I stood outside the kitchen tent looking across the Kaberi Glacier and listened to the clapping of chapati being made. I was surrounded by ice-capped granite peaks, and everything within view was unclimbed except for Changi Tower, which Scott Bennett, Graham Zimmerman and I climbed four years earlier in 2015 from the Nangmah Valley side.
This was my third attempt of Link Sar (7,041 meters), whose summit measured 11,000 feet above our base camp. Exploration of unclimbed high mountains in remote places is what I enjoy most, and Link Sar was a perfect fit. It’s one of the world’s few remaining unclimbed 7,000-meter peaks and located in an area that has been either closed or inaccessible to outsiders for most of the past century. Link Sar is steep on every side and towers over this deep valley like Mount Rainier does to Puget Sound.
My attempts on Link Sar had spanned the previous two decades, a period including numerous expeditions to unclimbed peaks or new routes in the Karakoram. But, now 65, I’ve been climbing in the high mountains for over a half century and I wondered if I was aging out of my ability to climb a world-class objective like Link Sar. With this question looming in the back of my mind, the simple act of walking to our mess tent for a meal and absorbing the magnificence of my surroundings filled me with joy.
By the time we arrived in June of 2019, at least eight previous expeditions had failed to reach the summit of Link Sar. It wasn’t just technical difficulties—the region had a history of being closed to climbers because of the conflict between India and Pakistan over who owned Kashmir, the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent.
In 1979, a few years after Pakistan-administered Karakoram had been reopened following a decade-long closure, a Japanese expedition was permitted to make the first attempt on Link Sar, but they turned back after reaching 5,700 meters.
By 1982, the Pakistanis closed the valleys they controlled west of the Siachen Glacier and the Saltoro Ridge to climbers, including the Kondus, citing military activities. In the early spring of 1984, India launched Operation Meghdoot—Cloud Messenger—by airlifting troops via helicopters onto all the major passes along the Saltoro Ridge. The Pakistanis launched a counteroffensive that never succeeded in displacing the Indian troops, and the conflict resulted in a standoff comparable to a modern-day version of World War I trench warfare in the eastern Alps.
These valleys in the Pakistan Karakoram would be closed to climbers for most of the next 35 years. In 2000 an exception was made, and Jimmy Chin, Steph Davis, Brady Robinson and Dave Anderson were allowed to climb in the Kondus and named their climb Tahir Tower after the commander of the Pakistan Army, Siachen Brigade, who helped them obtain permission.
Afterward, Jimmy shared some photos and pointed out that the mountain dominating the Kondus Valley above the village of Karmading was Link Sar, an unclimbed 7000-meter peak. I wanted in. Timing is everything and openings of these restricted areas can be fickle so I applied right away and, in 2001, received a permit for Link Sar
The 2001 Expedition
The government of Pakistan had been extending roads up the main valleys to serve small villages, and in the upper Kondus Valley a road was constructed by the military beyond any populated areas to supply troops faced off with Indian soldiers.
It was possible to drive to Link Sar’s base camp (BC) along this narrow jeep track blasted out of the cliffs above the Kaberi Glacier. For business reasons, I couldn’t join the 2001 expedition until three weeks after Steve Larson, George Lowe, Joe Terraveccia, Andy Tuthill and Eric Winkelman had reached BC. The team followed the 1979 Japanese route to where they could see it was threatened by tottering house-sized seracs capable of calving tons of ice onto any climbers willing to venture beneath them. I arrived just after this threat forced a retreat to BC.
We then spotted a different route on the southeast face that zigzagged up the wall to avoid climbing under seracs. We explored the lower part of this route but didn’t have the time or resources to get much higher than about 5,200 meters. This route seemed promising, and we planned on returning to finish it. Unfortunately, General Tahir rotated to a different command the following year and the Kondus Valley was again closed to climbers.
Now 65, I’ve been climbing in the high mountains for over a half century and I wondered if I was aging out of my ability to climb a world-class objective like Link Sar.
In 2003, India and Pakistan agreed to a cease fire in Kashmir, which ended active fighting along the Saltoro Ridge in the Siachen. But the casualty rate in the mountains remained high: Most of the injuries and deaths suffered by soldiers on both sides were from natural hazards such as avalanches, hypothermia, crevasse falls and high-altitude related illnesses such as HAPE and HACE.
I applied for a Link Sar permit in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. I was denied each time.
