Steve Swenson after the first ascent of Link Sar: “Maybe my swan song”

Link Sar

I’m not really good at keeping things tidy on my desk, including the digital one. Most of the time my desktop swells over with used pictures and documents – until I lose track of them and finally fill the trash. The adjoining image of Link Sar by Steve Swenson seemed to develop into a “shelf warmer” on my screen. It lay there unused for two years. However, not like most other files because of my sloppiness, but because I was convinced that I would need it one day. Now it’s time. This summer the Americans Swenson, Mark Richey, Graham Zimmerman and Chris Wright succeded the first ascent of the technically extremely difficult 7,041-meter- high Link Sar in northern Pakistan.

Nine days in the wall

Chris Wright in a mixed climbing passage

The team led by Graham Zimmerman climbed the summit in Alpine style through the Southeast Face at the beginning of August. It took the quartet six days to climb from the Advanced Base Camp at 4,600 meters to the summit and another three days to descend to ABC. Karakoram veteran Steve Swenson described the route as “one of the most difficult I have ever climbed”. I wanted to know from the 65-year-old what made it so difficult. “It was 3,400 meters from base camp to the summit,” Steve replied, ” and above 5,000 meters the climbing was steep, technical mixed/ice/snow climbing on very complex terrain.”

Better food, better tactics, better weather

Numerous previous expeditions had been unsuccessful on Link Sar. In 2015, the British Jon Griffith and Andy Houseman succeeded in the first ascent of the 6,934-meter-high west summit, but they did not reach the main summit either.

Richey, Swenson and Wright (from l. to r.) waiting in a snow cave

Steve Swenson had first tackled Link Sar in 2001 (with George Lowe, Joe Terrevecia, Steve Larson, Andy Tuthill and Eric Winkelman), but had failed at the time as well as in his next attempt in 2017 with Graham Zimmerman and Chris Wright due to bad weather.

The key to the success a month ago was the “much more robust Advanced Base Camp in 2019 at 4,600 meters where we could live most of the time with a cook a better food”, Steve wrote to me: “Going from Base Camp at 3,500 meters was just too far and took too much time given the weather windows we had. We also had better weather in 2019 than 2017.”

Candidates for next Piolet d’Or

Steve knows all the Karakoram tricks. More than 30 expeditions lie behind him. Inter alia, in 1990 he scaled K2 without bottled oxygen via the North Ridge on the Chinese side of the mountain. For their first ascent of the 7,518-meter-high Saser Kangri II in 2011 Swenson, Mark Richey and Freddie Wilkinson were awarded the Piolet d’Or, the “Oscar of Mountaineers”. Steve and his current companions on Link Sar will probably be prime candidates for the next Piolet d’Or.

Feeling for the right strategy

Steve Swenson

Swenson and 61-year-old Richey were the “oldies” of the successful Link Sar team, along with the much younger expedition leader Zimmerman (aged 33) and Wright (36). I asked Steve about his secret, how he manages to continue to perform so well on the mountain at an age when others retire. “I feel lucky that at 65 I have such good young partners who still like to bring me along with them,” answered Swenson. “I can contribute a lot towards developing a strategy to climb the mountain based on years of experience, but the young guys do all the hard leading.” He continues to train hard, says Steve, “but maybe Link Sar will be my swan song for climbs this big and this difficult.”

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