Also in This Area
Also in This Style
Labyrinths of Granite and Ice
Posted on: May 18, 2020
[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]
A view of the Southeast Face of Link Sar from base camp with the line of the first ascent. [Photo] Mark Richey
AUGUST 25, 2017: I hung by my harness from a small pedestal of rock as a heavy stream of fine snow poured over me. Icy crystals flowed into gaps between my gloves and cuffs and down the neck of my jacket, chilling my body. I drew my shoulders together. The ropes in my numb hands led upward to my partner, Chris Wright. Twenty meters away, under the same barrage, he clung to his ice tools with his hood up and his head down.
WE WERE 2100 METERS UP the 3400-meter Southeast Face of Link Sar, an unclimbed 7041-meter peak in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan, near the contested border with India. With our partner Steve Swenson, we'd spent eight weeks trying to climb this mountain in a clean and lightweight style, a departure from the heavy-handed siege tactics now commonly used on K2, forty-eight kilometers to the north-northwest. For months, we'd struggled to find a path free of avalanche danger. We'd clambered up ridges that wound to nowhere or that ended in slopes under the threat of seracs. Eventually, we'd found a route relatively safe from overhead hazard. But intense storms pinned us down again and again far below the summit.
This was our last attempt before the start of autumn blizzards that would engulf the peak in deep snow. Steve had decided to stay in base camp; he said he thought Chris and I had a better chance of reaching the top as a team of two. The day before a predicted weather window, we'd started climbing back up from base camp: we'd hoped to summit and descend before storms enveloped the mountain again. Now, as the spindrift slid past my face, I gasped for breath. Chris had been in the same position for forty-five minutes, hunched under the ceaseless stream of fine crystals. It was time to end our vigil.
"I don't think that the weather is getting better!" I yelled into the maelstrom.
A burst of expletives erupted from above: Chris evidently agreed with my assessment. We were both nearly hypothermic. The decision to bail was an easy one.
When we staggered into base camp, Hajji Ghulam Rasool and his son-in-law Nadeem, expedition staff members and old friends, embraced us. As Rasool smiled, wrinkles spread on his mountain-worn skin. Steve, standing nearby, gave us a knowing look. He was twice my age, and he had decades of experience climbing in the Karakoram. I knew what he was thinking: by making it down safely, we'd achieved the primary goal of the expedition—to survive. "Excellent work," Steve said. "And don't worry, we'll be back."
Two days later, harsh sunlight washed out the grey hues of the rocks and the small patches of green that surrounded our tents. The upper elevations remained another world: high winds spun dark clouds around the summit of Link Sar. The forecasted lull never arrived. Wildflowers wilted in the meadows around us. Winter was approaching. I thought of my fiancee, Shannon, in our new house in Bend, Oregon, its interior bereft of furniture, its yard a patch of dirt. I should have been sharing the task of moving in, instead of leaving her to do the work alone. I knew it was time to go home, but the sharp angles of Link Sar still flickered through the mists, as tantalizing as ever. We'll be back, I thought.
Chris Wright climbs through a snow ridge marking the top of the initial steep mixed band on the southeast face during the first ascent of Link Sar (7041m) with Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and Graham Zimmerman. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
FOR NEARLY TWO DECADES, since I became a climber, many mountains have remained in my mind only as fragments of vast panoramas of glacier-carved uplands and valleys. Occasionally, one peak stands out from the others: a lodestar that lures my imagination on countless dream voyages. Its faces appear like remnants of some distant, forgotten realm, a shadowy landscape that vanishes when I wake.
In 2015 I had my initial glimpse of Link Sar while Steve Swenson, Scott Bennett and I were making the first ascent of Changi Tower, a 6500-meter spike of granite and ice that rises from the Lachit Glacier. On that trip, we'd spent weeks in base camp with Rasool and Nadeem under boiling clouds and pounding rain. Finally, the skies cleared, and as we climbed the North Ridge—in the moments between torquing our ice picks into frozen cracks and tapping them into thin ice—we could gaze at the colossal breadth of the central Karakoram. Slowly, our view expanded to encompass the massive bulk of Link Sar.
Many climbers have described their ideal peak as one that resembles something children would draw if you asked them to sketch a mountain: sheer and pointy, almost crystal-like in its sharp geometry. When I looked at Link Sar, that comparison made sense. Crisp ridges of ice, rock and snow radiated from a small, sharp apex. It seemed like a vision of something flawless and transcendent. Yet its seracs loomed above a deep valley, and I could imagine the spectacle of destruction whenever they crashed. Still, I thought I could trace a route through the steep ribs and dark buttresses. Etched with ice, their convex angles appeared to jut beyond the fall line of the debris. The image was both terrifying and alluring: a narrow path of safety that wove around varieties of hanging death.
