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What is an Alpinist?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
On an expedition to the Karakoram, Rob Duncan explores what it means to be an alpinist.

Photograph: Jesse Mease

I dodged camel turds and shielded my face from a sudden dusty wind as I walked along the banks of the swollen brown Shaksgam River to the Slovenians’ camp. We were all sweaty, smelly and, although weary from travel, overjoyed and awestruck to be in the rugged, remote and unclimbed Aghil Karakoram. Sitting outside of the tent was Ales, a badass Slovenian with more than a few first ascents in his native Julian Alps under his belt as well as many international expeditions. I asked if he had a can opener. From his perch on a blue expedition barrel, Ales offered up a Swiss Army knife. “I do, but you have to know how to do it,” he said with a big grin.

I quickly used the tool to open a can of salmon we would add to our cheap Chinese noodle packets, and Ales laughed. “Ah I see you are an alpinist! Not a sport climber!” I grinned wide and shook off the comment, saying, “Well I'm not so sure of that.”

Our team was composed of nine international climbers, all united by Scottish climber Bruce Normand's determination to explore the Shaksgam range of the Karakoram. The range held numerous proud and virgin 6000-meter peaks, and we had trekked three days to reach advanced basecamp. My partner Jesse Mease and I had heard tales of the fiery Bruce Normand over the years, and I now found myself the novice on a team led by this veteran expedition alpinist.

When Ales called me an alpinist, I felt conflicted. I wanted to be an alpinist, but told myself I wasn’t a real alpinist, as I thought of all the things I hadn’t done. I’d never chopped a platform for a tent, never climbed at elevation, never had a heinous epic in the alpine. I knew that I had to have a few more big experiences in the alpine realm before I could consider myself a capital-A Alpinist.


Two weeks after Ales loaned me his Swiss Army knife, I lay stripped down to boxers in a small tent pitched on a glacier, sweating bullets during the middle of the day. I was very worked, very hot and too tired to wear the grin I felt in my soul. We had just climbed the first ascent of Peak 6184, having post-holed to the summit from about 5700 meters. On top, the rolling Kunlun Range lay before us to the east and to the west, the Shaksgam river rolled into Pakistan. Smaller peaks obscured our view of K2 and Gasherbrum I and II to the southwest, while south of them Gasherbrum III and IV glistened in the distance. Turning due south and looking up to the headwaters of the Shaksgam river we looked into India, the peaks near Saser Kangri rising there.

And to the southeast of us rose the massive north face of Durbin Kangri 1, our main objective for the trip. The face shimmered, the orange light of the fading day flickering as it travelled through the thin atmosphere to reach us, as if it were an incomprehensibly large mirage. Small slides scoured the flanks of the massive peak. Jesse and I had been staring at photos of the proud, unclimbed 6824-meter peak for seven months. And now, standing among mountains so vast, the possibilities seemed endless. I knew right then that I had found my kind of climbing.


Five days after our successful summit of Peak 6184, we sit in high camp pretending not to be nervous about the days to come. We eat dehydrated food and imagine possibilities on Durbin Kangri 1, spying objectively dangerous features and pretending to see ledges that will accommodate our tent. We agree that an ice line left of center looks safe, enticing and in.

Our alarm blares in the pre-dawn. Metallica is soon cranking from our little speakers, and the familiar smell of instant coffee wafts through camp. We begin the hour-long hike to the base of the gigantic north face quietly, and I am filled with nervous energy as we rack up at the base and stash our snowshoes. As we start soloing up the lower apron of steep snow and low-angle ice and cross the bergshrund, the apprehension melts away and we enjoy a surreal sunrise.

"I was very worked, very hot and too tired to wear the grin I felt in my soul."
Photograph: Rob Duncan
Photograph: Rob Duncan
Photograph: Jesse Mease

After traversing until we are directly above the bergschrund, we reach the first technical pitch of ice. I tie into the sharp end, my brain pulsing. With each body length gained above the belay, my mind and body become more aligned, as my fears and dreams evaporate. The only thing present in my consciousness is the next swing of the ice tool. The calm is short lived however, and my zen trance is broken by the sound of rocks and ice whizzing past mere feet above my head. I gain a laser focus as I search for good protection.

After 80 feet of steep snow and friable ice, I reach a stance below a bulge of slightly overhanging ice. Firing in two body-weight-only screws. I climb into the first crux. Water drips into my eyes, and I search for good ice beneath the crust. Instead, I reach the limestone below.

After bringing Jesse up on a thank-God ice screw, he is equally appalled by the poor quality of the ice and rock. We lower back to Bruce, who is packing ice into the anchor screws to keep them from melting out of the ice. It is incredibly warm, and we rush to get off the face before anything big starts coming down. We need little discussion before realizing that we are all in agreement—this line is impossible in these conditions. I am sullen. Bruce snowshoes up the glacier to get a good look at a possible alternative on the northeast ridge of the peak, and Jesse and I are alone with our thoughts.


The next week is spent trying to climb consolation-prize peaks whose existence Google Earth promises but that we can’t even approach. Dozens of times I peel off my mountaineering boots and strap on sandals in order to wade across surging, waist-deep currents, strengthening my resilience if nothing else. “Rob, I’m sorry this is your first expedition. It is by far the worst I have been on,” offers the incredibly well-traveled Bruce. We joke about simply re-branding the expedition as an extreme canyoneering trip.

Each day, we notice the creeks rising higher, and so, with dwindling food supplies and impending fatigue, we resign ourselves to a completely fruitless expedition and turn back toward base camp. For two days we forge back over terrain we have already crossed. As we near the final stream crossing, I catch site of Ales’s tent, his tall form standing beside it. I am heartened, and pull on my sandals a final time. I am excited to chat with our Slovenian friends and eat sweet treats.

But as we enter camp, I realize that the form I had thought was Ales is not the jovial alpinist but a food barrel. No one has heard from Ales and Peter in eight days. Jesse, Bruce and I quickly regroup, desperate to find our friends. And as I once again forge into a nameless torrent, I feel a sense of urgency that no climbing trip has ever sparked.

At night, I dream of playing hockey with Ales. We are both leaning against the rink’s rails, and in a moment of lucidity, I ask, “Ales, are you dead?” His smiling visage turns lifeless and flat, showing no emotion. He turns his head to look away from me and does not respond.

As we continue to search for a way to reach the glacier that Ales and Peter had set off for, the canyons are filled with ever-rising water. I make it less than halfway across the deluge before my rattling trekking poles and the tremendous current send me back. Finally, after days of searching, Bruce announces that as expedition leader, he is calling the ground search off. I appreciate his strength, but I am gutted. I sit on my backpack and weep. Six children in Slovenia will grow up without a father.

I have spent a month of my life in this mountain range, not even getting one pitch up a mountain, and now I have lost two friends before I even got to know them. How can this be worth it? I think. Is anything worth dying for?

As we return to civilization, I find no answers, but I grow more certain that I will return to the Karakoram. I feel at home among the rugged, unexplored mountains. My body is aching after weeks of mountain living and my heart is doing cartwheels with each new thought or remembrance of Ales and Peter. We are truly walking the “Blank on the Map,” vast and waiting to be explored.

But then I realize that Ales was right. I am an Alpinist. I just wish I could tell him he was right.

This story was written in loving memory of Ales Holc and Peter Meznar.

—Rob Duncan

Photograph: Rob Duncan