By Clint Estes, winner of a 2009 Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant
“Not even the American ambassador to Pakistan is getting past these gates. Closed means closed!”
Those are the words that welcomed us to the Kondus Valley of Pakistan…or just short of it. Months earlier, Matt Hepp and I had begun our adventure by applying for a “special permit” to explore unclimbed granite towers within the disputed territory of northern Pakistan. The Kondus Valley is located in the “closed” zone of Baltistan, mere miles from India, in the heart of the everlasting Kashmir conflict. It is a nearly impossible region for foreigners to enter, yet the rumors of Trango Tower–sized granite pillars prompted us to test the murky political waters.
With the help of our local contact, Zafar Iqbal, and due to a humanitarian component of our expedition, we acquired clearances from all the necessary agencies; the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Defense, the Pakistani Army, and the regional government had all approved our request for a permit. However, even with official documents in hand and a local parliamentarian at our backs, one newly appointed brigade commander was destined to pull the finely woven carpet out from under us. He was the “big boss” of his square foot in Yuchung, and was determined to have the final say.
Over the course of the following week, Zafar’s father, Muhammad Iqbal, worked diligently to gain us admission to Kondus. Muhammad, one of the most distinguished and respected political figures of Baltistan, made countless phone calls to Islamabad and urged the brigade commander many times to change his stance. Our clearances were reconfirmed by the head offices in Islamabad. Yet, one hard-assed local brigade commander would let no one be the boss of him. The gates remained closed.
This is just another fine example of the discontinuity present within the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. No pretense is made in Pakistan of a united country other than the homogeneity of Islamic faith. The lack of union between the Army and the elected government became blindingly visible. Rulings in the capital city are frequently disregarded in the hinterland of the tribal areas. This is a country where one region could be overrun by the Taliban yet the nation could elect a female prime minister (albeit, an outcome heatedly debated and tragically ended).
Still, the mountains of the Karakoram, only a couple of hundred miles away from the conflicted Swat Valley and Waziristan, remain a relatively peaceful place for infidels to travel. Not surprisingly, given the current political situation, tourism in the Karakoram has significantly declined. Muhammad Iqbal’s attempt to counter the depressed tourist economy is to have the region renamed. As of recently, Baltistan is no longer lumped in with the Taliban-affected Northern Territories. It is now separately identified as the Gilgit-Baltistan Territory.
“We have no Taliban here. We are peaceful Muslims, and people should not be afraid of us,” Iqbal urged. Many Baltistanis believe that, with their new regional name, the tourists will return and their economy will recover. But it’s painfully obvious to an outsider that Baltistan will continue to suffer as a result of Pakistan’s lack of cohesiveness.
We had traveled halfway around the world, armed with the promise of virgin granite, only to be turned back on the day of deliverance. So it goes. That’s all part of the game when you are playing on somebody else’s field. We went to Pakistan with open minds, and we were determined to use them. During the week of the permit dispute, Zafar guided us to a number of mountain villages in need of basic services. Thanks to a Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant from the American Alpine Club, plus the help of the generous community in Ouray County, Colorado, we had not only journeyed to Pakistan to climb rock, but also, more importantly, to spread some love. We went with the money and time to buy materials and teach remote mountain villagers how to quickly construct sturdy, heatable post-earthquake and landslide shelters. And, with the villagers’ unanimous support, that’s what we did.
Word spread fast that there were American “NGO” workers providing aid in the area, and before long we were having tea with the heads of some of the poorest villages in the region. These people just wanted their problems to be heard. To them, any American has a voice that can project much louder throughout the world than their own.
One day, we traveled by jeep for two rough hours to the village of Thallay. Located high in the mountains and off the tourist path, Thallay rarely benefits from the seasonal economic boost provided by trekkers. The village relies on its own agriculture and livestock to keep the residents alive.
Arriving in Thallay unannounced on a Sunday (a school holiday), we caused quite the stir. While we were ushered into the village president’s tea room for a home-cooked lunch of peas, potatoes, and yak yoghurt, the village children were assembled. After lunch, we were guided to the current schoolhouse, which is supposed to shelter some 90 boys and girls during class. At maybe 120 square feet, the structure wouldn’t even hold half the boys. The girls are expected to study outside or borrow a room in a nearby building.
