Big Wall Climbing

Oh, Pakistan!
Latok-III, Summer-2000 Expedition

    The further you go southwards the more picturesque is the country, its nation, traditions, customs, laws. Pakistan resembles the well-known ex-soviet Asia – Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan (even the names are similar) – but spirited in its own way. On one hand, it’s inhabited by Paki (in full Pakistani), on the other hand, mango is the most spread and favourite fruit. In spite of their having one common syllable “stan”, it will take you only 2-hours flight from soviet “stans” to become utterly absorbed in the land of mango. In fact, this country has all rights to be named Mangolia or Mangopakia. The territory of  Pakistan is 21 times smaller than the one of Russia, still there live almost the same number of people with a tiny 20-million advantage of Russia. Every single green plot of land, where something may grow, is inhabited by paki. Wheat and rise – are the main cereals. Paki are all great hardworkers. Snake-like roads cut through the rocks can’t leave you indifferent. On mountain slopes among the rocks appear green hanging oasises. You can also see made almost by hands horizontal grounds, where paki grow and gather harvest. Because of warm climate they do it twice a year. Warm climate is also the course of people there being of ever dark-brown colour. Almost all men are dressed in traditional long shirt and wide trouses called shalvar-kamiz. You can’t see any women in the street because they rarely leave their home. But if you have luck to see one she would turn around and close her face with a scarf. It’s next to impossible to catch a look of her eyes. You can’t photo them – their honour may be in stake (it concerns military- and policemen as well). Even a small girl says in pure English: “No photo!” if you’ll try to take a picture of her. More than that, she takes a large stone (hardly fitting in her hand) and makes a threatening gesture so you could get that she is quite serious.  Here you really risk to have neither photo, nor camera… at last, you life is in danger.
    In towns their clothing is mostly of white-beige coloure, though in remote places it’s darker and less neat. The 2x3 metre sized niches resembling garages are amaizing. Paki have their business there – shops, offices, etc. In every such a niche they have food, goods, telephone, boss and a pair of assistents.
    Poles and wires are worth a separate story. They entangle streets, buildings with their web so that it’s hard to imagine how it works and how one can understand anything in it. The transformers on the poles look like spiders grabbing the town like a victim. Advertisement is one more thing in which Paki have outdone us. Everything is stuffed with it – big and small, bright and bleak, old and new, torn and whole. If to compair with them we have no advertisement at all. But it’s our nearest future – multiple shops, offices and countless ads. But I wouldn’t wish the future with sewage-like rivers in towns, which spread the stench like heat and bacillus are spread.
    In Pakistan there is a great amount of transport, which serves as a good advertisement for the Japan company “Toyota”, the cars of which are prevailing. The cars  which have already become a rarity seems to go on moving. Paki are great beauty lovers and it may be seen through there vehicles. With an enviable zeal they decorate their cars – beginning with ordinary stickers and ending with fringe, stamping pieces, works of art, oil paitings with inlayed stones, mottos, multicoloured lamps. And even that’s not all. To attract attantion to a bus or a van they fasten chains with plates on it, they ring and if you don’t see this bus or van you are sure to hear it.
    They resemble children toys – bright, multicoloured, ringing, with wirling weathercocks and bands flying and all things which a human being may invent. Pakistan transport is worth  composing legends. At first it appeals with its quantity, then with its quality. Almost all the models are produced before your date of birth what gives an opportunity to get acknowleged about Japan car industry development. The traffic is crazy. A great number of taxis, buses, motor-cycles, mopeds, bicycles… Because of hot weather and large population paki are allowed to sit on the roof, at the side and at the back of a vehicle. They are even equiped with special hand-rails, steps and footboards for those who don’t want to jam the bus and to get to a place with the wind. Even the tiniest 2-rooms fixed-route scooter has curtains, pictures and fringe. It seems like if you wany to pass a technical test your car should only move and a have signal. They signal very frequently: to ask for a passage, to warn and to greet all the fellow-paki on the way, it means always. I wonder, why not make a constant signal ant to switch it off from time to time. Neverending ringing of cars, motor bikes, mopeds, bicycles – that’s just a beginning. Oda to Pakistan transport may last forever.
