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.
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.
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