Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


26 August - 16 September 2006

I planned and led this expedition for Jagged Globe. The text below is from the report that I wrote for the Jagged Globe website. The original can be consulted at <link> where there are also several photographs taken by members of the team.


The first Jagged Globe expedition to Cathedral Peak in the Pakistan Karakoram successfully placed 9 people on the summit at 9.30 am on September 9th. We believe that this was only the 5th ascent of the peak and the 4th from a base camp on the Masherbrum Glacier on the west side of the mountain. Italian climbers who made the first ascent in 1988 erroneously claimed a summit height of 7,200m, and this was not corrected by the subsequent summiteers from the UK (1991) and Pakistan Army (1996). GPS data collected by the Jagged Globe team located the summit at 35. 33.553 N, 76. 15.585E and gave a height of 6247m.

This was the first expedition which JG had organized to attempt a 'technical' peak in the Karakoram that could be fitted into a 3 week time slot. Information about the exact nature of the route on Cathedral Peak was patchy, but the location of base camp within a single day's walk of the Hushe roadhead made it an attractive choice. The fact that the summit pyramid appeared steep and impregnable from nearby valley viewpoints added an element of challenge and unpredictability to the project.

On arrival in Pakistan the group learnt that cloudy conditions in Skardu had prevented flights reaching Skardu for several days, and this caused the group to make the 2 day journey up the KKH by road. The poor weather had also damaged the road in several places extending the journey time further. Several members of the team had climbed in Pakistan the previous year (Spantik 2005) and were pleased to be reunited with the local crew of guides, cooks and HAP's (High Altitude Porters) in Skardu. The journey to Hushe in open top jeeps was pleasant as the improved road have reduced journey times to 5-6 hours. The route follows the Indus valley and the scenery alternates between barren rock slopes and sizable farming villages with trees and lush fields.

Leaving Hushe (3050m) the following morning we employed 84 porters to move the expedition supplies to our base camp (3960m) on a level grass plain on the western side of the Masherbrum glacier. A plan was then formulated to use our 12 available climbing days to climb the peak. This was soon thrown into disarray by 3 days rain which threatened to flood BC and deposited large amounts of snow on the slopes above. Despite the poor weather our team of seven porters moved supplies of food, fuel, tents and climbing equipment to establish camp one at a height of  4850m. Team members also made a rather wet round trip to camp one on 2 September taking approx 8 hrs.  Instead of a rough path over rocks and glacial moraine most of the trip required walking through wet snow.  Base camp entertainment was provided by the appearance high above BC of 3 missing goats belonging to Abdullah (one of our HAP). A frantic chase, a few attempts at rugby tackles, and a donation of 4,000 Rupees from the expedition food budget ensured that the local staff had goat stew for a few nights.

The rain ceased and 4 September became a day for drying out all the equipment at base camp. Some of the team made the short trek northwards to visit the base camp of Masherbrum, the 7821m peak that dominates the area. From this site we also had our first views to the summit of Cathedral peak. The eastern aspect of the peak looked impossibly dangerous, and guarded by tumbling seracs and impregnable ice cliffs. What appeared to be the summit also looked rather steep and seemed to be topped by a large cornice. But from this distance it was hard to be sure that we were looking at the true summit.

On 5 September the whole team moved up to camp one which was still under a thick blanket of snow. The porters cleared spaces among the snow, mud and rocks and erected 11 tents that would be our home for the following week. For the next few days the weather followed a pattern of clear mornings giving way to cloudy afternoons. During this period the snow at camp one began to recede. Team members made early morning forays to 5200m and 5350m. The HAP team together with David fixed 700m of rope on the steep slopes leading to the ice plateau. The first part of this section traversed across bands of often loose rock, while the second part ascended a long snow slope steepening to about 40 degrees. Camp two was established on the edge of the plateau at a height of  5800m.

