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North Ridge, Latok I: Stuck In The Middle

Morning light on Latok, with the upper portion of my Middle Sister solo marked in red. I mostly used the rope in the final 200 meters of the upper spire. The summit block involved an engaging V2 boulder problem! [Photo] Josh Wharton

Nate Opp and I arrived at base camp below Latok on July 11, intent on trying the North Ridge and northwest face of the mountain. We set about acclimatizing, using skis to reach a bivouac at 5500 meters on our third day. After a few days of rest in poor weather, we attempted a 6500-meter snow peak in the valley north of Choktoi Glacier. It was an enjoyable, classic mountaineering adventure, but we turned around at circa 6400 meters, just shy of the summit, due to poor snow conditions.

After 10 days at base camp, Nate started to express doubts about Latok. He was concerned with the objective hazards involved, and ultimately decided he wasn’t willing to accept the risks. On July 24, Nate left base camp and headed home.

Although extremely upset with Nate’s decision, I was unwilling to just abandon the trip. This was my fourth Latok mission; I knew more about the mountain, and had allotted more time at base camp then I ever had before. Going home felt tantamount to quitting, and in many ways, my multi-year commitment to Latok has always been about never giving up, about staying optimistic and pushing forward even when success might seem unlikely. I knew that Hayden Kennedy and Kyle Dempster were set to arrive on the Choktoi glacier around August 10, so I chose to stay and hoped they would be willing to try Latok.

Just after Nate left, seven days of perfect weather arrived. In my previous three trips I had never seen the weather and conditions necessary for a proper alpine-style attempt on Latok. Hearing this forecast and watching the weather window pass me by was truly heartbreaking. I briefly considered soloing. I had not brought the gear I ordinarily use for big solos; I also was not mentally prepared for such a huge solo objective, so as painful as it was I decided it was too risky for me to make a solo bid.

Instead I attempted a smaller solo objective, the northeast summit of the Middle Sister; an unclimbed 5800 meter rock spire a few hours from base camp. (The south summit was climbed in 2000.) On July 29, the second day of good weather, I reached approximately 5650 meters, but was forced down by verglas-covered rock. After giving the peak another day to clean, I returned on August 2 and succeeded in soloing the North Ridge (5.9R/X M4, 700m). I mostly free soloed, but used the rope on approximately five pitches. There were some interesting stretches of climbing–a 30-foot runout on a wet 5.9 slab with a birdbeak for protection was especially memorable–and it felt great to glean a small bit of success. The views from the summit towards the northwest face of Latok, gleaming in the afternoon sun, were bittersweet.

The lower portion of my solo climb up to the northeast summit of the Middle Sister: an easy gully, with a few WI3 steps gains the col. [Photo] Josh Wharton

After my solo of the Middle Sister, I was hit with a bout of intestinal sickness, and groaned my way through the days until Hayden and Kyle’s arrival. Although I had hoped to convince Hayden and Kyle to attempt Latok with me, for various reasons we all decided on the Ogre I. I was happy to have partners again, and excited to climb with such psyched, talented climbers, but it was hard not to be disappointed that I would not have a chance to attempt Latok. To my amazement, another six-day weather window arrived on August 17, and we set off for the Ogre the next day. I won’t go into details about the climb, as I know Hayden has already described them, but I will say that I started to become sick on the first day of climbing, but pushed on through the second day to our final bivouac at circa 6900 meters. On the morning of the third day, much too sick to climb, I made a somewhat scary, bold, perhaps even stupid decision to remain in the tent while Hayden and Kyle continued to the summit.

Knowing how much goes into succeeding on these big remote climbs, and being denied on the Choktoi so many times in the past, I did not want to be the reason that Hayden and Kyle turned around. Luckily my decision was worth it, and they returned around 4 p.m. having reached the summit of the Ogre! Unfortunately, I became even more ill, vomiting blood and feeling barely capable of descent. There were some very touch-and-go moments for me on the descent, and I think we all felt relieved when we finally reached safety at the base of the icefall on August 23.

Many, many thanks to all the people that helped make this trip possible!