Chad Mcfadden offers this impressive write-up of his first climbing trip to Asia. With support from an AAC Lyman Spitzer Award, Chad and his team had a rewarding trip, though it did find some bumps along the way. Read on the for the full story!
An opportunity for pure adventure, the 2001 Climbing Odyssey taught me expeditioning in the greater ranges. With the help of an American Alpine club Lyman Spitzer grant, I, Chad McFadden, participated in one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Along with Jacob Moore and Pete Linkroum, I attempted to climb Kampur Peak in the Hindu Raj of Pakistan. With no prior Asian expedition experience and unexpected international events, the three of us truly traveled an odyssey.
I arrived in Islamabad before Jake and Pete on Friday 17 August 2001. I began making preparations with our agent, Nazir Sabir. With the help of our guide, Javed Hussein of Hunza, I began purchasing the supplies we would need for our planned 38 days in the mountains. Jake Moore and Pete Linkroum were delayed due to difficulties with their United Airlines “buddy passes”. After my first kabob fest, I was quite ill when they arrived. Despite this, we loaded up our supplies and met our cook, Anni Khan, and headed down the Karakouram Highway to Gilgit. My illness provided little comfort on the 2-day trip. The KKH was brutal. All of us were amazed at the skill with which our driver avoided accident after accident. This was, perhaps, the most perilous part of the trip.
Once in Gilgit we made some more purchases, arranged jeeps, relaxed a little, and obtained visas. Getting visas was a tedious day long process of running around and paying the right people. After a little red tape, we finally got stamped and were clear to go. We loaded up the 3 jeeps and headed north to Ishkuman.
After 6 hours we arrived at Ghotulti, our drop off point. This small village on the northwest frontier is literally the end of the road. We were the center of attention as we set up camp. The local kids just couldn’t get enough. “Please sir, you give me one pen” was the chorus the whole evening through. We had negotiated with our guide to make payments for us, so he picked the porters, hired help, and prepared loads. The next morning we loaded up 37 loads of gear, equipment, and supplies to head up to Atar Lake, our basecamp. Most of the porters had donkeys and carried double loads, but some were not so fortunate. There was a definite hierarchy of who got what; it was very much a matter of status. That night we were to stop at the village of Mithandthir. It was a good walk but we were finally glad to be moving by foot in the field. The views were awesome. We saw peak after unclimbed peak between 16 and 22,000 feet. Some Italians had explored this area and while many peaks were climbed, there still lie virgin summits.
That night we set up camp again and marveled at the wonder around us. Fresh air, awesome mountains, and an amazing culture were laid out before us. I took the role of doctor as porters and villagers showed up looking for a cure to whatever ailment afflicted them. Headaches were the norm, but we also treated some nasty fungal infections, as well as sunburns. The porters were very pleased with our care and our presence, as an expedition was not expected so late in the season. We quickly came to know what financial impact our odyssey would have on the local economy. That night they sacrificed a live goat to “bode good tidings for our climb.” The porters danced and sang into the wee hours. The Hunza water flowed and I sampled some goat liver to share with our friends.
The next morning we were off on our last leg to basecamp. The idyllic Atar Lake would serve as home for the next few weeks while we climbed and explored the Atar Valley and its surrounding cirques. We arrived on 25 August 2001. With everything in order, the porters left. However, they were already starting talk about our cook, Anni.
Anni Khan was, to our knowledge, the first female cook in the 49-year history of Pakistani mountaineering. She was a Sunni Muslim from Islamabad in Ishmaeli country. This would soon have the locals enraged. She was an excellent cook, but her morality, not ability was the issue for local villagers. Threats were made and problems ensued. Our team became very nervous as we learned about a German couple that had been killed in the area. Our guide told us he was not sure why it happened, but that there were many terrorists in the Chitral area. The villagers became more outraged as rumors flew that we were sleeping with her. This unequivocally did not happen. No member of the 2001 Climbing Odyssey touched, gestured, or spoke to this woman in a sexual nature. Eventually the local commissioner sent a special envoy to request that our guide escort her down from camp and back to Islamabad.
Meanwhile, we were trying to climb. Jake Moore had taken seriously ill and would remain so for seven days. Pete Linkroum and I went to scout the peak we came to climb. Jutebar, we learned was its native name. This mountain was amazing, as wild as the photo we had from Carlos Buhler. It was about 8 miles from basecamp and fairly difficult to access. Pete and I spent several days circumnavigating the glacier to explore possibilities. We soon discovered that the mountain was choss. The rock quality was very poor. In fact I can say that it was the worst I have seen in my limited experience. Our chosen Northeast ridge had 10 ft high freestanding gendarmes teetering on it to fall at the slightest touch. Also all routes were completely dry. The snow and ice were mostly gone, leaving it a loose rock climb. We weren’t interested. We watched rock rain down all day as we explored other possibilities. Most of the couloirs were also melted out to scree. We quickly realized we were there too late. In June perhaps, we would have found this an alpine playground with a dozen or so lines in full condition. In September we had decent weather, but unstable and dangerous conditions.
