Late last summer, an all-star crew of climbers made their way to a remote valley in the Himalaya to try and summit some never-before-climbed peaks. Anna Pfaff was the team leader. She’s an alpinist, expedition climber, and nurse who has climbed in some of the most remote alpine terrain in the world: the Karakorum Range of Pakistan, Himalaya of Tibet, Nepal and India, the Tian Shan of Kyrgyzstan, the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy (Colombia), the Peruvian, Bolivian and Patagonian Andes. Her teammates were Lindsay Fixmer, a guide with extensive experience on rock and ice, and Savannah Cummins, an adventure photographer and climber who gave us the ins and outs of their month long expedition.
How did this team come together?
Anna and I met ice climbing in 2014 in Ouray, Colorado. We started a conversation because we were the only two girls out that day. Anna is so psyched. She is always looking to the next adventure. Her energy is infectious. At the time I was just starting my photography career, and was looking for women who were all-around climbers (capable of all disciplines) and subjects for my shoots. Anna, a professional alpine athlete, was the perfect match.
For a few years, Anna had heard stories of a magical region in India with dozens of unclimbed mountains. In November 2016, Anna approached me and Lindsay about joining her on an expedition, and we couldn’t pass up the chance to see this region for ourselves. Anna has traveled to India multiple times and was in the Zanskar range last time she was in India and had heard about the Raru Valley. After doing some research she decided it would be a really cool valley to explore. Anna was the team leader on this expedition, so we followed her gut instinct.
What was the dynamic like on this expedition? Is it rare to go on a big expedition with all women?
I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with a lot of amazing women during my career, and have been lucky to go on a few other all-female trips. I’m sure part of that is the nature of the times–more and more women are in the sport and so naturally we gravitate towards each other. There are also women’s climbing festivals and events popping up all over and that’s a great networking opportunity and place to find rad female partners. But I also consciously look for female partners because, let’s face it, they look better on camera…
I think the dynamic can differ from expedition to expedition based upon the people you’re with, not necessarily because of the gender. That being said, there is a unique support and camaraderie that exists between women, especially in extreme circumstances like a climbing expedition to a remote range of the Himalaya. Being the smallest and least experienced, Anna and Lindsey were always looking out for me. If I was moving slower they’d wait for me, if there was a big stream crossing they’d always make sure I’d get across without any trouble. I appreciated this: it felt like we were a team vs we were just trying to move as fast as possible and put each other in potential danger.
I know y’all dealt with some crazy weather on this trip—what was that like? How did that change your objectives and your trip?
Weather was a really big challenge for us on this trip. It always is in high mountainous places. Even though we would get updates on our Garmin InReach, the weather was so unpredictable and made it challenging to commit to climbs. Several times we got we would set out to attempt a climb but then get shut down by a bad storm. We were climbing light and fast which meant I didn’t have room for a big bulky camera so a lot of the time I just brought along my Google Pixel and was able to document some of our climbs without the stress and hassle.
It was constant movement, and scrambling to make use of the few good days of weather we got.
What climbs did you complete, and what were those like?
On the handful of days when the weather cleared up we attempted several peaks in the range. In the end we were able to summit Peak 5400 which we named “The Gem.” The route itself was made up of a lot of loose rock which meant a lot of delicate climbing. We started the day in the shade which was frigid–I ended up climbing in gloves and a puffy most of the route. We climbed about 400 meters before reaching a beautiful summit, with incredible views of the entire valley. It was a special moment, after so many days of bad weather and getting shut down.
What was the proudest moment of the trip for you?
Making our flight back home, as strange as that might sound! Mountainous terrain is still somewhat new to me and there are a lot of things that can go wrong, especially when you’re traveling in a foreign country. Of course getting to climb and experience such a beautiful and wild place was a rewarding, and the reason we went, but getting home safe to loved ones is always the most important thing to me.
Will you return? With what objectives?
Northern India is a beautiful place with some of the most amazing people I’ve come across–and some of my favorite food as well. If I was given the opportunity, I would go back, and cross my fingers for better weather so we could try climbing more peaks in the range.
If I did go back, I would want to immediately get revenge on the first peak we bailed on, R6. That felt attainable, and had the most inspiring line on it. I’d also like to do some of the longer ridge traverses in Raru, and explore the neighboring valley we didn’t have time to visit.
Photos by Savannah Cummins, captured on Google Pixel 2.