Earlier this summer, British climber and mountain guide Will Sim and German alpinist Fabi Buhl made the first ascent of a 900 metre route on the west face of Gulmit Tower in the Hunza region of Pakistan, using paragliders to approach their objective and turning a 4-day trek/climb into a few hours of soaring on thermals and using XC flying techniques. Will shared more about the experience...
Climbing a mountain and flying off is a really fun thing to do. It also sometimes makes sense, being fast, efficient and often bypassing other dangerous obstacles in a conventional descent. But flying up a mountain? Or at least flying to the base of the thing so to climb it, that would be really cool, especially in the bigger, more inaccessible mountains of the world. But does it work?
Gulmit Tower, a 5,800 metre compact granite tower on the edge of the Ultar massif of Hunza, Pakistan has resisted multiple attempts since its first in 1988 by Frenchmen Emmanuel Schmutz and Gerard Decorps. The first attempt and the majority of the five or so subsequent attempts approached from the NE via Gulmit Village and the Bulkish Yaz glacier, encountering problems with avalanche-prone slopes, seracs and blank rock.
The approach from Hunza to the south via the Gurpi glacier has gained a reputation as a convoluted, dangerous route — one only taken a handful of times over the last 20 years. As porters cannot load-carry on the final stage to the Gurpi glacier due to rockfall and steep ground, all said and done it would take four or five days to establish a base camp on this side of the mountain.
It was in the first week of our paragliding-climbing-skiing trip to the Hunza Valley that Fabi Buhl and myself had a "light bulb" moment when we realised that we could probably fly in to the south side of Gulmit Tower from the Hunza Valley. By taking off at 3,000 metres, only just above the town of Karimabad, we hoped to be able to thermal to 5,000 or 6,000 metres and fly above the Gurpi glacier to land at the base of the south west face.
After a few weeks of flying, acclimatising, skiing and hanging out in bad weather based from the town of Karimabad with other team members Jake Holland and Aaron Durogati, a weather window arrived that looked perfect for our plan! Packing as light as possible - flying with a technical rack, ropes, three days of food, axes, crampons, tent etc. meant that we would be flying more than 15kg over the weight limit of our paragliders - we started to prepare for what promised to be a unique adventure.
On 26 June, at about midday, after giving the thermals enough time to strengthen, Fabi, Jake and I took off from Karimabad and a couple of hours later landed at the base of the south side of Gulmit Tower. From the word go it wasn't looking like we were going to all get to Gulmit tower, let alone climb it!
I took off first and got lucky with a strong thermal cycle which enabled me to climb to over 6,000 metres in a relatively short time, but Fabi and Jake got a bad cycle and fought a huge fight to not "bomb out" down by the Hunza River. Luckily Fabi and Jake are very skilled pilots and eventually they managed to find the stronger lift, climb up to the level of the clouds, traverse along the south side of Ultar Sar and make good landings on the upper Gurpi glacier where I had landed an hour previously.
After landing in the safest place we could find - away from seracs, wet snow avalanches and huge crevasses - we pitched our tent and spent a cold few hours before a 2 a.m. start to attack the tower.
The initial, toe-bruising 400 metre couloir, which we had watched avalanche continuously the night before, was now frozen solid. This made for quick progress to a col. From the col we could see in the first dim light of the day that the headwall was compact yet excellent quality granite with chimneys and icy corners. It looked awesome, almost better than it had from the air, we were psyched!
We had decided to climb Gulmit tower as light as possible, leaving our wings and tent below the bergschrund and carrying only a large rack, a duvet jacket each, some chocolate bars and an in-reach each (a type of satphone/tracking device). Although this style can make for really fun, uninhibited climbing when it works, there's always a big risk that it will backfire and you run out of time and energy before the summit. In this case, "fast and light" quickly becomes cold, miserable and unsuccessful.
This thought was certainly going through our minds as yet another pitch of steep-looking granite reared up above us. A band of lighter coloured chossy-looking rock arched through the wall halfway up the headwall and we were worried it might take some time. With bare hands and cramponed feet I rocked over on perfect square-cut edges almost designed for mono points, dumbfounded by how nicely it led me though to a steep crack that - with a few aid moves for speed - gained me access to a ledge and the continuing chimney system.
