The accomplished French alpinists Aymeric Clouet, Christian Trommsdorff and Patrick Wagnon are currently returning to Skardu, seemingly having abandoned their goal of a new route, alpine-style, on the legendary west face of Gasherbrum IV.
Poor weather in the Karakoram and an accident to Wagnon, who they hope can be evacuated by helicopter from the upper Baltoro Glacier, have led to the decision.
Accompanied by the Austrian guide Lisi Steurer, the three began trekking up the Baltoro in mid May and a few days later arrived at Shipton base camp, on the west side of the Trango Group, where they planned to carry out acclimatization climbs.
Close to base camp Clouet, Steurer and Wagnon warmed up with a nice rock route. They found bolts on the first pitch but nothing higher, added a further seven pitches without bolts.
After a period of bad weather, all four skied up the Trango Glacier to the Sarpo Laggo Pass (5,704m), crossed in 1937 by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman to reach the Sarpo Laggo Glacier and thence the north side of K2 and Shaksgam River.
From a camp on the col they made an exhausting 12-hour climb along the ridge northwest, through deep snow, to the summit Sarpo Laggo Peak (6,208m).
To aid acclimatization, they camped the night just below the summit cornice and descended the following day.
Although the original plan had been to climb a major rock route on either Shipton Spire, Uli Biaho, or the Trango towers, heavy snow conditions made these options too dangerous. Instead, with the forecast offering only a short weather window, they decided to make a lightweight attempt on Trango I (aka Trango Ri, 6,363m), the highest of the Trango peaks.
In a 14-hour push they climbed the west face from base camp to a foresummit at ca 6,100m, where Steurer stopped to melt water for drinks, while the other three continued towards the main summit. However, after one hour of increasingly difficult climbing, they realized they were running out of daylight and retreated.
They all made a "lightweight" bivouac at the foresummit in temperatures down to -21°C, before descending the following morning.
Steurer now left for home, while the other three continued to the Gasherbrum Group.
Once established at base camp, after more bad weather and a forecast for it to remain unstable, it was obvious that the big faces, particularly the so-called Shining Wall - the west face of Gasherbrum IV (7,925m), were far too heavily laden for any serious attempts. Instead the three opted for an attempt on Gasherbrum V (7,147m), which has no recorded ascent.
In 1978 Japanese reached the east summit (7,006m) before the leader died in a fall. An attempt by French two years later was also unsuccessful. In 2010 Koreans attempted the west face, reaching 6,550m before forced down by bad weather.
A predicted small weather window allowed Clouet, Trommsdorff and Wagnon to make an attempt on the south pillar. They reached 6,700m before deciding snow conditions, and an approaching unstable air mass, made it too dangerous to continue.
In order to minimize risk, they descended during the night. However, at 6,000m, with Trommsdorff at a anchor, and Clouet and Wagnon, having already gone down, trying to install another, the team was hit by an avalanche, which swept Clouet and Wagnon 15m down the face before they were held on the ropes.
Clouet was shaken but fine, whereas Wagnon was in great pain with a bad strain or possibly fracture to an ankle.
They made a difficult rappel descent of the remaining 1,000m before reaching safety.