Steve Swenson’s condition was becoming dire. After fighting a sinus infection for a month on a glacier at 20,000 feet, he had joined his two teammates, Freddie Wilkinson and Mark Richey, in their attempt to summit the second highest unclimbed mountain in the world, Saser Kangri II, in the Karakoram Range of the Himalayas in Northern India. The team started up the 24,700-foot-high mountain August 21, summited, and descended in a single five-day push. Now, three hours after arriving back at advanced base camp, Swenson was exhibiting signs of high-altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal lung condition that plagues the nightmares of every alpinist. Over fifty miles from the nearest human outpost, Swenson was struggling with every breath. “He was writing notes to us on paper, because he couldn’t talk,” Wilkinson said. Wilkinson and Richey administered dexamethazone, a steroid used to treat cerebral edema, to buy time. Around six a.m., on August 26th, Wilkinson and Richey initiated the process of getting a helicopter out to the glacier. So began a 10-hour marathon of international phone calls, cutting through red tape, and waiting with fingers crossed. “Pretty much what you’d expect from a bureauctratic government,” said Janet Bergman, fellow alpinist and Wilkinson’s wife. Bergman had been with the expedition in India a week before, but was now back home in New Hampshire coordinating the rescue effort with help from Global Rescue in Boston, and Teresa Richey in Leh, India. Around 4 p.m. an Indian Army high-altitude Llama helicopter crested the shoulder of Sol Kangri to the southeast, executed a fly-by, and landed on a giant H Wilkinson had stamped out on the snow of the glacier. Swenson was led out to the helicopter and given an oxygen mask. In less than an hour he was in the Leh hospital, where he swiftly recovered. The rescue was the dramatic climax of what was otherwise an idyllic and productive summer-long adventure for six American mountain climbers. Bergman, now 31, graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2002. She and her husband, Wilkinson, 32, live in my hometown of Madison, N.H. They are badass professional alpinists, great human beings, and my personal heroes. This is the story of their summer. ••• Bergman and Wilkinson met in September of 2002. Janet, who had graduated from UNH’s Outdoor Leadership program that spring, was living in her car and climbing the hallowed granite of Yosemite Valley, CA. Freddie was passing through with some mutual friends. They met, they climbed, and a year later they were dating. At first, the couple refrained from doing big climbs together. “The intensity of being in a relationship, and dependant on each other, on top of the hazards of serious mountain climbing, made me not able to be bold,” Janet said. “We’ve only done a few serious mountain climbs together.” “We’re getting better at it,” Freddie said. In 2008 they climbed a spire in India, called simply “Peak 5,394m,” as part of a four-person American team that also included Pat Goodman and Ben Ditto. Executed without porters or sherpas, the four climbers approached for two days, climbed for two
days, and bagged the first-ascent after a cold bivouac (alpine camp-out) at 16,400 ft., during which the four climbers shared two sleeping bags. Two years later, Wilkinson and Bergman pursued separate avenues that landed them both in the same remote, unexplored glacier in Northern India this past summer. Steve Swenson and Mark Richey first approached Wilkinson about climbing Saser Kangri II (SK2) in early 2010. Swenson, 57, from Seattle, and Richey, 53, from Mass., are fixtures in the American climbing community. The two veteran climbers attempted to climb SK2 in 2009 with Coloradoan Mark Wilford and Englishman Jim Lowther. That 2009 expedition was plagued by the cumbersome size of the four-person team. The route is a constant, steep pitch that offers little ledge space upon which to pitch a tent. The 2009 team exhausted much of its energy finding and kicking out a bivouac site, and was turned back by weather at 6,500m. For their 2011 SK2 attempt, Richey and Swenson decided to cut the team size to three, and opted to include Wilkinson based on his strength and experience. “Freddie was an obvious choice,” Richey said in an interview over the phone a few months before the expedition. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Wilkinson started rock climbing in sixth grade. At Dartmouth he was involved in the Mountaineering Club. “I climbed as much as possible, and probably didn’t study as much as I should have,” he said. He has made numerous first ascents on difficult peaks in Alaska, Patagonia, and the Himalaya. In 2007 he was awarded the Robert Hicks Bates award for outstanding accomplishment by a young climber from the American Alpine Club. Mark Richey was the club’s president at the time (Swenson is the current president). Soon after Wilkinson signed on to the SK2 expedition, Bergman applied for a Polartec Challenge grant with two other female climbers, Kirsten Kremer and Zoe Hart. The Polartec Challenge Grant funds various types of adventures, from intercontinental ecosystem studies via bicycle, to Arctic ski exploration, to the type of alpine exploration Bergman’s team proposed. Their proposal was to climb a 6,135m