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Interview: Tom Livingstone on Latok I

We got the deets about the second ascent of Latok I and more info on disastrous Russian expedition before it.

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More Latok I coverage for you alpine junkies! (Don’t worry we haven’t forgotten about you pebble-wrestlers and bolt-clippers, but this was big news.)

Tom Livingstone, along with the Slovenian climbers Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar, made the second ever confirmed ascent of Latok I, and the first ever confirmed ascent from the north. (There is a possibility that the Russian team of Alexander Gukov and Sergey Glazunov reached the summit via the north ridge, though Gukov believes that they finished the North Ridge but turned around shy of the true top.) The three-man team climbed three-quarters of the infamous North Ridge before cutting across the col between Latok I and II and finishing their new route to the summit on the south side.

Rock and Ice caught up with Livingstone via WhatsApp and email, and the young Brit had some fascinating insights into Latok I, his team’s ascent, and the ill-fated expedition of Alexander Gukov and Sergey Glazunov.

Q&A with Tom Livingstone

Congrats on the ascent! So can you tell us about your guys’ plans going into the expedition?

We always go into these things with an open mind, but certainly the main goal was to climb Latok I from the north side, from the Choktoi Glacier. The second goal was to climb it in the best style using all or some of the North Ridge. We wanted to make a clean, alpine style ascent in around seven days or less.

Latok I

Photo: Tom LIvingstone.

Photo: Tom Livingstone.

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Were you already at the base of the mountain when the rescue with Gukov happened?

Yes, we were in BC when it happened.

When we arrived at BC (on July 13th), a Russian team of two started the night before. Another Russian team of three started the following night. Although we tried to ignore the Russians and not be pressured by other teams on our objective, it was impossible not to feel some friendly rivalry. When the team of two had their epic (Sergey died, and Alexander was left stranded on the wall), we offered all our assistance to them, and to the three Russians in base camp.

The death of Sergey, and subsequent rescue of Alexander, reinforced the dangers of pushing too far on such a route. The upper north ridge is complex, at high altitude, and inevitably you’ve climbed for many meters and many days to get there. Decision making will not be easy, especially with the draw of the summit. The weather will also inevitably turn worse during your time at that altitude—windows of opportunity are usually small in the Karakoram. I’m sure the full north ridge can be climbed.

Whilst I’d firstly like to offer my condolences to Sergey’s family, and to wish Alexander a quick recovery, I find myself being very critical of Alexander’s actions and comments. Although I’ve tried to silence them, I feel it’s important for them to be noted.

Alexander had an epic on the north ridge last year. He spent 15 days on the mountain, and his two partners suffered heavily. One lost a few toes, the other all his toes and some parts of his fingers. His final comment in a report says, “I’m confident I have a good chance next time.” This agitated us (my Slovenian friends and I). He seemed to pay little regard for the epic and danger he’d just been through. One of his friends at BC this year even admitted, “He doesn’t know when to turn around.” He also reinforced the rumors of “Russian style”—success at all costs, whatever the price.

When Alexander and Sergey were climbing this year and were high on the mountain, they repeatedly said they were making ambitious and unrealistic “summit attempts.” They were far below the summit (about 6,800m), and despite attempts on previous days, they again and again (for perhaps three days in a row) pushed for the top. We watched them through the binoculars at base camp, nervous at their risky attitude.

Their pace from the previous nine days was incredibly slow. Their pace was unlikely to have dramatically improved on summit attempts, and they were climbing very small distances each day. They were in bad weather, at high altitude, and very fatigued after many days without much food. Their perseverance was impressive, but we believe they should have retreated days ago. Indeed, when bad weather appeared, they still made a summit attempt. We simply shook our heads, and thought they were pushing too far, at too high an altitude, for too long. We thought they were going to have an epic. Even their Russian friends at BC were concerned, and organized a helicopter to check them out and attempted to throw supplies to them.

Later that say, Sergey fell to his death.

