The Forbidden Climb
By Brady Robinson
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2000, Vol. 16, No. 1
Jimmy and I crept up onto the roof of the Indus Hotel after
dark. There were no stars out and the few Pakistanis who loitered
on the roof paid us no attention. It was becoming a routine--haul
up the thick plastic case, take out the satellite phone, set
up the computer and antenna, hook up all the cables. We waited
in the glow of the screen as the computer logged onto our
server in the U.S. and sent our images and stories from one
side of the globe to the other. We felt like secret agents,
since we hadn't yet received official permission to use our
satellite phone in Pakistan. That night after a successful
transmission, we came back down the stairs and learned that
two Pakistani Intelligence officers had been at the front
desk looking for us. Gulp.
Traveling in developing countries is usually an adventure.
Toting illicit computer equipment while exploring climbing
areas long closed to foreigners makes it all the more exciting.
Last summer, Jimmy Chin, Dave Anderson (both NOLS instructors),
Steph Davis (well-known U.S. free climber), and I did just
that. Jimmy put the legwork into researching and getting a
permit for the Kondus Valley of Pakistan. Mountainzone.com
gave us financial and technical support in exchange for bi-weekly
updates to their web site in the states. NOLS generously offered
financial support too. We had heard that there were great
rock towers to be climbed in the Kondus, so we were excited
at being the first westerners in 18 years to get a chance
to climb there.
We finally got our satellite permit faxed in from Islamabad
and headed off towards the mountains. First we stopped and
visited with Brigadier Tahir, a friendly bear of a man who
spoke perfect English and seemed to have had a hand in getting
us our most important permit. He commands all the units engaged
in the high altitude war with India in Northern Kashmir. He
showed us a map marked "secret" and casually chatted
about mountains he'd seen, where he suspected the best towers
were. One tower was his favorite, right at the entrance of
the Kondus valley. "You must climb it, I think," he
said. We exchanged unbelieving glances at each other while
the Brigadier spoke. What great luck! He showed us photographs
of other unclimbed towers and later told us stories from the
time he had worked as a Liaison Officer for Rienhold Messner,
the famous mountaineer. He also said he'd be sending a soldier
with us to escort us through the police check posts on our
way to the Kondus. We thanked him and went back to our hotel,
unable to believe our good fortune.
Three Jeeps carried us and our gear into the Kondus Valley.
As the first westerners to pass several police check posts
in more than 18 years, we were thoroughly scrutinized. Several
officials tried to turn us back, but strong words from our
guide Zahid along with our escort and a letter from the Brigadier
assured us a safe passage. We rounded a bend and saw the tower
that the Brigadier had spoken of, a looming spike reminiscent
of El Capitan just several hundred feet off the jeep road.
We hastily set up a base camp. After two days of exploration,
we dubbed the spire "Tahir Tower" and decided it
was indeed the best objective in the valley. The tower's south
face rose to a huge vertical expanse of beautiful gray granite.
A single, nearly continuous crack split the entire face and
was the only obvious line.
Our base camp wasn't what first comes to mind when you think
of high mountain ranges. It was dusty and hot, devoid of snow,
water, or anything green. In fact, the whole area had a desert
feel to it. During the day, we hid from the sun under tarps
and drank from water barrels hauled in by the jeep. Early
on, Dave got very sick with a high fever, so we rested and
organized our gear, waiting for him to recover.
Since we were located right off the only road to the village
of Karmading, we attracted a crowd of local people every day.
While the women worked hard in the fields and carried grass
all day, the men--who never seemed to have much of anything
to do--would sit around for hours, shamelessly staring at
us. It was a little unnerving. Sometimes our interactions
were more meaningful. One day a man came to us with severe
abdominal pain and we sent him off to the nearest army hospital
in the jeep we'd rented, since he didn't have the money to
pay the fare himself. We later heard that he'd just made it.
The specifics of his condition were lost in translation, but
it was nice to feel we'd helped a bit.
