Eternal Flame is one of the most famous and classic rock climbs in the world. First climbed in 1989 by the legendary German team of Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert, it has seen many subsequent ascents and for those capable of and interested in hard big-wall free climbing, it has become one of the 'ultimate ticks'. The original ascent was climbed mainly free and required a concerted push from Kurt Albert after Güllich sustained an injury before the climb was completed.
Albert had to lead almost all of the difficult upper pitches and on the final hard pitch (E5/6), after six days of continuous hard climbing at altitude, he faced a serious fall when all his runners fell out. Luckily, despite cramp and skinned fingers, he held on and completed what is now considered to be one of, if not the finest big-wall rock route in the world.
The first ascent of Eternal Flame is documented in the superb book 'Himalaya Alpine Style' by Stephen Venables and Andy Fanshawe.
Albert and Güllich managed most of the route free but left a few sections of aid. Various teams have attempted to free the entire route and slowly the aid was whittled down to just a short 15m section. Most note-worthy of all these ascents is perhaps that of Denis Burdet and team, who back in 2003 were responsible for dispensing with almost all of the remaining aid sections on the wall, bar the blank bolt ladder on pitch 10.
Spanish strong-men the Pou brothers climbed Eternal Flame on their '7 Walls 7 Continents' challenge back in 2005 and found a variation to the blank 15m section on pitch 10, the only remaining aid on the route. Although they didn't properly free this variation (as it was very wet), they managed to climb all the moves on top rope and suggested a grade of F8a.
“We climbed the variation to the 10th pitch. Iker free-climbed it all, but he couldn't make it in one go, due to the stream of water going down the cracks. The new pitch is 50 meters long, its difficulty going up to 8a. We called it “Pou Brothers Variation”, and we think it is a further step to eventually free-climb the entire route.” they explained after their ascent.
Commenting on this route back in 2008, UKC editor Jack Geldard stated: "With the line discovered and all the moves climbed free, it is only a matter of time and conditions before the entire route goes free."
And it seems he was right, well almost. The Huber brothers couldn't free climb the Pou Brothers Variation as to their dismay they discovered it is always either wet or covered in ice. They had to discover a new passage to make the successful redpoint.
Below is the story of their ascent, told by Thomas and Alex and accompanied by superb photographs.
Once upon a time ... eight years ago to be precise, after our successful expedition to Ogre III and The Ogre, all my climbing plans revolved around the wild walls of the Karakoram. Alpine ascents on high mountains were my greatest challenge, while pure rock routes became of secondary importance. My brother Alexander, however, had quite different goals. In his life microscopic holds on compact rock walls were still central. Would the paths of the Huber brothers separate? Alexander, the analytic mind of our team, convinced me with a persuasive argument: “The clock of our free climbing-careers is steadily ticking. Today we still can climb hard, but in a few years that will be history. Then we will have enough time for the big walls on the big mountains.” That was a hard one to refute!
So, my life continued to be focused on free climbing. El Cap and other rock walls furnished my dreams and the Karakoram was almost forgotten.
Today I am 42 years old and time is running out, the clock is ticking louder than ever. We are on our way! This time the trip to the mountains seems to be more dangerous than the goal itself. We're on the aeroplane to Pakistan, currently one of the most dangerous countries in the world. But for me it is also a place of unforgettable memories and a country of many fond friends, like Ismail and Kassim. In the Dubai airport we raise our last glasses of beer for the coming seven weeks – a painful moment for us Bavarians: Cameraman Franz Hinterbrandner, Alexander and I. And Mario Walder from East Tyrol shares our feelings.
Seven weeks of expedition in the Karakoram, Trango group, Nameless Tower! We are out for the “most beautiful” route in the world: Eternal Flame. Exactly 20 years ago, Kurt Albert, Wolfgang Güllich, Milan Sykora and Christoph Stiegler created this jewel in the mountain wilds. They free climbed all but four pitches. Yosemite-like cracks in the orange granite, pitches up to 5.12, a benchmark route of alpinism. The names Güllich and Albert, the photos of the first ascentionists and the reports of the parties repeating the route have made Eternal Flame the most famous rock climb in the Himalayas and the Karakoram.
In 2003, Denis Burdet took on the challenge of a complete free ascent, and he actually succeeded in considerably reducing the aid used back in 1989. He added a 5.12d and a 5.13a pitch to the difficulties negotiated by the first ascentionists. At an altitude of more than 6000 metres! This certainly was a free climbing "altitude record“. But still Eternal Flame resisted a first redpoint ascent as the bolt ladder on pitch ten could only be climbed on aid. And the pendulum in the second pitch defended itself with four meters of featureless granite.