A well-informed Pakistani friend warned me, “Steve, if you make repeated applications to climb in restricted areas you could arouse suspicion from the intelligence services, who might think you are a spy.” I opted to wait.
Other climbers, most notably Jonathan Griffith from the U.K., started to make attempts on Link Sar from the Charakusa Valley side, which was outside the restricted area and possible to obtain a permit. Several of Jon’s expeditions, in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 reached a long horizontal corniced ridge interspersed with granite towers leading to the summit of Link Sar. They never succeeded in traversing it and on their last attempt, Griffith and Andy Houseman reached the summit of the westernmost tower that they named Link Sar West, but illness prevented them from going any further toward the summit.
Having a permitting strategy is equally important as a climbing strategy. In 2015 and 2016, I noticed climbers getting permits in previously closed valleys that were close to the Kondus. I thought maybe now the agencies responsible for security would open more areas to climbers. By this time, any suspicion of 007 activity on my part would have passed, so I applied for permission to climb Link Sar in 2017 with Graham Zimmerman and Chris Wright. Permit granted!
The 2017 Expedition
Graham, 29, had been an enthusiastic and thoughtful partner in 2015 when, together with Scott Bennett, 30, we climbed Changi Tower. Before that expedition I was looking for new young talent interested in climbing in the Karakoram and my best prospects would have several Alaska, Peru, or South Asian expeditions under their belts.
Graham fit this profile and since we both lived in the Seattle area we started climbing together. Graham is chill, a good listener, and more curious about how to minimize the risk when climbing big mountains than trying to be extreme. Exploratory expedition climbing requires the willingness to play the long game and Graham seemed to have the disposition for that.
Graham introduced me to his partner Scott. They were less than half my age. Our multi-generational partnership was successful because we knew how to take advantage of everyone’s strengths and talents.
This time on Link Sar, Graham suggested that Chris, another one of his alpine-climbing partners, complete our team of three. I used to think equal climbing partnerships meant having the ability to swing leads. But this isn’t true when climbing in big, complex mountain landscapes full of political and cultural nuance. My younger partners were faster and stronger, but in addition to my permitting expertise, I was strong enough to share the work and my extensive experience in the range helped prevent mistakes that increased risk or the chance of failure.
One of the key differences between the Karakoram and other ranges where my younger partners had climbed was scale. These mountains were orders of magnitude larger and there wasn’t 24-hour daylight like in Alaska during the late spring and summer. One of the many things I had learned that I could share with them was how to break up these enormous projects into manageable pieces.
The Kondus is one of the deepest valleys in the Karakoram and I forgot that our roadside BC was only at 3,700 meters. It was convenient to be car camping and not have to pay for porters to get this far, but we were 2,600 feet lower than base camps in the nearby Charakusa or Nangmah valleys. The vertical relief between our BC and the summit was a similar distance to that found on K2 or Everest.
It didn’t take long for us to cross the Kaberi Glacier and retrace my steps up a loose rock gully that led onto a large alpine meadow full of wildflowers and ibex scat.
We didn’t want to expose local porters to the fall potential and rockfall hazards on our route above the glacier, so we carried everything up here ourselves and established a crude advanced base camp (ABC) with a couple of small tents and enough food and fuel to support us while we acclimatized and sorted out the route above there.
Above ABC, Link Sar looks like a giant five-layer wedding cake. The sides of the top four layers are steep and technical and the horizontal steps between them are not very wide but have good bivouac sites. The foundational layer is a large, sprawling complex of ridges and glaciers that is more difficult to understand than it was to climb.
In our attempts to establish Camp I, we repeatedly got dead-ended or strung out on technical terrain. Desperate, we decided to follow an ibex herd we observed going over a small pass in one of the ridgelines above ABC. The animal tracks led onto a small glacier that wrapped around all our previous difficulties and after several weeks of effort we found our way up to Camp I at 5,200 meters, where we arrived on July 31.
Bad weather forced us to a long wait down at base camp and it wasn’t until August 16th that we returned to Camp I. The only safe way to climb the next layer was somewhere up a broad 2,000-foot rock wall flanked on both sides by active seracs. We found a mixed rock and ice gully that we had located from photos taken of Link Sar during our earlier Changi Tower expedition.
Reaching Camp II, at 5,900 meters, was a good acclimatization and exploratory trip and it was during this part of the expedition that I really got to know Chris. I appreciated his witty sense of humor, fortitude and expertise as a fully certified guide. However, he didn’t have much altitude experience and seemed overly concerned about his health. I wondered if his body would hold up over the many weeks of sustained effort.
