Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and Freddie Wilkinson on the summit of Saser Kangri II (7518m) formerly the second highest unclimbed peak in the world. The trio climbed the mountain over five days in August. [Photo] Freddie Wilkinson
On August 24, 2011 Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and Freddie Wilkinson made the first ascent of the Eastern Karakoram’s Saser Kangri II (7518m), the world’s second highest unclimbed peak. The American team started the climb from the South Shukpa Kunchang Glacier. Their climb is one of the highest first ascents of a peak in alpine style in the history of mountaineering. The Old Breed (WI4 M3, 1700m) ascends the southwest face.
Much of the Eastern Karakoram was closed to climbing up until April 2010 due to border conflict between India and Pakistan. Because of the restrictions, the eastern side of the Line of Control that divided the two countries has seen little climbing activity, though the area houses more than one hundred unclimbed summits. In the early Eighties, the Japanese made an ascent of the western summit of Saser Kangri II, while the higher east summit had remained untouched.
The highest unclimbed summit is Gangkhar Puensum (7570m) in Bhutan on the border of Tibet. There were attempts to climb the peak in the Eighties and early Nineties. However, the government in Bhutan ruled in 1994 that no peak higher than 6000 meters was to be climbed because of the belief that the high summits were the home of spirits. With government backing of the local’s beliefs it is likely that Gangkhar Puensum will remain unclimbed for some time.
Richey, Swenson and Wilkinson traveled from Leh, India along with Janet Bergman, Emily Drinkwater and Kirsten Kremer, who climbed various new routes in the valley. Drinkwater and Kremer climbed Pumo Kangri (6250m) via the north face (PD/AD WI3, 680m), then Wilkinson and Bergman climbed Saser Linga (6100m) up the south face (V 5.9+,350m). Bergman, Drinkwater, Kremer, Richey and Wilkinson climbed Stegasaurus (6660m) via the South Shukpa Kunchang Glacier to the steep snow on the peak’s south ridge before traversing to the summit on August 9.
Skiing towards Saser Kangri II on the approach. [Photo] Steve Swenson
Richey first laid eyes on the mountain in 2001 on an expedition led by Chris Bonington and Harish Kapadia. This trip piqued Richey’s curiosity and interest in Saser Kangri II and the region.
Richey lead an expedition to Saser Kangri II in 2009 with Swenson, Mark Wilford and Jim Louther of Britain , but were turned back by bad weather at 6,500m. Swenson reports that the attempt made a great reconnaissance for a time when they could return. “The route consisted of steep ice and surprisingly good granite, and with the work we had put into it I wanted to return to finish the job.” They spent a lot of time and energy trying to find and dig out sites suitable for a bivy in 2009, and when they were weathered off they had run out of time in late season for a second try that year.
Since the attempt in 2009, Richey has been gathering a team and acquiring a permit. One of the Indian government’s stipulations is that the team of climbers must have an Indian climber in the expedition. Swenson writes in his blog that they were uncomfortable climbing the peak alpine style with a teammate they did not know and who could potentially be inexperienced, so they asked for an exception, which was denied. They instead recruited a number of Indian citizens as porters on the team to help carry their loads up to their advanced base camp, and encouraged them to participate in the climbs that the Americans did in order to acclimate. Swenson writes “they were an integral part of our team and included Tinless, Dansing, Chirring, Pemba (aka King Kong, named for the massive loads he carried), Tashi and Palden. Most of them were Sherpas from Darjeeling, but also they are from Ladakh and Kaumon–all mountain areas in India where the locals are well suited to this environment.” The sherpas also watched over advanced base camp to be available for help in case of an emergency.
