Latok I - we interview Tom Livingstone

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 17/08/2018
Photos: Tom Livingstone collection
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The British alpinist Tom Livingstone and two Slovenian climbers, Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar, have successfully climbed Latok I (7145m) in the Karakorum mountains of Pakistan. They climbed 3/4 of the way up the coveted 'impossible ridge', before deviating. The North Ridge of Latok was/is recognised as one of the last major unclimbed lines in high-altitude mountaineering. This is the second ever successful ascent of the peak and the first ascent starting from the north side.

The legendary first ascent of Latok I was made by a Japanese team 40 years ago. Over the decades, some of the world’s best mountaineers have tried and failed to climb the mountain from the north side. Jeff Lowe, one of the American alpinists who first attempted the North Ridge of Latok I, described the route as "the unfinished business of the last generation." So can we consider that business finished now, or does the challenge remain until someone climbs the whole North Ridge?

Sarah Stirling catches up with Tom Livingstone via a terrible What’s App connection as he swelters in Islamabad, waiting for a flight home and looking forward to eating some salad after curry every day.

Read our first report about the ascent and the route's history: Legendary Latok I North Ridge climb for Livingstone, Česen and Stražar

Look out for the full interview and photos in the next issue of Summit magazine.

BMC: Congratulations on an amazing Himalayan trip  your first, as well! The North Ridge of Latok I is obviously a legendary objective with a big history – was that intimidating or exciting?

TL: Both. It’s standing there like a prize and we desperately wanted to have a shot although we knew our chances were slim. 40 years of top alpinists trying it unsuccessfully - we knew it couldn’t be easy. It’s a very long route - 2400m - and that’s at over 7000m altitude. It’s also very conditions-dependant as there is some rock climbing, some ice climbing and some mixed climbing involved. 

Describe the mountain for someone who’s never seen it?

Looking up at the peak from base camp it’s a huge, broad mountain with a long spine running right down the middle of it towards you. It’s such an obvious and appealing line.

Give us the techy details: how many pitches, what are the grades?

The climbing is varied and sustained. It’s hard to put a grade on it but we gave it ED+ overall. The hardest thing was day after day of poor bivys on small ledges in the snow. We didn’t sleep much over six nights on the mountain. On some sections we moved together and we pitched some harder bits, like some steep, rotten ice and some mixed climbing. There were many times when we couldn’t fall off. In terms of difficulty it wasn’t super-hard but the length of the route, the altitude and the sleeplessness made it feel very strenuous.

It’s hard to imagine the scale. Could you put it into perspective (for example, 10 x Tryfans or 2 x Walker Spur)?

It goes on for a very long time - it’s like looking at a mountain in the Alps and doubling it, one on top of the other!

What was it like at the summit?

There were very Scottish conditions at the summit. It was very snowy with poor visibility but as we descended we saw the most amazing sunset and views. We could see China and lots of other impressive mountains including Ogre I and Ogre II, which are nearby. I might come back and climb them one day!

And, speaking of the top, how did you get down?

Getting down was as usual the unpleasant bit. It took ages and ages and ages — we abseiled down the same way we had climbed up through the night and then collapsed onto one of our earlier bivy platforms and waited for the sun to rise and warm us up, then carried on down. As we got lower there was more and more evidence of previous climbers’ attempts and we could use their kit to descend on. Still, it took forever.

Looking at the line of the route, are we right that you climbed the North Ridge until 2/3 height and then deviated? Why? [see photo in header]

There were two reasons we deviated from the ridge at 3/4 height. Firstly, lots of other climbers have tried the route that way and none have succeeded. It’s hard climbing, it's at high altitude and you’d be very tired by the time you got to that top section. Our priority was climbing the mountain from the north side, doing that via the ridge was the second priority.

The second reason was that from our base camp, as we were acclimatising, we could see two Russians high on the ridge. One of them, Sergey Glazunov, fell off and died. The other, Alexander Gukov, was left stranded on the ridge. We offered help but there was nothing we could do in the weather conditions. Every day the helicopter came in, had a look, landed at base camp and ummed and ahhed while looking at the clouds and then flew back down. After being trapped for six days at 6200m, Gukov was plucked off the mountain thanks to a helicopter rescue with longline.

It all looked very risky and we decided the logical thing would be to traverse and avoid this drama.

It’s still a standout landmark ascent. Does it mean that the North Ridge is now climbed, or is the big prize still up for grabs? What’s your take on it?

The ridge itself remains a challenge for the future.

You got a BMC grant to help with your costs. How helpful are the BMC grants when it comes to turning these trips from dreams into realities?

These grants are invaluable and the support is greatly received. In three weeks, I’m going to the Indian Himalayas with Will Sim and Uisdean Hawthorn, also supported by a BMC grant.

Good luck!
 

WATCH For the Love: Tom Livingstone's climbing year 2016 on BMC TV:

 

WATCH Alpine Essentials DVD on BMC TV:

 

WATCH Winter skills 4.7: climbing steep ice - tactics and placing ice screws on BMC TV:


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1) Anonymous
22/08/2018
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2) Anonymous
23/08/2018
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3) Anonymous User
27/08/2018
Evgeniy Glazunov is with Alexander Gukov and 2 others. Following Tom Livingston's interview. I address it exactly to Tom, since it was only he who expressed the opinion. Probably the rest of the team has a different point of view.
First of all, I have to say that I trust all the mountaineers who say the've completed the route and reached the summit whether they can prove it or not, because honesty is predominant in our sport. This is what I mean.
I know neither you, Tom, nor your friends from Slovenia. I've never met you but I wish to. I don't want to exchange abuse with you. Neither any of you actually did anything bad to me, nor did we. But..!
You attempt to consider about 'Russian style' knowing nothing about the situation, the circumstances and the guys. You know nothing about Sergey, the routs he passed in the mountains, his style and attitude to alpinism. As I used to be his ropemate and his coach I may tell you that you little dream of the ascends we made together especially winter ascends. You have no right for such considerations like their pace was 'increadibly slow'. Your route was much easier than the one made by Gukov and Glazunov. You and your team avoided all challenging places and ascended the summit from the south - let's call the things by their names. At the same time you accept congratulationson the first ever confirmed Latok I summit from the north.
Do you really think that Sergey and Alexander could not complete your line within the same time? Or do you really think that nobody of those numerous alpinists who ever tried to summit Latok I from the north side were as smart as you are to cross to the south? Their goal was different - not to summit Latok I by all means but to climb the north ridge. Moreover, I'd like to note that Jeff Lowe and the team spent 26 days there and they did not reach the attitude where Sergey and Alexander proved to reach.
Also you picture from the top is doubtful and not much different from the photo of Sergey (just compare them). I can find a million similar pictures from different "summits".
Dear Tom of course you'll get you Piolet d'Or, but please never make judgements on the things you have no idea about, particularly previous attempt of Gukov, and that the north ridge can be climbed in full. Although you are right, it is climbed in full by my brother and Alexander at least to the saddle where nobody have ever climbed from the north before. But you cannot image how far you are from all that, my friend.
P.S. If you ever wish to become a more expert in 'Russian style' you are always welcome to one of our winter mountain camps in the Sayan mountains, Siberia, where my brother and me made our first mountain ascends.

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