Latok I - A Climb Without a Summit

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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - Apr 26, 2009 - 07:11pm PT
This route set the mark for bold alpine style in the Himalaya for an American team. Enter the A team, most of whom post here! From Climbing March/April 1979.



















Any reflections on this adventure guys, thirty years on?
WBraun

climber
Apr 26, 2009 - 07:48pm PT
The sherpa has the "look" of OMG!!! after seeing the 120 lb pack he's got to lug to the base for 15 cents a day!!!!



More Air

Big Wall climber
S.L.C.
Apr 26, 2009 - 10:52pm PT
Thanks Steve:

Yeah, I was a little disappointed the article was so short, because I wanted to hear all about it. Fortunately George Lowe came through town soon after the climb and gave a slide show. It was very memorable. Many of the slides included these ridiculously exposed bivys cut into the knife edged corniced ridges.
marty(r)

climber
beneath the valley of ultravegans
Apr 27, 2009 - 05:31pm PT
Let's see how the new kid on the block fares. It's a hell of a wall.

"Colin Haley, North Ridge of Latok 1, Pakistan; with Josh Wharton and Dylan Johnson. The climbers propose an attempt on this longstanding, oft-attempted (20 attempts) prize of Himalayan Mountaineering, climbed nearly to the summit in 1978. They propose beginning on snow and ice beside the ridge crest, to make quicker progress down low."

(from the Muggs Stump Award site: http://www.bdel.com/mugs_stump/);
Gene

climber
Apr 27, 2009 - 05:34pm PT
Jello with Dengue up there. Boggles my tiny mind. Took me six month to recover from D at sea level. Jello is the MAN.

gm
ontheedgeandscaredtodeath

Trad climber
San Francisco, Ca
Apr 27, 2009 - 06:40pm PT
Wow, what a line.

Thanks for posting these historical pieces.

yo

climber
I drink your milkshake!
Apr 28, 2009 - 10:33pm PT
Dream team bump


Cut 'n run like little schoolgirls, hehe.
Mimi

climber
Apr 29, 2009 - 01:25am PT
Bump for the big four!

Please tell us a story. Epic!
Michael Kennedy

Social climber
Carbondale, Colorado
Apr 29, 2009 - 08:57am PT
Here is the meat of an article I wrote for Rock & Ice, published in issue 157, March 2007.

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.

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.

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

Social climber
Carbondale, Colorado
Apr 29, 2009 - 09:00am PT
And here is the history.

Latok I North Ridge
7145 meters/23,441 feet

Latok I, located between the Choktoi and Biafo Glaciers in the Karakoram of Northern Pakistan, is guarded on all sides by steep rock buttresses and hanging glaciers, and presents no obviously safe and easy path to its summit. The North Ridge is the exception, at least as far as safety goes; while there is some danger from serac fall at the base of the route, you pass quickly through the hazard zone, and once on the route you only have to deal with the more manageable risks of cornices, snow mushrooms and technical difficulty.

The route has been tried at least 20 times since we were there in 1978, including multiple attempts by the same climbers. No one has yet reached our high point, poor weather and too much snow being the usual barriers. What will it take for someone to complete the North Ridge? A well-acclimatized team climbing in pure alpine style should be able reach our snow-cave site at about 23,000 feet in four or five days. Another day should suffice to reach the summit and return to this high bivouac, with two more days to complete the descent. Carrying a minimum of seven days of food and fuel and sufficient hardware to rappel such a long route would be brutal but necessary. In the end, luck will probably be a big factor, as the ideal combination of good weather, dry conditions, and sufficiently motivated and skilled climbers will be elusive at best.

With a few exceptions, the attempts on the North Ridge have been in at least as good a style as ours. It is my hope that future parties will continue to treat the route with respect by leaving as little trace of their passage as possible.

The following chronology is as complete as possible given the source material available. I welcome additional details of these or other attempts I may have missed.

July-September, 1975 – A Japanese team led by Makoto Hara circumnavigates the Latok group via the Biafo, Simgang, Choktoi, Panmah, and Baltoro Glaciers. Avalanches and rockfall prevent any significant attempts.

July-August, 1976 – A Japanese team led by Yoshifumi Itatani attempts the couloir between Latok I and Latok III (Latok East), reaching about 18,700 feet before turning back in the face of serac fall.

August-September, 1977 – An Italian team led by Arturo Bergamaschi investigates the route attempted by the Japanese in 1976, but decides it’s too dangerous. They make the first ascent of Latok II from the Baintha Lukpar Glacier.

June-July, 1978 – Americans Jim Donini, Michael Kennedy (Canadian by birth but resident in the United States), Jeff Lowe and George Lowe attempt the 8,000-foot North Ridge, climbing capsule-style and spending 26 days on the route. They reach a high point of about 23,000 feet.

1979 – A Japanese team led by Naoki Takada makes the first (and to date only) ascent of Latok I via the South Face. After a lengthy siege and fixing much rope and three camps on the rock buttress left of the couloir between Latok I and Latok III, six members reach the top on two separate days. June-July.

July, 1982 – British climbers Martin Boysen, Choe Brooks, Rab Carrington and John Yates attempt the North Ridge twice, the second time to a high point of about 19,000 feet.

July, 1986 – Norwegians Olav Basen, Fred Husoy, Magnar Osnes, and Oyvind Vlada attempt the North Ridge, fixing at least 600 meters of rope and reaching a high point of about 21,000 feet after 18 days on the route. They spend another 10 days in heavy snow before giving up.

