Jonny, my friend and climbing partner from Boulder, Colorado, who has adventure coursing through his veins, had launched us on this trip. We’d begun planning in January 2007, after he’d noticed a photo of a giant, smooth wall — what we would later name Shafat Fortress — in an advertisement for the American Alpine Club’s grant programs. The title of the ad was “Unnamed and Unclimbed”.
I was psyched to be Jonny’s partner and had always considered his and Mike Pennings’ 2000 sendfest of the Trango Valley to be one of the most amazing alpine-rock-climbing accomplishments of all time. In three weeks and climbing alpine style, they made the first ascent of East Cat’s Ears Spire, via the most proud and direct line on the wall (Freebird; VI 5.11d A1). They also made the second ascent of Hainabrakk East, with Tague It to the Top (VI 5.11 A1), as well as the first alpine-style ascent of Shipton Spire, via the second ascent of Inshallah (VII 5.12 A1), up one of the biggest rock faces in the world. When we arrived at Lang Lang Meadow, we were relieved to have escaped the chaos of the Indian cities of Kargil and Srinagar, both only a few miles from the “Line of Control” with Pakistan. Kashmir, a mythical region, has been at the heart of the Indo-Pakistan conflict for six decades, a fact of life that has kept visitors away . . . though it had done little to deter our new arrivals at basecamp (or, as we’d learn, some friends of theirs who’d attempted the wall the year before).
“You use our spits,” one of the Italians said — as if Italy had the sole patent for using and installing bolts.
“No, actually, those are ours,” I said, pointing to a half-drilled quarter-incher. Jonny again tried to make small talk, but to no avail. The Italians pretended we weren’t even there. I went over and introduced myself to Raju, a Hindi man from central India with bright eyes, a big smile, and a missing front tooth. He quickly reassured me that he didn’t care what we climbed so long as we asked the Italians first . . . thus sidestepping the conflict altogether. Classic, I thought later, as I looked up from the door of our two-pole, Boy Scout-style tent, which also doubled as a sleeping tent for Purtemba and our assistant cook, Depess. With square mile after square mile of good camping in the area, the Italians decided to set up their two massive cook tents and nine sleeping tents fewer than 50 feet from us. I asked Jonny what he thought.
“We should head up and avoid any other conflicts,” later.” I agreed, so we collapsed the tent, packed our bags, and started up the 3,000-foot talus cone to the glacier and base of the wall. If we went for it and missed, we knew that the Italians, with seven climbers and untold spools of fixing rope, might summit before we did. “I love Italians,” I said cynically, huffing with exertion while I schlepped my 35-pound pack up the talus. “I love Italian food, Italian cars, Italian shoes, and Italian women.” “Me, too, and I’m glad they’re here,” said Jonny, sincerely enough. “It just spotlights the ol’ style debate. Anyway, I think we’ll all be friends soon, and I’m sure they’ve got some good Italian meat and cheese down there. We can share our rum.”
Despite our precarious position, we laughed and sipped hot pea soup. An hour before, Jonny had led an impressive pitch of mixed ice on poorly protected ground to reach our tiny camel’s back of an ice perch. But, unable to see around the corners and buttresses in the dark, we stopped around 17,700 feet and prepared to shiver until morning. Sitting there, I wondered how we were lucky enough to have ended up on an unclimbed big wall in the Kashmir. I realized, however, that it wasn’t by chance.
Kashmir was disputed even before Pakistan won its independence from India, in 1947. Since then, the territory has been the flashpoint for two of three Indo-Pakistani wars. (The third came in 1999, when India fought a brief but bitter conflict with Pakistani-backed forces that had infiltrated Indian-controlled territory in the Kargil area, only a few hours west of our first basecamp.) The area was virtually cut off to Westerners until 1980, and since 1989, there has been a growing and often violent separatist movement against Indian rule in Kashmir.
