First Ascent of Link Sar West - Fever Pitch
August 2014. By midnight it was snowing hard again. Hiding our naked faces deep inside our bags we tried to ignore it and hope it was just a passing snow flurry, the following morning would prove otherwise. Perched on top of a rounded sloping boulder at 6500m on Link Sar’s unclimbed North West Face, myself and Kevin Mahoney were no longer having fun. We’d climbed until we both bonked and then climbed some more, but whilst topping out of the face lay tantalisingly close, we had nothing left to give. We opted to sit out the night, too tired and spent to cook or drink, nothing left to say. This was only the beginning though.
The previous two days on the face had been rough, “Blue Collar work” as Kevin called it. Hounded by bad weather and terrible conditions en route, we were both exhausted and now an open bivy had left us fighting through the night to keep our sleeping bags dry from the falling snow. The usual infectious smile had gone from Kevin’s face but he still had the glimmer in his eyes and that was all we needed. As we headed off onto a dangerously loaded face, with the snow still driving around us, it only took a few steps to realise how depleted we both were- steep black ice covered in powder, heavy packs ripping at ours shoulders, the altitude, the hunger and raging thirst. I’d never seen grown men brought to their knees like this before, but the MOG endures.
We traversed under stomach wrenching cornices, Patagonian snow formations on a Himalayan scale. We slowed to a pitiful crawl, fuelling off each other’s presence and encouragement. Kevin tried to lead us off the face and on to the ridge above but there was nothing. Just a knife edge ridge of honeycomb ice and double edged cornices that stretched far in to the whiteout.
The storm raged on. We seemed so close to getting out of this hellish scenario, but our misjudged salvation of the ridge line above was an unspoken crush to an already very low morale. We weren’t even clutching at straws anymore. We’d gambled that topping out from the face would take us to easier and safer ground where we could get out of this weather and put the tent up but we were wrong Kevin rapped back down to me, the glimmer in his eyes fading “The bad news is that the last two hours I spent up there was fucking useless, a sheer vertical drop on either side, no where for miles to bivy. The good news is if we have it in us to get over there through a break in that cornice” he pointed with his eyes high up in to the whiteout “that will bring us to another ridge crest and hopefully somewhere to stop. But I’m fucking exhausted right now”. The snow kept falling, and the Disney like cornices above kept getting heavier one snow flake at a time.
I didn’t look up at the overhanging snow towers above me, I just stared dead ahead and climbed. The rope came tight and I was stuck, spindrift dumping down my neck, as I clung on to the steep vertical choss around me, I waited for Kevin to start moving together. The last bit of decent pro some 20 meters beneath me; the heinous rope drag was making already insecure moves feel like they might be my last ones. I tunnelled my way through the ridge- so knife edge it was the only way to get a purchase on it and as I straddled the crest I felt safe for the first time in days. Safe being a relative term, things were bleak.
“One more pitch” I prayed. Kevin took over and climbed up round the side of the huge cornice. I could hear him moving about on top of it, I could feel the snow straining. Muffled shouts occasionally drifted my way, but communication was impossible, the wind snatched his words away over towards K7 so I sat a cheval in silence wondering if we had any more cards to play, weighing up the single screw belay that was all I could get in the base of the huge cornice overhead. Then a crack and shudder- Kevin had broken through. Time slowed, “This is it” I thought. As the rope came tight I realised I was still straddling the ridge, the fracture line was beyond the anchor point. A close call in a long series of them. If Kevin couldn’t see a spot to settle in around the corner then we would have to resign ourselves to rapping the whole North Face in a storm to get out- but it was almost unthinkable at this stage. We needed to stop. Desperate, we hacked our way in to the side of the cornice that Kevin had broken through. We burrowed as deep as we dared through the fragile honeycomb snow and ice and finally sat in the tent; no words needed saying. Shelter was the ultimate luxury.
I could see in Kevin that he’d crossed the line he’d drawn for himself now that he was a family man, that he’d probably passed it the day before somewhere in that blizzard. The eyes said survival mode now, the climb had turned in to a bitter war of attrition, and whilst the mountain was winning we were still clinging on.
A partnership is always stronger than the sum of its individual parts and I’ve never felt that as much as I did then, so we remained optimistic. If we waited a day to dry stuff out, eat and drink, then maybe the weather would clear again. But we were too gone to be able to eat or drink much- our bodies yearned for oxygen and rest. The mind was willing but the body had had enough. We awoke to more fresh snow and strong winds up high, and ditching our bivy kit for one big lightweight push to the West summit and back I set off wearing everything I had. It didn’t take long to come back. After a 40m lead traversing unprotectable honeycomb ice I peered round a fluted arête and glimpsed the rest of the ridge line through breaks in the wind-spun clouds; my heart sank. This would be as far as we’d go on this attempt or we’d never make it back.
