Also in This Area
Also in This Style
The Trango Group with Great Trango Tower (Left) and Nameless Tower (Right), Karakoram Range, Pakistan. [Photo] Ace Kvale
Posted on: July 1, 2005
The Trango Group with Great Trango Tower (Left) and Nameless Tower (Right), Karakoram Range, Pakistan. [Photo] Ace Kvale
"One of the curious things about climbing is that certain routes or mountains become tokens, built up in the imagination and imbued with an aura of mystery. Such was the case with Trango Tower. It is small by Himalayan standards, a mere 20,500 feet of rock, but how magnificently it is stacked! This fabulous and freakish rock tower throws out a challenge so obvious that every expedition traveling up the Baltoro must have been tempted to ditch its snow flog and have a go."
So wrote British alpinist Martin Boysen in Mountain Magazine about Pakistan's Trango Tower and its 1976 first ascent. Trango Tower had nearly killed Boysen on the original attempt the year before, when his knee jammed in a crack dripping with icy water. He was trapped for hours until he finally freed himself by hacking through the fabric of his pants with a piton. The expedition ended after that, but as Boysen wrote, "I had a score to settle," and he returned with his friends (an all-star cast featuring Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine, and Malcolm Howells, with Jim Curran and Tony Riley along to film) the next year to confront the knee-eating crack and complete the ascent.
The bewitching hold that Trango exerted over Boysen and his mates once gripped me, too. I blame Boysen for infecting me, because my urge to climb Trango Tower started at age nineteen, when I read his tale of derring-do in Mountain. Titled "Last Trango," (a pun on "Last Tango in Paris," a then-popular movie about sexual obsession, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider), Boysen's account of besieging the Karakoram spike struck me as precisely the sort of madness I needed to get through my suburban adolescence in Sydney, Australia. When I finally set eyes on Trango in 1983, on an expedition to nearby Lobsang Spire and Broad Peak, I was already hooked. In 1986 I tried the tower's unclimbed east face with Randy Leavitt and Tom Hargis, only to be carpet bombed by rock and ice. When I returned with Mark Wilford in 1989, ice storms nearly did us in. Mark and I succeeded in 1992, but only after a narrow miss by the biggest rockfall we'd ever seen.
By now, with a dozen routes up Trango's 3,000-foot granite walls, many climbers have experienced the same obsessive-complusive fixation. I've often wondered about the reason for our mania, and I think I have finally figured it out. The key lies in Trango's shape.
If you tell a child to draw a mountain, chances are the sketch will resemble Trango Tower, because those slender, symmetrical dimensions are embedded in our unconscious as the ideal. Perhaps it's part of our primal memory, like the natural instinct to fear snakes, but when a climber comes face to face with Trango Tower those magical proportions slot like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle into an empty space in the mind, and the obsession to climb it is activated. Once the obsession begins, there is nothing for it but to hang on and enjoy the ride.
A perfection of scale in a cluttered galaxy of mountains. Strange then, that the ultimate mountain almost doesn't have a name.
Italian expeditioners marching up the Baltoro Glacier to K2 and Gasherbrum IV in the 1950s appear to have christened it Nameless Tower. Fosco Maraini, for one, in his 1958 book Karakoram, called it a "superb shaft" and dubbed it Nameless. Several heights for the tower have been given; the 1990 Karakoram Map published by the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research records it at 6239 meters.*
The tower became known as "Nameless" simply because it stands beside a slightly taller peak already named Trango Tower (6286m) on maps. As later climbers tried to differentiate between the two towers, the nomenclature got muddled. The slender spire of our focus in this Mountain Profile has been called Nameless Tower, Trango Tower and Trango Nameless Tower; the slightly taller one (home to the mighty Norwegian Buttress and Grand Voyage routes) has been called Trango Tower and Great Trango Tower. Martin Boysen, among others, has noted that the taller peak is not a tower at all, but a twin-summited massif. Only the slender spire, of which he made the first ascent, is truly a tower. Given its beauty and its history, this significant peak deserves a more dignified name than no name at all, so in this article I'll call the shorter, slender tower of 6239 meters Trango Tower, and the taller massif Great Trango Tower. Many maps concur.
