ARTICLE - The Great Game - First Ascents in Pakistan

Tom Livingstone recounts an eventful trip to Pakistan this autumn, where he and Ally Swinton made a first ascent on the unclimbed North-west face of Koyo Zom. WARNING: This article contains images of injuries which some squeamish readers might find difficult to look at!


Ally and I sat in an empty hotel restaurant; the morning's silence lingered peacefully. High vaulted ceilings towered overhead, like the crux headwall of Koyo Zom. I looked around; empty tables and half-tucked chairs littered the room. The space was overwhelming, like stepping into a cathedral, and I shifted in my seat. It reminded me of our long, cold bivies.

The team with Koyo Zom in the background.  © Uisdean Hawthorn
The team with Koyo Zom in the background.
© Uisdean Hawthorn

I wanted to reach out and fill the void in this great hall. Yesterday, we'd been surreally teleported to safety from one of my most intense alpine climbing experiences. Ally Swinton and I had quested up a new route, delicately pulling on flakes of rock as we picked our way through mixed ground. 'Get some!' I'd shouted as we climbed overhanging granite in rock shoes, the stones I threw over my shoulder falling for hundreds of metres. On the fifth day, bent double with heaving lungs, we slogged to the summit. The raw, pure existence of high-altitude alpinism took everything from us.

The day after we summitted, we walked down a glacier towards Base Camp. On the home straight, we thought. Tonight we'll be back with the rest of the lads. But then, an accident, a helicopter rescue, and now… a hotel restaurant? Eight days in the mountains, and suddenly: warmth? Food? Water? It felt alien.

I looked around at the endless space again. We had been cast adrift. Abandoned, surrounded by nothing; no snow to melt, no worrying storm clouds. The last 28 hours were spent spooning Ally as the blood on his head dried, and I could still smell it on my clothes. Now, we floated in a sea of empty restaurant tables. I thought back to where it all began.

***

Pakistan has a bad reputation. Terrorism is rife and there are riots on the streets - or so people assumed when I said I was returning to the mountains in the far north. I saw their eyebrows rise and the shock on their face. 'Is it safe?' they'd ask, doubtful of my response. It didn't help that I'd be within a few miles of the Afghanistan border.

Will Sim had 're-discovered' the Hindu Raj region. Years of political instability and tension had closed this mountainous, and remote area to foreigners. Until eight years ago, the Taliban had occupied the nearby Swat valley. The Hindu Raj remained hidden, submerged in mystery and a lack of information. But Will's curiosity and research secured a permit for this autumn, and he invited John Crook, Ally Swinton, Uisdean Hawthorn and me to join.

Our objective was the impressive Koyo Zom (6877m). Like a medieval fortress in the wilds of Asia, its bulk looks towards the plains of Afghanistan, China and Tajikistan. An enormous, square north face is capped by seracs, and a snowy summit pyramid sits like a crown. The seracs look terrifying, and you can immediately see why the only ascents have climbed the easier, east face. In 1968, a team of Austrians made the first ascent; British climbers repeated this route in 1974. Since then, the mountain - and region - had remained dormant.

Enjoying a team meal in Base Camp.  © Tom Livingstone
Enjoying a team meal in Base Camp.
© Tom Livingstone

***

Arriving in the heat and hustle of Islamabad on the 1st September, our team of five Brits was joined by four Pakistanis, who organised the logistics, cooking and life in Base Camp. Imran, Mohsin, Nabeem and Eshaan were as excited as we were to explore another region of Pakistan; most of their work was in the Karakoram range. The Hindu Raj was an intriguing place for us all.

We reached Base Camp on our sixth day. Lying on the warm, scraggy grass, surrounded by porter's loads, it was easy to forget the dusty, bumpy days of riding in Jeeps. We'd rumbled up arid valleys like an ant crawling along a giant's spine, the rough track shaking us like a bag of bones. As we journeyed further into the mountains, occasional villages faded into isolated hamlets. Great fields of crops became small, valuable strips of arable land. Life became the simplicity of subsistence farming. We waved to everyone with the formal Urdu greeting, 'salaam alaykum!' ('peace be upon you'). Intense, sullen stares instantly cracked into friendly smiles, handshakes offered in return.

