Aleš Česen and Luka Lindič: the Broad Peak and Gasherbrum IV North Summit interview
Interview with Slovenian alpinists Aleš Česen and Luka Lindič after their ascents of Broad Peak (8047m) and Gasherbrum IV North Summit (7900m).
“Luka and Aleš, sorry for the delay in sending you the questions.”
“No problem. Having some distance is usually even better. Like this you have some time to 'digest' things a bit.”
This is how our interview starts with Aleš Česen and Luka Lindič, the two young Slovenian alpinists who in July 2016 travelled to the Karakoram where they climbed Broad Peak as acclimatisation for the main objective, a daring new route up the West Face Gasherbrum IV. Poor conditions forced the duo to change plans, and they made a five-day, alpine style ascent of the difficult NW Ridge to the North Summit of Gasherbrum IV. For both climbers Broad Peak was their first successful 8000m summit, while their push to the rarely reached North summit of Gasherbrum IV, just below the magical 8000m mark and only a few meters short of the mountain’s main summit, has all the hallmarks of strong, intelligent and formative raid up in the high mountains.
Broad Peak - your first 8000er? That’s quite some acclimatisation climb, isn’t it?
Luka: It was a really good way to acclimatise. I will definitely have the same approach in the future, it’s so easy to stay motivated during the whole expedition like this. Although most people might think that the effort required to climb an 8000er could be a bit too much for acclimatisation, I believe that if we had felt too tired after climbing the normal route on Broad Peak in relatively normal conditions, it would have meant we had nothing to do on the line we wanted to try on G4. If you want to climb such a route like the one we wanted to on G4, acclimatizing like this shouldn't be a problem. I saw Broad Peak as a final check.
Aleš: Yes, climbing Broad Peak for acclimatisation was a logical choice for us. Firstly, it is high enough (probably a bit too high) to acclimatise well enough and, more importantly, it's a small goal in itself. This was very good for motivation and it kept the acclimatisation phase interesting, which can sometimes be a bit dull.
In 2011 you Luka got to 250m of the summit of Makalu on the so-called normal route. How did that feel back then and how did Broad Peak feel in comparison now?
Luka: I was definitely much less experienced on the 2011 expedition to Makalu. I think we were strong enough to climb Makalu's normal route at that time. It’s always easy to be a general after the battle, but I think we were not patient enough. We got nervous when we saw a weather window forecast. We were afraid it might be the only one and decided to try to go to the summit, even though we had not acclimatized well. It was a very good lesson. In the years after that expedition I gained lots of experience, endurance and mental strength. I saw a big improvement this year and so I’m very satisfied.
Especially since you were the only ones to summit this season
Luka: This doesn't say a lot. It depends on who the other people are trying the mountain. We were definitely very different from the other people who tried to climb Broad Peak this season in terms of approach/style of climbing and abilities. It wasn't easy. Trail breaking from Camp 3 to the col between the main and middle summit was the crux, but I’ve already said what I think about the effort that was needed to climb Broad Peak.
Out of interest, how has your training changed over the years in preparation for these giants?
Luka: It hasn’t changed a lot in terms of quantity but I think it has changed quite a bit in terms of quality. Now I think more about how to target my weaknesses while training.
Aleš: You try to adopt training according to your main goals of the season. So for this expedition, we both did lots of kilometers of not particularly technical climbing in mountains in order to train general endurance. We also did a lot of training together, which is an important motivation factor. Having said that, I did not have a very strict training plan and I kept all the diversity that alpinism has to offer. I don't believe you can follow a very precise training plan for alpinism as a marathon runner can. At least, I don't think it would work for me.
Gasherbrum IV was your main goal. Why?
Aleš: Our main goal was to try a new route on south side of the 'Shining wall'. From the very beginning, we knew that for a proper attempt we would need almost perfect weather for at least 5 days and that the chances were high that we wouldn’t be lucky enough to get this. So we weren’t too disappointed when we had to change our objective due to weather.
Luka: We wanted to try the line on the right side of the “Shining wall”. Just look at that face around 6-7 pm! Do I need to say more? It’s one of the three things I would really like to do on the big mountains of Himalaya. Now I know the descent, which can help a lot especially if you need to descend in bad weather like we had. I am already thinking about how and when I will go back.
Just when you were ready to start, at ABC, snowfall forced you to change plans…
Luka: It wasn't the forecast snow that changed our plans. It was the 20 cm of fresh snow the fell during that day. You don't start climbing up an 800m couloir that gets sun in midday in conditions like that. At least I don’t. Our decision was very good.
Day 1, from 5500m to 6700m proved exhausting, both physically and mentally. Yet you continued.…
Luka: In the first part the conditions were perfect. The higher we got though, the more we needed to break trail. I felt good all the time but just a hundred meters below the place where we placed a bivy the snow was really horrible. We needed 3h to ascend 100m. Had it continued like this, we would have been forced to turn around.