Back home, as I dug through my photos, I found an image of the gigantic southeast wall, which dropped off for thousands of meters to the Kaberi Glacier. This area remained largely closed to foreigners because of the decades-long conflict between India and Pakistan along the Actual Ground Position Line—the approximately 110-kilometer boundary established in 1984 across the Siachen Glacier region. I wondered if there was a way to gain access. As it turned out, I was not the only one pondering that question. Steve Swenson had seen the same view. In his case, however, the image hadn't left a new impression in his mind. It had invigorated an old one.
FOR MANY, THE SUMMIT OF K2 might represent a lifetime goal. For Steve, who stood there in 1990 after climbing the North Ridge, it was a vantage point from which to see more mountains to explore. He wanted a simpler experience, far from the crowds and the fixed lines that were starting to dominate the world's highest peaks. He knew that within that ocean of granite towers, he could find what he sought. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, while he raised a family with his wife and pursued a career in engineering, he went on expeditions to some of the wildest parts of the Karakoram.
Mountaineering teams had applied to climb above the Kaberi Glacier since a 1979 Japanese attempt on the east face of Link Sar. But after the start of the Siachen conflict, the Pakistani government didn't offer any more permits to foreigners until 2000—when an American expedition unexpectedly got permission to travel to the Kondus Valley. Members Dave Anderson, Steph Davis, Brady Robinson and Jimmy Chin arrived ready for whatever they might find. They ended up scaling the south face of a peak at the mouth of the valley, a spire they named Tahir Tower, after a particularly helpful local military official. When they returned home, Jimmy told Steve about the giant mountain farther up the valley: the still little-known Link Sar.
A year later, Steve tried to climb the mysterious peak with George Lowe III, Joe Terravecchia, Steve Larson, Andy Tuthill and Eric Winkelman. Steve got delayed because of his work, and by the time he arrived, the team had reached a dead end: well over 1000 meters below the summit, a key couloir turned out to be loaded with hanging ice. They shifted their focus to the rock towers on the opposite side of the glacier, where they climbed long, thin cracks that soared toward a crest of pointy summits—which also proved to be out of reach.
The southeast wall of Link Sar stuck in Steve's mind as a riddle to solve. Near the end of the expedition, he scrambled up a different approach to the wall, accompanied by Tuthill, Winkelman and Larson, through lower bluffs and ibex pastures. Just below the steepest part of the Southeast Face, he studied the convoluted ridges, hanging ice and intricate buttresses. The immensity of the problem appealed to his analytical mind and his patience for massive projects. In 2015 he observed the same features again from Changi Tower, and he thought that he could see a passage to the summit. After we returned from Pakistan, Steve sent me a photo of Link Sar. In his opinion, he said, it was "one of the last great unclimbed peaks, particularly in the Karakoram." Even at age sixty-one, his desire had not diminished.
Wright on the first day of the climb. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
FINDING A GOOD ALPINE CLIMBING PARTNER can be as hard as finding a lifelong romantic partner: you're looking for someone who has a similar drive and set of inspirations, as well as the same parameters for what is and is not a good idea. In the autumn of 2015, my climbing partnership with Chris Wright started simply enough: a day of drinking espresso and cragging at Smith Rock near our homes. It escalated quickly: less than a year later, we sat next to each other on a small ledge, two days up a 2000-meter wall in a remote corner of the Saint Elias Mountains of Alaska. As we progressed through the courtship rituals of alpinists—looking at photos of unclimbed mountains and discussing the size of appropriate racks—Chris and I found that we were both fond of big, steep mountains. As an IFMGA certified mountain guide, he also shared my desire to stack the odds of survival in our favor.
Thus, when Steve and I started planning the 2017 Link Sar expedition, I suggested that we bring Chris. A young, strong climber, he could help us confront the huge scale of Link Sar. The three of us met up in the Canadian Rockies, and as our tools swung into ice and hooked on small limestone edges, we found an easy rhythm. With his decades of experience, Steve tempered our enthusiasm for routes that might have been hazardous. I trusted him, and I assumed his role would be to contribute this kind of expertise, while Chris and I would provide the youthful energy needed to get to the top. To my surprise, when we arrived at the crux pitch of an overhanging frozen waterfall, Steve asked in his calm, mild way, "Mind if I take the lead?"
