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Latok 2008
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August 2008 :: Pakistan :: Panmah Muztagh, Karakoram

Josh Wharton reports on his 2008 expedition to attempt Latok I in Pakistan, for which he won a Lyman Spitzer Cutting-Edge Award from the AAC.

On August 22 Whit Magro and I arrived on the Choktoi Glacier for my second trip in as many years to the north side of Latok. Last year Bean Bowers and I spent 42 days below Latok without any reasonable weather for an attempt-surely this year would be different!

During our first two weeks at base camp the weather was quite good, allowing us to acclimatize on some of the smaller peaks above the Choktoi. During this time we managed the fist ascent of a rocky peak adjacent to the rock spire Bean and I had climbed in 2007. We dubbed this Porter Peak (ca 5,700m) in honor of the hard-working Balti porters that make western expeditions to the Karakoram possible. We named our route Sirdar Indirect (700m, 5.9 WI5) to commemorate the many arguments between porter sirdars and expedition members each year. We also made an attempt on the unclimbed Middle Sister Spire, coming agonizingly close to the top before being turned back by icy cracks and impending darkness.

At the end of this initial two-week period of unstable but relatively good weather, Whit and I felt adequately acclimatized and turned our attentions to Latok's north face. Almost on cue the snow began to fly. During the first storm nearly a meter of snow fell at base camp over a three-day period. The resulting avalanches off the north face convinced us to have a look at the north ridge, which we hoped would offer a safer alternative, given the conditions. During a four-day period of marginal weather in mid-September, Whit and I were able to climb up the north ridge to approximately 6,000 meters in less then 10 hours. Despite being hit by a massive spindrift avalanche, we left a tent, food, and fuel in hopes of making another attempt.

Unfortunately the opportunity for a proper attempt never presented itself. Significant snowfall continued through the end of September, and by the start of October temperatures on the Choktoi were too cold for any of the snowfall to clear from the route, creating impossibly deep snow slogging and dangerous avalanche conditions. Whit and I headed home empty-handed once again!

Despite another punishing year on the Choktoi, I still feel this year's trip was worthwhile. Whit and I added to the knowledge that Bean and I began to accumulate last year, getting a sense for the conditions and moods of Latok, and the nuances required for success. We also got to do some worthy climbing during acclimatization, and enjoyed climbing together immensely. In the end I've accepted that climbing a big new technical route on a 7,000-meter peak is simply a difficult, low-percentage game, and if I'd thought success was guaranteed I probably wouldn't have gone to the Choktoi at all. It's interesting to note that approximately 40 expeditions (a veritable who's who of alpine climbing) have visited the Choktoi Glacier since the late '70s, and no on has succeeded on any peak over 6,300 meters-a success rate of exactly 0 percent on teams' primary objectives: Peak 6,960m, the Ogre, and Latok. It would be easy to write off the valley as cursed, but Latok and the other world-class objectives in the area are too big and beautiful to pass up. Cursed or not, I'm sure Whit and I will be back!    

Many thanks to the American Alpine Club, the Lyman Spitzer Award committee, and Mammut for their generous support.