“Least difficult” 7000ers ?
In August 2019 I followed and then read the story of a climb to Spantik, a 7027mt mountain in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan; Spantik is a rather common destination for those approaching high altitudes, due to its relative absence of great technical difficulties along the normal route, however not at all easy for the very long development and some technical sections.
If the route is not equipped with fixed ropes and tracks, as in the case in question, the “relative ease” become another affair; in fact, the two climbers will face the bid to the summit starting from 5500mt on completely virgin and unknown terrain, without ropes or tracks. For Graham, after a brilliant start of the climb, the long attack on the summit cost him the first experience of typical symptoms of altitude sickness : hallucinations and exhaustion – fortunately managed in an excellent way and with the help of the great experience of Giampaolo, who chose the fast ascent as both the descent tactic ,without bivouacs , which led the pair to Base Camp happily and without any health consequences.
The protagonists of this story are two mountaineers with very different experience: Graham Wyllie, a young and strong Scottish mountaineer without high altitude experience and the veteran Giampaolo Corona, 47-year-old mountain guide of the Dolomites who has climbed several eight thousand and other important peaks in the Himalaya and Karakorum. Both left alone for Spantik, sharing the logistics with other expeditions, they met and decided to attack the summit together: what follows is the story of this climb written by Graham; an example of good style, of a new friendship and of great perseverance on a terrain unknown to him, with the help – however mutual – of the great experience of “Jumpy” Corona.
While not representing a particular mountaineering relevance, I think this story contains some of the most important values in mountaineering. Thanks to Graham (and Giampaolo, who told his version HERE) for permission to translate the article that appeared on his blog, I wish you a good read.
Giampaolo Corona, the Veteran
Giampaolo Corona is an Alpine Guide with an impressive curriculum, but he has always kept a little under the radar of the big media.
He recounted the climb with Graham to Spantik HERE. During a long and very pleasant chat on the phone, I believe I understood some fundamental things of Giampaolo’s philosophy; first of all, the distinction he made between expedition at “normal” 7/8000rs and lower peaks but much more technical: in the first case, often Giampaolo starts alone, joining the logistics of Base Camp with another commercial expedition, but not using – or doing it at minimum possible – fixed ropes and no porters help. Always climbing in alpine and light style, in both cases. But on the 8000 or 7000 like the Spantik, he generally finds new partners in the climb on the spot, and chooses them with his insightful and inner feeling . His experience allows him to immediately understand if he can share the climb with someone else. In more technical expeditions, on the other hand, he prepares and carefully chooses the team of climbers. He explained how important it is for him to make new friends, meet new people and enjoy the trip a lot. But its preparation is always accurate and thorough. From his first Himalayan experience he told me that he had immersed himself in technical texts and treatises on preparing for high altitude. It is important for him to optimize the acclimatization time very much and then go up as quickly as possible, taking with him the bare minimum.
In fact he writes:
“I consider my body as an engine to prepare, the equipment is my hardware, the head is my software. You have the head or not. Without it it is better not to leave.
I am looking for simplicity, the essential. Perfection is achieved when there is nothing more to remove, not when there is nothing more to add. Fast and light climbing seems easy, in reality it is the result of a huge upstream work (both technical and physical as well as psychological preparation). Nothing is invented. “
And then he explains:
The way up to Spantik is long and complex (ridge, mixed areas, steep slopes of snow and ice, very long “plateau”). A path that winds for 8 kilometers, 2500 meters of ascent. After only 8 days from arriving at base camp, I felt ready. I would have used only one support point at 5500 m above sea level where I had left my tent and bare essentials for a bivouac, skipping the classic camp 1 and 3. I had imposed myself once I reached the top to go straight to the base camp .
I would even have agreed to try climbing completely on my own.
By chance I met a young and strong Scottish mountaineer Graham Wyllie there, who agreed with me on lightness and simplicity, so I said why not try it together?
In the end, Giampaolo got on very well with young Graham, and a real friendship was born.
This, for Giampaolo, is the real added value in living a light,clean and fair mountaineering.
Interview : Graham Wyllie
A.This was my second trip to the Greater ranges. My first was back in 2008 when I was part of a team of 4 that attempted a peak to the south of Masherbrum called Cathedral peak (6247m). The weather was poor and we only reached a little over 5500m. I was 19 at the time and It gave me valuable experience and a reference point to base future trips on. This helped a lot with the Spantik trip as there were far less unknowns on the logistical side of things. I had a few of my climbing partners interested in the trip in Late 2018 but by the time we went in June 2019 there were just two, Andra and myself.