As for local Balti nomenclature, the famed expedition cook Ghulam Rasul once told me that "trango" is a western mispronunciation of "tengos," a Balti word for a hair-oil bottle.
The two Trangos rise in the lower Baltoro Glacier, straddling a ridge between the Trango Glacier to the west and the Dunge to the east, both tributaries of the majestic Baltoro. Long snow gullies rise to the foot of Trango Tower from both glaciers. On the Trango Glacier a moraine lake and a flower-covered alpine meadow where ibex sometimes graze make a sublime base camp. On the Dunge side, campsites are on rubble and ice. Ascents have been made in early June and in late September. The severity of the seasonal monsoon that passes through the Karakoram Range dictates climbing conditions. On a good day you can climb Trango in a T-shirt; on a bad day it'll turn you into a Popsicle.
The mid-1970s were a great era for big walling. On El Capitan in 1975, The Pacific Ocean Wall, by Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay and team, set the A5 standard. In windswept Patagonia in 1976, Jim Donini, John Bragg and Jay Wilson combined big walling with alpinism to make the first ascent of Torre Egger. To these historic zeniths of big-wall climbing add the 1976 British route on Trango Tower, and call it the climb that brought big-wall climbing to the Himalaya. Chris Bonington, who got Trango's first climbing permit (but who gave it to Boysen when preparations for the 1975 Everest Southwest Face Expedition forced him to back out) alluded to its significance when he said, "Everest is the cake, but Trango is the icing."
The British weren't the only ones who saw Trango Tower as a prize. In America a team that included Yosemite hardmen Yvon Chouinard and Don Lauria were lobbying Pakistani authorities for a permit as well, but their so-called "Tango on Trango" expedition suffered a setback when they received permission to climb not the soaring tower, but, as Chouinard recently recalled, "some obscure, dog-shit pile of a peak, miles from Trango." The Americans then launched a practical joke on the Brits, one that came into effect as British team members Mo Anthoine and Dave Potts were driving the van laden with supplies overland to Pakistan. First Boysen's fellow team member Joe Brown received a letter from Chouinard in which he casually mentioned that he was in the Karakoram on an expedition sponsored by National Geographic, with Trango Tower as the objective. Then came a bogus telegram, purportedly from the Pakistani Ministry of Tourism, allotting the Brits the same "dog-shit pile" the Americans had been granted. The hoax flustered the Brits for days, until the real telegram granting them permission for Trango Tower arrived shortly before they were to fly to Rawalpindi.
The British route of 1975 and 1976 was launched from the Trango Glacier and followed the obvious weakness in the south face, a rampart of mixed terrain, cutting diagonally left to right through the lower half of the wall and leading to a huge snow patch, above which loomed 450 meters of steep, ice-filled cracks and chimneys. The team installed fixed ropes, which provided access between two camps on snow ledges.
The Fissure Boysen, where the notorious 1975 incident occurred (recounted by Boysen on Page 29), lay at nearly 6000 meters. On the successful rematch in 1976, the Brits utilized their fixed ropes from the prior attempt, and Boysen thrutched up the crack without incident. First Boysen and Brown, then Anthoine and Howells, reached the summit. Trango Tower had been climbed, but the route remained unrepeated for fourteen years. The circumstances surrounding that ascent, by two Japanese, would arguably constitute an even greater epic.
