Lee Harrison and Murilo Lessa travelled to the Lupgar Mountains this summer, coming away with two first ascents and a second ascent via a new route. Here's Lee's account of a highly productive trip.
Murilo Lessa and myself (Lee Harrison) visited the Lupgar Mountains of the Karakoram during July 2015. We climbed three sub-6000m summits in Alpine-style from the Yokshgoz Valley. P5702 and P5589 we believe are first ascents with the ascent of P5665 suspected to be a second ascent via a new route.
The Lupgar Mountains lie in the North-West corner of the Karakoram, between the Batura Muztagh and the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. I first visited the area in 2006. On that occasion I failed to climb a proper summit via the Lupgar Valley but at least gained enough elevation for fine views of the peaks at the head of the Yokshgoz Glacier as well as the neighbouring valley running parallel to the North-East. Nine years passed before I returned for further investigation.
Our plan was to set a base camp midway along the Yokshgoz Glacier so as to make both the upper reaches of the Yokshgoz Glacier and the unnamed valley accessible. The 45km approach would involve trekking partway along the Batura Glacier, the fourth longest glacier in the Karakoram, and then branching North into the Yokshgoz Glacier. The trek was expected to take around three to four days leaving us just shy of three weeks at base camp.
(Lack of) Porters
We were fortunate to even reach base camp. A local cricket match was taking precedence over our job vacancies for porters, creating acute difficulties with finding workers in Passu, the nearest village to the trail head. Alarms had been set for an early morning departure but the absence of a labour force meant much of the day was spent in limbo. By early afternoon six porters had been found from the neighbouring village of Gulmit. They were students on summer leave with no experience working as porters or knowledge of the trekking route but were keen to work.
We used what remained of the afternoon to trek to the dusty camp site of Yunzben, which lay no more than a couple of hours from the Karakoram Highway but 450m in steady height gain. In the searing afternoon heat our porters quickly fell behind. Their arrival in strung-out formation started one hour after ours but of greater concern was the general look of discontent on their faces with carrying the loads. It didn't bode well for the longer days that would follow. Today was a leg stretcher in comparison.
Next day we rose just prior to sunrise at 4:30am in order to maximise the hours of daylight. Based on yesterday's pace we would need all the daylight available, despite the trek to our next camp of Yashpirt typically taking no more than seven hours and being of only moderate difficulty. Trekking during the first hours of daylight was also the coolest and most pleasant time before the sun hit the valley.
The day's trek would follow the south side of the Batura Glacier before making a straightforward crossing to the North side. As with yesterday all but one of the porters immediately fell behind. We paused at the next settlement of Mulungeen to regroup but were quickly separated soon after. We took lunch at the last settlement of Kirgus Washk before the glacier crossing. An hour had passed but our porters failed to appear.
I learnt whilst taking lunch that none of the porters had crossed a glacier before. At least this one was considered non-technical and safe. Our trekking guide Ahsan described the route across the glacier to the only porter who had kept pace. He would observe our path whilst waiting the remaining porters to catch-up. We would also mark the way with cairns. Hopefully all of this would be enough.
Midway across the glacier there was still no sign of the porters on the south bank and so we paused again. Ahsan looked twitchy but we were all concerned. At current pace we would not reach Yashpirt by nightfall. The only option would be to turn back and help the porters with the loads for everybody's sake. Ahsan valiantly carried about a load and a half whilst Murilo and myself shouldered what we could from the porters.
The lack of conditioning of our porters was not the only issue. Equipment was also contributing to their slowness. None of the porters had porter frames, which are regularly used for strapping loads to. Even sufficient amounts of rope with which to tie loads to themselves they lacked. As a consequence our porters were carrying sacks and bags underarm, behind the neck, and over the shoulders, as though a bunch of fleeing refugees. Not only did this make the loads more cumbersome to carry, and the porters more prone to having an accident on the glacier, it also meant a less controlled drop whenever they paused for rest. Not good for the contents as we would discover later in the day.
The porters reached Yashpirt shortly before dusk. We were not even halfway into the trek but already they looked shattered. Not surprisingly they quit in unison that evening. Apart from the problems with carrying the loads it also transpired that they had no food. They were friendly lads trying to earn some summer money but in hindsight we should never have hired them given their lack of food and equipment (the meat and equipment allowances were due to be paid for the record). Ultimately Murilo and myself were to blame as their employers. All this distracted from the beauty of Yashpirt's location, which was one of the most idyllic that I have seen in the Karakoram.
