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Uli Biaho Tower

The northwest face of 6109-meter Uli Biaho Tower (not to be confused with the still-unclimbed 6417-meter Uli Biaho Peak), showing the upper 1100 meters of Drastissima (“Something Drastic”: ABO: VI 6, 1900m). After warming up with attempts on Hainabrakk East (5799m) and Shipton Spire (6004m), Jozef “Dodo” Kopold (left) and Gabo Cmarik climbed Drastissima in a fifty-four hour push (a hidden couloir behind Kopold, used in the 1979 first ascent of the Tower, provided access to the face).
[Photo] Dodo Kopold

I don’t look for adventure on the classic routes, where you stumble over hundreds of people, nor even on routes that have been climbed several times. I want to start where others have wrecked.

Gabo Cmarik and I went early to the Karakoram in search of ice. When you leave for two months with a promise that you’ll come back alive, you close the door and suddenly you are in another world, where you have only those two months to fulfill your dreams. As snowfall and avalanches forced us to wait for better weather, though, that promise weighed heavy.

June 8: on our second attempt on Hainabrakk East Tower (5799m), we started up the steep couloir on the left-hand side of the east face at night to avoid avalanches. At dawn we reached the place we’d marked in base camp with a big exclamation point: from here, we’d have to rappel sixty meters into a narrow chimney, then continue up through steep ice–a major avalanche path–to reach the southeast ridge.

I had just finished rapping when a huge avalanche roared past a few meters away. It was the one we’d been waiting for. The way now appeared open. I waited for Gabo to join me.

Then another one came, unexpected. The way back was now closed: we had already pulled the rope, so I started to climb as quickly as I could where the avalanche had fallen only a few minutes before. In the evening we took refuge in a sheltered ice cave. The next day we reached 5375 meters on the southeast ridge, but a rock tower prevented us from continuing to the true summit.

Seracs threatened our next obective, the north face of Shipton Spire (6004m), down low, and a hard-looking mixed section appeared in its upper third. Early one morning in mid-June we climbed 500 meters of dangerous terrain, but when Gabo arrived at the belay, a sickly green and red from too much sun, we retreated, leaving the north face still unclimbed.

It was now our third week in base camp. We were well acclimatized, and we had studied our line on Uli Biaho Tower (6109m) down to its last details. We knew we would take a steep, 800-meter ice couloir to reach the northwest face, but we still had many questions: How many days would it take? What would the summit ridge be like? Would we find a bivy ledge? Would the weather last?

If we wanted to succeed and come back home, we had to be fast, so we packed no sleeping bag and no extra clothing. At 2 a.m., on July 21, we simulclimbed 1000 meters to the col beneath the northwest face in four hours. Though we found some nice drytooling moves, the ice was hard, and huge seracs hung above us. Not good. After sixteen hours, we were on the face proper, dehydrated and tired. There was no place to rest, just steep ice and monolithic rock walls, so we hacked out a ledge to sit, cook and nap. But it was cold and our ledge started to slide toward the valley, so we soon moved on.

We climbed mostly vertical ice; here and there it was just barely attached to the rock. The ice continued to be hard, and it became too strenuous to put in screws. Our calves were giving out. I looked forward to finishing a pitch on a big ledge where I could rest… but there was no ledge, just hanging belays and harder and harder ice, our crampons rasping, our axes just a few millimeters in.

Desperately thin ice forced me onto a narrow crack that ended somewhere on the snow ridge. The summit itself was so precarious with windblown snow, we didn’t dare both stand on it at once. I belayed Gabo first from ten meters below the top; then he came back, and it was my turn.

It was 3 p.m., June 23. We rappelled our route and arrived at advanced base camp after fifty-four hours, totally exhausted, at the end of Drastissima (ABO: VI 6,1900m).

–Jozef “Dodo” Kopold, Bratislava, Slovakia