Marek Holecek has returned to the southwest face of Gasherbrum I (8080) five times since 2009 in a bid to complete a route up the middle of the face through two rockbands. After enduring multiple epics–including the death of his longtime climbing partner in 2013, and a bad case of frostbite in 2016, in addition to other close calls and harrowing descents–Holecek, 43, finished the climb to the top of the mountain with fellow Czech climber Zdenek Hak, 37, at the end of July. From July 25 to August 1, they spent six days climbing and two on the descent. They named the route Satisfaction (ED+ M7 WI5+ 70?, 3000m).
“I have never climbed with Marek before except for three short sport climbing routes during one afternoon,” Hak said.
This was also Hak’s first 8000-meter peak. Last year he climbed and skied down Noshaq (7492m), the highest peak in Afghanistan.
“Despite having little experience with high mountains, I spend most of the year in the Alps as a mountain guide,” Hak said. “In my free time I specialize in speed climbs of traditional alpine climbing routes and sandstone climbing.”
“Zdenek is a very modest guy,” Holecek said. “He has a lot of winning climbing performances…. [He] was a good choice and a victory. The conditions of the route, i.e. snow and ice conditions, were not good. Even the weather was not favorable. Nonetheless, together we managed to overcome the negative conditions.”
When asked how he felt going into this trip, knowing the adversity Holecek faced on previous attempts, Hak said he didn’t hesitate.
“I was excited by Marek’s offer to join him for the expedition, so I immediately agreed without any worries,” he said.
The ripening of a project
“I tend to return to unfinished projects, provided the line has not been climbed by someone else. In this way the project ripens,” Holecek wrote in the 2014 American Alpine Journal, in which he recounted his last climbs with his longtime climbing partner Zdenek Hruby.
On an early attempt of G1’s southwest face, Holecek and Hruby reached 7500 meters to the base of the rock barrier but they “were forced to make an epic escape,” Holecek wrote on PlanetMountain.com. Then, in 2013, Hruby slipped and tumbled to his death, taking the climbing gear with him.
Holecek described the accident in the AAJ:
The following day, at a belay stance, Zdenda made a fateful mistake. Without a clear reason or a single word, he started to slide down the icy slope. He did not stop falling for a kilometer. Now my own life was at stake, as Zdenda had taken the rope and most of our climbing gear. I felt surges of shock and hysteria. The idea of downclimbing the whole face, moving backward like a crayfish, seemed like downright nonsense. But there was no choice. With one axe I hit the ice 40 centimeters below the belay stance, then kicked a foot to place a crampon, and then swung the second axe and kicked with my other crampon. Mechanically, amid a Russian roulette of falling rocks, I repeated these steps. After seven hours, it was finally possible to turn toward the valley and finish the last steps to Zdenda’s body. There were no surprises. I had seen what was inevitable from the first moments of his fall.
Then, in 2015, Holecek reached 7400 meters with Tomas Petrecek and had to retreat in the midst of avalanches and bad weather. The pair returned in 2016 with Ondrej Mandula and they were pinned down by a storm at 7500 meters for eight days. By the time they got down, Holecek had sustained debilitating frostbite to his feet. It took him six months to recover.
“Each dream requires effort, focus and sacrifices,” Holecek wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, I did not think in the beginning that the sacrifices would be the highest possible ones connected to the death of Zdenek Hruby, my frozen fingers and my feet, and another hell….”
Holecek said it’s hard to compare conditions of the climb across his various attempts.
“Every year was specific in a way,” he said. “This year the conditions were not ideal but the weather has finally let us climb through the top headwall. That’s where we had bad luck in the last two years. The southwest face is hit by the wind and snow a lot from this side. Gasherbrum I is the biggest bumper that catches all the bad weather on the northeast border of Pakistan, India and China.”
When asked what it felt like to finish this chapter of his life, Holecek wrote:
My life has been associated with climbing for almost 40 years, with both success and loss. So far I haven’t had a reason to stop climbing, I am not planning any change and will keep going this way…. The next plan is for the year-end. The aim is to return to the virgin peaks of the Antarctic. Just the voyage through the Drake Passage from South America is a unique experience. Followed by a warm-up on Thai rocks and a summer expedition under the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. I climbed the Rupal Face solo in 2011 up to 7400 meters where I was pushed back by thunderstorms. One year later, I acclimatized on the Diamir Face, climbing in alpine style to the top, but the weather was not good enough for traversing into the south face of Rupal. This time I would like to finish my new route from the south on the main face…. Maybe again with Zdenek Hak?
“[This climb on Gasherbrum] has been the most distinct experience for me so far,” Hak said. “I appreciate this climb a lot and would like to follow it with [more] such climbs.”