A porter exodus midway through a four day trek would normally spell disaster for a trip on such a tight schedule but fortunately good luck was shining brightly. That evening a lone trekker at Yashpirt had changed his plans from crossing the nearby Werthum Pass to remaining at Yashpirt a couple of days longer, after which he would descend back down the glacier. This temporarily freed his porters to carry our loads to base camp. A very lucky coincidence for our sake.
Our sacks of food had been badly damaged during the day's trek due to their repeated dropping. Many of their contents were split open but fortunately we were able to borrow a barrel for the remainder of the trip in order to better protect them. Using plastic barrels from the start of the trek would have better protected the food but these needed porter frames with which to carry, of which none of our initial porters possessed.
The Super Subs
Our new porters planned to reach base camp the following day. Given that we were not even halfway through the trek this seemed ambitious but if they were motivated to try then so were we. The confident approach was particularly welcome after the last couple of days. It would mean a gain in height from 3300m to 4150m and likely some sore heads to follow.
Our progress next morning was swift without the long stoppages to regroup.Our replacement porters were a different breed and reassuringly confident. No longer did we need to overly concern ourselves with their condition or whereabouts, which meant we could relax and enjoy the scenery. In particular the imposing 10km long Batura Wall on the South side of the glacier, culminating in Batura I at 7795m. The Batura Glacier has some of the finest scenery that I have seen in the Karakoram. We followed easily an ablation valley for much of the day until descending to the glacier a short distance before the Yokshgoz junction. Progress slowed but reaching the Yokshgoz glacier felt like a moderate victory in itself.
A short way up the Yokshgoz Glacier another setback presented. A misunderstanding between our trekking guide Ahsan and the porters meant that our final destination was a camp known as 'Yokshgoz', a long way short of our intended camp. This explained the single day push. It lay low on the hillside on the West side of the glacier, beneath P5735, which forms part of the Kuk Sar massif. It was a beautiful spot with a large waterfall flowing nearby, however our greater distraction lay with how we would continue to our intended base camp. We had already marched ten hours to this point and continuing further was unrealistic. Particularly given that the porters needed to return to the last set of shepherd huts on the north side of the Batura Glacier before the day was out. Nothing more than vague plans were made ahead of the porters departure about a handful of them returning in a few days. Our guide, who also had no food, departed with them. It was the low point of the trip. Realistically we were still out of range of our planned objectives with few option in the immediate vicinity. At best we could use the following days to acclimatise.
The Trek to Base Camp: Part 3
The following morning two porters unexpectedly returned. A pair of brothers who were probably the strongest and most assured from the previous day. One of them had used a camp site in our planned base camp vicinity and so everything was looking positive once again.
Together we moved the six loads in short relays towards our intended location. Firstly following the low hillside along the Western flanks of the Yokshgoz Glacier, before descending and crossing the glacier back to its Eastern side. Our base camp, known as Khush Dur Gush by our porters, meant 'Mouth of the Happy Valley'. It was ringed with small pools of clear water and looked a beautiful spot to spend the next few weeks.
Failed Attempts but Good Acclimatisation
We spent a couple of days acclimatising around base camp before our focus switched to trying to summit something. This was Murilo's first outing in anywhere higher than the Alps and so a gentle acclimatisation looked the sensible approach to start the trip on a positive note. The moderately sized peaks at the head of the unnamed valley North of base camp looked technically straight-forward and potentially ideal for some gradual ascent.
The mouth of the unnamed valley followed a fast moving river tightly hemmed by steep earthy slopes covered in a thin layer of scree. The main difficulties fell within the first two hundred meters of elevation before the valley progressively broadened. Our first outing was a relatively benign affair as the water levels remained low enough to permit scrambling over the large boulders directly lining the water's edge. Snow bridges allowed us to cross the river in order to follow easier ground. In the coming weeks the water levels progressively rose in response to the warm temperatures and the snow bridges collapsed in succession making each passing progressively more fraught.