Chris and I craned our necks. Beyond the shadows of the small cave where we stood, the ice hung rotting in the sun. I could hear the relief in both our voices when we agreed. Steve didn't climb fast, but he also never hesitated. He appeared at home in this steep, fragile world of opaque ice, yet keenly aware of the consequences of underestimating it. With each strike of his axe, he waited patiently for the placements that he needed for safe upward progress. This was, on a small scale, how we were going to climb Link Sar, one deliberate move at a time until each crystal and grain of ice, snow and rock added up to a 7000-meter mountain.
Of course, we weren't sure we'd get permission to attempt the peak. As far as we knew, no one had been allowed to access the east side of Link Sar since 2001. All subsequent teams had approached from the west, including Jonathan Griffith and Andy Houseman, who attained the top of a 6938-meter pinnacle, which they named Link Sar West, in 2015. But after long negotiations, we had a permit in hand. In July 2017, we stood on the Kaberi Glacier, looking up at the same foreshortened view of steep white snow, angular dark rock and hanging blue ice that Steve had seen sixteen years before. In the summer of 2017, Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi also tried Link Sar, by a separate route on the northeast face. After days of snowfall, they turned back and descended amid avalanches. By the end of August, we, too, had retreated—after reaching only 6000 meters.
The team prepares for a 36-hour storm at Camp III on Link Sar. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
SEPTEMBER 2017: When I returned to Bend, Shannon and I finished moving, acquired a dog and got married. I became preoccupied with my filmmaking business, while Shannon developed her career at a technology company. A new day-to-day existence felt increasingly normal: the comfort of a stable home contained within four wooden walls; the gentle babble of the river while we walked with Pebble the dog; the solidity of bolts to protect me when I climbed at the local crag; the joyous holler of "I'm home!" when Shannon walked in after a long work day; the warm ball of puppy fluff snuggled between our feet as we ate dinner on our new couch. But the vision of the sharp, icy summit of Link Sar—and of the path that wound through its elaborate bastions—was never far from my mind.
Soon, Chris, Steve and I began emailing eachother again. There was no question of whether we should try to return. It was simply a matter of when and how. As we discussed improvements in strategy, we decided to bring a fourth partner. Like Steve, Mark Richey was in his sixties and had a family. While running a woodworking business in New England, he'd climbed dozens of new routes in the Andes and made numerous ascents in the Greater Ranges, from ice-laced buttresses in India to snowy faces in Tibet. In 2012 he and Steve had received a Piolet d'Or, with Freddie Wilkinson, for the first ascent of 7518-meter Saser Kangri II in the Indian Karakoram. I didn't know Mark well, but I looked up to him. His addition seemed to create a balance between the power of youth and the wisdom of age. Mark's response to our invitation was emphatic: "Let's go do this thing!"
Wright during the final push toward the summit. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
JUNE 11, 2019: Once again, we were on our way to the Kaberi, and our brightly colored 1980s jeeps jostled up the improbable mountain road maintained by the Pakistani military. In the seat behind me, Steve peered out the window, while Rasool hung on to his shoulder. Outside, the granite wedge of Tahir Tower rose in clean, elegant angles. For a moment, I daydreamed about abandoning our goal and climbing its dry rock instead, with the sun shining on my back.
Farther up the valley, Link Sar was still hidden from view in a dark whorl of clouds. Local residents told us that the Karakoram had experienced one of the snowiest winters they remembered. When we arrived at base camp, a blanket of white still covered everything 1000 meters above us. Soon, we grew accustomed to the din of huge avalanches. I sat in the mess tent with Chris as we tried to read books. "Will it melt?" Chris asked. Like me, he seemed to be thinking more about the snow than about the pages in front of him. "I sure hope so," I said. I stood to gaze out the door at the mountain: its pale flanks dazzled under blasts of solar radiation. Exactly what we need, I thought. I hope.
The next day, after lunch, when we were all in the mess tent, I kept interrupting Steve and Mark to ask questions about the conditions. "Tell me about other times that you've been to the Karakoram in June: Have you ever seen this much snow here? What will it take to make it climbable?" Steve and Mark peered at their books through reading glasses, immersed in tales of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history and adventure, but they looked up, each time, to answer me.
Eventually, I realized how young and impatient I must have sounded, and I settled into the more methodical rhythm of a multi-month expedition. My hand stopped reaching for my phone in my pocket. Instead, Chris and I simply listened whenever our older partners talked, and they began sharing more memories of adventures amid the big mountains of the world. Steve described the experience of getting lost with his partners in a storm high on Latok II, only finding their tent by way of dead reckoning down a labyrinth of granite, snow and ice. Mark recounted how his expedition had made the second ascent of the East Ridge of Shivling, completing the fifty-six-pitch route more than a week faster than the first team by bringing less gear and climbing swift and light.