At 7041m, Link Sar’s a very complicated mountain, and that attracted me to it- it’s hard to see the massif from anywhere close due to it being tucked away in a corner, and it guards its main summit very well. Flanked by seracs, cornices and with no obvious line you have to go in blind and rely on your own instincts that the line you’re following is actually going to work. The more I studied the mountain the more I realised I knew nothing about it- the line I had picked was in my view the safest one but unable to see most of it, it also relied heavily on blind faith. Filling in the gaps with my own knowledge of mountain topography with a heavy dose of luck. The puzzle was as complex as it was long with the finishing piece a perfectly formed triangular granite pyramid that has dominated my thoughts at night for far too long. It’s a picture perfect summit, something out of a cartoon. It was in every sense to me, the ultimate mountain adventure.
As we tried our best to survive the descent down the North West face I promised myself I wouldn’t return. Link Sar had pushed me physically and mentally further than I ever wanted to go. It had been harrowing for days on end and I felt scarred. But I had learnt more about Himalayan climbing in those few days than I could ever imagine.
Back in Base Camp Kevin’s smile returned instantly and his eyes said “I’m going back to see my girls”. But Link Sar had become my obsession and I was already planning my 4th attempt on it. We had after all completed another piece of the puzzle, another blank bit of the map filled in, we’d just topped out in the wrong location on the North Face. Maybe that was the last piece of the puzzle, maybe if I gave it one more shot it would all fit in to place.
I promised my fiancé this would be my last attempt. She didn’t believe me, but I knew it would be. Andy Houseman who had joined me for an abortive attempt in 2013, had been up for the giving it another shot and we headed in during the heaviest monsoon the locals had ever remembered.
Deep wet snow hampered our approach. The weather forecaster had given us a very small window. Not big enough to head in relaxed, and not small enough to write it off as an acclimatisation run on another peak. The approach valley had ripped out- and we clambered over 5 meter high walls carved out by the sheer weight of the monsoon snow releasing down the mountain. As we punched through deep fresh snow cursing our heavy packs the weather came back in, but we were expecting it. We hunkered down tucked as far in as we dared under an icefall for some protection from any avalanches coming down the valley and faced the agony of choice. Do we stash our gear up here and hope for a better window later on in the trip? Or do we chance it? Hours passed in silence both trying to work out the correct answer to an impossible question. All the signs said no, but our gut feeling was yes.
We waded our way up through scary crevasses and climbed up convoluted icefalls until we got to the bergshrund. Another moments hesitation, it had taken us hours longer than anticipated. The sun hit the South Face of K7 opposite us- and every gully and couloir on that face spontaneously released. The heat reflection back on to our face triggered even the smallest slabs to release and pour down around us. We were tucked in to the only safe spot in this entire valley, but as soon as we committed to the face we would be in the thick of it. I was glad that Andy was on lead, it’s easier to let someone else take the plunge, after all you’re deciding not only for yourself but the two of you. It’s never an easy decision to make.
At 6000m we found the ledge that myself and Kevin had spent almost 3 hours hacking out the previous year. The day had been a big one and the following day we needed to traverse a huge portion of the face and access the most threatened upper part of it- it worried us. Having seen the South side of K7 erupt we knew what would come of this face as soon as the sun could get the chance to hit it- and that chance was set to be the following day. So we sat it out on our perched but relatively safe platform and watched as the world crashed and exploded around us, glad we hadn’t committed ourselves.
The alarm went off at 11pm and we headed off in to the darkness, we were entering the crux of the climb. I was feeling lethargic for some reason, a reason I’d only later fully understand. Traversing such an immense face in pitch black is terrifying, you can feel the weight of hanging cornices and mushrooms above you, but you cant see them. The sunrise painted in the skyline for us, revealing the Gasherbrums and K2 in the distance, but darkness was our friend, heat was our enemy up here. The central part of the face that we had to commit to makes the White Spider on the Eiger look safe. Andy took over his block and led us over the crux pitch, a delicate ice runnel tucked away in the back of blank granite walls.
Entering the guts of the amphitheatre the sun had already hit the cornices high above our heads. I winced as I saw the two cornices I’d climbed in-between with Kevin the previous year. The one that we had bivied in had collapsed altogether.
We grunted our way past the boulder myself and Kevin had shivered on through the storm last year and ground to a halt. The day had already taken its toll and by now the black ice was proving too much for our claves with the heavy packs. The full force of the Himalayan sun swung round in to this breathless amphitheatre and we roasted. Two grown men on our knees, spent. I felt the weakest I’d ever been on this peak, yet I should have felt the strongest after three years of training over an obsession. Every 5 moves I had to sit my head on the ice. Swapping leads and packs didn’t make it any easier on either of us, even resorting to hauling the packs up the black ice. It was torture. We aimed to exit the face as high as possible and as I heaved up over a final cornice on to the ridge I vowed to take up sport climbing. As Andy joined me I scanned the rest of the ridge for a bivy spot- it looked promising, but looks are so deceiving up here. The next pitch took me a full hour of trench digging up steep honeycomb snow and ice, I was feeling exhausted, just willing myself inch by inch to get closer to a spot we could get the tent up. I felt numb, if the ridge was like this all the way it would be a complete shut down.