We made a high camp in the first of two side valleys branching north from the main valley, a short distance below its glacier terminus at 4930m. Our plan was to climb P5665 the following morning, which lay directly to our east in close proximity. Its foreshortened view disguised the whereabouts of the summit but we anticipated easy ground without too many navigational difficulties. That night we tended to sore heads and made best efforts to sleep until the alarm clocks sounded at 1am.
We followed the centre of the glacier towards the valley head so as to gain easy height before tacking right towards the peak. Our critical error lay with the assumption that the summit would lie somewhere above the broad glacial expanse descending its slopes. This led us to what is best described as the south summit at c.5600m. Sightly lower than both the rocky pyramid further north as well as a blunter outcrop immediately to its south. It was more of a broad shoulder than a summit, consuming the bulk of the mountain's mass but critically lower. We had reached the third highest point on the mountain, which wasn't much to shout about. Maybe smaller by just 50m but a significant distance south.
We made best efforts to traverse to the main summit but the extent of the loose mixed ground along the western side of the first outcrop dissuaded us from continuing further.
Instead we descended back to the glacier floor at 5400m and in desperation switched our focus to neighbouring P5702 to our North-West. A greater distance to reach but less steep and consequently deemed more feasible for our poorly acclimatised puffing bodies. We gained the ridge linking P5665 and P5702 at about 5480m but by this point our tanks were virtually empty in a way that only lack of sufficient acclimatisation can bring about. Another 200m looked insurmountable given the effort we had needed just to gain the ridge. Reaching the South Summit of P5665 was excellent acclimatisation but a frustrating outcome. On our tight schedule it felt like a missed summit opportunity.
First Ascent of P5702
Fine weather prevailed so fortunately there was little reason to dwell on our misfortune for too long. We rested for one day at base camp and on the second day returned to the same high camp, this time to try P5702. The lower stretches of the valley now proved a more treacherous affair to pass through due to a surge in water levels from rapid snow melt. Snow bridges spanning the river were also beginning to break away, their absence leaving behind sections of hillside with little substance. No longer could we directly skirt the water's edge and instead were frequently forced onto the eroded slopes a little higher with just the water to catch us.
Crossing a snow bridge spanning the river near the start of the unnamed valley
That night I did not sleep, unable to relax my breathing to a steady rate, periodically needing a big inhalation to find equilibrium. Something I had never experienced before. A poor state of affairs given we had yet to start climbing. The 1am alarm was not met with the usual enthusiasm. A short distance above camp though my breathing settled and I found my acclimatisation to actually be much improved compared to the last outing.
Again we used the glacier to gain easy height before following a curving line of snow on the south-east face to the right of the summit. It was between 35 and 45 degrees with the steepest snow where the slopes began to broaden above half height. It was a hazy sunrise that greeted us after so many days of dry weather, the sun reflecting beautifully off the rippled snow towards the top. However its beauty disguised the danger of a deeper layer of soft snow beneath. We joined the east ridge a short distance below the summit and soon we were on the mountain's highest point. A first ascent as far as we are aware and grade AD- by our chosen route. We named the peak Khush Dur Sar, in relation to the given name of our base camp. Coordinates 36.7151, 74.5228.
With the time still only 7am we made the spontaneous decision to attempt P5665 again. We would traverse the long ridge connecting the two peaks and then climb the relatively short distance up the side of the pyramid, mostly on snow. It looked a classic outing.
The traverse passed pleasantly and without difficulty but the steeper slopes leading to the summit were quite the opposite. They had immediately caught the sun at dawn and already the snow was very soft. We were forced to pitch the remainder of the climb as a consequence but this naturally slowed our pace further. Our axes were rendered useless in the absence of substance for them to bite into and even the steps that we kicked felt less than reassuring. Particularly in the absence of reliable runners. The snow on the second pitch totally lacked stability to the point no longer being trustworthy and so we sensibly made the rappels in retreat from midway up the pyramid. Just 30m below the summit with the time only 10am.
