When news broke of two significant summits on K6 recently, Seattle-based Jeff and Priti Wright were relatively unknown in the climbing sphere full stop, let alone in the world of high altitude mountaineering. The husband-and-wife team returned from Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan with an alpine-style first ascent of K6 Central (7,155m) and the third ascent of K6 West (7,140m) in hand, as the media scrambled to find out more about these dark horses who had managed to bag a double ascent on their first trip to the Greater Ranges. In the weeks since, TV appearances in Pakistan, newspaper interviews and a social media buzz have suddenly thrown the unassuming couple into the spotlight.
Although they are highly capable weekend warriors, deftly balancing their demanding careers with impressive ascents, Jeff and Priti are taking a break from work this year and enjoying a climbing sabbatical, which they have skilfully steered and optimised despite the hurdles posed by the pandemic.
Prior to their expedition to Pakistan, the pair achieved some major ascents in Patagonia and the European Alps earlier this year. They summitted Cerro Torre, Aguja Poincenot and some smaller peaks, before travelling to Chamonix, where they based themselves in order to complete the six great North Faces of the Alps on the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, the Piz Badile, the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses, the Petit Dru and the Eiger.
Having delayed their trip by two months or so due to a pandemic-related border closure in Pakistan, Jeff and Priti arrived at Base Camp on 26 August alongside world-class alpinist Colin Haley, with whom they shared Base Camp and logistics. Colin decided to join the couple last-minute with a view to completing some solo objectives, but unfortunately became ill at Base Camp and returned home prematurely.
Jeff and Priti decided to make the most of a promising weather forecast and completed K6 West and Central on 8 October and 9 October respectively, following a different route up K6 West to the ones taken by Rafael Slawinski and Ian Welsted (North-West Face, 2013) and Graham Zimmerman and Scott Bennett (South-West Ridge, 2015), leading up the snowy South-West flank of the peak, before traversing along and up to the summit of K6 Central. Starting from ABC on the Nangmah Glacier at 5,150m, the couple spent 9 nights and 8 days on the mountain, returning via their ascent route over K6 West. Their 2000m route avoided all mixed climbing and involved 80° ice and snow.
Colin Haley was a mentor of sorts for Jeff and Priti, who describe him as their 'top alpine hero'. When asked to share his opinion on their latest ascents and give some insight into them as both climbers and people, Colin told UKC:
'I have been consistently impressed with Jeff and Priti, and their rapid progression as alpinists. When I first met them, not so many years ago, they were just cutting their teeth on moderate routes in the Cascades. Their persistence and unwavering motivation has since seen them up Denali twice, the classic north faces of the Alps, the Cassin Ridge, Fitz Roy, and now they've made the first ascent of K6 Central, which is a great success for their first climbing trip in the Greater Himalaya.
'They are very organised and plan their climbs in great detail, and that engineer's approach (Priti is a software engineer and Jeff an aeronautics engineer) clearly is working very well for them. I'm very happy for them that they were able to pull off K6 Central despite the postponed nature of our expedition.'
It's been a quiet time for the Karakoram and high altitude mountaineering in general, but Jeff and Priti's alpine-style ascents of these rarely attempted peaks are surely the most significant of 2020. We sent them some questions to find out more about their expedition and their climbing partnership...
How and when did you each get into climbing and mountaineering?
We both dabbled in sport climbing off-and-on growing up in Florida and doing weekend trips to crags in the Southeast United States. We did a lot of caving primarily in the Southeast, then progressed to canyoneering when we moved to the Southwest. It wasn't until 7 years ago that we moved to Seattle, Washington and got into mountaineering. Jeff is an engineer with Boeing, which has an amazing Alpine Club (BOEALPS) that offers volunteer-based classes to foster new skills. Priti is a software developer, and many of her coworkers are great rock climbers as well. It was through this community that we got into alpine climbing and ice climbing.
You live in Seattle. How much has living in this climbing and mountaineering hub helped your progression?
The Pacific Northwest is a prime location to nurture alpinism. The Cascades have glaciated peaks, crack and sport climbing, and a fair amount of ice climbing. Virtually every weekend and holiday, we're out in the mountains with our friends.
You seem to have an impressive home training set-up. Tell us about that!
Yes! We're quite proud of our home gym setup in our Seattle condo. We have a Moonboard in the living room, pull-up bars, aerial silks, gymnastic rings, etc. for training on the weekdays, although our Moonboard skills leave much room for improvement!
Tell us about your 2020 sabbatical. What have you managed to do and did you have to change your plans due to COVID-19?
For the most part, we haven't had to change our original plans too much. The original idea was to have a year-in-the-life-of-Colin-Haley: Patagonia, Chamonix, Pakistan. We were lucky enough in Patagonia (El Chaltén) to have enough weather windows in January/February to summit Cerro Torre and Aguja Poincenot, along with some smaller peaks. Then, we moved to Chamonix, France for six months (originally four months, but extended due to COVID-19) where we participated in the mandatory 8-week French lockdown. At least we had a great view of the mountains!