Gradually, I understood that the storytelling was a way of imparting indirect lessons. Again and again, the conclusions of their anecdotes reminded me of the core component of alpinism: we were here for the chance to make a dash to the top and back down, but the ultimate form of success was remaining friends and staying alive.
Yet, as the east face of Link Sar came in and out of view through swirling clouds, I knew there was no way to know what really awaited. At our feet, tarps were laden with hundreds of pounds of the most modern climbing equipment available. Above us, the snow line represented the boundary of a chaotic upper world, where the gold-green light of the meadows faded into dim shadows and pale forms. Would it be enough?
The team climbed some pitches at night to ensure they would be as safe as possible from falling rocks and melting ice in the hot, midsummer temperatures of the Karakoram. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman
AT 3600 METERS, in one of the deepest valleys of the Karakoram, our base camp was dusty and low. The thick air would do little to prepare us for the heights. In our strategy sessions back home, we'd laid out a plan for a well-stocked advanced base camp, about 1100 meters higher, past a series of bluff-filled meadows, where herds of ibex climbed. We hired a team of five local porters—who introduced themselves as Baqir, Jafar, Ibrahim and two men named Mehmood—to help carry loads to this site, and we trained them how to use prusiks on the ropes we fixed through bands of rock.
This season, the elevation of around 4700 meters put us just above the snow line, where the grass soon vanished under six feet of drifts. The porters moved quickly over the path that we'd tramped in the snow; then they hurried back to the dry valley. We began to excavate trenches and terraces to craft our new home. Rasool, now nearly seventy, stayed in base camp. His son Fida Ali and Nadeem joined us at advanced base camp to help build tent platforms, cook food and keep us company. During the day, their music blared from tinny speakers as they made tea and played cards. They seemed comfortable in these high hills that I found so intimidating. Their houses were fewer than twenty-five kilometers away, just below the south face of Masherbrum. Some of the buildings in their village were made from the same kinds of granite stones that we now used to construct our tent platforms. As the fourth week of the 2019 expedition came to an end, they told us about the hard work of looking after their herds of sheep at home and the challenges of living in the Karakoram during the winter, when deep cold and heavy snows settle over the range. They showed pictures on their phones of their growing families, and they laughed and shook their heads when I displayed images of my puppy in return.
Meanwhile, hot sunlight glared off the drifts around us, slowly melting them. In terms of horizontal distance, the summit was only a tantalizing three kilometers away. The vertical distance included 2300 meters of some of the steepest and most complex alpine terrain I'd ever considered. While I fretted about the wall that loomed above us, Mark sketched the vast panorama that already stretched below: the jagged peaks of Karmading Brakk and K13 glinted amid a turbulent sea of rock spires and granite walls. The strokes of his pencil drew accurate contours of the geography that spread before him, but his attention to detail on the steepest buttresses and the highest peaks demonstrated the real focus of his thoughts.
JULY 11: "Avalanche!" yelled Mark. I turned: a massive wet slab of snow slid down a bowl 500 meters above us. The debris came to a stop well away from our advanced base camp in a jumbled pile of white blocks, around five meters high and one hundred meters wide. Only an hour before, we'd discussed whether or not it was time to continue up the peak for more acclimatization. Now, we paused, as if frozen, in the midst of our tasks, to stare at the billowing snow.
No one disagreed.
A week later, glimmers of blue ice and gold-grey rock emerged below the layers of white. Although the probability of large avalanches lessened, we still needed to adapt before we reached the thin air at 7000 meters. We saw no easy way to gain altitude along the steep flanks of the glacier. The simplest solution was to start to climb on Link Sar itself. There, at least, because of our past attempts, we knew where to go.
We began our acclimatization in the evening to avoid the heat of the day when the debris of melting ice and dislodged stones fell from above. Chris led through a gash of opaque, off-white ice and darker grey rock while the sunset cast hues of orange and purple over the range behind us. Some of our old carabiners still stuck out from the ice from our stormy final attempt in 2017. With a laugh, Chris yelled, "We are redpointing!" and he clipped them to his rope.
