LATOK I's NORTH RIDGE WINS AGAIN

Posted on: September 18, 2006


Maxime Turgeon, Damien Benegas, Willie Benegas and Louis-Philippe "LP" Menard on the Choktoi Glacier, Karakoram, Pakistan, in August 2006, with the 100-pitch-plus north ridge of Latok I (7145m) visible on the right skyline. The four men comprised two teams that attempted the ridge this year, perhaps the twentieth attempts thus far. The 1978 effort by Jeff Lowe, George Lowe, Michael Kennedy and Jim Donini reached some three pitches from the summit before illness forced them down—still the route's high point. [Photo] Maxime Turgeon

In Alpinist Issue 2 ("A Climber's Life"), Jim Donini describes his 1978 attempt, with Michael Kennedy, Jeff Lowe and George Lowe, on the north ridge of Latok I (7145m) in Pakistan's Karakoram Range. The four men, perhaps the strongest American alpinists of the day, climbed more than 100 pitches on the ridge before Jeff's altitude sickness forced an end to the ascent. The resulting descent/rescue defined the term "epic." More important, in the nearly thirty years that have passed, twenty expeditions, comprising the world's strongest climbers, have thrown themselves at the ridge to finish those last three pitches without success. What has emerged is one simple fact: the 1978 effort may have been one of the strongest climbing attempts in the history of alpinism. Two shots at the ridge in 2006 only reinforced the north ridge's legendary reputation.

In July, brothers Willie and Damien Benegas embarked on the ridge for their third attempt in three years. No strangers to alpinism (their first ascent of The Crystal Snake [VI 5.9 M4 WI5, ca. 1500m], on 7861-meter Nuptse, was featured on the cover of Alpinist Issue 5), the Argentines had prepared well for the climb, but although they reached their highest point to date—5486 meters—they were still nearly an El Capitan and a half from the summit.

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Next up was one of the hottest partnerships in alpine climbing, Maxime Turgeon and Louis-Philippe "LP" Menard. In Alpinist Issue 15, the two French Canadian climbers published an article, "Spice Factory," that showcased their brilliant debut: the 2005 first ascent, Spice Factory (Alaska Grade V: WI5 M7 5.10 R, 1500m), on the north face of the Alaska Range's Mt. Bradley (4050m), which they achieved all free in fifty-five hours round-trip. In May, Turgeon upped the ante, with American Will Mayo, climbing 1675 meters of new ground (at WI5+ M6 A0) on the south face of Mt. Foraker (5303m) in forty hours before deteriorating conditions forced a descent. Then, from May 28-30, Menard joined Turgeon for the Alaska Range's best send of the season: the Canadian Direct (Alaska Grade 6: M6 5.9, 2438m) on the south face of Denali (6194m) in fifty-eight hours. These Alaska Range climbs, detailed in Issue 18's "Climbing Notes," were preparation for the Karakoram; but even this powerhouse would prove underpowered for the North Ridge of Latok I.

The pair warmed up with the second ascent of HAR Pinnacle (ca. 5500m), which is becoming something of a consolation prize for Latok I aspirants (Mark Richey and John Bouchard first climbed it in 1997 during their North Ridge expedition). On the west face, Menard and Turgeon climbed Cornbeef Chili a la Wahab (V 5.10, 600m) all free in a day, naming it in honor of "the good meal that our cook prepared [for] us when we got back to camp." Three days of bad weather ensued, after which they moved to an unclimbed peak near Latok III. A couloir on the west face brought the Canadians to a series of steep mixed pitches, but then objective hazards intervened. As Menard was climbing one steep M7 groove, three slush avalanches roared overhead ("the advantage of overhanging terrain," according to Turgeon); a following pitch was running with water. The Canadians managed to reach a col some 150 meters from the summit before beginning their descent in darkness, having climbed 900 meters up to M7 all free in a day.

As Jeff Lowe pointed out in the seminal article, "Unclimbed," in Alpinist Issue 4, the north ridge of Latok I is the unfinished business of the last generation; today's alpinists should be looking at Latok I's north face, a 2000-meter paradigm of steep ice and steeper rock with a sneaky couloir finish to the top. Menard agrees, calling it "THE magic line on Latok I: 800 meters of 80 degree mixed ramp leading to a magnificent 600-meter fat 90 degree vein of pure waterfall ice to gain mixed terrain and eventually the sharp and well-defined ridge that leads directly to the summit." Inspired, the Canadians embarked on the face, planning on six or seven days' worth of climbing, but soon became embattled in a fight with the mountain gods, getting pummeled by debris, which forced them off their intended line, which avalanched ten minutes after they left it. Poor ice and marginal gear further slowed their progress, and by 5300 meters they were done. Serac fall and avalanches continued to rip the wall as they descended, and by one account when the two young aspirants staggered away from the mountain, their faces were bloody and their eyes wide as saucers.

Humbled but not defeated, the lads pared down for a pure alpine-style ascent of Latok I's North Ridge. They first shot up to 5300 meters, where they slept to acclimatize and cache some gear for a later ascent. Two and a half days of bad weather afterward, they began again, but the new snow made the climbing simply too difficult. One hundred meters short of the shoulder and their cache, they were forced to endure an open bivy without gear. When they reached their cache the next day, they found it deeply buried. They remained at their high point another two days, wherein they were covered by another two meters of snow. Descent was the only option. The mountain had won again. The North Ridge of Latok I remains one of the most elegant unclimbed lines in the world, and the 1978 effort, it is increasingly becoming clear, was one of the greatest climbing attempts in history.

Louis-Philippe "LP" Menard on impeccable granite on the opening rock pitches of the north ridge of Latok I, Choktoi Glacier, Karakoram, Pakistan, in August 2006. Menard and Maxime Turgeon climbed this 600-meter rock section in sixteen pitches. Above Menard is the first shoulder of the ridge at 5300 meters, the high point of the team's efforts; from there, the climbing changes to snow and mixed terrain—for another ninety pitches or so to the summit. [Photo] Maxime Turgeon

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