The school principal and village president gathered the children with the hope that we might have the means to build them a proper school. These people were asking for a private, co-ed, English-speaking, and secular school for their children to learn in. Keep in mind, this is a 100 percent Muslim village asking for this. Thanks to organizations such as Greg Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute, education has taken a foothold in this region, and they want more. Personally, I attribute the ability to safely travel in northern Pakistan almost solely to these actions. I can’t help but wonder what the tourist comfort level would be like in Baltistan were it not for a few big-hearted individuals building schools and spreading love 15 years ago. Thanks to these individuals, we were invited into homes and fed like we were family, even during the holy month of Ramadan.
After proving we were not the walking-ATM trekker type, we agreed to help apply for grants to raise the necessary $20,000 to build a schoolhouse appropriate for the boys and girls of Thallay. Many handshakes and photos later, we were jeeped to the earthquake- and landslide-affected villages of Kande and Hushe to discuss our shelter construction plan.
Shortly after we arrived in Hushe, a plot of land was set aside for our use and an eager band of laborers gathered to learn a new construction technique. In a single day, we helped to educate 50 adults and children on how to build a sturdy and heatable shelter out of sandbags, to be used in the event of an emergency. During construction, the villagers were excited to share their ideas on how such a sustainable and easily constructed shelter could benefit the community. An almost identical story unfolded in the village of Kande. The warm reception, helpful hands, and willingness to learn never ceased to surprise us.
After a week of working with the villagers, teaching construction techniques, and filling and stacking sandbags, we were exhausted. One final thing remained for us to do. GO CLIMB!
With the Kondus Valley gates closed, and a limited amount of time at our disposal, we made the decision to trek into the not-so-seldom-seen Nangma Valley. We were a few points behind in the first-ascent game due to our lack of knowledge of the relatively well-traveled Nangma. The snowy fall season had already closed in on the 18,000- to 20,000-foot peaks, putting them off-limits for our bare-handed, sticky rubber, shirt on our backs approach. (In all honesty, we were just a couple pansies from Ouray.) So, we lowered our sights to three 15,000- to 17,000-foot peaks with striking and promising lines.
Our third-grade education about the Nangma transformed our spotting-scope route-finding sessions into “does that look like tat?” sessions. The first and most striking route we would attempt was on the Green Tower (4,600m/15,092'). Not knowing any of the tower’s history, we chose a nice-looking line: direct, aesthetic, and, unfortunately, north-facing. Not having spotted any signs of a previous ascent, we began our frost-nipped and short-lived journey in a left-facing corner system at the top of a snow ramp.
If we were to have asked Allah for a beautiful, steep, granite tower that receives no sun, and for the earth and ice to flow copiously from every crack, we would have been presented with the north face of Green Tower. Beauty can be misleading, and we were misled. Not long into the Chia pet–choked cracks, we found a pin and some tat tucked nicely into a hidden corner. Lacking the motivation for self-torture, without pleasure or gain, we fixed our ropes and sauntered back to the comforts of base camp, with the intent of making a second attempt. However, our only return to the tower would be for a shivering gear-retrieval session. On further investigation, after returning to the U.S., we learned that we had started up one of two known routes on the Green Tower: Inshallah Mi Primo (850m, 5.10b A3). Nice work from a 2006 Basque-Aragonese team.
Feeling the fall/winter season closing in on us faster than the baby explosion that’s hit Ouray County (pretty darn fast), we decided to scope only nice, sunny, south-facing options. The obvious south ridge of Denbor Brakk (4,800m/15,748') seemed like an attainable objective looming above base camp. It turned out to be quite the grubby adventure route. We began up a series of chimneys and wide cracks. A couple of pitches up, we encountered a lovely six-inch roof crack that rounded over into a grass-packed fist crack. This would set the tone for the next two days of climbing. Many offwidths and ledges later, we managed to blank out on a prominent gendarme. Luckily, we were able to rap off the east shoulder of the peak into a high gully. Leaving our ropes fixed, we spent the night on the ground, recharging on pakora and dhal.
