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Never travel – never come back home

  • From the left: Jakob, chef Eschas, chef Ibrahim, guide Shakoor, Guido, Hechei, Simon, Hannes, Flo and Max.

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A dream is about to come true. On 18 July the first part of the team finally boards the flight to
Istanbul and then, after a 6-hour stopover, on to Islamabad. Now there’s no going back.

Everybody looks tense, and when we finally arrive in Islamabad at four in the morning we realise for the first time that everything is very different here. Our contact man Iqubal from the Shipton Trekking agency is already there to meet us. Jakob and Flo arrive the next day so that we can really get started on the first big adventure: the 3-day drive along the infamous and dangerous Karakorum Highway, aka “The Highway to Hell”. Even our guide Shakoor says, “This street is much more dangerous than all terrorists together!”. So, with stomach problems brewing, we tear along the nightmarish switchbacks, letting the feedback from the holes in the road flow right through us. Quite literally in the case of those with stomach issues.

After two days we finally reach Askole, the last small village three days away from base camp. The people here are friendly, poor and radiate with personality. They offer us tea and biscuits and a tour of the so-called museum, which would easily have passed as an Austrian cowshed 200 years ago. Then we set up a place to crash for the night and look forward to the three days march through the wild and bare landscape.

On the third and last day of the long march we at last spot the objects of our desire – the soaring Great Trango and Nameless Tower. We are overwhelmed – this makes everything we have been through in the last six days worthwhile. The base camp is already pretty busy, so we pitch our tents in the spaces between the South Africans, Koreans, Slovaks and Poles. Even the billy goat we christened “Franzi”, who had to carry on his back his own provisions – a sack of onions and a sack of potatoes – arrives safely to enjoy the greenery around the base camp and laze around before playing the lead role at the BBQ.

Now it’s time to get to bed early, because tomorrow we want to head for Little Trango (5,500 m) – a small free-standing granite pillar between Great Trango and Nameless Tower. The alarm clock tears us out of our sleeping bags at three o’clock the next morning. Breakfast, and then we start the long hike through the dangerous approach gulley. When we reach the ridge at 5,200 m, clouds appear and it starts to snow. We wait, enjoying the thin air and the wild atmosphere, before hiding our equipment away and heading back down to the base camp. We desperately need a day of rest!

After our rest day we head off fully kitted out towards the sun terrace, a large bivouac spot where you are in the sun all day at the start of the routes up the Nameless Tower. At last we get to grip some golden-yellow granite and climbing feels good. Once we reach the sun terrace we are completely exhausted. We cook and try to sleep, but none of us manage to get any shut-eye while headaches are an indicator that we are not yet acclimatised – no wonder since this is only day three. We leave our equipment where it is and abseil down. Two days’ rest, drinking tea, reading, playing cards.

Then Max and I strike out again up the steep gulley towards Nameless Tower. We want to attempt the Slovenian route in one go from base camp to the summit, ideally on-sight and in one day. 2,300 m of ascent, grade of difficulty up to 8+ and uncertain conditions on the steep rock face, all that and much more is waiting for us above. After around 7 pitches of excellent quality crack climbing our on-sight plans are dashed: iced-over cracks, a thin layer of ice on the rock face, shadowy dihedrals, cold and wet aren’t going to make life on the vertical wall any easier. We fight our way through the wet and icy sections and then about 100 m below the summit we decide to call it a day - we are burnt out, frozen through and conditions are so poor that we throw in the towel. A difficult decision but a good one.

Back on the sun terrace we cook, drink tea and soon crawl into our sleeping bags. It was a courageous attempt, nobody had tried to climb from the base camp to the summit in one push before and we both know that if the conditions had only been poor – rather than piss-poor – we might have managed it. At around the same time Hechei and Simon are successful on Little Trango and shortly afterwards climb Great Trango via the standard route, while Flo, Jakob and Martin from Slovakia create a heroic first ascent on the face adjacent to base camp.

