Skam La: First descents in remote Pakistan

Skam La: First descents in remote Pakistan

In this exclusive story, you’ll find excerpts from the intimate travel diaries written during an incredible freeride expedition into the heart of the Karakoram Range, Pakistan. These photos, shot on medium format film, paint the picture of the grueling journey. It entailed the search for one of the most beautiful mountains to ski on the planet, standing at 5,880 meters tall—the Biacherahi North Tower. It was an adventure so remote, so high, so committed that no mistakes were allowed. During five weeks, the crew went deep inside Pakistan while traveling along a 150-kilometer loop in complete autonomy, pulling sleds filled with food, tents and solar panels across gigantic glaciers. It was as far from home as one can get. It was a meeting point of freeriding and mountaineering—a true adventure. Their journey is also documented in a movie by Picture Organic Clothing and Almo Film called Zabardast, now available online.

Clockwise from top left: Zak Mills (Snowboarder, USA), Thomas Delfino (Snowboarder, FRA), Léo Taillefer (Skier, FRA), Hélias Millérioux (Mountaineer, FRA), Pierre Fréchou (Cameraman, FRA), Julien Nadiras (Cameraman, FRA), Jérôme Tanon (Photographer, Film Director, FRA), Yannick Graziani (Mountaineer, FRA).

Jérôme:

April 8, 2018

The famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) from Islamabad—a 35-hour bus drive to Skardu. It used to be one of the silk roads, nowadays it’s the only way to China from here. The road is a mess. I have a heavy headache. I gotta sleep, but sitting next to me is Yannick, who is telling me about his climb on the south face of Annapurna, and his friend almost dying in his arms. I listen carefully, bathed in the smells of spices and diesel, and with an interior smile I realize: “Yep, this trip is gonna be even crazier than all.” Pakistan. A new country to explore, a new language to learn: Urdu. We went through Abbottabad, the town Bin Laden was hiding at. I’ll use my bag of photo film as a pillow. Shab bakhair… Good night.

Thomas:

April 10, 2018 / 2,200m / Skardu

The scale indicates 360 kilograms of gear that we will split between the eight of us. Here we are, in Skardu, packing the bags with all that we will need up there: pulka sleds, gas tanks to melt snow, solar panels, splitboards and skis, ropes, tents, sleeping bags, mats, freeze-dried foods, ham and cheese, biscuits and such. We have to be the lightest possible. Yannick, who came 15 times to Pakistan already, keeps repeating it. Tomorrow we shall reach Askole, the end of the road, the last village.

Jérôme:

The jeep driver teaches me more Urdu for my notebook of local slang.

  • Wa baraka tu: may luck be with you.
  • Safar bakher: safe travels.
  • Allah khosh rake: may God keep you happy.
  • Yemeri duwahe: I am praying for you.

The trail up to Askole ends with the canyon of death. I take back everything I said about the KKH: now it’s the real deal; truly sketchy. Between rockfalls and constant landslides, we are all holding to our seats in fear.

Jérôme:

April 11, 2018 / 2,900 meters

We have finally met up with the porters. They’ll start the trek with us, but then we’ll engage ourselves in a 150-kilometer loop across the glaciers on our own. The high point being the mandatory Skam La Pass, at 5,600 meters. Nobody ever went there for freeriding. Indeed, the true objective of the expedition is the Biacherahi North Tower. Located at the very end of a quite unknown glacier, it’s a shark fin-shaped face that Thomas had scoped in a book at the library. Vertical. Never skied. No recent picture or precise information. Since that day, he only dreams of snowboarding down its spines. When he realized his friend Zak had the same idea, he set up the expedition. And now, here we are. The Karakoram. All because of a random picture in an old book.

