks of training have got me back in shape”
Our vagabond team was ready.
4 days was the time we gave ourselves, though we didn’t really have a choice as that was the only weather window we had.
In the middle of a July night, stars shining brightly in the sky, our three musketeers set off to join their snow cave at 5400 m and spend the night, the first of the ascent!
The key to success was a passage at around 6000 m, with a terrifying 200 m traverse over giant ice flutes hanging in the void, far above the glacier on the West side of the ridge.
“Helias, you’re going the wrong way”
“No I’m not!” He hoped to skip this difficult section by passing on the East face, but which hadn’t been visible from the base camp.
“You go then!” So I set off across the waist deep, almost vertical snow, trying to reach a point from where the summit would be visible and more tangible. Patrick finally joined me a few intense hours later and headed straight for the bivouac just as night fell. The weather was good for the moment. It was a tight bivouac, with one snoring, one trumping and one wide awake.
“D-day everybody! Rise and shine, we need to set off by sunrise!” It always hard to get moving in the morning at that altitude, and we had 1200 vertical metres of unknown terrain ahead of us.
The weather was fantastic, and we happily trudged along in quite deep snow with an unshakeable hope that at some point it will firm up, which turned out to be an error, it never did. The higher we went, the slower we were, the fundamental equation of less oxygen and physical capacity!
We finally reached the summit at 3pm! 10h to climb 1200 vertical metres from our last bivouac where we had left tent and sleeping bags.
So it’s time to descend, just in time for the bad weather to arrive, giant grey and black clouds are soon upon us and the mountain. It starts to snow and the wind picks up meaning we need to accelerate to reach our camp at 6050m as soon as possible. The tracks of our ascent are quickly disappearing so we set up a rappel on a big snow mushroom to get over a crevasse, luckily a fleeting sunny spell allows us to pick up our tracks again and we soon see our camp. Exhausted and uncomfortable in our minuscule tent we try to get some rest as the bad weather settles in.
Patrick breaks the silence “Hey Yannick you’re not worried? What are we going to do tomorrow if it snows all night?”
I’m already drifting off to sleep, tired after a hard day, for the moment I’m not worried about anything. Helias looks a little preoccupied but he doesn’t have anything to say.
Another early start! We know it’s going to be a long day, with this cursed traverse across the ice flutes in the opposite direction, the main objective between us and the easier ridge which will take us back down to the glacier. Fortunately for our moral, after setting off under falling snow, the skies soon clear and bright sunshine appears, and the glacier and flat terrain below get closer.
Finally at the end of the afternoon we get back to our skis, the last 1000 m go quickly and we’re back with the 4th member of our vagabond team. Jan the cook and base camp manager comes to meet us with welcome provisions. Spongebob, Hello Kitty and Iceman, our comical and unlikely trio, thanks him for his precious support.
Once back in Hunza valley and in the hotel in Karimabad… unfortunately the room only has 2 beds so someone has to draw the short straw and sleep on a mattress on the floor. Even then we are so tired we get a good night’s sleep.
After a couple of days rest comes the inevitable ‘what next?’
“Do we go home? Do we try another summit?” Opinions were mixed, I was happy to go home but the other two wanted to stay, take another ride in this giant fun park.
The discussion is soon closed when it looks like good weather will be on our side.
Helias and friends set off for another fabulous adventure - TOTALLY FUCKED ON RAKAPOSHI what did this attraction have waiting for us?
After losing a bit of time in the end of the world, a place from where no one wanted to keep going despite our most persuasive efforts, SOST to be precise, a village on the pakistani-chinese border but which could be straight out the wild west, filled with all kinds of traffic between the two countries - humans, animals from chickens to camels and every kind of chinese knick knack. After failing to find a single porter willing to take us to the base of the mountain we hoped to climb on the Chinese border, our three adventurers finally settled on Rakaposhi at nearly 8000m with just a single photo off the internet as a guidebook!
There was a short weather window of 4 to 5 days announced, so we had to get organized and get to the base camp quickly then sit out a couple of days bad weather and be ready to go as soon as the skies cleared.
A hail storm and icy rain welcomed us to 4000m, still an hour from base camp and put our will to the test. After 30 years of mountaineering without injury, I suddenly found myself lying on the glacier with a twisted ankle, and arrived at base camp limping. I started to ask myself many questions and imagined having to leave before we’d even started to climb. Our timing was short, with our return flight leaving no margin for extra days stuck on the mountain. With strap, anti-inflammatory cream and tightly laced up climbing boots, I set off alongside my friends up this impressive mountain. We knew very little about the climb other than a line drawn on a photo taken from the sky. We knew it was going to be long and that the route was never fully visible. Where a large scale expedition would set up camp for a month, we had less than a week!
This meant we would have to move fast during the climb and do big days, at least at the start. My ankle was doing ok despite occasional shooting pains.
We started to get a bit lost and to minimise the risk of avalanches and rockfall, we opted for a rock pillar of 1000m which would lead us to the main ridge a few km from the summit. 1600 m climbing to arrive at our bivouac that day! Personally I was already feeling the tiredness and the idea of heading down was more and more appealing.
