Mothers have it the hardest. “I’m going climbing in Pakistan by myself. I’ll be home in three or four months,” I told mine. It’s an easy thing to say when you’re 25, curious about the world, and fired-up to climb. I can’t imagine what it’s like to hear when you’re 51, you’ve lost a nephew to climbing, and you have an addicted-to-adventure child. In the last 11 years climbing has taken a lot from me: most profoundly on an Arctic trip together in 2005, my best friend, fell 250 meters into his next life; and most recently 35 pounds and the tip of my finger. I regained the weight and I will adapt to the loss of a finger, but not a day has gone by that I don’t miss my cousin, my friend who opened my eyes to climbing. Conversely, climbing has given me my spirit, my reason- something my mother both understands and supports.
After a refreshing four-day hike from the town of Hispar, the porters deposited my overwhelming amount of gear at the junction of the Khani Basa and Hispar glaciers. The date was July 19. We exchanged handshakes and Inshallah’s, and I watched them disappear over the moraine. It would be seven weeks until I’d see them again. By choice I had no cook, guide, or partner, I was entirely alone. From base camp I made six carries on the East Khani Basa Glacier to the base of Tahu Rutum, a distance of eight or nine miles each way. Conditions on the glacier were good and I was able to hike about half the distance wearing only approach shoes. I never found an elevation for the base of Tahu Rutum (sometimes spelled Ratum) on a map or anywhere on the internet. I prefer to climb without an altimeter watch, so I am not sure of the peak’s vertical gain. My best guess is that it rises maybe 1,350 meters from base to summit, but it doesn’t really matter, it was long enough. I spent a month shuttling loads, waiting out a week of heavy snow, and fixing 300 meters of rope up mellow aqua-blue 50–60° ice. On August 20, I committed to life in the vertical world. I brought approximately 20 days of food, an underestimate for which I would later pay the price.
The lower 640 meters of ice involved seven days of battling significant snowfall, constant sloughing, and tedious hauling through small rock bands. I was glad to be finished with low-angle hauling as the weather finally cleared. For several days I followed a beautiful slightly left-leaning crack system. I tied four 70-meter ropes together and climbed using the continuous loop method. This allowed pitches to be as long as 140 meters, but my relatively small wall rack typically resulted in 80-90 meter pitches. Pitches were steep with cruxes around A3.
The mental rhythm I had fallen into received a little spice when a nut that I had weighted, popped. To me, the sensation of gear ripping feels like riding a bicycle across railroad ties. So I rode along, jolting through the air and finally hitting the brakes when a screamer ripped on a small nut. These were my most enjoyable climbing days: High quality granite, fantastic weather, and flawless hauling. How I had envisioned climbing in Pakistan had become reality. Unfortunately, my vision soon became cloudy.
Hanging at approximately 6,000 meters I sat through my first four-day storm. Sloughing snow quickly accumulated on my portaledge and the walls would flatten claustrophobically close to my face. The snows made any outside activity impossible, so I dangled, fighting the weight of the monsoonal precipitation accumulating on my bivy. Assessing my upward progress from a digital photograph I had taken of Tahu Rutum, it became apparent that I was not going to have enough food. While sitting out storms I’d eat just enough to keep the stomach pains at bay. Days when the weather permitted climbing I’d treat myself to a small breakfast, a few GU’s, and a small dinner, all of which totaled around a thousand calories.
My progress was definitely slowing. I was hungry, had terrible diarrhea, and hauling at altitude was becoming extremely laborious. Even still, the views of the mighty Karakoram and a few days of good weather were motivation to keep climbing. After another 200 meters of steep aesthetic crack systems the wall began to roll over. I set up my portaledge at approximately 6,200 meters and almost immediately another storm blew in.
September 10, my 21st day on Tahu Rutum. I awoke early to a completely cloudless sky and immediately began my summit attempt. I had one energy bar, two GU’s, some Tang, a stove, snow/ice gear, and the infinitely important summit costume. After I had jugged a previous day’s fixed line and climbed another 70-meter pitch, the snows returned, the wind was howling, and the temperature had dropped. I managed another 170 meters of climbing through deteriorating rock quality. What I had thought was going to be slabby terrain in-fact remained quite vertical yet still amazingly featured.
At 6,500 meters I reached the steep snow and ice ridgeline leading to the summit…and I had had enough. It was snowing with 40 mph winds, the earth had rotated the expanse of the Karakoram into complete darkness, and my headlamp was near dead; I was dehydrated and malnourished. I was stoked on my effort and the decision was easy. I bailed.
The isolated hours rappelling in the dark had a bleak joyfulness to them. I was worked beyond any previous understanding of the condition, but I was headed toward family, friends, and most importantly, food. Thirty hours after leaving I returned to my portaledge, ate the very last of my food, and passed out. The next day, I embarked on what I hoped to be a three-day, foodless, return to base camp.
As predicted I took two full days to rappel the wall. No supplies or gear were left except for three bolts and one rivet that were placed on the descent. Wrestling haul bags and stuck ropes required me to take a full day of rest once I had reached level ground. My body was rapidly weakening and the universe still had a hefty test in store.
The snows that had fallen during my last 24 days of vertical living, now lay unconsolidated on the East Khani Basa Glacier. Assessing my rapidly deteriorating health, the continuously falling snow, and the eight-mile trip to base camp, I decided to leave my two haul bags of climbing gear in a rocky outcropping. Deep down I knew I couldn’t return-at least not this year. Who knows? Maybe the porters will make a winter siege of my equipment, and if they do, I will not be bummed. In a country with an 8% unemployment rate and an even greater underemployment issue, there is surprisingly a market for climbing gear. In the northern villages where opportunities for work are slim, the earnings from the sale of my equipment, would definitely help with their difficult lives. Not to mention be hard earned.
Fasting is defined as “the complete abstinence from all substances except pure water, in an environment of total rest.” I have a problem when it comes to exercise and climbing, I tend to binge, and this year I came close to overdosing. I hadn’t been in an “environment of total rest” in eight months, and for the previous two months I hadn’t even received a break.
I packed my backpack with necessities: sleeping bag, stove, clothes, and electronics. With intense hunger I began postholing toward wellness. It took me two painfully long days to make it back to camp; they were my fourth and fifth days without food. My pace slowed to “dangerous.” Many times I fell to the ground, taking several minutes to stagger back to my feet. Anytime I stopped painful diarrhea would start, blood red entwined with white gooey stuff that I presumed was muscle. It was obvious with each slow and agonizing step that my body was shutting down, eating itself. It’s amazing how the universe always has a way of balancing itself out; my physical strength had been taken but my mind had never been more clear. I was never worried or frightened for there was no sense in it. Motivated by friends and family, focused on food, and deeply conscious of necessities, I just kept trudging.
Two weeks later, at the Salt Lake City airport, tears were streaming down my mother’s face. It was obvious that she had been fighting her own battle dealing with the stress that comes from having a child at a physical breaking point, alone in Pakistan. It was then that I realized I had had it easy.