Pete and I returned to Basecamp, disappointed, but hopeful to find good climbing in another cirque. Pete reminded me “there is always Kampur.” This was the stunning Matterhorn-like peak above Mithandthir. It had been climbed by a direct line on the northwest face by Carlos Buhler and Ivan Dusharin the year before, but still had huge potential for new lines.
With Jake well, we set about exploring 2 other cirques in the area. Much to our disappointment, they offered few possibilities for an enjoyable, safe alpine climb in that season. We found one line in on a 6000-meter peak, but had reservations about climbing it. One, we had no permit and were being watched because of the incident with our cook. Two, the line was a walk up, climbed at least 4 times already—no thanks. We are alpinists at heart and wanted to do a fast and light technical first ascent in good style.
After 2 weeks of exploring, sickness, and weather, we settled on an objective – KAMPUR. . The alpine team of Carlos Buhler and Ivan Dusharin climbed Kampur in 2000, but ours was still to be a new route on a beautiful peak. OK, this would be a second ascent and not the virgin peak we came for, but Kampur was in condition and looked awesome. We moved our base camp closer to the mountain at the other end of the Atar valley and prepared loads for ABC on Sept. 9. With the help of our porters we humped loads and set up advance camp. All the locals had deserted the villages of the valley just days before. This late in the season, their exodus should have been a warning, but we came to climb and the clock was ticking. The morning of September 11, 2001 began in storm. Little did we know of the storm facing the rest of the world that same morning, we just knew we were tent bound. It lasted for 6 days without much reprieve. Marathon Parcheesi sessions, chess games, and hot apple cobbler did little to avail the weather.
On the 17th, the storm broke. We debated what to do, go down for a day, or try to climb with no food. Ropes and rack had been fixed. We sent down porters who had arrived for our gear, and decided to go for it. The clouds rolled in again around noon, so we bailed. On the hike down we encountered 2 porters who had been sent back up. At the time I wondered why. I gave one my pack and followed as they sprinted down the mountain. When I arrived back at BC, our guide pulled me aside. “50,000 dead, your pentagon is attacked, World War III, I think it is best for you to go.” His words hit me like a ton of bricks. At first I didn’t know what to think. No way, there’s a mistake, not in America. The note was accompanied by an e-mail from a Pete’s girlfriend. It was real. The others were in shock when I told them the news. Suddenly no one wanted to be there. We just didn’t know what was going on.
Our guide had already made preparations. We broke down camp that night then started the escape. The next morning porters showed up in droves to move our mounds of haulbags and duffels down valley. We hiked 6 hours to our drop off, where jeeps were waiting. Seven hours, 4 suspect bridge crossings, and a mouth full of dust later, we were in Gilgit. Finally some news, we were able to get a good Internet connection and found out what was happening. What to do? Everyone said get out, but how. Fly to Islamabad, leave through China, bus to India? All the borders closed, no flights in country. The only option available was to drive. 16 hours non-stop on what the Pakis call a highway. This isn’t route 66, the KKH is a bad country road that is barely 2 lanes, full of potholes, and partially gravel. Our guide was visibly nervous as he told us we couldn’t stop to urinate because the area was controlled by terrorists. “If we can make past Abottabad before dark, we are ok,” he said. At a police checkpoint, we were forced to sign our permit. As I looked at the AK-47’s the guards were holding, I thought I much prefer my excitement on the sharp end.
We rolled into Islamabad in violent lightning storm. The city was quiet and now had police everywhere. That night we went to a friend’s house. She was with the U.N. and plied us with beer!! I was on a plane the next day, but the other guys were not. Our agent pulled a few strings and got them on the same full flight. Oman, Abu Dhabi, London, Denver—Home Sweet Home!
All in All, the 2001 climbing Odyssey involved little climbing, but definitely proved an odyssey. Like Odysseus, in the end, we were just glad to be home. Of the 24 days available to climb, 11 days were bad weather, 9 days were sick days, and few of them coincided. Plenty of time is key to getting “ducks in a row” for a successful ascent. Given the additional ten days we had planned for climbing, we could have finished our route. However, due to international terrorism, it was not to be. In the end, we were amazed at the wonderful cultural experience we shared. The true benefit being that three young climbers learned how to organize and participate in a Himalayan expedition. We kept our heads and wits about us for a safe, successful adventure. While we were unable to finish the climb, our expedition, due to the knowledge gained from it, was a true success, a success not possible without the wonderful benefit of the American Alpine Club Grants Program and the Lyman Spitzer Grant. I would like to thank every member of the AAC for making this program a success.