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The Leader

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. 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 bags up.

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 our grasp.

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 like that.

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.

Learn 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.



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