Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Link Sar (better late than never!)


With a bit of down time in Kathmandu whilst I wait to fly to Lukla and join the others I've eventually found the time to post some words I wrote about my trip to Pakistan with Jon Griffith last summer.  Please excuse the spelling and grammar....

We had approached the face in wet sleet and knee deep sodden snow.  It was shit.  Ignoring the enormous faces and the gaping crevasses we had to negotiate it was like walking into Stob Coire nan Lochan in typical Scottish weather – nothing was frozen, you get soaked and you really start to wonder why you are there.



photo - Jon Griffith


Yet we were far from Scotland.  Jon Griffith and I had travelled to the Charakusa Valley in Pakistan to attempt an unclimbed Karakorum mountain, Link Sar.  The Charakusa is one of the more climbed out valleys in Pakistan.  Dominated by the towering golden granite spires of the K7 massiff, like Chamonix on steroids and the huge complex northern faces of the three K6 peaks.  Link Sar sits in the back corner, almost forgotten.  It’s name translated literally as ‘Linking Peak’ but it is far more than just a bump on the chain of peaks between its more well known neighbours.  Not much is known about Link Sar, it is hard to see the mountain in it’s entirety to plan the ascent, to know what to expect, a complex mountaineering puzzle waiting to be solved.  But that’s the draw for Jon and I, the unknowns, guaranteed of adventure whether or not the summit is reached.

photo - Jon Griffith

We didn’t make it all the way to the base of the face as we had hoped that day, the lack of an overnight freeze on the glacier had slowed us down at the end of the 8km approach from base camp and as the temperature rose the mountains come alive.  We picked a small island of safety tucked under a rock buttress to hack out a ledge and escape the weather.

photo - Jon Griffith


It was still snowing hard later that afternoon and everything was soaked.  It wasn’t meant to be like this, it should be cold and dry.   We pretty much decided to bail there and then before we’d even seen the face.  I am not an overly confident climber, everything needs to be right to set off up an unclimbed 7,000m peak and it just felt like everything was against us.  But this isn’t Chamonix either, you can’t wait for the perfect weather, perfect conditions and numerous blog posts to give you all the beta.  Decisions are made on the weather, everything else you just have to deal with.  It was a tight one, but we did have the weather window we needed.

photo - Jon Griffith

The next day the glacier still hadn’t refrozen and more tiring post holing eventually got us to the base of the face.  Our concern now wasn’t the wet gear but the amount of snow it had put down.  We were later on the face than we’d hoped and the sun would soon swing round.  The East Face of K7 already bathed in the morning light was fully alive with avalanches as the intense sunlight heated up the snow. 

It was with very mixed emotions that I had stepped back onto the Northwest Face of Link Sar.  Two years ago my body had said no.  Fighting off a virus, my mind was willing but the body not.  With my confidence shattered, it had taken a long time to want to pick up ice axes again and even longer for my body to properly heal. 






Linking lines of snow we managed to avoid most of the black ice and made steady progress up the face.  Helped by the fact that the clouds had returned making it a lot safer but adding to the fresh snow from yesterday.  The first bivi on a snow arĂȘte was one of the more exposed places I’ve ever put a tent up.  One of those situations I’d seen pictures of before I was a climber, stared at in ore, wondering how they’d perched a tent there.  Feeling pretty tired after the last couple of days it was a massive relief to find the ledge Jon and Kevin had spent hours hacking out of black ice last year.  Half an hour of easy shovelling and we had a tent size platform ready.

photo - Jon Griffith

The following day we stayed put where we were.  We’d been thankful of the afternoon weather rolling in the day before, sparing us from the torture of the intense and powerful sun.  But climbing the next section, of the face before it had had a full day in the sun to shake of its latest layer of snow would have been suicidal.  We lost a day of climbing but I could think of worse places to hangout, loosing myself in the Karakoram vista. 

It was just after 11pm as I pressed the snooze button for a second time.  The warmth and relative safety of the tent make it too easy to put off committing ourselves higher to the face.  Besides, we’d got used to our tiny exposed perch on the side of Link Sar, eventually we coaxed ourselves out of the tent.  Whilst Jon climbed up into the blackness, retracing his steps from last year, I savoured the spacious and flat platform with the faint flicker of his headlamp occasionally visible as he slowly climbed up the steep ice face above.  The rope came tight and I followed on behind him.  Separated by 60m of rope we slowly climbed upwards, moving together lost in our own worlds of thought. 



photo - Jon Griffith




Soon darkness had been replaced by the dawn of a new day.  The sun we would soon be hating slowly rose behind us with the vast vista of the Karakorum mountain range stretching out before us.  It’s moments like this that you truly start to appreciate how small we are and the scale and beauty of your surroundings.

photo - Jon Griffith

The following mixed pitches had flowed well, they were even fun and enjoyable.  I’d taken over the lead from Jon and found myself in a steep goulotte, tapping the picks of my axes into the narrow and brittle seam of ice.  Steep granite walls rose either side, with the remnants of Jon and Kevin’s stuck rope from last year just to my left reminding me I’m not the first and serving as a reminder to Jon of the suffering last year.  This was my second attempt on Link Sar, but for Jon now on his fourth attempt the history was much deeper.

