In the summer of 2018, our Totem MT team member, Fabian Buhl, went to Pakistan with the goal of exploring new rock climbing routes on the Karakoram Ridge. « The Big Easy » was the consequence of this trip, but this story is not only about alpinism. Fabian defines this trip like an inflexion point on his career, for sure, his words will help you to set new challenges!
Small, complex and very difficult was my universe when my climbing career as a Boulderer started. Nonetheless the last years I have dedicated a lot of time and energy into expanding my climbing universe into unknown and larger playgrounds of more and more alpine terrain.
I got totally absorbed in solo climbing and my goal for the winter and summer 2016 was trying to push the limits in this rarely played game. Like in bouldering failure did not put me down. It was only a source of energy to improve, because it showed me the weakness of my solo system. Exactly the rope handling and all the little details of the alpine trickery got me really involved, it fits perfectly to my methodical way of thinking.
Personally, I experience in alpine climbing additional things that keep me motivated to expand and try to improve this for my new universe, the physical demand can fully push you into a deep and satisfying exhaustion. In Contradiction to our world where we try to insure ourselves against everything and everyone, in alpine climbing you are absolutely responsible for your own action and have to deal with the results of it, most of the time very soon or you will feel it to your disadvantage. This leads to the most important and most satisfying part which I found in alpine climbing, absolute trust into your climbing partner. It is the only insurance you have during these long and strenuous days spend up on the mountains.
The logical consequence of my search to experience and learn more and more of the alpine world was the dream to go to the greater ranges. On one of our trips Alexander Huber and me came up with the idea to make a proper but small expedition in the summer of 2018. We just needed to define a goal, which fits both of our ideals. As we are climbers, we were searching a challenging goal which offers mostly good rock climbing. Alexander has been in Pakistan the year before and saw an amazing and elegant arete, located just above the Choktoi glacier.
The arete we declared our target with a length of 2200m and shines from first to the last daylight. It is one of the most prominent and obvious lines in the Choktoi valley.
In Skardu the outdoor adventure really began by driving with a classic vintage Toyota Jeep, along the spectacular gorge of the River Braldo to Askole. Quite impressed by the rough road 100m above the gorge, which is not a road to western standards, and the exceptional skills of our driver, we arrived in the beautiful village of Askole with the fading light. It is the last village up the valley, which is year round inhabited and surrounded by an incredible mountain scenery. Askole is the perfect Balti villages and shines in most picturesque nuances of green I can imagine and are in big contrast to the surrounding brownish sand and rock landscape with white majestic glaciers on top of the mountains.
Early morning of the next day we started our 4 days march to basecamp. I felt a bit weird, strolling leisurely with my day bag upstream the River Braldo, while the porters overtook me with 25kg backpacks. Soon I realized that already the altitude of 3500m takes it´s toll and it is better to take it easy and acclimatize proper and gradually.
The next days we hiked each day for about 6-7 hours and spending the nights in one of the camps alongside the way. We gained approximately 500m of height each day.
From day 3 on the march we saw our line and were fascinated by the elegance of it, it has shined all day long in the sun. After a short walk of day four we reached the place where we searched for basecamp, quickly we found a perfect place.
We established our spartantic but very comfortable basecamp and it offered all we needed. Luckily the weather stayed good, so there was enough time to rest and get a better acclimatized to BC level. The first gear transport was as scheduled to set up ABC at 5000m.
We knew that the weather will stay good for the next days we directly conducted one more material transport with the purpose of staying 2 days in ABC to get further acclimatized. Within this stay at ABC we climbed the first of the 3 big waves of our chosen line. Already after the first pitches we realized that the route will take much more commitment and energy as we thought.
After the bad weather, we had fully recovered and were super keen to go up the mountain and started to work on the main part. We ascended our previously fixed rope and climbed the whole middle part a quite flat arete until we established our Camp. The Camp was a jackpot, as it was the only flat spot on the entire ridge line and it is located perfectly for camping with an incredible panorama in 5500m with the Latoks and Ogres range just across. Even more excited we were about the perfect splitter cracks that we saw just above us. They are as impressive as in Yosemite and it is a gift finding this perfect rock and beautiful line in the heart of our route at 5500m.
The next day, as the terrain is flatter, waking up to the sound of snow falling on our tent, we knew it will not be a walk in the park and even thought about bailing. In the end we tried it anyways, because we knew it will be essential for our summit push. It snowed all day long a little bit but as the rock was anyway snow covered and we where on quite flat but tricky terrain, it was ok. Actually I liked the little alpine weather and constantly changing from crampons to rock shoes, it was the perfect contrast to the previous Yosemite-style day. It showed us once more how complex the route will be. Arriving below the headwall, it was clear it will be the crux of the route and is way steeper as we expected it to be, totally snow covered it looked frightening.
Unfortunately the weather got bad for nearly a week, we spend the days relaxing, reading and playing chess, but always being concerned about the head wall, because with this much snow and ice it will be really difficult.
The good weather came and we went up the mountain again, for its final push. Arriving in camp we made a little brew and went straight to bed, because already four hours later we where having breakfast on our terrace with an incredible sunrise. What a beautiful start of the day!
Soon we arrived at the headwall in order to climb the first 200m of it this day, as we expected the cracks where still totally iced up and the terrain way steeper as we imagined.
As we found no other bivi spot we needed to go all the way down to camp again. Anyway we knew that if everything works out we will make our summit push tomorrow, that is why we did not really care. The next day we climbed up to our highpoint again, from here we wanted to follow a corner system. The only downside, it was totally iced up, but it still looked liked the easiest option and so I got some really nice mixed pitches, before standing on the pre summit.
From the pre summit we needed to rappel to the col, which leads via long snow arete with some climbing to the main summit of Choktoi Ri. I wanted to belay Alexander directly, sitting on the summit, when I realized the summit is a big cornice. A little unsure about my stupid behavior, I went down and made belay that we both can safely go on the small main summit and have a little break and just enjoy the great view towards China and over viewing the Karakoram. As Choktoi Ri is the highest peak of the range we where really freestanding. Reflecting the line on the summit, we realized how fortunate we are, with being able to first ascent this prominent line, which took a lot of energy but the 2200m of climbing rewarded us with a great variety and always kept on giving new challenges. In the end we needed all our skills to complete “The Big Easy”. The most important is, that we have had an amazing time, with a lot of laughs and without any bad mood, in the peaceful and calm Karakoram, because we just did what we like and for what we live for. It clearly showed me the smaller the expedition the richer the experience!