We used the same local tour company as I did in 2008 and took only a base camp service. This takes a lot of stress out of the approach to the mountain and you can relax a bit and focus on acclimatising and taking in the impressive surroundings. Above base camp things are simple. We had one tent, no porters and no fixed ropes.
We climbed as alpine style as we could and I had similar clothing with me that I would use in Scotland in the winter. At a glance ‘Alpine Style’ sounds like it should be lightweight but when you are moving a tent, Sleeping bag, stove, food, etc It doesn’t work out like that! For expedition gear like Radios, Sat phone HA tent, etc, Andra is a member of the Dutch Alpine Club (NKBV) and they let us borrow pretty much all the specific kit we needed which was fantastic.
Q. How did you prepare to high altitude before the trip, if you did it?
A.For the altitude I did nothing specific before the trip. The highest point in Scotland is 1345m so trying to get some natural acclimatization beforehand would have meant going abroad. I was more focused on fitness and my energy levels. I had quit my job at the beginning of the summer of 2018 and spent 2 months in the Alps. This combined with a lot of winter climbing in Scotland inadvertently provided me with a large specific base of aerobic fitness. I had to do some long trips away with work during the spring but It was quite physical work and I could also use the gym so I managed to stay pretty well conditioned. The month before the trip I did a small volume of hill running and some rock climbing. After pushing myself a lot in the winter and then the trips with work, I was careful not to exhaust myself and aimed to arrive in the Karakorum well rested.
Q. How old are you, and can you tell me briefly about your climbing history?
A. I’m 31 and have been enjoying the mountains since I was 9 when my father started taking me hillwalking in Scotland. I stuck with it and by my mid-teens we were going on Walking holidays to the Alps. Seeing peaks like the Dent du Géant and the Weisshorn really inspired me to get into climbing and gain the skills necessary to go to those high places. It was around this time I started reading mountaineering literature as well which added more fuel to the fire. In late 2007 I got taken up my first easy winter route in Scotland and began the long process of building experience and technical knowledge. In 2008 I summitted my first 4000m peaks in the Alps and also went on my first expedition. In the years since I have slowly worked my way up the grades and climbed also a lot in the Alps. For now I am focused on more technical climbing in Scotland both in summer and winter and hopefully I can transition this to exciting objectives in the Alps and Greater Ranges in the coming years.
Spantik: Graham’s Story
I was higher than I had ever been. Somewhere above 6500m on Spantik’s Summit ridge. It had taken three weeks to get here. Three weeks of flying, driving, trekking, climbing and acclimatising. I had felt strong since we left Camp 2 at 5500m at around 0130 but now the altitude meant that the few steps I was taking were backed up by rests and heavy breathing. Progress was slow and I could see Messner in his hooded down jacket ahead of me.
Aside from my body my mind was feeling the altitude too, playing tricks on me and polluting my concentration with confusion and playful misinformation. It was not Messner I reminded myself every so often, It was ‘Jumpy’ an Italian Guide from the Dolomites.
This was our first ever day climbing together, we’d met barely a week ago but circumstances had brought us together.
Along with instances of de-ja-vu I felt another familiar presence with us, an old woman, perhaps somebody’s mother approving of our zig zagging trail through the ankle deep snow. There was a rocky section with steep snow ahead. It didn’t seem to be getting closer. I kept following Jumpy’s tracks, I was now too far behind to take my turn breaking trail. If he had been closer perhaps I would have told him I was going back.
Some time went by with little progress. A constant struggle and the same hallucinations. Before long the icy wind provided us with a new problem and every 5-10 mins we stopped to warm our freezing hands. As time raced by we inched towards the rocky outcrop. This must be it. Just another 20 or 30m of struggle then the summit and we could go down. Eventually we surmounted the the steep section but the ridge continued upwards. I caught up with Jumpy. He said another 50m altitude to go. I tried to break trail but he overtook me.
The struggle went on for so long and then we arrived. A bare plateau of snow. The fruits of an idea I had while alone in a Canazei bar over a year ago and all the planning, travelling and climbing since. I felt emotional. The pure joy that I’ve only experianced a few times before, when dreams are realised, when I am exactly where I know I should be.
We didn’t spend long there, maybe ten minutes leaving to start the descent at 1130. The first part of the descent went well. We retraced our steps down the ridge and reached our bags on the plateau. Then we moved towards the top of the SE ridge and the normal site for Camp 3. The section between this and Camp 2 is the technical crux of the route. Andra and myself had had a bit of an epic here the following week when we tried to establish Camp 3. For most climbers this section is made safe by fixed ropes but no team had fixed it in almost a month leaving them now in an incomplete and dangerous state. Free climbing this upwards in good conditions is easy, downclimbing this while exhausted and after the midday sun has taken it’s toll on the ice is a different matter.
