Taunted by the Sun: An attempt on the North Face of the Ogre

Hunkered down in a snow storm, in his tent, at a base camp in Pakistan, Jesse Mease shares his story of a close-call he had on his attempt to climb the North Face of the Orge. This trip was supported by Edelweiss Ropes.

After nearly 3 weeks of acclimating on the Choktoi Glacier in the beautiful Karakoram Range of Pakistan, 2 friends and I decided to give an effort at the untouched North Face of the Ogre. At 3:30 my alarm went off blaring Metallica and we began the 9-hour snow slog over the Sim La pass to Snow Lake and the base of the Majestic North Face. We arrived and set up an advanced camp to wait out the blazing midday sun. Weather reports showed that we had an estimated 2-day weather window to get this thing done.

Psyche was high as we racked and packed for the morning. We waited as avalanches ripped down everywhere, right and left of our line. Wet slides, spindrift, dry slides and seracs. It seemed as though nothing was safe, but our line remained untouched.  With 3 stacked in the tent and the anticipation rising, no one managed to sleep. I caught a few fitful naps before the alarm was buzzing us all back to the realization that we would finally be climbing what we came for. I was tired, burnt from hours of glacial sun, but psyched to be in the moment. Months of training and planning and we were finally living in the present. With a cup of coffee and some Metallica I realized that there was no place I’d rather be and nothing I’d rather be doing.

With packs loaded, we took off. The snow hadn’t had time to refreeze so I was in it to my knees for an hour until we reached the avalanche debris and began to ascend. We climbed 50 degree snow with varied degrees of stability and conditions. As the hours of darkness passed the steepness increased and we began to see the silhouette of our route. As the sun crested the nearby ridge line, we were glad to have the serac danger behind us. We began a long traverse under a large rock band that set us up for the first technical section of the route.

We traversed a section of roughly AI3 ice that led us toward the base of a 900 meter ice gully. This gully was going to lead us to our first proposed high camp. The climbing was mellow and we stopped to wait on our third to reach us while debating whether to rope up or continue on solo. As we waited, Bruce built an anchor and I kicked a stance into a snow flute. Having a few moments to take in the view, I pulled out the camera and snapped some photos of the amazing place we found ourselves. I put the camera back in its case and looked up....

“FU@#!” A large avalanche was ripping off the summit 1600 meters above and coming directly for us. The slide was coming down our proposed “safe” line.  I had time to yell at my partners and dig deeper into the flute I was on. I looked up again to see a white wall about to engulf me.  “Fu@#” was my immediate thought. Is this going to blow me 600 meters off this cliff? I ducked my head into the hole I had dug and gripped my axes with all my strength.

Snow filled my jacket as I had forgotten in the rush to put my hood up. I stayed ducked into my hole for what seemed like a tumultuous amount of time (likely only a few moments) as snow rushed over.  Possibly a minute later I raised my head--still in spindrift but safe--to see that the rock band above us had split the avalanche in two, sending the more powerful portions of the slide to my immediate right and a little ways to our left. We watched snow rush by on both sides for another few minutes before yelling amongst ourselves confirming that we were all safe.

All safe, we exchanged some bewildered and somewhat callous jokes before facing the obvious but difficult choice to bail. The exact reasons for bailing remain between my partners and I, though the circumstances all pointed to bailing with hopes of climbing another day.

With the decision made, we began to descend. The sun was up, so the descent was threatened by warming temps and the threat of slides.  We moved quickly until we got back to the safety of Snow Lake. Defeated and with heads down we walked back to our bivy site. We dug out our cache, brewed up, ate a ProBar and packed our bags for the long, sad walk to base camp.

One of the reasons we bailed was the forecast that showed 2 days of snow that would threaten our route. To our dismay the whole day was passed with sun and splitter weather. We sat around second guessing our decision. If we’d continued we’d be brewing up at 6600 meters. “WTF?” “Did we make the wrong call?”

We awoke the next day to more sun. We had coffee and more time for more second guessing. The sun burned bright and good weather burned into my skin and my mind. As thoughts flew through my brain, the sun continued to cruelly taunt us.  Near dinnertime, clouds began to loom, weather deteriorated and my mind eased. Maybe we hadn’t made the wrong call. At 11pm it began to storm and the largest avalanche I’ve ever heard exploded like an earthquake. I drifted to sleep knowing that we had, in fact, made the right call.

Today was spent passing the time with a lot of Pakistani tea and disappointment. But, now, as I sip my tea, I can’t help but manage a smirk that almost becomes a smile. Even in failure, I am living my dream, and I can only hope the same for others.
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