WARNING: This post is long, full of words, pictures and films. Not suited for the short attention span of the internet reader but where else do you write a blog? Good for readers with 10 mins to spare.
With four uninterrupted weeks of “me time” ahead, I left work ridiculously overladen with bags. My destination was Oslo’s Gardemoen airport where I would be whisked away to the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan for a mini ski expedition. If only it were that easy…
That was on 31st May, 2012. By the 8th June, we were finally in base camp. It took seven days to get there. Never do you hear: “I’m going on holiday…It’s going to take seven days to get there.” Not these days anyway. You probably couldn’t even manage 80 days around the world slow enough anymore but we managed seven to get to the Karakoram which meant another seven to get back and which left us with 18 days to climb and ski.
I’ll spare you the details of the trip there (and back. It was the same) but suffice to say after an epic 26.5 hrs non-stop drive on the famous Karakoram highway to Skardu which was pretty uncomfortable and sleep deprived with the odd armed police escort, we were all more than ready to get to Laila Peak base camp, recover, rest and acclimatise.
I first saw Laila Peak in 2006 on Fred Ericsson’s website (skied together with Jørgen Aamot) and then came across it again in a book by Simon Yates (of “Touching the Void” fame) called “The Flame of Adventure” and was instantly struck by its beauty. It’s not a particularly well known mountain outside the climbing world but I think all would agree that seen from this perspective, Laila Peak would be vying for top spot on the podium of a Miss Mountain World competition.
Only joking. But this is seriously how we found her for the first 7 days. Very shy. The weather was conspiring against us, so we never really got to have a good look at her but we luckily had a postcard to remind us of why we had come half way around the world. Who needs the real thing when you have a postcard. Overrated. I managed to snap this shot while she was feeling a lot more brazen but still unwilling to reveal herself completely.
My first attempt at organising a trip with a friend, Riis, fell through in 2010/11 when he injured his knee. On my next attempt, there was no mistaking and we managed to get a team of four together: me (splitboard), Brendan O’Sullivan (splitboard), Edward Blanchard Wrigglesworth (yes, that is his real name and the token skier!) and Luca Pandolfi (snowboard). Chamonix was the common denominator for all of us, having either lived or currently living there.
The only person I knew from the group and had skied with before was Brendan. I’d had an intense “getting to know” week with Luca when he came to visit me in Lofoten in April and had met Ed for about a minute many years previously when he burst through Brendan’s door in chamonix full of excitement about nothing in particular. No wonder our trip was described by one person in Chamonix as a “mail order” expedition. I knew Brendan and Brendan knew all of us, so there were risks involved if we didn’t get on but I accepted them if it meant going to ski Laila Peak. Either way, none of us had been to the Karakoram or Himalayas before. We were all Karakoram rookies and equal in that sense. Time would soon tell whether this had been a good decision or not.
The north west face of Laila Peak looked like the perfect introduction to high altitude, steep skiing. Not too high and not too steep. Achievable. At 6100m and with a gradient of around 45 degrees for most of the face and steepening for the last 150m to an unknown gradient (Fred’s blog puts it between 55 and 60 degrees but he was never on the summit himself), it looks like a straight forward line down.
This is where I have to take umbrage with the Pakistani Tourist Board for their marketing ruse (and any other Flikr enthusiast who has ever taken a picture of Laila Peak for that matter). Face on, Laila Peak looks nothing like any of the picutres taken of its beautiful profile. Absolutely nothing like it. It is an enormous, complex and intimidating face with massive, terminal exposure. With the collective experience of the group, this was probably going to be the biggest line any of us had skied. And that was saying a lot. Among the group, some of the biggest, most technically demanding descents Chamonix has to offer were being skied week in, week out before this trip. I speak for the group and I might be wrong but I think everyone was intimidated. And not in a nice way. To the point where we started looking for more achievable objectives.
The above picture was taken at 4400m. The face might look small in this picture but is in fact 1700m high from where I’m standing. That’s a little over 4 times the height of the Empire State Building in New York or more than eight times the height of Canary Wharf in London.
The upper face and all the rock bands. We couldn’t see a clear ski route through anywhere. It looked like there would have to be a rappel. After scouring the face for any chinks in the armour, it seemed like Fred’s line was the only one that really went.
This picture shows the only real weakness in the rockband from the summit that we could see. Laila Peak has never been skied from the summit, so this was all unknown territory.
