Steve Swenson’s condition was becoming dire. After fighting a sinus infection for a month on a glacier at 20,000 feet, he and his teammates Freddie Wilkinson and Mark Richey climbed the second highest unclimbed mountain in the world: Saser Kangri II, in the Karakoram Range in Northern India. The team started up the 24,650-foot mountain August 21st, summitted, and descended in a single five-day push.
Three hours after returning to advanced base camp, Swenson began exhibiting signs of high-altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal lung condition that haunts the dreams of every alpinist. 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. He and Richey administered dexamethasone, a steroid used to treat cerebral edema, in an attempt to save Swenson from drowning in his own phlegm. Around six a.m., on August 26th, Wilkinson and Richey initiated the process of getting a helicopter out to the glacier.
So began a ten-hour marathon of international phone calls, red tape, and crossed fingers.
Janet Bergman, a fellow alpinist and Wilkinson’s wife, had been with the expedition in India a week before, but was now back home in New Hampshire coordinating the rescue effort with Global Rescue in Boston, and Teresa Richey in Leh, India. “I was just calling everyone I could as many times as I could until something got done,” she said. “It was pretty much what you’d expect from a beaurocratic government.”
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 a memorable summer for six American mountain climbers. The expedition was notable for several reasons. In various configurations, the team collectively ticked five first ascent’s of major Himalayan peaks. Saser Kangri II, at 7,518 m, was the second highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The ascent of SKII, completed August 24th 2011, was one of the highest first ascents ever accomplished in alpine-style, and two members of the three-man team – Richey and Swenson – were over fifty (53 and 57, respectively, at the time). But for me, the most remarkable story is how Wilkinson and Bergman, husband and wife, were able to pursue their passions for alpinism together in one of the most remote places on Earth.
Wilkinson and Bergman live in a cabin on a hill in my hometown. I was able to sit down with them for coffee one morning and listen to their story – how they both got to share in the expedition of a lifetime.
Love at first send
Bergman is a soft-spoken woman of medium height, with brown hair, a muscular build, and piercing blue eyes that make her look tough and weathered, despite her friendly smile and warm demeanor. Wilkinson is a wiry man with a mischievous grin that crinkles the corners of his eyes and creases his cheeks.
The two met in September of 2002. Bergman, 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. Wilkinson was passing through with some mutual friends, having graduated from Dartmouth a year before. 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 at 5,000m, during which the four climbers shared two sleeping bags.
Two years later, Wilkinson and Bergman were able to pursue separate avenues that landed them together on another remote, unexplored glacier in Northern India.
Wilkinson started rock climbing in seventh 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.
Wilkinson was first approached about climbing Saser Kangri II (SK2) in early 2010. Steve Swenson, 57, from Washington, and Mark Richey, 53, from Massachusetts, are fixtures in the American climbing community. The two veteran alpinists attempted to climb SKII in 2009 with Coloradoan Mark Wilford and Englishman Jim Lowther. That 2009 expedition was restricted 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 cold weather combined with depleted energy to turn them back 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. “He brings a lot of experience and skill to the team.”
It was around this time that Bergman applied for a Polartec Challenge grant with two friends and colleagues, 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 SKII. Bergman teamed up with Kremer and Hart to become an all-female, first-ascent team. Due to a tumultuous spring involving injuries and marriage, Zoe Hart had to bow out of the expedition. Emilie Drinkwater, whom Bergman had met at climbing competitions, was a natural replacement based on her strength and skill as a climber. Bergman, Kremer, and Drinkwater all brought experience gained through illustrious careers as guides and sponsored athletes to the expedition.
The women’s 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 3rd 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.
Party on the glacier
The trek from Leh took three days, after which they set up base camp on “a lovely grassy meadow at 5,000 meters,” Bergman said. 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. Within a month, the climbers’ bodies adapted to the thinner air. Near the end of July, the men and women parted ways, with their objectives 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 closer 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 join the other team.
“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, 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, and 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 6,585 m 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 resilience.
After vomiting ten times in eight hours, 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. Then they sent a fantastic technical route up 800ft of glacier and 700 ft. of 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.
“Living in base camp, and in our day-to-day, we were our own little country,” Bergman said during an interview at her and Wilkinson’s hillside cabin in Madison, N.H. “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.” Looking around at the simple interior and rugged woods outside, it wasn’t hard to imagine their home as a sort of alpine base camp.
A week after the Saser Linga IV and Pumo Kangri climbs, Richey, Wilkinson, Bergman, Drinkwater, and Kremer bagged the first ascent of 6,670m peak they dubbed “Stegosaurus,” because of fin-like rock formations on the mountain’s shoulder. After an easy climb, the party skied down the ridge on “beautiful corn snow,” Bergman said.
Swenson missed 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 hiked down to Leh for medical treatment, and was prescribed antibiotics at the Leh hospital. He rested 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 Swenson to recover from his sinus infection, but it meant that he missed out on crucial acclimation time.
“The Old Breed”
After climbing Stegosaurus, the women 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 taller virgin peak lies in the kingdom of Bhutan, where alpine exploration above 6,000 meters is forbidden for religious reasons.
Wilkinson, Richey, and Swenson climb exclusively in alpine style. 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 is much more committing. Teams climb the mountain in a single push from base to summit, carrying all their supplies on their backs, without fixing ropes to the cliff.
Any serious mountain climbing poses huge risks to climbers: rockslides, avalanches, exposure, altitude sickness, falling off the mountain, and the million-or-so unforeseeable potentialities to be found in the extreme alpine environment. These dangers are compounded in alpine-style ascents. When there is no easy line of retreat, small problems can quickly become emergencies.
On August 21 the trio set out from advanced base camp and climbed 800 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 steep, 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 fabric, 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.
With three guys and a bunch of climbing gear in a two-man tent, “it was definitely crowded,” Wilkinson said.
The next day they entered a rock band, and 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.
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. His sinus infection had not fully healed, but more debilitating was probably the fact that he had missed out on a vital acclimation when he hiked out to Leh for treatment. Swenson passed an uneasy night’s sleep in the bivouac, and the next day the three climbers set out for the top.
Swenson kept up with his partners, but was unable to lead pitches 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. Early in the day, on August 24th 2011, the three Americans completed the route they dubbed, “The Old Breed,” one of the highest first ascents ever accomplished in alpine style.
After an hour on the summit, the team rappelled to the same bivy-spot of the night before, and rested in preparation for a long day of descent. Swenson spent a hard night hacking up phlegm. The climbers steeled themselves for the daunting possibility of having to lower Swenson down the thirty rappels to the glacier.
Fortunately, Swenson was able to descend under his own steam the next day. After thirty rappels, a test of endurance that would challenge even the most physically fit, the exhausted team of American mountaineers arrived in advanced base camp, triumphant, but not yet assured that they had made it out unscathed. Swenson’s air passageways were swollen and full of fluid. He was in danger of suffocation, and fifty miles from help. The telethon rescue process began three hours later.
Why they climb
In his 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 Bergman, more generally, “Why do you climb?”
Wilkinson said, “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.”
“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.”