When Priti and Jeff Wright later look back on 2020, they will surely agree that it was “an exceptional year” – and not just because of the corona pandemic. At the end of 2019, the software developer and the aerospace engineer from the US city of Seattle took a one-year career break to live out their passion for climbing.
The couple, both in their early 30s, first traveled to Patagonia, then to Europe and finally to Pakistan. Their mountaineering record is impressive: Cerro Torre, the six great north faces of the Alps and finally – as reported – as the cherry on top K6. On the challenging seven-thousander in the Karakoram, they succeeded in traversing from the West Summit (7,040 m) to the hitherto unclimbed Central Summit (7,100 m), climbing in alpine style. The “Alpine Vagabonds”, as they call themselves on their website, answered my questions about their coup on K6.
What does the adventure on K6 with the only third ascent of the West Summit and the first ascent of the Central Summit mean to you?
(Priti) Jeff and I started a climbing Sabbatical in January 2020, climbing Cerro Torre in Patagonia, to the Six Classic North Faces of the Alps, and finally came to Pakistan to climb K6. The climbs leading up to our expedition were practice and preparation for everything we might encounter in the Karakoram. Even though K6 isn’t the most technical climb we’ve done, it took nearly everything we had in terms of mental stamina and physical endurance to keep going in the biting wind and deep snow. It’s certainly the biggest achievement of our climbing career.
Was the traverse from the West to the Central Summit planned from the beginning?
(Priti) Yes, absolutely yes. We planned to from the beginning, and it was set in stone that our primary objective was to get to the virgin summit. When we looked over at Central from West, I knew we had to do it.
You descended after the ascent of the Central Summit. Weren’t you tempted to complete the entire traverse of the summit ridge and climb the 7,282-meter-high Main Summit as well?
(Priti and Jeff) We really wanted to make the entire traverse to the Main Summit. It was definitely a secondary objective, but much less important to us than summiting Central. There was certainly an allure to the possibility of making the second ascent of K6 Main 50 years after its first ascent. The full traverse was how the Italian party of 1969 intended to make the first ascent of the Main Summit, before the Austrians (led by Eduard “Edi” Koblmüller) got the first ascent the next year via the Southeast Ridge. We even carried a rock rack (five cams, set of nuts, extra alpine draws) that we never got to use, in case we got a good chance to attempt the traverse from Central to Main Summit.
Unfortunately, the wind from the jet stream (45km/h), the bitter cold from our late-season start (-21C low), and the deep snow conditions were too bad to commit to the full traverse. The traverse from the Central to the Main Summit would have been very committing, starting with a likely irreversible rappel off of the east side of Central. In addition, descending from the Main Summit onto the Lachit Glacier via the 1970 Austrian Route was a major unknown.
Did exposure, difficulty and weather conditions on K6 demand everything from you?
(Priti and Jeff) Someone wise once said, it’s pointless to train for suffering. If training did work though, we think we would be very well trained. Climbing in Patagonia on four trips prepared us for extreme winds. Our climb of the Cassin Ridge on Denali (the 6,190-meter-high mountain in Alaska is the highest in North America) prepared us for deep wallowing and technical terrain at altitude. Winter ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies prepared us for handling bitter cold. For every climb we do, we try to only add one new skill. For K6, the only new experience was that we had never climbed that high before. We have summited Denali twice, and K6 is significantly higher, so we made sure that we were patient and conservative in our acclimatization schedule. We didn’t experience any altitude issues during the expedition.
During your sabbatical you were in Patagonia, in the Alps and now in the Karakoram. What are your plans for the last two months of the year?
(Priti) For the first time, COVID restrictions really made us change our plans, not just delay them. We had planned on going to Thailand to thaw out on the beach and regain some stoke and fitness for rock climbing, but the country is not issuing tourist visas. So we travelled to Hawaii to at least warm our bones on the beach and get some strength back through watersports.
How do you feel about tackling and mastering extreme situations on the mountain as a couple?
(Priti) We always say the shared trauma brings us closer together. Every climb teaches us something, and this one taught us to stay positive, not bringing each other down. I can’t imagine another person I would rather share extreme situations with!