Aleš: Yes, the biggest problem was unconsolidated snow in some parts and we realized that if conditions had continued like that for much longer, we would have had to retreat. Luckily though it got a bit better higher up, so our intention was to continue until we still felt safe enough.
So how much is high altitude climbing a mind game?
Aleš: For sure is a very important part. Without high motivation it is just too hard when you start to feel a bit weak and sick, which you eventually do high up.
Luka: You need to be fit, that’s for sure, but then a lot is in the head. It can be nerve-breaking when you see how slow you are and it’s important that you stay calm and continue slowly. In the end it’s probably more in the head.
Despite poor weather you then made the summit push, eventually reaching the North Summit. At that moment the sun miraculously came out.
Luka: We were very close to turning around even before. The weather had been bad all day and it had already started avalanching. To sit on the north summit in the sun after that was one of the best moments for me so far, and we weren't even on the summit of G4! I didn't care that we hadn’t reached the main summit and I don't care now.
Aleš: It was strange having nice weather at the summit. We realised that at that moment the weather above the Baltoro glacier wasn’t generally too bad, that there were clouds only over a few mountains, and that unfortunately one of those mountains was ours. However, we knew that the risk would be too high to continue towards the proper summit, although it was 'just' 300 meters (straight line) away from us and around 20m higher. I would take the same decision in that situation again.
So turing around was the obvious choice
Luka: I think actually it wasn't difficult to turn around. When you really feel that something is the only right thing to do, you don't need to think much.
Aleš: I agree with Luka. We are both used to making crucial decision in tough conditions. And they are all based on safety. Once you take a decision, you have to stick with it and not think too much what if it would be different etc. You decide something and you just do it, the best you can.
How light had you gone? And had you set off with more gear, do you think you could have summited?
Luka: On the whole climb we were relatively light but we could still have spent some more days on the mountain. On the summit push we went only with spare gloves and some liquid and food in our pack. The quantity of our gear was right and nothing changed because of it. We had enough to stay up there even longer. We wanted to escape before too much snow built up.
The descent sounds exhausting. And dangerous.
Aleš: It could have been very dangerous, had we not paid attention and kept our focus every meter of the way down. And this, staying in focus, was very exhausting. Once we reached relatively safe ground,our bodies literally switched off for an hour or so.
Luka: It was for sure one of the most dangerous things I’ve done so far. There were many windslabs and we triggered a few avalanches. Luckily we somehow managed to belay ourselves and stayed safe. It was crucial to remember the route while climbing up. The visibility was often next to nothing during our descent and had we not remembered, we could very easily have got lost.
You wrote “80's and 90's are still the future of alpinism.” Can you tell us more?
Luka: What was done in the days is still the highest level of climbing in the Himalaya. Sport climbing is progressing every year in terms of difficulty, but not so climbing in Himalaya. At least not climbing on the highest peaks. What is also true is that if you fail on a sport climb you fall on a bolt, whereas if you push too much on a big mountain you die. I have big respect about what was done in the 80s and 90s. The stories from those times are probably what brought me to alpinism.
Luka, after the Piolet d’Or 2015 you told us: “ Even though we youngster like to use Facebook nothing can beat the energy you feel while listening to the stories of these guys and talking with them.” Can you quickly tell us about the importance of social media and meeting your mentors in person.
Luka: We cant deny that social media is a part of marketing today. I don't see the difference between using # or sticker on your helmet. Times are changing and you can do both things in good or bad ways. I use social media and I try to do it in what I believe is a good way. I use it to help myself to do what I like to do, but this is definitely not a compensation for real world. It’s difficult to describe the importance of things on social media because things are very personal. The difference might be same like if you chat with a girl over social media or you can speak to her at the bar.
Last question: Gasherbrum IV, now that the dust has settled. How do you view it? A success or failure?
Luka: This is a typical question where we can talk for hours and hours. It’s clear that we were unsuccessful in terms of climbing the new route we wanted to try and also in terms of summiting G4. I always evaluate things though based on the effort I put in and the whole situation. When I put this on scale with our last expedition, I am totally satisfied.
Aleš: The ascent on G IV for sure wasn’t a pure success. But I also do not see it as a failure. Maybe something in between. But the whole experience and expedition I see it as successful. Not as it could have been, but nevertheless successful enough. Given the conditions, I don't think we could have done any better. At least not without taking risks that, for us, would have been unacceptable.
Aleš Česen and Luka Lindič climb Broad Peak and Gasherbrum IV North Summit
On 12 July 2016 Slovenian alpinists Aleš Česen and Luka Lindič reached the summit of Broad Peak. Two weeks later they climbed the Northwest Ridge of Gasherbrum IV, reaching the North Summit (7900m) on 26 July 2016.