En route to the Lang Lang Glacier, we’d passed through the city of Srinagar, a recent hotbed of violence in which tourists have been prime targets. In the early 1990s, the Al-Farhan, a militant organization, kidnapped a group of Westerners trekking in Pahalgam. They were never seen again. In 2000, only seven miles east of us, rebels killed three monks. Until as recently as 2003, the valley itself was closed numerous times due to rebel activity. Despite the tumultuous history, the people of Kashmir always greeted us with smiles, kind eyes, and warm tea.
Long before we left Boulder, we knew that to climb the wall in alpine style, suffering would be mandatory. Our first night proved the point, and the next morning’s skies revealed bad weather coming in fast. Fortunately, we spotted a small ledge 100-odd yards to our right. After some wild pendulums, we were there, on a small stance big enough for our tent and protected somewhat from the now-constant rock and icefall. Between snow squalls, we stared up at the corners and cracks that seemed to lead to the summit, many pitches away.
The next morning, we woke at 1:00 a.m. and drank some soup, leaving us with two Clif bars each. We jugged the thin ropes back to our high point. Jonny took the lead, efficiently climbing around ice and loose blocks under clear-blue skies, the Karakoram Range spread out before us. “I need my boots and crampons,” Jonny yelled, halfway through a rock pitch. He pulled them up, and the rope began to move again, but this time more slowly. I knew it had to be hard and held the rope saying nothing, just as Jonny had done for me the day before. The pitch looked intricate and loose, forcing him to climb difficult stretches of rock between large ice smears in the steep corner.
We had spent nearly four days on the wall. As I started up from the belay on the 21st pitch, a microwave-sized block of ice and snow plummeted from the summit, hitting Jonny on the head. “Are you OK?!” I screamed. There was no reply. I yelled again. “Yeah, I think I’m OK,” Jonny at long last replied. The massive chunk had brought the indestructible Jonny to his knees, knocking him out for a second, but he shook it off. I continued leading, reaching the summit ridge moments later. Jonny jugged up. His face was pale and sweaty as he pointed to his cracked helmet. We said little else about it. I re-racked and led the final chimney pitch to the summit. It was the first time I’d summited an unclimbed peak. I stood atop Shafat Fortress with my hands stretched out in front of me, taking in the landscape as the thin air and cold wind surrounded me. Jonny joined me moments later, hollering like a cowboy. He took a few pictures, and we began the descent.
We didn’t want to rap directly down the corner system, to avoid rock and ice fall, opting instead to gun 15 feet to its side . . . which required us to be crafty. At one point, Jonny equalized a RURP and a half-beaten-in, 3/4-inch angle backed up loosely to a blue TCU. When it was my turn to rap, I pulled the TCU and descended — damn if we were leaving any booty. A day and a half later, we were back on the glacier, tired to our cores. In an almost hypnotic fog, we staggered back to our initial basecamp, Campo Italiano. There were no congratulations or traditional celebration. Rather, Purtemba told us that the police had come and that we needed to visit the local station, seven miles away. The Italians, it seemed, still wanted us arrested. After a few days rest in camp and some more bouldering (and no trip to the police), we decided to confront them.
“I love the Italians,” Jonny said, as we headed toward their cook tent. “All we can do is be friendly.” My heart pounded. We unzipped the tent door and stepped inside. We all stood face to face, and Jonny and I, elated by our first ascent, had yet to wipe the grins off our mugs. The Italians picked up on this and instantly changed their tune — one minute cold and unfriendly, the next slapping us high fives and sharing their food. Did I just miss something? I wondered. We sat, our hands still cracked and bleeding, as they cut a slice of ham for each of us. I glanced across the small camp table at Jonny and smiled bigger. We had fulfilled our first goal. A few nights later, like old friends, our egos drowned by rum, we all drank and danced under the Himalayan sky.
Micah Dash and Jonny Copp, recipients of the 2007 American Alpine Club Lyman Spitzer Cutting-Edge Award and WL Gore’s Shipton/Tilman Grant for the trip, spent the following three weeks in basecamp bouldering. The Italian team, meanwhile, reached a high point 650 feet up the wall.