Report by: Aleš Česen
Photo Credit: Aleš Česen, Luka Stražar and Tom Livingstone
Latok I was first climbed by Japanese team in 1979 from the south side. It has never been summited since then. In 1978 a strong American team tried to climb Latok I from the north side, so from Choktoi glacier. In an epic, 26-day climb, they followed the North Ridge very high up, before they were forced to back of. The north side of the mountain remained unsolved for long 40 years, despite many (more than 30) strong teams attempted it in all these years. Also because of all these facts, the mountain drew our attention in autumn 2017, when me and Luka decided to have a closer look.
The fact of so many unsuccessful attempts was a very challenging and super intimidating at the same time. We knew that a risk of failure is huge. Because we believed that such a climb is more effective in party of three, we invited a young British climber Tom Livingstone. With a great enthusiasm he accepted the invitation.
It took us three and a half days of trekking among beautiful mountain scene to reach the base camp at altitude around 4600 m below Latok I north face. It is one of most uncomfortable places I have ever set a base camp, but with some work we were able to make the place suitable for our staying.
What was most different compared to most of my expeditions so far was the presence of other teams aiming for similar goal as us. Two Russian teams were there already full acclimatised ready for action.
Despite the other teams, we gathered our minds and focus solely on our plan. We took advantage of extended period of stable weather and did two good acclimatisation ascents on the north side of Choktoi glacier. We felt a bit of short of breath while spending the night just few metres below the summit of Baithna Kabata (6290 m).
Nevertheless, when we returned to base camp we felt acclimatised enough for the real deal. We knew that we can begin with the climb in Latok north face after some days of rest and when the weather settles down.
Soon, hot and sunny days were over when a system of unstable weather with lots of precipitation prevailed in mountains around us. Simultaneously, a problemsbegun with one of the Russion team on the mountain. When Alexander Gukov and Sergey Glazunov where forced to descend down in the area of the North Ridge, something went terribly wrong on one of the rappels, still quite height on the mountain (cca 6200m). Glazunov fell in his death, leaving Gukov trapped on the mountain without any proper equipment for him to descent down.
The mountain being for several days in thick clouds made the helicopter rescue attempt impossible for over a week time. The very first day of clear weather, the pilots were able to rescue Gukov in a dangerous and spectacular rescue mission. After a few days we were able to concentrate on our goal again and get ready for our attempt.
The beginning of August most of the weather forecast models were promising a long period of stable weather. Patiently we needed to wait a few more days to wait that most of the fresh snow accumulated in the face during bad weather settled down.
On fifth of August we left our base camp at midnight and at two in the morning we were holding our ice axes and start with climbing. Most of the climbing was in steep ice and snow with some sections of rock and mixed terrain. A vast majority of the climb was from strictly technical point of view not extremely difficult. The biggest challenge was the length of the route and to combine all the endless pitches in one relatively safe climb.
The ice and snow conditions throughout the climb was not ideal, but very rarely unstable or desperate to climb on. On elevation around 6400 m we left the ridge and turned more to the right towards the West Col. This line seemed to us as the most logical and safe line from the north side and was a first choice of plan even before we left our homes in beginning of July. It is important to know, that our main goal when choosing the line and tactics of the climb was maintaining relatively high safety level. We were fully aware that in case of slightly wrong decisions and acts the north face of Latok I can be a deadly trap.
In late afternoon the fifth day (9th August), we were smiling each other at the very summit of Latok I. However, there was no felling of victory, no celebration yet. We knew we are about half way through and our true goal was the glacier 2400 metres below our feet. It was anything but easy to maintain high concentration for 2 days a half more, specially because we were getting seriously tired and have eaten far too less for quite some days now. But to maintain the concentration was absolutely necessary for all the decision we had to make for safe descent down the same route we climbed up.
To avoid the rock and ice falls we had to do a great deal of descent during night time when it was not an easy job to maintain the correct line of descending without getting lost. After full 7 days of climbing and rappelling we finally touched the glacier below the face. This time victoriously, we hug ourselves and screamed something undefined but full of positive vibes.
In the beginning of expedition, there was many reasons to question our chances of success. A numerous attempts in the face made by numerous strong teams in 40 years history with no single success tells quite a lot. Also two strong Russian teams already acclimatised at the time we barely made to the base camp was not something we dreamed of.
A lot of seracs breaking and avalanches in the face can easily give you a good reason for retreat even before the real start. All these are things that now, after our successful climb, feed me with special feelings and pride. Most of all, we are pride on our style of climbing. Not only we did in a pure alpine style. In our style the level of safety was incorporated with a great deal, which complicated a great deal of ascent and even more descent. It is a fact that once you are tired and spent already a lot of days climbing, it is too easy to neglect safety and cut some shortcuts.
And for the end, I would like to express my gratitude to Kailas to give me an opportunity to use their excellent clothes and gear on the climb and to financially support the heavy logistics of such a trip.