Steve Swenson has amassed a remarkable mountaineering career in his 65 years, all while running his own engineering firm, raising a family, and serving a stint as president of the American Alpine Club. His summit list includes K2 via its remote north ridge in 1990 and Everest, which he climbed solo and without oxygen in 1994, before swearing off big-name peaks forever. He found more challenge putting up Alpine-style ascents on the likes of Nepal’s Kwangde Nup and India’s Saser Kangri II, which at 7,518 meters was the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world when Swenson climbed it in 2011. That groundbreaking climb with Mark Richey and Freddie Wilkinson earned a Piolet d’Or, but all along Swenson had another peak in the back of his mind.
He first attempted Link Sar in 2000, then waited 17 years for permission to go back. The 7,041-meter peak lies near the line separating Pakistani and Indian forces in the Karakoram’s contested Kondus Valley, and access is strictly controlled. Though tension between the two nations is near an all-time high, Pakistani authorities have recently become more liberal with permits, and Swenson got another ticket for Link Sar this summer.
He teamed with Richey, 61, and 30-something chargers Graham Zimmerman and Chris Wright for an Alpine-style ascent via the mountain’s 11,000-foot Southeast Face. Launching from an advanced base camp, they made the summit in a six-day push that Swenson calls “one of the most complex and difficult routes I have ever climbed.”
AJ: Link Sar has been on the top of your list for 20 years and it took three determined attempts to reach the top. Does that make the summit it any sweeter?
SS: Oh, for sure. At this point in my life, I’ve stood on a lot of summits, so getting to the top of something isn’t the thing that makes you feel the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and joy, as much as everything else that went into it.
What made Link Sar such a great climb was the process of discovery. It was so complicated and took us several tries to put all the pieces together. That’s what I like about Alpine-style climbing and first ascents. You have to figure out how to put the puzzle together, and when you finally do it’s just that much more meaningful and that much richer.
I tell a lot of younger climbers that the goals you have really don’t mean that much, in and of themselves. They’re just the inspiration to live a life of exploration. What is meaningful is going out there and putting yourself in a position where you don’t know what’s going to necessarily be around the corner, and then dealing with it when you get there.
The ascent took six days, and you’ve said the outcome was in doubt the whole way up. Can you point to one crux moment?
About three pitches below the summit, Graham was leading and he triggered a small avalanche. It was a three- or four-inch thick slab. It came over the belay and wasn’t really big enough to do anything other than scare us, but it knocked Graham off and he took probably over a 100-foot ride down a snow slope and then over a cliff. Chris was belaying him and held him on the rope.
He was hanging from the rope underneath an overhang. He’d gone down this snow slope and over a rock band and was hanging in space. It was just kind of a miracle that he wasn’t hurt at all. The only thing that happened to him was the little zipper pull on his pants got ripped off. But he wasn’t bruised, he wasn’t scraped, he wasn’t injured in any way.
I was disturbed by what has just happened and said, ‘Okay, we’re done now.’ But Mark and Chris wanted to go on. They said, ‘If Graham’s okay with it, we should keep going.’ and Chris was willing to start leading again. We were maybe 100 meters from the top. That was probably the crucial moment of the whole climb. We could just as easily have turned around for good reason, and Chris rose to the moment and started us back up again.
According to Graham’s description of the climb, everyone got his chance to step up.
The thing that really got us past all those kind of difficulties was our team. We had a lot of horsepower and a lot of expertise. There was just a lot of mental fortitude in the team.
Even when we got near the summit, you know 50 feet from the top, we ran into really bad snow and everybody just took on a different job. Graham was the belay. I dug a tunnel in the snow to find some ice so we’d have an anchor. And Mark excavated this deep trough—it was over his head—to the final summit. We wouldn’t have climbed the mountain if any one of us had not been there.
I get the sense that this team had a special chemistry.
I think it was probably as close to perfection as I’ve ever experienced in my 50 years of climbing.
It’s not only that people had the skills and experience, but also that everybody was willing to take care of each other. I see these situations sometimes in partnerships where it’s more of a competition, like who can climb faster, and it just wasn’t ever like that. We moved at a speed that would accommodate the group as a whole, and we made decisions together as a team.
Have you ever experienced that dynamic before?