A Brief Foray into the Upper Yokshgoz
Relentlessly fine weather had predominated up to this point in the trip but through the latter half the weather would become decidedly wetter and more unpredictable. Our first rest day remained sunny but during the second day it rained from lunchtime onwards, meaning much time spent in our tents. Rain showers were forecast throughout the following day but up to 11am the weather remained settled. Similarly sporadic rain showers had been forecast during our trek to base camp but these had not materialised either. All this suggested that maybe our forecast was a little too sensitive to rain. With the next two days expected to be a mixture of rain showers and partial cloud we decided to roll the dice and try our luck at something. Particularly when after this period the weather was expected to dramatically worsen. We packed our things and departed after lunch.
Our focus had shifted to the peaks at the head of the Yokshgoz Glacier. We would try to reach a high camp near the head of the glacier by nightfall and then climb something the following morning. Maybe making a bivi on the mountain. Initially we followed the Northern edge of the Yokshgoz glacier before leaving its confines to climb a boulder-strewn hillside. This acted as a short cut and bypassed a nasty section of icefall where the Glacier swung in a more northerly direction. Rain threatened just a few hours from base camp but instead it entered the neighbouring valley.
The relative closeness of our objectives on the map disguised the approach time needed and by nightfall we were shy of a suitable high camp by maybe a couple of hours. In hindsight probably nine hours was needed. The biggest problem with not reaching the base of the peaks by nightfall was that we could not assess their possible lines and objective dangers, although the low cloud possibly made this academic. The view from Khush Dur Sar had shown an increased number of seracs compared to 2006 and so further investigation was vital. We climbed a hill adjacent to the glacier as nightfall approached in the hope of at least viewing the peaks in question but there was little to see from its top. In truth I sensed our base camp was far from being ideally located to climb these peaks but we had largely spread our bets with the wider options of the lower camp. Then rain fell unexpectedly through the night, until a break at 4am encouraged us to high tail it back to base camp. The forecast had proved to be not so pessimistic after all.
Poor Forecast or Forecast Poor?
The problems with unpredictable weather were being magnified by our ageing satellite phone. A daily text sent to the phone provided a basic five day forecast at 5000m but critically failed to detail the actual volume of rain. Only snow, which at 5000m was 0mm for nearly every day of the trip. The percentage chances of rain were also unclear. Showers were forecast daily through the latter half of our trip but in reality these ranged from prolonged rain to no rain at all.
Text messages were not being received until a day after sending. The forecast for the night spent near the head of the Yokshgoz Glacier had advanced from rain showers to more prolonged rain but we did not receive the vital update until after the event. When planning forays we were operating from a 48 hour forecast instead of a 24 hour forecast, which became more of a problem amidst changeable weather.
The poor forecast for the remaining time at base camp ruled-out anything committing but we were keen to try our luck with some more smaller peaks that would be possible in a single day. We waited a couple of days at base camp for the worst of the expected weather to pass. Thereafter we ascended the unnamed valley with a tarp to bolster our bivi setup and enough food for two days and two nights. With good fortune we would attempt a couple of peaks. If bad fortune then we would at least stay dry.
This time we made a high camp in the second side valley branching North at about 5050m. Our plan the following morning would be to attempt P5589, which lay West of Khush Dur Sar along the same ridge. Another attempt at P5665 on the second day was also at the back of our minds were luck on our side.
First Ascent of P5589
The weather cooperated through the subsequent night and day and P5589 proved an easy affair. Akin to a moderate day in the Alps in fact. We made our ascent via a snow slope in the centre-right of the the South-East face, initially via a dry stream before gaining snow slopes 100m higher. The gradient remained around 45 degrees, increasing to a maximum of 50 degrees. Murilo came under fire from some minor rockfall midway up the climb but escaped with just minor bruising to his forearm. From the top of the face we followed a gentle snow arête and soon reached the summit by 6am. We named the peak Qalha Sar, which translates as bastion peak and refers to the top-down shape of the mountain. Our route was grade AD. Summit coordinates 36. 71401, 74.50592.
Near the top of the South-Eastern face of P5589
We had preemptively considered a traverse from the summit to P5400 further west in order to tick another peak. It looked no more than a vague rise on a steadily descending ridge though and would involve a fairly substantial loop back to our bivi site. With the forecast now looking much improved it made more sense to save our efforts and try P5665 the following morning. We descended the North-East Ridge of P5589 to meet broader slopes less prone to rockfall and by 9am were back at our high camp. All that remained was to skirt back to our initial high camp in the preceding side valley and prepare ourselves for P5665 yet again.