We were in the central gully line of the face now, looking up at relentless steep black ice to the gravity defying cornices above.  Before the trip Jon had tried to describe these, terrifying was a term he kept coming back to.  Looking back at the photos now I can stare mesmerized at how nature has sculpted these features, but at the time knowing we had, at some point, to climb under them I agreed with Jon. Terrifying.  Gargoyles overlooking what was to become our hell. 

photo - Jon Griffith

I hate black ice, and we had hundreds of meters of it ahead. Like a child's pencil joining the dots in a drawing book I'd gone from one protruding rock to another. No matter how small, they offered us the tiniest of relief from the calf burning front pointing.  The buttress we were climbing under offered a small amount of protection from the cornices above.  We were now climbing pitch by pitch, no more moving together.  We were fully exposed to the cornices above.  On one of the most exposed pitches we would normally have properly gunned it, but by that point we had nothing left and had to let fate take it hand as we crawled our way up.  We’d been completely destroyed by the altitude, sun, the black ice and the heavy packs.

Traversing vertical but surprisingly solid neve with the heavy pack on my shoulders constantly trying to pulling me down, it was a relief beyond belief to join Jon at his belay on the ridge and escape the face.  But Link Sar wasn’t letting us have it easy yet.  Jon dug his way through unconsolidated snow and honeycomb ice along the ridge for an hour until he eventually found a spot to dig a tent platform, 17 hours after leaving the last one.
Hacking away into the ice we were treated to some of the most surreal light you can imagine.  It was pure magic and for a brief moment we even let ourselves forget about the turmoil of the day.  The sun we had cursed for most of the day was now rewarding us with a view I’ll cherish for a life time.

photo - Jon Griffith


Then reality rapidly returned.  Back in the relative safety of the tent Jon’s drive for survival to escape the face, that raw instinct that keeps you going when your body wants otherwise, had gone. He’d given it everything.  We’d given it everything.  But now the cold he’d left base camp with had won and turned into a chest infection.  Collapsed in the tent and full of fever, in a completely delirious state he had mumbled away in an unintelligible mixture of English and French.  Complete gibberish.  I couldn’t get him to eat or drink.  Apart from a few slices of saucisson he touched nothing.  I was scared.  Sleep didn’t come that evening and summit aspirations were the last thing on our minds.  Instead, I was constantly running through every scenario of how I was going to get us both off the mountain safely the next day. 

photo - Jon Griffith


The next day Jon had to rest, to slowly rehydrate and refuel his weakened body.  Descending would have been the sensible option but he felt he could at least reach the West Summit.  Besides we had got that far and given it so much on this time we knew neither of us would be back for another go.

The following day Jon wanted to lead straight off, to test himself.  We left the north face line of retreat and committed to descending the South Face of the mountain.  More unknowns, more adventure, more uncertainty.  Steep sections of unconsolidated snow, big runouts, easier but still awkward climbing, we were moving, making progress.  The enjoyment and fun was back after the horrors and pain for the northwest face two days ago.



photo - Jon Griffith

photo - Jon Griffith

We looked across at a view we’d dreamt of for years. Only 100m higher but nearly 1km away protected by a mess of convoluted cornices and granite gendarmes the main summit of Link Sar would have to be for someone else.  We were out of time and weather, we’d pushed it far enough.  The giant sun halo we’d be climbing under all day was spectacular but a sure sign the weather was changing; our window was gone, the next storm front slowing moving in in the distance, black and ominous. But standing on the 6,938m west summit we were not disappointed, the dream like vista was breath-taking and unforgettable, worthy of all the pain and hard work of the last five days.  We were satisfied and happy, we’d done what we could, gambled as much as we were willing on this adventure.



It was too dangerous to descend during the day so we put the tent up right next to the summit, once again another wild place to spend the night with amazing views over the Karakoram giants - K2, Broad Peak, Masherbrum, and the Gasherbrum’s to the Northwest and a birds eye view down into the closed off Kondus Valley to our east.

Jon’s fever had returned during the afternoon, inevitable I guess.  I worried again, the situation even more serious than before if he had continued to deteriorated.  The snow that had started briefly during the night had been even more worrying.  Link Sar was not a place to be descending off in bad weather, it would quickly become a torrent of avalanches, a fight for survival as the steep slopes struggled to hold the snow.  We were both scared now. 



photo - Jon Griffith

By 3.30am the snow had stopped and Jon was feeling good.  The decent down a large gully on the south side went quick, Jon keen to do his bit again leading the way.  I post holed down the unfrozen glacier, every step tentative as I expected to fall through into some unseen gaping crevasse as the powerful sun weakened the snow bridges. The ice fall we had naively thought to be ok took hours to navigate through.  Dead end after dead end.  Crawling on my stomach to spread the weight as I crossed over yet another weak snow bridge, holding my breath expecting it to break. We stopped at one point, not entirely sure we’d find a way out this maze of towering ice block and crevasses.  How one of us didn’t take a ride into one of the many dark bottomless holes we crossed I really don’t know.  Maybe, at last, after pushing us to the limit for the last seven days since leaving base camp, the mountain was showing us a bit of respect.  Eventually sat down on the safety of the dry Charakusa Glacier, I hoped we had earned it.



photo - Jon Griffith



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