Photograph by Ben Moon
Alpinists Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted
In the shadow of the Nanga Parbat terrorist attack, two climbers solve one of alpinism’s last great puzzles.
K6 West’s 7,040-meter virgin summit was plainly visible from Canadian alpinists Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted’s vantage 600 meters below. Pakistan’s Charakusa Valley and its cirque of incredible Karakorum peaks yawned beneath them. The gradually narrowing snow ridge the duo was following deadended into a potentially unstable cornice, blocking them from the gentle summit slopes. If they wanted to climb any higher, they would have to retreat and figure out a new route.
“At that point during the climb, we were expecting a piece of cake, but we hit a dead end,” says the 46-year-old Slawinski, who is a physics and astronomy professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “We didn’t know if we had it in us to summit.”
Slawinski and Welsted had already surmounted many hurdles. For four days, they’d made steady progress up K6 West’s monstrous northwest face. With its multiple summits and complex terrain, the peak, also the tallest in the valley, had developed quite a reputation after it rebuked a few of the world’s best climbers, including Steve House and Marko Prezelj. The path up the face followed fluted ridges and required perfect conditions to avoid avalanches. Welsted and Slawinski tiptoed through a dangerous, shifting icefall, and negotiated thousands of feet of near vertical ice floes plastered to rock and just a few inches thick. At night, they hacked out small platforms in the ice to rest and melt drinking water. But the darkest moment of the trip occurred even before they reached base camp.
In the middle of the night on June 22, a few days after Welsted and Slawinski arrived in Islamabad, an estimated 16 militants associated with a faction of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) hiked to Nanga Parbat’s Diamir base camp located 70 miles north of K6. They rounded up ten foreign climbers and one Pakistani cook and systematically executed them in retaliation for drone strikes on Pakistan. The murders sent a shock wave through both Pakistan and the international community. Trekkers and climbers fled the country, leaving the mountains almost deserted of visitors.
At that time, Slawinski, Welsted, and American climber Jesse Huey were heading north on the Karakoram Highway when they heard the news from their driver. Their liaison officer reversed course to Islamabad. Several tense hours of decision-making followed. At the behest of his family, Huey opted to return home to Boulder, Colorado. Equipped with the perspective from previous trips to Pakistan’s various mountain regions, Slawinski and Welsted decided to fly to Skardu to avoid the highways and immediately head toward the historically peaceful Charakusa region. They arrived to vacant guesthouses and empty trails.
“It was like having your own private Chamonix. It was a shame,” says 41-year-old Welsted. “Tourism shut down.”
Aside from their cook and his assistant, the typically popular base camp, which serves several of Pakistan’s most iconic peaks, was empty of climbers. They saw only a few trekkers, who typically pass through while completing a popular hiking loop. The duo spent a day working out a possible route through the incredibly complex series of icefalls and rock bands. They waited for the avalanches that swept the face to subside.
Rising a total of 7,000 feet from base camp, the devious route took them up a 3,000-foot floe of ice plastered to rock. At times it was only a few inches thick. While Slawinski and Welsted are both known for their technical prowess, elevation was a concern for both especially when the ridge path dead-ended at 7,000 meters. Technical climbing becomes exceedingly difficult above that elevation.
“As climbers, we like to say it’s about the experience, not the summit, but to have gone all that way and turn around would have been anticlimactic,” remembers Welsted.
On June 29, the duo ferreted out a passage and crossed onto the peak’s gentler southern flanks, where they slogged up gentle snow slopes and crested past 7,000 meters to stand on top of one of the last great prizes of the Karakoram.
“Resting on the summit we had a clear view of Nanga Parbat,” says Welsted. “We spoke about the massacre, about how close Raph had come to leaving, and what a shame it was that Jesse hadn’t been able to join us. None of that distracted from the sense of achievement I experienced while staring out on the mountains of India, China, and Pakistan.”
Adventure: Over the last decade, K6 West has drawn some of the world’s best alpinists. What’s so intriguing about the peak?
Ian Welsted: It’s large. Unclimbed. Challenging. Veteran climber Steve Swenson called it “one of the last unsolved problems.” It’s hard climbing at altitude. No one was sure if there was a safe line through it.
A: There aren’t a lot of major unclimbed summits left. Is that part of the draw?
Raphael Slawinski: Before the trip, we actually weren’t totally sure if K6 West had been climbed or not. At the time, I wondered, Does it really matter if someone had stood there before? Their tracks would have been blown away long ago, yet somehow it matters. You are going up into the unknown.
A: Did the massacre affect your climbing headspace?
RS: The Nanga Parbat massacre weighed on us heavily earlier in the trip, but at this point we'd been in the mountains for weeks and felt quite removed from the outside world and its concerns. What mattered was negotiating the tricky approach to the base of the climb, climbing through the cruxes, finding decent bivi spots.
A: Obviously it was a difficult decision to stay after the massacre. What made you comfortable enough to stay?
RS: We had traveled around Nanga Parbat and the area we were about to go. So we had some firsthand knowledge. On a previous trip, we actually had had some issues in the area around Nanga Parbat, in fact we had death threats in 2006. That area had a history of trouble. Now the area around Skardu, to my knowledge, doesn’t have a single instance of violence against foreigners.
A: How did the violence impact the people you knew or met along the way?
IW: We actually met a fellow who was at the massacre, a Pakistani. They let him go. He was saying how important it is for the areas, the tourism and the economy. Mountaineers coming [there] is important. They really don’t want something like this to shut down their entire tourism economy.
We went to the town of Hushe. By the 1980s it was an actual tourist town. People make their living through mountain tourism, portering, cooking. One of our cook’s helpers, a young guy with a wife and kid, he’d been making a living. He’d been educating himself, buying climbing gear to guide. Now he’s talking about going to Lahore to work in a kitchen instead.
A: Do you think risk of this kind of attack is maybe overblown?
RS: By far the greatest risks are in the mountains. I guess we find it more acceptable to die by avalanche than by AK-47. I don’t want to die by either. It’s hard though. What I wanted to keep in mind were the relative risks. By going, from my perspective, we were not increasing our risk very much at all. We made a judgment call about our safety, and it felt right, but the consequences of a mistake in judgment could be catastrophic.