For completing the first ever ascent of Saser Kangri II, one of the world’s fifty highest mountains, Mark Richey and Steve Swenson received the prestigious Piolet d’OR in late March– an international award given to the year’s most accomplished alpine climbers. And their adventure is the subject of a documentary film set to premiere this spring. Yet after reaching the summit last August, the old friends were not concerned with celebrating their success, but rather, with Swenson’s survival.
At the high altitude, a bad cough had turned life-threatening on Swenson. As they made their way down to the glacier below the summit, he struggled to breathe and move under his own power. Upon meeting the rest of their crew at base camp, they used Richey’s satellite phone to call for a rescue helicopter. But the phone’s batteries were running low and the textbook emergency protocol was failing. They had the required permits and medical evacuation insurance. However, their rescue company didn’t know how to respond to a call in the remote East Karakoram, a recently demilitarized zone in India.
Swenson was choking on his own phlegm and it appeared that he might die there. The crew broke from protocol. Richey’s wife, Theresa, called the US State Department. And at 4:00 p.m. on August 26, an Indian Air Force helicopter arrived, evacuating Swenson to a hospital in Leh, India, where his condition stabilized.
If you met Mark Richey, 54, at his woodworking shop in Newburyport, Massachusetts or Steve Swenson, 58, at the consulting firm where he worked as an engineer for 30 years in Seattle, they probably wouldn’t mention the harrowing stories of their climbs. While talking with either of them, it takes a little prying to hear about their adventures on the world’s highest mountains from South America to the Himalayas.
As Swenson recollected his climbing record, he glossed over reaching the summit of Everest– alone, using no supplementary oxygen– with the nonchalance that most people would describe an afternoon stroll through the neighborhood. When asking him if ascending the world’s highest mountain alone was at all terrifying, he said, “I think on Everest these days it’s probably the safest way to do it. You’re more of a danger if you’re around other people.”
Swenson and Richey are selective about the company they keep on their climbs, which is part of why the pair has stuck together, despite living on opposite sides of the country. Both friends enjoy making their ascents in the alpine style– an extreme form of climbing that involves leaving no fixed ropes or camps behind; everything needed to survive the trek must be carried in one trip. As Richey explains, “Your are 100 percent dependent on your team to get up and down the mountain.”
Their alpine-style ascent of Saser Kangri II highlights the critical role one’s team plays in determining a climb’s success. “When we saw Saser Kangri II, we didn’t know what it was at the time but were fascinated with it,” said Richey of his first time visiting the area in 2001. “It turned out that it was still unclimbed and one of the highest mountains in the world.”
At that point Richey began a decade-long quest gathering the information, permits, and equipment needed to ascend the 7,518-meter peak, which also turned out to be the second highest unclimbed mountain in the world. (The first highest, Gangkar Punsum in Tibet is off-limits to climbers for political reasons. It and Saser Kangri II were the only 2 of the world’s 50 highest mountains that had remained unclimbed.)
After a failed attempt at reaching the summit with Swenson in 2009, Richey went back to the drawing board, using his skills as a craftsman to design “ice hammocks,” which can be attached to the ledgeless face of a mountain as a tent platform. According to Richey, “If you get up high on a mountain like that and you get into a storm without a tent it could be fatal.” The two-ounce nylon hammocks were crafted in direct response to the steep terrain on Saser Kangri II, replacing the unwieldy portaledges that climbers have used for decades.
With their refined equipment, Richey and Swenson returned with Freddie Wilkinson in August 2011 to make a second attempt at reaching the summit. However, as Swenson’s health began rapidly deteriorating, the team faced the possibility of having to turn around early. “It was probably as painful an experience in the mountains as I’ve ever had,” said Swenson of the respiratory problems that kept him awake in his tent most nights, enduring fits of coughing. “The mucus was so thick; I was choking on it. I felt like I was breathing through a straw.”
By the time they reached their high camp, Swenson was weak but the team pushed on, summiting Saser Kangri II on August 24, 2011.
With a climber of a lesser caliber, Swenson’s health could have prevented the team from reaching the summit, or worse. According to Todd Burleson, the president and founder of Alpine Ascents, an outfitter that leads climbs on the world’s highest mountains, “Steve has been one of the leading climbers in the US for many years.”
When reflecting on whether the team should have turned around before reaching the summit due to Swenson’s health, Richey said, “Did we cut it close? Absolutely. We cut it a little too close. If it had gotten worse, I would have called him on it. But with a guy like Steve you really don’t have to worry about that. He would make the call before you had to make it.”
Freddie Wilkinson, the third member of the team to ascend Saser Kangri II, describes Swenson and Richey as “the last of the great amateur alpine climbers.” The title of his documentary film about the two men, The Old Breed, underscores that Swenson and Richey are becoming something of an anomaly to the climbing world. In an age when most records are toppled by sponsored professionals, and where guided expeditions of the world’s highest mountains are available to anyone with the requisite cash, the elite rank of amateurs is disappearing.
When asking each of them about how the culture of climbing has changed over the years and how they view the recent international recognition, Swenson replied with characteristic modesty: “Getting awards or being in films is a great honor, but I don’t feel anywhere near the same satisfaction as actually being on a climb and getting to the top.”
Photos By: Wilkinson and Richey