Mathieu Maynadier in Pakistan: all’s well that ends well!
During the summer of 2018, an international team of climbers, including Carlito Molina, Nicolas Favresse, Jean-Louis Wertz, and Mathieu Maynadier, ventured on an expedition to Pakistan. Their main objective was to establish a new route on Pathan Peak, but an accident cut Mathieu Maynadier’s trip short. He shares with us the story of this (mis)adventure in the Targhas, a valley where the mountains remain relatively unknown climbers and so very far from civilization.
June 13 2019
October 2018. I have wanted to write this article for some time, but just could not seem to get around to it. Ironically, I usually put pen to paper as quickly as possible after an expedition, wanting to share the experience, but this time around my heart was just not in it. Since our return to France, everyday life has simply kept me from doing anything else; the daily grind sucking up more time than usual after a long high-altitude getaway. It is as if my brain wanted to bury this misadventure somewhere deep in my subconscious to allow me to better concentrate on my next expedition!
Let’s start from the beginning
For a half century, Pakistan and India have been fighting over the Khondus Glacier and the surrounding mountains located east of the well-known Baltoro. For any climber who knows even a little bit about the Himalaya, this vast area has seen little exploration and is the source of many a daydream. The region contains one of the few remaining major mountain ranges in the world with such incredible potential (and space) for first ascents. Two years ago, we explored Lachit Valley, and on our trek out we saw several big walls that looked relatively accessible. In July 2018, we put together an international team of climbers including Argentine Carlito Molina, Belgians Nicolas Favresse and Jean-Louis Wertz, and yours truly, a Frenchman with a nose for finding adventure in Targhas Valley. We started the expedition with only a few photos of the area and very little information. Our happy team of climbers was pretty much good for nothing, but ready for anything!
After a scouting out the area and negotiating with our porters, we start the long hike to base camp. The feeling of being the first to explore the valley makes the approach truly special. This is the first time foreigners have taken an interest in the area and you can tell that the locals are happy about the news. In the alpine meadows and pastures, shepherds welcome us with open arms, excited to offer us a taste of their yak butter! With base camp established, we start exploring the area, but the altitude and subsequent lethargy above 4000 meters reign us in. After a few days spent organizing camp, our gear, and acclimatizing, we set our sights on a wall whose height we may have underestimated just a little. As usual in the Himalaya, the sheer size and scale of the mountains is disorienting. Add somewhat mediocre rock (read chossy) into the mix, and this particular project came to a halt well below the top. However, this first vertical adventure in the area allows us to acclimatize and to better gauge the size of the surrounding big walls. As a side note, on the descent we saved a goat from imminent demise, which proved more than enough to make it a great day!
In search of THE ultimate line
Once back in base camp, we set our sights on climbing a beautiful rock tower we name Pathan Peak (after one of the local fearless tribes). On our first attempt, we climb a line straight up the pillar, in a Belgian style that can only be described as, “when you think that it won't go, that’s exactly where you’re supposed to climb!” After a two-day effort climbing mostly choss, we decide to turn around and head back down. This particular face does not suit the style we have planned. The rock has few lines of weakness and is unfortunately not always of the highest quality. We decide to move to the left, to a line of weakness that appears to lead to the top. While not as steep as our first attempt, and with less of an “ultimate line” allure, at least there are cracks to protect. After spending two days fixing lines, we start climbing up the long corner, setting up camp mid wall roughly 300 meters off the ground. The face is not very steep and we move at a fast pace, partially free climbing / partially aid climbing each pitch. While better than expected, the rock still requires us to pay careful attention from one move to the next to avoid knocking huge blocks onto our friends below. It takes two days on the wall for us to come to the conclusion that our camp is not in an ideally-protected location. While Carlito and I fix ropes on the upper pitches, Jean-Louis and Nico try, to no avail, to relax on the portaledges, biting their nails and ducking for cover all day long as small and not so small rocks whizz by. Upon our return to camp that evening, we can see that rock fall has torn the fly on our portaledge to shreds. At the same time, Jean-Louis and Nico tell us about their rather harrowing day! The four of us discuss and mull over our next step. Even though this line does not earn “ultimate” status, the climbing has been fun and we have already put in a lot of hard work. We agree that it would be a shame to stop and turn around, and decide to make a summit attempt the next day. If we are careful, all should go well!
