All the mountaineers who pass Urdukas , a necessary step on the road to the giants- K2, Gasherbrum 1 and 2, Broad peak, are able to admire the group of Trango Towers that reigns on the other side of the immense Baltoro glacier . The faces of the Great Trango Tower and Nameless Tower stand out among the most impressive walls in the world. Since the first and tragic ascent of the pillar from the Grand Tower in 1984, by two Norwegians who died on the descent, this mythical route has been followed only twice: once by the Japanese, who had to abandon their attempt below the summit, and then by the Spanish, who went only to the rim. Without doubt, the time had come to write a new page in "The Legend of the Big Walls". It was with this goal that we, John Middendorf, Ueli Bühler, François Studenmann, Ace Kvale (the photographer), and myself decided to return to the Karakoram: an international team that had trained its gaiters under all skies. I also had the crazy determination to attempt a BASE jump from the summit!
Rawwalpindi, Skardu, Askole, then finally the Dunge Glacier: June 23, 1992, the explosive Swiss-American team, accompanied by their forty six porters installed their camp at the foot of the D'Ouevre. Now it was necessary to find the route for which we had come here- a difficult task which we immediately embarked upon.
In comparison to its neighbor, Nameless Tower, The Great Trango Tower hardly offers lines of evident weakness. Not to mention objective dangers that considerably reduce our route options, the wall sits under the direct menace of a cornice of snow. Apparently, the only route by which to embark in front was to then veer off toward the right, where we observed a large flake. John would select the route. After his impressive record of first ascents on the American Big Walls, we naturally designated him to be the leading authority and guide of the group.
So, this bad weather disheartened the team stalled our progression. The snow caused avalanches that rendered the Ali Baba's pass impracticable for two days; the weather tortured our nerve endings to tempt us to find the key that would open the path to the mountain. The fifth of July: the majority of the team located on the Canopy, the highest point that we had reached, and in fact, the base of the true wall. In the course of the next three days, John and I fixed six lengths of rope, being two hundred and fifty meters total. After free- climbing the start of the route, we now had to prepare ourselves for a more technical climb. Progressing on hooks, we danced a veritable air-ballet balancing ourselves from one edge to the next. Often, we made ourselves really small underneath our helmets. With a beautiful unconsciousness, we had really discovered a route of choice.
From that moment on, the spirit of the team reached a difficult challenge, as opinions diverged on the best route to follow. Although the discussions were sometimes awkward, the three Swiss spoke only their native language. They, therefore, chose not to engage in the adventure with this group of strong personalities. For Ueli and François, the ascent became too technical and they decided to attempt a free climb on Nameless Tower. Selfishly, I felt relieved. On the other hand, I had to definitely abandon my plans to BASE jump because once we arrived at the summit, I could not let John descend by himself.
In the afternoon, as soon as the wall was in the shade, we embarked on the ascent of the wall. This attempt was quickly aborted as a cornice above us collapsed, and I emerged with a black eye and bruises all over my arms. We climbed for the next two nights, then, to reach the huge "Snowledge". Only five pitches of climbing in Golum's Gulley , but a delicate mixed climb nonetheless, and the irksome hoisting of our bags forced us to place our belays on the completely slippery left side of the corner.
When we had reached the snowledge , the curtain rose, and uncovered the Nameless Tower for us. We no longer had to be submissive to the mood swings of Golum, and we had reached the half-way mark of the climb, a very satisfying endeavor.
Following this direct line, we had reached the foot of the head wall without having to cross the long ridge of snow that connects the top of the Norwegian Pillar with the headwall, which is not flat but a long sloping ridge of snow three hundred meters long. Here, we were able to make our only unsuspended bivouac of the whole climb by digging a flat area. The snow also provided us with the water necessary for the second part of the climb.
The beginning of the wall was so thin that rurps, copperheads, and other cliff hangers were rendered useless. We had to borrow the Norwegians' pillar route for four pitches. After a fantastic pitch of 6b (5.11), we veered off the Norwegian route to the right only to find delicate seams that were undoubtedly the hardest part of the climb.
On that day, suffering from a stomach flu, John had to descend back down to the Snowledge. Once again, I found myself alone. So, peacefully I sampled a superb technical pitch. The next day, John still had not recuperated and I spent the day lugging the 50 litre water containers to the highest point, pitch 19.
Then the cracks started to get wider and wider, so we really did not have any choice, except to proceed by free climbing. After a systematic probing of the rack, we realized that we had left our big cams with Ueli and François. This was an unfortunate error that cost us a lot of effort and futile cold sweats as we struggled up the chimney pitches.
