The summer season in the Karakoram is coming to an end. Yesterday, Thursday, according to estimates, about 90 members of commercial expeditions reached the summit of K2, the second highest mountain on earth. About twice that number had made a summit attempt. This meant that Everest conditions prevailed on K2 – as they had in summer 2022. The Pakistani climber Muhammad Hassan lost his life, allegedly when a piece of ice broke off and hit him in the so-called Bottleneck, the dangerous key section at around 8,000 meters. Given the mass of people who were en route there and the traffic jams that formed, it is surprising that not more people came to harm. From my point of view, it was just luck, because there is almost always avalanche danger in the Bottleneck.
Lonely and in a completely different style than the summit aspirants on K2, the 32-year-old South Tyrolean Simon Messner and the 35-year-old Austrian Martin Sieberer were on the move in the Karakoram this summer. As reported, they set a highlight with the first ascent of Yermanendu Kangri, which according to their measurements is around 7,180 meters high. This achievement clearly stood out from the mainstream high-altitude mountaineering of commercial expeditions. The two climbers reached the summit in alpine style, i.e. without bottled oxygen, without high altitude porters, without fixed high camps and without fixed ropes. In order to be faster, they refrained from roping up. I asked Simon about their coup.
Congratulations on your first ascent of Yermanendu Kangri. Had you carefully scouted out the possible route before your summit push, or were you more spontaneous?
We were very spontaneous and decided day by day during the three-day ascent. For the summit ascent we even had three possible routes in mind, but finally decided on the spot for the West Face. There was simply too much snow on the ridge and it was more corniced than we thought from the valley.
What were the biggest challenges of the mountain?
The terrain is complex. The technical difficulties kept within limits – except for the final wall between 6,500 and 7,100 meters, which is 60 to 70 degrees steep and was icy under a layer of snow. The rest of the terrain is full of crevasses, partly dangerous for avalanches and one place – between the first bivouac at 5,400 meters and the second bivouac at 6,250 meters – is dominated by a mighty serac. Here we had to be fast.
You were en route in alpine style. After only two bivouacs, you reached the summit at around 7,180 meters. Was the high pace planned from the start?
The high pace was virtually dictated to us by a short weather window. It was to be the only four-day window of our expedition, so we did everything right. Already in the night after the ascent, back in Camp 2, it started snowing again, so that we started the further descent still in darkness. By early morning we were back at base camp. The descent was hard.
You climbed the up to 70 degrees steep West Face without being roped up. Didn’t you have a queasy feeling?
Only where it was really icy. There we progressed only slowly, and our lower legs were burning with exertion. But both Martin and I are “used to” solo climbing, so to speak. What one can climb solo, so can the other … we have internalized this in many joint tours.
We then felt unwell on the descent, because we had to climb down the icy wall again unsecured, and because of fatigue we almost fell asleep here and there. We both have “queasy” memories of that.
Where do you place the first ascent of Yermanendu Kangri in your climbing career?
I wanted to have stood at 7,000 meters once. For me personally, it is therefore an immensely intense experience, and that’s what it’s all about!
It feels like 99 percent of mountaineers now follow the beaten track in the Karakoram as well. Did you feel like exotics there?
It is sad what has been happening for a long time in Nepal and in recent years also in the Karakoram. As an alpinist, you inevitably ask yourself: What’s the point? If you practically “buy” one of the high summits (with fixed ropes, high camps, help of porters on the mountain, artificial oxygen from the bottle, doping and lots of drugs), then you are basically cheating yourself – aren’t you? Martin and I discuss a lot about the phenomenon of “high-altitude tourism” and ask ourselves why the media write so much about it. After all, ascents of Mont Blanc with a mountain guide are not constantly reported on. There is still a lot of need for clarification in this regard.