Using the Ice Hammocks invented by Richey to make a flat ledge for a bivy. The ice hammocks are two ounces of fabric with loops. Here the team used two ice hammocks together to make the ledge just large enough for their tent. [Photo] Steve Swenson
The climbers’ travels began in Leh; they left Leh on July 7 to start the drive over Kandung La Pass, a 17,000-foot pass the Indians claim is the highest motorable road in the world. On the other side of the pass lies the Nubra Valley where the team made final preparations before their three day hike to base camp beginning on July 9. Over the course of these three days, Richey, Swenson, Wilkinson and the team of women climbed from 10,000 feet to 17,000 feet over the course of ten or fifteen miles where they established base camp.
Establishing an advanced base camp on the South Shukpa Kunchang Glacier required ascending a 20,000-foot pass since approaching Saser Kangri II from the Shyok river is impassable during the summer runoff. Swenson took this route over the pass in 2009, and knew to bring skis this year for an easier trek. Once at advanced base camp, the crew would need more time to acclimate before they could attempt the peak. However, they knew from the 2009 expedition that the bivy spots are very poor on the route so their first haul to a higher altitude would serve two purposes: acclimating and chopping out a good bivouac site on what they christened the “Launch Pad.” After eight pitches of climbing, they reached the Launch Pad where they “found and improved our belay/rappel anchors in the rock alongside the ice from 2009. We would save time reusing these on the several forays we would be making in the future.”
While on the ledge, the climbers realized that the weather was too warm, as the mountain spewed rock and shed snow around them during the heat of the day. They would have to wait until late August to climb when the weather would be cooler and the conditions more stable. So they descended back to advanced base camp in order to find a safer route to climb in the mean time for acclimation purposes.
The team chose a striking ice line up a peak that they would name Tsok Kangri (6585). They climbed the north face (WI4+, 680m) on July 31 in a twenty-two-hour push. Swenson developed a sinus infection on the way down from the Tsok Kangri, and had to descend back to 10,000 feet in the Nubra valley and then to the town of Diskit to see a doctor and start antibiotics before the climb, while Wilkinson and Richey climbed with Bergman, Drinkwater and Kremer. Finally, the team got their weather window, and started back up to advanced base camp on the twentieth of August; Swenson was feeling better though not one hundred percent.
On August 21, Richey, Swenson and Wilkinson climbed back up to the Launch Pad, beginning what would be a five-day push to the summit without fixed camps or ropes. Swenson reported that Day 2 would be essential to the success of the climb, so the team started early and simul-climbed through a snow couloir before hitting the rock band near their second camp from 2009. Since the bivy sites were so tough in 2009, Richey invented “ice hammocks” that held snow in a fabric wall, making a flat spot on which to pitch the tent.
Freddie Wilkinson leading the Escape Hatch pitch, the most technical part of the route which led the team to easier climbing and their high camp just 500 meter below the summit. [Photo] Steve Swenson
From their second camp a ramp led to the most technical pitch of the route, which they called the Escape Hatch and led to easier climbing. They built high camp at 7000 meters with only 500 meters to go the next day for the summit push. “We only had three pitches of technical climbing from our third bivouac to get to the summit ridge, and from there we knew that it would be easy snow walking to the summit.” So on August 24, the trio completed the first ascent of Saser Kangri II. They also confirmed that the Japanese team’s west summit was a false summit, and that they had truly made the first ascent.
The descent took more than thirty rappels. A loose rock severed forty feet off one of their ropes, so that each person had to rappel to the knot and move their belay device over the knot for each of the rappels. The sinus infection that Swenson was still suffering took its toll at the high altitude, and his last night on the mountain was spent coughing and hacking up phlegm. He made it down, but struggled with balance problems. The next morning, Swenson’s breathing was more labored. The phlegm that he coughed up obstructed his airway. The team used the satellite phone to call for a helicopter from the Indian military to evacuate Swenson to the hospital in Leh. Once he was in the hospital, Swenson recovered in a couple days. American Alpine Club partner Global Rescue helped to coordinate the rescue.
The helicopter sent by the Indian military for Steve Swenson so he could get treatment for his respiratory illness in Leh. [Photo] Steve Swenson