unnamed peak on the border of Pakistan and India. Richey had shown Bergman pictures of the unexplored peak that he took on his 2009 expedition to SK2. Bergman teamed up with strong climbers Kremer and Hart to become an all-female, first-ascent team. Due to a tumultuous spring involving a head injury, a sick fiancé, and an eventual marriage, Zoe Hart had to bow out of the expedition. Emilie Drinkwater, whom Janet had met at climbing competitions, was a natural replacement based on her strength and skill as a climber. The ladies’ plans coincided harmoniously with the men’s plans: the two expeditions would share an initial base camp on the same glacier before branching off towards separate advanced base camps to tackle their respective objectives. On July 3, the expedition met up in Delhi. Their journey from Delhi took them over the highest motorable pass in the world, at 5,000m, to the town of Leh in the remote Nubra Valley. The trek to base camp took three days, after which they set up base camp on “a lovely grassy meadow at 5,000 meters,” according to Bergman. This base camp lay between the parties’ objective peaks. There they spent about a month acclimating, the physiological process by which the human body adapts to high altitude conditions. It was “a lot of nights going to bed with headaches,” Bergman said. But over the course of a
month, the climbers’ bodies adapted to the thinner air. Towards the end of July, the men and women parted ways, with their objective peaks on different glaciers. The women set up their advanced base camp and made forays towards their unexplored peak. The pictures they had seen were taken from over a mile away. Upon close inspection, it became obvious that the mountain was too dangerous, sending massive rockslides and avalanches down its sides regularly. They knew that unclimbed peaks surrounded the South Shukpa Kungchang Glacier, where the men had set up their advanced base camp. They decided to break down their advanced base camp and join the men at theirs. “We were just honestly relieved that there were other mountains to try to climb, and that our permits allowed us to do that,” Bergman said. “There’s a part of me that was a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t just the girls on our own. I think that, as a woman there’s always a need to prove that we’re not dependent on the guys […] At the same time, Freddie’s my husband, Mark is one of my best friends, Steve was a ton of fun, so we were really psyched to be able to spend more time with them. You know, the more the merrier. It was just a big party on the glacier.” “I’ve always really enjoyed the camaraderie of having a good crew of people,” Freddie added. “A lot of times on an expedition, if it’s a long trip, and it’s just you and two partners, you know, and you’re all dudes, it’s pretty easy to just get a little surly… so it was fun to have the girls. We also really wanted to just go peak bagging for a couple weeks […] it turned out to be the perfect opportunity for that,” Wilkinson said. Bag peaks they did. The team collectively climbed five mountains, all of them over 6,000 meters, all of them previously unclimbed. First to go was 6,585m Tsok Kangri, climbed by Swenson, Richey, and Wilkinson. A vertical line of pure ice climbing, Swenson called it, “one of the most compelling ice lines in the Karakoram.” Next was Pumo Kangri, 6,440 m, climbed by Drinkwater and Kremer. Bergman missed what was supposed to be the women’s team climb due to a 24-hour stomach bug. She bounced back in an astounding display of toughness and resilience. After being severely sick, vomiting “ten times in eight hours, disgusting,” according to Bergman, she woke up and decided to try climbing. Without eating a meal, because she couldn’t hold anything down, Bergman headed up Saser Linga IV, a 6,200m virgin peak, with her husband. Out on the glacier, Bergman and Wilkinson high-fived Drinkwater and Kremer who were heading back to base camp after their successful ascent of Pumo Kangri. They sent a fantastic technical route up 800ft of glacier and 700 ft. of near vertical rock. The couple from New Hampshire was on the summit by 2 p.m. They hung out for an hour, and rappelled back down to the glacier. Bergman then ate her first meal of the day. A week after the Saser Ling IV and Pumo Kangri climbs, Richey, Wilkinson, Bergman, Drinkwater, and Kremer bagged the first ascent of 6,670m peak they dubbed “Stegosaurus,” because of rock formations resembling fins leading up a ridge to the summit. After an easy climb, the party skied down the ridge on “beautiful corn snow,” said Bergman. “When we were living in base-camp, and in our day-to-day, we were our own little country,” Bergman said. “Your goals for the day, and your long-term strategy, are very simplified. […] It’s life on a basic level. I love that, and I’d like to actually model
