Top 10 Expeditions of 2022: #4: Karun Koh

Karun Koh is one of the most daunting near-7,000’ers. (It’s 6,977m.) Yet for Kazuya Hiraide, it was merely a secondary goal. The mountain love of his life was Shispare. It took him four attempts and earned him a Piolet d’Or when he finally reached the top.

Karun Koh just happened to be nearby. Its beautiful Northwest Face lured him back to the region. Hiraide planned to climb it in December 2021 but didn’t even begin. He frostbit his feet badly while acclimatizing on a neighboring peak. The injury almost ended his climbing career.

Hiraide spent a month in the hospital in Pakistan. To his surprise, he wasn’t lonely. Many locals visited him, and he received a huge outpouring of support on social media. This support made him change his mind about giving up climbing. Eventually, he decided to return to Karun Koh.

A frostbitten Hiraide is airlifted to the hospital, December 2021. Photo: Kazuya Hiraide/Instagram

The return

By cherry blossom time in Japan, he was able to put his damaged feet in running shoes and tie them up again. And Karun Koh was firmly back in his mind.

Hiraide had made that first attempt with Takuya Mitoro. For the second try, he elected to go with the man who has become his regular climbing partner in recent years: Kenro Nakajima.

Hiraide and Najalima show thumbs up at the rocky Base Camp.

Nakajima, left, and Hiraide at Karun Koh Base Camp, where Hiraide was evacuated the year before. Photo: Kazuya Hiraide/Instagram

 

Hiraide met the young, strong, and bold Kenro Nakajima while coping with the loss of his life partner Kei Taniguchi, who died in a climbing accident in the Japanese Alps in 2015.

“Kenro reminded me of myself 10 years ago. He was very strong and very oblivious, he ignored the risks of climbing,” Hiraide told ExplorersWeb in a recent interview. “I felt I had to teach him, protect him somehow, because I thought that if he goes to the mountains with others like himself, he will probably die soon.”

Hiraide faced Karun Koh one more time. Photo: Kenro Nakajima

 

Hiraide and Nakajima went to Karun Koh in September this year. “Just being there, ready and on my two feet, was a triumph — a moment of joy,” he said.

An uncertain way up

The pair had to wait for eight days for acceptable conditions. And yet, they weren’t even sure that a route existed.

Fighting spindrift and a vertical section on Karun Koh. Photo: Kenro Nakajima

 

“No matter how much I looked through binoculars in Base Camp, there was a section of the face that was hidden,” said Hiraide. “We considered quitting, but if there was no way to continue, I wanted to see it with my own eyes. So we went for it.”

They made their way up “a wonderful route that miraculously connects a line of ice through rocky walls, all the way to the summit,” Nakajima wrote on social media.

A meagre dinner during one of their bivouacs on the face. Photo: Kenro Nakajima

 

The result of their perseverance was a 1,800m line up the very center of Karun Koh’s Northwest Face. Despite difficulties up to AI5, they climbed hard and fast and summited on September 21 at 2:51 pm. They had only two bivouacs on the wall on the way up and one on the way down.

Nakajima says that they carried rations for only one person, which they shared each day. No wonder the climbers gorged on food after they returned to Base Camp. “I am eating too much,” admitted Nakajima while he was still in Pakistan, “but I am remembering when I was starving during the climb.”

Hiraide and Nakajima’s route up Karun Koh. Photo: Barrabes.com

 

One more Piolet d’Or for the collection?

Hiraide and Nakajima’s was the second overall ascent of Karun Koh after an Austrian team climbed the Southwest Ridge 38 years ago. The Japanese made the first climb of the Northwest Face.

Unfortunately, neither climber has yet shared a detailed report of the climb. Since they returned, they have been busy at their everyday jobs. Incredibly, neither is a full-time professional climber. We will have to wait before learning more about the terrain, the crux pitches, and their feelings as they climbed.

For the time being, their image of the highly aesthetic line and the few available photos give an idea of the magnitude of the achievement. During a recent talk in Spain, Hiraide was introduced by veteran Carlos Soria, who neatly pointed out that, “In addition to his skills in choosing difficult routes, Hiraide places his projects on extremely beautiful mountains.”

Some in the mountaineering media are already making the Japanese climbers favorites for yet another Piolet d’Or. Both already won the prestigious award for their climbs of Shispare and Rakaposhi. In addition, Hiraide has a third Piolet d’Or for his climb of 7,756m Kamet, with Kei Taniguchi.

Hiraide with bandaged feet and nakajima with long hair and beard greet from a hospital bed.

Hiraide and Mitoro’s 2021 Christmas greeting while Hiraide recovered from frostbite last year. Photo: Kazuya Hiraide/Instagram

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides is a college-graduated journalist specializing in high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.