A couple of months back we introduced to you a team of Ski Mountaineers that we were supporting in their attempt to Summit and Ski down Laila Peak. The team have now returned from their expedition with a great story to tell. Below Will Evans takes us through their adventure:
After months of preparation and thinking about little else but Laila Peak, we left for Pakistan at the end of April. Embarking on an eventful journey of planes, buses and jeeps, we finally arrived in the village of Hushe seven days later without any of our ski kit but with 4 chickens. Having been warned we would lose half our body weight to dysentery and associated illnesses we spent some quality time in Skardu ‘fattening up’, playing cricket by the River Indus (2 overs, 3 for 9) and some very unsuccessful trout fishing. By the time our ski bags eventually reached us in Hushe, having been delayed by hold luggage restrictions in Islamabad and bus strikes on the Karakorum highway, we were ready to start skiing.
Everything in the Karakorum is twice the scale of anywhere I had ever been to before – the height of the mountains the size of the glaciers, the rivers and boulders and the extremes in temperature. The landscape is unrelentingly dry and inhospitable apart from the odd green oasis around villages and in areas fed by melt water. It is spectacular but it certainly doesn’t lend itself to easily accessible skiing, which is probably why, to my knowledge, we were only the third group ever to ski in the area.
The first peak we tried was Behusal – a mountain first climbed in 2010 that looks like the Petit Combin in Val de Bagnes but not so ‘petit’. At a height of 5700m it is a full on acclimatization but looked the obvious ski option from Hushe. After a long slog from the village and some quizzical looks from goat shepherds, we negotiated a 1500 vertical metre melange of avalanche debris, thigh deep rotten snow and frozen rivers. We wearily camped at around 4700m. Having left camp before midnight to avoid the heat we climbed the wrong couloir, which meant some exposed traverses and down climbing to get back on track.
We eventually ended up on the summit ridge and were rewarded with amazing sunrise views of K2. The views were great but the snow wasn’t. The snow on the ridge had not re frozen and so you sank to your thighs each step. At 5300m and after too many mutton curries in Skardu there wasn’t enough in the tank to beat the rising sun to the top so we donned our skis for our first Himalayan descent. It was exciting to be skiing where no one had ever skied before. Despite not making the summit, with a vertical drop of 2000m it filled us with confidence for the bigger challenge ahead.
We headed up to Laila base camp shortly afterwards with 26 porters, 300 kg of food and our new purchase – Billy the Goat. I felt like a Victorian explorer with our massive entourage and everyone going out of their way to make sure we were comfortable with a constant supply of tea. It was fun though, and the porters were great company. On the second day we skinned around the Gondogoro Glacier to have a look at the face. After waiting for the clouds to clear we got our first view of Laila; it was both magnificent and intimidating.
We had planned to traverse from the col on the right-hand side of the face and traverse left to the big ramp above the cliffs. We would then ascend on the left-hand side of the ridge to the summit, avoiding the rock band. The traverse under the rocks to the ramp would leave us very exposed; if anything slid we would be swept over the cliffs below so stable conditions were crucial. However there was a fracture line 100 metres above the cliffs. This was coupled with the sight of 3 or 4 spindrift avalanches on the left side. We therefore decided to pick a route through the rocks on the right-hand ridge instead. Although the ski route down did not have the same unbroken fluidity as on the left it would offer more of an escape route back to the col if we got into difficulty.
The following two days we headed up the adjacent valley to Laila Peak to try and ski Pyok Peak (Lailita), which is around 5900m and allows a better view of Laila’s right-hand ridge and the col where we planned to set up camp. This time we picked the correct access route but the weather came in as we approached the summit and within no time we were in a zero visibility white out. This was the theme for much of the next 12 days and playing cards and drinking tea prevailed over skiing. We did take full advantage of any breaks in the weather and skied some fun couloirs above the base camp, tasting our first Pakistani powder. We also set up a campsite on the first col at 5200m and waited for the weather to improve. Unfortunately, after nearly 2 weeks of snow and wind the odds of skiing Laila were not looking great. We decided to have another go at Pyok first to let conditions settle and it meant we could leave our tents and food near to where we would camp before going up Laila. After a cold and tough tour up to the Pyok col at around 5700m through 30-40cm of new snow we were again rewarded with a great view of K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrum’s. The last 200m looked wind loaded and there was no way of staying on the ridge to avoid being under a big convex slope of 40-45 degrees. We split into pairs to avoid all being on the face at the same time. I dutifully followed Petter – the seasoned avalanche guinea pig – but as the slope steepened and after digging into the snow pack, we found a significant weak layer in the snow so decided to not go on. We had a great ski down from the col with light powder at the top and spring snow lower down, and returned to the base camp in good spirits.
Again the weather closed in and for a while we were worried about even making it to the col to retrieve our tents and food. Four days before we were due to leave the weather improved so it was now or never if we were going to attempt Laila.
After collecting our equipment and food at the first col we had about a 1km traverse and 200m vertical ascent to the second col from where we planned to climb Laila. Although exposed, the climb did not appear particularly difficult. However, the snow had not re frozen and the next 4.5 hours were spent wading up to our waists in snow. We had to take a much longer route; staying close to the cliffs to avoid being in the middle of an avalanche prone slope. It was not much fun and we eventually reached the col feeling pretty shattered.
It was a beautiful place though with incredible views of the Gondogoro Glacier and Trinity Peaks. After setting up our tents we traversed onto the main face and dug a couple of pits to assess the snow pack. It was pretty much the same as on Pyok with 35-40cm of wind slab on top of sugary snow. Although the evidence was clear I found it hard to admit defeat and spent the rest of the day mulling over whether there was an alternative route or whether by staying on the right hand ridge we would be OK. However, after discussing it at length we decided it would be too much of a risk.
It’s hard when it’s your main objective but if the conditions are stacked against you then you have to accept it.
We may not have achieved what we set out to do but it was still an incredible experience to ski in such an untamed place. In somewhere like the Karakorum’s you need a lot of luck with the weather and snow conditions and these factors unfortunately don’t really care about your best laid plans. I will have great memories of the skiing but just as many from the people we met – Ghulam (our cook), Hassan Jan and the guys from Hushe who are attempting to be the first Pakistani team to climb K2. They were all really humble and inspiring people and ‘Inshallah’ they will have success this summer. For all of us it was our first time in the Himalaya’s and I feel very fortunate to have been able to go on a ski trip to such a remote and beautiful part of the world.
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