Wednesday, 19 August, 2015. 1650. Absolutely spent but fitness holding up pretty well, thanks to eight days training before we headed out into the yonder. It’s the most stunning day again. Not a cloud all day. The deepest blue you could imagine. White peaks all around.
Today was D-Day for the first really difficult exercise of the trip, but I managed to pull it off and wasn’t really nervous. I seem to have put the nerves behind me from my training. We headed off at about 0730 - half an hour later than I wanted. But the locals can be hard to get moving in the mornings. Bakhir sits next to his gas bottle and cranks out the chipatis and tea and the others wait for him to finish before moving. But other than that I can’t fault the guys. Bakhir is a legend. The most genuine bloke you will ever come across, and, as I say, straight out of Manuel’s copybook in Fawlty Towers.
The team has gelled really well and everyone seems to have had a great time. Not a cross word between anyone, despite the physical difficulties of the terrain we have had to negotiate. It took me a while to scope the Chairman out but now I stir him up just like I do everyone else. And for anyone who thinks that Muslims are different to us Westerners that's a load of rubbish because they are exactly like us. The discussions among the boys are no different to the discussions among the boys back home. And I've found the same to be the case in Africa and Indonesia also.
Our goal today was to photograph two small mines located about seventy metres up from the bottom of a 400 metre cliff overlooking the Braldu River more than 1700 vertical metres below. The mines were located on the most stunning granite cliff face. Incredibly beautiful. Only problem was that they were about two hours from where we were camped and to get there we had to descend down a very steep slope to a glacial stream about 1000 feet below our camp. All good going down, but a bugger when you have to come back. En route we came across a herd of yaks grazing and then we had to ford that same glacial stream. Because it was thumping and that’s not the sort of place you want to end up in. First there’s the cold, and then there’s the risk that you might get pummelled into oblivion. But all in a day’s work for the locals. Like shelling peas if you like, despite the ice on the rocks on the far side of the stream. But we got across and it was onward and upward. We saw a couple of mines as we got near to our target - one was full of snow and ice - but generally they were not particularly photogenic. One of the challenges in this part of Northern Pakistan is that you don’t seem to get the concentration of mines all together. This may be different in other places.
It took us a few minutes to rouse the miners when we arrived. They were busy working their Cobras - 5 the pneumatic drills - and then it took about 10 minutes for them to come down. I insisted on climbing the cliff they were on rather than taking a highly dangerous route that they used to free-climb. Plus, the idea of me climbing the cliff using my ropes was that I could then shoot images hanging off the cliff on the rope if necessary.
It was about now that things got a little difficult. Before leaving I’d insisted on taking a high altitude porter that was capable of fixing ropes. Fida allocated Raza to me who had climbed to Camp II on K2 at about 6200 metres. A pretty amazing feat in its own right. I’d also drilled Raza before leaving on his capability with rope-work and he insisted that he was competent. The miners told me that there were no real anchors that they could use for me so we agreed that they would drill two holes about six feet apart and then bang some drill rods in on an angle to which my ropes would be anchored. I was pretty comfortable with that as those drill rods are pretty strong. Plus, the fact that I would have two anchors gave protection in case one failed.
While the miners were doing the drilling for the ascent 70 metres above, I asked Raza whether he was okay with tieing knots. He nodded in the affirmative and then I asked him to show me how he would tie off an anchor. He had no idea, and proceeded to use a reef knot with a half hitch as protection. Now, I was really pissed because all of a sudden things had become a little dangerous. Far too dangerous for my liking. What should I do.....?
My head was spinning. How can we make this work without getting killed? I ended up deciding to tie the knots myself. Then, all Raza would have to do was then loop the top ten metre rope over both points of the drill rods (I backed off both knots and then tied off the anchor rope with a barrel knot so that they would know that that knot should go on a particular drill rod. I then got them to simulate the top by putting both loops over two poles so that I could then work out where to tie the figure eight (the fall) in the middle for attachment to the screw caribiner and then the main climbing rope. Once we’d gotten to this point I was becoming more confident that we could pull things off, though I was a little disappointed that things weren't squared away properly before we'd left. There was also the pressure of time created by our late departure from camp. The sun tracks to the south in the northern hemisphere in these parts and so you only have a limited time window in the morning to work. These cliffs faced north.
