Climbing in the forbidden valleys of Pakistan
In August 2016, a team of five climbers had the rare opportunity to explore the unknown and forbidden valleys in the northeast corner of Pakistan. Along the boundary of the cease-fire zone with India, the Kondus Glacier and the Saltoro Mountains have been off limits to all non-military activity since September 11, 2001. Thanks to experience gained through past trips, Mathieu Maynadier was able to travel there with a group of friends, including his girlfriend Charlotte Barré and another well-known couple within the Petzl community, Florence Pinet and Jérôme Pouvreau. Guillaume Vallot, photo-journalist for the expedition, tells the story of the first-ascents achieved by these two talented climber couples.
October 6 2016
Chimera appearing out of the clouds after a thunderstorm...
"Chimera: any hybrid creature featuring the parts of more than one animal, symbolizing dreams, fantasies, or farfetched utopias."
"My dream for years had been to go climbing in eastern Pakistan. Working closely with Ali Muhammed Salotor, a former soldier who now works in expedition logistics, we successfully obtained a permit for the Kondus Glacier. It took three years, and it was complicated once we were there, but we did it, and ended up climbing our own Pakistani chimera!"
Mathieu Maynadier, who initiated this somewhat farfetched project, was not venturing on his first trip to the high mountains of central Asia. Just 32 years old, he has a dozen expeditions to the Himalaya and Baltoro under his belt, and can even be considered somewhat of a local expert. Mathieu, whose nickname is "Mémé," is so hungry for adventure that he often starts to talk about future trips before the base camp of the current one is even set up and ready. His girlfriend, Charlotte Barré, is 30 years old and a both an alpine skiing and climbing instructor. The other couple, 33-year-old Gérôme Pouvreau and 30-year-old Florence Pinet – both world-class competitors, route developers, and loyal Team Petzl members for years - needs no introduction.
At the top on the first ascent of Chimera Spire, via La Scoumoune. From left to right: G. Pouvreau, F. Pinet, C. Barré, M. Maynadier. Photo G. Vallot
Partners in crime
After heading off on several trips together, including an adventure to Greenland on the sailboat Maewan during the summer of 2015 where they climbed the legendary route Moby Dick, the two couples clearly demonstrated a common thirst for athletic exploration. By combining Mathieu and Charlotte's high-alpine expertise with the Gérôme and Florence's vertical expertise, Pakistan was an obvious choice. "I like Nepal," explains Mathieu, "But prefer the Baltoro region and the surrounding peaks even more. If I were to make a comparison with the French Alps, I would say that the Himalaya is like the Ecrins, beautiful peaks with sometimes questionable rock, whereas Baltistan would be more like Mont-Blanc, fantastic mountains with incredible granite…"
Gérôme Pouvreau on pitch 4, 7a.
Towards the confines of Northeastern Pakistan
"Everything was in Ali's hands," recounts Gérôme, "Ali is a Himalayist who spent a full career in the military before entering the trekking agency business four years ago. He relies on the relationships and skills acquired in the army to ensure that enthusiastic climbers like us have access to big walls that no one else is authorized to climb. The problem is that even though he succeeded in negotiating a permit for us – probably paying a bribe here and there – once in the area we wanted to be, it was the local commander who actually wielded all decision-making authority. The green light that we received in Islamabad was really nothing more than an illusion!"
Around Karmanding, at the source of the Kondus Glacier.
The unbelievable Karakoram Highway
After landing on August 21, 2016, in the sweltering Pakistani capital, we learned that our originally planned one-hour flight had transformed into a bumpy two-day minibus ride on a portion of the "KKH," the legendary Karakorum Highway and its side roads. An unbelievable artery frequently battered by torrential floods, this often dirt road clings to the mountainside high above a big, silt-filled, turbulent river without any guardrails whatsoever…
"What an amazing experience," laughs Charlotte, "It was so striking and spectacular, especially with views of Nanga Parbat at sunset while descending from a pass at 4800m elevation. On the return trip, we took advantage of the stable weather to take a plane instead of a bus and see Nanga from the sky!"
On the trip to the airport in France with 12 bags and 5 people in a Peugeot 207, we felt like rock stars... until riding on... the real KKH!
In Skardu, the Pakistani Chamonix, enjoying a game of pétanque on the banks of the Indus River.
Anxiety at the first checkpoint and military exercises with real bullets!