July-August, 1987 – French climbers Roger Laot, Remy Martin, and Laurent Terray fix rope on the first 600 meters of the North Ridge, and encountering heavy snow, turn back at about 19,700 feet.

June, 1990 – British climbers Sandy Allan, Rick Allen, Doug Scott and Simon Yates, and Austrian Robert Schauer make a number of climbs in the area, but don’t attempt their primary objective due to “the difficult and dangerous snow conditions and the forbidding appearance of the pendulous snow mushrooms adorning the North Ridge of Latok I.”

July-August, 1992 – Jeff Lowe (U.S.) and Catherine Destivelle (France) try the North Ridge, encountering huge snow mushrooms on the route. Carol McDermott (New Zealand) and Andy McFarland, Andy MacNae and Dave Wills (Great Britain) reach about 19,300 feet on the route during two attempts the same summer.

July-August, 1993 – Americans Julie Brugger, Andy DeKlerk, Colin Grissom and Kitty Calhoun attempt the North Ridge, turning back at about 18,000 feet in the face of bad weather.

August-September, 1994 – British climbers Brendan Murphy and Dave Wills try the North Ridge, reaching a high point of about 18,300 feet on their second attempt.

July-August, 1996 – Murphy and Wills return, reaching about 20,000 feet before a dropped rucksack forces retreat. Two subsequent attempts are thwarted at 19,300 feet by poor weather.

August, 1997/1998 – Americans John Bouchard and Mark Richey attempt the route three times, the last with Tom Nonis and Barry Rugo, reaching a high point of about 20,000 feet. Unlike previous expeditions, they report high temperatures and dry conditions, which resulted in “considerable melting and rockfall from high on the face.” They follow the rock pillar from the bottom of the route, finding superb climbing up to 5.10. Bouchard, Richey and Lyle Dean return the following year for another attempt, but never get on the North Ridge due to bad weather.

August, 2001 – Wojciech Kurtyka (Poland) and Yasushi and Taeko Yamanoi (Japan) have a permit for the North Ridge but never attempt it due to poor weather. Stein Gravdal, Halvor Hagen, Ole Haltvik and Trym Saeland (Norway) reach about 20,500 feet after 15 days on the route.

2004/2005/2006 – Twin brothers Willie and Damian Benegas (Argentina) try the North Ridge three years in a row. The first two years they encounter much snow and bad weather during their attempts in June and July; they find drier conditions in
August 2006, but a major storm stops them at about 18,000 feet.

August, 2006 – Maxime Turgeon and Louis-Phillipe Menard (Canada) attempt the futuristic North Face, retreating from 17,400 feet in the face of dangerously warm conditions. They turn their attention to the North Ridge, but are turned back at a similar altitude by deep, fresh snow covering the previously dry rock.

Sources:
The American Alpine Journal (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999)
The Alpine Journal (1991/92, 1993, 1997)
Alpinist (Number 2, Number 4, website story 9/18/06)
High Magazine (#171, 1997; #234, 2002)


SteveW

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Apr 29, 2009 - 10:40am PT
Just Amazing!
Thanks Michael.


A truly inspired adventure!
philo

Trad climber
boulder, co.
Apr 29, 2009 - 10:57am PT
Outstanding! Thank you for posting this legendary adventure up. This reminds me of the inspirations that fueled my dreams and ambitions. I so clearly remember when news of this mighty climb came out. Most of us mere mortals were utterly slack jawed by the audacity and brilliance of their effort. Most younger climbers probably don't understand what their style of ascent meant in those days. In those days the standard was huge expeditions sieging slowly upward. Self contained alpine style was in it's infancy and only on smaller peaks. This mighty accomplishment, albeit devoid of a summit, set a benchmark of achievement and style that still stands today three decades later. Bravo to the A Team.
Olihphant

climber
Somewhere over the rainbow
Apr 29, 2009 - 10:59am PT
That goes double ditto for me.
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Apr 29, 2009 - 11:00am PT
Thanks Steve and Michael. Brings back memories- most of them painfull.
Riotch

Trad climber
Kayenta, Arizona
Apr 29, 2009 - 11:07am PT
One of those rare and inspiring adventures where the original objective becomes irrelevant, and survival becomes the sweetest victory.
Michael Kennedy

Social climber
Carbondale, Colorado
Apr 29, 2009 - 11:23am PT
Jim, Jeff and George were the A team - I was merely hanging on.
Olihphant

climber
Somewhere over the rainbow
Apr 29, 2009 - 11:30am PT
Yeah right!
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Apr 29, 2009 - 11:38am PT
I'll second that- yeah right!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Apr 29, 2009 - 12:13pm PT
This Antonio Machado poem seems appropriate for this thread. Just discovered it a couple of days ago.


"Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path. . ."

Antonio Machado

Who had the desire to try Latok first out of the team? Shipton's travels came pretty close, if I recall correctly, to the Latok group.

Michael Kennedy

Social climber
Carbondale, Colorado
Apr 29, 2009 - 01:10pm PT
I saw a Shipton photo of Latok I in the mid-70s, but George and Jeff were the ones who got the trip going. Not sure if you were in on the early stages or not, Jim. I was the last one invited on the trip, as I remember. A mere opportunist.

Here's what I wrote about this stellar lot:

As a naďve 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.
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