A man from the Yarkhun valley carrying the team’s equipment to base camp.  © Uisdean Hawthorn
A man from the Yarkhun valley carrying the team’s equipment to base camp.
© Uisdean Hawthorn

Every evening, we arrived at a local guesthouse. We stretched aching bodies in the sun, but when it suddenly dipped behind a ridge-line, the light and warmth was snuffed like a thumb in a candle. The hush of dusk rushed up the valley. Stars began to pinprick the sky; the moon, clear and bright, grew fatter every night. It was a slither when we arrived in Islamabad, but now it swelled, glowing like a pockmarked disc.

On our final day of driving, now in the remote Yarkhun valley a few hours from the Afghanistan border, we passed tin-roofed houses with mud walls; children and chickens rushed out of the road as our Jeeps thundered by. Weathered men simply watched, emotionless, as we left ghostly dust clouds swirling in our wake.

A Great Game of football.  © Uisdean Hawthorn
A Great Game of football.
© Uisdean Hawthorn

At last, we saw our mountain: Koyo Zom. Instantly recognisable, we jabbered and whooped at the reality after months of anticipation. The seracs loomed over the entire north face, and we all agreed the most attractive option was the right-hand skyline, which rose into a vast, pale-yellow headwall.

At sunset, as the face melted from blood-orange to gold, we knew we'd found a worthy mountain. It looked 'nails for breakfast'; bowing walls nearly a mile high, and the headwall glowing, luring, daring. We couldn't stop pointing. 'Wow! Maybe left from the icefield… then up and right, following a ramp-line…?' But we were also intimidated at the thought of the summit being over 3300 metres higher than our Base Camp. We ducked into our tents as the full moon shimmered over the summit. I can think of few more exciting, addictive and dangerous things than questing onto an intimidating mountain; Koyo Zom looked just the poison.

Acclimatising at the foot of Koyo Zom.  © Ally Swinton
Acclimatising at the foot of Koyo Zom.
© Ally Swinton

***

Acclimatisation is a painful necessity in alpinism. If we tried to climb straight to the summit, we'd simply grind to a halt. We had to let our bodies adapt to the altitude repeatedly like a yo-yo. We spent several days lying in a tent with a headache, but our two groups bantered back and forth - at least the process was sociable in a team of five. Sudoku, chess, and the occasional meal broke the monotony. Ideally, you want to sleep 1000 metres lower than your objective's summit. Since Koyo Zom was 6877m and the nearby mountains only 5500m, we decided to 'crag' the start of our planned route on the right-hand skyline (the north-west face). We'd sleep at the necessary altitude, get a good idea of the initial icefield, and take a closer look at the headwall.

John, Ally and I spent a cold night at the top of the icefield, breathing heavily at 5880m. We created a ledge of snow using a purpose-built hammock to catch debris beneath us, since we quickly hit hard ice and rock. The full moon shone like a comforting beacon, and it was so bright we woke early, thinking it was dawn. Unfortunately, Will and Uisdean were ill and stayed in Base Camp. It was almost inevitable that some of our team would get sick, but we still felt for them; it was unfortunate to miss out on crucial acclimatisation.

Mohsin batting for Pakistan against UK at base camp.   © Uisdean Hawthorn
Mohsin batting for Pakistan against UK at base camp.
© Uisdean Hawthorn

Returning to Base Camp after several nights away, we gorged on the luxurious, simple life of 'home.' Imran changed Ally's name to 'Ally Boom Boom' (I'll give you a clue - if you 'Boom Boom' yourself in public, you'll be arrested!), and Uisdean became 'Steve' because his name was too hard for Imran to pronounce.

Mohsin cooked delicious curries, dhal, vegetables, chicken and goat. We played cricket, until we lost all the balls. Uisdean took up speed-sudoku, Will and Ally passed a book back and forth, John fumed at his Kindle deleting the second half of his story, and I began cutting labels out of my jackets. We spent hours playing cards, and somehow I was Shithead more often than not…

The weather remained mostly settled, but as the leaves on stunted trees began to turn fiery red, we knew cold temperatures and autumn snows were approaching. We could now see the moon during the day, too, faintly arcing through the sky over Koyo Zom.