After lockdown, we completed our next project for the Sabbatical: the Six Great North Faces of the Alps. Originally, we had planned to be in Pakistan for three months (July-September). Pakistan didn't open to tourism until late August, so we only had two months (September-October). October can have much better weather than summertime in the Karakoram, although it is significantly colder with much shorter days. The weather window on our summit push was unprecedented for the Range with 10 days of good weather. Unfortunately this weather window coincided with the jet stream sitting above 6500m over K6, resulting in winds in excess of 45km/hr.
What made you choose an expedition to Gilgit-Baltistan?
Steve Swenson's Book Karakoram: Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict was the primary inspiration to choose this part of the Himalaya to have our first expedition. We're told that among the rest of the Greater Himalaya mountains, Pakistan has the gnarliest mountains. Both Steve Swenson and Graham Zimmerman have given live talks in Seattle, and their tales of adventure were captivating. We knew that a Himalayan expedition had to be part of the Sabbatical itinerary.
What extra precautions did you have to take due to COVID-19 before travelling, with regard to getting a visa etc.?
Luckily we got our visas prior to COVID-19, in December 2019, which helped smooth out the process. The country required negative COVID tests before entering and also implemented several SOPs for mountaineers/trekkers while in rural areas. Masks were worn in towns and interaction with locals were extremely limited. Because K6 is higher than 6500m and is situated a few valleys over from the military Line of Control with India, we were required to have a military Liaison Officer (LO) accompany us at Base Camp. Therefore, we were a total of six at Base Camp (the two of us, Colin Haley, our Cook Azhar, LO Captain Zohaib, and Base Camp Manager Ishaq). When choosing our itinerary for the Sabbatical, we prioritised extended stays in a handful of places instead of lots of travelling to many different places. This approach also worked well to minimise our travel during COVID. Our travel time from Islamabad to Base Camp in the Nangmah Valley was record speed. In fact, when we landed in Islamabad, we were able to fly out to Skardu a few hours later without even leaving the airport!
How did you find acclimatisation? How long did you have and what did you do to acclimatise?
We've summitted Denali (20,310ft or 6,190m) on two separate trips via the West Buttress and Cassin Ridge. It would be a big jump for us to attempt a peak of 7,100m, therefore we took acclimatisation very conservatively. We also had access to Colin Haley's wealth of experience with high-altitude alpinism to curb our enthusiasm and make sure we were not being too aggressive. We experienced no altitude issues during the entire expedition. We acclimatised for five weeks before our summit assault. First, we set up an Advanced Base Camp (ABC) on the West Nangmah Glacier (Colin on Korada, us on Kapura) where we slept high at 5,700m. Climbing from this side gave us a clear view of the West Face of K6 and all of its possible routes. Next, we all moved ABC over to the East Nangmah Glacier to acclimatise on K6, where we slept at 5,700m for five nights and climbed as high as 6,200m.
You planned the trip for June, but ended up going in August. What were conditions like? It must have been far colder?
We arrived the last week in August and left at the end of October. It was significantly colder than we would have liked, however the route would have likely been much harder in the summertime. The crux of the route is the 900m West Face (the descent route that Graham Zimmerman and Scott Bennett took when they climbed K6 West in 2015). This slope is between 45 and 70 degrees and likely would have been a sheet of bullet-hard ice in summer. As we found it, there were several inches of insecure névé on top of the ice in many places which made the ascent much easier, a benefit to the late-season arrival.
Were K6 West and Central always going to be your planned objectives, or was Central a surprise add-on?
K6 Central was definitely the primary objective from the beginning. We got a chance to meet with both Steve Swenson and Graham Zimmerman in Seattle and pick their brains about the route and what the traverse from West to Central looked like. We also contacted Ian Welsted who (with Raphael Slawinski) first summitted K6 West in 2013 from the Charakusa Valley and graciously gave us some pictures of the traverse from his vantage point atop K6 West. We were also delighted to get in contact with a member of the original 1970 Austrian Expedition to K6, Fred Pressl, who was happy to share his experience with us as well.
Tell us a bit about the line you took. It avoided any mixed climbing - was there any particular reason you chose this, other than it being the line of least resistance, I assume?
During acclimatisation, we climbed two additional lines on the West Face in an attempt to bypass the technical difficulties of Graham and Scott's 2015 route. Colin Haley was convinced that Graham and Scott's descent route on the West Face (which took them 19 V-threads to descend) was the line of least resistance. At first, we were hesitant to attempt this line because it bypassed the only bivouac option on the face (a small, corniced ridge perched between the SW Ridge's huge gendarmes). It would be a big commitment to take this line because we'd have to climb 900m of calf-burning front-pointing to get to the bivvy site at 6,600m on the top of the SW Ridge. Finally, the 200m of climbing on the West Face of K6 Central involved more steep front pointing on ice and névé with a high-stepping bergschrund and a tenuous, soft cornice with poor protection.
What were the highs and lows of the trip?
Two nights above 6,500m in high winds and bitter cold was a major low. It was so tempting to just escape the discomfort of the jet stream, but we kept saying "Let's just get to the summit of K6 West" or "Let's just get to the base of Central and have a look at it." The extreme discomfort of high winds is something we've encountered many times while climbing in Patagonia and on Denali. The high of reaching the summit of K6 Central was short-lived as the daunting task of descending weighed heavily on us.