When we climbed K2 in 1990 we had a pretty good team. But we were much younger then too, and I think at the time maybe we didn’t understand how rare that was or appreciate it so much. One of the nice things about this climb is that Mark and I are old enough to acknowledge how special the teamwork was, and how critical it was.
After that K2 climb and your Everest solo in 1994 you’ve mostly steered clear of 8,000-meter peaks, with the notable exception of a new route on Nanga Parbat’s Mazeno Ridge in 2004. What soured you on the high peaks?
A lot of people come to those mountains just to collect 8,000-meter summits. Those tick lists never appealed to me, because they’re the places where everybody else is going. Even if you’re doing a new route on one of those peaks, you’re in the base camp with all these people that are in there just to check off their box.
To me, it’s much more appealing to go to a place like Link Sar, because it’s exploring, it’s discovery, it’s an adventure, and that’s why we’re doing it. The goal is something to inspire you to adventure, but not to an end in itself.
View this post on Instagram
Without the help of our local staff, none of our expeditions would get to the top of anything. Rasool has been with me on all my trips to the Pakistan/Chinese Karakoram since 1987. This year on Link Sar we were also joined by Rasool’s son-in-law Nadim, and Rasool’s son Fida Ali. #arcteryx #msr #petzl #thermarest #scarpa ##julbo #americanalpineclub #alpineclubofcanada
Did it take you some time to come to that realization or was that something that you knew from the start?
The situation changed. When I started going to big mountains in the ’80s, you would go to 8,000-meter peaks and it would be the same as going to Link Sar now. The only people there were people you knew or people that that felt the same way about the mountains as you did. Those mountains hadn’t been climbed very much yet, and they were still difficult to climb because there weren’t fixed ropes all over them.
The situation on the eight-thousanders changed in the 1990s when they became much more popular and people began trying to climb all 14 of them. And as I learned when I climbed Everest, 90-some percent of the people were awesome but there was this percentage of people that were there to climb this peak come hell or high water, and it didn’t matter what was going on around them.
So I walked away from that experience.
One of the remarkable things about your climbing career is that you did it while raising a family and holding down a demanding career as an engineer. How did you manage it all?
I had three major things in my life that I was trying to balance—my family, my profession and my climbing. And I felt like at any one time, I was probably doing a good job with two of them. I’m very fortunate that my family, the people I worked with professionally and my climbing partners were understanding of that.
But did that also allowed you to set your own agenda, which is a kind of freedom that professional climbers today don’t always have?
When I was young, it wasn’t a choice. The pro climbing lifestyle didn’t exist. But I was fortunate to have a career that was interesting and rewarding in and of itself, doing environmental engineering.
I never had any pressure from sponsors pushing in a direction that I didn’t want to go. That’s a big issue now because it relates to safety. Pro climbers are evaluated every year based on their social media numbers, and a lot of what drives your social media numbers is how badass you can be. I think that can create a situation that’s unsafe.
The Karakoram is still full of virgin peaks, isn’t it?
I think Freddie Wilkinson coined this term, political wilderness. Because of the conflict and areas that were closed, there are these vast areas that have seen no climbers at all or no one for 30 or 40 years. And these areas in Pakistan are opening up now. The Kondus Valley is bigger than the entire French Alps, and everything there is unclimbed.
An American team just made the first ascent of Sherpi Kangi II, which is a 7,000-meter peak. Those guys, Kurt Ross, Jackson Marvell, and Matt Cornell are relatively new to the range and kind of flying under the radar. I just thought that was so cool. That peak sits right on the Actual Ground Position line, and the Pakistanis gave them a permit.
The west face of Soltoro Kangri is probably the biggest unclimbed Himalayan wall in the world, and the north summit is unclimbed. That’s a huge world-class objective just sitting right there that maybe will be available in the next few years.
Is there a big objective in your sights now?
I don’t think so. I feel like at this stage in my life that Link Sar was about as much as I could do. I was with a team of a couple of young guys who I really liked being with, and they led a lot of the harder pitches. Graham and Chris are moving on to bigger things, as they should. They’ve got their sights on stuff that’s bigger and harder than I can do at this stage of my life. So for that size mountain with that level of significance, Link Sar might be my swansong.
If I was gonna have a swan song, I couldn’t really ask for a better one.
Listen to Swenson and Zimmerman discuss the first ascent of Link Sar on the AAC’s Cutting Edge podcast.
Featured Photo: Mark Richey