Slovenian alpinists Aleš Česen (34) and Luka Lindič (28) recently summitted Broad Peak (8047m) - its only ascent this season - and made the fourth ascent of the North Summit (7900m) of Gasherbrum IV via the mountain's Northwest Ridge in the Karakoram Himalayas (UKC News Report).
Initially intending to attempt the West Face of Gasherbrum IV (also known as the Shining Wall), poor conditions forced Aleš and Luka to consider the Northwest ridge as an alternative.
In 2014, the pair made the first ascent of the North Face of Hagshu (6515m) alongside compatriot Marko Prezelj. In the same year, Luka and fellow Slovenian Luka Krajnc made an 'alpine ascent of the season' with an onsight and first free ascent of Rolling Stones on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, Mont Blanc Massif (UKC News Report). Aleš is the son of Tomo Česen, renowned alpinist and international routesetter.
In an otherwise relatively quiet 2016 season in Pakistan, I caught up with Aleš and Luka to find out more about their ascents...
Tell us a bit about your previous trips to the Karakoram. When did you start to set your sights on Gasherbrum IV as an objective?
Luka: I was on an expedition to Pakistan in 2008. It was actually my first ever expedition and with Aleš and another friend Rok Blagus we climbed K7's west summit. Last year I was in Pakistan too. With my friend Luka Krajnc we climbed a new route on Biacherahi tower and another 6000m peak before we tried the north ridge of Latok I. We eventually got stuck in a snow storm on a small snow mushroom about half way up.
Aleš: Luka was the first who mentioned this objective out loud to me, about a year and a half ago. But at the time I was already booked for 2016, planning to guide a client on K2. When that was cancelled a few months later, I immediately called Luka back and nailed down the idea.
Were you anxious about having to climb Broad Peak before attempting Gasherbrum IV - could it have affected your energy and condition for your main objective?
Luka: The route we wanted to climb on G4 is for sure very difficult. I think that if you want to do a climb like this, climbing an 8000m peak up normal routes shouldn't be a problem, otherwise you are not strong enough. It's also a good final check of your fitness and health so it actually makes it easier to commit afterwards.
This year has been particularly difficult in Pakistan, regarding access and permits. Did you face any issues in acquiring permits and approaching the mountains?
Aleš: No, we didn't have any unusual bureaucratic issues.
"It’s a real shame fixing such a noble mountain as Gasherbrum IV and we were anything but happy about seeing this" Aleš' blog. Were you surprised at the number of fixed ropes? Is this increasingly an issue in Pakistan, even on less well-travelled mountains?
Aleš: We knew that there were some teams fixing the route in the past. I think that for whoever has to fix an entire route on a mountain, it would be more respectful to just do some easier mountains or routes. I understand 8000 metre peaks, it's a commercial thing for non-climbers and it will stay like this for sure. It's just a pity and not respectful to the mountain and to other people who might want to climb it for the climbing itself, not for a trophy.
Aleš - you'd never slept at 7,500m before, or indeed been much higher than 7000m. How well did you cope with this new altitude environment? Luka - did you feel at all prepared from your climbing on Makalu?
Aleš: I was far from perfect, unfortunately. I had some problems with my stomach and a sore throat due to very dry air. But it could have been much worse. Now I know that I can function up there and know what to expect next time.
Luka: I knew what my weakest points on Makalu were and I knew what to expect. This for sure helped me during preparation. I came back very satisfied because I saw how much I have improved over the last few years. Most of the time I felt good. The normal problems you have at such an altitude are part of this game and it makes it more interesting.
You dealt incredibly well with adverse weather conditions - particularly on the descent from Gasherbrum IV - and seemed to make the right decisions at the right time. Were there moments where your opinions differed, or were you in agreement as a team?
Aleš: In such conditions all the decisions are usually quite difficult. How to justify the risk to continue or when to turn around. We know each other quite well, and I can say that we both have a very similar approach for risk management. Therefore there was never any big disagreement and if I were to be in the same situation again, I would act the same.
Luka: I totally agree with Aleš.
You have climbed together on the North face of Hagshu. Did this expedition help prepare you both for Broad Peak and Gasherbrum - physically, mentally, learning to work together etc?
Luka: Hagshu was just one of the many bigger faces/mountains that I've climbed in the last few years. It definitely helped that we knew each other well before. It's much easier to push it a bit more if you know your partner well.
Aleš - You come from a mountaineering family. Your father Tomo in particular is renowned for his solo ascents. How has your father influenced your approach to alpinism and mountaineering, and what does he think of your latest achievements?
Aleš: I've been surrounded by mountaineering my whole life and through all this time, I have learned a lot from my father especially. I believe the most important thing I learned is to use a rational approach in the mountains, not to be misled by emotions too much and that you should enjoy life following your passion, whatever that might be.
You are examples of the most active young Slovenian alpinists of today. Can we expect another wave of young climbers coming through in the next 5-10 years? How is mountaineering promoted and taught safely to young people in Slovenia?
Luka: I think the general trend in Slovenia is similar to the rest of the world, but the main difference in Slovenia from most other countries is the “school system” we have in climbing. It's more or less based on volunteers and through this everyone can get basic knowledge more or less for free. I think it's something we can be really proud of in the commercialised world we live in.
Do you think there is potential for more new routes in the Karakoram range? Will you be heading back there for anything in particular?
Aleš: There is a potential to discover new things almost everywhere. I would like to return to the Karakoram for sure and I strongly believe I will in the next few years, but at the moment I don't have any particular big plans. I am hoping I will be able to spend a bit more time with my family next year, although this might not happen too easily just because of the guiding work I do and the passion I have for the mountains.
Luka: It's unlimited! I will go back soon for sure.
What's next for you both - any trips planned?
Aleš: A family trip to Iceland in October. This is the only certain plan at the moment, but it means a lot to me...
Luka: I am going climbing with my friend Ines Papert in China this fall. After this I want to climb more in the Alps for some time and improve by climbing grades. I really like rock climbing too! I will definitely plan an expedition to the Himalaya next fall.
Read Luka's blog.
Read Aleš' blog.
Aleš Česen is sponsored by: Kailas