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No Summit No Cry

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We’ve been on the climb for 20 days (or is it 21?), so long it seems like the only thing I’ve ever known—a routine of getting up, pissing, putting on a brew, eating, dressing against the cold, packing gear, climbing, hauling loads, hacking out a tent platform, shitting, melting snow, eating, sleeping. And then starting all over again.

A clink of metal on metal, the thunk of pick into ice, a raspy intake of breath draw my attention outward. Off to the right, George Lowe is methodically climbing toward me, the rope arcing beyond him to Jeff Lowe and Jim Donini, slumped against the anchors in the cold and wind. Jeff is suffering from a flu-like virus he’d picked up on the approach; he’s still game, but greatly weakened. The rest of us are merely exhausted. The ice here is steep enough to have sluffed off the foot-and-a-half of snow that has fallen over the past two nights, but the climbing is still far easier than most of what lay below. In good weather, we’d be on the summit in half a day.

George arrives at the stance. Our eyes meet; we both know what the worsening storm and Jeff’s illness means. We exchange a few words to confirm the decision, carefully rearrange the anchors, and make the first of 90 rappels down Latok I’s North Ridge.

The 1970s was a great time to be an alpinist, although I don’t remember identifying myself as such at the time. I was just a climber; I’d spent a lot of time on the crags, tackled a few big walls, bashed my way up some frozen waterfalls, and done a bit of mountaineering. Being basically pretty lame on rock, I had figured out that holding onto ice tools was a heck of a lot easier than grappling with some weird finger crack, so I started spending more time on the icefalls and peaks. First ascents of various obscure ice climbs, snow-covered rock on winter climbs in the Elk Mountains of Western Colorado, sunny granite in the Wind Rivers of Wyoming and a few failures on Canadian Rockies’ classics gave me an adequate if not particularly distinguished grounding in the fundamentals. Two trips to Alaska enamored me further of the dubious pleasures of alpine climbing, and before I knew it, in June 1978 I headed off to what we then quaintly referred to as the “Great Ranges” of the world.

As a naïve and relatively inexperienced 26-year-old, I was in awe of my companions. The Utah cousins George and Jeff Lowe were two of my climbing heroes. Deservedly celebrated as the best American alpine climbers of that era, they’d made significant first ascents all over the world, including such visionary climbs as the North Face of North Twin in the Canadian Rockies (George Lowe and Chris Jones, 1974) and Bridalveil Falls in Colorado (Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss, 1974). At the time I didn’t know Jim Donini very well, but he, too, had a vast wealth of experience, including the first ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia (with John Bragg and Jay Wilson, 1976). Humble and down-to-earth, yet fiercely committed to an adventurous climbing ethic, these three also brought with them those personal qualities so crucial to a happy expedition: persistence, a willingness to suffer and a sense of humor.

[Also Read Climbers and Climate by Conrad Anker]

Our objective was the stupendous North Ridge of Latok I, a jagged knife-edge of granite and ice rising 8,000 feet from the seldom-visited Choktoi Glacier in the Karakoram of northern Pakistan. The mountain itself was unclimbed at the time (since then, Latok I has seen but a single ascent in 1979, when a large Japanese team sieged the South Face). The Karakoram had been closed to climbers for a decade and a half when the Pakistani government reopened a limited number of peaks in 1975, and we had found precious few pictures and virtually no information about our intended route. No one had ever set foot on the North Ridge.

It was also an exciting time of transition in Himalayan climbing. Expedition style—the tedious but time-tested method of fixing an umbilical cord of ropes and camps up a mountain—was still de rigueur for most expeditions, but a few hardy individualists had begun to embrace a variety of lighter, simpler and bolder tactics. Our collective experience and ambitions put us firmly in the latter camp.

Jeff Lowe, around a third of the way up the route.

The prescient 1957 first ascent of Broad Peak (8,047 meters) by Austrians Herman Buhl, Kurt Diemberger, Marcus Schmuck and Fritz Winterstellar was an anomalous example of a climb completed in almost pure alpine style during the earlier era of heavyweight, nationalistic expeditions. Then in 1975, Reinhold Messner (Tyrol) and Peter Habeler (Austria) made the second ascent of Hidden Peak (8,068 meters) in pure alpine style, climbing unroped on much of their new route on the Northwest Face in a five-day round trip from basecamp. The climb was a real eye-opener and a sign of things to come.