Brits again made the next major dent in Trango, in June 1984. Though unsuccessful, it was a bold, alpine-style bid. Five climbers—David "Dai" Lampard, Andrew Atkinson, Stuart Holmes, Alan Scot and Ian Lonsdale—climbed left of the 1976 route, taking a technical corner to the snow-patch campsite of Boysen and company. Above, the 1984 team headed up a great slab toward the headwall. The scarcity of bivouac ledges necessitated portaledges, and snow fell frequently. On the sixth day of their second push, they were "a pitch and a half" from easy ground, having done twenty-nine pitches up to alpine grade ED, when the weather broke. Hail torrents, verglassed offwidths and the next day's continuing storm forced retreat.
In the stormy season of 1989, Spaniards completed that route with variations, but in markedly different style, by fixing ropes most of the way. The same year, Mark Wilford and I also attempted Trango, and on the Trango Glacier we visited the base camp of Miguel Angel Gallego, Jose Luis Clavel, Chiri Ros and Pepe Seiquer. I recall Senor Gallego showing us their massive, invincible-looking portaledge, and then pointing to the biggest salami I'd ever seen—the size of an artillery shell—dangling in the cook tent.
"Alpine style," he quipped, laughing in a manner that made clear he didn't much care for the tactic. But persistence won in the end for this heavyweight team. Defying weather that made everyone else quit, they spent nineteen nights on the wall to bag their route.
The Spanish route of 1989 was actually Trango's seventh ascent. The second ascent, and the third, came in 1987. Both were by new routes, both employed fixed ropes and both were made during an inclement season.
Slovenians Slavko Cankar, Franc Knez and Bojan Srot got the second ascent, via the most logical, pure line on the tower: a prominent, clean crack system on the south-southeast face.* Though Cankar organized the six-man expedition, it was Knez, the great Yugoslavian alpinist of the 1980s, who formed the engine of the team, leading ninety percent of the route. The team worked in frigid conditions as they fixed lines to the Shoulder. On the summit bid, Cankar, Knez and Srot jugged to their highpoint, fixed a few pitches above the Shoulder, then returned to bivouac. The next day, they reached the summit from the top of the fixed ropes in a single push, completing their route in the best style of the era. The weather, which was icy cold on the ascent, turned to storm on the way down. Their route would later become Trango's first free one, when the Germans Kurt Albert, Wolfgang Gullich and Hartmut Munchenbach achieved it in 1988, though with more fixed line.
After acclimatizing on Great Trango Tower, the Germans plied their free climbing talents (Gullich's 1991 sport route Action Direct remains, at 5.14d, a testpiece even today) by freeing the twenty-pitch Slovenian Route at grades up to 5.12. Hard free climbing at 6000 meters made this a landmark, but harder free routes on Trango were to come.
For big-wall elegance, however, the 1987 French/Swiss ascent is the apex. Frenchmen Michel "Tchouky" Fauquet and Patrick Delale and Swiss Michel Piola and Stephane Schaffter teamed up for the soaring western pillar of Trango Tower. This prow glows deep orange at sunset, but shadows hide its lower 300 meters, which, they report, overhang by a dizzying three ropelengths. With a rating of French 6c A4, it's a serious aid route, twenty-six pitches long, capped by big pendulum swings to connect the splitter headwall cracks. The team found only one bivouac ledge on the route, a prominent snowfield halfway up. On the summit, reached June 22, Fouquet departed by parapente and landed in base camp eleven minutes later. His partners took two days to rappel down and strip their ropes. The route is named Gran Diedre Desplomado, which means simply Great Overhanging Dihedral.
So far, all successes had been on routes overlooking the Trango Glacier, but interest now turned to the rugged Dunge Glacier. From the Dunge, Trango resembles a smooth-walled missile with a needle summit. A 1000-meter, climb-only-at-night avalanche chute gains the wall here, and a snowy horizontal terrace at one-third height spans the tower like a belt, running from the spacious bivouac palace of the south shoulder (commonly called "the Shoulder," and serving as the campsite for Eternal Flame, the Slovenian Route and Run for Cover) and across the east face. Further right, the ledge drops away to the intimidating north face.