After a few more looks from different angles, we all started to feel better about Laila again and it was now on! Now we just had to find a safe way up it. There were a few options and a big thanks to Trey Cook for all his help on route information. Climbing the face direct would prove to be too hazardous but there were safe options on the east and south flanks of the mountain. After a failed attempt on the east face due to bad weather, we finally went with the south face which was easy and safe and we were even able to skin up.
As none of us were Greg Hill or anywhere near the level of the light and fast Dynafit team (we were definitely not light), we would not be climbing the face in one push and decided to establish a camp at the col at 5400m. That was 1200m from base camp and 700m from the summit.
Light and fast has its advantages. Well, it’s light…. and….errr….fast. As opposed to its counterpart which is heavy and slow. We were heavy and on the slow side. We managed to boot pack at about 250m/hr with packs ranging from 18 to 25kg. The packs were heavy and it was a bit of a sufferfest at that altitude. Nothing particularly enjoyable about it unless you love suffering. My snowboard alone is around 6kg. Light and fast is always going to be a very hard principle to apply to ski mountaineering. You just have so much more weight than the skiless climber and you have to be that much stronger to carry it all.
After a few midnight starts and lots of slogging, we finally had everything stashed up at the col on 19th June ready for the camp before the summit push on 22nd June. But was the face ready for us?
The problem with our approach to the mountain was that we weren’t climbing what we would be skiing which meant that we spent the best part of five days (including rest days) going up and down the south side of the mountain and never actually being able to see the north west face which we would be skiing. We had no idea what was happening on the face. Not a good position to be in.
When we went round to have a look (which in itself takes up half the day from base camp), the face had changed significantly. There was a lot less snow, the rocks on the upper face were much more visible and there was more ice in the exit couloir. The unstable and cool temperatures of the first week had been replaced by a high pressure system with little cloud cover and lots of sun. Everything was getting baked!
I have never experienced anything like the weather and snow conditions you find in the Karakoram. It’s almost as if the aspect is irrelevant here. Due to the latitude, the sun is so high in the sky that it’s directly overhead for a good few hours through the day baking all faces, even north faces. The temperature swings were drastic too, ranging from 15 degrees while the sun was out and then down to 0 as soon as there was cloud cover. Big changes and snow pack do not like each other.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was constant activity from the mountains on all sides, the streams around camp were flowing faster, there was more and more wildlife and flowers appearing. It really felt like a seasonal change was happening.
That was it for me. The face was out! Things were too hot and too unstable at these altitudes.
We spent two hours watching the face from 16.00 to 18.00 just as the sun was on it. There was a lot of activity on the line, serac fall. All the activity you could possibly want. I managed to get some film of the continual sluff coming off the upper face and some serac fall. It’s a bit hard to see in the video but you can just make it out:
We were all sorely disappointed after all the effort we had put in leading up to and during the expedition. Brendan, the dynamo in the group, was not so keen to admit defeat despite what we were seeing and plans were formed to either just summit and not ski or try and ski a line from lookers right from the summit and back down to the col. The lower part of the face was completely out due to ice and all the snow being washed away. I was fairly firm in my decision not to ski but would be inhuman if I wasn’t wavering. I was wavering.
Understanding the valuable lesson in life that the world doesn’t care about your plans and will do whatever it will despite you doesn’t mean the decision not to ski is any easier. The mountain doesn’t care whether I’ve spent two years planning this trip, a small fortune in gear, pushed and pushed and pushed, had arguments along the way, spent 7 days getting here, used blood, sweat and tears to get up the thing. It all boils down to one simple question: Is the mountain in condition or not? It’s that black and white, that yes and no. If you make it any more complicated than that, then you want it to go but know deep down that it doesn’t. Now you are firmly into Russian Roulette territory, somewhere all my experience and hard learnt lessons are supposed to keep me out of. Remember: the effort you have expended on the mountain is irrelevant and does not make it safer.
We still had all the stuff stashed at the col, so we had to go up again anyway. There was no harm in leaving the door slightly open. At least go and have a look, right? Like I say, I would be inhuman if I wasn’t wavering only slightly.
Things had changed again on the route up to the col. I was suffering from a bad back and wanted to break up the 1200m push to the col, as we had a tent lower down, so went up on my own a little earlier to sleep for a few hours. It was unnerving navigating my way up the snow tongue to the tent in the dark. A new, gushing stream had appeared on the way up. There had been new avalanche activity, big in places and worst of all, the snow was not refreezing. If I had been wavering before, I certainly was not anymore! How deaf did I have to be not to hear the mountains talking to me. I got the closure I had been searching for after my earlier decision not to ski.