Hidden Peak was a moderate snow-and-ice route by the standards of the day, albeit on a very high peak, but steeper, more technical routes also started to fall to small teams. British climbers were particularly aggressive in pursuing these sorts of objectives. Dick Renshaw and Joe Tasker climbed the elegant and committing Southeast Ridge of Dunagiri (7,066 meters) in October 1975 in pure alpine style. A year later, Tasker and Pete Boardman made the second ascent of Changabang (6,864 meters) via a new route on the difficult West Face, fixing a limited number of ropes, establishing a higher camp, then pulling the ropes for re-use higher, thus advancing caterpillar-like up the mountain in “capsule-style.” The incredible spire of Trango Tower (6,251 meters) saw its first ascent in July 1976 by Mo Anthoine, Martin Boysen, Joe Brown and Malcolm Howells, and in July 1977 Doug Scott and Chris Bonington reached the even more remote summit of the Ogre (7,285 meters). Fixed ropes and camps were used on both routes, but neither was a pushover. Connoisseurs of climbing literature will remember Boysen’s chilling tale of getting his knee almost irretrievably stuck high on Trango Tower during his 1975 attempt, and who can forget Scott’s dramatic account of his crawl down the Ogre after breaking both legs just below the summit?

We arrived in Islamabad on a sweltering day in early June, determined to climb the North Ridge in the best style possible. But first we had to get to the mountain. Lost baggage, bureaucratic formalities and cancelled flights had delayed our arrival in Skardu by a week; the overland route via the Karakoram Highway was still under construction. We had no choice but to place our faith in PIA (Pakistan International Airlines, better known as Please Inform Allah) to get us to the roadhead. Skardu was just the sort of rough, Wild-West outpost that we expected, a collection of less-than-sanitary hovels on a dusty plain at the edge of the Indus River where we spent five days awaiting our baggage. Like mountain people everywhere, the Baltis were incredibly hospitable, but one can only drink so many cups of tea and eat so many chapattis before frustration sets in.

Eventually, we loaded everything into a couple of beater Jeeps and bounced over 50 miles of bad roads to the village of Dasso and the beginning of the approach march. We hadn’t seen a cloud in days, and the heat was unbearable in the harsh, precipitous desert of the Braldu River Gorge. Each day we started hiking at 3 a.m. so we could sleep through the torrid afternoons. I got dehydrated on the second day, puked all night and barely made it to camp the following evening after a hallucinatory 12-hour death march. At one point I crawled under a rock, the only shade I’d found in miles. Jeff fell ill with some sort of tropical virus for several days. As we were about to leave Askole, the last village, the porters staged the obligatory strike, extorted a few extra dollars from us, and later slaughtered a celebratory goat on the edge of the Panmah Glacier. Thankfully, George and Jim avoided illness, and Jeff and I had pretty much recovered by the time we arrived in basecamp at the end of June.

As the porters disappeared down the glacier, a sense of excitement and apprehension settled over our little group. We were totally isolated; no sat phone, no WiFi, no one else within at least 30 miles. Our only communication with the outside world would have been via the mail runner we’d neglected to hire. The North Ridge dominated the skyline. The climbing looked more reasonable than we had expected, but the scale was a little hard to fathom. This thing was huge, nearly twice as tall as that famed Alpine testpiece, the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses.

Jim Donini settling into prime real estate at 19,000 feet.

We spent three days in basecamp, resting, sorting gear and food, packing, repacking, and wondering what to bring and what to leave behind. Most of our discussion centered around tactics. One look at the mountain confirmed what we had expected before we left the U.S.—the only practical way off was to rappel the route, and that meant bringing a bunch of extra gear. More important was the question of style. We had hoped to climb in pure alpine style, but were prepared to adopt a capsule approach similar to that employed by Boardman and Tasker on Changabang. After much back-and-forth, we decided to take all eight 50-meter ropes we’d brought, to give us flexibility between bivy sites. Food was another matter. Jeff and I thought 12 days’ worth, George and Jim pushed for 20. We settled on 17, and with everything else—the ropes, sleeping gear, tents, stoves, fuel, clothing, crampons, ice axes, runners, carabiners, 60 pitons, assorted nuts and 30 ice screws—we ended up with over 300 pounds to carry. So much for going light and fast!

We were either woefully ill-informed or willfully ignorant of the need to acclimatize, and suffered accordingly, particularly on the first half of the climb. Fortunately, our progress was slow enough that no one became seriously ill. Each day, one pair would lead and fix ropes (the fun part); the other two would follow on jumars, carrying the loads. The climbing was sustained and not terribly difficult, 5.8 or 5.9 with short sections of aid, but the terrain was usually too low-angle to haul on, and for the first few days it took two or three trips to get everything up. The heat and altitude sapped our energy. Temperatures often reached 60 degrees but felt much hotter, and it wasn’t unusual to climb in a T-shirt during the afternoon. We made slow, steady progress until a storm immobilized us at 18,500 feet for three days. Unwilling to give up hard-won ground, we survived on half-rations and hope.

The storm cleared and a long period of good weather followed. We’d been on the route for 10 days. Our loads were lighter now with some of the food gone. As we gained altitude the temperature dropped to a comfortable level, and we encountered more mixed terrain and pure ice. The overall difficulty remained surprisingly consistent, the climbing always thought-provoking, but never desperate. To make the descent easier, we left a couple of ropes fixed across a horizontal corniced ridge at about 21,000 feet.

