Wilmington resident Emilie Drinkwater is an accomplished climber who has spent time exploring routes throughout North America.
She's climbed in the southwestern U.S., Alaska and Canadian Rockies, among other places. Still, the 34-year-old didn't think she'd ever venture into what is considered by many to be the top place in the world for high altitude expeditions: the Himalaya region.
"I remember thinking this is something that I'll never do," said Drinkwater, who owns Keene Valley-based Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides with her husband, Jesse Williams. "It's too far away. It's super expensive. The permit fee is complicated. It just seemed logistically insurmountable. So I had written that off my list."
Emilie Drinkwater traverses the giant face of Pumo Kangri with Stegosaurus in the background.
(Photo — Kirsten Kremer)
But then something unexpected happened. Last winter, Drinkwater received a call from fellow climber and friend Janet Bergman of New Hampshire. Bergman was calling to invite Drinkwater on a nearly two-month expedition to India's eastern Karakoram, a mountain range with peaks in Pakistan, India and China.
"The area that we were headed to climb was right here at the apex of all three of those countries," Drinkwater said. "That's where a lot of wars have been fought. ... Due to access issues, very few climbers have been here."
It would also be Drinkwater's first climbing expedition outside of North America and above 14,000 feet.
The Karakoram has the greatest concentration of peaks over 8 kilometers high in the world, including the second highest in the world, K2. Some consider it part of the Himalayan mountain range, but others believe it to be a different one. Either way, it contains big-time climbing opportunities.
Drinkwater jumped at the chance to climb there. She and Bergman would be teaming with Kirsten Kremer, who is based in Alaska. Drinkwater was asked to go on the trip after Zoe Hart, a climber based in Chamonix, France, couldn't make the trip.
The trio would also be joined during parts of the trip by climbers Mark Richey and Steve Swenson, who have both been presidents of the American Alpine Club, and Freddie Wilkinson (Bergman's husband), who were planning to make the first ascent of the 24,665-foot Saser Kangri II East in eastern Karakoram. That mountain had been the world's second highest unclimbed peak until the male trio made the first ascent.
"We were lucky enough to be sharing base camp, climbing permits, logistics, transportation with these guys," Drinkwater said.
The three women planned to summit an unclimbed, unnamed, 20,123-foot high peak known as Peak 6,135 (for its elevation in meters). The expedition was partially funded by a Polartec Challenge Grant.
On to base camp
The trip began for the six climbers when they met in Delhi, India on July 3. From there, they took another flight to Leh, a high plateau region in India. Then they drove to the lush green Nubra Valley on what Drinkwater described as a terrifying road.
"It's terrifying because that's a huge drop-off and if you look down over the edge, every so often you'll see the carcasses of these big trucks that have gone over the edge," Drinkwater said. "So this was the most scared I was on the entire trip."
From the valley, which was at 10,000 feet, they took three days to hike to their base camp at about 17,000 feet. As they headed into camp, they were assisted by Remote Expeditions guide service, which provided the climbers with cooks, porters and sherpas. The guide service also helped during the trip with things such as transportation, climbing permits and other logistics.
The six climbers were also joined by a liaison officer sent by the Indian military, which was required.
"As we were about to start our trek up this 40-degree scree slope, (he) said to us, 'I have done no exercising in one year,'" Drinkwater said. "We'd all been training for months for this trip. Sure enough, he really suffered. We had to pump him full of altitude medication and he actually did make it up to base camp, which is all he had to do."
The only people the group saw on the way to base camp were shepherds, who were herding sheep up to about 16,000 feet.
Drinkwater described base camp as a mostly laid back place where she did a lot of reading and during the evenings watched movies on an iPad that ran on solar-charged batteries.
But there were drawbacks. She didn't have contact with her friends and family back home. In addition, Drinkwater said she started getting altitude sickness, a feeling equivalent to having a bad hangover or having the flu. It lasted the entire trip and was something she just learned to deal with.
In planning the trip, the women chose three ridgelines they thought would provide relatively safe climbing on Peak 6,135. In person, those ridgelines looked a lot more difficult.
"We got to them up close and they looked hard and they looked scary and there were big cornices on the summit of this thing and loose rock everywhere," Drinkwater said.
Finally, on July 21, after getting more used to the elevation and area in general, the three women made an attempt to summit the mountain.
But they didn't reach the peak. Instead, they had an unplanned bivy 19,000 feet up on the mountain. They were partially prepared for this. They had a stove, tarp and both Bergman and Kremer had insulated pants. Drinkwater, though, had left her thick pants behind as a weight-saving measure. As a result, she was pretty cold that night.
"I basically shivered uncontrollably all night long," Drinkwater recalled. "It was pretty brutal. We all huddled together and did our best to stay warm."
In the morning, the women made their way back down to base camp.
A few days later, the trio planned to head back up the mountain. This time, they took a new route, but like the previous attempt, they were unable to reach the summit. As they were ascending the mountain, they determined the conditions weren't right to continue.
"Everything was melting out, so we thought it was pretty dangerous," Drinkwater said. "It's fairly scary to be around that much loose rock."
So they headed back down to base camp again. They also called off any attempt to climb Peak 6,135. The failed attempts left the women dejected.
Instead of packing it in at base camp, the three climbers decided to head over to the Saser Kangri II region, where the men had been climbing. This meant their advanced base camp would be on the snowy South Shukpa glacier, a welcome change from the "dry" glacier where they had set up advanced camp for Peak 6,135. The snowy glacier meant there'd be more ski touring opportunities, which Drinkwater enjoyed.
While there, Drinkwater was part of two successful first ascents. She and Kremer climbed the west face of the 24,665-foot Pumo Kangri on Aug. 5 in a difficult a 30-hour push. The trip took much longer than the pair anticipated. They thought it would be a manageable trip that would result in them skiing down from the peak. With that in mind, they brought very little climbing gear with them. As it turned out, they didn't reach the summit until sunset.
"We rappelled all night long and into the next morning," Drinkwater said. "Because we only had one rope, it took us forever."
Drinkwater said that the scale of the mountains was "just enormous," and the two mountaineers underestimated how high and hard the trip turned out to be.
On Aug. 5, Drinkwater, Kremer, Bergman, Richey and Wilkinson summited and skied another unclimbed peak (21,845 feet high) that they named Stegosaurus.
Drinkwater said she was wary of being unprepared for this climb as a result of their previous climbing attempts. One of the men guessed it would take about three to four hours, but the women weren't sure of that.
"We brought tons of extra food with us, tons of water," she said. "(Then), all in all it took us four hours."
When the group returned to camp, they were met by their sherpas, who had been watching the adventurous ski down the mountain. Within a short while the guides - who hadn't skied before - were having their own adventure, of sorts, as they glided around the glacier on the American's skis.
"This trip would not have been the same without them," Drinkwater said. "Adventure crosses cultural borders for sure. While this was primarily a climbing trip, this was really cool to get to know these Indians because they all live in mountain towns and have a lifestyle that is not unlike my own ... They really took good care of us."
This was one of Drinkwater's final memories of those mountains and her guides, for the trip had come to an end.
"Sadly, the next day, under incredibly beautiful skies we had to pack up and leave," Drinkwater said.