Léo:

April 13, 2018 / 3,350 meters

Crossing the torrent. The sky is beautiful and pointy summits keep popping up everywhere as we hike up. We are crossing varying terrain, from sand dunes to rock fields. The mules keep impressing me, precise footing with heavy loads. A landslide forces us to cross the river twice. The porters and their mules get to the other side in 30 seconds, when it takes 15 minutes for us fragile Frenchies. I maneuver on slippery stones as the water level gets dangerously close to my balls. The thermal shock is huge. As I turn back, I see Thomas crossing himself, in his underwear and explorer’s hat looking like a complete tourist.

Jérôme:

April 15, 2018 / 4,060 meters

Tension keeps building up as we approach the point where the porters will leave us. My partners discuss logistics. I already like them all. Thomas, who gets overhyped by the sight of a new peak, or even a small crystal in a stone; Léo who cracks us up with his cheeky play-on-words and who films everything with his GoPro; Zak from California, keeping American traditions with his secret bag of snacks and listening to loud music while trekking; there are our two devoted cameramen Pierre and Julien, and then there is Hélias and Yannick who are having endless debates about Chamonix guide gossips; Yannick, who already has four 8,000-plus meter summits under his belt, gets mad at every non-vital object that we carry up; Hélias, the young mountaineering genius with his funny girl stories and the thickest French accent ever heard on Earth. We form one funky band of idiots.

Thomas:

The sun sets on our first solo camp on the Nobande Sobande Glacier. At the very end of this one stands the Biacherahi Tower and Skam La. This morning the porters pushed up at 4,300 meters, where our sleds can actually slide, before turning around with a big smile. They had never been this far out here. Since we are not on the way to an 8,000-plus-meter peak, this place is vastly unknown. Jérôme gave around good tips and used his Urdu words for goodbyes. We had to unpack and repack once more to fill up the sleds: they are so heavy. We are now on our own.

Yannick:

April 17, 2018 / 4,830 meters

We have entered the storm and we can’t move. We rest. What a pleasure to be here, with seven persons I am getting to know. Here all is wild and untouched. We are beasts. I like these young lads, I am glad to share this moment with them. They are trying something new, it’s wonderful.

Jérôme:

April 18, 2018 / 4,830 meters

We are still stuck in this intense blizzard. It is supposed to snow 150 centimeters in four days! I seem to stack symptoms of altitude sickness. Headaches, nausea, coughing, sleep loss and appetite loss. I am advised to stay calm until I get acclimated. The GPS tells us we are only three tiny kilometers from the bottom of the first faces. So close, yet so far in this weather. Are we gonna go crazy in these tents?

Léo:

April 20, 2018 / 5,020 meters

I wake up at 5:20 a.m. Outside the storm is still raging, but we have to move the camp. No one is down but we got to do it. Tomorrow good weather is in the forecast. The entrance of my igloo is filled with snow to the roof, and the guys’ tents are even worse. Hélias ropes up three of us behind him and goes ahead. My sled feels heavy. I keep pulling my burden in-between the crevasses in the complete white room. I am exhausted. Around 16:00 it’s time to set the camp. We navigate with the GPS, trusting it since we can’t see. I begin digging a new igloo but at 5,000 meters it’s another story. Tom and Hélias join me when I begin to get weaker. My feet are frozen, we are out of water and I feel too lazy to cook. Zak gave me a cup of tea and a piece of his freeze-dried meal. Five days of bluebird are supposed to come. I fall asleep.

Léo:

April 22, 2018 / 5,020 meters

5:00 a.m. -25°C. Bluebird! I’m excited for the first day of ski. We aim at a spine-wall topped by two big towery rocks. The wall is more difficult than expected, during 30 minutes our two mountaineers struggle in an icy gully. The spines are too loaded.