The ascent would be one of the biggest things that I had ever done. Here in the Karakorum Range among the world’s biggest mountains at an altitude of about 4000 metres. Even climbing hills by foot at this altitude knocks you about. You have to walk slowly and surely to avoid altitude sickness. But I wasn’t feeling at all nervous which was good and a far cry from the struggles I had through most of my training back home. Some nerves are good - they make you alert - but you want to be completely focused on the job at hand at this higher altitude so generally I find them unhelpful. Raza did a very dangerous free climb via a ridge to the right to get the ropes up to where they needed to be and it was about 90 minutes from our arrival to when I finally locked the grigri in and ascender in and got started. The guys up top had to dump the rock refuse from the drilling beforehand and we had to get out of the way to avoid getting hit by the falling debris. That process took ten minutes as rocks rocketed past. Then Raza had to secure the ropes on to the drill rods. And then the rope finally came down.
Chairman and Ayoub were very unsure about the exercise as they had never seen the equipment that I was using, but I felt confident and wasn’t put off. 70 metres is a long climb at these altitudes: particularly for a novice such as myself. The face had a pretty good pitch - it was about 80 degrees - and I started beside a small glacier to my left. One of the locals yelled out that my set-up was no good. I should be using a jumar he said, but that was only because he’d never seen the set-up and in fact my set-up had two levels of protection built in.
The climb up was very enjoyable but hard and took maybe 45 minutes. When I reached the top I had to get the guys to pull the anchor rope back because they’d mislocated the two drill rods far too close to the edge. But other than that it was all pretty smooth. The sun was starting to shadow things out so I had to work quickly. The location was one of the most precarious spots you could imagine and, for the first bit of things, I felt very unsafe moving around up there unroped.
Had Raza known how to fix ropes I would have had him locking in some anchors for me to clip onto. But the guys were very cooperative and the mines themselves weren’t so deep. Before leaving I’d agreed to pay them some money as they took a fair bit of time out of their day and then had to drill those two anchor holes for the drill stems. But we worked up there for maybe a half an hour and then it was time to come down. Before doing so I re-tied the anchors to shorten the ropes so that I could hook in on the topside of the edge before going over.
The abseil down was quite easy and took only a few minutes. We then headed off to the miners’ hut to have some tea and take a bit of a rest. Here, I got to chat to one of the miners that I had photographed. He was aged 45 and had been doing this work for about 25 years. The Chairman - who is on this trip - was the first miner in this area and then the locals saw him making money and decided that they wanted a cut of the action. Generally he mines upside (the higher altitudes) for about four months of the year before the winter snows come and prevent further work. So in winter he goes back to his village looks after his animals. He doesn’t know his birthday and has four daughters and three sons and only one wife. The lure of the big find is what attracts him to mining, though his earnings vary widely. Sometimes 30,000 rupees in some years. Sometimes 50,000 rupees. Sometimes two to four lakh rupees. He was a likeable guy and invited me back. In fact, both Ayoub and the Chairman have decided that I should sit on their executive now and so have given me the title of “Chief ”!
The walk back to camp was very very tough. Down about 800 feet through some tricky terrain to that glacial stream. Only problem was that when we arrived back at that stream it was really cranking. In fact this was now probably the most dangerous part of the day. With the sun high in the sky, the glacial melt was in full tilt and so that stream had more than ratcheted up a notch. How to get across without wrecking gear or getting killed.......? We ended up taking about half an hour to make the crossing. Even this wasn’t like shelling peas for the locals and for me I wasn’t scared. Just didn’t want to write off the rest of the trip or worse through one stupid move. But we got across and then started the ascent up to camp 5 about 1000 feet and I really struggled. Maybe the climb up to the mines took it out of me. Maybe it was the altitude. I’m not sure. All that I know was that it was tough.
Now, as I type this, a cool, bordering on cold, wind is blowing. Tomorrow I’ve decided that we’re going to try and summit the peak in front of us. It’s probably at about 4700 metres and will be tough given how tired I feel, but I think the altitude training will be good and also the extra fitness work. My fitness is coming up well and the Chairman said that I climbed the cliff today strongly.
Am absolutely loving this trip. it’s amazing. Out of this world.