One afternoon an army jeep pulled up to our camp. We were
pretty nervous at first, but Captain Abdulla of the Pakistani
Special Forces Group, or SSG (not sure where the second S
comes from!) came out and warmly introduced himself. We were
to develop a good relationship with the SSG. Captain Abdulla
came back later with a group of men and sodas and snacks for
us. He spoke perfect English, as do all officers in the Pakistani
military. He requested a lesson for his men. We taught the
same classes to the soldiers that we would have taught on
a rock section of a NOLS course. After showing them all our
gear, we taught knots, fixed line ascension, anchor building,
knot passes, and rappelling techniques. They were superb students.
Obviously much of what we taught was review for them, but
they really seemed to like certain little tricks, like the
double loop figure-8 or the auto-block rappel back-up. They
weren't interested in skills for recreation, though. They
often employ technical climbing systems while fighting.
The Kondus has long been a base of operations for Pakistan's
ongoing war with India. The standoff is entirely political.
The soldiers on the ground know that the war is a costly and
hopeless stalemate. Soldiers on both sides huddle in freezing
temperatures at 20,000 feet and above, taking occasional and
perfunctory mortar shots at each other. We were told that
variations in pressure and wind velocity at high altitude
make accurate fire impossible. The shells would miss by miles.
Since small arms battle is nearly impossible in such extreme
conditions, the only way to gain an enemy position is to wait
until the enemy gets tired of holding it. So the soldiers
sit in snow caves and wait stoically. More than 8 out of 10
casualties are the result of the environmental factors such
as avalanches, exposure, and altitude sickness.
We worked on a strategy for the climb. It was clear the route
would require "big wall" tactics. We would climb,
fix ropes, haul our gear, establish a camp, and repeat the
process until we reached the summit. We didn't know how big
the tower was, but were guessing around 2,500 feet. We had
no idea how long it would take either, but 12 days on the
route seemed like a good number.
Eventually, because Dave was still sick and Jimmy was beginning
to feel crudy too, Steph and I got to start off the climbing.
As we left our base camp, a small crowd of locals gathered
around us and mostly just stared, but sometimes made requests.
Zahid translated for us.
"If you find any dry wood up there, could you throw
some down? Nobody has ever collected wood up there before."
"If you find any 'mountain oil' (a black ooze that leaks
from cracks) could you give us some?"
It took about five minutes to hike from camp to the base
of the route. I got the first pitch, which was less than stellar.
I had to rub my shoes off on my pant legs every move to keep
the ball-bearing-like granite granules from lubricating my
foot placements. I carefully made my way up a wide crack and
ran out of rope much sooner than I had anticipated. We looked
up and realized that Tahir Tower was bigger than we had originally
guessed, which was great news. Our original estimate of 2,500
feet looked to be about 1000 feet short--making the tower
possibly bigger than El Capitan! The climbing continued to
be interesting, if a bit loose. We followed a huge slanting
crack system for several days, fixing ropes and coming back
down to base camp at night. While we climbed, Dave and Jimmy
were suffering in the sweltering heat. There was no place
to escape the sun. Jimmy spent one day lying under a tarp,
barely able to move, running a fever of 103 degrees.
Luckily, Jimmy and Dave soon recovered. The climbing improved,
with clean rock showing up now and again. Dave led a particularly
dangerous pitch, with only one piece of protection in approximately
80 feet of 5.10 climbing. That pitch brought us to a huge
ledge system we had chosen to be our first wall camp, which
meant it was time to haul the gear and supplies up the lines.
We loaded our haul bags with water (there was no water on
the route, so we estimated that we would need 180 liters for
12 days of climbing), tinned fruit, fuel, dehydrated meals,
cameras, clothes, two portaledges with flies, a computer,
the satellite phone, and other stuff. We spent the next seven
days hauling the gear up 1,200 feet and resting. It took four
trips up and down to get all the gear up. The system we used
to haul it all up was simple: a rope ran from the bags, up
to a pulley, and back down. We pulled like mad to get the
Days spent hauling have been some of the worst in my life,
or at least some of the most frustrating. Looking at an additional
1,000 feet of hauling distance, pulling for all you're worth
and getting the little train of two bags and one barrel to
move just another few feet makes everything seem pretty hopeless.
