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Greek Success and Tragedy in the Buni Zom

The north face of unclimbed Buli Zom (5909m) in the little-visited Buni Zom region of the Hindu Raj, Pakistan. Marked is the line of the Greek attempt on the summit, which successfully completed the face but failed to continue up the final ridge to the top. “X” marks the site of the fatal accident. [Photo] Nikolas Kroupis

The Buni Zom mountains lie northeast of Chitral, Pakistan, east of the road connecting the town with Mastuj at the western end of the Hindu Raj. This compact range was probably not explored until 1957, when Berry and Tyndale-Biscoe from New Zealand reached the summit of the highest peak, 6551m Buni Zom, via the southwest ridge. Since then there probably have been little more than ten visits by mountaineering expeditions and very few indeed in recent times (the area lies not far from the border with Afghanistan)… except for the Greeks.

In both 2002 and 2004 Nikolas Kroupis and George Zardalidis explored the region with the aim of climbing the main peak of Buni Zom. Both times they were unsuccessful in finding a route to the base of the peak, but on their second visit made the third ascent of Gordoghan Zom III (6158m), a peak east of Buni Zom. Kroupis was fascinated with the area and returned in 2007 with a bigger team.

The twelve-member group established base camp at Kulakmali (3970m) toward the head of the long valley that leads up to Phargam An (pass). From here, accessing the Khora Borht Glacier to the west of the Buni Zom peaks involved a 150-meter rock wall with sections of 5.7/5.8. It was fixed with 100 meters of rope to allow loads to be carried more easily to the higher camps.

At the end of July the expedition split into two teams: one would climb a day in front of the other, but both would attempt the main peak of Buni Zom. Starting from Camp 2 at 5430m, the first team reached the col between Buni Zom and Buni Zom South (6220m), then started up the steep south face before working left along the line most probably followed by Dick Isherwood and Joe Rheinhard in 1979 during the third overall ascent (the 1975 Japanese Bernina AC expedition that made the second ascent climbed the south face direct). Slanting up left on increasingly unstable snow, they reached the southwest ridge at 6370m. Unfortunately the final crest to the summit sported a huge cornice, while avalanche-prone snow on the flank meant traversing below this would be dangerous. They elected to retreat; rappelled the south face and were back in camp by 5 p.m.

With this news the second team abandoned its plans for Buni Zom Main and decided to go for the South Peak via the northwest face. They climbed to the west ridge at ca. 6050m, but from there only two members were able to continue toward the summit in extremely cold weather. Akis Karapetakos and George Voutiropoulos finally reached the 6220m top at 7 a.m. and enjoyed a magnificent view of the Hindu Kush to the north and west. The same day all team members returned to base camp, bringing down their equipment.

Kroupis and George Voutiropoulos next decided to attempt the unclimbed peak south of Buni Zom South named 6MT (though sometimes referred to as Buni Zom South South, 6110m). From Camp 1 on the Khora Borht they headed east to the glacier bay northwest of 6MT before bivouacking at 5125m. Next day, July 31, they clmbed an icy couloir below a rock wall on the left side of the north-northwest face toward the ridge connecting Buni Zom South and 6MT. The angle steepened to 70 degrees at the top before they were able to reach the crest and follow it more easily to the summit, stopping three meters below a gigantic cornice. The 900m route was graded TD, and it was descended in fifteen rappels of 30 meters each (the pair carried only one 60m rope). They were back at their bivouac spot by mid-day.

In the meantime Manolis Mesarchakis, Nikiforos Stiakakis and Vaggelis Zekis were unsuccessful attempting 6MT West, a 5900m pointed top on the long west ridge of the main summit. They reached the crest of the west ridge at 5600m but found the way ahead to be rotten rock, which could not be protected.

In the meantime Dimitris Daskalakis and Vasilis Naxakis attempted the unclimbed 5909m Buli Zom, situated on the south side of Phargam Gol and about 3 kilometers down valley from base camp. They decided to go for the steep and impressive, mixed north face. After a bivouac at 5000m, they began climbing up a couloir. At the top they made a long rightward traverse on 60 degree slopes to reach a steep icefall breaching a rock barrier. Above and at about 5700m they arrived at a snowfield covered with fresh powder. It was too difficult to make progress in this direction, so the pair traversed out right into a parallel couloir and, after another very steep ice pitch, finally reached the summit ridge. The line to this point was 800 meters in height and graded ED1 90 degrees.

It was now 6 p.m. and too late to continue the remaining distance to the summit, so the two began an immediate descent. Rappelling to the lower traverse and then reversing it, they were beginning to rappel the initial couloir when Naxakis, unbelayed, slipped and fell. Daskalakis, devastated, continued rappelling and after 100 meters came across an area of crevasses and seracs close to the bottom of the face. There was no sign of Naxakis. Returning to base camp, Daskalakis sounded the alarm and the next morning all members of the team returned to the area to search. With the help of two Dutch climbers, also visiting the region, they spent the next forty-eight hours looking for the body before reluctantly admitting that their friend lay dead, deep in the bowels of a crevasse. The Greeks left base camp in early August.

Source: Nikolas Kroupis