It has been a uniquely hard year for climbing in the Karakorum, with few climbers daring to challenge the obvious complications of getting visas, flying overseas and organizing climbs amid the threat of Covid-19. So in the first days of September, when news trickled out that Colin Haley had joined a couple of relatively unknown American climbers, Jeff and Priti Wright, to attempt an ascent of K6 (7,282 meters) in Pakistan, it set the climbing media and several fora of virtual climbing enthusiasts abuzz. Not only because it was instantly the most prominent and serious expedition of the year in the in Karakoram or Himalaya, but because of the difficulty of the infrequently climbed peaks in the K6 massif.
Initially, media radars focused on Haley, well known for his fast, bold and technical climbs ranging from Patagonia to the Alps to Alaska. It soon became clear that Haley planned to climb independently of the Wrights. While the objectives of both teams, K6 and its various summits, were the same, the detailed plans remained known only to them and their outfitters.
Early news from the expeditions was scarce. (Thanks to Mohammad Ali Saltoro–chief of Alpine Adventures Guides, a Pakistani agency well known and used by most climbers interested in Baltistan, Karakorum in the high ranges–I received frequent updates on the expeditions’ progress.)
After three weeks acclimatizing on subsidiary peaks around Nangma Valley and on K6’s lower slopes, Haley and the Wrights both geared up for bids on K6’s summits. Rumours were that the main objective was K6 West (7,040 meters), which had been climbed only twice before (first by Rafael Slawinski and Ian Welsted in 2013, and a second time by Graham Zimmerman and Scott Bennett in 2015).
On October 2, Colin Haley announced via his social channels that after the three weeks of acclimatization, and a very brief attempt on one of the climbs, he had fallen ill with severe dysentery and a bacterial infection. He had abandoned his attempt on K6 after barely getting started, reaching only up to advanced base camp at 5,200 meters. He then spent a gruelling week in base camp, feeling “extremely feverish and weak.” Though he had recovered by the end of that week, he felt that he was now unfit for a proper and safe attempt on the mountain, and that “October was getting too cold for a 7,000m peak in the Karakoram.” He wrote that he was grateful to Jeff and Priti for sharing costs, logistics and for providing been great company throughout his difficult ordeal.
After the premature ending of Haley’s trip, all eyes turned to Jeff and Priti Wright, 33 and 32 years old, respectively. Although K6 was their first Karakoram or high-altitude experience, they are well-trained and experienced climbers: in the last couple of years, the pair managed a number of serious alpine climbs from Patagonia to the Alps (more on that later).
On October 5, the pair informed Mohammad Ali Saltoro by satellite message that they were 6,600 meters high on the West Face of K6 after “lots of traversing the wall in deep snow.”
The news only got better in the coming days: On October 8 they summited K6 West, then the next day, October 9, they summited the unclimbed K6 Central (7,155 meters). They sent further brief satellite Messages to Ali Saltoro, one of which described the conditions they encountered: “Cold, windy, deep snow!”
The ensuing long wait for their descent back to base camp was both scary and exciting. The pair had completed an awesome alpine-style climb—surely the most important in this difficult 2020—and while armchair mountaineers prayed for their safety, they also waited eagerly for details of their ascent.
I finally got in touch with Priti and Jeff Wright by video-call when the husband-wife team arrived back safely in Islamabad. They were more than happy to share the details of their incredible adventure. We spoke about the climb and their preparation for the peak—the training and studying that went into the project—and how psyched they were to have succeeded on such a coveted objective. Enjoy the interview below!
Q&A with Jeff and Priti Wright
Interview by Federico Bernardi
Jeff and Priti, thanks for this interview. How did you plan your first expedition to Asia? How did you decide on such a technical and difficult peak?
We had been planning to climb K6 from the Nangmah valley side for more than a year, and when COVID struck we held on to the hope of going, but delayed our trip from the original June-August dates until late August-October, when the country announced they were allowing tourists to enter with a valid negative COVID test and no quarantine. A week before we departed France, Colin Haley decided to join our trip to climb various objectives solo. Colin has been a hero to us, and was a major inspiration for us to start alpine climbing over six years ago. It was a real treat for us to have him join us at Base Camp, and he provided us with a wealth of knowledge and advice in this new game (for us) of high-altitude alpinism.