The cream of the crop arrived on the scene in 2005: The Pou brothers from Spain and the Petit brothers from France. Big names in the sport of climbing. Their presence in base camp was enough to give away their “raison d'être à Trango”. But the summer of that year was anything else than blessed with good weather. Both teams arrived at the summit, but their goal – the redpoint ascent of Eternal Flame – was denied to them. All the same, Iker – one of the Pou brothers – could unveil one more mystery. He found a possibility to bypass the bolt ladder to its right. On a toprope, he decrypted all the moves and estimated the section at solid 5.13. His variation only had one slight flaw: A part of the pitch is at most times either iced up or drenched by a waterfall.
The four metre traverse on pitch two – can we climb it or find an alternative? Can we get up the Pou variation despite the ice? These two thoughts gnaw on our minds while we acclimatise. The rest we can certainly deal with, if the weather stays good. Our two faithful cooks Ismail and Kassim, supported by our guide Manzoor, who accompanied Wolfgang Güllich 20 years ago – a really good omen! – , spoil us in base camp and put in a good word with Allah when we are on the mountain: "We will pray for good weather and success!"
We indulge in the privilege of fair weather climbing! After ten days we have established our camp 2 on Sun Terrace. A wonderful place, like an eagle's nest. Two tents on a tiny platform above the abyss. Nameless Tower rises vertically above us; we are surrounded by the imposing giants of the Karakoram. The first night at 5500 metres has caused us no trouble at all, which is important for our climbing performance. Today we will try to lift the first secret of Eternal Flame. The four metres. Will they go or not? Failure or success? Today we will know.
An hour later, I am eyeing a slightly off-vertical slab with crumbly footholds. It seems to be possible, but not really inviting. If it would go, it would be damn hard. But there is another option. From the start of the traverse a line of fine cracks leads straight up for 30 meters. From there a slabby, but structured traverse could be followed all the way over to the crack system of Eternal Flame. This should definitely be possible and looks much nicer! In the evening we are back in camp. With a smile on our faces, the four meters having been outsmarted. We have spent the whole day with these two pitches, have put in all the pro and climbed all moves at a maximum difficulty of 5.12a. What a gift! Franz and Mario, who have ascended three more pitches and left their ropes fixed, join the celebration of our stage victory. A bank of clouds is moving in from the west, so we descend to base camp. Three hours later we are sitting in the kitchen tent with steaming mugs of “Green Tea”.
Bad weather at last! The first real rest days since arriving in base camp. Our tired bones can do with some recovery before the final push. The next go could mean: Redpoint to the summit.
After three days hanging out in base camp our meteorologist from Innsbruck, Karl Gabel, announces perfect weather for the upcoming week! There is no doubt: We wouldn´t get a better chance! Early in the morning, at 3am, we set off and by noon we reach our camp on the Sun Terrace. A short break, and we are on our way again. From now on, Mario is in the lead, fixing the ropes for Franz, who is filming and photographing our redpoint ascent. This way we will get a perfect documentation without having to climb any of the pitches twice: “Everything live, no posing, fully authentic.”
Off we go! Alexander leads the first pitch. We swap leads all through the route, climbing everything free from belay to belay and without falls. Quite simple and logical. Pitch number one is a mere 5.4, a real warm up. Then our new ones: “Come on Baby”, redpoint, “Light my Fire”, a slabby 15 metre traverse, redpoint, and then the short crack pitch “Come Together”. Here we join the original route. And we continue climbing. Three more pitches, until the melt-water makes further progress impossible. A perfect start!
The next day... Question mark number two is waiting for us: The bolt ladder. To follow it directly is impossible. Hansjörg Auer, who generously provided a lot of information, has made this clear. Featureless and vertical, no chance! However, he mentioned that it might be feasible to find a variation further to the right. Then the e-mail from Iker Pou: “A short traverse”, he wrote, “not more than four meters from crack to crack”. An extremely hard boulder move on two micro edges, cruel little knives. On the other hand, the moves were described as being a lot of fun!?! And Iker thought that the section shouldn't be a problem for us if the conditions were good. “Let's wait and see!“ One thing was certain, however: Our failure wouldn't be due to the weather, for it couldn't have been better.
But our stream of luck seems to run out fast. A short time later I am hanging from the bolt that Pou placed, trying to perform what Iker had prophesied to be “ningun problema“ for us. "No chance!", I say to Thomas, who had just hopefully chirped up to me our optimistic "Geht scho = It'll go!" Nothing will go! Nothing at all. Do I lack the Iker-power? Frustrating minutes pass before I suddenly realize: There in front of me is only one knife edge and not two as Iker Pou had reported. Where the second one should be, is a pale grey spot in the toast coloured granite. Shit. The hold is gone. Hopeless. One thing is certain: It is not more than a metre that is missing, but I cannot climb it.
