The wind came from nowhere. It whipped around the snow crystals on the summit ridge and soon the visibility was all gone in the clouds. There were short moments when we could see the summit in front of us, before it switched back to total whiteout again. We were cold; we had been cold all the time since the alarm clock woke us up in our small tent at 11 pm. The thin air made it hard to breathe; we could never move fast enough to get the body heat up. Doubts came upon us, and shovelled aside the confidence we had while looking at the full moon that spread light over the mighty mountains when we woke up. We didn’t get much sleep last night. It wasn’t enough room in the tent and the altitude gave us a killing headache. In spite of the strenuous work climbing up we had a good feeling all the way. Now it was only 200 vertical metres left to the summit of Gasherbrum 2. Will our dream come true?
Laila Peak 6069 meters
It was Laila that started it all, a mountain at 6069 metres, in the Karakorams of Pakistan. My friend Fredrik Ericsson sent me an email. “I have found the most beautiful mountain and it looks skiable too. It’s called Laila Peak and it’s in Pakistan, lets go there.”
With its steep and exposed northwest face it looked like a steepskier’s dream. Only two parties had climbed Laila Peak before and no one had dared to bring the skis. We decided that when we spent all the time and money to go to Pakistan why not do another mountain as well. Our choice fell on Gasherbrum 2, at the altitude of 8035 metres it’s one of Pakistan’s five 8000ers and sits right on the border to China. On photos it looked like a perfect mountain to ski.
Islamabad is like you’re on another planet. Everything’s totally different here, the smell, the sounds and the visual impressions, nothing’s normal. In the capital of Pakistan there’s a constant stream of people, horses, donkeys, trucks, old ladies and dogs, everything seems chaotic. From far away you can hear the prayer callings and everywhere cars are honking their horn. We spent a few days in Islamabad for sightseeing and to get used to the new environment. The cameras went hot and this was only the beginning of our adventure.
Our plan was to fly with PIA, Pakistan International Airlines (or “Perhaps I Arrive” as they’re also called) to Skardu further north and then on with a Jeep to Hushe, which is the end of the road. Not surprised, we got the message that the flight was cancelled due to bad weather. Instead we got to experience the Karakoram Highway (KKH) that follows the mighty Indus River through areas where it according to natural laws shouldn’t be any roads. Long sections of the road were on high and steep mountain sides with several hundred meters down to the rampant Indus.
After arriving in Skardu the journey went on with a Jeep to the small village of Hushe where our true adventure started. Early next morning 20-30 locals where standing outside our tents. The porters were here! Our skis and the other equipment of our small expedition got divided among the proud local farmers.
After two days of trekking into the mountains accompanied by the porters from Hushe we were at the foot of Laila Peak. Laila was even more spectacular in real life and I can understand why the Balti people named her after a beautiful woman.
But most important: she looked skiable. That was a relief, because during our planning we couldn’t find any description of the mountain, all we had was photos.
Only a few days after we arrived in Laila base camp we had already been on a recognition climb up a long couloir, made our first ski turns on Pakistani snow and left our tent in camp 1 at about 5000 metres. A week later we were ready for our summit push. We started at midnight to get as far as possible before the sun rose and transformed the snow into rotten corn snow. The first hundred vertical meters from camp 1 we climbed in the light from the sparkling full moon. Some hours later, just before the sun rose we came up to a pass and got the magnificent view of The Gasherbrums, K2 and Broad Peak. A priceless moment! Even though, our own mountain Laila Peak, was probably the most beautiful of them all.
A long traverse took us to the snowface that lead to the summit. It was constantly 45-50 degrees steep, in other words perfect for steepskiing. The conditions were good, with hard and solid snow, we could easily gain vertical meters. Suddenly it all changed, we faced a layer of crust on top of sugar snow that rested on pure ice.
We were uncomfortable. This was neither good ski conditions nor safe terrain to climb on. Both the ice axe and crampons had to be pushed through the crust and sugar snow to get a grip on the ice. The steepness was now closer to 60 degrees and the conditions didn’t look like it was getting any better.
