[from the expedition's press release dated August 15, 2019] From July 31st to August 8th, 2019 Graham Zimmerman, Steve Swenson, Chris Wright and Mark Richey made the first ascent of Link Sar (7041m) in the Central Pakistani Karakoram via its 3400m Southeast Face. 

 

 

 

Photo: Matteo Della Bordella

 

 

Having been the object of at least nine expeditions, the first

ascent of this peak has been a highly sought-after prize for the climbing community. The

team is calling their route the Southeast Face (M6+ WI4 90°, 2300m), but the grade does a

poor job of portraying the challenge of this route that Karakoram veteran Swenson calls

“one of the most complex and difficult routes I have ever climbed.”

 

Swenson originally attempted the route in 2001 with George Lowe, Joe Terrevecia, Steve

Larson, Andy Tuthill and Eric Winkleman. It was an amazing opportunity for the team since

the face lies very near the contested border between Pakistan and India (known as the

actual ground position line or AGPL), and the eastern aspects of the mountain had not been

permitted since the mid 1970’s when a Japanese team made the first attempts to reach the

summit. Despite the fact that the team did not make it very high on the peak, it inspired

Swenson to return, and he made repeated attempts over the following decade to get

another permit for the peak but was denied.

 

Over the ensuing years, a number of attempts were made on the peak’s western aspect

via the Charakusa Valley.

 

In 2015, Swenson and Zimmerman, along with Scott Bennett made the first ascent of

nearby Changi Tower (6500m) via its North Ridge (M6 5.10 A2, 1200m) and from its summit

caught an excellent view of the massive southeast face, supplying better information about

the best way to climb the route and further spurring motivations to attempt the mountain.

In 2017, it looked like the area was once again opening to climbing, and Swenson and

Zimmerman were finally given a permit to access Link Sar’s southeast face. They also

invited Wright on the expedition as he and Zimmerman had formed a strong partnership in

the mountains of Alaska. During this two and half month expedition, the team experienced

atrocious weather, and after multiple attempts reached only 5900m. Despite the failure to

climb the peak that season, the team made a myriad of observations of the face's immense

complexities, providing them with the information that they needed to make an ascent that

was safe from the many objective hazards that litter the wall.

 

This year, the three climbers, alongside Mark Richey, with whom Steve won a Piolet d’Or

(the equivalent of a gold medal in alpinism) in 2012, returned to the southeast Face. They

departed their homes in the United States on June 4th.

 

The approach to the peak is made via the Kondus Valley and then up the Kaberi Glacier.

Since it is in the militarized area near the AGPL, there is a road that runs adjacent to the

glacier and up to the location of the team's basecamp where they arrived on June 10th. The

elevation of this basecamp was 3600m.

 

From their past experience, they knew one of the primary cruxes of the route was

acclimatization. The Kaberi valley is one of the deepest in the Karakoram and its walls are

precipitously steep. On most 7000m peaks, a nearby easier 6000m peak would be used to

acclimatize before starting on the primary objective, but no such peak exists in the Kaberi,

so the team was forced to use the lower portions of their route on the SE face for

acclimatization. To help with this, they set up an advanced basecamp at top of the

meadows that make up the bottom 1100m of the face. In order to do this, they hired 5 local

porters for whom they fixed a network of ropes on a series of easy, but exposed, low

5th class slabs to ensure their safety while making the ascent to ABC.

The team had ABC established by July 4th, but at this point were forced to wait for the

conditions on the mountain to improve. The 2018-19 winter in the Karakoram was one of the

snowiest on record, making the mountain very dangerous, a fact that was emphasized by a

size 3 wet slab avalanche that was observed low on the mountain from ABC on July 7th.

Thankfully, the weather in early to mid-July was excellent and allowed for conditions to

improve considerably at which point the team was able to climb to 6000m on the peak and

consider themselves sufficiently acclimatized to attempt the route.

 

On the morning of July 31st, the team started their alpine style attempt on the route from

advanced basecamp at 7:30am (the disparity between the 3400m face and the 2300m

‘route’ come from the fact that they started from ABC). During the cool morning hours, they

climbed steep snow and glacial terrain to a camp at 5100m where they spent the afternoon

resting before launching on the lower crux of the route in the early evening.