The next morning we were all operational, our super trio wasn’t going to stop there even if I had doubts about making the summit! That’s something that you never know beforehand, and I loved the company of these two so I was happy to accompany them higher.
Two more bivouacs followed but each evening I collapsed into my sleeping bag exhausted. At 3 am at 6900m, the last bivouac, I easily gave up feeling weak and my confidence shaken, so I decided to wait for their return.
It was a stunning night with a full moon, and I happily watched them advance to around 7400m when they disappeared from view.
This is Helias’ account of the day that followed, the 26th July 2021:
< The sun rises when we are at 7400m and we are around halfway between the camp and the summit. A euphoric joy takes over, we are happy. An excess of confidence fills us, surely we’ll make the summit! We take a break to eat and drink. And I start to see the commitment of what we are doing, a fourth dimension of commitment.
A 500 m long plateau is just ahead of us, filled with fresh snow which we sink in up to our knees. The summit is so close and yet so far, it’s like a mirage in the desert. Patrick once again asks me if I feel happy about going to the summit, I always try to be modest with this kind of question but yes I want to keep going. Does he want to keep going? I’m not in his mind I can’t say. I’m scared of the commitment required, intimidated by the scale of this mountain, this huge open air theater where we act out our lives, we calculate the commitment juggling between reasonable, unreasonable, rational and what our heart tells us. To climb at this altitude requires a true love of mountains and to do things without counting, with convictions.
This pure alpine style torments me. Climbing this type of mountain isn’t reasonable and yet here we are. And I want to go to the top. We accept the commitment and keep going.
Not easily, the plateau we are traversing starts to take its toll. A wind-blown crust on top of sugary snow. The summit gets further way, our rhythm slows and the going gets worse, we are down to 100 m/ hour trudging through knee deep snow and increasingly destroyed by the high altitude. We are now at 7550 m and the question once again arises as to whether it is reasonable to continue, moving so slowly and still with deep snow. Patrick tells me he’s not sure whether he can make the summit in these conditions and whether he has enough energy. It always important to keep energy for the descent, especially descents like this. I start making the track and there is soon a bit of distance between us. We stop for a break and now I’m feeling good, I’m sure I can handle the remaining 200 metres… following our calculations we should arrive at the summit around 1.30 pm. Patrick isn’t sure whether he can make it, and I feel a moment of solitude imagining climbing alone. Climbing up there alone scares me and I really want us to make the summit together, yet I don’t want to see this dream slip away from me… but if he doesn’t want to continue we should turn around. We stop for a break of salami, gel and hot water.
I tell Patrick I can break trail for the last 200 m, I’m happy to keep going in the deep snow and we’ll stay together. It’s important for our mental state to stay close. For both of us. For me not to be alone and for him the motivation to keep going. We are climbing together and will stay that way. We set off again and the effort becomes more and more intense. I’m struggling, I need to dig deep to find the energy to keep going. As often in these situations a few stray tears run down my cheek thinking about the amazing experience up there, I think about life, my friends and how lucky I am to be here.
It’s truly magnificent and the emotions slowly take over my mind as I break trail. I love it. I feel like I’m floating, dizzy from the altitude, conscious of everything around me yet everything is soft and distant…. The rhythm keeps carrying us upwards, me and Patrick together in the deep snow.
The sky is still a deep blue. 100 m below the summit Patrick falls through a small snow bridge on the track up to his waist, we’re almost at the top and the rope had become futile, so I help him out with my bare hands.
We approach the summit. The pressure rises, the last metres are dreadful with a 50m wind slab just below the summit. It would be a shame to be carried away by an avalanche here… Patrick convinces me to rope up for the last section. His reasoning wins. At 1.30pm we are at the summit, Rakaposhi being a knife edge ridge with the north face plunging down to Karimabad valley, there’s hardly place to stand at the top. A few minutes and a few photos later, we are already making our way down driven off by the wind>.
As for me I spend the day patiently in the tent, drinking and eating regularly and taking long naps between meals, enjoying the heat of the middle of the day. The anxiety starts to get the better of me at the end of the afternoon when there’s still no sign of them! I start to imagine the worse, and try to stay rational but it’s not easy.
Long after nightfall after 20 hours alone, they finally appear, moving very slowly so I head out of the tent to meet them 200m away, congratulate them and tell them how relieved I am to see them. As for me I’m not disappointed, it just wasn’t my day. I could have tried but I knew I would need energy for the descent which was bound to be long and complicated. Everyone is exhausted in our tiny little tent.
On the 5th day after 15 hours of effort we finally make it back to our camp at nightfall, where Jan and the porters are already waiting for us. We need to leave at 4am so it’s not this night that we’ll be getting much rest.
5 hours on foot, a jeep ride, lunch in a little village, more jeep then finally we change vehicules for a minibus on the Karakoram highway.
Then comes the storm damaged road back to Islamabad with regular landslides which could easily send us straight into the Indus, but finally 20 hours later, a few hours before our plane, we arrive in Islamabad. Just the time to reorganize our kit and settle a few bills with our friend and tour operator Ishaq Ali from ‘North Pakistan trek and tour’
And so it’s finally on a cold snowy winter’s day that I finish this tale.
Favorite Grivel product: G22 Plus crampons.