But didn't Hansjörg say something like "it looks possible"? He can't have meant the Pou-Boulder! You have to position your oculars not further than ten centimetres from its minute features to identify the holds as such. So I set out to search for an alternative, and – lo and behold! – find my chance further to the right. A fine crack and a hidden dihedral. Not easy, and by no means a piece of cake. But the emerging 5.13d at least doesn't throw me off. “Wish you were here“, Wolfgang Güllich certainly would have been thrilled at the way we struggled with his masterpiece!
Back in camp. We try to calm down, feeling equally happy and tense. Happy because we solved the last free climbing riddles of Eternal Flame. Tense, because a difficult task is waiting for us tomorrow: The 5.13a crux and one pitch rated 5.12d! Demanding climbing above an altitude of 6000 metres, in thin air – and perhaps even the summit?
This is our day! Now we are standing on the large terrace half way up the wall. To the left of us a dark, iced up dihedral. To the right of it the giant pillar, the flame. The Eternal Flame: A perfect title for a perfect piece of art. "Say my Name!" As if Kurt and Wolfgang themselves had blasted the crack into this pillar, a Salathé-headwall at 6000 meters. It was 20 years ago that they jammed their way up there, defining the state of the art in their own characteristic fashion: “Redpoint in the great ranges.”
50 metres higher up is the crux. It doesn't look easy at all! A thin crack line splits the otherwise featureless, vertical pillar. Although, according to the topo, two bolts and three pegs should be in place, we see nothing of them. So an on sight attempt is inconceivable – good that we brought everything along. Slowly I aid my way up, my enthusiasm waning the higher I get: “We'll never make this!” Although I know that Denis Burdet has already freed this pitch, I am not sure: “Did he really climb this specific crack? Or did he perhaps go somewhere else?”
Thomas and I work on the problem separately. While Thomas jumars my fixed rope, examining the individual moves of the “we'll-never-make-this-crack”, I rappel from the belay into an overhanging dihedral down to the right of it and: “Yes, the corner will certainly go!” I climb all the sequences, running a jumar along the rope for protection. It won't be easy, but it could be possible. But... this stretch cannot be protected without bolts. And we don't have any bolts with us! Even if this really could be free climbed, we will not be able to redpoint it today. I arrive back at the belay. Thomas is also there, but in a significantly better mood than me: "It'll go!" So it was the original thin crack line that Denis Burdet had freed. 5.13a just isn't easy! I'd lost my pluck too early. Good that Thomas is such a fighter!
Now we start working on the moves, bouldering out the whole pitch, marking the tiny footholds and the fingerlocks and fixing a few small stoppers for protection. It takes over an hour before we are ready. Thomas gives the pitch a first try, getting well above the hardest move. But one of the tiny footholds breaks and it is all over. I am luckier with my attempt, thank God, as every try takes a toll on our strength. Soon Thomas starts to follow the pitch and makes it to the belay.
Above us is the next pitch that Dennis had rated it 5.12d. Again a thin crack, and again completely stripped of protection. Mario is working his way up already, aiding with bird beaks and knifeblades. It looks hard and doesn't promise rapid success. The disappointment smothers our hopes of reaching the summit today. Suddenly, things have turned uncomfortable. The sun has disappeared around the arête and the cold lets our drive sizzle to zero. Finally Mario reaches the next belay. Although we don't feel like it at all, we make up our minds to at least try this pitch. Thomas checks out the moves, starts to lead – and makes it to the belay. Although he is happy this is hardly perceivable – he is much too cold to express his feelings. I follow up the crack, Thomas guiding me through every single move in the maze of complex crux sections. Metre by metre I wind myself upwards towards redemption. The top may still be far from reach, but the way to it is open! Nevertheless we have to see that the summit is out of reach for today. But there is no stress coming up: “Hey, what's the rush. According to Charly, the weather should hold for another two days, and he's always right!”
Day 4: Still two 5.11-cracks to go, followed by 150 metres of much easier terrain. Then the summit. We reach the top exactly at noon, all four of us – Mario, Franz, Thomas and myself. Around us all the giants of the Karakoram, inside us a great experience. It sounds like a rock song left embedded in the granite exactly twenty years ago by our great idols Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert. And we are happy for the chance we have had to participate in the development of this exceptional route.
Rock n' roll in the heart of the wild Karakoram: "Come on Baby, light my fire! Let´s come together! Darling, do you feel my heart beating? Hey, do you feel the same? Am I only dreaming? I wish you were here, I burn for you! I watch you when you are dreaming, you belong with me. Say my name. Sun through the Rain, a whole Life so lonely. Ease the Pain! I don´t wanna lose this Feeling , it´s the Eternal Flame!" – a declaration of love for a very special moment.
Thomas and Alex Huber are sponsored by: