Hidden Spires
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, September 2000

Alone atop a Himalayan spire, I propped my little Nikon FE-10 on a rock and took a self-portrait. It seemed the obvious thing to do, until I sat down and dangled my feet into 2,000 feet of air and questioned why I had felt so compelled to first take a photograph of myself. It’s my goal to put outdoor experiences first and have my photographs evolve out of that passion, not the other way around. There’s nothing wrong with a summit shot, but this time my urge to take it first diminished my pure contemplation of simply being here.

Was I no better than those national park tourists who ask passersby to take their pictures in front of signs to prove exactly where they were (and where their thoughts weren’t)? You can’t be fully passionate about a place when you’re thinking how it will play back home.

I’d come with two friends and without a singular goal or photographic assignment to experience a valley of unnamed, mostly unclimbed spires. The three of us wanted to avoid the Everest syndrome, where people climb with a team of Sherpas beholden to a single goal and the whims and fancies of sponsors back home. The difference is much like that between a nature photographer shooting stills from the heart and a cinematographer shooting features as a cog in a production team beholden to someone else’s scripts, set designs, and chosen actors.

We were pursuing the style of the late Eric Shipton, a British gentleman who believed that no expedition was worth doing unless it could be organized in less than half an hour on the back of an envelope. He tried Everest several times only to be fired before departure as leader of the first ascent in 1953 because Royal Geographical Society pundits thought his lightweight plans lowered the odds of victory. He had already selected and climbed with a little-known Kiwi named Ed Hillary and a Sherpa named Tenzing. Mountaineering history might have unfolded with far fewer big national and commercial expeditions if that icon of success, Mount Everest, had first been climbed Shipton style.

When I met Shipton at a climber’s house in 1977, someone asked what he would do differently if he had his life to live over. He replied, “I wouldn’t have spent so much time mucking about Everest. I would have done more lower and wilder peaks with a few friends and a few classic tools.”

Despite my premature summit photo, my team was doing it Shipton style. Conrad Anker and I had climbed a fine virgin spire in the next valley, and today, while I was off alone, he was sorting gear for a more serious climb with Peter Croft. Little known to the public but legendary among climbers, Peter has climbed the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 4 hours and 22 minutes and free-soloed Astroman, a thousand-foot Yosemite overhang called the most continuously difficult roped free climb in the 1970s.

Free climbing means ascending by natural holds with a rope for safety only. Without a rope, it’s called free soloing. I’d used a rope in all the hardest spots on my solo climb, which was much easier than Astroman, but more remote. I was high over a hidden valley just 30 miles from K2 in Pakistan’s Karakoram Himalaya where several spires have faces twice as high as El Capitan (often touted as the world’s largest granite monolith). Every summit was nameless on the map, except nearby K7—a surveyor’s designation like K2. Every form seemed alive, as if the granite wanted to become a spire. My slender perch was far closer to my ultimate climbing fantasy than standing atop the bulky singularity of a Denali or an Everest.

Conrad was already well-known among climbers as one of the world’s most well-rounded alpinists, who excelled on technical rock and ice, as well as speed climbs and ski descents of big peaks. Yet he had no great desire to climb Everest. That all changed in 1999 when he was invited to Everest and became famous for finding Mallory’s body (but not his camera) as well as controversial for asserting that Mallory didn’t reach the summit, based upon attempting to free climb past a fixed ladder up an extreme rock step that Mallory would have had to ascend without modern climbing gear in 1924.

Climbing fast and light on virgin Karakoram spires was Conrad’s idea, as was sponsorship by The North Face and the new National Geographic Exploration Council to fund the rest of our expenses with first rights of refusal to our story, but no formal photo or text assignment. Shortly before departure, I learned that none of my photographs could be published elsewhere until the big magazine or the new National Geographic Adventure decided not to use them or ran them sometime in the future. Thus I ended up shooting on speculation by prior agreement, which several photographers’ associations are strongly opposed to. I had no guaranteed photographer’s fee, but all the demands of an assignment. That’s why I felt the onus to first photograph myself on the summit at the expense of my initial pure perceptions of simply being there.

I thought about how that pretentious stance, shot from below with a 20mm lens, could distort the meaning of our journey on a magazine page. The process of climbing and exploration meant more to us than standing on top of the world.

Far below me, Conrad and Peter were preparing for a much wilder climb where photography would come last. With one rope, no bivouac gear, and a few PowerBars, they were about to attempt the 8,000-foot knife-edged ridge of an unclimbed spire in a single day. Called Spansar Brakk by the local Balti people, the giant spire would take three days to a week for all three of us hauling food, water, and bivouac gear in good weather. For Peter and a partner moving at El Cap warp speed, it might go in less than 24 hours. Since Conrad was younger and faster, I had bowed out to do my own thing. When I returned, I planned to photograph the start of their ascent with a 400mm lens and 2X teleconverter, then climb yet another spire with two Italians camped up valley who had invited me to join them.

After an uneventful descent, I spent the next morning photographing two specks rapidly moving up Spansar’s lower ridge. By noon they were well out of camera range on harder climbing. They climbed on through the night for 23 hours, returning to camp at 5 a.m., just after I had joined the Italians for a long, successful day climb of a face beside K7.

We trekked out through Balti villages sprawled against mountainsides in timeless simplicity. Our merging of old-fashioned exploration with modern climbing was in contrast to massive undertakings with instant media coverage via satellite. Only after we returned home did Peter sum up Spansar as “the biggest and best climb I’ve done—or seen—in my life.” Nearly two years passed before National Geographic Adventure exercised their first-rights option and published our story in March 2000—thankfully without my self-portrait and with extra payment for text and photos. Only then did I become free to describe the adventure for OP readers.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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