Interview: Luke Smithwick, Alpinism and Mountaineering in the remote Himalaya

Change is coming in Himalaya guiding

In a previous interview, Luke Smithwick listed among his top achievements first ascents in Yosemite and Nepal, and a ski descent of a volcano in Alaska.

But a trip to Himalaya in 2001 was transformative. “After that, nothing else was the same, it was simply too small,” he told us.

There’s a wind of change in Himalaya guiding; where lately large commercial outfits will take complete novices and lead them to the top of Everest; the new guides do it differently.

With these outfits, you’ll come back hopefully a summiteer, but more importantly, you’ll return a mountaineer. And the trip will be different too. In Luke’s words: “The Himalayas as they should be without helicopters, German bakeries on each corner, and constant wi-fi connections while out on the trail.”

Living mostly out there, Luke has been busy as ever. We found him in India latest, with a government gig in Jammu and Kashmir, while leading small teams in new territory. Here goes an update.

Pythom/Exweb: Good to see you again Luke. Last year you climbed the highest peak in Zanskar, 7135m (23,211 foot) Mount Nun via the West ridge, and then went for the first ascent of Saldim Ri in the Makalu Himalaya in alpine style. How did it go on Saldim Ri?

Luke: Hi Tina. Great to hear from you. Yes, we climbed Nun last Autumn and then immediately moved to Saldim Ri in the Makalu Himalaya of Nepal. We established base camp, made some forays and established a camp 1 at 5600 meters, and then were thwarted by heavy snows for the remainder of the trip. We will be returning again this Autumn for a “third time lucky” attempt.

I appreciate climbs that require commitment. Saldim is a beautiful peak, and is worthy of the time required. We are focused on peaks away from the crowds of people in the popular Himalaya climbing areas.

Pythom/Exweb: Currently you’ve just returned from an expedition to climb 7075 meter (23,211 feet) Mount Satopanth in the Garwhal Himalaya of India, how did it go?

Luke: We successfully climbed to the summit on 2 May, 2016 and may have set the “speed record” for a commercial ascent of the peak, reaching the summit in only 15 days from Delhi.

Many piped in as we were leaving that we were “too early” and “going in the wrong season”. By immersing myself in the Himalayas, I am learning the subtle times to go for successful summits, while outsiders are continuing to go with timings from 10 years ago.

If you don’t live here in the mountains, you simply don’t know.

Pythom/Exweb: How are you different?

Luke: We believe in putting together small teams that are adequately prepared for the peak and have the previous altitude experience. The big companies follow our lead when it comes to where to go next, and when to go. We set the standard for new climbs in the Himalaya.

Many climbers come to us after having less than ideal experiences with the larger expedition companies. These companies have tremendous track records, decades of success, and proven reputation. The trick is that their groups are simply too large, and they’ve grown to a point where they at times simply just have to “find a guide” to run a trip.

Please don’t get me wrong, their guides are always highly qualified professionals, but the feedback we’ve been getting from guests who now choose to climb with us is that the guides didn’t have the patience to listen to the needs of each climber.

Our groups are small, generally 4 to 6 people, and everyone on the trip is very fit and prepared for the peak. This isn’t always the case with the larger companies. I lead all of our trips and am focused on the needs of each individual on the climb, without being too overbearing.

Pythom/Exweb: You are able to offer the same level of service as large mountaineering companies at a fraction of the cost?

Luke: Simply because our guests are not paying for mortgages, office staff, and glossy brochures. Expedition costs go directly to the people who are working in the field on your climb, and this comes through in the experience.

Pythom/Exweb: A technical climber and guide, with years spent on US big walls and in Alaska, you’ve progressed into the Himalayas over the past 10 years, apparently climbing to more summits in the Himalaya than any American in history in a very short time. Can you tell us more about that?

Luke: Most of my summits have come through stacking peaks back to back in the Himalaya of Ladakh, where we’d climb up to ten 6000 meter peaks in a couple of weeks. This has enabled me to climb more than 50 Himalayan summits. The exact number I’ll leave right now, although I’m fairly certain no one from the United States has that kind of experience here.

Pythom/Exweb: With your guiding, you’re approaching the Himalayas differently than everyone else.The unknown Himalaya in alpine style with small focused groups. What is the biggest reward of this approach?

Luke: Our “differentiate” is that we seek out first ascents and unnamed aesthetic peaks in remote areas. There is a lot of trust involved with our clients as often folks cannot pronounce the name of the peak we are going to, or even have a truly clear visual idea of where it is.

