Trango Towers – A laugh frozen in ice – Rolfe Oostra

Usually things have a nail-biting finish. This is particularly true in the business of climbing mountains. Will they or won’t they reach that summit? Will they or won’t they get back down ok?

For us however, setting off to climb in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan, things turned out to have a nail-biting start.

At first there was a nail-biter as to whether the Pakistani bureaucrats were going to grant us a visa. “I’ll believe it when I am sitting on the plane” became my mantra. Then sitting on the plane, I began to bite my nails thinking about what we were doing. My god, we were going to Pakistan!

MAN! what have we done! By the time we landed in Islamabad my nails were chewed down to the bone. Then as we got stamped into the country I spotted a huge poster showing the mountain we had come to climb! MAN! it looked huge! WHOA! Hang on a minute dude… perhaps we’d better turn around right here and jump right back on that plane. We’d have plenty of time on the flight back to come up with a credible excuse as to why we are back so early.

“Hey there’s Nadir!” shouted Matt as he disappeared out the arrivals gate too quickly for me to grab him and convince him that it had all been a terrible mistake. Reluctantly I followed him out and getting ready to roll behind the nearest car like the tough guys do in action movies, I stuck my head out the door.

Before me stood a huge guy with a big grin on his face. “Need a hand with your bag mate” he said politely, “Here let me carry that thing for you. I am parked just here.” Nadir showed us to his Mercedes and as he caught up with Matt and swapped gossip about their days at university.

Midst conversation we also both learnt that even though it was mid-night everyone was celebrating the annual festival of Ramadan where the day-time hours are dedicated to prayers and fasting. “Are you guys ready to eat” said Nadir as he ushered into a fantastic restaurant where we joined by Mishba his beautiful wife from Saudi Arabia.

I have rarely seen a couple so in love. These newlyweds looked as if they’d stepped directly out of a Hollywood romance. And their hospitality for our short time in Islamabad was staggering. Sure, Matt knew Nadir from his Uni days but here I was, a heathen in their midst being treated as if I were a long-lost brother.

This became the central feature for the expedition; we were treated to incredible hospitality everywhere we went and by everyone we met. In-fact I have never met more polite people in my life. It was not the mildly nauseating “geez everyone is so nice” which you hear some people say but genuine concern about how you slept, how your day was and if you were having a good time.

At first, we wondered if this was because Pakistan has been getting a lot of bad press lately and that everyone was being especially nice to make a good impression about their country.

As time progressed we encountered people who world events had passed by and we found the same thing. “Sit down”, “have a cup of chai”, “eat the food I was going to give my kids”, “sleep on my bed”, “let me carry your bag”. No, we became convinced that the Pakistani were the bee’s knees and that in fact we could do well to pick up some manners from them!

We left Islamabad feeling the contradictory emotions of chilled out bliss and incredible excitement. I had lost the need to chew my nails and instead used my hands for flapping and pointing wildly as we progressed up the road which would previously have me chew my nails down to the knuckles.

The Karakorum highway has a bad reputation and as we whizzed along its many windy curves, bounced over its many wooden bridges and looked over its crumbling edge into the boiling Indus river far below we could understand why. But at the same time, we marvelled at how anyone could cut a road straight out of these incredible rugged mountains and were transfixed at the staggering scenery that appeared around every corner. “look there’s Nanga Parbat!”

The mountains of the Karakoram are like no-place on earth. Like proud sentinels on parade they tower above the mighty Baltoro which at nearly 70 kilometres in length is the world longest glacier outside of the polar circles.

The mountains here do justice to the word mountain. Every single one of them would be the centre of attraction for mountain lovers if they had been anywhere else. Each is carved by the harshest forces on earth into incredible spires, fangs, needles, towers or colossal pyramids. If a five-year-old were to draw a mountain he would draw a Karakorum giant.

The most famous of them need no introduction and inspired awe and fear the moment us scrawny humans first clapped eyes on them; K2, Broad-peak, Masherbrum, the Gasherbrum’s, the Ogre, Chogolisia, Uli Biaho and the Trango Towers.

Ahh… those incredible Trango Towers, how they tempted climbers from around the world to test their mettle against their mighty flanks. The aptly named Great Trango Tower features some of the world’s largest walls.

