When Dreams Come True
Leo Gheza: Climb & Fly in the Karakoram
The Baltoro Mustagh on the border of Pakistan and China is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. But it isn’t easy at all to get there. First you fly to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. From there you take a domestic flight to Skardu and then proceed another 140 km by jeep on dirt roads. Well, on occasion the word “road” is not really appropriate. It’s that kind of track you see in TV-documentaries about the “most dangerous roads of the world”. Finally, it is another 40 km of trekking on narrow paths, rocky moraines and huge glaciers.
Baltistan is a really beautiful area and the local Balti people are as nice. The Balti porters helped us to bring all the necessary equipment to climb and to live a month in the base camp at 4,100 meters.
Approaching Climbers’ Heaven
The last kilometres lead over the Baltoro Glacier, a majestic ice stream (with plenty of debris on top) coming down from Concordia Place and the famous K2. And then, finally, we see the Uli Biaho and the Trango Towers. They are part of the Trango Group, formed by a chain of granite peaks on the north side of the Baltoro Glacier. The Trangos consist of several peaks, quite a few of them with almost vertical walls. It’s climbers’ paradise. We are completely psyched!
The high pressure holds up and the weather is so good on July 3 and after, that we decide to use that window for acclimatisation, after being in base camp for only one day. We choose the northeast summit of the Great Trango Tower with 6,230 meters. We climb up to 5,400 meters and plan to spend a night there. Due to the high temperatures the snow is very soft and the seracs at the top are regularly unloading tons of ice… So, we decide to climb during the night – and at five in the morning we happily reach the summit.
Almost too hard to believe my luck
With the hope of flying, I had carried up my BANTAM in my backpack. The weather looks really good. Should I really be able to fly? My heart beats faster because of excitement when I check a little glacier just below the summit. Not too steep, not too short… I quickly spread out the wing, check the wind again – and off I go! The flight is simply stunning and I regret coming down.
Of course, this is not an area with large green meadows to land on. It is uneven, rocky, sometimes icy and, of course, still pretty high. So, I had prepared a “landing zone” the days before. I had “cleaned” a small open space next to a moraine, about 20 minutes from base camp. Even though I am more of a climber than a pilot, everything goes well and I land rather smoothly exactly where I intended to. A few hours later, my companions return on foot on time for lunch.
Targeting an iconic route: Eternal Flame
The weather changes. We have to accept that it isn’t stable anymore, but the motivation is still high. So, after a few days of rest, we leave for Nameless Tower on the 8th of July. The goal is a very famous route with the beautiful name ‘Eternal Flame’ (UIAA IX-, 22 pitches; with some technically climbing)! It was opened up in 1989 by Germans Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert. For a very long time, this climbing route was considered the most difficult one above 5000 metres.
On the first day we get "free showers". The snow on the ledges gets warmed up by the sun and half of the pitches are really wet. Arriving at the "Sun Terrace" we call it a day and spend the night there.
Time to turn around
The following day we climb the higher pitches. From one o’clock, however, the weather deteriorates. We climb in an ice-cold wind and sleet. Temperatures are below 0° Celsius. At 4.30 pm a few easy pitches are left to reach the summit. It’s tempting to log this prestigious peak, but at what price? With heavy hearts we decide to turn around and descend. Not a bad idea… The weather gets worse and worse, we have to hurry up. Having in mind that at base camp our two chefs Fidel and Riaz will expect us, we are even more motivated to descend as fast as possible. Fidel and Riaz make us feel at home, spoiling us with lots of really delicious food: dal (lentils), chapatis (pita bread), goat in sauce and other yummy treats.
Preparing for the main goal: Uli Biaho Spire
The weather does not improve, still we decide to tackle our main goal, the Uli Biaho Spire. We go on an exploration, taking along lots of gear to set up an equipment depot. We climb the two channels and arrive on a saddle at 5,200 meters. We were active for only five hours, however it was a very productive day. The needed logistics are clear now and we have identified our high camp.
On the 17th the weather shows signs of improvement. We restart with heavy loads but we quickly understand that it will not be easy. From the 5,200-metre high saddle where we have the tent, a mixed traverse and a 70-degree snow slope that leads to the base of the wall are waiting for us. The challenge is not the climbing itself, but the high objective risks. Everything goes well.
On the second day we manage to open the first 70 meters, a smooth slab full of crusts and sheets that break when just looking at them. However, this is the only access to the dihedral in the centre of the wall. After a bit of cleaning, some good aid and insane free climbing we equip the first two pitches. It is the afternoon of the 18th when we decide to descend to base camp to rest for two days and pick up the missing equipment.
Complex off-width or frozen chimney climbing
On the 22nd we leave for the last attack and climb until evening. An extremely tiring day, because almost all the pitches are off-width or frozen chimneys. At about nine in the evening we assemble two portaledges for the night.
After a few hours of sleep, we start again at 4 am on the 23rd. A few mixed pitches and one free lead us to the last unknown, another off-width chimney full of verglas. We are ‘consumed’ in the truest sense of the word, including clothes. But let's hold on, two more pitches then easier lead us to the top! At 2 pm we proudly reach the peak! There is no cloud in sight – we could not ask for any better! We relax for a moment and wait for our filmmaker Ettore Zorzini who joins us with the drone for some photos and videos. Given the complex descent we decide to equip some abseils out of the way to prevent the ropes from getting stuck in those frozen chimneys.
Naming the route “Refrigerator Off-width”
The result is a very physical and quite complex line because it goes from free climbing to artificial to mixed. We name it “Refrigerator Off-width”. The name derives from the type of climbing in the oversized off-width crack and from the fact that this crack, that cuts through the wall, constantly spits out cold air.
We are pretty tired, but still we want to make the most of the last days at base camp. On July 26, Ale and Fra leave to repeat the Slovenian route on the Nameless Tower. I prefer to fly on the 27. I climb to a saddle to the left of Nameless Tower at 5,400 meters where I find a decent take-off. It turns out to be another flight that I will never forget in my whole life.
Conclusion: Pakistan Zindabad!
In the early morning of the 28th, we dismantle the tents and head towards Payu, a small hamlet where the world ends – or begins, depending from which side you come from. The way back is long and they tell us that the road is blocked at four points, including two bridges that are literally destroyed. Shuttling in jeeps for two days we still manage to get out in time, arriving in Skardu on the 29th in the evening. We fly to Islamabad on time.
Looking back now, our whole team is very satisfied with this expedition. We worked together perfectly, we were lucky with the weather, lucky with climbs – and I was lucky with the flying. Ettore, our photographer, was able to document the undertaking with photo and video material also using drones, which he will use for the editing of a film about the expedition.
38 days have flown by. Pakistan Zindabad! (literally meaning “may Pakistan live forever”)