Tailwind in the peaks of Pakistan
By Allen Stoltzfus
After getting back from a wild month and a half climbing and skiing trip to Pakistan with my good friend James, I found myself wondering why I felt so tired and “over" climbing. This expedition had been preceded by a flurry of grueling expeditions, both long and short, from Colorado to Washington to Alaska, spanning the better part of six months. A good way to explain is to start with a short, “informal” definition of the types of fun:
OK, now that we are all on the same page, let’s dive in. I have found that I have a rather unfortunate affinity for fun that firmly sits in the Type 2 category, and even occasionally the Type 3 category. I can’t tell you how many times I have cursed at myself in the middle of some harebrained adventure that somehow spiraled into an out-of-control suffer-fest. I tell myself that this is it; when I get back to the safety of civilization I will pick up baking, maybe read more, or spend time just relaxing with friends. What the hell, maybe knitting could be fun...?
But I get home, and before I know what’s happening, I’m researching the next wild thing and am calling a friend, trying to convince them to join me. It’s this weird, never-ending cycle: love it, hate it, dream it, love it, hate it, on and on and on. Sometimes it is delayed, but the desire to hurt and hate my life always comes back.
Once, after an especially challenging 18-month motorcycle trip, I thought I was done. I did absolutely nothing even remotely approaching Type 2 fun for at least half a year, but then slowly but surely I was back, gasping for air, willing myself up a steep mountain pass at the Leadville Trail Marathon, and it all went downhill from there.
This might be complaining, or maybe this is just my way of saying that part of me wishes I would be content with keeping things firmly in the Type 1 zone, but in reality, I think I am just using words to attempt to explain (mainly to myself) why I do what I do.
Let me tell you about my most recent endeavor into the “Fun Zones.”
Hushe Valley and Laila Peak, Pakistan.
July 9th, 2021
Feeling myself about to vomit, I stumbled out of my tent. Everything started to spin as I collapsed to my knees, driving my face straight into the ground. “Wow”, I thought, “This is way too soon into an expedition to be regretting everything and wishing I was back in the comforts of normal life.” I had just spent the last six hours dispelling all my fluids out both ends of my body, and I genuinely thought I was going to have to be taken to the closest hospital and put on an IV.
James and I were deep in the Hushe Valley in Pakistan, about to start the three-day trek into Laila Peak basecamp. It had taken 10 days of travel to get there: cancelled flights, multi-day layovers, three days of driving wild roads, and general gear chaos–all the ingredients of a proper expedition. We had put quite a lot of effort into getting to this point, yet we were nowhere close to the actual mountain. I feared it might be over before it began.
Our cook, Nadir, helped me to my feet, gave me warm water to sip, and massaged my stomach. James dug out our bag of Tailwind Nutrition, and mixed up a Nalgene of it. I slowly sipped as much as I could. Tailwind was just about the only thing I could easily keep in my body for the next two weeks as we made our attempt on Laila Peak.
The next morning I woke up feeling surprisingly better off. Not really better, but good enough to trudge up the trail with a light pack. Six days later we were at high camp, staring up at the face of Laila, extremely excited, but with that gnawing apprehension you get before a climb. I remember laying in the tent at 8:00 PM, thinking I should be falling asleep but way too wired to actually fall asleep. I ended up listening to music for the next few hours, endless thoughts bouncing around my head.
Just like that, it was 3:00 AM, and my alarm was ringing. I was still low on energy, but was slowly recovering from my bout with food poisoning. Food was mostly unappealing and I was subsiding on a diet of mainly Tailwind Endurance Fuel with the occasional bar or Mountain House meal. We packed up our gear, drained our cups of coffee, and set off towards the face.
We made our way up moderate terrain for about two hours before the slope steepened and we found ourselves soloing up 45-degree snow. We had originally hoped to ski down the face from the summit, but it turns out we were about three months too late and the face was in no condition for a ski descent. So, James and I climbed up in our splitboard and ski boots respectively, sans splitboard and skis. We plodded up; crampon, crampon, axe, axe–repeat. Five hundred feet of climbing. Rest. Five hundred more feet. Rest. The 500-foot blocks took longer and longer while the rests also stretched out. We were now at 18,000 feet, and oxygen was hard to come by.
Then we ran into some problems: James’ crampons were not staying securely on his boots. Splitboard boots have challenging crampon compatibility, and as the slope steepened to patches of 60-degree ice, we were getting into terrain that required exact placement, and a slip could prove deadly. We dug a ledge, rested, and talked out our game plan. We were confident we could push to the summit and likely return safely, but downclimbing 5,000 feet of steep snow and ice in faulty gear was not smart, so we decided to make the hard, but likely wise, move and turn around. We had left our climbing boots back in Skardu, assuming that we would be skiing the face. Hindsight is always 20/20, but we should have brought our climbing boots for just this situation.
We took our time at this ledge and surveyed the absolutely incredible surroundings. K2 rose up off in the distance and provided a clear reminder of why it is called “The Savage Mountain:” steep sides dropped from the summit all around, and it towered above the surrounding mountains. The morning was clear and calm, and we could see deep into the Karakoram Range. I unpacked the drone and James captured some stunning video footage from our perch halfway up the face of Laila.
Spantik Peak, Pakistan.
We may not have summited Laila, but we had a rewarding, albeit challenging experience, and exactly two weeks later, we stood at 7,000 meters (22,965 ft.) on the summit of Spantik Peak. I clicked into my skis, leaned into the 50 mph wind, and slid my way down off the summit ice block, down 2,000 feet of windblown snow, and finally to buttery turns leading back to our high camp. James was right behind me. We were ecstatic, but also absolutely blasted; utterly and completely wasted. I honestly forgot how worked I felt until I watched a video I took right after we got back to high camp. I could barely speak, I was so tired and cold.
Type 2 and Type 3 Fun have their limits
So where was I going with all of this “types of fun” gibberish at the beginning? This Fun Scale can only be properly viewed retrospectively, and James and I got back to the States two weeks after our Spantik summit and realized that maybe we needed to take a break. We had an incredible experience, but we needed to rest. I felt tired and no longer enthralled with the idea of planning and going on another expedition.
While there were many Type 2 moments; gasping for air at 22,000 feet, reading yet another book while waiting out bad weather, days of driving over bumpy roads in decades-old Toyotas, or trying to eat spicy Pakistani food with sunburned lips, there was the instant gratification of thrilling ski descents and stunning views of the Karakoram mountain range. But, there were also many Type 3 moments. Those were a little more nuanced, but included food poisoning, countless cancelled flights due to COVID, logistical mishaps, days of lying in a tent, waiting, waiting and more waiting, and general exhaustion.
James and I joked after getting back to the States that we were retiring from climbing. And while that is, most likely, an exaggeration, it is how I feel right now. I started making a lot of waffles, I baked a decent loaf of bread the other day, I’ve spent time relaxing with friends, and life is good. I am content with keeping things in the Type 1 zone, at least for now...