***

On expeditions, you reach a terrible moment when you know it's time to climb. In the months before a trip, the concept of alpine climbing is far in the future. During acclimatisation, you're still learning the mountain's moods; you watch how clouds boil around the peak; you see where snow sticks to the face; and you stare as sunshine and shadow reveal new features. Climbing is ignored because so much can happen between now and then - the team, weather and conditions all need to align. But eventually… the moment arrives.

All five of us sat down for breakfast on Sunday 22nd September, and a weather forecast flashed on the Garmin InReach Mini. 'Sunshine and good weather continues.' The carefree atmosphere quietly slipped out the door on the breeze, and our long-buried thoughts of climbing surfaced: who felt acclimatised; the right-hand line; and what alternatives existed. The left-hand skyline of Koyo Zom also shone, appearing to have more moderate climbing along a complex ridge. A mix of psyche and anxiety begin to bubble.

Ally and I were motivated for the right-hand line (north-west face), but the climbing looked tricky - there was a possibility it was simply too hard, or we were just unlucky. I always stay slightly doubtful until I'm back in Base Camp - it's not over until then. I reckoned a team had a 50 percent chance of climbing this line. At least the headwall looked relatively safe from objective hazards.

Understandably, Will, John and Uisdean chose the left-hand (north-east ridge) line: it looked fantastic; it would hopefully be easier; and it would give them more time to acclimatise. I shared Will's thoughts about wanting to climb something - we'd been on a trip to the Indian Himalaya last year and hadn't climbed a single pitch!

Uisdean, Will and John on a cold bivy during their route attempt.  © Uisdean Hawthorn
Uisdean, Will and John on a cold bivy during their route attempt.
© Uisdean Hawthorn

Base Camp resembled a garage sale as we all packed, micro-debating for hours what gear to take. We clutched scraps of paper full of scribbled lists, but by the evening Ally and I had two enormous rucksacks ready. I cursed the weight of our double rack of cams, set-and-a-half of wires, set of pegs, pair of rock shoes, double sleeping bag, single-skin tent and gas stove, but we couldn't trim anything more.

On Monday, we all shouldered our packs and walked to Advanced Base Camp, 1000 metres higher. We drifted apart, lost in anticipation. Would the route go? Would the weather hold? What would the climbing be like? The crux of many alpine routes seems to be in the mind, and this is often the hardest part to control.

The following morning, after a hurried pre-dawn 'good luck!' to the others as they rushed towards the left-hand line, Ally and I slogged up the glacier to the right. We spent several painful hours kicking and punching up the icefield to our previous highpoint and bivy. It was a monstrous 1300 metres of altitude gain from ABC, but it was the only way to gain a day with some potential bad weather forecast at the weekend.

Our backpacks felt like fat, red, snail-shells, but at least we could just eat more food to lose weight. Although the sun had spilled onto the face, I still gritted my teeth as blood burst into my toes. At the bivy, our snow ledge had retained its large, undercut sofa-shape from our acclimatisation night here. We wrapped the hammock around it again and snuggled into the double sleeping bag.

On the second day, Ally led several brilliant mixed pitches up a chimney/gully system. Piece by piece, pitch by pitch, we answered more of our questions, filling in the blanks we'd noted when glassing the face. Everything climbed differently to how we'd expected - a continuing theme. Ally thrutched up granite corners, then hauled the bags, which scraped in protest and caught on every nubbin of rock. Although Ally and I had never climbed together before, we seemed to have an easy, relaxed partnership, based on the necessity of 'up.' His Scottish accent also gave me confidence.

I took over, aiming for a snow ridge. I un-peeled my down jacket and synthetic trousers to climb frozen-in spikes and flakes of rock. 'It's like dry tooling with your hands!' I shouted down. Convenient holds were like ladder rungs, albeit with a lot of 'junk pro,' which led to an icy tongue flowing from the ridge.

As the sun melted into the horizon, we pitched our tent on the ridge's narrow spine, and I snapped photos of Ally in a truly 'Greater Ranges' setting. It felt like we were the only people on Earth, and in the distance, jagged 7000 metre mountains jutted up like wonky teeth. Although I was concerned we'd finished late and would burn out, I was too pleased with the bivy and too tired to care.

