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Four Climbers, K7, One Ogre

The east face of K7 (6935m), with Dempster, Kennedy and Novak’s line marked in red. [Photo] Kyle Dempster

In early September of 2011, Urban Novak (Slovenia), Kyle Dempster and I made an attempt on the East Face of K7 (6935m) in Pakistan’s Charakusa Valley. We found spectacular climbing that linked ice chimneys and mixed steps up the imposing big walls on the east face. At about 6300m, we were turned around by a storm that ended the season for climbing in Pakistan that year. Kyle and I returned to the US with K7 burning in our minds–we had to go back! Urban felt the same way, and we all committed to returning in 2012.

While Kyle and I were planning the trip, we started thinking about the possibility of climbing two peaks in one summer, an idea we dubbed the “Pakistani Double-Header.” We had read a lot about the Choktoi Glacier–the horrible weather, poor conditions and all-around harsh living there–and decided to make that our second destination after the Charakusa. At least if we could climb K7 we would be ultra-acclimatized for any objective in the Choktoi. It was surely a bold plan, and both of us thought we were getting in over our heads.

For the first leg of the trip we planned roughly 30 days in the Charakusa base camp. After arriving in there on July 5, I got very sick and was forced to go back to the nearby village of Hushe to recover at a lower altitude. Three days later I was feeling better and back in base camp. On July 12, Kyle, Urban and I climbed Sulu Peak (5900m) and spent the night on top to acclimatize. Back in camp we rested, ate and brushed boulder problems. Before we knew it we were packing our bags for K7.

K7 (6834m)

The hike to the base of the east face of K7 on July 17 was unreal, with great views of the massive West Face of K6. Two hours of flat glacier walking led us to the corridor up to the East Face. We spent the next four hours plotting our way through a very complicated glacier. There was a lot more snow on the glacier compared to 2011, which made the travel much more difficult. We established camp just below the east face and rested for the afternoon. The day was warm, and all around us the mountains unleashed, keeping us humble and reminding us of the power of nature.

We started climbing at 11 p.m. on July 17 with light packs. We brought two sleeping bags, one ground pad, one stove, food for two days, seven ice screws, a handful of nuts and four cams. We knew from our 2011 attempt that the face was too steep for a tent–any bivy we found would be sitting. Our plan was to climb the entire route in a push and to stop as little as possible.

These kinds of light-and fast-plans are easy to make in the US or in base camp when you’re well fed and rested, but when the reality hits you mid-route, it’s kind of scary. We climbed through the night, starting on easy snow that led to six pitches of steep WI5. Unconsolidated snow at 6200m slowed our progress. The rock got better the higher we climbed and the mixed climbing was awesome. Late in the day Kyle and I each led a handful of M6 pitches on perfect granite after nearly 20 hours of climbing. The night of July 18 saw us on a small ledge with just enough room to brew up and sleep for a few hours.

Kyle Dempster and Urban Novak move onward through the fog on K7. [Photo] Hayden Kennedy

In the morning, clouds surrounded us and the temps had dropped dramatically. We continued climbing through the storm. Urban led an impressive, 200m, snow-wallowing pitch that got us to the summit at about 2 p.m. on July 19. A few high fives and photos later, we started the long descent off the east face.

Collapsing in our tents after 50 hours on the go, all three of us were psyched to have climbed K7 safely. We ate like kings thanks to our amazing cooks and enjoyed the simple life. We hiked out of the Charakusa valley on August 1 and headed back to Skardu. His holiday over, Urban returned to Slovenia to his PhD studies. After four days of rest, Kyle and I started the three-day trek into the Choktoi. It was an uneventful walk until the last day when we got our first view of the mountains. The Ogre peaks and the Latok group rose above the glacier like monsters–some of the steepest and most impressive peaks in the Karakoram. Kyle and I were speechless as we hiked the last few hours to base camp.

Our good friends Ghafoor and Josh Wharton greeted us. They’d already been there a month. Although the Choktoi hosts some of the most bitching alpine objectives on the planet, the base camp completely sucks. It’s a hard place to spend a lot of time. Josh’s partner had bailed back to the US early on, and he’d been waiting to join us. This was Josh’s fourth time to the Choktoi, and it was a privilege to learn from his past experiences.

After a week of bad weather we got word of an amazing, six-day window coming our way. Our minds couldn’t stop thinking about the days to come as we packed our gear and ate our final meals at base camp.