Six days later, Alexander was rescue by helicopter. I think this was his 18th day on the wall. When he was long-lined onto the glacier, Aleš said, “I’ve never seen anyone so close to death, but still alive.”

I take pride in our ascent of Latok I. Aleš, Luka and I climbed in control. We made sensible, strategic decisions. We were independent. We chose the easiest line. We returned safely after seven days. We didn’t lose fingers or toes. Alpinism is a dangerous game. If you don’t return home safely, you lose. If toes are amputated due to frostbite, you lose. Of course, it was impossible not to be affected by the Russian drama. But when we discussed our motivations once the entire epic was over, we agreed to continue with our plan: to climb Latok I via our line, which was the route we always envisioned.

Aleš Česen tackling some steeper terrain. Photo: Tom Livingstone.

Can you talk a bit about your team’s ascent itself?

The route itself was pretty sustained moderate climbing. It was enjoyable and we were quite pleased with how quickly we moved through everything. We were either simul-climbing or pitching it out quickly.

There were of course the usual pitches of steep rotten ice and not much gear, but that’s to be expected on an alpine route. Otherwise it was generally moderate ground.

We were base camp to base camp in seven days. Five up, two down. We reversed the route coming down.

Was the descent straightforward or any hiccups?

Abseling forever and ever is the part of climbing I enjoy least. So we were quite strategic when we were climbing. I was quite pleased with how we climbed at the right times and rested when it was unsafe, if that makes sense.

So as an example, when we descended we rapped through the night, and that was because it was safest since everything was frozen. So we went from about three-quarters height all the way down to the rocky start. We did that because it was safest.

Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar a few meters from the summit. Photo: Tom Livingstone.

Josh Wharton and Thomas Huber have commented in the past that conditions on Latok I have been different when they’ve gone to the mountain than what the 1978 American Expedition had. What were the conditions like for you guys?

That’s a good point. This was my first time there, but I have an idea that conditions are actually good, more than people realize or think. Because it’s such a long route, you’re inevitably going to encounter poor conditions. But we found good conditions for the most part. It’s obviously north facing but it gets a lot of sunshine and it gets a lot of storm cycles going through.

Whether conditions have changed from 40 years ago to now, I don’t know. But I expect so. Josh Wharton and Thomas Huber have been there several times—if they say conditions have changed, I imagine they’re correct. Wouldn’t be surprised if global warming is having an effect on the route. The ice was icy, the rock was dry and rocky.

I think the Russians had pretty good conditions as well, by the looks of things. Maybe we just got lucky on a good year, though.

What’s your partnership with Aleš and Luka like?

I met Luka at a BMC International Winter Meet in Scotland a few years ago. Although we didn’t climb together, we got on well and met several times through climbing in the years following.

Luka invited me to Pakistan, and then I went climbing in Slovenia this past winter and spring with him and Aleš. We immediately seemed to get on well, little needed to be said, and we enjoyed each others’ company.

I look forward to climbing with them again. They are strong, experienced and sensible climbers, and now good friends.

All three climbers safely back on the ground—tired, hungry, but psyched to be down. Photo: Tom Livingstone.

Is Latok I your proudest ascent?

It’s certainly up there.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to India in three weeks—with Uisdean Hawthorne and Will Sim —and I’m really psyched. Leaving a bit soon after coming back from Pakistan, but that’s just how it worked out. We’ve got a permit for a mountain called Barnaj II, which is in the Kishtwar Himalaya. It was climbed by some Americans in the past couple years, but otherwise the north face is unclimbed.

Also Read

New Information Suggests Russians Finished North Ridge of Latok I

Latok I Finally Climbed from the North!

No Summit No Cry: Michael Kennedy on the 1978 American Expedition to Latok I

[UPDATE: SAVED!] Russian Climber Alexander Gukov in Peril on Latok I, Rescue Operation in the Works

Latok I – A Climbing Timeline