South Africans take Trango Tower

29 August 2005

Four South African climbers have overcome treacherous conditions to reach the top of the sheer Trango Tower rock formation in Pakistan.

Peter Lazarus (42), Marianne Pretorius (28), James Pitman (36) and Andreas Kiefer (33) summitted the tower on Sunday 21 August. Pretorius is the third woman in the world to reach the top of Trango.

The Trango Tower lies on the Boltoro Glacier in the Karakoram mountain range of Pakistan. At an altitude of 6 250 metres and 1 200 metres high, the “Nameless Tower” first attracted the attention of legendary British hard man Joe Brown during an expedition to central Karakoram in 1956.

It took 20 years before Brown, Martin Boysen, Mo Anthoine and Malcolm Howells successfully climbed the needle-like feature by its southwest face.

Trango now has eight different routes to the summit. The South African team climbed the Slovenian route.

Snowstorms almost forced them to abandon the climb just metres from the top on the day of the summit, according to the Sunday Times. In their final hurdle, they had to ice-climb an overhanging snow mushroom which was collapsing under their efforts.

“We spent about six hours on the ridge in snowstorms and were all hanging off one belay stance,” Pretorius told the Sunday Times.

The summit day dawned overcast after heavy snow the previous day, which had interrupted the team’s ascent. It was snowing again by the time Lazarus, the team leader, and Pretorius had ascended 600 metres of ropes.

From the top of the ropes, Lazarus led the way up an iced crack along a narrow ridge to within about 15 metres of the summit. Pretorius, Kiefer and Pitman joined him there in driving snow at lunchtime. Lazarus then edged forward along a rock band to below the mushroom.

About 8m short of the summit, Kiefer took over the lead.

“Crossing the rock band, Andreas [Kiefer] commented wryly: ‘This is the scariest climbing I’ve ever done,'” Pitman says on the Trango team’s website.

“Which, in Andreas’s case, means it’s scary!

“Hacking at the ice mushroom, it became clear to Andreas that it consisted of semi-consolidated snow – impossible to find purchase on and impossible to punch through,” Pitman says.

‘At the top, shouting obscenities’
Unwilling to give up so close to the summit, the team considered their alternatives. It was about 4pm Pakistan time.

“The snow eased off a little, the sun trying to push its way through,” says Pitman. “To turn back, only metres short, or give it a final shot, that was the question.”

Pitman – “the only one without a down jacket” – was willing to take a chance on a route that Kiefer had seen from the mushroom. He set out across horizontal cracks in the rock below the mushroom, towards a vertical crack on the northwest face.

“Half an hour later, having delicately traversed out left, past the first vertical crack (it proved too flaring), to a second crack on the west face, I was at the top, shouting obscenities from the kitchen-table-sized summit,” says Pitman.

Pitman then dropped a rope down for Pretorius, Lazarus and Kiefer to climb to the top.

“It was the smallest summit I have ever been on,” Pretorius told the Sunday Times. “It was an awesome point.”

Says Pitman: “To the north the head of the Dunge Glacier was a chaotic jumble of ice seracs, K2 and Broad Peak were in thin cloud to the east, Great Trango looked uncharacteristically humble to the south, and the beautiful Uli Biaho, Shipton Spire and peerless Cat’s Ears suddenly seemed eminently more climbable to the west.”

Their celebration was brief. With head torches they went down the ropes in the dark for about five hours, before reaching a camp on the shoulder.

Portaledges set up on the shoulder

Portaledges set up on the shoulder. (Photo copyright Team Trango)

On Monday, after a few hours’ sleep, the team began to clean the mountain of debris.

“For 14 hours we stripped her of her bondage – our portaledges, gear and ropes, but equally, the gas bottles, pollution and especially hundreds of metres of tattered lines carelessly left by past parties,” says Pitman.

Lazarus and Pitman worked past the last light, staggering into base camp late on Tuesday night.

“Our guide Amjad had arranged a great welcome party with flags, necklaces, hot food, cake, whisky and song,” Pitman relates. “For two emotional hours we celebrated like a close family before literally crashing into our tents, twisted and broken, but somehow deeply complete.”

For team leader Lazarus it was about more than just the mountain: “Although getting to the top of Nameless Tower was the ostensible objective of this expedition, for me its real objective was to experience these mountains and return home safely. Summitting was the cherry on the top, but what a cherry it turned out to be!”

The base camp celebration

“For two emotional hours we celebrated like a close family before literally crashing into our tents, twisted and broken, but somehow deeply complete.” (Photo copyright Team Trango)

The Trango team
Team leader Peter “Lobster” Lazarus has been climbing for over 22 years, starting out as a student at Wits University. While still at Wits he established Skyriders, the first rope-access company in South Africa – and now the largest such company in the country.

Lazarus discovered and opened the first routes at the world-renowned Restaurant (at the End of the Universe) Crag at Waterval Boven in Mpumalange, the Chosspile near Hartebeespoort Dam in North West, and the New Slatesman in Broederstroom.

He has climbed extensively in South Africa, other parts of Africa, the US, Canada, France, the UK, Spain and Thailand. He is an advocate specialising in environmental and mining law.

Marianne Pretorius is South Africa’s most experienced and well-known female big wall climber. In early 2004 she became the first woman to scale the imposing east face of the Central Torres del Paine in the Chilean Patagonia. In February 2005 she successfully ascended Cerro Torre, also in Patagonia, via the famous Compressor route.

A photographer by trade, Pretorius has climbed in the US, Wales, France and Spain. In 2004 she was the lead climber in the first, and to date only, all-female ascent of the north wall of Blouberg in Limpopo.

After Trango she plans to climb the towering and as yet unexplored rock faces of the Queen Maud Land area of Antarctica.

James Pitman is a relative newcomer to rock-climbing, having only started in 2001. He is an avid sportsman – cycling, canoeing, playing ball-sports and participating in anything else that crosses his path. Pitman is a corporate lawyer in a Johannesburg law firm and farms Nguni cows in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

Pitman has climbed the Blouberg massif, the Klein Winterhoek (“Oceans of Fear”) in the Magaliesberg and at most of SA’s popular sites. In May 2005 he accompanied Peter Lazarus to Yosemite in the US for training on the granite wall of El Capitan.

With his mother a prominent member of the Mountain Club of South Africa, Andreas Kiefer became member at the age of 12.

Kiefer has climbed most of the major peaks in the Drakensberg, as well as in the Magaliesberg, Blouberg and elsewhere in the country. A recent effort was climbing the Devil’s Tooth in the Drakensburg – from Johannesburg and back in just under 22 hours.

He has climbed the Fitzroy region of Patagonia, Cerro Torre glacier, Paine areas and Tierra del Fuego. In 1996 Kiefer was in the Karakoram on a technical trekking trip from Hushe over the Gondongoro La to Concordia, K2 base camp and back down the Baltoro Glacier, past Trango Tower and on to Askole.

Kiefer’s previous international excursion was to Peru in 2003, where he climbed Urus, Ishinca and Alpamayo. reporter