Once full darkness set in, I continued onto the face above, where I found our former passage through icy rock corners and steep snow mushrooms. At times, the familiar route vanished under the drifts. Then I'd recognize a particular seam or edge, and I'd find myself moving in accustomed ways as memories reemerged from two years before. I found a comfortable seclusion in the night: the beam of my headlamp limited my world to the granite and ice in front of my face, and the scratch of my crampons on granite created a familiar rhythm, step after step, as I imagined myself climbing to the beat of the mountain at last. I whooped when I called "Off belay" to Chris, Mark and Steve.
We reached our old second camp without mishap, only to discover that what had once been a large flat ledge of ice had been heaved forward by glacial flow into an incline. A serac hung precariously overhead. As we headed for cover under the swell of a ridge, I noticed how much the thin air had already started to slow us. Our bodies moved sluggishly as if underwater. Beyond our previous high point, winding crests of snow and ice twisted around steep outcrops of rock and vanished into the unknown. The summit was around 1000 meters higher, concealed behind a large stony ridge. It felt desperately far away.
Approximately 1000 meters beneath the summit, Wright leads toward the serac that presented a major obstacle to the team's ascent. They eventually overcame the feature by climbing around and then behind the hanging ice. [Photo] Mark Richey
JULY 15: Clouds poured through the sky in an ever-expanding kaleidoscope of grey hues. Rain came and went. Finally acclimated, we were stuck in advanced base camp while storms spilled over the range. The snow continued to melt, leaving a slippery surface of mud and flattened grass around our tents. Even Steve and Mark seemed concerned as they peered out the door of the mess tent into the ashen air. Steve talked about spending twenty-eight days in a storm on K2 in the 1980s, patiently waiting for a weather window. Mark shared stories of mountains along the Tibetan Plateau that seemed buried under eternal shrouds of snow.
During a lull in the rain, I walked up the hillside with a foam pad and a cup of coffee. My bare feet sunk into the soft soil. As I looked across the precipitous sides of the valley above the rock-strewn glacier, I felt fully focused on the simplicity of the task at hand: to climb this peak with these men and stay alive. I thought about what it would mean to carry this kind of concentration back to my regular life, just as Mark and Steve had been doing for so many years. I looked into my future and I thought I saw clarity: a path of exertion and companionship. I believed that spending time in these mountains was about more than just completing a first ascent: these moments would somehow touch all my existence. I knew that attaining the summit didn't matter. The risks I undertook were meaningless. But that seemingly inaccessible point also meant everything to me and to those with me.
The rain started to fall again, and the mountaintops vanished behind smoky clouds. The silvery grey damp in the air seemed to permeate me with a cold shimmer of doubt. The metaphors I'd constructed in my mind fell apart. What was I really doing here? I walked back to Steve and Mark's tent, and we talked about life at home. I let my mind fill with images of warm, lamp-lit rooms and the echoes of distant, gentle voices. Steve thumbed his satellite communication device. "Guys, I just got a text," he said. "It looks like we have a window of clear weather on the way."
JULY 28: We were back at our second bivouac above advanced base camp. Once again, we scuttled to our tent platforms on an ice rib safe from all except the largest collapse. We moved faster, now: our bodies were more habituated. Still, as the serac barrier reared over our heads, I tried to picture how we'd surmount its concave ice in the 6000-meter air, and I winced.
The next day, however, Mark and Chris discovered a less-steep path that led around the side of the barrier and onto a tabletop of ice. When it was my turn to lead, I hoped to avoid the overhangs of ice that rose out of a gap between us and the main face like pale monsters in the depths. Finally, I saw a snow bridge that spanned the chasm. I stepped into the soft surface cautiously. It held my weight.
Once we'd all arrived on the other side, I relaxed into the steady cadence of ice-tool placements and crampon kicks into soft ice. Soon, I could feel moisture gathering in the air. Clouds started to close in around us. This time, we were prepared: the forecast had warned of another storm, and we'd brought enough food to wait it out. Nonetheless, it felt unnerving to be above 6000 meters under darkening skies. From the valley, when we'd gazed at the route through a long camera lens, we'd seen a large snowy platform. We hoped it would be safe, though we knew that distant observations and nearby realities aren't always in alignment.
I moved higher and deeper into the swirl of clouds. I first felt the slope start to flatten with my feet: a subtle change in the engagement of my crampons. I surged forward, forgetting that my friends were still simul-climbing on steeper terrain below. I pulled on the rope that connected us, unsure whether I was providing assistance or communicating my impatience. Honestly, I didn't care: we'd made it to our ledge, and it was on a protruding glacial ice feature, far from any overhead hazard. For the time, at least, we were safe.
