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Smells a Little Like Team Spirit…

Posted on: January 31st, 2012 by Pete Takeda

Perhaps the most significant ascent by Americans in 2011 was Saser Kangri II (7518 meters) in India’s Eastern Karakoram. In August, Mark Ritchie (Past AAC President), Steve Swenson (Current AAC President) and AAC member Freddie Wilkinson climbed the Southwest face for the first ascent of the second highest unclimbed peak in the world. Their climb is the highest summit first ascent completed in alpine style.

For Richey and partner Steve Swenson, both in their fifties, the climb capped long and already distinguished climbing careers. To round out the team, Richey recruited four younger alpinists—Freddie Wilkinson, Janet Bergman, Emilie Drinkwater, and Kirsten Kramer. Their expedition provides a glimpse into the future of exploratory alpinism, and highlights the tradition of multi-generational partnership that exemplifies the New England climbing community and the American Alpine Club.

“…The team spirit I felt just being out in this incredible wilderness of mountains with such close friends was immense…”

We caught up with Mark Richey and Freddie Wilkinson with a few questions: 

Pete Takeda: Tell us about the Saser Kangri Expedition?

Mark Richey: This expedition was great. The people and places were amazing. Not only am I pretty happy with summitting Saser Kangri but we also did a couple other things that by themselves were really great. We did the first ascent of Tsok Kangri—14 pitches of ice, like climbing the Black Dike (the New England ice classic) up the center of a 6500-meter peak—a straight shot to the top. 

Freddie Wilkinson: It was really Mark’s project. He first saw Saser Kangri II in 2001, while climbing Yamandaka with Mark Wilford. They were members of an expedition led by Chris Bonington. Mark went back with Steve Swenson, Wilford, and Jim Lowther and made a strong attempt and recon in 2009. I was lucky to be included in the project after so much work had already been done!

 PT: How long did the project take to come to fruition?

MR: It took four attempts spread out over two expeditions. The challenge was not just the climbing, but figuring everything out—permits, travel, getting to the mountain, figuring out the route. It was a lot of work and it was helpful to carry some of the credentials as past President—along with Steve being current President.

FW: All I can say is that the project took three years—at least for Mark.

PT: Any defining moments in the expedition?

MR: Our expedition was it wasn’t a simple show up and climb style expedition had to be a joint expedition with India and it really helped to have the support of the AAC. Though the summit was nice, one particular thing stands out. We ran into a problem when we needed to call up rescue for Steve. I’m standing on the glacier with a sat phone and a battery that’s running down but no numbers programmed into the phone! So what do I do? I call the Penn Burris (AAC Membership Director/CFO) at the club and the entire staff jumps into action. That’s camaraderie and support in the field! It really made a difference.

FW: A lot happened in eight weeks. We had a very successful week or two bagging unclimbed 6,000 meter peaks with Janet Bergman, Emilie Drinkwater, and Kirsten Kramer. The team spirit I felt just being out in this incredible wilderness of mountains with such close friends was immense. Our actual ascent of SKII took five days round trip, and really wasn’t over until Steve was transferred into safe hands to receive extra care should he need it. 

Note: Swenson suffered an altitude related illness immediately after the successful climb. After consultation with a doctor and AAC rescue-provider Global Rescue over the sat phone, the team asked for an evacuation by Indian Air Force helicopter. More info on the climb can be found at the end of this post. 

PT: Does a project like this reflect the values of the AAC? The resources?

MR: It was great to have the support of the club obviously and honestly with any expedition we really needed the insurance for one thing and it worked perfectly and probably saved Steve’s life. The other thing at the club brought in was the information resources and networking. You get to know other climbers being in the club. That’s how I met Steve and others for this trip and others.

FW: Certainly this trip could have had a very different ending were it not for the kind of close expedition support that only the AAC can provide. And when we needed help, it was clutch having the AAC and Global Rescue in support. I also think the camaraderie and breathe of experience amongst our team is sort of representative of the club in general.

PT: Where does this success stand in the spectrum of your climbing career?

MR: Saser Kangri II was a high point, certainly right up there with other things I’ve done. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. 

FW: It was an incredible adventure, one I’m sure I’ll remember with great fondness for the rest of my life.

The full length premiere of Freddie’s movie on the ascent will be at the Club’s Annual Dinner this March 3 in Boston. Watch the trailer below. One lucky ticket-holder will meet the Saser Kangri team and win a unique prize package as well! 

The Old Breed from Cowboy Bear Ninja on Vimeo.


More on Saser Kangri II from Inclined:

Download Mr. Richey’s report in .PDF format.

Read the other entries:

Saser Kangri II Day 1

Saser Kangri II Day 2

Saser Kangri II Day 3

Saser Kangri II Day 4—The Summit

Saser Kangri II—The Descent

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