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Karakoram Bail
August 2011 :: Pakistan :: Karakoram Range

Colin Haley, a 2011 Lyman Spitzer Award recipient, reports on his ill-fated expedition to the Karakoram.  Read on for the full story from Colin.


In late July I travelled to Pakistan with Bjørn-Eivind Årtun, on what turned out to be a very brief trip to the Himalaya. After spending only a few days in basecamp, I decided to come home.


After my Karakorum trip in 2007 with Jed Brown, I promised myself that I would never do another Himalaya trip with only one other climber - I think that the camaraderie of having other climbers around is invaluable. In the months that Bjørn and my trip to Ogre II approached, we tried in vain to find other climbers who were interested in going to the Choktoi Glacier (actually, we had some at first, but they bailed). In hindsight, we should have switched objectives months ago when we realized that finding other climbers to share basecamp with was not an option on the Choktoi.


Then, we found out just a short while before our trip that the regulations had been changed and military liaison officers were now required on the Choktoi. Not only does this make an expedition much more expensive, but it adds a complicated and often negative element to basecamp life. At this point we should have rearranged our dates to join another expedition, but since we had already purchased our plane tickets we decided not to change our dates, and instead head to Hunza Peak.


We made good time from Islamabad to Karimabad, which is the small town below basecamp. Here we met up with a local guide, Hassan, who assured us he was very experienced in the area and knew the basecamp well. The hike from Karimabad to basecamp is 4 stages long and gains 1,600 meters, but the porters were happy to do it in one day. Thus, it was late in the day and the porters were quite tired (and without sleeping gear) when we were confronted with a deep gorge, about 30 meters deep and with vertical walls on both sides. There was absolutely no chance of the porters to cross it. It was then that Hassan admitted he had never actually been to the Bublimotin/Hunza Peak basecamp. Our only option was to make our basecamp just below the gorge, which was a 45-degree slope (the whole region is extremely rugged - Ultar Sar drops 5,300m over a very short distance). It took me the entire next day, from dawn to dusk, to make a tent platform on the slope. The next morning our assistant cook accidentally dropped a pan, and it fell hundreds of meters out of sight. Needless to say, it was not a very comfortable place.


Also very unfortunate, on the hike up to basecamp one of the porters dropped a load, which turned out to be one of my duffel bags. It fell at least 500 vertical meters down a steep slope, and over several small cliffs. Gone completely were my puff pants (a fairly important piece of my clothing system), my backpack framesheet, and a folder that contained all of our maps, photos and information regarding previous expeditions in the area. Ice screws, cams and jumars were bent, and ice tool umbilical-leashes were broken. Three therm-a-rests were punctured beyond repair. Three butane canisters exploded inside the bag. Our binoculars were destroyed, my crampons were damaged, and our bivy tent was damaged. Fortunately the sleeping bags inside were OK, but the compression stuff-sacks they were inside were destroyed. And, of course, the duffel bag itself was completely destroyed. We fortunately had enough other equipment that we would get by without the damaged and lost gear, but it was nonetheless a bad blow.


Much more significant than the bad basecamp and damaged gear, the vibe between Bjørn and I was not very good. Although this wasn't the fault of either one of us, and there was no element of animosity, it was hard to ignore, and for me the dynamic with my climbing partner is always a critical part of the equation. I didn’t feel that we were communicating clearly and openly, and I think that is extremely important when attempting serious routes.


Deciding to head home after spending only a few days in a Karakorum basecamp is probably the craziest thing I've ever done. I’m sure people will wonder why I didn't at least stick it out longer and see if my feelings changed, but I think I know myself well, and I am confident that I made the best decision for myself.


I honestly am very sorry to disappoint everyone who supported our expedition, and of course I feel even more sorry for letting Bjørn down. It is of course totally crazy that I had to go all the way to basecamp to realize things weren’t right, but it's the reality. I certainly would not have applied for grants, put tons of effort into planning the expedition, and endured two weeks of heinous travel if I didn't really, really think it was what I wanted and was inspired to do.


Bjørn decided to stay in Pakistan when I left. He made one attempt to solo Lady Finger Peak, narrowly missing a serac avalanche on the approach, and then almost getting hit by rockfall while bivied at the base of the face. He then travelled across the Hunza Valley to Spantik, and made one attempt on the descent route of Fowler and Saunders, bailing from 6,300m in bad snow conditions.


Colin Haley, Sept 2011