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A First Ascent of Link Sar 

Local alpinist recalls his team's triumphant climb to the summit of a mountain in Pakistan's Karakoram

For me, alpinism—the art of climbing in the alpine environment—is all about an equation that balances providing oneself with opportunities for success with defining success in a way that encourages survival. Alpine mountain climbing is a practice that distinctly lacks guarantees. I am, therefore, left with a wide variety of potential outcomes for which to prepare myself. Likewise, when I look at my measures of success, I need to place the most important things first: my life, the lives of my climbing partners, and in turn, my ability to return to the mountains to try again. 

The entire team, in Basecamp having safely made the first ascent of Link Sar. - GRAHAM ZIMMERMAN
  • Graham Zimmerman
  • The entire team, in Basecamp having safely made the first ascent of Link Sar.

This summer, in the depths of Pakistan's Karakoram mountain range, this equation between success and survival was put to the test as my team and I attempted to make the first ascent of the unclimbed 7041-meter peak, Link Sar.

The summit of Link Sar can be best described as what a child would draw if you asked them to draw a steep and wild mountain; pointy and beautiful, with a ferociously organic symmetry in the features that fall from its tall summit. It's also a peak that had rebuffed decades of attempts from some of the world's best climbers, creating a prize that, to those of us invested in the art of alpine climbing, was terribly attractive.  

Attempting the summit

Starting at sunrise on Aug. 6, my partners, Chris Wright, Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and I, left our small bivouac tents in place on a snow ledge at 22,500 feet and launched for Link Sar's summit. It was our sixth day on the route. Below us lay 7,000 feet of rock, ice and snow. It was some of the hardest and most complex climbing that our team of award-winning alpinists—with over 100 expeditions between us—had ever completed. 

At 4pm, we were stopped 20 meters below the summit of the mountain by seemingly bottomless, vertical and unconsolidated snow. Wright and I, who had led most of the way up the mountain, were exhausted and mentally fried. Compounding our concern was the fact that our anchor to the mountain was composed primarily of me, hunched in a deep hole in the snow. We had gotten ourselves into a tight spot with no clear way up or down, a mere 20 meters from the summit. Plus, the sun was going down. 

The fact that Wright and I had led most of the route did not mean that Richey and Swenson, both in their sixth decades (Wright and I are 36 and 33) had not been exceptionally valuable team members. Their experience in these mountains had been the foundation of the planning and strategy that had gotten us this far. And now, 20 meters below the summit, they shined. 

Zimmerman climbing from ABC to camp 1 on Link Sar. - GRAHAM ZIMMERMAN
  • Graham Zimmerman
  • Zimmerman climbing from ABC to camp 1 on Link Sar.

With many years of experience climbing in the terribly loose and steep snow of the Peruvian Andes, Richey launched upward, belayed by Wright. Meanwhile, Swenson started digging into the mountain looking for an anchor. Seemingly at the same time, as the hues along the horizon started to turn orange and purple, they both succeeded, and shortly after, we embraced on the top of Link Sar as the sunset exploded around us painting the Karakoram range in a stunning alpenglow. 

We had made it to the summit safely, and we had made our first step to getting back down in one piece. Ahead of us lay three hard days of descent down the complex and challenging terrain. But with continued diligence and patience, we made it down without mishap. 

A look back

This first ascent of Link Sar had taken a maximal physical and mental effort from our entire team. It required all of our collective experience and strength to maintain our safety margins. All the intense decision-making required to make the ascent safely came from a very democratic, discussion-oriented process. We remained ready to turn around if needed right up until the very end. Survival was paramount, but we gave ourselves the opportunity—and in the end, we made the first ascent of the stunningly beautiful peak.

Descending during the final day on the mountain. - GRAHAM ZIMMERMAN
  • Graham Zimmerman
  • Descending during the final day on the mountain.

The values of balancing opportunity and a properly defined definition of success are not unique to the great ranges, or big, new routes in the mountains. These values are just as important at home. The next time I'm skiing in the Three Sisters or climbing at Smith Rock, I'll think back to those last 20 meters of climbing on Link Sar and will work to maintain the same balance throughout my entire life.

I hope that this story will help you to do the same so that that we can all enjoy the amazing mountains around Central Oregon and come home safe while giving ourselves the opportunity to get to the top. 

Keep it sharp out there. 

Link Sar at right with K6 and Changi to its left. - MATTEO DELLA BORDELLO
  • Matteo Della Bordello
  • Link Sar at right with K6 and Changi to its left.

Graham Zimmerman is a professional alpinist and storyteller based in Bend. He's a partner at locally based Bedrock Film Works, where he strives to share stories about the power of the outdoors and the importance of protecting our climate and natural spaces.

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