my life after that here.” Bergman shared these sentiments as we sat in her and Freddie’s small wood cabin on a hillside in Madison. Looking around at the simple interior and rugged woods outside, it wasn’t hard to imagine their home as some sort of alpine base camp. Swenson missed out on much of the base camp experience and peak bagging adventures because of a sinus infection that came on during his descent from Tsok Kangri. He decided to hike back to Leh for medical treatment. He was prescribed antibiotics at the Leh hospital. He rested his body at the lower altitude for a week, and then hiked back to advanced base camp to join his partners for the summit attempt on SK2. The decision to rest at a lower altitude allowed him to recover from his sinus infection, but it meant that Swenson missed out on some crucial time acclimating at altitude. After climbing Stegosaurus, the ladies left for home, leaving the men to their final objective: Saser Kangri II. At 7,513m, it was the second highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The only higher unclimbed mountain lies in the kingdom of Bhutan, where alpine exploration above 6,000 meters is forbidden for religious reasons. Wilkinson, Swenson, and Richey climbed SK2 alpine style, making this one of the longest alpine-style first ascents. The alternative is expedition style: camps are established ever higher on a mountain over the course of weeks, with climbers ferrying supplies and stashing them in tents before retreating to base camp on ropes fixed to the rocks. On the final summit push, the team starts out from high up on the mountain, with easily reachable camps in a line of descent all the way down to base camp. Alpine style, the accepted modern form of mountain climbing, is much more committing. Teams climb the mountain in a single push from base to summit, carrying all their supplies on their backs, and not fixing any ropes to the cliff. The objective dangers of serious mountain climbing include: falling rocks and ice, avalanches, weather exposure, falling off a cliff, and various types of altitude sickness, and the thousand little things that can go wrong in an extreme environment. These dangers are compounded in alpine style, where, “there is no easy line of retreat, should something go wrong,” Wilkinson said. On August 21, the trio set out from advanced base camp and climbed eight hundred feet to the first bivouac site, a rare flat spot on the face they dubbed “the launch pad.” The next day, they simul-climbed the Great Couloir, a nearly vertical, concave snowfield, to 6,500 meters. Simul-climbing means they were climbing at the same time, placing minimal protection in the ice along the way to prevent a fall down the whole face. Wilkinson made the decision to stay on route while searching for a bivouac site instead of going off-route to find a suitable ledge. This turned out to be a good decision, as no effort was wasted and a suitable spot was found further up the route. The second bivy site was far from ideal, but Richey had a clutch solution in his backpack, which he invented himself. Called the “Ice Hammock,” it is a rectangle of nylon, which is attached to a steep rock face and filled with snow to provide a flat section on which to pitch a tent. The Ice Hammock worked like a charm, though the team’s Black Diamond ElDorado two-person tent was still a little too big for the ledge.
“It was crowded, it was definitely crowded,” Wilkinson said. When asked who was big spoon, he laughed and said, “It changed around.” The next day they entered a band of rocks, at the top of which was a feature they called the Escape Hatch, “a key piece of the puzzle,” according to Wilkinson. Angling up and to the left towards the summit ridge, it was the only workable route out of the rock band. The team had scoped it out through binoculars in advanced base camp. They crested the escape hatch, and found a bivouac spot within 500m of the summit. Steve’s condition at that point was beginning to deteriorate. After an uneasy night’s sleep the three climbers set out for the top. Steve kept up with his partners, but was unable to lead climbs or chop ice ledges in his weakened state. “He was digging deep,” Wilkinson said. “There were some ‘Chariots of Fire’ moments getting to the summit.” But they got there. After an hour on the summit, the team hiked down to the same bivy-spot of the night before, and camped out in preparation for a long day of descent. Swenson spent a hard night hacking up phlegm. The three of them considered the possibility of having to lower Swenson down the thirty rappels to the glacier. Fortunately that didn’t have to happen. Swenson made it down under his own steam, and the rescue commenced three hours after the exhausted, triumphant team of American mountain climbers made it back to advanced base camp. In his Huffington Post Blog, “The Nameless Creature,” Wilkinson explains the title using a quote from Polish Climber Voytek Kurtyka that’s starts: “It’s amazing how beauty, once touched, turns to pain.” I asked him about this, and asked both he and Janet, more generally, “Why do you climb?” “I’d kind of soften that quote and say, when you get down from a climb, and you’re really tired and really worked, but you’ve gotten down safely, it’s just…you’re really…it’s such a peaceful feeling of satisfaction,” Wilkinson said. “It is those moments,” Bergman added. “And it’s not just after a big multi-day alpine push that you get it. I remember sending Ride the Lightning in Pawtuckaway Park. I don’t even remember the climb itself, but I remember sitting on top of the boulder with a simultaneous feeling of elation, and disappointment because it’s gone, it’s done…but it’s done! So that’s what climbing is for me.”
Published on Nov 4, 2011