IN THE DEPTHS of the night, we left that place of security. The forecast called for a clearing. I thought I could sense the grip of the snow and the winds slacken their hold. Instead, the storm tightened its grasp. Two hundred meters above our previous bivy, we sat down in the dark, in a blizzard. The beams of our headlamps reflected off swirling crystals while we waited for a break in the storm or the return of daylight—both seemed far away. The shoulders of my partners slumped forward under the pounding snow.
I concluded that any activity was better than our current inactivity. I found our shovel and started digging. Steve caught on to my plan, and then the others joined in. As I dug, I felt warmer. After an hour, the gusts still buffeted the mountain, but we were in a snow cave, sheltered and comfortable, laughing at the absurdity of our situation.
Finally, the sun came up. The morning light sparkled amid a dusting of snow that floated across the air. Shadowy forms of mountains crystallized again: the spindly granite summit of Changi Tower poked through the bright mist; the massive east ridge of Karmading Brakk seemed to crash through iridescent clouds into the valley below. Once more, we headed up.
AT FIRST, THE ICE above our snow cave was some of the best I'd experienced in the mountains: with just a single swing, my axes stuck. Then the firm surface gave way to seemingly fathomless drifts. Eight hours later, I stared between my feet: my partners were tied to a feeble anchor composed of a picket buried in loose snow and a screw twisted into soft ice. The rope was strung out for thirty meters between us, attached to nothing. As I dug a path upward, I hoped for a small patch of ice where I could swing my axe or place another screw. Instead, when I shoved in another picket, I tried to suppress the knowledge that if it slid in easily, it wasn't worth a damn.
I looked up to a serac wall that I hoped marked the end of the wallowing: its ancient grey ice undulated in the flat light. It seemed a little closer than it did the last time I'd checked, but still far away. Below my partners, the mountain face plunged for nearly 3000 meters into the depths of the Kaberi Valley. To the south, Changi formed a glittering spike of granite and ice against a background of steep walls. I remembered standing on the side of that peak four years before: the security of the ice and stone beneath me; the wonder I'd felt as I looked over at Link Sar, a fabled unclimbed mountain. What had drawn me to this peak, rather than to so many others? Why did it seem so important to stand on this one point on the vast earth, far away from so much that I love?
It was the middle of the night back home. Perhaps Shannon was sound asleep, curled up with our puppy. I paused my upward digging. Deep silences emerged between my loud gasps in the cold, thin air, and in those gaps, I thought I could hear their gentle breaths. I looked down again at my partners. Chris reclined against the snow slope to rest. Mark and Steve hung off the belay and gazed out over the range. They leaned toward the void, rather than away from it, as if at ease in this wild, high realm. I shook my head. It wasn't time to question why I had come to this space. I was here, now, and my friends depended on me.
Wright leading rotten snow on the final day of the climb. [Photo] Mark Richey
AUGUST 5: In the early light, the spiry apex of Link Sar turned an eerie blue that seemed to glow just above our bivouac ledge. But as we kept floundering through thigh-deep snow, the summit didn't appear to be getting any closer. The surface hardened, abruptly, while I was leading. I quickened my pace. Moments later, I felt a sudden confusion: the snow in front of me seemed to be shifting, its grains trickling like sand. For an instant, I thought I was hallucinating because of the altitude. Then I realized I was standing in the midst of a slab that had been hidden amid the wind-blasted snows. Now, it had broken off and begun to slide.
I tried to hang on to the mountain, but the stream of debris knocked my axes out of their hasty, shallow placements. "Falling," I screamed. My partners, around a corner, couldn't see me as I tumbled backward, slid headfirst for twenty meters, shot over a cliff and free-fell for another fifteen meters until the ropes caught over a rib of snow and ice. I stopped in midair, upside down, staring into 3000 meters of void.
A sense of cosmic solitude filled me as if I'd plummeted into outer space. My friends were still invisible, somewhere above. When I yelled toward the belay, I couldn't hear a reply. I righted myself and swung toward the wall to place a cam. If I could unweight the rope, they could at least know that I was conscious. I probed my body, expecting to find an injury, but I only noticed a single missing zipper pull. It must have been ripped from my pants. I reached in the pocket: my chapstick was still inside. I transferred it to another pocket. That act felt like my first moment of control after the fall.
EVENTUALLY, WITH MANY SHOUTS back and forth, my partners and I established that no one had been hurt by the avalanche. Two hours later, I was back at the belay in tears. I embraced Steve, Mark and Chris one at a time. Their gaze wandered over my torso and legs, looking for some injury that I'd missed.