They appear to have been personally created by a benevolent climbing being as they are forged out of the best granite a climber could wish for. This tower had transfixed me for a long time. But how could I ever hope to see it, let alone get a chance to try and climb it.

Enter Yin and Yang. I can’t pretend to be a great believer in Karma or the dichotomies of opposites. Hell, I don’t even know what that means but I do believe that everyone is entitled to a little bit of luck occasionally.

My Yang (or is that Yin?) was sparked by 3 different entities. A great wife, several great sponsors and a great climbing buddy willing to bank-roll the expedition. The first battled hard with the powers to be and after a huge struggle triumphantly landed a visa stamp in my passport. The second supplies the best adventure equipment on the planet and the third, although lousy at making tea offered me the encouragement needed to nail the occasional freaky ice-pitch.

The climbing was fantastic. Never over the top scary but spicy enough to have me make those teeth sucking noises which so annoys my first Yang. Unfortunately, for my third Yang there wasn’t enough rock climbing to satisfy his tastes but fortunately for me the route we had chosen was plastered in enough ice to test the incredible tools provided by my second Yang.

At times, my Stubai hammers and crampons struck home with a reassuring “thuck”. At times, they bounced right out off the ice, repelled by the rock mockingly hiding just an inch or two from the fingers of Matt who I had enticed to come here with wild stories of endless granite walls.

The rare route descriptions we managed to scrounge on-line had mentioned lots of granite and we had come prepared to climb rock but fate and providence had delivered us the frozen stuff instead. Still never mind I thought perhaps a little bit too gleefully. I had shiny new tools to test and progress up any mountain is much quicker and smoother when there is solid ice to climb.

So up we went. First up the broad ice-filled chute that lead to camp one. Then the ice-covered slabs and head-walls which lead to camp two and then the snow-covered ridge and icy headwalls which led onto the heavily crevassed summit snow-fields. Not much need for Matts rock boots, friends, wires and stoppers but plenty of need for our alpine kit.

Our most nerve tingling moments arrived as the sun set over the incredible peaks around us and it became time to bed down for the night. Our route rarely featured ledges wide enough to pitch a tent but did provide plenty of spots to practice our bivouac skills.

As I carved a snow-trench into the steep north ridge the night before our summit push I thought how much this trench resembled a coffin, then looking up I saw the huge east face of the tower looming above us and thought happily that if we were trapped here by a storm at least I’d have the mother of all tomb-stones.

When confronted with a beast like The Great Trango tower I am always hugely comforted by the fact that I have the BEST PARTNER IN CRIME – no other than the mighty Berghaus. My relationship with them now spans 7 years and during this time I have never had a cause to complain about the kit they have provided.

During our cold bivvies’ I gratefully snuggled into my incredibly warm sleeping bag (rated to – 70!) and as things warmed up I stripped down to my continuously wicking base-layers which kept me cool and sweat free. In the past people joked that I was sponsored by duck-tape as all my kit was patched together by silver shinny strips. In the past, I suffered. Not now though, those times are in the history of memories that has Berghaus only to blame.

To support our climbing endeavours, we employed the services of a basecamp cook and manager. Ibrahim and Saghir are both local Balti men and hail from the remote village of Hushe. We became best of friends immediately.

The tent we used as a kitchen, chicken coop and was the Balti boys sleeping tent became the focal meeting point not just to eat tasty food but to talk for hours about our various lives and to share ideas about the future. These men although from completely different backgrounds understood why we had come here on such an abstract mission.

The seven chickens we had brought along as fresh food and named after the days of the week, were free to roam around the camp but came back to the tent whenever something scared them outside. For them this tent provided a safe haven until the moment they ended up in the cooking pot.

We summited our mountain on the second attempt. The first came to a grinding halt only a stone throw away from the top in foul weather. Our nerves were frayed after falling into two small crevasses and crossing many fragile snow-bridges which spanned bottom-less holes.

So far, we had managed to catch each other’s falls. But to continue into the developing maelstrom would increase our changes of being swallowed up by more slots, the next time perhaps permanently.

So, we bailed, retreated to the comforts of basecamp, rallied our resources and after enjoying more Pakistani hospitality went back up the mighty tower again. This time thankfully we were successful.

Until next time,
Rolfe Oostra
360 Expeditions