I had failed low on the east face in 1986, with Leavitt and Hargis (shortly after Poland's Voytek Kurtyka and Japan's Noboru Yamada, Kasuhiro Saito and Kenji Yoshida, gave up on it). At that time, the British Route was still the only known way up, and the sole ascent. I had a ravenous desire to make the second, but none of us were in any physical shape to do so. We'd all just passed a month on Gasherbrum IV, and Hargis and I had spent a forced bivouac at 7800 meters. By the time we got to Trango, our food was down to potato powder and porridge, and our gums were bleeding from vitamin deficiencies. We were done in, and the truck-sized lump of snow that nearly hit Leavitt on Day 3 of our attempt was a welcome excuse to go home.
In July 1988 Kurtyka, with the Swiss Erhard Loretan (the third man to climb all the 8000-meter peaks), came back to the east face and climbed an elegant twenty-nine-pitch route that they rated 5.10 A3. Though both are strident proponents of alpine style on peaks as serious as K2 and Gasherbrum IV, they fixed roughly 600 meters of rope on Trango because, as Kurtyka wrote, "it would be unwise to expect too long a stretch of fine weather in the Karakoram." This method allowed them to descend to base camp during storms and make good time on the wall, where they spent "fourteen action days." Given their credentials, their use of fixed rope says a lot about the practicality of alpine style on Karakoram big walls. Up to this point, no successful new route on Trango has embraced pure alpine-style tactics.
Mark Wilford and I learned why in 1989, when we tried the east prow alpine style. This golden shield lies a hundred meters right of the Swiss-Polish line, and the route-finding on it resembles that of the new-wave big-wall climbs on the east side of El Capitan, where incipient seams are only visible with telescopes. We carted a full big-wall kit and four ropes to the wall, fixed our ropes up the initial east-pointing prow climbed by Kurtyka and the Japanese, and reached a bivy site of decaying sugar snow on the easternmost end of the ledge leading to the Shoulder. After a week of storms, we returned to our high point, pulled our ropes and committed to the unknown. Nailing up expanding flakes that seemed glued to the wall with ice and hooking up voids between seams, we climbed several pitches up to A4 before a three-day storm pinned us down in our portaledge. The freeze-thaw nature of the storm coated everything with ice, but on June 30 cold blue skies tempted us upward. Mark was leading an A1 crack when the storm returned. While I dodged a torrent of icy water spewing out of the crack, he pendulumed to the right, hooking and riveting across verglassed rock to another crack. By the time he made an anchor, I was soaked and shivering. It got worse, much worse, when I tried to jumar and he tried to haul. Slush clogged the teeth of our jumars, and Mark's pulley froze. I slid down the rope every time I tried to move up; when I resorted to prusik knots, they froze solid. The cold was getting to me, and I pleaded with Mark to get the haulbag up and toss me a dry rope, but he was tearing himself apart, manhauling the load on frozen ropes. By the time the bags landed at his anchor and he tossed me a dry rope so I could continue, my Gore-Tex clothing was armor-plated with ice and I was a gibbering icicle.
We had spent all day fighting the storm to gain just one pitch. As we erected the portaledge, night fell, the air chilled, the wall glazed over and powder snow cascaded down on us. Its metal joints frozen, the ledge collapsed twice with us in it, spilling us into the howling night. We finally lashed the corners together with webbing and zipped ourselves in.
There we vegetated for three days, at 5850 meters. Food ran low, and our sleeping bags grew sodden. At noon each day, icicles detached from above, bashing the portaledge and us inside it. We slept wearing helmets, and we medicated ourselves with a cocktail of Ambien to sleep, Codeine to relieve the pain of our cramped confines, and an exotic French pill called Ronikol that a doctor had prescribed to enhance the circulation in our cold extremities.