We have been planning and saving for this trip for two years and the expedition was part of a year-long sabbatical from work, during which time we also summited Cerro Torre in Patagonia and the Six Great North Faces of the Alps (a list of classic routes curated by Gaston Rebuffat in his 1954 book ‘Étoiles et Tempêtes’). We have talked about taking a year off from work for the past 10 years, and finally buckled down, started saving, and made it happen. We have been married for over 8 years, and this trip pulled together all of our combined experiences climbing technical peaks together.
Graham Zimmerman visited Seattle (our hometown) several years ago to give a presentation on his 2015 expedition to the Nangmah Valley with Steve Swenson and Scott Bennett. Graham and Scott had intended to summit K6 Central in 2015, but an impending storm forced them to retreat from the summit ridge after being the second team to ever summit K6 West. They climbed via an entirely new route, in impeccable style. We were immediately hooked on the idea of completing Graham and Scott’s project to climb K6 Central. During a phone call with Graham in October 2019, we asked for his blessing to go and complete his project, to which he responded “Send that shit!” We were also told by Steve Swenson that Scott had no intention of attempting K6 again, so we felt at ease that we weren’t scooping someone else’s project!
In a way, K6 Central was the low-hanging fruit of unclimbed 7,000-meter peaks. It is maybe one of the easiest of the highest unclimbed peaks, as it has very few logistical challenges (like sensitive military areas or restricted access). It seemed like a route that was within our technical abilities as climbers. The new challenge for us would be the high altitude; climbing higher than we had ever climbed before.
Could you explain to us the route you climbed and some of the technical details about it?
The route starts on a major 600-meter-long ramp on the Southwest flank of the peak, following 60° ice/snow to the Southwest ridge. Bennett and Zimmerman then followed the Southwest ridge and a technical ledge system with mixed climbing to traverse the west face (300mt section). We did not climb the Southwest Ridge except while acclimatizing.
We climbed up that same icy west face that Graham and Scott descended with 19 Abolokov threads, going from 5,700m to 6,600m before bivying on top of the Southwest Ridge. This was a strenuous, calf-burning, 12-hour day, waking with the sun and climbing well into the freezing black night. The West face consisted primarily of a few inches of névé over solid, very hard ice (~70° for 900m).
There was lots of deep snow on the upper slopes, and we were postholing and wallowing the last 500 meters to the summit ridge. Our weather forecaster warned us that we would encounter the jet stream above 6500m with sustained winds of 45 kilometers per hour and he was correct.
As we summited K6 West and Central, we knew it would not be feasible to safely climb over to K6 Main as well. K6 Central has been our one and only primary objective and dream for the past two years. Completing the full traverse over to K6 Main we knew would be an overly ambitious and minor secondary objective, although it was admittedly appealing to also try to tag K6 Main 50 years after its first ascent! We climbed new terrain along the traverse from K6 West to K6 Main, stopping at K6 Central. The West Face of K6 Central was up to 80 deg ice/snow including a small cornice to mount. The north side of the sharp, rocky summit ridge of K6 Central precipitously dropped dead vertically into the Charakusa Valley.
It took three additional bivouacs to get from our bivouac on the SW Ridge at 6,600m to the summit of K6 West because of the winter-like cold (-21 degrees Celsius morning low), jet stream winds, deep snow conditions, and very short days.
Our route avoided all of the mixed climbing, so I would just give our route an overall rating of 80-degree deg ice/snow for 2000 meters.
How long did the entire climb take? What kind of gear and supplies did you have for bivouacs and food?
We had three medium fuel cans. From ABC to ABC, we spent 8 nights and 9 days (enough food and fuel left for 1 more night). We had a down double sleeping bag (Feathered Friends Spoonbill) which was difficult to keep dry, so we had to air it out in the sun almost every day for at least a little bit. Very small single wall tent. Two Thermarest XTherm Pads, one 3/4-length closed cellfoam pad, one MSR Reactor stove (with a 1.7L pot). We tried to be in the tent before the sun set, then boil water, check weather, eat dinner. Every morning the entire inside of the tent was covered in a thick layer of frost (even with good ventilation). We woke up when the sun hit the tent (because it was so cold). This made for very long nights and short days.
Thank you very much guys for your answers, and congratulations!
The author would like to thanks Jeff and Priti Wright, Ali Saltoro of Pakistani Alpine Adventure Guides for their invaluable help and kind contribution to this article.
Federico Bernardi, lives in Bologna, Italy where he works as IT engineer. He is an independent mountaineering chronicler and writer. He runs montagnamagica.com, and, with the famous Italian alpinist and writer Alessandro Gogna, runs the sherpa-gate.com mountaineering web portal.