Jumpy went on down. There wasn’t much he could do for me. I methodically front pointed my way down the steep sugary ice stopping often for breaks. I toyed with the idea of making an abolocov to abseil but it wasn’t practical. It would have justified carrying the rope though, it was still coiled in my sack as we had solo’d together all day. Eventually I reached easier ground beyond a bergshund and made quick progress down a snow slope then the rocky spur that runs for about 100m down the centre of the face. Beyond this the lower half of the face is more sugary ice albeit at a less serious angle than higher up. Without exhaustion I would normally make quick work of this terrain despite its poor condition. Today was different. I advanced facing down the slope and constantly struggled for my footing. The first section went ok. Starting down the next section my crampons gave way and I began to slide down the slope. After 10-15m my ice axe arrest held and I came to a halt with an avalanche of sugary ice flowing around me. I front pointed down the rest of the slope.
The rest of the journey to camp 2 was without further incident. There are crevasses but they are obvious and easy to cross or avoid. The only other issue was the snow. Now softened by the heat of the day it was torturous. Nevermind I told myself, soon I could blissfully collapse in my tent at camp 2. At around 1630 when I arrived Jumpy had packed his tent away and was waiting for me. He informed me of incoming bad weather and that I needed to go down to base camp too. It was the last thing I wanted to hear but he was right and staying wasn’t really an option. I packed up the tent, cooking and sleeping equipment and ended up with quite a hefty sack.
I knew the route down from camp 2 well by now. Andra [initial partner and holland climber,NdR]and myself had travelled it a few times in our efforts to acclimatise and prepare for our summit attempt. Between camp 2 at 5500m and camp 1 at 5050m the route is an undulating snow ridge four kilometres long. It’s quite exposed and scenic in places. There are occasional crevasses and cornices but nothing overly serious. The main issue with travelling down at this time is the condition of the snow. Jumpy went on ahead. He kept an eye backwards to make sure I was progressing but there was no point in us both going at my exhausted methodical pace. Sometimes while sinking over my knees into the snow the familiar old woman was there. She knew about the deep snow and she made me feel a bit better about it.
Eventually I arrived into camp one and it was getting dark so I put my headtorch on. I began to feel a bit better and was able to move a little faster. Perhaps this was the lower altitude catching up with me or the fact that the route from here is pretty much completely downhill. The path down to base camp from here is good. It is steep in places but it’s well marked and snow free consisting mainly of dirt, scree and shattered although somewhat stable rock. About two thirds of the way down a headtorch grew close. It was Andra who offered her congratulations. An emotional Paco, our cook/local guide/fixer, emerged from the darkness and gave me a hug. The happiest anyone has ever been to see me I think! He carried my sack the remaining few hundred meters to base camp arriving sometime after 2100 where I was met by the Catalan expedition and Jagged globe’s cooks and HAP’s who congratulated me also.
Base Camp as seen from C1 (c) Graham Wyllie
In the end I am very pleased with the style of my ascent. A long push from camp 2 was never going to be easy especially to come back down to BC the same day. In hindsight had me and Andra managed to establish camp 3 then I believe we would have summited together. This would however have left us stuck at camp 3 through a weekend of bad weather. A long push from camp 2 became the only option given the time we had left and this is certainly not the easy way. The lack of fixed ropes also meant that risk on the serious descent down to camp 2 from the plateau when energy levels are low had to be carefully considered. Both Jumpy, who has considerable experience on 8000m peaks, and myself felt that Spantik was harder than it’s reputation suggests. This may have been down to the long alpine style nature of our ascent but even still I felt that it was not a peak that should be underestimated. It is a 7000m peak with a long route and technical passages that is subject to Karakorum weather and conditions.
Its a lot of time and effort to climb peaks of this scale. It has taken 4 weeks of travelling, trekking, acclimatising and climbing and that is just to have a chance at the summit and does not include preparation before the trip of logistics, kit, permits and visas. How well you acclimatise, staying healthy and being fit enough all are decisive factors and of course tie in with the level of risk you are prepared to take in a hostile environment. The weather always has it’s say and you can easily spend days sitting in Camp waiting for it to change as I did on a previous unsuccessful expedition to a different peak in the range. Even with success about half of our time on Spantik was spent resting or waiting for weather at base camp. The journey itself, namely the places and the people encountered are also to be appreciated because if it is all viewed as a means to a summit then it’s going to be a long and potentially disappointing trip.