On the thirteenth day I peered out the door. Great Trango Tower was white as a ghost, the remainder of our route was basted with verglas, and ice chandeliers dangled from every bulge. I thought of the Norwegians on Great Trango Tower in 1984. Four had set out; two, Hans Christian Doeseth and Finn Doehli, did not return. They died in a rappelling mishap, but it seemed to me that after three weeks up there, they'd been on the wall too long. The odds of pilot error or "acts of God" grow exponentially with every stormy, hungry day. I looked at Mark. "If we don't get out of here now, we'll never get down," I said.
He agreed. We abandoned the portaledge, frozen fast to the wall like a car rammed into a snowdrift, and descended in a blur of stormy rappels. When we reached the couloir, we found it was loaded with sloughing, chest-deep snow. Mark tossed a haulbag down it to release the slides; we never saw the bag again. Staggering into base camp that evening, we looked back at Trango. It gleamed in alpenglow. We both said it at once: "We're gonna have to come back."
Two others familiar with the pull of Trango Tower returned to the mountain in August that year, a month after our attempt. Finding better weather, Wolfgang Gullich, Kurt Albert, Milan Sykora and Christoph Stiegler made another new route, which they called Eternal Flame, named after a pop song by The Bangles. Gullich and Albert had seen this route—a striking Yosemite-like crack system left of the Slovenian Route—during their 1988 ascent. Utilizing fixed rope, they "worked" pitches free, in the redpoint style of sport climbing. (Albert was the originator of the concept of redpointing.) During the ascent, Gullich severely sprained his ankle in a fall, but he recovered for the final push. Of the thirty-five pitches, eleven are 5.11 and two are 5.12, with one at 5.12c. Although this route was called a "free ascent" at the time, and while repeat ascensionists of this route continue to call their ascents free, it's a somewhat disingenuous claim, as a number of sections remain aided, including a fifteen-meter A0 bolt ladder.
More free ascents followed. Catherine Destivelle of France made the first female free ascent in 1990, with Jeff Lowe, during a filmed repeat of the Slovenian Route. But kudos for determination go to four self-proclaimed Wyoming cowboys, Todd Skinner, Mike Lilygren, Jeff Bechtel and Bobby Model, who spent sixty days on Trango in 1995 to free a line that combined the Slovenian Route to the Shoulder with a variation into the Swiss-Polish Route above it. Purists have criticized the cowpokes' tactics of reverse engineering, as they initially aided up to the summit and fixed all but a couple of pitches, then subsequently worked the pitches free in nonconsecutive order. "At least one person on the team free-climbed each pitch," Bobby Model wrote in The American Alpine Journal. Criticisms aside, these bovine boys had grit, climbing pitches up to 5.13. They named their creation The Cowboy Direct.
The great epic of Trango Tower began on September 9, 1990. Takeyasu Minamiura, a thirty-three-year old Japanese climber, stood just under Trango's summit with his paraglider sail spread out on the snow behind him. He had just spent the past forty days soloing a new thirty-pitch A4 route on the east prow (Minamiura called his a "capsule style" ascent, but it is the closest to true alpine style that any first ascent on Trango has come), finishing the line that Wilford and I had started in 1989. As if pulling off one of the greatest big-wall solos of all time wasn't enough, he planned to cap his adventure with an airborne descent to the glacier, 2000 meters below.
After reaching the summit, he committed himself to the scheme with Samurai dedication, throwing off his haulbags, which were attached to a chute. Ominously, the gear flight went awry: his bags hit the cliff, then slid at warp speed down the gully to the Dunge Glacier. Low on food and with no ropes, Minamiura waited for a favorable wind for his takeoff. When a head-on breeze came around, he tugged on the riser cords of his rig. The canopy inflated.
But as soon as he stepped off the cliff, his chute collided with the wall. It deflated like a pricked balloon, sending him sliding down the south face of Trango Tower. Forty-five meters into his fall, the paraglider snagged on a rock horn, and Minamiura stopped. He hung at the end of a tangle of strings, wheezing from the impact, his feet dangling in space and his smashed eyeglasses bent around his face. The ice axe strapped to his back had prevented his spine from breaking.