Link Sar looks like a giant five-layer wedding cake. The foundational layer is a large sprawling complex of ridges and glaciers that is more difficult to understand than it was to climb.
But our climb to Camp II erased any concerns I had. Chris proved himself to be a bold and adept beast when leading most of the pitches on scary, steep and hard-to-protect mixed terrain. Unfortunately, another storm forced us back to base camp and the waiting game for a spell of good weather to make a summit attempt. With the time we had left that weather never came.
The 2019 Expedition
Other commitments prevented Graham, Chris and me from planning our return to Link Sar until 2019. We feared that another team might climb the mountain in 2018. In fact, Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi had attempted a different route from ours on Link Sar in 2017 and they might return. But our concerns were unfounded because the Pakistanis closed the Kondus again. But, lucky us, an outsider was elected Prime Minister that year and the new administration was eager to promote tourism.
In early 2019 our permit application to climb Link Sar that summer was approved. This time we added Mark Richey to our team. I had been on four Karakoram expeditions with Mark, including our first ascent of Saser Kangri II in 2011 with Freddie Wilkinson. Mark is just a few years younger than me and although I was completely comfortable with Graham and Chris, I was eager to share the experience with one of my closest partners.
Like me, Mark had been alpine climbing all over the world for around a half century, which added considerable experience to the team. He had technical skills that I trusted completely, was fit, and had the patience and sense of humor essential to expedition life.
We arrived at BC on June 11 and discovered the earlier information we received about conditions was true—the Karakoram had experienced record snowfall the previous winter.
The location of our 2017 ABC should have been a grassy meadow this time of year but looking up we saw that it was still buried in snow. All this snow needed to slide off in seasonal avalanches, melt and consolidate before we could go very high. But waiting for this to happen was going to make a slow start for our expedition.
Besides poor weather, operating out of such a low base camp was one of the main reasons we failed in 2017. I had learned from climbs like the North Ridge of K2 and recently on Changi Tower that the location where the pack animals, vehicles, or local porters deposit all the food and equipment can be too far away from the mountain to serve as the starting point for climbing it. Base camps thus situated can cause a self-supported expedition to get over-extended and fizzle out short of its goal. This was true of our roadside BC for Link Sar. With little capacity to carry food and fuel to our ABC in 2017, we had to travel up and down from BC every time it stormed, which sapped us of our strength and determination.
This time we planned to carry more supplies up to ABC with the help of porters and live there with two of our cooks. To ensure their safety in the steep and exposed sections, we built a via ferrata with old ropes so they would always be attached. Together we carried all our supplies to ABC and were able to move there on July 5.
Soon, the hot July weather arrived, triggering avalanches all around, including one that caused some excitement when it poured over into our meadow and stopped short 330 feet from camp. It wasn’t until July 15th that we were able to move up to Camp I via the route the three of us pioneered in 2017.
Two days later, Graham and Chris led the same scary and hard to protect mixed ice and rock gully onto the ridge that led to Camp II and our previous high point. We spent two nights at Camp II as part of our final acclimatization and established a rappel route back to Camp I. When we returned to ABC, the snow was gone, and flowers were blooming.
Agreeing on a weather window to make a summit attempt is one of the most stressful parts of expeditions.
Modern technology has enabled us to get custom weather forecasts and for over a decade I had been using Jim Woodmencey, sitting in Jackson Hole, to do this work for us. I had learned that sorting through lots of weather information doesn’t completely replace gut feelings based on experience. The old and the new are complementary and patience is the key to choosing the right time to launch. There is a fine line between wisdom and old fartism, and Mark and I thought we were on the right side of it when suggesting to our younger partners that this kind of awareness becomes deeper and richer with age.
After much debate we finally left ABC on July 31st with a forecast for two good days followed by two mild stormy days and then what looked like a long spell of clear, calm weather.
We reached Camp II on August 1st with Graham and Chris re-leading the difficult pitches above Camp I. Going above Camp II was new territory and our route skirted around and onto the top of a giant serac. From there our progress depended on finding a way to cross a gaping crevasse behind this tottering island of ice.
Chris led us up mixed terrain around the serac and Mark climbed the back wall of the feature onto the top. As Graham took the lead, he turned to us with a glimmer in his eye and said, “This is exactly what I came here for, we’re exploring!”