* No pen, no picture!
Because a child in Askole asked Jakob for a pen, although he didn't have one,
but still wanted to take a photo of the kid, whose immediate reply was
"No pen, no picture!" our inspiration for the name of the route.

Then there is again a turn in the weather, except this time it stays nasty for 12 days. This would have caused camp psychosis were it not for the fact that we have brought the crash pad with us. This means we can go bouldering on the short walls in the immediate vicinity of the base camp. In addition, Hannes and I manage a totally classic first ascent on Severance Ridge, a 700-metre-high wall not far from base camp – a beautiful route with cracks of all sizes and difficulties up to grade 9. “No pen, no picture!”* as we named our creation, would already be an overrun, highly-praised extreme classic route back in Austria, probably already refurbished, rebolted, refurbished again with shiny new bolts and a topo at each belay point. But luckily this cool chunk of rock is located in safe seclusion in the furthest corner of Karakorum and might perhaps be repeated one day.

With better weather forecast, Hannes, Simon, Hechei and I stuff our backpacks with the essentials for three days to reach the summit of Nameless Tower. While Hechei and Simon want to attempt the “Slovenian route”, Hannes and I opt for “Eternal Flame”, the Güllich and Albert extreme classic and without doubt one of the most famous routes in the region.

We set off at 6.30 and at 18.00 reach the 6,250-metre summit of the most wonderful mountain we have climbed so far. The mountains around are lit up more intensively than ever before and it is a truly unbelievable moment – simply to be there. “Eternal Flame” really is a climber’s dream with golden granite and cracks of all shapes and sizes that presented us with a hefty challenge. Respect to Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert and Co, who first climbed the route in 1989 – at a time when we still believed in Santa Claus – and to the Huber Brothers, who climbed it redpoint in 2009. The same day Jakob and Flo also had success: after three days’ climbing non-stop they stood atop Trango Ri having managed the first ascent of the mixed, previously untapped route “Ciabatti is enough”.

On arriving back at base camp we receive some bad news. The “road” (you’ll understand the quote marks if you know it) has been cut off due to landslides and political unrest. The only option is a domestic flight from Skardu to Islamabad, which takes a mere 40 minutes but only takes off if there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

We finally arrive in Skardu looking forward to the fundamental pleasures of civilization, especially bed, showers and food. But you know what it’s like with food: not everything that goes in stays in, and this first evening meal turns our stomachs to such an extent that most of us are still rushing to answer the call of nature with greetings from Pakistan many weeks after we arrive back home.

Somehow we manage to get to the overrun military airfield at Skardu, where we find the noise and people armed to the teeth slightly disconcerting. When somebody smashes a window as well, we simply can’t wait to get on board that flight. After 40 minutes we arrive in Islamabad, where Iqubal from our trekking agency faithfully picks us up and brings us to a plush hotel. In the evening we swig beers at 7 euros a go and scoff pizza from Pizza Hut: what more could you ask for! The next day we are heading home – we can hardly sleep due to anticipation…

At the airport we check in our luggage and make our way cheerily to passport control where a “friendly” airport employee informs us that our visas expired 10 days ago. Because Max took all our passports to the embassy in Vienna and was only staying in Pakistan for 30 days himself, the officials obviously assumed that we all intended to stay in Pakistan for 30 days. The problem is that a visa for 30 days clearly doesn’t cover a 6-week visit. The friendly gentlemen at the Ministry of the Interior then became not so friendly and make their point of view absolutely clear: if we want our A4-sized travel application to be processed today, then we need to pay the sum of € 1,500, otherwise it will take 4 to 6 weeks…

Paid, cleared, booked, flown – on the next plane home, in business class, lie-flat seats, champagne, whisky, gourmet cuisine, beer; Oman, Munich and at last home sweet home…

IF YOU NEVER TRAVEL, YOU NEVER COME HOME...
KIND OF SUMS IT UP.