The twenty third pitch was now behind us. Instead of using the aid, I slipped up a narrow chimney. John, who was larger than I, had no chance of fitting through there. When I hauled the haulbags, I had to squeeze back into the chimney, and had remove my helmet which was too big to fit through. John followed the climb on the exterior. I was resting from this difficult effort, when I saw him fall and swing in an impressive pendular motion. He screamed and looked at his bloody hand. Shit, he lost a finger! I expected the worst, fortunately, when I looked more closely, it was only a superficial wound. This incident sent me into disturbing thoughts. What could have just happened? At first glance I saw that an flake above me that was part of the belay had detached under the pressure of a friend, and we had fallen underneath. 20 meters below, the flake had just missed John's ear. I had just taken my helmet off at that moment, but we had come out of it smelling like roses. We set up Camp Seven in the chimney, protected from all that could come from above.
A succession of chimneys and bad weather complicated our lives. Most of the time, the beginnings of the days were beautiful, but by afternoon it would either start to rain or snow. We did not let ourselves be beaten, however, and kept climbing until we were both soaked from head to toe and one of us took the initiative to return to the sanctuary of the portaledge. We then understood the meteorological cycle of the Baltoro: with a certain regularity, three days of good weather alternated with three days of bad weather.
The sight of a wall capped in snow and ice made our imaginations run wild, so that even the smallest tumbling of snow from above was met with great anxiety. Although, now, in the upper part, this detail lost little of its importance. One night at Camp 7, though, it started to snow, and all night until dawn, I had to clear off the snow that accumulated on our portaledge. John, plunged into a deep sleep, didn't even notice. This precipitation, however, had the noteworthy advantage of filling up our water barrel, replenishing our water supply.
In three days, we had not advanced more than a pitch and a half. Then, on July 26, the sun came back out illuminating the smooth summit wall, streaked with smooth grooves a meter wide, carved by erosion. Infatigable, John literally and rhythmically wormed a path through these wormholes. At the belay, I traded my fur climbing shoes for completely frozen plastic overboots. It was impossible to warm up in these conditions! I had them off for some superficial freezing (Frostbite?). Then the temperature generally rose to such a point that we were rarely had to wear gloves to climb.
The next day, when we had equipped ourselves for the final glacial climb from the rim to the summit, cries reached us from Nameless Tower. But this time it had nothing to do with the usual cries of joy of our companions. At the same time on the radio, I caught, "Shit, I broke my leg!" What could we do now? The situation was dramatic, but not critical. After having discussed it on the radio with Ace, staying down below, we concluded that their descent would take several days and that the two hours more or less (that is to say, the time that it would take to reach the summit) would not make that big of a difference. Ace left immediately for Paju, the closest military base, in order to get help and to get a helicopter to pick up our partners back at the base camp (in Pakistan, helicopters do not go any higher). Ueli and Francois had to allow two days to descend by their own means.
Still in shock over this accident, I climbed the last snow and ice covered pitches that lead to the summit with mixed feelings. This varied terrain offered an ascent that was complicated, and the difficulty of which I underestimated. At several reprises, I was literally swallowed up to my chest by snow, to such a point that I began to question if I would ever arrive at the summit. The deep snow training that I had in the Cordillera Blanca turned out to be quite beneficial. By instinct, I opened up a path to the summit like the Norwegians had done eight years ago: I discovered several of their belays on the way. To meet up with the ridge of the summit, and to find a solid layer, I had to dig in the snow like a mole. As soon as I started to seriously doubt our chances of success, I suddenly found myself sitting on the summit like the blade of a knife, hidden under a deep layer of snow. A final act of bravery!
An hour after nightfall, we had reached the top of the wall and three hours later we reached shelter in our little titanium house. The next day we let our heaviest gear go. The water container exploded against the wall after falling a few meters. With this, my base jump project had no chance of success, and I could descend with a peaceful conscience.
We allowed forty eight hours to return to the Canopy, at the beginning of the wall. It was so hot during those last two days that Ali Baba' Couloir had become pretty dangerous, even at night. After hesitating for a while, we crossed the wall at dawn and rappelled down the rock slab on the other side. The base of the wall was approaching. In the course of the climb, you feel strong, invincible, and ready to face any dangers, then during the descent, courage abandons you.
The last rappels, crevasses, objective risks, crampon problems, slides; then the last danger was behind us. After forty four interminable rappels, we had finally reached the cows' floor, the good old Dunge glacier. Finally, we relished in the security that we had so desired from the top, liberated from the prison that we had voluntarily locked ourselves in.
The next day we left in search of the rest of our gear. One of our sacks had fallen from the cornice and had rolled to the moraine. Normally, Ace would have been able to help us by indicating where our gear was, but he was busy with the rescue of our companions. We easily located the blue water container as well as the foam mattress. I ventured in the direction of our gear only to quickly turn back, too afraid of the real danger that the cornice would collapse. As for John, he could not find his ski poles. They had been buried by rockfall that had occurred while we were on route. Once again, the mountain had slammed the door in our noses. The Grand Tower spoke, "Hey little man, go away!. You have pierced me with dozens of holes, you've changed me enough. Leave me alone so that I can regain my strength and create icy avalanches that are better and more fantastic than those that I have given you this year. INCH Alla!"
RETURN TO INDEX