BD athlete Hayden Kennedy reports on new route on K7's east face with Urban Novak and fellow BD athlete Kyle Dempster
Black Diamond athlete Hayden Kennedy spent the summer in Pakistan, and scored new routes on two 7000-meter peaks, K7 and The Ogre. Below is Hayden’s compelling report on his ascent of K7’s east face with Urban Novak and fellow BD athlete Kyle Dempster. Next week we will post Dempster’s report on he and Hayden’s new route on The Ogre with BD athlete Josh Wharton.
The Pakistani Double-Header
Part 1 – Onward through the fog on the East Face of K7
Snow pelts our faces; the wind rips through to our bones as we ponder our current predicament. Kyle peers around a steep rocky corner into the unknown and shakes his head, disheartened by what he can see. We have been climbing for nearly 20 hours and there isn’t in a bivy in sight. The snow falling all around us raises the question of bailing. The climbing has taken so much that it’s either send or leave our dream of climbing the East Face of K7 behind. Kyle and I look at each other. “Maybe it’s time to call it—we are totally worked and dehydrated, and it’s storming.” Urban replies with a calm smile, “But this is what we came for. Climbing K7 was our choice. We must keep going!” The words from our Slovenian friend seem to trigger a new energy for all of us. We put our heads down and climb onward through the fog.
The first time I climbed with either Kyle Dempster or Urban Novak was in 2011 in Pakistan’s Charakusa Valley. Towards the beginning of that trip Kyle and I climbed a new route on the West Face of Hassan Peak (6300m). On the summit we had an amazing view of the seldom-seen East Face of K7. As the wall dipped in and out of the clouds we could see a weakness that led right to the summit without joining any ridges—a completely independent new route on K7. After the 15-hour rappel off Hassan we were back in base camp preparing for K7. Urban’s partner wasn’t psyched to climb, but when Urban would come to visit Kyle and I could see the fire in his eyes. He was ready for a rowdy adventure in the mountains. We invited him to climb with us on K7. A Slovenian is a crucial part of the rack if you get lucky enough to have the opportunity to climb with one.
Looking back now, I am positive that we didn’t really know what we were heading into and of course we didn’t have a plan at all. At four in the morning we left the comforts of base camp and by 10 am we had started up the East Face. Before we knew it we had climbed to about 6300m and night had fallen. We stopped to chop a ledge to sit on for a few hours. We all felt confident that the next morning we would climb to the summit, but when a thought like that enters your head the mountains slap you back to reality. In the morning we awoke to tons of fresh snow and a cold wind. The thought of climbing through the storm entered our minds but we soon realized that we were too low on the face to even consider going to the summit in such poor conditions. Spindrift pounded us as we fought our way down the mountain.
We returned to our homes after K7 with a new friendship and a climbing partnership that seemed strong. Kyle and I were extremely bummed that we didn’t summit K7 but Urban had a very different attitude. “That was the perfect adventure for all of us. Alpine climbing isn’t always about the summits—it’s about the lessons that come from both failure and success. Plus, it makes for a great story!” When I heard Urban say that, something in my mind about climbing in the mountains changed. I realized he was right. Of course standing on a summit is powerful and incredible but when we fail is when we truly learn. For the rest of the year we planned to return to Pakistan in hopes of finishing K7.
In December 2011 I went to the Torre Massif in Patagonia for two months and had a series of experiences that changed my life. I came home disillusioned with climbing, and I questioned my motivations for going into the mountains. I seriously debated not going back to Pakistan. After some guided mediation on a few scary trad routes in Indian Creek I realized that going back to Pakistan and climbing with Urban and Kyle was very important.
[Kyle in the Skardu airport trying to check our bags in the midst of the craziness]
In late June, Kyle and I packed our gear in Salt Lake City and enjoyed our last cheeseburgers and beers for the summer. Once my bags were checked, my cell phone turned off, and I was sitting in the international terminal I knew the trip was really happening. It was 111 degrees when we arrived in Islamabad and all we could manage was watching HBO in our hotel room. We did get in one day of sport climbing and sending 5.12a in such heat was probably the hardest thing we did all summer.
[Kyle on the drive to the village of Hushe.]