Thomas:

Three hours of battle for only 300 meters of elevation. We finally get on top to the left of the two towers. At the summit there is barely enough room for everybody, so Zak, who arrived last, will drop first. We all rest and soak in the incredible view from up here. I could stay here for hours, but the cameramen are ready. Zak takes time to get ready. I think he feels the pressure of going first. He drops. He disappears behind the first spine and we wait. The sluff arrives at the bottom, carrying Zak and his two big red balloons on the back. He triggered his airbag! He must be shocked. He is OK though. More fear than injury. The drone is still up so I’ve got to drop quick. Yannick reassures me. I ask him to be quiet. I need to focus. I take a deep breath and 3, 2, 1, drop in.

Léo:

April 23, 2018 / 5,020 meters

Everybody needs a deep rest after yesterday’s line. Today, we make a plan for the next days: the weather window to pass the Skam La is getting shorter; we decide to go for the Biacherahi Tower tomorrow. We go straight at the fat mama. We’re all in bed at 18:30. I reflect on what Zak told me: “Biacherahi is for gangsters only.” I don’t know if I am a gangster. Butterflies in the stomach, I keep my water bottle against me so it doesn’t freeze and I say to myself to fall asleep: “It’s gonna be alright.”

Zak:

April 24, 2018

At 7:00 a.m. Thomas, Léo, Yannick, Hélias and I started hiking from our camp. We walked through an improbable passage between two giant ice cliffs and found ourselves on the bench directly under the Biacherahi spine wall. We were now exposed to cornices with ice cliffs underneath us. I felt uneasy about crossing those slopes in the sun but it was still the safest way up. We spaced out and hiked until we reached the relative safety of a giant cornice spreading the length of the Biacherahi col. Several thousands of pounds of snow and ice were suspended above our heads with the appearance of a breaking wave. We [put crampons on] and booted up the right side and finally reached the col. As we hiked across the flat col we heard a big settlement as a huge chunk of the cornice we had just surfed underneath collapsed right on our skin track. Definitely scary! We started up the last few hundred meters of the shoulder, which was severely corniced on climber’s left and had a wind slab on climber’s right. The slope was at least 40 degrees and got closer to 70 at the top. The fall line of the slope was an abyss of rock and ice for a thousand meters all the way down to the Choktoi Glacier. An avalanche here would be catastrophic. At this point, the rope only ensured that we would all meet the same fate in the event of a slide.

Jérôme:

At this point Thomas made the decision to turn around. He didn’t feel like risking his life on the flip of a coin. He had been dreaming about the Biacherahi for three years! He found himself at the col, alone with his decision, while the others kept ascending.

Zak:

As Thomas began to climb down, Léo and I made the difficult choice to continue, trusting the experience of Yannick and Hélias and hoping that the slope would become safe again soon. After 20 minutes of scary and exposed snow climbing we were tied back to the rope with a couple of ice screws between the four of us.

We all stood on the summit at 3:30 in the afternoon, much later than expected, and soaked in the view from 5,880 meters. Baintha Brakk I and II, the whole Nobande Sobande stretching north to China, across the Latok and Choktoï group up to K2 and Broad Peak standing proud above everything. It was a view none of us will ever forget. The next challenge was to traverse the summit ridge all the way to the entrance of the spines since it was too icy and exposed from the summit. The steep ridge we walked on was only 10 to 15 feet wide with dangerous cornices on the left and a 1,500-foot vertical cliff on the right. Léo and Hélias felt good about skiing from the top so while they got ready Yannick and I down-climbed to the entrance of the face. The skiers went down slowly, un-roped, above the abyss. We did a short rappel from there to the top of the spines. Léo was kind enough to offer the first track to me. As I got ready to drop in, Hélias reminded me one more time, “no freeriding.” With my ice tool firmly in hand I began to work my way down the spine.

Jérôme:

After Zak’s first descent, it was Léo’s turn to drop. One must remember that where we were, a simple torn ankle meant game over: expedition canceled, 10 days of struggle for your friends to pull you on a sled back to Askole. However, instead of going down safely, Léo went mental: in complete control, he charged like a madman, between ice gullies and his sluff, and in five turns was at the bottom. I couldn’t believe my eyes, hidden behind the lens of the Pentax, my heart going as fast as Léo’s.