    Pakistan is Islamic country and is a stronghold of Islam. So we plunged into Islam. We godlessly ate mango in countless amount and sweated just like the natives distinguishing ourselves only by the shorts we wore. During 4 days we were an eye-sore to paks while going one and the same route: hotel – bazar – Chinese restaurant – and again hotel. We bought in the food for 2 months in the bazar and carried it into our rooms like sherps. When the load with equipment came and everything was stocked we planned leave for Skardu for 23.06.
No one can say that paks’ life was good but after millitary coup d’etat it got even worse. It’s uncomfortable outside without women and alcoholic beverages. With an air of strict secrecy in Chinese restaurant we were served with bier in iron jar poured into sticked with napkins glasses. God save us that Allah couldn’t see! But in reality it is possible to get something alcoholic. People say there is a place where vodka with pure Russian name is sold – “Peter the 1st” (perhaps since Peter’s times).
    Pakistan, that means “the pures’ land”, is full of nonsense. There is vodka… but it can’t be bought or drunk. There are women, but they can’t be seen. They wrap themselves into cloth so that only eyes can be seen. And what if it is a man?!
    On 22.06 we met our dear hardly recognizable almost utterly “pakistanish” and black Sasha Klenov and Misha Devi. Their joy was easy to understand – they climbed Spantik (7028 m) by the new route. It was a first-rate meeting: cognak and beautiful tales were flowing. Early morning our fellows started home and we to the north-east to the centre of Karakorum.
    For 2 days we rode the full-load bus and got 500 km nearer to our goal. Skardu is a small town where all the expeditions to K2, Trango start. On 27 of July by 3 beautiful Jeaps sticked with sponsors’ ads – “Bask”, “Irbis”, “Peco” – we started for Askole. Askole is the last Alpine village at the height of 3050 m, where life is still boiling up. Further more life stops, nothing except frosen rivers – huge glaciers and stone banks and most beautiful summits’ walls never being stepped on. By ice and stone roar it proves that life is going on. Narrow, cut in the rock, road is twisting rounding the mountain slope and jumping up and down punching a hole in it. While this is made mostly by hands in quickly washed off by rains and mud flows. It’s repaired likewise, by hands. On our way to Askole we came around two avalanches which swept the road so that the porters had to carrythe load by the 0.3 metre narrow path to reach the Jeaps on the other side. It takes 1 day to cover the road from Skardu to Askole and during that day there are several times when you say “farewell” to your life. We entrusted ourselves to Allah, the driver and bald-tyred Jeaps. Fortunately, our brave drivers got us there safe and sound. Late at night we reached the glade Camping Area by the village Askole. There the porters made themselves comfortable round the fire and began singing to the accompaniment of hollow jerrycans and dancing.  In the morning about 60 porters attacked our load. But their boss fought back those disloyal porters-the-conquers, who tried to take away more than 1 ton bit by bit without any permission. The happiest ones who catched the load of 25 kilos fixed it straight ahead to their wooden devices and moved like a caravan towards our dream.
    It took us 3 days from ASKOLE to our BASE CAMP. It is situated at the height of 4650 m. We reached a beautiful place – LATOK 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – the mountains with vertical walls turn into glaciers that remind huge still rivers.
    2 km high, vertical, granite goddesses support the sky. It’s like an endless challenge. 20 days of nasty weather didn’t stop us. After long preparations including carring the load we took the challenge of the wall. It happend on July,19.
    Western wall – LATOK 3 (6950 m) hasn’t been climbed. The drop in of the wall is 2050 m. The rock part of the route is very steep. It starts with 5665 m and drop in is 1285 m. We started to ascent with a load weughting 100 kg. This weight was expected for 15-20 ascending days. It took us 2 days to pass the ice part of the route– 25 ropes. It’s 1250 m, steepness is 45?-60?, 4-5 category of difficulty. Much snow on the ice made an ascent difficult and didn’t allow to put stations on time.
