In what proved to be a month of strikingly optimal weather, Americans Jess Roskelley and Kurt Ross teamed with Belgian Nelson Neirinck to explore climbs in the Kondus Valley of northeast Pakistan from July 15 to August 15. They completed new routes on a 5800-meter tower and two 6000-meter peaks, which were all previously unclimbed.
The region surrounding the Kondus Valley had only recently reopened to non-military activities, according to the American Alpine Journal. Inspired by Steve Swenson, who has been instrumental in numerous Pakistan expeditions for decades (most recently in 2015), Roskelley, Ross and Neirinck now intended to explore a group of unclimbed 6000-meter peaks.
When they arrived in Islamabad on July 15, they were supposed to fly to Skardu but they ended up approaching via the Karakoram Highway instead because of bad weather.
“This was sort of a mistake. It’s a two-day drive to Skardu and it could be potentially dangerous,” Roskelley said. “We got stuck in a mudslide for six hours in 110 degrees Fahrenheit without air-conditioning.”
During numerous military checkpoints, their piles of permits and paperwork were thoroughly inspected.
“I always wondered if we were going to get turned around,” Roskelley said. “Our liaison officer was extremely helpful, but without the local tour operator, the entire ordeal would’ve been a struggle.”
“In our country, it seems like we’re supposed to feel nervous about that side of the world,” Roskelley said. “Pakistani locals are acutely aware of that. Everyone went out of their way to be super warm and inviting. People constantly waved us down and wanted pictures with us.”
Another long jeep drive from Skardu deposited them at a remote village. With 30 porters, they hiked two days to their base camp at 4400 meters. “It was a green oasis with large boulders and a big creek,” Roskelley said. “It was the best place I could ever imagine camping.”
The climbers spent several days hauling loads to an advanced base camp at 5000 meters, occasionally in the rain.
“Nelson can carry a big load, which is always nice in a partnership,” Roskelley said. “Plus, he’s tough, funny and speaks several languages.”
At the end of July, they acclimatized on a previously unclimbed 5800-meter tower, which they named after their cook, Baba Hussein.
Their next objective was the unclimbed Chhota Bhai, a 6321-meter, ice-encrusted peak a few hours’ hike up the valley. They ended up making a hasty camp on a broken glacier to escape the intense heat. Rising early the next morning, they embarked up a “huge ice face that eventually dropped off into nothing,” Roskelley said. They backtracked and traversed until the afternoon heat forced them into the tent again. “It was boiling hot with lots of rock fall,” said Roskelley. “Once temperatures dropped, several WI4 pitches deposited us on the summit ridge.”
A rappel off a fixed rope into a notch led to an easy hike to the summit. They descended their route, Naps and Noms (AI4), and spent three days lounging in base camp while intermittent rain fell.
On August 9, they once again hiked to advanced base camp, repacked and quickly crossed a wildly broken, icy glacier.
“We didn’t have to poke and prod the whole way,” Roskelley said. “If there’d been snow, it would have taken hours.”
Early the next morning, they set off on Changi Tower II, a craggy, unclimbed 6250-meter peak. They labored up a couloir that had run with water only hours before. They soloed to a narrow col where they climbed many mixed pitches to M6/7 difficulty toward a left-facing diagonal band on the peak’s headwall. They settled in for the night at a col beneath the headwall.
“A huge thunderstorm bombarded toward us, suddenly parting at the mountain like it was doing us a favor,” Roskelley said. They watched in their light bivy sacks, feeling fortunate to not be drenched as the night grew cold.
Navigating complex terrain the next morning, they rappelled into a couloir at approximately 5800 meters. Many hours of calf-destroying ice and snow through deceptive terrain, another col and more mixed climbing eventually gave them a view of the headwall and summit, which was guarded by time-consuming traverses on WI3 ground. The reward was a tiptoe along a narrow plank of rock at the top of the peak, having established Hard Tellin’ Not Knowin’ (AI4 M6/7).
“Anybody braver than me with a wingsuit could do a front flip [off the top] and be back on the glacier in no time,” Roskelley said.
They rappelled into the night on V-threads, eventually peering into a dark couloir with loose blocks guarding the entrance. While tugging a stuck rope, a sharp boulder crashed around them and left their ropes with multiple core shots. They found it prudent to wait out the night and find a better rappel route in the morning. Utilizing their remaining length of rope, they eventually located a steep snowfield that led to base camp.
Roskelley’s father, John, had climbed in Pakistan many times.
“I’ve been hearing stories of Pakistan since I was a kid,” said Jess Roskelley. “I’ve lived my whole life with photos of Great Trango Tower and Uli Biaho hanging on my family’s wall. My dad made the first ascent of those peaks. I wasn’t prepared for how amazing Pakistan would be. There were towers and incredible mountains as far as the eye could see. I could climb there for years and not even scratch the surface.”
The expedition was supported by a $6,000 American Alpine Club Cutting Edge Grant.