 

Climbing at night was a necessity due to the intense heat at that altitude on the

southeastern aspect. The crux section of the route involved 10 sustained pitches of climbing

up to M6+ that even in the middle of the night were in very warm, wet and subsequently

challenging conditions. Arriving at an excellent and safe bivy at 5900m around 9:30am, they

once again stopped to wait out the heat of the day as well as recover from climbing through

the night.

 

The following morning, they departed just before dawn. Above the second camp was a

serac barrier that was both a cause for concern in terms of overhead hazard, and presented

a considerable challenge to circumnavigate. It is important here to note that this serac wall

had changed significantly from when the team had observed it in 2017 and presented as a

major surprise. Luckily, the team was able to find a way around the right hand side of the

wall that involved minimal exposure and well formed WI4 ice climbing. After one hundred

meters of easier climbing, the team found themselves at another large and safe bivouac at

6200m situated below the final mixed band of the route.

 

At this point, the team hunkered down for a forecasted 36 hours of bad weather that arrived

in the mid-afternoon of August 3rd, their 3rd day on the route.

 

On August 5th, at 3am, they departed their 3rd bivy in poor weather relying on the clearing

forecasted for that morning. An hour above camp, they were forced to stop as they were

facing technical mixed climbing in weather that had still not improved. They dug a snow

cave in order to stay warm and get out of the blowing snow, where they waited until 9am.

When the weather finally cleared and they were able to continue, three excellent pitches of

ice and mixed ground led to a large snow fin that involved five pitches of very challenging

and unprotectable snow climbing and one pitch of steep and hard serac ice.

At sunset, they finally reached a good bivy site at about 6700m.

 

Starting at sunrise on the 5th of August, the team left their tents in place and launched for

the summit. An excellent pitch of alpine ice led to more challenging snow climbing

intermixed with short sections of ice and mixed terrain. The nature of the climbing gave the

team little confidence in their ability to reach the summit, even as it seemed to loom just

overhead. In the final dramatic pitches to the summit Wright gave an excellent effort,

reaching a point ~20m below the top after a long lead block, where he was turned around

by steep, unconsolidated snow. Richey, who has a deep background in the steep

challenging snow conditions of Peru then set off into the final meters reaching the summit at

sunset.

 

As can be imagined, the team was elated. The route had taken 6 days of hard climbing

during which they ascended over thirty technical pitches and covered roughly 8000 vertical

feet from their advanced basecamp and about 11,300’ from BC.

On August 8th, 9 days after departing, the team arrived back at advanced basecamp. The

descent off the peak had taken three days due to the challenge of making anchors in the

bad snow conditions and the need for the team to once again wait out the heat of the days.

This first ascent of Link Sar had taken a maximal physical and mental effort from the entire

team. It required all of their collective experience and strength. They are proud to report that

the intense decision making required to make the ascent safely came from a very

democratic, discussion-oriented decision making process without which they do not feel

that they would have reached the top of this elusive and beautiful summit.

 

Finally, it is important to note that the expedition was undertaken adhering to strict

environmental standards, deep respect for the communities local to the Karakoram and that

the carbon footprint incurred by the expedition has been calculated and will be offset (with

the help of Protect Our Winters).

 

The team would like to first and foremost thank their families and friends for supporting

them in the endeavor to climb this peak. They would also like to thank their sponsors and

those who provided them funding for the expedition: The American Alpine Club, The Mount

Everest Foundation, The British Mountaineering Council, The New Zealand Alpine Club,

Outdoor Research, Arctyryx, Exped USA, Scarpa, Petzl, Julbo USA, Trail Butter, Picky Bars,

Pro Bar, Mountain Safety Research, Thermarest, Voile, CiloGear, Transcend and CW-X.