The next morning, we ascended our ropes, flailed around the gendarme through yet another series of grass-choked wide cracks, and actually encountered about 50 feet of pleasantly garden-free hand jamming. Mighty exciting it was. Pitch after pitch, we grew closer to summit of the south tower. A few hundred feet from the top, a 50-pound rock was dislodged and came screeching toward my noggin. Diving out of its path at the last possible second, I escaped with only a scratch on my helmet where the would-be assassin grazed my head on its way into the void.
The last few pitches were wide, hard, and especially exhausting at nearly 16,000 feet. Matt led the final eight-inch-wide, meandering crack to the top of the south tower. This was not the true summit; the towers to the north were still higher. We decided to call it quits at the pleasant, knife-edged summit we were on, however, as to reach the north tower would have involved a brutally high amount of rappelling, traversing, climbing, more rappelling, and more steep, dirty, wide cracks. So, late in the day, we rappelled off the east shoulder and headed beck to the comforts of camp.
We called the route Good From Zafar, But Zafar From Good (5.10 A1 G3, or “steep gardening”), named after our friend Zafar Iqbal. No bolts were placed. I can’t in good conscience recommend the route, as it was one of the nastiest, most heinously unenjoyable climbs ever. It was good adventure, though.
After a couple of rest days in base camp, recharging on our good cook Karim’s food, Matt and I moved to an advanced camp at the base of the dramatic Zang Brakk (4,800m). Again, eying a possible new line on the sunny south face, we started up a chimney system at the very tip of the south apron. The top of the first pitch revealed to us that our chosen line was not new. A nice two-bolt belay greeted us. Since we only had a handful of days left in the valley, and blue skies above, we decided to see where the route led. We continued up a series of yet-again-wide cracks (5.10 plus-ish) to a ledge below a 75-meter pitch of blank face climbing with one bolt for protection. The pitch ended at a single-knifeblade belay. With darkness drawing near and fatigue setting in, we placed a bolt and rappelled 1,000 feet to the ground.
The next day, we climbed as fast as we could to regain our high point. No signs of previous ascent were evident past the pin. Our route blanked out at the top of a nice hand crack. I made two attempts to link crack systems through a section of hard face climbing. But with the looming memories of dead friends, fear set in and I was not able to make the moves at the risk of a bone-shattering fall. We then chose a less appealing wide option to the right. After climbing a couple more pitches, a timely snowstorm blew in and gave us an excuse to retreat. As the temperature plummeted, we began to rap from our 1,300-foot high point. Nearly 1,000 feet of climbing still remained. This route, however, I would recommend. I’m sure the beautiful, golden, sunny granite of the south face of Zang Brakk will lure a party back onto our route and up to the summit someday.
Back in base camp, we had one more day to burn, and we spent it putting up a couple of crag routes on the slabs behind the cook tent. Karim even donned a harness and tried his hand at some slab climbing. He said that climbing without Jumars was much too difficult, and he definitely preferred the method he was used to.
After leaving the Nangma, we embarked on a nearly nonstop, 32-hour jeep ride over the beautiful Deosi Plains and down the Karakoram Highway. At one point in the wee hours of the night, while we were skirting the edge of the Swat Valley, two Kalashnikov-carrying Pakistani Army personnel jumped in the van with us (presumably to escort us through the danger zone). It was quite an exciting, sleepless, bumpy, exhausting trip back to Islamabad.
Thanks again to the folks at the American Alpine Club and the coordinators of the Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant (ZMBB) for believing in our sincerity to make the world a better place. I urge people to donate to the ZMBB cause through the AAC. The ZMBB award is one of the only grants available that enables climbers to deviate from climbing and do something for the cultures that allow us to explore their lands. Also, thank you to the citizens of Ouray County for buying our T-shirts and donating money to help purchase materials in Pakistan. Rockin’ new equipment for the expedition was made possible by the kind people at Mountain Hardwear, Evolv, Julbo, Black Diamond, Go-Lite, and Brunton. Finally, Zafar Iqbal of Baltistan Tours helped us in more ways than we can count. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Clint Estes co-owns a construction company in southwest Colorado along with climber Mike Pennings. Estes is the vice chair of the Ouray Ice Park and also an officer of the Ouray mountain rescue team.