Ogre I (7285m)

Early on August 18 we hiked towards the south face of the Ogre with five days of food and fuel. We reached the icefall that leads to the basin between the Ogre I and Ogre II at first light. Soloing the icefall was easier and much less complicated than we expected. The day was perfectly clear as we set up our tent in a safe place in the basin. We all felt lucky to be in this spot on such a gorgeous day. We slept, ate and drank the rest of the day, preparing for the climbing that was to come that night.

At 1 a.m. on August 19 we were climbing easy ice and snow. By first light we had covered a lot of ground and started up some easy mixed pitches that trended left onto a ridge. The rock in these sections was broken but quite good, and the climbing was enjoyable. At about 5800m we started traversing hard left to get on top of the large serac that sits in the middle of the south face. Moderate mixed and ice climbing led us to a 50m “rock” pitch. I volunteered to lead what turned out to be by far one of the worst pitches of climbing I have ever done. The rock was complete choss, and I spent nearly two hours digging my way through it. Relieved that the death traverse didn’t shut us down, Kyle led up easy ice to our first bivy at about 6000m.

Below the shelter of a massive big wall we found a perfectly flat place to set up the tent and brew up. The clear weather offered truly unbelievable views of K2, Broad Peak, G4, Latok I and into some wild peaks in China. We started climbing at first light on August 20, following easy snow slopes trending left towards the main summit. We found perfect conditions on the south-facing aspects, but once we were in the shade, the snow became very deep and unconsolidated. Two strange mixed traverse pitches brought us to some steep but short M6 sections at about 6800m. Kyle led a steep corner on perfect granite, with long reaches in between tool placements and sparse protection. We gained a snowfield just below what looked like the final pitches to the main summit.

Dempster, Kennedy and Wharton’s line on the south face of Ogre I. [Photo] Kyle Dempster

At this point Josh was feeling very sick, so we spent the next three hours chopping a small platform into the steep snow and ice at about 6900m. Just part of the tent fit but we had no other choice. Josh was very worked and could barely eat and drink. His head pounded with pain, his limbs felt weak and he could barely hold down water or food. That night we all tossed and turned in the frosty tent.

On the morning of August 21 we discussed our options. Josh told us he couldn’t climb anymore, but said he felt healthy enough to stay in the tent if we wanted to push to the summit. Kyle and I wanted to complete the climb and fulfill our dream of the “Pakistani Double-Header,” but the idea of leaving Josh in the tent was very scary. What would happen if we didn’t come back and left Josh with no gear or ropes to get off the mountain? What if he got so sick while we were gone that his life would be in danger without our help? What if the weather came in as we were climbing, forcing us to descend in bad conditions? There were so many different variables.

In the end Kyle and I decided to go for the summit, leaving Josh in the tent with the sleeping bags, stove and food. It was a bold and risky move, and none of us was quite sure how it would play out. We started climbing at first light up steep M6 terrain on amazing red granite. As we gained altitude the views of the Karakoram blew our minds. The peaks in the distance faded in and out of the clouds. At about 7100m we reached the final snow slopes to the main summit of the Ogre. We climbed waist-deep snow to gain a spectacular ridge that led us to the top.

Kyle and I had never imagined we would climb two new routes on two different 7000m peaks in one summer. As we stood on the summit we realized we still had nearly 3000m of descent ahead of us–and we didn’t know how Josh was doing. We rappelled quickly back to the tent and the reality of the situation hit. Josh lay motionless in the tent. Kyle and I woke him up and discovered that his condition had gotten much worse since morning. He was so sick that just sitting up and putting on his boots on was an incredible effort. We packed everything up and started down.

We had to keep a close eye on Josh. We clipped him into the anchors, threaded his belay device and tried our best to keep all of us as safe as possible. It was getting dark very quickly and we knew that rappelling into the night would increase in the danger. We set up the tent on a small rock platform but in blew down in the middle of the night, leaving us out in the open. In the morning we continued the rappels and touched down on the glacier at dark, exhausted but very relived that we were all safe. On August 23 we made back to base camp after six days on the go.

Thinking now about the Ogre and our decision to leave Josh behind, I wonder. If Josh would have gotten hurt or died on the Ogre, Kyle and I would have had to live with that for the rest of our lives. Were we blinded by the desire to summit or was it a rational choice? I am still searching for the answer to that question. This climb surely taught me a lot about myself as well as about climbing in Pakistan. I hope that these lessons will continue to guide me throughout my climbing career.