K2 West Ridge: Interview with Ian Welsted

The Savage Mountain was been tamed with O2 and trussed with kilometres of fixed ropes up the normal Abruzzi Spur route. But the perfect pyramid that is K2 still has three other wild, difficult, and uncertain faces. And that’s exactly how Graham Zimmerman and Ian Welsted want it.

Both have won Piolet D’Ors after new routes on Karakorum 7,000’ers: Welsted bagged the first ascent of K6 West with Raphael Slawinski in 2013 and Zimmerman pioneered the first route up Link Sar in 2019, with partners Steve Swenson, Chris Wright, and Mark Richey. Now they intend to apply that same light style to the aesthetic West Ridge of K2.

The West Ridge dangles a challenging, rarely attained prize. Distant and difficult, with no clear itinerary, it harks back the sorely missed climbing style of the 1980s and 1990s. This 2021 endeavor will excite those craving pure adventure, wild faces, and pure style.

Ian Welsted.


ExplorersWeb caught up with Ian Welsted in Canada. He had just received his second dose of vaccine, one of Pakistan’s requirements for foreign mountaineers this summer. “This was the last obstacle we had to fulfill the conditions,” said Welsted. “Now I’ve got my jab so hey, it is really going to happen!”

It is remarkable that only a two-man team is going to tackle such a long route. Originally, they had planned on a third member, one of Zimmerman’s partners on Link Sar, Chris Wright.

“Unfortunately, Chris became injured about two months ago and had to drop out,” said Welsted. “Graham and I discussed whether the project was still doable by just the two of us. But I find with these trips that when something stops you, you should just keep going ahead with it.”

We agree that we don’t want to die

Zimmerman and Welsted have never climbed together before. “Steve Swenson and I were talking about future plans at the Banff Mountain Festival in Canada, and I mentioned I wanted to go a step higher and climb a technical, non-standard route on a higher peak,” said Welsted. “He introduced me to Zimmerman and Wright, who were already planning for K2.”

Graham Zimmerman. Photo: Graham Zimmerman/Instagram


The original idea came from Pakistan’s Nazir Sabir, who outfitted one of Zimmerman and Chris Wright’s expeditions. “Sabir had made the first ascent of K2 West with the Japanese team back in 1981,” said Welsted. “He told them all the story, described how it felt up there — and Graham fell in love with that route.”

Despite their lack of experience with each other, Welsted is confident they’ll work well as a team. “COVID stuck us on opposite sides of the [Canada-U.S.] border,” he said. “But we know the same people and we climb in the same style…We [also] agreed that we don’t want to die.”

Climbing in style

As for the style, the pair will take no O2 and only five or six ropes. “We will get there, set Base Camp, and check the lower part of the route, to get familiar with it,” he said. “Then we will probably go over to Broad Peak to get acclimatized. Then we wait. When a weather window comes, we will just go up.”

The climbers will share Base Camp with the normal Abruzzi route. “Then we will go further west, up the Savoya Glacier and possibly set an Advance Base Camp,” said Welsted. “We’ve heard the glacier is a bit broken and it might be not easy to get there, but I am sure we’ll get through.”

From the foot of the mountain, they must climb an ice headwall to reach the proper West Ridge. “The ridge itself is quite rocky, which we actually like. We keep in mind the unfortunate British expedition in which [one man] died in an avalanche. So as later expeditions have done, we will try to stick to the ridge in order to avoid that hazard.”


Welsted was referring to Chris Bonington’s 1978 British expedition, the first attempt on that line. Nick Estcourt perished in the avalanche.

The West Ridge has been climbed in its entirety three times before, but always with extensive use of fixed ropes.

The Abruzzi is a lower-angle route and includes a lot of snow slopes, so it’s less suitable for an alpine-style ascent. “Also,” he says, “the Nepalis fixed it last winter, so we’d rather stick to a lesser climbed route.”

Welsted adds: “We usually just carry a tent and a stove. Will we climb in a single push? We are not going to define ourselves. If conditions force us to go up and down a little, that’s okay. What we don’t do is take extra gear, we don’t set up and leave tents.”

They will have a small base camp crew, though. Zimmerman recently said that he would stay offline during the expedition. Welsted agrees that they want to focus on the climb rather than social media. Nevertheless, ExplorersWeb will continue to get some news intermittently from them, to follow this exciting climb.