Less than 150 metres below the summit we agreed that it wasn’t safe to continue and that skiing from the summit in these conditions would probably end up being the last turns of our lives. Nothing’s worth a price that high.
Jörgen skiing Laila Peak
The disappointment we felt at the moment was gone as soon as we got the skis on. The sun was shining, the view couldn’t get any better and we had the biggest challenge of our lives in front of us, to ski Laila Peak. It was steep and exposed, during most of the 1500 vertical meters of ski descent there was a 500 metre high cliff below us. We had to focus all our energy on every turn not to make a mistake. Further down the snow got more solid and we could fully enjoy the skiing. We were happy and totally exhausted when our cook met us with tea and cookies at the foot of the mountain.
High up on Laila Peak we got our first view of Gasherbrum 2, the next stop. The 8035 metre high peak was looming in the distance.
Negative energy stamped the atmosphere in G2 Base Camp. About 130 climbers talked non stop about how much snow it was, the difficult conditions and bad weather. A German climber, with five 8000ers under his belt, was convinced after three weeks of waiting.
-Too much snow and too much shit weather! It’s going to be very few ascents of G2 this year, for me the waiting game is over, I’m heading home, he said.
No one had been higher than 6000 metres and not even Camp 2 was established.
Fredrik and I didn’t want to give up that easy and headed up the mountain for an acclimatisation climb. After two nights in Camp 1 we continued to break the trail up to Camp 2 at the altitude 6400 metres. It felt good, the time we spent on Laila Peak proved to be valuable for our acclimatisation. The next day we decided to go a bit higher up. Some Lithuanian climbers that started before us, turned around after only hundred metres due to altitude sickness and the loss of a back pack. We were once again breaking the trail and worked on setting up fixed ropes to about 6800 metres. Another night was spent in our tent at 6400 meters before we headed down to Base Camp, tired, but full off confidence in success.
A longer period of low pressure arrived and we got held back in Base Camp for a week. It was now almost a month since we left Laila Peak. Yet another time a high pressure followed the full moon that soon was to be shining over Gasherbrum 2.
The weather report announced a four day window; we knew it was now or never. We packed our bags for a summit push and left BC. When we arrived in Camp 1 the mountain decided to show some of its power and released a giant avalanche that covered the whole south face of G2. Fortunately it didn’t hit our climbing route or our camp. After three days of climbing we were in Camp 3 at 7000 metres.
At midnight we were ready to go for the last 1000 metres to the summit. It was cold, clear and once again full moon. A fabulous view appeared as soon as the sun rose. Almost half of the hundred highest peaks in the world are situated in the Karakorams, that says a bit about the surroundings. We could also view into three different countries: Pakistan, India and China.
The last 400 vertical meters was harder than anything we ever experienced before, but nevertheless it was the weather that worried us the most.
The wind hit us when we traversed around the summit pyramid and the visibility was reduced to almost zero. We moved slowly up towards the highest point. Small windows in the fog were enough for us to navigate to the summit. When we only had a few meters left the wind got so strong that we had crawl on our knees, not to get thrown off the ridge. We had reached the goal, but all we wanted was to go down.
Fredrik near the summit of Gasherbrum 2
On Friday July 22, at 12.30 we clicked into our ski bindings at 8035 metres above the sea and took off down Gashebrum’s steep east slope. I made my first turn, the snow was hard and held my weight, I made another turn and a few more before I had to stop and rest. With a heavy breathing and burning pain in my thighs, it felt like I skied 1000 metres in the Alps. It was also quite demanding for my head, skiing with all the objective dangers such as crevasses, seracs and avalanches. Luckily we managed to get by without a scratch. The conditions varied throughout the run, everything from hard windpacked to crust to spring snow. The last 300 metres down to our tent in Camp 3 we had the pleasure to ski in 30 centimetres of powder.
Five days after we left Base Camp we came strolling back. Not only Fredrik and I were happy to be back, but also our new friends. For religious reasons there’s no alcohol in Pakistan, our cook, Arman, served us Pepsi to celebrate. It tasted great!
Text: Jörgen Aamot
Photos: Jörgen Aamot and Fredrik Ericsson
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