Steve Swenson talks about his insatiable thirst for climbing non-commercial peaks in the high mountains
Slowly up the Karakoram
Renowned climber Steve Swenson opens up about his climbing career in the Himalaya and the Karakoram
In 1994, Steve Swenson, 65, stood on the summit of Mt Everest, after a solo climb from the northern, Tibetan side without supplemental oxygen. Yet it was a bittersweet feeling, given what he had experienced as part of a large-scale expedition.
Just weeks before his solo attempt, Swenson had been with a team that was attempting a daring climb up the Kangshung Face on the east side of Everest. According to him, only three expeditions had been successful on the route until then. Even as he was recuperating in his tent at 25,000ft, team leader David Breashears pulled the plug on the climb since conditions on the mountain were unstable and the climbers ill-equipped.
The Himalayan Database, a digital and published record of climbs in the Nepal Himalaya, notes that “Swenson and others carried to C2 (Camp 2) and he only slept the night of 5th; he came down to C1 (Camp 1) next day. All to BC (Base Camp) on 8th and decided to give it up.”
Swenson made a quick hop to the north side and found a place on well-known mountain guide Eric Simonson’s team for basic logistics support. But on his way down from the summit, he would hear of the struggles of another climber, Michael Rheinberger, who ignored his turnaround time and would later die on the mountain.
“This was a couple of years before the Everest tragedy of 1996 and I had seen some of the same things—commercial expeditions with a lot of people who didn’t have much experience. Seeing people lose their life because of their obsession with this goal just made me realize that it was not the kind of climbing I wanted to do,” Swenson says, who was in Mumbai for The Himalayan Club’s annual seminar last month.
“For me, exploration of these big mountains has nothing to do with goals or projecting an image to other people. It’s about seeking the unknown, so I really swore off being involved in these fully supported expeditions to peaks with Everest-style infrastructure,” he adds.
Instead Swenson picked smaller, unclimbed 6,000-7,000m peaks. He had seen plenty of these elegant granite spires during his previous climbs in the Karakoram. It was on this range that he turned into an alpinist who spent his holidays attempting daring climbs up remote peaks.
The first opportunity to visit the Karakoram came in 1980. There weren’t too many climbers to reach out to for updates on Gasherbrum IV (7,925m), since no one had climbed in the Karakoram for about 15 years at the time. It had been six years since Pakistan had lifted restrictions on climbing. When Swenson reached the town of Skardu (in the Gilgit-Baltistan region), he found no infrastructure to support expeditions. “We had to do everything ourselves. Managing porters, for instance, was a nightmare,” he recalls.
To get a general idea of the kind of climbing the Karakoram would offer, Swenson approached veterans such as Pete Schoening and Nicholas Clinch, who had been there in the 1950s, and members of two American expeditions, who had attempted K2, the second highest mountain in the world, in 1975 and 1978. Nothing, though, quite prepared him for Gasherbrum IV. “We couldn’t fathom the size of the mountain and the magnitude of the climb. It was nothing like we had attempted before. But the process of learning was what I really enjoyed there on. We were getting close and success was inevitable,” Swenson says.
After another unsuccessful attempt on Gasherbrum IV three years later, Swenson attempted K2—the second highest mountain in the world—in 1986. This time too, he and his climbing partner, Alex Lowe, were forced to turn back from 8,100m when they saw a storm approaching.
“That same disturbance killed five climbers, taking the toll to 13 during that season. The next year, we had a great team but we faced bad weather again,” he says.
In 1990, he returned to K2 and finally summited on his third attempt. It was also his first success in the Karakoram after a decade of trying. “It took a long time to develop strategies to be successful on big mountains. And, of course, stay alive in the process,” he says.
Back home in the US, Swenson led a parallel existence as a family man, an engineer and a partner at a 500-member company. On a few occasions, learnings at work proved critical on the mountain. For instance, after smoothly traversing the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat in 2004, Swenson and Doug Chabot’s summit attempt was cut short by bad weather. While descending the mountain via the Schell Route, the two cached equipment at around 7,000m, thinking they would pick it up during another summit attempt when conditions improved. But they met unstable snow and crumbling rock further below.
“We felt trapped, with no rope at our disposal and no stove to melt snow and keep hydrated. One of the things I’ve learnt from my consulting background is that you just have to stop sometimes in a situation like that,” Swenson says.
For 3 hours, the two wracked their brains in the thin air, until Swenson recalled seeing a length of rope sticking out on the ridge above them. They salvaged about 70ft of it. After a bivouac on the rocks that night, they set out again the next morning and made it to the valley with quick rappels using the rope.
“You’ve already created a problem with your first mistake. But if you rush into a plan that turns out to be another bad decision, it’s the second mistake. And it’s this mistake which normally kills you,” he says.
Once he sold his firm in 2010, Swenson had more time for climbing, as well as attending to his role as president of the American Alpine Club (2009-12). These were times of turbulence in Pakistan, given the repercussions of the 9/11 attacks and the siege of Lal Masjid in Islamabad. So, Swenson trained his eyes on the Eastern Karakoram in India, identifying Saser Kangri II (7,518m) as an objective for 2009. It was the highest unclimbed mountain accessible at the time.“Though we didn’t make it to the top in 2009, what I realized when I looked down from the mountain (Saser Kangri II) was that no one in recorded history had actually been there before. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can go and claim to be the first to get there,” he says.
Two years later, he returned with Mark Richey and Freddie Wilkinson to make the first ascent of the mountain, which earned him the Piolet d’Or award—considered the Oscars of mountaineering.
It hadn’t been easy. “On the descent, I had a problem with a sinus infection and that started acting up. By the time I got to the glacier below, I was choking on all the mucous that had accumulated and had real difficulty breathing,” he recalls. Swenson had to be evacuated to a hospital in Leh by helicopter.
These days, Swenson goes to the Karakoram with the next generation of climbers, mentoring them, while admiring their resilience. “The climbs that I’ve done are really just an inspiration that led to a life of exploration, which I had been dreaming about since I was 14. And this process of discovery is really what makes it all worthwhile,” he says.