Ally took 'the breakfast pitches' again, front-points screeching against the rock as we chimneyed higher. We finally bumped into the headwall's most impressive - or intimidating - feature: a 90 metre section of vertical and overhanging rock, dotted with roofs and protruding fins. Ally had dubbed it 'the cathedral.' It reminded me of Mt. Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies; I wasn't sure what was worse. Like a fox caught in headlights, we froze. We hung on a creaking belay and craned our necks.

Without aid climbing gear and a portaledge, we'd be here all week unless we found an easier way. Ally urged us onwards, and I was happy to 'have a look,' but also doubtful it'd go. I've only aided a couple of moves before, so a few pitches seemed daunting. But once I'd frigged up a crack to the first belay, however, my confidence returned and I eagerly changed into rock shoes. I could see a line of holds leading out right, towards a groove cutting through the top of the headwall. 'I think it'll go!' we shouted to each other.

Pakistan or Gogarth? Ally climbing on perfect rock.  © Tom Livingstone
Pakistan or Gogarth? Ally climbing on perfect rock.
© Tom Livingstone

This felt like climbing at Gogarth's Main Cliff, a place I'm very fond of, and I began to relish our wild - yet somehow familiar - position. I chucked the occasional rock over my shoulder, captivated as it spun for seconds before clattering to the glacier. The sun washed over us now, and I tip-toed and smeared in my shoes - this was far better than double boots and crampons! I ripped off my gloves, crimping and pinching and bridging between giant fins, revelling at the thought of rock climbing at 6200 metres. Before long, however, I was sitting on a cam and breathing heavily; my body remembered exactly where we were!

At the final belay, with easier ground in sight, I whooped in delight. This was alpine climbing at its finest; I hadn't expected us to make it through the headwall, but we'd been granted a subtle passage to the upper part of the mountain. It was a pure joy to climb. A few hours later, we'd chopped a small snow ledge and began to spoon as dusk overtook day. It was another long, cold night, but the stars and moon kept spinning around us, eventually fading into another day.

Tom Livingstone leads the way on Koyo Zom.  © Ally Swinton
Tom Livingstone leads the way on Koyo Zom.
© Ally Swinton

Ally led off, and soon we'd popped out of the headwall. We enjoyed the easier ground, but were still a long way from the true summit, which was further back from the peak we'd seen from Base Camp. We both checked into our 'altitude pain caves.' A lying-down bivy (only our second so far) passed in a fatigued haze, but I remember getting up in the night to see incredible flashes of lightning from a distant storm. It was as if the sky was tearing itself apart, huge white explosions illuminating thunderheads and boiling clouds. I watched the moon and the storm until sleep welcomed me back.

On the fifth day, we embraced a bitter cold on the summit slopes, cocooned in all our jackets. Hoping to see the tracks of Will, Uisdean and John, we pushed on, but figured they must've turned back when we saw none. Ally and I were completely alone; 'we' were a pair which had become a single entity.

Sucking in all the air we could manage - and hyperventilating when we couldn't - we finally reached the summit around 1pm. I reflected on what had been one of the best, most enjoyable alpine routes I'd ever climbed. Our 'woohoo!' shouts were lost to the mountains in the distance. White-capped fangs rose from dark brown valleys, into Pakistan, China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We abseiled and down-climbed the mountain's east face that afternoon, slumping onto the Pechus glacier.

Tom and Ally on the summit of Koyo Zom.  © Tom Livingstone
Tom and Ally on the summit of Koyo Zom.
© Tom Livingstone

The following day, we walked down the broad glacier towards Base Camp. Sleep-deprived, stomachs grumbling, but with all the climbing behind us and the end virtually in sight, we stomped through the snow. About 20 metres of rope separated us. I began to weave around gaping crevasses, occasionally crawling over sagging snow-bridges, reminiscent of a minefield. The snow hadn't frozen overnight. I held my breath in nervous expectation of suddenly falling into a slot; these crevasses looked like monstrous, soulless depths.

Whilst checking an alternative route, and in an unlucky instant, Ally plunged through the snow, vanishing. A bridge had broken and now the rope whizzed through my gloved hands.'Fuck!' was all I thought. The soft snow helped me to hold the fall after 15 or 20 metres - or Ally had clattered to a stop - and the adrenaline made my heart nearly beat out of my chest. I could barely move, let alone pull Ally up hand over hand, and was terrified of being dragged after him. Unable to find ice, I set up a buried axe belay, and began to haul him using a 3:1 system. Each time I crawled back to the axe, I eyed it dubiously, praying it'd hold.

