I first started using CalTopo to plan my outdoor adventures in 2014, taking mountaineering classes in the PNW Cascades through the Boeing Alpine Club (BOEALPS). I’m delighted to continue to use CalTopo, but now in the Pakistani Karakoram range, charting new routes in the Charakusa this summer. My husband and climbing partner Jeff Wright and I embarked on a mission to K7 to attempt to summit the virgin peak K7 Central for a second time, with the generous help of a CalTopo Grant. The previous year we had made our first attempt on the 6,858m high peak, and nearly reached the summit, turning around 100m from the top. This was our third expedition to Pakistan. In 2020, during our first expedition, Jeff and I made the successful first ascent of the unclimbed peak K6 Central (7,155m) where we got our first glimpse of K7 and were inspired to return to the region. K6 and K7 are next door neighbors in the Charakusa Valley and both have technical terrain on all sides which is why they get climbed very rarely.
Along our climb, we marked waypoints in the CalTopo app (offline) at every bivouac. We then exported our track and waypoints from CalTopo onto Google Earth.
In June 2022, we were surprised to arrive at base camp which had a foot of snow on the ground where we were expecting green meadows. Before departing the nearby town of Skardu (and our last source of Wifi) in July 2023, we wanted to find out what conditions to expect at base camp before we arrived. We used CalTopo’s Live Satellite imagery to preview the conditions of base camp before the hike in. Everything looked nice and dry for our journey into the Charakusa valley this year, and it turned out quite pleasant!
On August 4th, 2023, after climbing for 10 days on K7’s north side, my husband Jeff and I abandoned this year’s attempt to summit the unclimbed K7 Central. We reached as high as the col between K7 Central and K7 Main, at 6536m, 300m from the summit and 200m below our previous attempt’s high point. The snowy weather had never dissipated enough to allow us to dry out, and had left the face of K7 Central covered in ice and snow, whereas the previous year the golden granite cracks had been dry and warm enough to climb bare-handed.
We arrived at base camp in the Charakusa Valley on July 16th, in nearly record breaking time from Seattle. We left Seattle on July 9th, arriving after two flights on Turkish airlines, on July 11th and flying directly to Skardu. From Skardu we drove to the small mountain village of Hushe in 8 slightly bumpy hours on July 13th. After collecting our camp gear off the two jeeps and dividing gear amongst porters and donkeys, we hiked into the Charakusa base camp over three days. We set up base camp, joining Tad McCrea and Tom Livingstone, our Liaison Officer Captain Ibtasam “Sam” and our cooks Ibrahim and Idris who had been our cooks the previous year.
We were feeling well acclimatized and fit, so we took advantage of the spell of good weather and climbed the nearby 6070m peak Sulu to continue to acclimate. We reached the summit on July 19th after three days of climbing, only roping up because of cornices at the top and spending the night near the summit. We arrived back at base camp the next day as bad weather descended.
We had weather updates from our forecaster and our friends, via our inReach device. The weather was supposed to be good for three days, stormy for two, and then a big weather window would open up. We optimistically packed up our bags and headed out to repeat our route from last year, up the North Ridge of K7 in the evening of July 25th.
On the first three days we hiked up and over Kaberi Pass and camped on a moraine below the North Face of K7 to wait out the storm. The “storm” consisted of a couple hours of rain and then snow, but nothing that could be called a storm in places like Patagonia or Waddington. We were frustrated to have waited rather unnecessarily before launching up the beginning of the technical climbing on the route. On July 30th we climbed up the 45-55° snow/ice couloir on the North Ridge of K7 to a good bivy spot that we dug into the ridge at the top. I led the approximately 250m couloir in one long simul pitch. Crossing the short ridge led to the next long couloir. Snow began falling in the afternoon as we dug the platform for our tent.
We began up the 600m grand couloir on the Northeast Face of K7 the next day which started under blue skies and perfect temps. The weather deteriorated in the afternoon, however, with snowfall and deep grey skies. The slopes were 45-65° snow and ice, with one steeper section that climbed at AI4. We continued climbing through the precipitation and bivyed near the top of the couloir as night started to fall after burrowing out a large hole in a patch of soft snow for our tent.
The next day we popped over the North Ridge at the top of the couloir and traversed around crevasses, climbing up deteriorating ice over a bergschrund to reach a flat balcony overlooking the North Face at 6140m. Unfortunately the snow came in as it did every afternoon and visibility dropped so we stopped to bivy again.
We finally reached the K7 Glacier at 6,400m on the ninth day away from base camp although we had only been technically climbing for four days. Snow continued to fall every afternoon, vanishing the peaks of K7 Central, Main and West in a shroud of clouds and mist.
We trudged our way through the snow to the base of the col between Main and Central as we had the previous year, and out of the mist the rocky tower of K7 Central appeared, blasted with ice and snow. Our Base Camp mates (Tad McCrea and Tom Livingstone) emerged unexpectedly in one of the most improbable places on Earth. During our 2022 expedition, we were likely the first people to ever reach the K7 Glacier, a high altitude desolate hanging glacier perched at 6,400m and guarded on all sides by steep, technical walls. Now we were again on this wide, deserted, improbable landscape, staring up at the final ice step to the Col between K7 Main and Central, that we had climbed last year.
In an effort to salvage the trip and complete the route despite the terrible conditions, we quickly changed objectives and headed up a different slope to try to reach K7 Main instead. It would be a less noteworthy, but still valiant accomplishment to make the Main summit instead of the virgin summit of Central. However terrible snow and avalanche conditions turned us around on our bid for K7 Main and we retraced our steps up to the col below K7 Central.
We descended 30m and camped in the bergschrund below the col, underneath the upper bivouac site that we used last year, now occupied by Tom and Tad. Minimal snow and ice fell on us during the night. We were tired from our efforts, and the Central tower was covered in unprotectable ice and snow where we were climbing beautiful cracks bare-handed the previous year. Climbing to K7 Main or K7 Central was too dangerous, unprotectable and risky in these conditions. The combination of all of the factors caused us to make the painful choice to bail and descend the Central Couloir on the south face of K7 the next day.
The descent down the Central Couloir went very smoothly. It seemed less dangerous than last year and we retreated quickly and easily leaving behind only a couple of slings when our V-Threads began to get too sticky in the warmer temperatures. We reached base camp on August 5th and started packing up to return home.
We departed Islamabad on August 11th and returned to Seattle the same day. Thank you so much to CalTopo for supporting our exploration and for the Pro subscription to the CalTopo app, which was very useful during the whole trip, and I’d recommend it to everyone.