Finally we got a flight to Skardu, the jumping off point for most expeditions to the Karakorum. It felt good to be back in Pakistan and to see familiar faces. The mountains in the Karakorum are unreal but traveling to Pakistan is about much more than just the climbing; the people are truly some of the most hospitable and humble people I have ever met. It’s a pleasure to learn about their culture, joke around, eat awesome food, and meet new friends.
[Local kids in Hushe are psyched on everything]
Six hours in a jeep brought us to the small village of Hushe where the trek into the Charakusa Valley begins. As we hiked into the valley we finally got a glimpse of K7 through the clouds for the first time since 2011. This is what we came for.
Unfortunately I thought I was tough enough to eat some of the porters’ food with them and get away with it. I soon learned that Americans have weak stomachs, and I suffered what we have come to call “the Asian butt-pee.” When I recovered all three of us started acclimating and preparing for another round on K7. Packing the gear was super exciting this time because we knew what the mountain had to offer. Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and High on Fire blared into our headphones as we hiked up the glacier. We had great views of the West Face of K6 as well as the many possible lines up the East Face of K7.
[Our route on K7's East Face. Jon Griffith photo.]
Near the base of the route we found a safe place to set up the tent and rest until that night when we would blast off. The rest of the day was spent laughing our faces off about all sorts of different stuff from the supermodels waiting for us at the summit to the reality that we were all going to be spooning on some horrible ledge soon enough. There has to be a sense of humor on these routes and you can’t take yourself too seriously.
[Kyle and me in a storm on the summit of Sulu Peak (5900m), acclimating before K7.]
We brought two sleeping bags, one ground pad, a stove, and food for three days on the mountain. The double sleeping bag that Kyle and I shared smelled absolutely horrible after the climb and I never really looked forward to getting into it. At midnight the alarm went off, the coffee went on, cold energy bars were inhaled, and before we knew it we were climbing. Conditions were perfect and we all felt good. As the morning light started to shine on the walls around us the climbing got harder and the conditions got worse. Kyle started leading a pitch that the year before was perfect ice but was now waist-deep snow climbing. Kyle is one of those climbers that you don’t get too often—he loves the suffering and I have never seen anyone who can get the job done like him.
[Urban nearing our 2011 high point at about 6200m. From this point on the snow conditions were terrible.]
As we climbed higher and higher the weather started to change. Pitch after pitch we navigated through steep ice, awesome mixed terrain and more snow climbing, but the uncertainty grew with each meter gained. At one point we were completely lost and were forced to rappel one pitch to find a new path up the last section of mixed terrain. Just before it got dark I led one more M6 pitch to a small snow ledge where we finally sat down after 22 hours of non-stop climbing. As exhausted as we were there was still laughter in the air as we dozed off into the cold night.
[Kyle on amazing mix terrain midway up the route, the weather started to get worse and worse]
[This me leading towards the final rock sections of the route late on the first day. At this point we had been climbing for 20 hours.]
[Urban leading steep ice low on the route. The conditions at this point were perfect.]
“Morning breakfast and then we go,” I heard Urban say as I slowly sat up from the icy ledge. We had already climbed much higher than our 2011 attempt and the thought of bailing didn’t seem to be an option. “We have come this far, I think that we can do this!” Urban said with anticipation. Urban’s constant stream of positive energy was so contagious that it was hard to think differently. We booted up and started climbing.
[Urban leading after an uncomfortable night in the open at 6600m.]
[Kyle following one of the many amazing ice pitches low on the route ]
Everything seemed to hurt and climbing up easy ice was a task. Our packs felt heavy but our legs keep pushing. Finally we reached what we thought was the final snow slope that would gain the summit, but we were in a white out and couldn’t see much further than a few meters. [Kyle on some of the final technical terrain before the summit snow field.]
Urban started breaking trail up the waist-deep snow. I have been lucky enough to climb with some of the most talented climbers in the world, from Tommy Caldwell to Jon Cardwell. When I watched Urban take off on towards the summit it was by far the impressive effort I have ever seen. Kyle and I followed Urban up the never-ending slope. Through the heavy snowfall I finally saw that he had stopped and was clapping his hands in the air. We had made it!
Although we didn’t get a good view from the summit all three of us were so happy to be in such a wild place. The rappels took us well into the frosty night through the spindrift and endless v-threads. Back at base camp we relaxed in the sun, ate incredible food and took it all in. K7 was a mountain that brought us together as friends and partners. The climbing seemed secondary.