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Fever Pitch

An Interview with Andy Houseman
Photography by Jonathan Griffith

‘As we hacked into the ice we were treated to some of the most surreal light you can imagine. It was pure magic and for a brief moment we even let ourselves forget about the turmoil of the day.’

In July 2015, The North Face alpinist Andy Houseman and alpinist/mountain sports photographer Jon Griffith travelled to Charakusa Valley, Pakistan, in an attempt to make the first ascent of Link Sar, a magnificent and daunting 7,041m presence in the heart of the Karakoram Mountains. A multitude of complex barriers posed by weather, altitude, razor ridges, and serac barriers had thus far kept the summit untouched, despite some heroic attempts made since the 1970s. The team made a successful first ascent of the mountain’s West Summit (6,938m) via their own route, Fever Pitch. Andy’s story is featured in Sidetracked Volume Six. We also asked him about planning such an expedition, his approach to risk, and about his love for the mountains.

Sidetracked: What first got you into mountaineering?

Andy: I did a lot of hillwalking with the Scouts and have always enjoyed the outdoors. My maths teacher at school had a big poster of Dan Osman on the classroom wall and started chatting to me about climbing. He loaned me a copy of Joe Simpson’s This Game of Ghosts. I think I must have read that book a couple of times, cover-to-cover, and I was hooked. I guess I was always drawn to the mountains rather than the beach and mountaineering seemed like the perfect way to enjoy the mountains as a progression from rock climbing.

I enjoy the places mountaineering has taken me, the people I’ve met and the challenge of pushing yourself both physically and mentally to your limit. But most of all, it’s just being out in the mountains. Whether it’s a hard route or a straightforward classic, it’s about being out there with good friends enjoying the mountains.

Can you explain the planning and logistics behind huge climbing expeditions like Link Sar?

Arranging a big expedition sounds quite daunting at first, but it’s actually a lot easier than you think. We have a great agent in Pakistan whom we used to sort everything out: Ghulam at Blue Sky Treks and Tours. We just let Ghulam know which peak we want a permit for, and what dates we’ll be there, and he does the rest. The hard part is obtaining all the necessary permits and visas from the various Pakistan ministries and military. The frustrating side of this is that you often don’t know you have been granted permission until a few days before you fly and can still end up wasting days in Skardu while you wait for the appropriate paperwork to be finalised.

And what specifically was involved in getting to the start of the Link Sar climb?

First we needed to get to our base camp in the Charakusa Valley. We flew into Islamabad and then took an internal flight up to Skardu, which is the main staging point for most expeditions to the Karakoram and where the expedition properly starts. After finalising all the permits with the various government ministries and the military, we headed off on a very dusty and bumpy six-hour jeep journey to the village of Hushe. Hushe is where all the porters live that we use the for the final two-day walk to base camp. These guys are the backbone of any expedition and although they are carrying 25kg loads each they always have a smile on their face. We had just under 40 porters all together to get all our climbing kit, base camp equipment and food for six weeks up to our base camp which was a two-day walk.

Once we’d reached base camp, the priority was to get acclimatised, to get the body used to the lack of oxygen at the higher altitudes. The final, seasonal snow made this difficult, but eventually it settled down enough to allow us to spend two nights on top of Sulu Peak at 6,000m. This was horrible for me – two days of headaches and nausea. Lovely! After that it was a case of sitting and waiting in base camp for a weather window to get on Link Sar. We eventually got a four-day window in the forecast and decided to go for it, using the last day of bad weather to make the 8km approach to the base of the face. We got soaked and very nearly bailed before we’d even started as it snowed a lot more than expected, but at least we hadn’t wasted a good climbing day on the approach.

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During expeditions like this a huge amount of time is spent in close proximity with your teammates. Do you always get along?

You have to! Yes you’re going to have a difference of opinion at times, but you need to know you can work these out without falling out over it. To me, it’s one of the most important virtues in a climbing partner. Enjoying someone’s company and been able to get on is more important than climbing with the best climber in the world. Luckily that’s what my climbing partners must think too! But at the same time you have to have a partner with a similar ability and aspirations to make the trip work. When you’ve got complete trust in your partner and their decision making process, it makes everything a lot easier. You share a lot of emotional ups and downs on an expedition which all lead to forming a very strong friendship.

And continuing with Link Sar for a moment, Jon became sick during the climb and it sounded like he was in pretty bad shape for a while and relied heavily on you to get him through this. You must have been shattered as well. How did this affect the expedition?

Jon’s fever hit after we had had a monster day on the third day (the second day climbing) on the face. It had been a horrendous 17-hour day and we’d got our asses kicked by the Karakoram sun, the altitude, heavy packs and heat. All of that just destroyed us and the steep, black ice killed our legs. I’ve never moved so slowly. All of this while we were climbing under some massive, gravity-defying cornices which we really wanted to be away from fast. It was definitely a ‘type-two fun’ day and one I’d like to remove from my memory.