A Third Attempt at P5665
With the pyramid summit of P5665 now our primary objective we could attempt a more direct line than previous. Easy snow slopes quickly gained the west-northwest ridge again from the head of the glacier basin but despite our 7am arrival the snow conditions again were poor. It suggested no proper refreeze during the night but at least the snow was better than last outing. On this occasion just the upper part of the ridge needed to be pitched with the lower half now firm enough to solo.
We carried just three ice screws and so sparingly used just one for the belay together with axes. Murilo was keen to lead the pitch whilst I was ambivalent. The snow ramped from around 55 degrees to 70 degrees but the trench that Murilo dug made the climbing feel all the more steeper. By midway up the pitch no ice screw placements had presented with little evidence of any to follow. Murilo zipped one of his two remaining screws down the rope so that at least I could strengthen the belay. I could only hope that Murilo's judgement of acceptable risk was not being compromised by his eagerness to finally reach the summit. Fortunately he made fine work of the lead in what were very bold snow conditions.
To our surprise the final section of rock was adorned with abseil cord to indicate a probable previous ascent. Despite our multiple attempts I felt surprisingly nonchalant about the discovery as ultimately it hadn't lessened the adventure.
The final rock was disturbingly loose and so we ventured one at a time to the very summit. The technical difficulties were no more than about VDiff but the untrustworthy nature of the rock combined with the high exposure made the climbing a gripping finale.
Murilo midway up the final rock to the summit of P5665
Our porters knew of no other expeditions to have visited the Yokshgoz side for around nine years. Given that the peak can also be approached from the Lupgar valley in half the time it is our assumption that the previous ascent was likely from this northerly direction (until further information is known). We therefore suspect that this was a second ascent but likely via a new route. We graded the route Alpine D. Summit coordinates 36.71002, 74.5403.
That left just a day at base camp to finish books, burn rubbish, and eat as much of the surplus food as possible before the porters arrived. The trek to Passu took just two days in reverse. A couple of days rest followed in Karimabad before our cancelled flight to Islamabad meant enduring an 18 hour taxi ride. Once again the most dangerous moment of our trip to Pakistan didn't involve the climbing or the security situation. It related to our driver between Gilgit and Islamabad. No corner was was too blind for overtaking, no road was too wet. He even fastened his seat belt on a couple of occasions, which really stated his intent.
This was my first climbing trip to the Karakoram in nine years. We managed three modest ascents but in light of the erratic forecast through the second half of the trip it felt as though we had achieved par. I also felt we showed a fair amount of tenacity in trying P5665 three times. With a bit more positivity there was the opportunity to try something higher than P5702 after our initial acclimation though, however conservativeness got the better of us. As a pairing we also lacked alpine experience together, which at least for my part meant focusing ultimately on more conservative objectives so as to better control the situation. I maybe consider worst-case scenarios a little more than in the past and am naturally more cautious as a consequence. Besides one pitch on P5665 all the climbing felt very steady.
We agreed upon this trip at fairly late hour, which certainly affected the planning and led to a more urgent decision-making process than I would typically like. The navigational problems on our acclimatisation climb stemmed from a disorderly planning process as the South summit of P5665 was evidently lower on Google Maps. Some problems such as those experienced with the satellite phone were difficult to predict in advance but can certainly be put right for future trips. I hope to write another post focusing purely on some of the problems experienced on the trip.
On a safety note the Gilgit-Baltistan area felt as safe as on previous visits and the local people just as hospitable. The foreign tourist numbers have evidently plummeted but domestic tourists looks to have increased. Travelling the Karakoram highway South of Gilgit felt a different matter and certainly not a place to linger. Likewise I felt a much greater need to keep a low profile whilst in Rawalpindi but a lot of what I write is just perceptual.
There are still ample opportunities for first ascents in the Karakoram, however I felt a definite familiarity with its culture and surroundings on this trip, which naturally removed a little of the adventure for me, despite visiting a rarely trodden part of the range. I think I need a clearer, more challenging objective for any future visits to the Karakoram in order to offset the lesser degree of new experiences and to maintain the climbing psyche. Next year I'm focusing on rock and then hopefully another 'expedition' style trip in 2017 so will see what my psyche is searching for nearer to that time.