    July, 20. At 7 p.m. we held of the rock at the level 5710 m. We hung 2 platforms on the cliff in 10 m. From the planned route.
    July, 21 – the 3rd day of ascent. We’ve passed 50 m, 6/A3+, 90?-140? with several cornices. The cleft in the corner is a layer of destroyed rock pressed with granite. We had to pass the destroyed areas round on the left and right part of the split.
    July, 22 – the 4th day of work on the wall. We’ve passed another 1.5 rope 6/A3+, 85?-95?. The stones are falling from the corner. A small stone hit Yury’s head. Blood, bandaged head reminds a war. The stones are whistling like bullets and wounds are real. We are sitting inside the platform driven into the wall. A stone bursts into a tent and breaks Yury’s helmet “CAMP” into piecies like an eggshell and bends the platform tube. The hole is big so that Yury is able to look out and asks not to throw stones. In a while 2 more stones fly in without permission. The tent is in holes. Direct hit. We’ve reached 5835 m point.
    July, 23-24 – we’ve been sitting in a tent for 2 days. It is snowing heavily – at daytime and at night. It’s impossible to leave – get buried with snow.
    July, 25 – the 7th day on the wall. The weather seems to change. It stopped snowing. It’s possible to see the blue sky. We decided to work. While I was climbing the railings the weather turned worse and it started to snow again.
    After Yury had passed 5 m of artificial climb a stone hit his hands. As a result – 2 broken thumbs. We  had to stop ascending and sent Yury down because he could do nothing.
During the evening tie Odintsov sent a message to the doctor about Yury’s injury and our decision to descend. He asked to find porters. We had to finish our expedition and went home. It’s difficult to aware of it. We haven’t got the top.
    It occured to come back to the wall and continue ascending without Yury. We asked the porters to wait untill we came down.
    July, 26 – descending. There were no clouds in the sky. There was much snow on the slope after snowfall. We spent much time in preparations and started descending about 11a.m. when the sun was very hot.
    Was the first because he couldn’t hold the rope. I was the second and I organized a station. Sergey Yefimov was the third and Odintsov was the last with the low insurance. 5 ropes left and we could have been on the  glacier. But the mountain took another decision.
We were standing on the platform with Sergey. We heard the roar of the next avalanche and looked up. Yury had been lowered with the help of the rope. Odintsov hadn’t come up to us yet when the blow went two of us.
    Avalanches have formed a 2 metres groove in the ice-snow colour.
    We  were coming descending down in 5 metres from the groove and then organized a station using 2 ice-screws. 10 metres higher the groove makes a curve. The groove is like a good bob-sleigh route. But imagine an avalanche instead of it.
    It happened at 3-20 – 3-30 p.m. The avalanche rushed out from the groove at a high speed. Fastened to the station with self-protection insurance. Sergey and I had no choice. We saw the avalanche jumping out from  a groove and falling directly on us. The only thing to do was to fall on the ice with a scream “Down”. A strong blow of the wet avalanche forced me to forget where and who I was. When I came to myself the first thought was “I have some jugular vertebrae broken”. My head was like a lead. Realising that I was alive I tried to raise it. I was looking around the station but understood nothing . Emptiness. Only 2 ice-axes and myself. There were no ruksacks and our icy axe. Sergey had disappeared. The avalanche wiped off everything except myself. There is only a terrible emptiness around.
    I looked foolishly at the rope I was holding and kept on protecting Yury. I felt that life existed on the other end of the rope. Odintsov shouted somewhere from above that Sergey had been taken away by the avalanche. I got the words but it was hard to believe it. Some minutes later I witnessed the second and the third avalanches. I thought it would go on until I fell down. I felt so helpless because I could do nothing.