Various options were considered for the summit bid and eventually 10 clients, 2 leaders and 3 HAP left for camp two early on the morning of 8 September. 2 of the clients turned back within a few hours of setting out and the remaining 13 people reached camp between 07.30 and 10.30.  The weather seemed to be improving and perfect visibility with little cloud build up led to great views over almost all of the major peaks of the Karakoram. From our position at the edge of the plateau we had fantastic views in all directions. Masherbrum dominated the near distance, the Hushe peaks (Honbrok, Drifica, K6, K7) could be seen to the south and east, while the Baltoro giants could all be seen to the North (Chogolisa, Gasherbrums I - IV, Broad Peak) except K2 which was hidden behind Masherbrum. From camp two the summit slopes of Cathedral Peak looked steep and forbidding. It was difficult to get a sense of scale and without an accepted summit height the ascent ahead of us could have been 400m or 600m. Much of it would need fixed ropes and by now we only had a little over 200m remaining.

Four of the team in camp two chose not to join the summit bid the following morning and returned to camp two after first light. The nine people who chose to try for the summit set out in two groups at 01.30 and 03.00. The first group led by David (including the HAPs) aimed to break trail and place the fixed ropes thus easing the passage for the second group led by John. A full moon greatly helped route finding as the lead group crossed the level plateau in 90mins and started up the steepening ice slopes above. The route was less steep than it has appeared from a distance and steady progress was made up 30-35 degree slopes in the hours either side of dawn. Both groups were united around 07.00 on the level lip of a crevasse at a height of around 6150m. Still it was impossible to tell exactly how far above the summit cornice and ice cliff was. At this point Shukoor Ali, the most experienced HAP, who had been breaking trail announced that he did not fancy the next lead. So David took over and inched his way up the steepening slopes. Progress was slow and some of the members waiting on the cornice lip below started to doze in the warm sunshine. The rotten ice would not hold ice screws and the supply of stakes had been used up. When he finally broke through the cornice the only item available for a belay was the ice axe of Abdullah which was sacrificed to bring the rest of the team onto the summit slopes. From here it was only a short distance to the true summit. But the peak had another trick in store for us: a heavily corniced ridge overhanging the east face of the mountain barred access to the final few meters. But we had come too far to give up at this stage, and Hamish was given the dubious honour of leading the way over this final obstacle.

A few minutes later all 9 climbers stood on the highest point admiring the views and taking photographs. Radio calls were made to waiting team members in BC and camp one. The HAP proudly produced a Pakistan flag and posed for their summit pictures. Peter and Deirdre pronounced themselves to be the first couple to reach the summit, and Alphonso the first Spaniard. I doubt that Hamish was the first Scot as there were a few Scots in the 1996 UK team, but he was not too bothered by this. Were it not for fears of the rapidly softening snow in the hot sunshine we could have spent a few hours on the summit. It was one of the best vantage points that I have climbed to in the Karakoram. The descent was slow as many of the fixed ropes had to be removed and refixed lower down, before being finally collected up and carried back to camp two. We reached camp two at 13.30, 12 hours after the first team had set out. Cathedral Peak may only be 6247m high, but the effort required to reach the top make it feel like a much higher mountain.

Attempting a little known mountain like Cathedral Peak will always be a less certain and less predictable experience than trying one of the better known and busier peaks. However if you are willing to accept this, climbing in the quieter parts of the Karakoram and Himalaya can have its own unique rewards.  A combination of good planning, quality equipment (a total of 39 tents and 1000m of fixed rope were used!) and plenty of good local staff (13 in total) enabled this 'exploratory' project to be accomplished in a tight timeframe despite some problems with poor weather early in the trip.

Thanks to all the team for their contributions to a very memorable expedition, and one of the most exciting climbs that I have done in the Karakoram in recent years

PS We will not mention the end of expedition football match at BC (altitude 4000m, soft ball, bumpy pitch, biased referee… etc…etc…)

David Hamilton 17/9/2006


David Hamilton
High Adventure
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