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I can’t breathe. Pumped, dizzy, and nauseous, I close my eyes, searching for composure. Crystals of static tingle and squirm between my brain and retinas. I gasp for oxygen, then thrutch up 10 feet of icy fist crack to the end of my rope.
“Hurgh,” I moan, using great effort to muster a shitty, unequalized anchor of a tipped-out #6 cam and two suspect stoppers. I slump against the wall, dry heaving. “Line is fixed, Renan.”
“Oh shit, we forgot the tent and sleeping bags,” I joke as we watch the sun sink to the horizon. To stay light and fast, we packed minimally, hoping to do the first ascent of the north summit of the Cat’s Ear Spires in Pakistan’s Trango Valley in a single push. To up the ante and make it spray-worthy, our plan was to claim this virgin summit in a day using Yosemite-style speed tactics. I could see the Climbing magazine “Hot Flash” already: “Yosemite Super-human Badasses Conquer Impossible Himalayan Big Wall… IN A DAY!”
“So much for in a day,” I bemoan.
“It’s going to be a real cold night,” Renan replies as he dumps out the contents of his pack. Melting snow and recovering from the day’s exertion while huddled together on the ledge, we finally have some clarity.
“We’re pretty strung out here,” Renan mumbles, reading my mind.
“What could possibly go wrong?” I joke. The answer: a lot. Rock or ice fall, a whipper, winter storms, or one of a thousand possible mistakes would launch us from great achievement to great tragedy.
I don’t think [we will make it], but we shall continue with style.—The Eiger Sanction
The mountains can inspire, challenge, humble, and kill you. We feel small on the wall with the summit out of view. We are unsure of how many pitches we have left, but we must be close. We force down some water and food, and then cuddle up on our small sloping ledge. Doubt and fear creep in with the cold. Are we badass? Maybe. Are we dumbass? Probably. I want this summit, but no climb is worth dying for. My breathing finally returns to normal, and the terror subsides. An unobstructed view of the sun setting over Shipton Spire and the impossibly beautiful Trango Valley in front of my eyes reminds me why I do this.
There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous [mountain]; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.—Mark Twain
I doze off and dream that the valley spires are transformed into massive rock zombies. The monsters march down the glacier with jagged toothy grins. I startle awake to the pain of the cold. I do frantic jumping jacks and squats until my body is functional enough for more fitful sleep. I’m nauseous and have a headache, the magic of low-grade altitude sickness. The night is a battle against hypothermia, and after an eternity, first light creeps in.
“That was the coldest night of my life,” Renan notes with a maniacal smile. His face is covered in sand and snot from passing out in the dirt. We make shitty instant coffee and head slowly for the summit.
“ARRRGHHHHHH, what the fuck was that?!” Renan screams, plastered against the wall. As he cleaned the first pitch of the day, I hauled the extra gear. In the process, my ice axe came loose and tomahawked past Renan’s head. I imagine a partially scalped Renan with the axe still lodged in his temple, asking, “Does it look bad?” Ten seconds later, a massive avalanche rips down a thousand feet away from us on the wall where this huge spire juts out. It’s strange to be in a relatively safe location with certain death a stone’s throw away. We are safe-ish. But I’m scared shitless.
“What the fuck am I doing here?” I mumble to the cold, indifferent wall. The climb seems to go on forever.
“Hopefully leading one more pitch,” Renan quips. Hypoxia makes paying attention and keeping our shit together next to impossible. Now we must enlist the most important tool in alpinism—luck. The Baltoro Glacier 3,000 feet below represents safety, but we “have” to summit and then get down. How many rappels, how many stuck ropes will that be? An icy squeeze chimney into an offwidth gapes above me, threatening to eat me alive, but the summit is within view!
Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.—Evan Hardin
“I feel like an astronaut!” I yell with a convincing but false confidence. Before we left, if someone asked why we had come to the Karakoram, I would have said something cliché, like “because it is a high-altitude Yosemite” or “it’s one of the most beautiful ranges in the world,” which was a partially true answer. With the hindsight of age and experience, I also went to chase glory. Renan and I both had something to prove to ourselves, and to our peers. We could climb El Cap in a day, but what about something bigger? What about a first ascent of an El Cap–size spire at high altitude?
In disbelief, I mantel onto the virgin north summit of the Cat’s Ear Spires. A splayed-out raven skeleton awaits me, the lone member of a grim welcoming committee. I teeter awestruck at the tippy top of a sliver of granite in the sky and scream with joy. The tiny summit demands that Renan and I take turns enjoying its perch. Tears come to my eyes. “It is beautiful up here,” I say to Renan. “I love you, dude.”
Climbing may be hard, but it’s easier than growing up.—Ed Sklar
We begin the complicated descent, guessing where to rappel. Each time we pull the ropes we hold our collective breath, hoping the cord doesn’t get stuck. We need luck more than ever. Clouds bubble up on the horizon. In our dilapidated state, we would die in a storm, joining the welcoming committee with the summit skeleton. Twenty rappels blur past. I pull on the 6mm tag line. It stops. I try shaking it. I resort to bouncing on it with all of my weight.
“FUCKKK YOU!” I scream at the mountain. I want off. The blank wall above makes reclimbing the pitch impossible. I begin jumaring up the stuck accessory cord tag line. Most accidents happen on the descent they say—I can see why. I ascend 120 feet of dental floss to a jagged flake. The closer I get, the more gingerly I jumar. I mantel onto the flake and pull the knot effortlessly out of the crack. I’d like to think that if the knot had blown, instead of shrieking and exploding onto the glacier, I would have had the comic fortitude to fly past Renan, shouting, “Rope’s unfixed, see you at the base!”
Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.—Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps
Two hours later, we pull our final rope and stand in disbelief on terra firma. We survived the acid trip that was Epica Direct (5.11 A2+), named in honor of our good friend Erica who died in an ice fall in this range the year before. We accomplished our goal, not quite in a day, but we’d climbed one of the last major unclimbed summits in the Trango Valley in excellent style, no sieging, no support crew, no guarantees—a reasonably daring ascent. We would get our news blurb in the mags.
Looking back, I ask myself, was our ascent worth the risk? If we had hauled up a tent, sleeping bags, and fixed lines up the route, it certainly would have been safer, but the challenge would have been greatly diminished. If a storm had moved in on that cold night on the wall, if the tag line’s knot had ripped out, if anything serious had happened, I wouldn’t be writing this.
Climbing is a bizarre sport. We don’t have referees, or rules. Instead we have “ethics” and “style,” and the occasional cop or ranger to intervene if things get really out of hand. But is style important? Does style matter?
The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.—Alex Lowe
At the time, Renan and I felt compelled to climb in a pure alpine style—no fixed lines, no bolts—while gunning for the fastest possible first ascent time. I believed in the purity of this approach, but wrapped up in this religious adherence to “pure style” was a desire to be cool, to be badass. Wanting to be rad is not inherently terrible. As climbers, we need to prove ourselves, but we also need to remember that climbing should be enjoyable and non-lethal.
In the end, it’s bad style to be careless with your life, to climb recklessly. I think that for the objective, Renan and I struck a decent balance between risk and fun, but the lines blurred up there. I am proud of the style of our ascent. Style is important, but in equal measure style doesn’t matter at all. To climb for the gratification of the ego misses the point. In the end it’s less fulfilling than climbing for the beauty, the mountains, the natural lines, the movement. Ultimately, if you climb with a smile, that’s all that matters. And if I go back to Pakistan, I’m bringing a sleeping bag, a tent, a thicker tag line, and an espresso maker.