Though I don't normally climb with guys old enough to be my father, a few seasons ago in Patagonia I teamed up with one of oldest, and most stoked, climbing partners I've ever met. In his early 60s, Steve Swenson is one of the most successful American alpinists of the last 40 years, having made first ascents all over the world. From the thin air of Everest and K2 to cutting edge technical routes on 7000m peaks, to leading the American Alpine Club, Steve has been a force in the world of mountaineering for decades. After a few days of climbing in Patagonia together, hearing endless stories of Pakistan, India, and expedition worldwide, I was eager for another opportunity to climb with, and learn from, this veteran alpinist.
Last fall, that chance presented itself. Steve was planning a trip, perhaps one of his last big ones, and he wanted my friend Graham and I to join. The objective was bigger and radder than anything I'd dreamed of: K6 Central, an unclimbed 7000m peak!
Assembling a team and choosing an objective are promising beginnings, but there was still a ton to work out. First off, we didn't have any good photos or maps of the area. Steve knew that a Polish team had been that zone in 2010, to attempted a still-unclimbed rock tower, and thought they might have the beta we needed. Through friends of friends in Poland, we got in touch with the leader of that expedition. Unfortunately, they had aspirations of returning for that summit, and didn't want us to steal their first ascent, and so wouldn't share any information.
Not to be denied, Steve kept scheming, and eventually found out that a trip report from this expedition did, in fact, exist. Working contacts in the Polish alpine club, a copy of this report was finally acquired, (though we didn't ask too many questions about how...) and we hit the jackpot! Not only were there detailed reports (which we had translated) and maps, but we also found a perfect photo of K6, clearly showing our proposed line.
All of this international intrigue, however, did nothing to prepare us for the true pre-trip crux: the ISI. The “Directory for Inter-Services Intelligence” is the boring, official name for the most powerful institution in Pakistan. The CIA, FBI, and NSA all rolled into one, the ISI has a hand in nearly every realm of Pakistani life, and mountaineering is no exception. Because K6 is in a “Restricted area”, in proximity to the disputed border with India, every foreigner that travels there must receive security clearance from this mysterious and powerful agency.
On our two previous attempts, Graham and I were effectively blocked by the ISI, and their failure to issue security clearances on time. For this trip, we submitted our application in January, optimistically thinking “This time will surely be different”. But as the months rolled by, with no word from the ISI, our hopes began to wane. By May, it was deja-vu: how long can we afford to wait for this clearance? We were afraid to purchase airfare, and prices just went up day by day. By mid-June, just a few weeks before our planned date of departure, we struggled to continue making plans for the trip, knowing that our fate rested in the hands of some far-away Pakistani spy/bureaucrat.
But on June 17th, just 13 days before we hoping to board the plane, our security clearances finally came through! Without a word of explanation to justify the 6 month delay, the spies approved our application, and in a rapid cascade our Climbing Permits and Visas came through as a result. So here I am, at home in Boulder Colorado, and all of my friends are making summer plans for barbecues, river trips, and fun days in Rocky Mountain park. But my bags are packed, my tickets are purchased, and with two incredibly stoked friends, I'm ready to fly around the world. I'm finally ready for Pakistan!