BIG country

The view from over 6,200 meters. Looking west with Kanjut Sar II (6,831m) in the foreground. To the right is Kanjut Sar (7,760m), and to the left in the distance Pumari Chhish (7,492m). BIG Country.

Tahu Rutum, Karakoram Range, Pakistan, west face, solo attempt. Mothers have it the hardest. “I’m going climbing in Pakistan by myself. I’ll be home in three or four months,” I told mine. It’s an easy thing to say when you’re 25, curious about the world, and fired up to climb. I can’t imagine what it’s like to hear when you’re 51, you’ve lost a nephew to climbing, and you have an addicted-to-adventure child. In the last 11 years climbing has taken a lot from me: Most profoundly, on an Arctic trip together in 2005, my best friend fell 250 meters into his next life; and most recently, 35 pounds and the tip of my finger. I regained the weight and I will adapt to the loss of a finger, but not a day passes that I don’t miss my cousin, my friend who opened my eyes to climbing. Climbing has given me my spirit, my reason—something that my mother both understands and supports.

On July 19, after a refreshing four-day hike from the town of Hispar, the porters deposited me and my gear at the junction of the Khani Basa and Hispar glaciers. We exchanged handshakes and Inshallahs before they disappeared over the moraine. It would be seven weeks until I’d see them again. By choice I had no cook, guide, or partner. I was entirely alone.

From base camp I made six carries on the East Khani Basa Glacier to the base of the west face of Tahu Rutum (6,651m, sometimes spelled Ratum), eight or nine miles each way. I never found an elevation for the base of Tahu Rutum on a map or the Internet. I don’t own an altimeter, so I am not sure of the peak’s vertical gain. My best guess is that it rises 1,350 meters from base to summit, but it doesn’t really matter—it was big enough.

I spent a month shuttling loads, waiting out a week of heavy snow, and fixing 300 meters of rope up mellow, aqua-blue, 50°–60° ice. On August 20, with 20 days of food, I committed to life in the vertical world.

The initial 640 meters of ice involved seven days of battling significant snowfall, constant sloughing, and tedious hauling through small rock bands.

The weather finally cleared, and for several days I followed a beautiful left-leaning crack system. I tied four 70-meter ropes together and climbed using the continuous loop method. This allowed for pitches as long as 140 meters, but most were 80–90 meters and steep, with cruxes around A3. These were my most enjoyable climbing days: high quality granite, fantastic weather, two gear-ripping whippers, and flawless hauling. My vision for climbing in Pakistan had become reality.

Then, at approximately 6,000 meters, I sat through my first four-day storm. Any outside activity was impossible, so I dangled and waited, reading and rationing my little remaining food. I was hungry, had terrible diarrhea, and hauling at altitude had gotten extremely laborious. Even still, the views of the mighty Karakoram and a few days of good weather motivated me. After climbing another 200 meters of steep, aesthetic crack systems, the wall began to roll over. I set up my portaledge at about 6,200 meters, and almost immediately another storm blew in.

Tahu Rutum

The line.

September 10, my 21st day on Tahu Rutum, I woke early to a cloudless sky and immediately began my summit attempt. I had a little food, some gear, and the infinitely important summit costume. But soon the snows returned, the wind howled, and the temperature dropped. I kept climbing through deteriorating rock quality, on terrain that had looked slabby, but in fact remained quite vertical and amazingly featured.

At approximately 6,500 meters I reached the steep snow and ice ridgeline leading to the summit…and I had had enough. It was snowing with 40 mph winds, the Earth had rotated the expanse of the Karakoram into complete darkness, and my headlamp was near dead. I was dehydrated and malnourished, but stoked on my effort. The decision was easy. I bailed.

The isolated hours rappelling in the dark had a bleak joyfulness to them. I was worked beyond any previous understanding of the condition, but I was headed toward family, friends, and, most importantly, food. Thirty hours after leaving I returned to my portaledge, ate the very last of my food, and passed out.

The next day I continued my descent, taking two full days to rappel the wall. I removed all of my supplies and gear, leaving only rappel anchors, which included three bolts and one rivet that I placed during the descent. Wrestling haul bags and stuck ropes exhausted me, requiring a full rest day once I reached level ground. My body was rapidly weakening.

The snow that had fallen during my 24 days of vertical living now lay unconsolidated on the East Khani Basa Glacier. Assessing my rapidly deteriorating health, the continuously falling snow, and the eight-mile trip to base camp, I left my two haul bags of climbing gear by a rocky outcropping. Deep down I knew I couldn’t return—at least not this year. Who knows, maybe the porters will make a winter siege to recover my equipment, and if they do I will be happy. In the northern villages, where opportunities for work are slim, the earnings from selling my equipment would help with their difficult lives.

I packed my necessities, and, with intense hunger, began post-holing toward wellness. It took me two painfully long days to make it back to camp; they were my fourth and fifth days without food. Many times I collapsed, taking several minutes to stagger back to my feet. Anytime I stopped painful diarrhea would start, blood red entwined with white gooey stuff that I presumed was muscle. My body was shutting down, eating itself. But it’s amazing how the universe balances itself out; my physical strength had left me, but my mind had never been clearer. I was never worried or frightened, for there was no sense in it. Motivated by friends and family, focused on food, and deeply conscious of necessities, I just kept trudging.

Two weeks later, at the Salt Lake City airport, tears streamed down my mother’s face. She had been fighting her own battle, dealing with the stress that comes from having a child at a physical breaking point, alone in Pakistan. It was then that I realized I had had it easy.

Kyle Dempster, Salt Lake City, UT
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Dempster received an AAC Mountain Fellowship Grant for this trip.