"You know, this might actually work!" I said to Fabi, referring to the whole mission of paragliding-into then climbing Gulmit tower rather than the individual pitch at hand. In my internal rulebook, voicing that kind of optimism while still embroiled in the task is a major taboo, and I instantly tried to rectify the comment with some pessimism.
A few hours and some physical yet well protected pitches later - 10 pitches since leaving the couloir - we were stood on the summit, in that strange summit-dazed feeling of amazement. I looked down towards Gulmit village on the other side, where most of the previous attempts including the first - coincidently by my girlfriend's father - had taken place, and then down to the Gurpi glacier, just in time to see Jake take off from just above our tent and fly south towards Hunza. He had spent the day taking pictures of us on the headwall from a vantage point on the west col.
Without much communication, Fabi and I started our descent to the glacier, where our getaway vehicles waited for our return.
"Did we really get here by paraglider?!"
After abseiling the tower and downclimbing the couloir back to our tent and wings, we had a decision to make. We had three days of food and had planned not to descend to the valley that night. We had planned to stay on top of the col until almost nightfall to avoid the couloir at its most avalanche prone time, but when we got there we had decided to make a dash for it.
Now down on the Gurpi glacier, it made sense to fly out in the late evening, when the air was warm and we could glide further and even thermal our way out of the Gurpi valley. In its upper section, it is so flat that we weren't absolutely sure the glide ratio of our wings combined with being so overloaded would allow us to fly over the icefall and down to the Hunza Valley.
A game of rock, paper, scissors decided who would take off first, and who would take off second. The second person would carry the stove and gas in case they got stuck there on their own, unable to launch. It was going to go first; I felt happy yet guilty. Happy that I would likely be down in the valley before nightfall, yet guilty that without someone to help Fabi take off on a nasty, avalanche prone slope where an aborted launch may see him stranded on the flat, heavily crevassed slope below, he might be stuck on the Gurpi glacier for some time.
I took a deep breath, inflated my wing and aimed it down the avalanche debris we were launching from. The wing took my weight and just like that I exited the domain of the mountaineer took to the sky. 45 minutes after being in the imposing, isolated cirque of the upper Gurpi glacier I was sat on the side of the Karakorum highway in a mess of paragliding lines, bushes, climbing equipment and high mountain clothes flung off in the 35 degree heat. By rights it should have been another three days to walk to this point. I pinched myself, not quite believing we'd pulled it off…
An hour or more later, Fabi had managed to fly out and land 10km downstream towards Ganish/Karimabad. The Yak curry tasted good in Karimabad that night!
Our adventure on Gulmit Tower answers a question that Fabi and I have had in our minds for some time - can cross country paragliding and technical climbing in the greater ranges work together? In this case the two things worked together perfectly in an entirely logical way, to result in a new route on an unclimbed mountain.
This style will always have limitations, but it also opens up some new possibilities. With a large number of climbers becoming skilled pilots, combined with a huge increase in the performance of modern paragliders, I feel excited and curious for the future of climbing and flying.
Wing - Paraglider
A thermal - A rising column of air which is warm in relation to the surrounding air temperature. A thermal is normally formed when heat in the ground has to go somewhere and releases into the air.
Thermal cycle - Thermals don't stay still or remain constant. They get stronger, weaker, turn "on or off" completely, and move around the mountain as the angle of the sun changes and many other variables. When we go up fast and continuously, we would say we are in a good thermal cycle.
Lift - Air that will carry you upwards, whether it be a thermal, or wind pushing against a mountain and creating a "wave" which you ride upwards, also known as "dynamic lift".
"Bomb out" - When you lose the rising air due to a tactical mistake or just being out of sync with thermal cycles and you are forced to land prematurely, often not where you planned.
Glide ratio - how many metres you sink in relation to distance gained horizontally. In paragliding, this is important because you need to glide to where you can land or the next source of lift, for example a thermal.
Weight limit - All paragliders have a theoretical max weight limit and minimum weight limit. The weight of the pilot and all their gear should be within these parameters. Flying the paraglider under or over weight can change its handling and performance.
Inflating a wing - Allowing the wind to enter the cells on the leading edge, which in turn lifts the wing above your head so to launch.
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