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Copp-Dash Inspired: Whitney Clark’s Himalayan Exploration

Friday, December 23, 2016
At Black Diamond, we’re passionate about empowering climbers to not only push their limits in the mountains, but to also share their stories of inspiration when they come home. That’s why we sponsor the Copp-Dash Inspire Award. Established in the memory of Jonny Copp and Micah Dash—two leading alpinists, BD brothers and storytellers who lost their lives in the mountains in 2009—the award is a way to keep their vision alive. Whitney Clark and Crystal Davis-Robbins had an inspiring vision to explore a remote region in the Indian Himalayas and establish first ascents on 6,000-meter peaks. This is their story.

Crystal and I recently returned from Kishtwar, a region of the Indian Himalaya with a tumultuous past. Fighting between Indian separatists and Pakistani militants had closed this region for much of the past 25 years, leaving valleys to be explored and peaks to be discovered. We set out from Manali on September 9th and drove for two days on a harrowing road barely large enough for one vehicle. We wound our way up mountain passes and cautiously skirted cliffs with a thousand feet of air below. Dust blew up in swirls coating our car. Occasionally we came upon rockslides blocking our way and watched while crews of men hurled massive boulders over the edge. The sound of rocks smashing against the walls below echoed throughout the valley. The adventure had already begun.

Images and Words: Whitney Clark

Once we reached the town of Gulabgarth, we quickly organized horses and began our trek. What should have taken four days, ended up taking six, as our horses decided to run away in the night, leaving us stranded. Fortunately, our cook was able to walk an hour and a half back to a larger village to find new horses to take us the rest of the way. We meandered up and down the Dharlang Valley, hopping across raging creeks, and passing numerous Guja huts built by the nomadic people. We eventually set up basecamp just below our original objective, but were forced to turn our attention elsewhere when we learned another team had secured its permit.

We spent a few days exploring near basecamp and hiked up an imposing valley, which we accessed via a goat path winding up the cliff-side. Walking up this valley was like striking gold. A beautiful pyramidal peak shot towards the sky, its west ridgeline plunging 900 meters to the glacier. We had found our objective.

We established a cache at around 4500 meters, dug out a sufficient spot on the moraine for our tent, and returned to base camp. A storm dropped about a foot of snow on the mountains, forcing us to remain in base camp for five days and hope for sunny weather to dry out the face. Time passed slowly. Waiting, wondering. What will the future hold? We anxiously returned to high camp and waited for two more days for the face to get in better condition. The good weather came but our ridge saw very little sun. Clouds shrouded the peak in darkness. Our time was running out, our supplies running low. We had to go now.

We left camp with heavy packs. Rolling hills of moraine gave way to glacier. We tiptoed our way up the icy slope, navigating gaping crevasses. At the base of the peak, we changed into climbing shoes despite our cold toes. Snow and ice hid in the cracks and on ledges. Our progress was slow, our packs heavy with two nights of supplies. A snowy gully forced another transition back into our boots. We scraped our way up, kicking into sugary snow resting on loose rock, and jamming our gloved hands in ice choked cracks. We finally crested onto the west side of the peak where snow gave way to rock. The peak rose sharply, its face more blank and complex than we were hoping. We continued climbing a few hundred meters until I saw the obvious path end. A blank slab blocked our way. Above, a steep wall loomed. We had only two bolts and a handful of pins.

“I think we should go down,” I said.

But Crystal wanted to try the slab and continue upwards. She was full of optimism. “We are moving too slowly, the terrain above is blank and we don't have the right style for this kind of peak,” I told her.

The rock was very featureless and not conducive to climbing fast in the alpine. The weather was calling for possible snow the next day. We were hoping to gain what looked like a ridge from below but turned out to be a broad and complex wall. I could see the disappointment in her face. We were on different pages, our bodies and minds not aligned. The peak was beautiful, unclimbed, and I could see it pulling her in. “Alright, lets go down,” she said, hesitantly. A silence fell between us and we listened to the soft breeze and the rumble of the glacier below.

We banged in some pins and began the rappel as darkness fell. The lower I got, the more uncertain I was about turning around. Did I make the right choice? Risk is something that we must take in the mountains and we all have different thresholds. But I wasn’t willing to go to that edge. Too many reasons stacked up in my head as to why we should turn around. I didn’t care about the summit. It didn't feel right.

Back at basecamp, we slowly picked up the pieces and the tension began to ease. Our time in the mountains had come to an end. The peaks around us danced and taunted us in the sunlight. The valley was painted red and a crisp breeze whipped through the air. Winter would soon come to the Himalaya. As we hiked out of the broad valley, I looked back at the mountains, feeling grateful that I had the opportunity to explore such a beautiful place and that someday I can return with a bigger bag of tricks.