Lyman Spitzer Award winner Josh Wharton reports on his 2006 trip to Pakistan with Kelly Cordes. After many ups and downs, they came close to summitting, but time did not allow a last push. Read on for the full story of a truly amazing climb!
During a seven week period in July and August, 2006 Kelly Cordes and I traveled to the Nangma Valley in Pakistan’s Northern Areas to attempt the ca 5,000-vertical-foot north ridge of Shingu Charpa. We spent 37 days in base camp, making our best attempt toward the end of the trip--climbing 45 pitches to a sub-summit before retreating.
At the onset of the trip we had incredible weather, and on our fifth day in base camp we set off for the ridge. About one-third up, however, Kelly became sick with a respiratory infection. After an uncomfortable night on a sloping ledge Kelly’s condition had not improved, so we were forced to descend. Unfortunately by the time Kelly had recovered at camp (with help from a weeklong course of antibiotics) bad weather had returned. The weather remained horrible for two weeks, with rain daily.
With less then a week left at basecamp the weather finally lifted, and on August 18 we started climbing from the base of the ridge once again. The climbing proved to be mostly rock with a couple mixed pitches up high and icefields along the summit ridge. From our highpoint the true summit appeared to be two hundred feet of snow and ice higher, and perhaps 400’ horizontal feet away. We climbed all free at about 5.11+ M5 (second jugging with the pack) in three days up and a fourth descending. It was “real climbing” from beginning to end, and the crux climbing came during the steep middle portion of the route.
Ultimately our footwear selection cost us the summit. Since we counted on soft snow on the summit ridge, to save weight we’d brought lightweight boots for the leader and low-top sneakers for the second, ultralight aluminum strap-on crampons, and one-and-a-half ice axes. Unfortunately what we’d assumed from previous experience in the range would be soft snowfields instead turned out to be black ice covered by only a few inches of snow. Traversing across the col and broad slope to the main summit simply seemed too dangerous for us, given the combination of our equipment and the conditions. So, in a rare display of good judgment we retreated from the sub-summit and rapped to our previous night’s bivy for another chilly night in space blankets. The next morning we descended to base camp, enduring rope snags and severe core shots to both ropes, as stormy weather closed in.
We set out wanting to go to the top, not just climb the rock ridge, so we’re not entirely satisfied with our effort. On some peaks finishing the technical difficulties might have qualified as a “route,” but on Shingu Charpa the logical ending is the main summit. No matter how popular claiming such a near miss as a real route may be, or how easy it would be to rationalize, what we did is best called an excellent failure.
The north ridge was climbed just four weeks before us by a team of three burly Ukrainians. They reached the summit in four days and freed all but 100 meters of the route. On their ascent, they skipped the start and came in from the descent gully, about one-third up—understandable, as they’d climbed the unpleasant bottom third on a previous failed attempt and descended the gully to the east. At any rate, we’re indebted to them for the rap anchors they left along the ridge.
Those interested in repeating the north ridge should be warned that despite the north ridge’s absolutely stunning appearance from across the valley, up close it’s full of serious runouts, vegetation, closed cracks, mud, and loose blocks.
Many thanks to both the AAC and Cascade Designs for their support; Kelly and I are among the many gracious climbers whose climbing dreams in far flung places have been realized due to the club’s generous grant programs.