Léo:

April 25, 2018 / 5,430 meters

I still can’t believe what I skied yesterday. I feel disoriented. I put my life inside Hélias and Yannick’s hands and I still don’t understand why. Why didn’t I turn around when we were un-roped on a wind slab? You fall you die. The opposite of my vision of skiing. Tom made the other choice. It was his face, he was so close from the top and turned around. To take this decision makes him a hero in my eyes. A guy who loves life. Respect.

Thomas:

It wasn’t worth it. On top of the guides hesitating, the avalanche waiting to trigger was definitely too risky for me. My limit was there. What I want now is to pass the Skam La, complete the loop, discover Snow Lake and walk on the Biafo. We have six days left. It’s not much and I’m gonna have to convince the rest of the crew. But for me, it’s worth the risk. Who knows how it will look like on the other side?

Zak:

April 26, 2018

Today we became the fourth group to ever pass the Skam La on skis, which feels good considering what a huge effort it was. Yannick is a hell of a mountain cowboy. It took three 60-meter ropes to get the load down the gnarly west side while the weather turned for the worse. In the midst of all this chaos it was a huge relief to know it was all downhill from here back to Askole. Pulling the sleds will be much easier with gravity on our side.

Jérôme:

April 28, 2018

Snow Lake—the place where all the glaciers come together. Rising in front of us, the incredibly vertical Solu Towers. Thomas is having a bad moment. He is sensitive, edgy. His U-turn at the Biacherahi has more impact on his morale than what he pretends… The only thing that will cure him is to strap on his board again.

Léo:

April 29, 2018 / 4,400 meters

17th day of expedition. 10:30 a.m. we begin to climb one of three beautiful, steep ramps. Tom and Zak take right with Hélias, I take left with Yannick. On top we had a diving view on the boys’ slope: it seems very steep to me. Hélias is belaying Thomas in a 55-degree ice wall. Now that’s the Thomas I used to know! He has found the light again. But it’s my turn to ski first. The line is clear in my head. I glance at the view while the drone makes its way up. Yannick says, “don’t go too crazy.” I’m focused. I don’t listen and drop.

Jérôme:

April 30, 2018

Head porter Salman Ali appeared in the back, followed by four Balti porters and their famous mules. How did they spot us? Warm hugs with the locals, who are just as surprised and happy to be here, safe and sound. We load up the mules and begin walking down towards Askole. At night we set up a basic camp by the moraine. The Baltis make a fire, hot tea and chapatis. They sang many songs of their valleys. The fire was crackling. Their voices evaporated in the dying of the light. We are exhausted. We have nothing. We have everything.

Jérôme:

The comeback of Thomas on the last line of the trip! Unbelievable. In Urdu they have a word for this: “Zabardast.” Wonderful. He carved through the slope with huge Zs without a stop. His gigantic smile was back for the epilogue of our expedition. The sky is blue, it’s warm, joy is in the air. We are late for the rendezvous with the porters. We pull our sleds all evening under a rising full moon. Not knowing how to find them in this desert of ice, we push as far as possible downwards, hoping they’ll spot us.

Thomas:

Ghur’s ramps
. Attracted like magnets to a wall of vertical snow, Hélias, Zak and myself ascend the mountain. It’s 11:00 a.m. when we crampon up. Hélias takes the lead, we progress swiftly but that slope seems infinite. On the glacier Pierre and Jérôme are the size of ants. It gets steeper, though I am not afraid. I feel great. Finally a face I really want to ride! We find ourselves topping this jewel. I look at what’s under my board. It’s giant, it’s mega steep and icy but we love it. Because of the ice Hélias insists on keeping the rope for the first few turns. Great idea, I don’t wanna slide in the roller coaster of death. I try the slope with a bunch of jump turns. It’s so steep, but the snow is great and I’m feeling in shape. I let go of the rope.

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