"As soon as we entered the forbidden valley, the expedition almost came to a screeching halt," remembers Florence. "At that very moment, Ali looked more than anxious. Without telling us, in order to be able to pass through the main checkpoint, he made a deal with the army that we would abandon any plans to explore the best area, further east." When it came to using my camera, I was strictly forbidden from taking any photos of military equipment and personnel, and bridges. After several secondary checkpoints more easily negotiated, we arrived in the village of Latchit where Ali absolutely wanted us to stop over. In the village of Karmanding we enjoyed views of the spectacular surrounding mountains, but were definitively stopped from traveling any further: a 10-day period of military exercises using real bullets had begun. After a fit of anger and frustration, Mathieu agreed to explore Latchit Valley as our fallback plan. The joys of Pakistani bureaucracy! Their ears were probably ringing for days.
Entering the forbidden valleys.
Our porters went above and beyond their (horrible) reputation
We had the unpleasant surprise of learning that our logistics contract did not include wages for the porters. This caused a minor epic, since none of us had the necessary additional cash. Fortunately, our clever guide Ali had enough in his pockets to loan us the right amount to pay 35 porters for two days, which would be enough to reach the site we had spotted the day before. Right at the moment when we planned to close the deal, Ali had to rush back to Islamabad for an "unforeseen urgency." How unfortunate, since this meant that we would have to manage the porters all on our own. Given their extremely bad reputation, we expected an unpleasant hassle at the least. Reality proved much stranger than the fiction of our wildest imaginations, and the porters went far beyond anything we could have originally hoped for. While Mathieu and Gérôme prepared our bags, almost all of the men in the village came to our camp. The custom here is to hire men from a single village, teenagers and grandpas included. With the help of a detailed sketch, Mathieu explained over and over again the place where we planned to set up base camp. The shepherds and older folk understood exactly where we wanted to go. A generous fee above the "standard minimum wage" was offered. After hearing "it's a deal" several times to finalize the agreement, everyone happily set off up the first hill.
1: Temporary camp and preparing loads in the village of Latchit. 2: Young and old alike come to see our base camp and all of our high-tech gear.
Strike and abandonment
With each stop to rest, the conversations in Urdu became increasingly heated and antagonistic. A few leaders were clearly trying to foment discontent. After a very long day in hours but extremely short in vertical gain, the revolt began. The porters wanted both more money and to cover less distance per day, threatening to drop their loads right where they stood and head home. The conditions they had agreed upon in the village simply vanished into the thin mountain air. The porters were clearly trying to blackmail us. Even though we were well within our rights it mattered little, right or wrong we simply had no extra cash! At nightfall, a few of the porters followed through with their threats. The elders successfully influenced the younger generation and only eleven out of the original thirty-two porters remained. The expedition was suddenly in a bad way. Gérôme, the always-smiling eternal optimist, kept confidently repeating, "They'll be back, I know it." Sure enough, in the middle of the night every single one of the deserters tiptoed back into camp. Phew!
As night falls, only 11 out of 32 porters keep their word and faithfully remain.
Base camp, at last!
The next morning, a few clever porters started up the hill early, carrying much lighter loads than originally agreed upon. We followed in hot pursuit to chase down these phony over-zealous individuals. Around three in the afternoon, battle weary and well before our initial objective, we decided to establish our base camp in a small morainal valley. After paying everyone, our new home at 4200m was suddenly empty. Only our enthusiastic cooks remained, Assan and Sherali, both from a neighboring valley, as well as Malik, our liaison officer who, for the entire approach, would not sully himself by changing out of his nice shoes or by carrying a backpack. It had already been twelve days since we left home. To celebrate the occasion, Gérôme, Florence, Mathieu, and Charlotte calmed their nerves on a nearby boulder that fell victim to their skills in no time.
Bouldering at 4200m. "Having a hard time?" "Pfft, you wish; a piece of cake."
The moment of truth, choosing the right objective!
The next few days involved sorting gear and agreeing upon our final objective. We decided to focus our efforts on a proud-looking spire. Although somewhat small (an estimated 350m to 500m high), the high-quality rock and relative proximity to base camp won over our group of four climbers. With heavy loads on our backs, it took three painstaking hours to cross the glacier and climb up the unstable moraines. For those in the group on their very first high-altitude expedition, they had to legitimately be wondering if the hassle was worth the effort. Yet, the reward was already in sight: on the backside of K8, we were surrounded by dozens of unclimbed peaks and glaciers upon which no alpinist had ever laid eyes.
