In late August, British alpinist Tom Ballard attempted the North East face of Link Sar (7041m) in the Pakistan Karakoram alongside Italian mountaineer Daniele Nardi. Despite a bold effort in the face of heavy snowfall and avalanches, the pair were unfortunately forced to retreat due to bad weather after spending three days at 5700m.
Tom and Daniele were stuck in Camp 3, after which they decided to give up. At the same time, the team hoping to climb the East face led by US climber Steve Swenson were also forced to retreat. Tom commented via email, 'Link Sar seems to suck in any bad weather in the area. Whilst it was snowing bucket loads up there, nearby peaks of similar height were relatively snow free! The summit was constantly cloaked in cloud.'
In 2015, British alpinists Jon Griffith and Andy Houseman made the first ascent of the West summit of Link Sar (6938m), climbing the North West face via a route they called 'Fever Pitch' (UKC news report). Link Sar is situated in the Charakusa Valley, Pakistan between K6 and K7 and its name literally means 'linking peak' between these two. Compared to its neighbouring peaks, Link Sar has attracted very little attention, primarily due to the fact that it is barely visible in its entirety, making for a complex approach. The main summit of Link Sar, which is nearly 1km away from the West summit along a complicated and corniced ridge line, remains unclimbed. Tom and Daniele approached from Kondus valley, which is under strict military control and has been closed to foreigners for the last 16 years.
Tom sent us the following account of their attempt.
Charge of the (not so) Light Brigade
On hearing a big noise, Daniele looks out of the tent air vent and shouts, "Tom, it's coming also for us!" Ok, I think, wrap my hood tighter around my face and get as far inside my sleeping bag as possible. Meanwhile Daniele is desperately trying to zip the tent door. The avalanche hits, having rebounded up out of the gully to the snowy ridge and our tent. The force of the avalanche is trying to lift the tent, snow is pouring in (Daniele is still wrestling with the door zip) and the world becomes white. Soon it's over and we spend the next hour emptying and re-pitching the tent.
This pretty much sums up the entire trip.
This is around 5pm on our second day at camp 3, 5700m, on the North East face of the unclimbed Link Sar, 7041m. This will be the third night we have been here. It has snowed almost continuously. The promised good weather dwindled as we were climbing up from camp 2. Time is running out. We have already changed our flights to give us one last attempt. The permit issued by the Pakistan Army is almost exhausted.
Already on the lower glacier we have survived falling seracs by a whisker. We are putting off the inevitable dangerous descent in the avalanche path. I shudder just thinking about what lies in wait below. Or is that just the cold?
In the days that we lay there motionless we remember the beginning of this trip:
The first day we were stopped on the rough and narrow track that snakes along the lateral moraine of the Kondus glacier to the Army camp, due to a stream crossing having been washed away. A shovel, car jack and plenty of gusto soon saw this repaired. We earned a few brownie points with the Army too, which proved useful later on.
Having made a temporary camp, I suggested to Daniele that we go and climb the amazing looking rock peak opposite. After all, how hard can it be? The next day Daniele, Michele and I cross the loose boulder strewn glacier and start to climb…lunch time the following day after 16 pitches and a mosquito ridden bivy (who ever heard of mosquitoes at 4000m?) and barely half way up the mountain, we decide to abandon our attempt. This is after 950m of climbing with difficulties up to E4. Damn, everything here is huge. This wall is twice the height of El Cap! We had reached a ridge beside a huge 'flame' like blade of rock. Down the other side we went. After the abseils we bush-wacked through particularly spiky bushes until forced to cross the swollen river; it was bloody freezing but at the same time rather refreshing! Some steep and loose terrain and then re-cross the river. This time just cold! At 8.30pm we arrive back at a deserted camp! When they had finished the road they moved the basecamp.
Back on Link Sar, the following day, the fourth on the face, we pack up and begin the descent. Down to camp 2 is fairly safe. A few powder avalanches sweep down. The lower we drop the higher the temperature, the snow turns to sleet. At camp 2 we re-erect the tent and await the cooler temperatures of the night. Avalanches roar by.
As darkness falls we re-commence the descent. The dusk is silent. The avalanches seemed to have stopped with the slightly cooler temps. Then three things happen at once; the rope gets stuck, it starts snowing and the avalanches recommence. Committed, we continue in the darkness. A few hundred metres lower is where we normally traverse the slope. However, there are avalanches streaming down, keeping upright is a challenge in itself. We head to the edge of the slope where we remember seeing a rocky gully. The temperatures are actually rising! The rock is dripping. The snow is sticking to everything. Numerous abseils are made down this loose gully where the rope is pulled down, with considerable effort every time. At the base of this gully is a large overhang with a flattish place beneath. We decide to put up the wet tent again. Our clothes and sleeping bags are sodden.
The gully, then avalanches. A huge avalanche close by also covers us in snow. This is a nightmare! Lines from Tennyson's poem sums up the situation well, "Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volleyed and thundered…".
After a rather unpleasant night, we reluctantly shoulder heavy packs and head across the slope into the avalanche path. Visibility is around 100m, often less. The snow continues to fall. Wearily we descend as the avalanches continue to pour around us. Lower, the cloud lifts but the snow continues. Huge avalanches roar off the rocky sides of the glacier. We pay them little heed, just another avalanche! Fresh snow coats the old ice, we slide at every step. Many crevasses have been filled in by the avalanches. Every cloud has a silver lining!
We stumble into ABC for a late breakfast. It rains all day and night. We wake to an opal blue sky and a snow-plastered Link Sar. The porters (borrowed from the Army) complain that the bags we have just brought down are too heavy!
The Jeep return journey is not simple either. This heavy rain has brought a shed load of boulders down onto the road. With local organiser Ali (baba) and his band of merry men we clear what we can and build ramps around the ones we can't shift.
Expedition members: Daniele Nardi, Michele Focchi, Marcello Sanguineti, Gianluca Cavalli and Pierluigi Martini, IT.
Tom and Kate Ballard, UK.
Cuan Coetzee, SA
Thanks to Ali Saltoro and Alpine Adventure Guides Pakistan, Italy Glass, Ciesse Outdoor and Intermatica Satellite Providers.