"Man, we didn't know what had happened to you over there," Steve said. He placed his hand on my shoulder. "We're getting ready to go down." He looked me directly in the eyes. His gaze appeared serene, as though the thought of retreat didn't bother him. Mark and Chris remained silent. From time to time, they turned to glance at the summit, fewer than 150 meters above. Its remaining icefields looked insignificant compared to the massive face that now plummeted beneath us. Its apex still gleamed like a blue-white star. I thought I could feel their longing, as well as my own.
"Guys, I'm coming down from a pretty intense adrenaline rush," I said. A chill crept into my body, and my head felt light. "But I'm not hurt. I'm going to huddle into my down jacket and sit on the anchor. If one of you is up for leading, let's go up because Lord knows that there is no fucking way I am coming back up here after this."
After a short discussion, in which I didn't take part, Chris took over the lead. Avoiding the now-obvious portion of unstable snow, he moved slowly and deliberately, trying not to waste any energy. I could tell that he was fatigued from days of exertion at altitude, but a single-minded drive for the summit kept him heading upward.
For the last two months, my mental vector had been clearly defined. I'd had two goals: to make good decisions and to reach the top of Link Sar. Now I felt lost. Most of the ascent was behind me, but I was scared. The path upward seemed as nebulous as my purpose in following it. I longed for the kind of safety that only existed far below, days of rappelling away. I rarely hand off my decision-making to others, even when the stakes are low. But there I was, high in the Karakoram, placing the responsibility for my well being completely in my partners' actions. And I was planning to continue even higher with them, despite having just taken a huge fall at 6900 meters on a giant unclimbed peak.
Around us, the shadows of Karakoram mountains lengthened. The air shone with a late-afternoon gold. The rope came tight on my waist. I was on belay again. One by one, I pictured my partners' faces: their sunburnt, wind-burned skin; their frost-plastered hair and bright eyes. High on the mountain, the differences between our ages had blurred: we each appeared aged by effort and altitude; we were each rejuvenated by friendship and hope; our separate experiences had merged into one well of knowledge. I trusted these men. My body remained strong. I still deeply wanted to climb Link Sar. I quieted my thoughts, and I headed uphill.
WITH EACH STEP, I now felt haunted by a deep, instinctual craving for security for myself and my friends. Three pitches later, when I arrived at Chris's anchor, the bollard around a thin snow mushroom and the picket in soft snow didn't seem like enough to me, compared to the enormity of the mountain beneath our feet. I crawled into a hole in the snow—so I could act as a "deadman," a part of the anchor.
The summit was now just twenty meters above us. But as Chris started plunging the shafts of his ice tools into the steep slope, they sheared through loose drifts, without catching on anything or creating any tangible pathway for upward progress. He came back to the belay unsure of what to do.
"Is it simply a large cornice?" Mark said.
"Are we on top?" Steve said.
"Are we failing?" I asked myself silently.
Mark craned his neck to study the slate of snow that led toward the top. I knew he had experience with this kind of terrain from the Peruvian Andes.
"Mark, I think you're the only one who knows how to deal with this," I said.
"Yeah, I'll go see what it looks like," he said.
Up to this point, I realized, he'd been holding back his eagerness to lead, knowing that Chris and I could go faster than he could, simply by virtue of our youth. Now his desire shone, unconcealed, in his eyes: a glint of a much-younger man.
As Mark headed out, he seemed to be casting off into a sea of floating, vertical drifts. I knew that we needed a new anchor for the descent: my teammates couldn't leave me as one on the mountain. Steve smiled wryly as he dug deeper into the snow. Nearly an hour later, Mark shouted that he'd reached the summit. Just then, Steve called out that he'd found a deep vein of ice for a V-thread anchor. Our path to the top was clear—as was the first step back toward the safety of advanced base camp. Thirty minutes later, we were all on the apex of Link Sar.
I arrived last, to a deep embrace from Chris. I don't remember sharing much in the way of spoken sentiments or congratulations. We simply screamed to the mountains around us. Sunset cast waves of purple hues over the immensity of the Karakoram. Some of the steepest and wildest mountains of the world enfolded us in all directions. For a moment, I let myself feel a sense of accomplishment: maybe we had made the right choice to keep going up after the fall. But I also knew that I could never be certain how much of that result was due to luck.
Here and there, rays of dusk illuminated thin crests of ridges: first gold, then pink and violet. Clouds drifted over deep voids. Ripples of light and shadow, snow and stone extended to every vanishing point until the earth blurred with the sky, and in the vastness of it all, I felt a glimpse of something other—something more essential than success. There were no words. There was only the afterglow of depths of shared exertion and inexpressible partnership. Then I declared, "Let's get the fuck off this mountain safely," and we started our descent.