First pitches, first close calls.
We finally started climbing our uncharted spire! Charlotte and Mémé launched valiantly up the first two pitches. Two steep 6c+ with less than inspiring flakes. After a cold night out, Mathieu attempted to establish a few additional pitches. A section of bulletproof and difficult rock continued to thwart him. Hanging on a precarious hook, he attempted to drill a bolt hole. When the hook popped, Mémé took an impressive head-first fall. While not fatal by any means, his foot remained caught in his aider, resulting in a severely twisted ankle. Gérôme, having just arrived from base camp, could only stand by and take stock of the situation. Thanks to two strong painkillers and an improvised taping job, Mathieu was able to limp back to base camp. For him, there was a good chance that the expedition was over.
1: Charlotte putting up the first pitch, 6c+. 2: Crossing the glacier back towards base camp one hour after twisting his ankle.
The weather drags everyone down (again)
During the night, the weather patterns turned north for the first time. We had hoped for crystal clear skis. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side. Inclement weather from the west immediately followed, bringing more cold and precipitation than the week before. The surrounding spires were now plastered with snow. Never-ending card games, reading, and long discussions allowed us to pleasantly pass the time. In situations like this you begin to understand how important it is to travel with a group of friends. At each meal we anxiously awaited the incredible concoctions Assan and Sherali would cook for us. In addition to the subtly spicy Dhal Bat, cheese omelets and French fries remained one of our favorite meals. With my essential oils, Assan's expertise in joint manipulations, and Gérôme's talent for makeshift tape jobs, the swelling in Mathieu's ankle quickly subsided. Five days after the mishap, he was miraculously able to climb again.
Climbing to pass the time at base camp
Even with such bad weather, Gérôme and Florence were still able to find the a window to add four fantastic pitches to the route, including hard 7a/7b for pitches 3 and 4. We had now spent two weeks at base camp and time was starting to run out. To make a summit bid, we would still need to wait just a little longer for a window of decent weather. All four climbers passed the time by blowing off steam on the climbable lines around base camp. Mathieu put up Chips Paradise, a fantastic 6c hand crack. Gérôme put up Skardu Hospital, a stout overhanging 7b finger crack followed by 10 meters of run-out 6b to the anchor; bone-chilling. The ladies put up Au Placard des Mecs, a nice three-pitch route with a 6c/7a offwidth and a full-on section of aid (7c+?).
Charlotte on the first free ascent of "Chips Paradise," 6c.
1: Florence savoring her well-earned freeze-dried Lyofood. 2: Gérôme takes his turn ascending the fixed lines, yeehaa!
Our chimera will not be a nightmare.
Three short days before the porters returned to take down base camp, we had no choice but to head back up. Would lady luck finally smile upon us? Between snowflakes, a few moments of calm sunny weather allowed all four climbers to take turns and send the fantastic pitches both above and below the portaledges. The next day was their last chance! Wakeup at five. A painful warm-up climbing the fixed lines. There were only 100 meters to climb before reaching the top of the spire. Wrapped up warmly in their down parkas, both ladies freed the amazing final pitches. All of a sudden we were on the knife-edge summit, first enjoying a moment of grace, and then laughter, hugs, and a quick cigarette to celebrate victory. Wildly exposed in every direction, we built the top anchor using a sling tied around a horn. With Chimera Spire now climbed, we thought about choosing just the right name for our route. When we realized that our anchor was actually located on a detached summit block, everyone had the same idea at once, "No way, we've had enough bad luck!" ("LA SCOUMOUNE" is slang for "bad luck" in French.)
Mathieu enjoys stellar climbing right above our portaledges, P4, 7a.
Mathieu belayed by Charlotte on the last few meters of La Scoumoune, P10, 6a+.
1: Florence belayed by Gérôme on La Scoumoune's sixth pitch, 7a+. 2: Latchit Glacier in the background, Gérôme on P9, 6b, 5180m.
Between 4200 and 4800 m, shuttling 25kg of potatoes and heading towards the spire that has yet to be named Chimera...
1: When it's time to get paid, everyone shows up! 2: Dyed hair with a flower behind his ear.
1: Charlotte Charlotte still so pretty at base camp