The sun set as we hacked out a ledge in the black ice. It was beautiful but I was out of it, I was freezing cold and something wasn’t quite right. I started coughing up green phlegm, I crawled in to my bag and realised the cold I’d left base camp with had turned in to a full blown chest infection with a thumping fever. We’d had a huge day but I couldn’t eat or drink, I was shivering cold in the foetal position humming to myself to ignore the aching fever racing through my body. Andy fed me some sausage, I’m sure there was a joke in there somewhere but I couldn’t find the words to get it out.
I’d screwed up. There would be no main summit now.
The next day I had to rest. Again the brotherhood of the rope took over and Andy did his best to nurse me to vague normality, I desperately needed to eat and drink but found it hard to do either in my state. We didn’t want to bail though, we wanted to make the West Summit. It wasn’t too far away, I felt like I could push the body that far at least. We watched a huge ominous black front move in from the South, slowly making its way towards us it engulfed everything beneath it in a black shroud. Our forecast had said cloudy weather but this looked far more serious than that- getting stuck in a storm up this high would be unthinkable.
We left shortly after sunrise the following morning, and both quietly hung on to delusional hopes of making the actual summit still 2 days away. I felt like I needed to lead first thing, I needed to test my body and head. From this point on we left the North Face line of retreat and would be committing ourselves to coming down the South side of the mountain which was almost completely unknown to us. There are no helicopter rescues here, and there is only so much your partner can do. If I was completely out of it would Andy be able to get me down 2400m of unknown descent?
The climb continued to prove tricky and complicated, steep sections of unconsolidated snow, big runouts; awkward climbing that never feels serious but actually really is. My block took us to the final summit ridge- a stunning corniced snow ridge that I dreamed of setting foot on for 3 years. We had no idea what conditions would be like here but for once favour was on our side and Andy made swift work breaking trail under a suffocating sun. As I crested the top of the ridge to the West Summit (6938m) I saw for the first time a view that I played over in my head for years- the main summit. I’d lain awake countless nights thinking of this exact spot and for the first time in days I had a huge grin on my face. The main summit would be for someone else though- it was still a kilometre of convoluted Karakorum ridge line to get to and we had pushed our weather window as far as we could. Huge halos formed around the sun above us- beautiful to look at but a harbinger of bad weather. Andy’s birthday was in a few days, it was only natural he scratched his way up on to the rocky summit first. It was a surreal moment as any I’ve ever had in the mountains- an obsession laid to rest; a view and experience to remember for a lifetime.
It didn’t take long for the fever to come roaring back- I lay in the tent shivering again, fucked as flotsam at 6930m. Andy was worried again and for the first time I was as well, deeply regretting our decision to carry on. We awoke to the pitter-patter of snow as our alarm went off - our descent line needed cold temps and no snow otherwise we’d be flushed off the face. Was this the start of the bad weather, had we gambled too much? We had no food left and a bare amount of gas. We piled out of the tent, we could see the weather was shifting around us but it had been a momentary snow flurry. Clouds would shield our descent from the heat of the sun but snow could be lethal- in any case the weather is the one thing you cant change.
We started the first of many raps under a gut-wrenching three story high offspring between a cornice and a serac. It would hang over our line of retreat the whole time with every rap committing us further to a descent we didn’t know. Would it go? Rapping the bergshrund is always a moment of intense relief. You can distance yourself from the danger, the world looks less lethal, and with some luck you’ve actually summited what you set out to do. For us it was just the start of a gruesomely crevassed and threatened valley and I gladly handed over the reigns to Andy. We thought our approach valley was terrifying but this one was another matter entirely- heavy wet snow bridges and an icefall that took all Andy’s cunning to navigate through, on his stomach at times, all the while hearing the whizzing of rocks flying through the air down the narrow walls beside us. At one point we weren’t sure if we would actually be able to get out, the maze was that bad and that’s a bit of an ‘end game’ thought.
As we spilled out of the icefall a huge avalanche swept off the North face of K6 right to our side and the rain started coming down. We’d timed it just right. We re-joined the dry-glacier of the Charakusa, where we’d left it 7 days prior to head up Link Sar, and took off our harnesses for the first time since then. I sat down too tired and harrowed to come up with anything philosophical, apart from the simple fact that we’d survived.
Thanks to The North Face, Black Diamond, The BMC, The Alpine Club, The Mount Everest Foundation, Nick Escort Award for their support over the years on Link Sar.