There is a huge relationship of trust that develops from the get-go before clients even arrive, and we love to show people the true wilderness of the Himalaya, and then have a great climb while experiencing pristine culture, natural history, and the Himalayas as they should be without helicopters, german bakeries on each corner, and constant wi-fi connections while out on the trail.

Before the advent of the Himalayan commercial era, this was how expeditions were. We want to continue that expedition philosophy. Do we still bring the satellite phone and have the option for internet and phone connections with loved ones for our guests? Of course. Climbers go home with an experience of a lifetime and quite often new technical skills gained.

Pythom/Exweb: We recently learned that during the expedition off season you are a contracted officer with the Indian government. What exactly is your role with the government of Jammu and Kashmir?

Luke: For 90 days (January to March), I am the Snow Safety Officer for Gulmarg Ski Area in Kashmir, India. Gulmarg is the highest ski area on Earth, and boasts world class terrain with a vertical relief of 7000 feet and light dry Himalayan powder snow.

My responsibility there is to manage avalanche mitigation, issue a daily backcountry avalanche advisory for the international user group, teach twice weekly avalanche awareness classes, advise the government on further development of ski areas in Kashmir, and lead the Gulmarg Ski Patrol in daily operations.

When I close down the ski area at the end of March, expedition season begins.

Pythom/Exweb: What is the biggest reward of your career?

Luke: Knowledge. Knowledge is what fuels me more than anything. Understanding subtle cultural differences through a hand gesture or head nod in a remote Himalayan village, learning about new species, watching the ebb and flow of the seasons, learning the small idiosyncrasies of a remote mountain valley, seeing micro-weather patterns return year after year and recognizing them and adjusting our trip plans, watching the communities grow as I return each season, seeing a friend’s son ski down a slope for the first time, and simply the quiet day to day.

There are certain things in the mountain regions of the Himalaya that you can only understand if you live here and immerse yourself. It’s what truly sets me apart as a guide. We encourage climbers to seek out guides that understand guiding in the Himalayas beyond the oxygen saturation meter and first aid book.

Pythom/Exweb: Lately you started taking small teams, one to two members, with you on off-the- map Himalaya climbs in pure alpine style. What are your requirements?

Luke: We encourage climbers to contact us. We have programs for climbers of all ages and ability levels. What we enjoy the most is watching novice Himalayan climbers progress to eventually reaching their big mountain dreams.

Most of the people that contact us have previous Himalayan climbing experience. Check back often to see our latest trips

Pythom/Exweb: You basically live in the Himalayas (6 expeditions in 2015). Can people come to you with their own dream/idea of a blank-on- the-map ascent?

Absolutely. You can only master your work through immersion. We are running two climbs this year where people did just that. It really is what we enjoy the most.

We love getting those emails. “Ok guys, I’m ready. Tell me where we are going for a first ascent.” It’s great fun to do the research, work with guests, and then finally help them realize their goals.

Pythom/Exweb: You have a double major in Environmental Biology and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Colorado. I’m in the Sierras right now constantly turning rocks and eating stuff from bushes, Tom gets worried, can I hire you to show me what the heck I’m doing?

Luke: Ha ha. Yes Tina, of course. I do add a lot of natural history and geology to my mountain guiding here along with basic language lessons and cultural insights (in the Himalayas). We pride ourselves on being real, down-to- Earth guides. We’ve come to notice that this is unique in the high altitude guiding world.

Pythom/Exweb: When will you complete the American route on Shipton Spire?

Luke: In 2017. This summer will be our first trip to the Pakistan Karakoram, one of the steepest ranges on Earth. I look forward to getting a lay of the land, and we will be returning annually. I will keep you posted and certainly send a report.

Luke Smithwick has five more Himalayan expeditions in 2016 through his guide service, Himalaya Alpine Guides. In order, they are

– an alpine style ascent in the Kang Yatze massif in June,

– an alpine style ascent of Kharut Pyramid in the Pakistan Karakoram in July,

– an alpine style first ascent of a wild 6300 meter peak in the Kishtwar Himalaya of India in August,

– another alpinism trip into Kishtwar again in September,

– and finally completing the season in the Makalu Himalaya of Nepal with a third time on unclimbed Saldim Ri.

2017 will bring Luke to 8000 meter guiding again after a 3 year break.

You can keep track of Luke’s progress on Facebook at Instagram and on the guide service (Himalaya Alpine Guides) blog.