Zimmerman and Wright descending Link Sar. [Photo] Steve Swenson
AUGUST 8: Three days later, I sat down in the meadow at advanced base camp, and the wildflowers seemed to explode around me. Colors and fragrance overwhelmed my senses, after so much time in a sharp-edged, nearly monochromatic world of rock, ice and snow. Chris, Mark and Steve sat beside me. Finally, we were in a place where we could truly rest.
Nadeem and Fida Ali joined us. They'd prepared a celebratory meal of French fries, fried chicken, tuna salad and chapatis, and they now asked us questions: "How was the summit?" "Do you feel good?" They, too, were able to relax for the first time since our departure, nine days ago. Their relieved smiles now hinted at just how tense their own long vigil had been.
Steve, Mark, Chris and I peeled off our shirts in hot, sunny air. My partners' muscles were worn thin by days of hunger. Their faces were still slightly puffy from the exertion at altitude, but their eyes were sharp from the experiences we'd shared in the heights. In that particular space of exertion and concentration, they'd known me better than anyone else had. And there, I'd trusted them more than anyone else in my life. I would always love these men.
Leaning back into the grass, I shut my eyes. I allowed myself to engage with all the emotions I'd kept closed off while I was in the deep focus of climbing. The shelter of advanced base camp felt sweeter than it ever had before. I luxuriated in the softness and scents of the earth around me, the warmth of the sun's rays on my eyelids, the steady murmur of my friends' conversations. I let my world once again expand to encompass the rest of my life in space and time: the joyful flash of Shannon's blue eyes; the waving flag of Pebble's tail; the green smell of the ponderosa forests near my home. I understood that the fall I'd taken might forever change my perspective on the mountains. I could no longer think of my exposure to acute risk as merely theoretical: the physical reality of the hazards was now ingrained in my own memory.
I stepped away from the group and called Shannon on the satellite phone to let her know that we were down safe. It was the middle of the night in Oregon. From her groggy voice, I could tell that I'd woken her from a deep slumber. "Good job, honey," she said. Her tone quickened with delight as she realized we were finally down safe. "I am going to sleep much better now." I told her I would call again at a more reasonable hour. I stood still for a while, holding the phone. Even after it went silent, I imagined I could feel the echo of her voice in my hand. It was as if I'd taken my first step home. Uphill from me, my partners were texting and calling their loved ones on their personal communication devices. The news of our success was reaching the rest of the world, and with it we were being pulled away from the experience. Our partnership—which only hours ago seemed like a beautifully defined world of its own—was transforming into something less simple, more diluted.
I thought back to the certainty that I'd felt in this same place, just a few weeks prior, when I'd imagined a clear path into the future. Climbers often repeat a quotation from Rene Daumal, "You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above.... There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know."
What, in fact, had I seen, if anything, on this peak? I recalled long, murky labyrinths of granite and ice, seracs and chasms. Perhaps such moments of stumbling through uncertainties might be more relevant to actual life in the lower regions than the brief, seeming clarity of a summit view. That vision of fleeting beauty, formed of fading light and violet air, had already vanished, leaving only an afterglow that was growing increasingly dim.
For now, the impression of wonder seemed to have drifted down the mountain, suffusing the vivid greens of the meadows, the glossy textures of petals and blades of grass. The expansive love that I felt, for my friends, for Shannon, for everything that surrounded me—all this should be enough joy to sustain a full existence. Was there a way to remain in this state of mind forever? Would my awareness of the reality of risk push me to stay closer to home, away from those mountains? Or as the euphoria of survival dimmed, would I end up convincing myself that I could simply use that experience to make better decisions?
Amid the blur of exhaustion, another mountain stood out from the vast panoramas that I'd glimpsed from high on Link Sar. It rose alone in my mind: attractive, terrifying and unknown; its ridges of ice and rock struck downward into a deep valley, unseen, far below. I suspected that my partners, lying in the grass nearby, had noticed its mass, and that its image was also swimming in their fatigue-ridden consciousness. I pushed the thought aside: this wasn't the time to discuss other objectives or to engage with the future. But I also knew that the mark this next mysterious peak had left on my mind wouldn't disappear. It would only grow and develop until I'd gone to see it close up: the ridges of ice and rock that soared to a small pointy summit and the potential path that wound through the steep ribs and ice-etched buttresses of dark stone.
[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]
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