The higher we got, the worse the campsites became. We slept three nights in the open above the corniced ridge, huddled on tiny ledges hacked out of the ice.

The setting was absolutely stunning. Hundreds of unnamed and unclimbed peaks stretched out toward the horizon, punctuated by the occasional recognizable bulk of K2 and Broad Peak. There was not a sign of life anywhere on the glacier a mile-and-a-half below our feet. At one point or another, we each proclaimed some variation of the same sentiment, that this was the best climb we’d ever been on.

On Day 19 we took what little food remained, maybe three days’ worth, and a bare minimum of equipment, and pushed for the summit. Early that afternoon we arrived at a snowy shoulder, the first place since we left the glacier where we could safely unrope. Jeff and Jim set to work digging a snow cave while George and I fixed two ropes up a steep rock headwall that barred access to the easier snow-and-ice slopes leading to the summit ridge. We were still at least 700 feet from the top but the going looked much easier.

Clouds had been building all day, and as we rappelled back to the shoulder they engulfed us, spewing out thick flakes at a steady pace. Jeff and Jim greeted us with hot tea and warm smiles. We huddled anxiously in the snow cave, wondering what the morning would bring.

Day 20 dawned gray and cold and windy. A foot of snow had fallen overnight. Jeff felt sick. We put off a summit attempt hoping that the weather would clear. That night it snowed another six inches. Jeff felt worse, food and fuel were running low, and the storm showed no sign of dissipating. Decision time. We headed up.

A rope length after the headwall we turned around. We knew we wouldn’t get another chance, but disappointment was soon overshadowed by a greater concern. Jeff felt worse than ever. The symptoms were reminiscent of the virus he’d suffered from on the approach, exacerbated no doubt by altitude, dehydration and exhaustion. Coughing and feverish, aching to his very soul, he was shattered to the point where we feared for his life.

Donini, George and Jeff Lowe on the second corniced ridge at 21,000 feet.

Jim nursed him through the night as the storm continued. Another day crept by. It would take us at least two days to reach the cache of food and fuel we’d left at the last good campsite, halfway up the route. The unspoken question was whether or not Jeff could survive an open bivouac. We decided to wait.

After five nights in the snow cave Jeff’s condition had improved marginally but the weather hadn’t. We were down to a few scraps of food. We divided up Jeff’s gear and headed into the maelstrom, descending 1,500 feet in a 14-hour day of aching limbs, frozen hands and grumbling stomachs. That night, Jeff and Jim occupied one miserable ledge, George and I another, 20 feet below, and spent the night awash in spindrift, sodden sleeping bags pulled up around our shoulders, butts and legs cramping on the uneven perch. None of us wanted to think too much about what Jeff was going through. Jim later confessed that he expected to wake up next to a corpse in the morning. As a comic aside (at least in retrospect) I’d taken off my ice-encrusted sunglasses earlier in the day and now suffered from a mild case of snowblindness: We were the blind leading the infirm. As I eked the last bit of flame out of the stove in my lap, George asked if he could lean against me; a minute later he was fast asleep, proving once again his mastery of this key climbing skill. His peaceful snore was a suitable counterpoint to the gritty ache of my teary eyes.

The clouds began to thin in the morning. Thankfully, Jeff not only felt much better, he was positively chipper. The rappels were straightforward, and late in the afternoon we reached our cache. The first thing we did was to eat, devouring a one-pound tin of peanut butter between us in under three minutes. We collapsed into the tents, relieved that the end was in sight. The last morning dawned clear, and even raging hunger couldn’t dampen our spirits. Late that afternoon we were back in basecamp, 26 days—and a lifetime—after leaving.

In the 28 years since our attempt, I’ve thought often of those days, remembering with great fondness the wonderful simplicity of being focused and present for such a long period of time. What strikes me now is the remarkably calm and respectful attitude with which we approached the climb. George, Jeff, Jim and I played to each others’ strengths. We equally shared the joys of leading and the labor of hauling. We each had our good days and bad, but I don’t recall any horrible temper tantrums or moodiness. We may have been annoyed by someone else’s disgusting habit of slurping soup, or leaving dregs of jam in the peanut butter, or farting just before leaving the tent, but such concerns seemed petty and unimportant and they were quickly forgotten. It seemed as though we’d all suspended our latent selfish/mean/impatient tendencies—at least for a while. We were a team, and remain friends to this day.

I never had any desire to return to Latok. Perhaps I was too lazy to repeat all that hard climbing, or afraid to fail again. I prefer to think, though, that the experience was complete in and of itself, despite the lack of a summit. I learned what I could from the North Ridge, and would eventually apply those lessons to other climbs and to other challenges. For me it is enough for Latok to remain a memory, an ideal once aspired to that still resonates today.

Michael Kennedy lives in Carbondale, Colorado. He is a former president of the Access Fund, and has served as editor to both Climbing and Alpinist magazines.

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