He kept his cool, pulled out his radio and contacted his four Japanese friends, Masanori Hoshina, Satoshi Kimoto, Masahiro Kosaka and Takaaki Sasakura, who had just completed a twenty-four-day ascent of the Norwegian Buttress on Great Trango. Rather than asking them to rescue him, he told them he had had an accident and requested a helicopter.
The next morning, he disentangled himself from his parachute cords and traversed five meters to a narrow ledge. This place became his home for the next six days.
Minamiura's Mayday sent his friends scrambling. While two men went to look for him visually, Kimoto and Hoshina marched to a Pakistani army helipad at Payu, twelve miles away. On September 11, in a stripped-down Lama heli hot-rodded for high altitude, Kimoto and Hoshina flew to Trango Tower. The machine shook violently at 6000 meters, but they spotted Minamiura waving from his perch. Crosswinds prevented the pilot from landing or lowering a climber onto the narrow summit, and they radioed Minamiura that a heli rescue was impossible.
Instead, Kimoto and Hoshina embarked on a daring plan: they would be flown from the Dunge Glacier to the Trango Glacier, and from there climb the original British Route.
No one had repeated this route. When the Japanese started up it, they found canyon-like ice gullies and gaping chimneys festooned with ancient fixed rope. Fourteen years of ultraviolet degradation and stonefall had reduced the ropes to bootlace strength. Clasping ascenders to the tattered lines, they gingerly moved up. Often, they belayed each other on a separate rope and placed protection while jumaring the old cords. "Yes, those ropes very dangerous," laughed Hoshina when I met him in 1994.
While the rescuers battled weathered ropes and waterfalls pouring down the Fissure Boysen, Minamiura waited. On September 12 a helicopter dropped food and first aid, but Minamiura couldn't catch the package. The nights of September 13 and 14 were cold and sleepless. Minamiura kept in radio contact with Takaaki Sasakura at base camp, talking about the meals they'd eat back in Japan. His thirst was becoming unbearable.
On September 15 the helicopter dropped more food, but it too disappeared. Then, on the radio, the pilot alerted Minamiura that a can of cheese had jammed in a flake fifteen feet above the ledge. Minamiura knew that if he left his bivy he might slip off, but he was starving and climbed to the flake on wobbly legs. He immediately found the cheese and ate it. It was his first food in six days.
On September 16 Hoshina and Kimoto rappelled to Minamiura, having blitzed the British Route in three days. The trio continued down by the Slovenian Route. By September 18 they were back on the Dunge Glacier. Minamiura had lived on Trango Tower for forty-nine days, the last twenty-two of them without a break.
You pay your money, you take your chances.
In August 1992 Mark Wilford and I, with Rob Slater, were back on Trango Tower. We chose an unclimbed jigsaw of cracks on the eastern margin of the south face, right of the Slovenian Route. The beauty of this wall is it is drenched in sun, and it has the commodious bivouac site of the Shoulder at 5700 meters. We shared that bivy with a Korean-American party, who summited the Slovenian Route—by then the voie normale up Trango—on August 13.
After three weeks we'd fixed our own lines to a good ledge at around 5950 meters. Half the climbing went free at 5.11 and half was aid up to A3+. Two bolts for belays and four rivets were the only drilling we did. We experienced the usual fare of storms and falling ice, of rocks bowling down the approach gully above the Trango Glacier—excitement that Mark and I were accustomed to, but that caused Rob to say the morning of our final attempt, "I'm not going back up there. I don't want to end up buried in a shallow grave."
Instead, Rob trekked up the Baltoro to view K2—another mountain that breeds obsession. Indeed, in 1995 he got to K2's summit, but a terrible storm took his life on the way down, along with the lives of several other climbers.
