Latok I: In Conversation with Tom Livingstone

Within hours, the news that the North Ridge of Latok I had been climbed reached all corners of the mountaineering community. Even the mainstream press became excited over the idea that the last great unclimbed Himalayan line had finally been cracked.

While their success was not exactly as early reports had stated, Briton Tom Livingstone and Slovenians Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar had indeed climbed three-quarters of the North Ridge before traversing right to the west col and summiting via the south side of the mountain. While the full ridge is still up for grabs, the trio’s line remains a significant mark in recent high altitude alpinism.

The North side of Latok I from Base Camp. Photo: Tom Livingstone

ExplorersWeb caught up with Livingstone at his parents’ house soon after he returned from Pakistan. Still lithe and tanned from his exploits at high altitude, he began to recount details of the “most intense climbing experience” of his career.

“It feels really good to be home, to decompress,” he said. It was the longest I’d spent in the mountains, the longest any of us had spent in the mountains.”

“You couldn’t switch off at all. Obviously, you can’t drop anything, and you’re constantly worried about the weather, the next pitch, about getting down, and you’re trying not to think of anything else, like back home.”

“By the end of the route, we were totally exhausted.”

Luka Strazar leading on Day 1. A lot of the climbing on this day was moderate ice where the trio could move together. Photo: Tom Livingstone

On arriving at Base Camp before their climb, the team found two Russian groups already on the mountain (including Sergey Glazunov and Alexander Gukov).

“We were thinking: ‘Don’t think about them, ignore them. No pressure. We would be happy if they climbed it, but we’d be even happier if they came down safely. As it is, it ended up in a massive drama that inevitably affected us.”

“But we were really psyched about climbing Latok I from the northern side. We wanted to do the route by the easiest way, because after 40 years of some of the world’s best people trying, you think, well, it’s probably pretty tricky, there’s a reason why it hasn’t been climbed. So we focused on climbing it by any possible way, in a really good style.”

Despite the north ridge looking like a ridge, much of the climbing was on steep walls. It’s much more complex than it looks Photo: Tom Livingstone

Remarkably, this was Livingstone’s first time climbing in the Himalaya.

“This is a real dream route for me. I’d heard about all the attempts over the years. I’d wanted to go to the Himalaya for a while, but I’ve only ever dreamt of it. But often climbing has these circles, where one day as a beginner you read about a famous climb, and then one day five years later, you set out to climb it.”

Tom Livingstone and Aleš Cesen relaxing with a view. Photo: Tom Livingstone

Livingstone was no beginner, however, before he actually took on Latok I.

“I had a steady progression through the grades toward the bigger objectives. It’s created a really solid base. A good example of my preparation for this climb was Mount Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. Really wild experience with both the technical climbing and the isolation: There was little or no chance of rescue, and you really have to put it out there: You’re committed. It’s just you and a mate and you think, ‘Yeah, let’s not mess up’.”

Tom Livingstone at a belay. Photo: Tom Livingstone

The three men started their route on Latok I by traversing right at the base of the ridge to avoid a rock buttress and the risk of rockfall and avalanches. They instead soloed a series of steep snow slopes to gain access to the ridge proper.

They then spent six further days on the mountain, with three bivouacs on the north side, before traversing to the west col and summitting from the south.

“After going through the saddle, it took us two days to traverse beneath the summit and then to climb up to the summit and down. Much much quicker than if we’d gone to the upper North Ridge.”

Moderate climbing on snow slopes on day 1. Photo: Tom Livingstone

“It would have meant taking double the amount of food and gas. So you’d be climbing much slower, and you’re probably going to get bad weather at some point. The snow mushrooms and cornices didn’t look appealing.”

On the traverse to the west col, they faced heavy snowfall at Camp 3, which made the team consider turning back.

“It snowed loads — six inches or eight inches — and continued overnight. We had crossed some avalanche slopes en route from the col to our bivvy and we were quite concerned about how to get down without getting swept 2,000 meters down the south side by an avalanche. The forecast was a bit dodgy for summit day, but the night before, bad weather hit us early.”

Luka Strazar weaving around delicate snow formations on the north ridge. Photo: Tom Livingstone

“We were thinking, ‘Uh- oh, this is not good.’ We could probably get down but we were investigating all kinds of options. Could a helicopter rescue us if we got stuck? Could we get down on the south side? Thankfully, when the day dawned, it had cleared up a lot. The slopes above were so steep that they weren’t collecting any snow.”

Clearly, the high altitude environment exposed the team to risks, but they did their best to minimize them.

“There’s a ton of risk climbing in the Himalaya,  particularly on a long route like the North Ridge. You just have to accept that. Over the years, you become familiar with it.”

An exposed bivvy. Photo: Tom Livingstone

There were times when we stopped early in the day, so that when the sun hit the walls above us, we were in a safe place. So we could watch the rockfall thundering down and think, ‘Oh good, we’re now in a safe place waiting for the weather to cool down again.”

“To minimize risk, we were very strategic about when we climbed and where. Loads and loads of rocks smashed down. Avalanches fell a dozen times a day. So we knew that there were places where you should climb and places where you shouldn’t. Inherently there was risk, but it never felt like we lost control of the situation.”

Aleš Česen climbing on the south side of Latok I. Photo: Tom Livingstone

Livingstone described a very tight-knit team, despite the trio having climbed together only a few times previously.

“We all got on really well and all shared in the decisions. Very little needed to be said. If you spend ages discussing conflicting opinions, that’s not great. Whereas someone just started racking up and that was it, the decision was made.”

Aleš Česen, Tom Livingstone and Luka Strazar at Base Camp. Photo: Tome Livingstone

You might think Livingstone would now be ready for a holiday, but in three weeks he’s leaving for the Indian Himalaya with Canadian Will Sim and Scot Uisdean Hawthorn.

“We’re gonna try a first ascent. I’m really psyched about that.”

Tom Livingstone on the summit of Latok I. Photo: Luka Strazar


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