Linking pitch after pitch to the summit
We get an early start to ascend the fixed ropes above camp. All four of us feel well acclimated. Everything goes well. We send one pitch after the other. While the climbing is never too difficult, the rock remains mediocre, and route finding proves more complex than expected.
By early afternoon we finish the steep part of the face, with still a fair amount of terrain to climb to reach the top. After a few easy pitches and a couple pitches of mixed climbing, we summit at 17:00. The four of us bask in the sun, the calm, and the flittering perfection of the moment. The giants of the Karakoram surround us, and from our incredible perch we can see the entire range from Masherburm to Sasser Kangri in India. The Khondus Glacier Valley lies before our very eyes, providing plenty of ideas for future adventures. While at present only the edge of the range is open to foreigners, the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan appears to be calming down, and new areas should open soon. After an hour on the summit, with nightfall on its way, we start the descent to our portaledges. The rappels go smoothly, and around 20:00, we reach the fixed ropes above camp. We decide to remove them to avoid having to return the next day. Our descent slows, and we traverse a series of ledges with a lot of loose rock. Although one or two rocks whizz by, all up until that point goes well. At 23:00, we decide to drill one of the only bolts on the route to reinforce the anchor for the one remaining rappel to the portaledges. Up until this point, we have only used nuts and horns for anchors, but the less than stellar rock and our fatigued state after a long day out convince us to drill a bolt instead of leaving a cam. This is the last thing that I remember...
From big wall to hospital bed
When I regain consciousness, I’m already sitting on the portaledge, my head badly scraped and my arm in a sling. Right after I finished building the anchor, I was hit by rock fall. I did not see it coming, and everything happens so quickly. My teammates find me hanging unconscious with my head bleeding profusely. After a few minutes, Nico is able to wake me up, but I am in a state of shock, incoherent and agitated. In spite of it all, my partners successfully lower me to the portaledge and by the time I regain most of my faculties, they have already bandaged me up and called for a rescue. Thomas, the emergency doctor we contact in France, recommends that I stay awake. We wait until daybreak to continue our descent. In the morning, I feel better, calm and collected, and our descent to the base of the wall goes smoothly. We reach the bergschrund around 8:00, but the helicopters (in Pakistan helicopters always fly in pairs) are running late, and they evacuate me to the military hospital in Skardu right before noon. In just 12 hours, I go from an unclimbed big wall in the mountains to a hospital bed. Thanks to my fast-thinking and fast-moving climbing partners, the doctors in France, and the Pakistani army, I was evacuated quickly. A few days later I’m back in France and checked into the hospital in Briançon. The final outcome of my accident: a concussion, an open fracture of the right elbow, and two compressed vertebrae. In the end, I came out relatively unscathed thanks to everyone moving so fast and efficiently. The icing on the cake is that I don’t remember a thing! While it is a weird feeling to have a blackout, at least I harbor no bad memories.
The human adventure makes up for the lack of any real athletic accomplishment
Everyone who stayed behind at base camp returned to the wall to recover our gear. When they reached our camp, one of the portaledges had been completely crushed by more rock fall. This was clearly not the safest of lines to climb! After the fact it is always easy to say what if, to replay everything in your head, but in the end what’s done is done. For the number of rocks that whizzed by our heads, everything turned out pretty well overall. Once they recovered our gear, Nico and Carlito established a mixed climb up a beautiful ridge on Pathani, another nearby peak. Even if Targhas Valley did not provide us with THE ultimate face we came to climb, the human adventure we experienced more than made up for the lack of any real athletic accomplishment. The incredible views from the top of Pathan Peak reaffirm my desire to continue exploring the region. I already have plans for 2019!
It has been a few months since the accident and, even if there are no long-lasting effects other than the aches and pains I will be forced to endure as an old man, I have been unable to sit down and write a trip report until now. It took going climbing for the first time after the accident for the all of the details of this very strange day to come flooding back into my memory. A huge thanks to my climbing partners who did not flinch for a second in coming to my aid and setting the rescue in motion, to Thomas Spadoni and Pierre Muller for coordinating the rescue from France, as well as the Pakistani army for their availability, skill, and efficiency.