On the bluebird morning of August 23, Mark and I were on Trango Tower's Shoulder, about to head up our ropes, when the sound of falling rock and the glimpse of a shadow streaking across the wall sent us scattering like mice spooked by a hawk. A table-sized block cratered into the snow twenty-five meters to our right. More debris followed. When we looked up, we saw a gaping, freshly exposed cavern, 300 meters above. It disgorged masses of boulders and ice that peppered the slope beside us.
The rockfall was perilously close to our ropes, but distant enough that we could convince ourselves that proceeding up was justifiable. The temptation to reach the summit and get Trango out of our heads was great, so we tossed a carbiner to see who jumared first.
I became the rockfall poodle. The first thirty meters were the worst as the rope was sheathed in ice and I had to scrape it away with a piton to get my jumars to bite. I moved slowly, watching blossoms of dust grow out of the wall on my right and listening to the unique acoustics of every falling stone. Some sounded like helicopters, others sputtered like poorly tuned Volkswagons, while still more zoomed by like incoming artillery.
At 11a.m. we sat on a ledge atop our fixed ropes, out of harm's way. Above me, Mark was leading a beautifully arcing fracture. The summit was near; we'd be there that evening.
The vibrations started gently at first, welling up through the cracks around us. I wondered if it was an earthquake. Then the wall shuddered violently, and a big pillar to my right leaned out and disappeared. The ledge I was on wobbled as if it were about to collapse, too. Mark, clinging to the rock with his fingers, looked down and we exchanged bug-eyed stares. Then a sonic roar shot out and a cloud of granite dust darkened the sun, as tons of rubble raced toward the Dunge Glacier.
As the dust cleared, I saw the tiny dots of the base jumpers who were on Great Trango Tower's snowy northwest ridge (they were Glenn Singleman and Nic Feteris, both Australian, who later jumped off the north face). The two men stood immobile, convinced we'd been squashed. In fact, we were thirty meters from the edge of an enormous geological event. A pillar of rock ten meters thick, 150 meters tall and sixty meters wide had peeled off the face. That morning, we had jumared just beside it; earlier in the expedition, we'd considered climbing right up it. We shouted to the parachutists that we were ok, and headed on.
Late in the day we joined the Slovenian Route for the final pitches. On a narrow ledge we found a wad of parachute cord—a souvenir left by Minamiura. As the sun set, Mark clipped up a row of fixed pitons to a snow cornice crowning Trango's summit and belayed. In darkness we hung under the snow wave, stretched around, and patted the top. And that was it. We were done. Obsession sated.
The last great unclimbed feature on Trango was the north face. Sunless and overhanging, it is split by a massive corner above the Dunge Glacier; further up the snow gully that fringes the north face, the wall looks smooth as glass.
The players for the first route on the north face, in 1995, were Argentine-born Willy Benegas and Americans Eric Brand, Jared Ogden and Kevin Starr. They took the great corner, which they named the Book of Shadows. With an approach gully raked by slush avalanches and aerial bombardment, and pitches characterized by A4 aid and often loose and verglassed rock, it ranks as one of the more objectively hazardous and technically difficult routes on Trango. Given the perpetual cold of the north face, it's also as masochistic an undertaking as anything done on the Tower. The team used six ropes on their capsule-style climb, camped in portaledges, and made the summit on August 4 after a final eighteen-day push.
Two years later the north face yielded another serious route, called variously Wall Fiction or Choss Up Another One. Like the 1995 route, the team consisted of Yosemite-seasoned Americans: John Rzeczycki, Brad Jarret, Warren Hollinger and Wally Barker. Located uphill from the Book of Shadows amid blank-looking stone, the route was subject to icefall that peeled off the upper wall each day; one member was injured by rockfall. But the team cleverly avoided the avalanche-prone Dunge Glacier approach by climbing up from the Trango Glacier to a col between the Trango and Dunge Glaciers (beside the pinnacle called Trango Monk), then fixing 300 meters of rope downhill to their climb. They spent twenty-three days on the route, which involved thin A4 aid climbing, 5.10 free climbing and ice work.