Additionally the team would like thank Jim Woodmency for his excellent weather

forecasting. And finally, they would like to thank those in Pakistan who helped them make

this trip happen, namely Nazir Sabir Expeditions, Alpine Adventure Guides, Captain Umair

Tariq and their dear friends and local staff, Hajji Rasool, Nadeem and Fida Ali.

 

TEAM MEMBER BIOS:

 

Graham Zimmerman, Expedition Leader - (NZ/USA)

Graham is a 33 year old film and media producer, climbing athlete and owner of Bedrock Film Works based in

Bend, OR where he lives with his wife Shannon McDowell and dog, Pebble the Doddle. He has 18 years of

experience alpine climbing with 20 expeditions to technical new routes in the big mountains. His resume

includes:

-2016 Cutting Edge Award for Excellent in Alpinism (USA)

-2014 Finalist, Piolet d’Or (France)

-2010 NZ Alpinist of the Year (New Zealand)

-First Ascent of “The Indirect American”, (M7 WI4+, 3,300’), Macdonald Peak, BC, Canada February 2019

-First Ascent of the Southwest Ridge (M6, 90°, 6000’) of K6 West (7040m), Pakistani Karakoram, August 2015

-First Ascent of the Northeast Buttress (V, M7, WI4, A1, 4,700’) of Mt Laurens, Lacuna Glacier, Alaska, May 2013

-Many other big First Ascents in the mountains of Pakistan, Alaska, Canada, Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and NZ

 

Steve Swenson (USA)

Steve is a 65 year old retired engineer based in Seattle, WA and Canmore, AB where he lives with his wife Ann

Dalton. He is one of America’s most prolific alpinists with over 40 years of experience alpine climbing with 30+

expeditions to technical new routes in the big mountains. His resume includes:

-Winner of 2012 Piolet d’Or

-First Ascent Changi Tower (6500m) via the North Ridge (M6, 5.10 A2, 1400m), Pakistani Karakoram, Aug 2015

-First Ascent of Saser Kangri II (7518m) via the south face. Indian Karakoram, 2012

-First Alpine Style Ascent (2nd overall) of Latok 2 (7108m) via the South Ridge. Pakistani Karakoram, 2006

-Second US ascent of K2 (8611m) via it’s North Ridge w/o oxygen. Chinese Karakoram, Led expedition 1990

-Many other significant first ascents and repeats the world over including an ascent of Mount Everest.

 

Chris Wright (UK/USA)

 

Chris is a 36 year old mountain guide and owner of Now! Climbing. He based in Bend, OR. He has 15 years of

experience alpine climbing with 12 expeditions to technical new routes in the big mountains. His resume

includes:

-IFMGA Mountain Guide (93rd American), February 2014

-First Ascent of “The Indirect American”, (M7 WI4+, 3,300’), Macdonald Peak, BC, Canada February 2019

-First Ascent of the West Face Direct, (M6 5.10x A2+ 95°, 6,000’), Celeno Peak (13,395’), Saint Elias, AK May

2016

-First Ascent of Pangbuk North (6,589m) via Purgation (VI WI6+ M6 3,600’), Khumbu, Nepal, Oct 2013

-First Ascent of ‘Terror (VI WI6 M7 R/X A2 5,000’) on the east face of The Moose's Tooth, Alaska, April 2013

-Many other FAs in Alaska, OR, CO , WA, Nepal, India, Norway and elsewhere

 

Mark Richey (USA)

 

Mark is a 61 year old owner of Mark Richey Woodworking. He based in Newbury, Mass where he lives with his

wife Teresa. He has been one of America’s leading alpinists for over 30 years. His resume includes:

-Winner of 2012 Piolet d’Or

-First Ascent of Saser Kangri II (7518m) via the south face. Indian Karakoram, 2012

-First Alpine Style Ascent (2nd overall) of Latok 2 (7108m) via the South Ridge. Pakistani Karakoram, 2006

-First Ascent of Yamandaka, Indian Karakoram, 2001

-First Alpine Style Ascent of East Ridge of Shivling, Indian Himalaya, 1996

-First Ascent of the East Face of Kayesh, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, 1983

-Many other significant first ascents and repeats the world over including an ascent of Mount Everest.