    I accepted everything sent “from above”. Painful to move and to breathe as a couple of ribs might have been broken. Any movement and sigh caused pain. I  (probably) had about 10 kg of snow under my helmet, so I took it off and beat the pressed snow out. I ran on the sliperry ice, tried to hammer a piton but found out that my piton hammer had disappeared as well. I organized a station on the camalot and took Odintsov.
    In order to survive we left the station as quickly as possible. I was shivering with cold. I had lots of snow under my collar. We were coming down parallelly with avalanches.
    Our descent was accompanied with the roars of constantly descending avalanches.
We had been thinking that Sergey had gone for a half of an hour. It’s unbelievable that someone can manage  to survive after 350 m flight down along the ice colour with rocky walls.
    But to our great surprise after several ropes of descending we saw him sitting on an avalanche beneath its cone and staring at the valley. It was a magic but he was moving and it meant – alive.
    We rushed to him. Fortunately, our doctor was glad to meet us and he could give Sergey the first medical aid. But our adventures were not over. Our bag with the equipment prevented us from moving so we unfastened and threw down when we were 50 m away from bergschrund. It gathered speed, flew over the bergschrund, rolled along the glacier and fell into a crack.
    I didn’t believe in our rescue till my foot touched the glacier (the stones kept on falling from above).
    Our rucksaks were about on the one side of the avalanche cone, Sergey was sitting on the other.
    A blood track was seen for the space of 10 m from him. He was sitting and smoking and didn’t look like a man who had flown 350 m down.
    Here is Ikar’s story:
I fell on ice shouting “Down”. Then there is a blow. A fall head over heels. I didn’t remember what I was hit against but crampons teeth were rose-shaped. I fell on the cone in a sitting position. Came to myself.
    Avalanches went on falling. Ikar desperately crawled 10m lower not to be burried. After shock unbearable path showed up. I realized that I had broken my leg, some ribs; my face was bleeding. Looked at the watch 3-30 p.m.
    30 minutes before the talk with the doctor over the radio (Sergey had a sending-set in his pocket). Enough time to smoke and to think.
4 p.m. – radio talk. I described the situation and told I was the only man who survived and all the rest were burried under the avalanche. I couldn’t help my friends. I wouldn’t like to be a receiver (Misha Bakin). I think this news made his knees trembling and speed up his glacier movement.
    Thoughts like bees crowded in Sergey’s head (they will probably be included in a separate story). But the main thing pulsing in his head was “I am so lucky. Injured but alive.”
At a distance of 3 metres he saw my ice-axe, and it seemed to him it was held by my hand. His hurt leg caused a terrible pain and he couldn’t crawl up to save his friends lying under the avalanche. He was aware of his absolute helpnessness. We and Misha Bakin – our doctor – had been treating and entertaining Sergey for 4 days.
    Our attempt to lower him to the base camp failed. There were 4 porters and 2 of them – invalids. Pakistan officer was sent down to Skardu to ask for helicpter. He covered a 3 day distance for a day.
    It’s time for the Pakistans to think of organizing a quicker connection. Helicopters hadn’t arrived at once because the insurance company didn’t want to pay the helicopters services, so long-term talks were held to answer the question: Who can guaranty the payment? Either “Adventurre Tour Pakistan”or Russian Embassy in Pakistan or friends or someone else.
    Everything is good that ends good. Helicopters had arrived.
    The trail we could carry Sergey was very narrow and even two persons could walking there with difficulty, no words how to carry an injured man with broken legs and ribs.
    Those two small helicopters were the most desirable things in our life. Sergey cheered up. With the help of the pilot we pulled him into the second one. It took them 30 minutes to get to Skardu. It has a hospital and an airstrip to fly further, to Russia.
    Some days later, when the porters came we took our base camp away and started our way back. We were leaving that severe region and the mountain which on the one hand treated us roughly but on the other – let us survive. We promised to be back the next year on Latok 3 (6949 m). The reason is very simple- mountains are eternal challenge...

Alexander Ruchkin

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