A Weighty Experiment
“It is the weight, not numbers of experiments that is to be regarded.”
Immediately, you feel unwelcome. The walls rise all around us. Avalanches triggered by seracs are noisy reminders of what is at stake. As the initial snow steepens at about 5000 meters, we start to gradually lose confidence. The snow is soft and deep from the heat. Our progress is slow. As we reach a little ridge - a relatively safe spot on this restless wall - decision time comes. Looking up, the new perspective makes the wall look threateningly overhanging, looming above. The chimneys turn into roofs. Between us and the upper part lie slabs formed by a mix of snow, rock and ice, on which not even a remotely safe bivy spot can be found. After fighting through the waste-deep snow for hours, we don’t have nearly enough time to reach a point sheltered from avalanches at the top of these slabs and waiting here, low on the face, is out of question. The face turns into a overladen mouth vomiting avalanches and seracs at disconcerting intervals.
Retreat from below the start of the difficulties; that does indeed sound familiar - from just about every report we read from previous expeditions that wanted to attempted this aspect of the mountain Masherbrum. As the sun disappears behind the north ridge, we rappel down a rock buttress to be more protected from the avalanches, one of which now sweeps the snowfield we’d just climbed up. We have taken the right decision.
Peter Ortner and I went back to the northeast face of Masherbrum two-and-a-half months ago together with Hansjörg Auer who joins us for the first time. To be honest, the trip is quickly summed up to the moment when we made our attempt: We acclimatised on Broad Peak, went up to 7000 meters, then moved base camp over to a moraine near our goal. While moving, the weather was good already.
The porters refused to carry the loads up the last few hundred meters of elevation gain to base camp, and so we spent two strenuous days carrying loads and getting everything ready. When we finally had our base camp set up, we left for the wall.
We had embarked on the journey towards the summit with a lot of self confidence, certain we were making our decisive bid. We’d packed our bags mindfully, with the bare minimum of gear, as light as possible, ending up with about 12 kilos each, with food for five days, which we hoped to stretch for ten. On this mountain, there was not going to be a half-hearted attempt. Even the valley leading up to the base had never been trodden. We’d had no information on what we’d end up facing, only a rough idea. This really was the oft-quoted blank canvas.
Like a beginner doing his first steps in the unknown world of rock climbing, we will have to be prepared and be creative, questioning our current approach, if we are to try again.
Climbing the northeast face of Masherbrum will be like nothing one of us three has ever experienced, something completely new and so difficult it’s hard to imagine success.
There is a number of attributes that make it a very different undertaking from most other 7000 and 8000-meter-peaks. Some of these differences are obvious, mostly in regard to size and difficulty and accessibility, while others were only revealed on our attempt. In ideal conditions on every part of the wall it may be possible to climb it, if everything works out perfectly. As things were, it was Impossible.
An attempt of the northeast face of Masherbrum is a weighty experiment. Chances will remain as slim as a knifeblade. Everything is unknown.
Despite throwing us off, at basically the bottom of the wall, something draws me back to this mountain. Our attempt may be considered as not even worth talking about, considering the point that we’ve reached, but in reality, this was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had. For I really understood what it will take to climb this route. This, combined with the required efforts, makes the northeast face the sort of project that you don’t try every year, back-to-back. On the other hand though, this is what really drives me.
An expedition like this leaves me bummed and relieved at the same time. Bummed because of the effort, both psychologically and physically to prepare and carry out such an undertaking, only to face disappointment. Relieved because we all came back home healthy, and now our eyes are open for new adventures together.