With these ten routes on Trango, it would be easy to say the tower was climbed out by 1997, yet a hidden section of wall that seldom appears clearly in photos remained, to some degree, terra incognita. That section, the west and northwest faces, lies left of the Swiss-French route of 1987. A route sprang up here in the 1995: Insumisioa (5.10 A3+), to Basque climbers Mikel Zabalza, Fermin Izco and Antonio Aquerreta. The Basque route ranks as one of Trango's least-known routes. In fact, in 1996 when I saw a postcard of Trango Tower pinned to the lobby of the K2 Hotel in Skardu, Pakistan, with the line for Insumisioa penned in and a topo attached, I thought that another practical joke had been played on Trango, especially when almost no information subsequently emerged about the route or the ascentionists. But the Basque route is for real, and the team is well experienced, if a bit secretive. Insumisioa is a Basque term referring to the avoidance of the Spanish military service that remained compulsory until the end of the 1990s. The climbers were dodging the draft during their expedition.
The most recent new discovery on Trango Tower came in 1999.
The route, called Claire de Lune by its Swiss ascensionists Gabriel Besson, Claude Alain Gailland, David Maret and Frederic Roux, took the first three pitches of the Spanish Route to start, then broke out right onto the slabs and, in the steep headwall, climbed a crack system right of the 1987 route. The name refers to the French film Claire of the Moon, because the team summited under a piercingly bright full moon (it's also a play on words: "clair de lune," of course, means "moonlight").
The problem with obsessions is that, once sated, they leave very little in their place. Even as Mark Wilford and I rappelled by headlamp back to the ledge where I'd been sitting when the rockfall occurred, I felt hollowness rather than satisfaction. I wondered if perhaps another failure on Trango would have been preferable, as that way I would have known the shape of my future: we'd return to try Trango, perhaps again and again, ad infinitum.
Our thoughts were on other matters, too, like how to get back down, since our route had been obliterated by a cannonade of house-sized boulders. We sat on the ledge that night near 6000 meters, shivering in bivouac sacks but no sleeping bags, contemplating our incredible luck. Had we been an hour behind that day's schedule, we'd have been in the path of the rockfall. It seemed appropriate to name our route Run for Cover.
When the sun crested the jagged horizon the next morning and purged the cold from our bones, we breathed with relief. Then we peered over the ledge. The wall below was alive with clattering rocks and rivulets of mud and water that gushed from a huge rock scar. How could we make our escape? A week earlier, when our Korean-American neighbors at base camp had succeeded on the Slovenian Route, they'd abandoned their fixed ropes, telling us, "The next ascent will be lucky. They'll have fixed rope all the way." We'd thought it a poor show, but, as we swung across the wall on our two ropes to connect with their nylon highway, we were grateful. Nevertheless, we stripped the ropes as we descended, for the love of Trango, and the love of booty.
Back on the Shoulder, we crammed haulbags with the Korean-Americans' ropes and former expeditions' trash and prepared to drag the weighty mess down to base camp. Prior to leaving, Mark ran the gauntlet of falling stones, dashing up the start of Run for Cover to remove 100 meters of our own rope (above that, the rockfall had done most of the cleaning for us). I tried to tell him it wasn't worth risking his neck, but he was adamant: Trango was angry at climbers for leaving their junk all over it, he said, and we needed to appease the mountain. Indeed, we've regarded the tower as a living, willful and kinetic thing ever since. A merciful thing, too, as it could have ground us to dust had it wanted.
Over a decade has now passed since Mark and I finished our mission, yet Trango Tower still remains one of our most prized experiences. Obsessions can be solitary burdens, but in Mark I found a partner who shared the dream and the madness. Trango pushed us to the limit, and it forced us to depend on each other. Neither Mark, nor Trango Tower, ever let me down, and I thank them both for those vivid days.