How did Colin Haley come to be involved, and what was it like climbing with him? What did you learn from him?
We kept in touch with Colin throughout the year and discussed our Pakistan plans with him as early as January of this year, meeting up with him in El Chaltén. He also had plans to go to Pakistan, but to a different valley. After Pakistan closed its borders to tourism, most expeditions cancelled. We had been planning this expedition and specifically this objective for two years, so we were hesitant to call it quits. We kept in contact with our Tour Operator (Ali Muhammad Saltoro of Alpine Adventure Guides) weekly throughout the summer, still planning to go to Pakistan if it safely opened to tourism. Both we and Colin thought we could still have a productive expedition through the month of October.
In late August, when Pakistan opened its borders again, we quickly went into gear and arranged our travel within a week. Colin was already on our K6 visa as a backup if his expedition plans fell through, and he also mobilised after much deliberation at the late-season start. We talked about all roping-up only if we all wanted to attempt a more technical route together, but his ambitions on K6 were primarily to solo the same route as us. We essentially had no experience with high-altitude alpinism (with the exception of our two expeditions to Denali), and we learned so much about acclimatisation, route selection, and the importance of daily calisthenics! Unfortunately, we never had a chance to rope-up with him, but we shared Advanced Base Camps on both the East and West Nangmah Glaciers.
Colin asked me to ask you how many electronics you brought on the trip?!
Haha! Yes, our solar panels were put to use full-time and we spared no comforts when it came to our electronics (Kindles, laptops for organising/editing media, razors, electric toothbrushes, speaker, watches, phones, rechargeable batteries, photography, etc). Our cumulative number of chargeable items exceeded 40!
How do you find climbing as a husband-and-wife team? Are you more or less conscious of risk when you climb together than in other pairings, and how do you support each other when in a tough or dangerous situation? Do you think it helps if you have good communication skills in a climbing partnership, which must be helped by your relationship dynamic?
Because we have climbed so much together, we each know how the other one responds to high stress situations, and when to push each other more or to take care of each other. Our risk-consciousness does not change with who we climb with, but we know and trust each other so it's easier to accurately judge the level of risk we are actually taking. We each know what the other's strengths and weaknesses are, and how to most efficiently climb a route, utilising each person's strengths. We are both conservative when it comes to objective hazards, as is Colin (AKA Captain Safety), and this route avoided any serac and avalanche hazards. Basic climbing partner skills play a much more important role than our relationship dynamic, which perhaps is only a benefit when we're in a bivvy sac together!
What are your individual strengths and weaknesses in climbing?
We both have different strengths and weaknesses, which actually makes an ideal partnership. One person's strengths complement the other's weaknesses, and each of us brings something different to the table. Jeff is a bold mixed climber, and he is more confident on run-out and sketchy climbing. Priti has a gymnast and bouldering background, seeking climbing on hard, technical rock and ice, when protection is more readily available. We both volley to carry the heavier pack, and we both have weak moments when we turn over the sharp end to the other. When we can't agree on a climbing objective, sometimes we trade off: Jeff chooses the Cassin Ridge, Priti chooses All Along the Watchtower, etc. In the end we both gain experience in our areas of weakness and grow as climbers.
How well did your previous alpine experiences in the US, Patagonia etc. prepare you for your first 7,000m peak?
Climbing in Patagonia on four different trips prepared us for climbing in extreme winds, which was helpful when climbing in the jet stream on K6. Our climb of Cassin Ridge on Denali prepared us for deep wallowing and technical terrain at altitude. Winter ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies prepared us for the bitter cold. We started our 2020 sabbatical by climbing Cerro Torre and Poincenot. In Europe we climbed the six classic North Face routes, climbing lots of mixed and icy terrain, often simul-climbing. Each of our climbs on our 2020 sabbatical was building experience for climbing in the Karakoram. However, K6 is significantly higher than any other peak we have climbed, so we were patient and conservative in handling that new element.
You've (quite rightly) had a lot of interest from the media and on social media because of your ascents, and you were even on TV in Pakistan! Were you aware of how big your achievement was when you were on the summit or back at ABC - did you expect so much attention? What's it been like dealing with it?
We wanted to keep Ali Saltoro, our expedition organiser, up to date with our climb, and we thought he might post it to one or two websites to promote treks to Pakistan, but we were totally blown away by the media response. If it wasn't for COVID, we would probably have less attention. It is a huge accomplishment for us personally, but many, much bigger achievements would surely have been made if more expeditions had not cancelled. As Rock&Ice noted, we are certainly "Virtual Unknowns", and we have never received any media attention before. Hopefully we can inspire others to dream big.
What's your next big objective? Will you do more 7000+m peaks?
Relax and recover! The remainder of our sabbatical this year was intended to be spent sport climbing in Thailand, but with SE Asia and Europe closed to us, we decided to spend time in Jeff's birth home of Hawai'i to regain general fitness. We will likely return to the Himalaya for high-altitude alpinism, but we don't yet have specific objectives or plans. It's time to go back to work and save up again!
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