To everyone’s delight, he found a sturdy snow bridge across the crevasse that led onto easy snow slopes to the top of the third layer of the Link Sar cake and the site of Camp III, at 6,200 meters. That afternoon the wind picked up, the clouds rolled in, and it started snowing.
We spent August 3 in our tents getting buffeted by the storm. As Jim predicted, it wasn’t depositing a lot of snow that otherwise could cause an avalanche problem. But to save weight we had brought limited rations and it was hard to wait because we were hungry.
We left Camp III at 3 a.m. on August 4 while it was still snowing, hoping it would clear up in the next few hours per the forecast. A couple hours later we reached the bergschrund below our next technical barrier—the Rock Band. It was still dark and snowing and we stopped to wait for both these things to end.
After sitting in the snow for an hour we were getting cold and Mark suggested we return to Camp III and wait for the weather to improve. I texted Jim on the In-Reach to ask about the weather. Graham suggested we build a snow cave, which kept us warm and busy. Soon we were huddled together out of the wind. Jim got back to me after looking at the satellite image and said the snow would stop in about an hour. A few minutes later Chris started up over the bergschrund onto the ice and headed for a frozen waterfall-like feature inside a weakness through the Rock Band. At our first belay hanging from ice screws the sun came out.
After I saw what had happened to Graham, the fear returned and this time I was overwhelmed. Given the distance he had fallen, I thought he might be dead, or at least severely injured.
The ice climbing through the Rock Band was a delightful surprise: two fun grade IV pitches that would be popular day climbs where I live in the winter in the Canadian Rockies. Above us, the next of our many named features, called the Snow Fin, revealed a new challenge that persisted for the remainder of the climb. It consisted of steep but stable snow that for as deep as we could reasonably dig, no solid ice or rock anchors could be found.
Our younger contingent continued to plow ahead but the best they could get for belays were “deadmen” snow anchors made from a picket and a snow-filled stuffsack. There wasn’t time to build intermediate deadmen to protect the leader who would carefully run it out the full length of our 70-meter ropes before stopping to build another snow anchor. Except for only one pitch of solid ice, we balanced our way up insecure snow to the top of the second layer of the cake, where we placed Camp IV at 6,800 meters. There we enjoyed spectacular views of Sherpi Kangri and Saltoro Kangri and beyond into the Eastern Karakoram in India.
The next day we set out to climb the final layer of the cake and the summit looked deceptively close. After surmounting an ice wall above our tents the four of us started traversing up and left on the side of a steep, corniced snow ridge punctuated with a couple of rock towers near the top.
After completing several more pitches, I arrived at a station where Graham was out about 70 feet ahead of where Chris was belaying him. It looked like we were only about two to three ropelengths from the top.
Suddenly, Chris yelled “Avalanche!” and the three of us instinctively put our heads down and pressed our bodies into the slope. After a minute of this wet oatmeal-like substance being poured over us it stopped.
Everything seemed all right until I looked over and saw Chris pulled tight onto the anchor. He was holding Graham’s weight on the two lead ropes, now disappearing around the edge of a snow rib protruding from the side of the arete we were traversing. I looked up and could see what had happened. Graham had crossed over the snow rib and was climbing up behind it and above us when he triggered a three-inch slab. The avalanche wasn’t large enough to harm the three of us at the belay, but it had knocked Graham off his feet, and given the amount of rope that was out, I knew immediately that he had taken over a hundred-foot fall.
The fear I experienced during the avalanche was intense but soon faded because the slide didn’t last long. Then after I saw what had happened to Graham, the fear returned and this time it was overwhelming. I thought he might be dead, or at least severely injured given the distance he had fallen.
“Graham, are you O.K.?,” we yelled.
My mind was racing over how it could even be possible to lower an injured climber from practically the summit of Link Sar over terrain and conditions that were as challenging as anything I’d seen in all my years of climbing. Mark and Chris said to me, “Steve, you are in the best position to go over and try to establish communication with Graham.”
I tried to calm myself, dreading what I might find, and traversed to where the taut ropes dug into the snow rib and I could see down into a gully where they disappeared over a cliff. I started yelling into the clouds that had been obscuring our views on and off all day but were never threatening. I got no response. I tried again with no response and my anxiety reached a point where I had trouble focusing on what to do next.
“What does it look like? Can you hear anything?” Mark and Chris yelled at me.
“I can’t hear anything!” I yelled back.