It was a huge relief to eventually got off the face and Jon put in an awesome effort to lead a horrible pitch, virtually digging a trench for 80m through honeycomb ice along the ridge to find somewhere we could get the tent up. However once we got the tent set up at around 6,800m, Jon just collapsed in it and couldn’t move. He spent the night lying there, coughing his guts up and mumbling away to himself in a mixture of French and English – it was completely unintelligible. I was terrified for him. I could barely get him to drink or eat anything, which, after all we had been through, he desperately needed. I didn’t get much sleep that night, going through every scenario of how I was going to get us off the mountain safely the next day – not a nice prospect given the state Jon was in. Luckily Jon recovered a bit through the night and we decided to stay where we were for the day to see if Jon recovered enough to carry on. After the rest day, Jon seemed to be back on form and we were so close to the west summit we decided to at least give it a go.

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The photography is absolutely spectacular. Can you describe what it felt like to stand on that West Summit – what went through your mind at that point?

It’s a very special moment when the realisation that the past year of planning and training has paid off. We knew we were out of time to attempt to traverse the nearly 1km ridge across to the main summit, but just seeing that ridge and the main summit for the first time was a view we’d dreamt of. On that final day, we’d been climbing up the ridge with this amazing double halo round the sun, a sure sign the weather was changing, but it was spectacular. That, along with the amazing 360-degree panorama of the Karakorum Himalaya around us, was just breath taking. I feel very lucky to have been in that situation and experienced it.

Do you consider what you do a risky business? Have there been any points in your career where the risk was just too great?

Yes, you have to accept that it is a riskier sport than others, but I don’t go out intentionally looking to put myself in risky situations. We are constantly trying to reduce the risk as much as possible and use all our experience to make the right decisions. On Link Sar, we spent a whole day sat at the first bivi because we knew the face needed a full day of sun to help clear all the fresh snow off, making it a lot safer for us to continue. It was frustrating, just sitting there and not making progress up the face, but it was definitely one of the wiser choices I’ve made in the mountains. There have been situations where I’ve felt the risk was too great, but these aren’t situations I’ve intentionally placed myself in and there have been many situations where I’ve turned round as I felt the risk was going to be too great if we carried on.

How important do you feel it is to summit the objective mountain?

There’s a lot to experience on an expedition, which is a good job as the reaching the summit is far from guaranteed. There’s the adventure of a new country, experiencing new cultures and exploring a new mountain range. These are all great experiences, but ultimately the main reason we go away on an expedition is to climb the mountain we are there for. So yes, summiting the mountain is very important. However, coming home fit and well has priority over any summit; to me, no mountain is worth pushing it too far. At the end of the day, it’s just a mountain and it will still be there next year, and the year after.

On Link Sar, we didn’t reach the main summit, which was our original objective, but both Jon and I still came away from the trip really happy and chuffed with having got to the West Summit. We had an amazing adventure getting to it and given the conditions and Jon’s fever we were really pleased to have even made it that far.

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You’ve done some incredible mountaineering expeditions over the years. Is there a particular one that stands out for you?

The one that stands out the most for me was when I climbed the Slovak Direct on the South Face of Denali in Alaska with Nick Bullock in 2012. This wasn’t a first ascent, and the route had been climbed a number of times before, but it definitely stands out as one of my most memorable outings in the mountains. The face is massive, nearly 3,000m vertical, and even though it is a very popular mountain, the south face is a completely different world to the mass of tents we’d left at the camp on the classic West Buttress.

Unlike a lot of big faces in the Greater Ranges, the first 1,400m of climbing was really high quality; we were loving it. Everything was going right and we were climbing with big smiles on our faces for pitch after pitch. Once we got off the technical ground and joined the Cassin Ridge, which you follow for the second-half of the climb, the weather really came in and we got pinned down in the tent about 700m below the summit for 16 hours. We had no way of knowing if we were going to get a break in the weather to get off the mountain and the only way off was to go up and over. Amazingly, the weather cleared for half a day giving us just enough time to finish the climb and stand on the summit with no one else about. It was definitely one of the most ‘out there’ and committed routes I’ve done, but also the most rewarding.

And is there a dream ascent that you have in mind?

Lots, but I wouldn’t want to give any secrets away! There are so many places to visit – I’ve got plans to return to Nepal and Pakistan over the next couple of years and India is definitely high on the list to visit.

Who are your mountaineering heroes?

I wouldn’t say they were heroes as such; it’s more about people who have inspired me though their climbs, writing, or style. Before I really new anything about alpine climbing, either in the European Alps or the Greater Ranges, I read a few of Chris Bonington’s books that I found in the school library. Reading his stories about the expeditions and the characters of that era definitely gave me the impulse to want to travel and climb in these places. Once I new a bit more about alpine climbing it was the likes of Alex MacIntyre, Voytek Kurtyka, Andy Cave and Mick Fowler – their names seemed to crop up everywhere. Especially with MacIntyre and Kurtyka, it was their style of ascents all those years ago, moving away from the big expedition siege style and taking small lightweight and very bold alpine approach to the Greater Ranges, that have inspired me many years later.

The story from this expedition is featured in Sidetracked Volume Six – now shipping.


Photography by Jonathan Griffith. Follow @andy_houseman and @JonGriffithPhot on Twitter.

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