For some reason, I expected Ally to be fine when he slumped over the lip of the crevasse. First it was his helmet, which he'd put on whilst in the slot; it fell into three pieces. Then I registered the blood from his head, the grimace on his face, and the limp from his leg. I quickly put our only bandage on his head and sliced open his trousers, hoping my fingers wouldn't meet a sharp bone and soft, wet flesh. Thankfully, the leg was only badly bruised.

Ally after his accident.  © Tom Livingstone
Ally after his accident.
© Tom Livingstone

I tried to think clearly. We were in a remote region of Pakistan. The only photo I'd seen of our descent made it look like a gnarly, long glacier, which would take all day to travel if we were fit and lucky. Ally was in shock, shivering, and bleeding from his head. We were out of gas and food, save for a few bars and nuts. I knew Ally needed more medical attention than a single bandage and painkillers. After a few minutes, I pressed the SOS button on our Garmin InReach Mini.

I did what anyone would do in the ensuing day-and-a-half, and cared for Ally as I'm sure he would for me. I was glad he remained conscious throughout, but in the first afternoon he seemed very faint and cold. I was really concerned, fearing the worst. It was quite an experience to spoon Ally throughout the night, listening to his breathing, already irregular from the altitude; when his breath paused for seconds... and seconds... and... I'd give him a nudge, my own breath held, waiting for his next.

Ally's head following his crevasse fall.  © Tom Livingstone
Ally's head following his crevasse fall.
© Tom Livingstone

At some point in the night, Ally suggested we called our new route 'The Great Game.' This is also the title of a book about the development and power plays of Central Asia during the 1800s. We'd read about this region and the town of Chitral as we travelled through it on our journey into the mountains, and the name sounded fitting.

By noon the next day, Ally's condition had improved, and he even tried to hobble a few metres. As he returned to the tent, I heard the distinct 'chopchopchop' of helicopter rotors: what a beautiful sound!

***

The whole team regrouped in Islamabad a few days later. We recounted wild stories of helicopters, hospitals, Will and John waiting in a nearby airbase to rescue us, and Uisdean packing up Base Camp to drive through the night. After our breakfast in the hotel restaurant in Gilgit, Ally and I had been driven to Islamabad.

We enjoyed a final meal with our agent and team. They'd become good friends and we hoped to meet again some time. As we spilled onto the street, the moon shone a bright slither over the city, a full lunar cycle complete after our month in the mountains. The waxing and waning moon had been watching over us as we played The Great Game on Koyo Zom.

Uisdean during his new route attempt alongside Will and John.  © Will Sim
Uisdean during his new route attempt alongside Will and John.
© Will Sim

***

Thanks to Ally Swinton, John Crook, Uisdean Hawthorn and Will Sim for an amazing trip. The main thing is, we're all back safely and recovered.

Route Summaries:

Will Sim, Uisdean Hawthorn and John Crook: North-east ridge of Koyo Zom (attempt, turned back after four days at around 6000m).

Ally Swinton and Tom Livingstone: North-west face of Koyo Zom (The Great Game, 1500m, ED+).

Thanks also to Jon Griffith, Ruth Bevan, the Pakistani Army, the Fearless Five pilots, Garmin InReach, the UK Foreign Office, the UK Rapid Response Unit, GEOS IERCC, the British embassies in both Islamabad and Karachi, Global Rescue, and our in-country agent (Jasmine Tours) and team (Imran, Mohsin, Nabeem and Eshaan).

This trip was supported by: The Alpine Club's Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund, the Austrian Alpine Club, the BMC, Firepot Food and Trail Butter.




3 Dec, 2019

Flippin heck, harrowing! Glad Ally is ok

3 Dec, 2019

Good stuff and glad all are ok.

FYI, "The Great Game" is also the name of a Paul Pritchard route in Kyrgyzstan's Ak Su valley, named for the same reason I believe. It's also an impressive route, being something like 1100m of granite with an E5 6b crux.

3 Dec, 2019

What a great article about an amazing sounding trip (apart from the last bit), thanks for posting it

3 Dec, 2019

Really well written. Sounds like an epic trip. Glad he’s ok