I managed to get four hours sleep before the boys joined me and we set off for the remainder of the climb up to the col, getting there for around seven in the morning. It was another beautiful blue bird day with fantastic views towards K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum.
We dicked around on the col for a bit, started melting snow, eating, preparing a platform for the tents and just generally enjoying the rest, good weather and views. The face was looking a little too shiny for my liking. Brendan climbed round the big rock buttress to get a better look at the face before the snow got soft and came back with nothing in particular to report. But he had missed one thing.
Due to the angle of the sun he was unable to see an enormous crown on the face. Directly on the line that we had originally hoped to ski when we came to Pakistan. You can see it in the picture below.
None of us had ever seen a steep face like this slab avalanche. They normally self-purge and are the safest place to be with regards avalanche at least. The avalanche had gone right down to rock, taking with it the snow for a whole season. If ever I needed confirmation for my earlier decision, this was it. The decision was completely out of my hands. In a perverse way, everyone was relieved and happy. We all knew we shouldn’t have been skiing it but the devil on the shoulder was supplying copious amounts of self-doubt. The avalanche silenced him for good.
And so our trip to the Karakoram ended. Ed made one last trip around to the foot of Laila to get a better look at the avalanche and got some nice pictures. The funny thing is that when I’d spoken to Trey, he told me that the face ripped the very next day after they decided snow conditions were unsafe and climbed off the face. We calculated that the face must have avalanched the day between us having a last look and the day before we climbed to the col which was 20th June. When it avalanched on Trey’s trip, it must have been on 18th June when they left for K2. Almost exactly the same time. Hmmm… I see a trend developing here.
And that was that. Our first Karakoram/Himalayan expedition behind us. To be honest, the expedition was tough. I’ll quote Brendan here who said it so well: “I expected it to be tough but I thought it would be easier.” It think that captures the feeling of everyone in the group. We are all skiers first and climbers second. None of us had spent 18 days trying to climb and ski ONE mountain. I don’t think any of us was really getting enough of a fix with the snowboard. Too much slogging and not enough sking. Our packs were so heavy at times when establishing the camp that we even contemplated ditching the boards and walking down, so we didn’t have to carry them up again. I think I personally skied around 2000m in the whole trip which is a paltry amount. We all realised that expeditions of this type do not lend themselves well to getting lots of skiing in. They are driven by an objective and that is to ski Laila and not to ski as much as you can. Like I say, there was a lot of hard work and not a lot of fun with the snowboard.
And then if you add altitude to the mix, you increase the work factor again. Everyone in the team bar me was taking Diamox. Somehow I missed that memo and only found out about it once the trip had begun. I don’t think there was any marked difference in performance (especially in the latter stages of the trip. Come on boys, cut me some slack ;)) but I had real trouble sleeping. I continually stopped breathing (apnea) throughout the trip which meant I hardly ever slept at times and would wake up feeling like I was suffocating. When I was in the tent at 4900m on my own on the last trip to the col, I woke up thinking the tent had collapsed from an avalanche and I couldn’t breathe. Bit of a bad dream. On all accounts, sleep deprivation and these pleasant dreams did not add to the already sparse fun factor. Add to that the epic 7 day trip in and everyone getting ill to varying degrees (I got ill again on the way back and gained 6kg in two days when I got home. I lost a lot of weight) and you can see why this sort of thing is not everyone’s idea of holiday. In fact, I wouldn’t even use the word holiday to describe these sorts of trips unless the word’s completely redefined first, to be synonymous with sufferfest
Would I do it again…….? Never say never but don’t ask me just yet
And before I forget I’d like to thank Brendan, Ed and Luca without whom I would never have been able to do this trip. I would also like to thank Mohammad Ali, Ali Muhammad and Munna of Karakurum Magic Mountain, our agency, who were just fantastic. Everything worked and then when we changed plans, that worked too. Fantastic and professional service. I highly recommend and would use again.
Big thanks also to Vicki at Powertraveller who has been so generous with solar panels over the years. These things are just the best. Light, solid and easy to use. We were able to charge absolutely everything… even the expresso machine (no, there was no expresso machine). And a big thank you to Turmat who kept us fueled with their dehydrated foods.