Chris suggested I remove some clothing from my head and I pulled away the hoody, hat, helmet, and two hoods covering my ears. I yelled again and in the faintest voice I could hear Graham yell, “I’m OK.”
Relief washed over me, but my anxiety persisted since I didn’t know what his “O.K.” really meant.
“Can you climb back up while I belay you?” I yelled.
“I’m hanging under an overhang so you need to anchor one of the ropes for me to climb up,” he replied.
I knew he had a small ascender, so I dug frantically into the snow rib looking for solid ice to place a couple of screws for anchoring the ropes. This took a while to accomplish, then as Graham climbed one rope, I belayed him on the other. He came up over the edge moving slowly and when he reached my stance, we hugged each other for about five minutes. We were both shaking.
Looking him over, the only damage we could find was a missing zipper pull that had been ripped off his pant pocket. Knowing we had dodged a bullet, I looked back at Mark and Chris and said, “I think we should get out of here.”
The two of them seemed like minded when Chris yelled back, “If Graham is O.K to keep going then I will take over the lead. We are not far from the summit.” I turned to Graham and he said, “I’m O.K., let’s keep going.” I had never experienced such an emotional seesaw.
Two pitches higher we got bogged down in deep, steep snow again and established our final belay well below the ridge crest to avoid the cornice. We were only about 165 feet from the summit.
When I arrived at the belay, Graham was up to his chest in a snow hole serving as our anchor while Mark and Chris were out ahead trying to figure out how to get up the final slope. I decided we needed to be more securely anchored to the mountain and dug a nearly five-foot tunnel straight into the slope where I found solid ice to place a screw and build a V-Thread.
Chris was exhausted after leading most of the day and backed down to an ice screw after Graham yelled up, “Mark, you have a lot of experience climbing in bad snow in Peru so can you go take a look?” I yelled up, “It’s probably a giant unstable cornice so we may have to call it good where we are!”
“I also feared I was climbing up a huge cornice like Steve suggested and any moment I could break through and plunge over the other side of the ridge.”
Mark made one final effort, not knowing we were only about 45 feet from the summit. Digging upward in a big arc through snow that was over his head, he made progress by stemming against the trench walls. He used his axes to rake the snow from above and pack it down with his feet to support his weight.
Later, Mark would recount: “Graham’s huge fall was still fresh in my mind and I was terribly frightened the snow I was standing on might collapse and I would tumble over backward, hurtling 80 feet to that one screw that might stop me. I also feared I was climbing up a huge cornice like Steve suggested and any moment I could break through and plunge over the other side of the ridge.” After moving up the short distance that felt endless, the snow began to stiffen, the angle laid back, and Mark wriggled onto the summit.
Overcome with emotion, he yelled down, “I’m on the fucking top!”
For a moment the rest of us couldn’t believe it and we erupted in cheers.
“Is there room up there for us?” we yelled back.
There was enough and soon the four of us stood on top of Link Sar late in the evening. The clouds dissipated and the alpenglow spread its orange hues across the entire Karakoram.
We hugged each other, took some quick photos and then started rappelling in the dark to Camp IV using a combination of V-Threads and deadmen anchors. Two more days of rappelling and down climbing brought us back to Camp I around midnight. There we had the first of several food parties where the quantity and quality of the cuisine improved as we descended.
For me our success on Link Sar was bittersweet. For several days after reaching base camp, I thought hard about what we had accomplished and what would be next for me.
For most of my life I worked hard to have moments like this but my time for seeking out these kinds of first ascents in the high mountains was ending. As they should, Graham and Chris would move on to their next big objective without me. I knew it would take several years of relationship building and mentoring with new skilled young alpinists before attempting something like what we had just done. Projects like Link Sar can also take several attempts that span years. Adding up the time it would take, I realized I couldn’t do a climb like this again when I’m 70.
Climbing world-class objectives like Link Sar doesn’t require someone to be the best climber in the world. We succeeded and survived Link Sar because we were persistent but willing to fail, learned from our mistakes, applied our 133 years of combined experience, and understood what partnership means. If all the years spent climbing helped me to learn these things, then I’ve been given more than I ever expected.
Steve Swenson splits his time between Seattle and Canmore with his wife, Ann. He has been climbing for over a half century, including ascents of K2 and Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first ascent of Saser Kangri II, for which their team won the Piolet d’Or in 2012.His book Karakoram, is available from Mountaineers Books.