The absurdity of wall climbing strikes you at such moments.
What am I doing here? I spent much of the first day upside
down, pulling myself down the rope with my hands, bracing
my feet on the wall above my head. "One, two, three,
PULL!" The bags moved one foot. "One, two, three,
PULL!" The bags moved a little more. On the next pull
I lost my grip, so Steph and Dave pulled to no avail. And
so on. As I squirmed around in my harness, searching for a
position that didn't squeeze my rubbed-raw hips, I questioned
our tactics. Maybe we should try to climb something light
and fast. Maybe my old hand injury will flare up, and the
others will have to haul for me. Why is it I never liked golf?
Big wall climbing isn't as much about skill as it is about
endurance, perseverance, and good logistics.
But soon the bags were all up and we were able to move onto
the wall permanently and enjoy the benefits our work afforded.
A massive dihedral (or corner) swept up from our camp, a single
corner system running for more than 1,000 feet. Though the
rock was less than perfect, the feature was stunning and the
climbing enjoyable. We fixed lines for several days, climbing
pitch after pitch of the incredible corner. We surpassed a
roof and soon arrived at our second wall camp, which was also
conveniently located on a ledge system. We hauled for two
days and installed our final wall camp.
The pace of life was very pleasant at our second camp. While
two people climbed above the ledge, the other two had nothing
to do but lounge--eating, resting, and sending emails to friends
via our satellite link. The climbing was steep and the cracks
were thin, so we had to resort to aid on several pitches.
Jimmy spent a whole day leading through a horrifying band
of nearly featureless rock. We had correctly guessed it to
be the crux of the route when we scoped it from the ground,
so after Jimmy's success it seemed that the summit was within
We nearly lost our chance two days later. Jimmy was aiding
a particularly loose section of rock when a seemingly well-placed
cam pulled and he took a 25 foot fall. He hit his face on
a ledge before the rope caught him. Dave and I were horrified
to see him rappel back into camp, blood all over his face.
We washed him off and patched him up, and though we suspected
a cracked rib in addition to the obvious cuts on his face,
it could have been much worse. Jimmy kept climbing in spite
of his injuries, inspiring us with his tenacity.
Zahid radioed up and told us we were very near the summit,
so on June 20, all four of us ascended our lines with the
hope of summitting as a team. An easy crack pitch brought
us to an open, grassy plateau. The summit spire stood up off
the ridge like a miniature version of Tahir Tower. It was
Steph's turn to lead, so she worked her way up a tricky crack
to the top, fixed the rope, and the four of us were soon celebrating
on the summit.
We descended over the next two days, rappelling with heavy
loads, pulling our ropes and leaving a minimum of fixed protection
behind for rappel anchors. Standing back down on the ground,
we were proud of our achievement: 23 days of toil for one
summit, including 12 days spent on the wall. A lot of work,
but it was worth it. The Baltis crowded around us, still unbelieving
that four Americans would want to come all the way to Pakistan
to climb an obscure tower unknown to anyone.
If I were to look at the expedition only as a climb, I would
see that we spent thousands of dollars and days and days hauling
loads for only eight or nine pitches of climbing each. The
climbing was exciting, but the memories go far beyond the
wall: bonding with the SSG men, walking into a village that
hadn't seen a foreign visitor for 18 years, exploring a valley
nearly unknown to the climbing community, meeting so many
wonderfully different people. You can't put a price on experiences
On the ride to the airport, I was lost in this reflection:
if you go forth and adventure, spread good will and clean
up after yourself when you're through, you won't be sorry.
The risks, expenses, effort, and sacrifice are almost always
worth it in the end.
more about the expedition members.
Brady Robinson and Jimmy Chin will attempt Cerro Torre in Patagonia this February
and intend to return to Pakistan for more adventures next summer.