On the Cover:
An Exclusive Interview with
Luke Smithwick -
Alpinism in the Hidden Himalaya
Cover Date: November 15th, 2015
Editor: Thank you Luke for talking to us when you’re on the go, non-stop. We’re honored to interview you.
Luke: Thanks. I just completed the climbing season and am resting here in Kathmandu. It’s a good time to catch up on things.
A view of the 6000m Pangong range in India from the summit of peak 6235m
Editor: You’ve climbed some of the most beautiful and yet dangerous peaks in Nepal, Zanskar and other fabulous locations and have your own successful mountaineering and guiding company.
What brought you into the powerful and life-changing world of alpinism?
Luke: Well, I’m really just getting started in technical alpinism in the Himalayas. I’ve done a lot of mountaineering here through my guiding company and personal trips by living here year round for the past 6 years. It’s given me a strong base of fitness at altitude, and allows me to climb peaks back to back. In between trips, I’ve been making road trips into climbing areas in the United States and getting stronger on technical ground. I’m now ready to begin combining my climbing with the high altitude mountains I’ve been plodding for the past decade. I’m ready to look at the colder, steeper sides of mountains that I’ve come to know well. This takes time to get to.
Editor: Which part of the Himalaya region is your favorite to guide in?
Luke: I really enjoy the Garwhal, Zanskar, and Makalu ranges the most these days.
Editor: Which peaks did you climb recently, what was their altitude and what were their names?
Luke: We climbed some new peaks in the Pangong region of Ladakh this summer, then moved over to the Stok range and did a few 6000m peaks (Golep and Stok Kangri) as warm ups for the west ridge of 7153 meter Mount Nun, which we summitted in early September. Next, we moved to 6500m Menthosa, got snowed out, and shifted to the Changtang to climb Mentok 1 and another 6000m peak that we’ve dubbed as “Changtang Kailas”. I just returned from my final expedition for the season in the Makalu Himal of Nepal where we tried an unclimbed peak called Yaphu Ri. It snowed for two weeks straight. If you plan to come to the Himalaya, certainly allow extra weeks of time for weather.
Editor: Good to know. Walk us through some of the technicalities of climbs with your company, what level of alpinism should folks have reached to book with you?
Luke: Hmm. Good question. We offer beginner mountaineering trips each summer with instruction in safe mountain travel, and on the other end of the spectrum offer technical alpinism on unclimbed peaks. Our most recent trip to Yaphu Ri is a good example of that, where the client that came had extensive technical experience in the Peruvian Andes, along with the Alaska range, and was therefore mentally and physical ready for Himalayan alpinism. We encourage everyone to contact us, and enjoy working with individuals to find climbs that suit their interest and ability level. What sets us apart is we go to “off the map” areas, where usually we are the only team on the mountain, and often times the peak or route hasn’t been climbed. Even for our beginner trips.
Editor: You seem to be extremely well-versed in the native culture of the land you guide and climb in, which is very impressive.
Being in these places profoundly influences a person emotionally.
Luke: I left Alaska for the culture in the Himalayas. I hit a wall there, where the mountains themselves simply weren’t enough. I enjoy learning the languages and dialects of the Himalaya, and thus slowly delving further and further into what are very intricate cultural and social constructs, that are incredibly diverse from valley to valley as you move along the range. I’m not sure how the Himalaya or the people as a whole influence me emotionally. As with anywhere and anyone, there are fleeting moments of my day where I am particularly influenced by a person or a life occurrence. Yes, these moments are certainly what have and will keep me here for a long time.
Editor: There is a timelessness to this part of the world.
How has this changed you as a guide from when you first started?
What have the sacred mountains shared with you?
Luke: The warmth, deep roots, and wisdom of the people here are tremendous. It has affected me as an individual. I’ve simply grown as a guide, and I think this is simply road miles, and not the location itself. As with any profession, the more mileage you put in, the more workflow you develop. If it is your calling.
What have the sacred mountains shared with me? Well, that’s a tough one. They’ve certainly caused a range of emotions for me and my friends. No matter how much you love the mountains, they don’t care about you.
Editor: Share your impressions of Ladakh with our readers, please. What stands out the most about this mystical location to you?
Luke: Its people, its landscape, and its diverse culture. Ladakh to me is a place that continues to deliver truly well-rounded experiences. It isn’t the steep ups and downs of Nepal, and it isn’t densely populated either. Ladakh is an extension of the Changtang plateau in Tibet, and is called “little Tibet” even though it is politically in India. The plateau though, is at 14,000 feet and is studded with glaciated 20,000 foot peaks and populated by nomadic herdspeople who shift with the wind and the growing grass from location to location. Ladakh is a place I could call home, as it has rock, ice, and alpine climbing, with scarcely a soul in sight and a wealth of intellectual pursuits in natural history and culture.
Editor: Sounds like an idyllic climbing destination. What are your thoughts on the preservation of nature and climate change? Is enough being done to protect our planet?
Luke: Earth is a dynamic place. It will change continually. Yeah, we could certainly take it a bit easier as a species, but that isn’t human nature.
Editor: You’ve climbed peaks that most mountaineers have never even heard of, which of course comes from years of dedication in the field. Yaphu is unclimbed but you’ll be climbing it in 2016, as well Makalu, which is a bit more-well known.
How do you document your climbs on those peaks that are unclimbed until you and your team stand on the summit? Mentok 1 is an example.
Luke: Yes, I really like the lesser known areas of the Himalaya. There are entire ranges here above 6000 meters without a soul in sight. These are the areas to focus on, and where we will be in the future. I document through writing, photography, and video. Someday I will sit down and go through it all. For now, I’m stacking up the hard drives and just keeping them stored away. I’d like to put together some slide shows some day, to help bring exposure to the Himalaya beyond the Khumbu.
Editor: The shot you took of Kang Tega last fall is exquisite. It has some amazing lines on it. What a beautiful mountain.
Luke: Yes, that’s a pretty mountain. I’m no stunt monkey, and most of the time I’m working, so I’m choosing aesthetic objectives that are challenging yet appropriately safe.
Editor: Your explanation of Mount Nun and Mount Kun was very intriguing. Needless to say, the beauty of both mountains must have been captivating indeed. What is the altitude of each?
Luke: Mount Nun is 7153 meters (23,704 ft). I am climbing Kun next August (2016) so I will follow up with you on that one.
Editor: Sure, we'll check in with you after you climb it. What is your company’s name and how may clients get in touch with you to plan a dream climb?
Luke: The name of my company is Himalaya Alpine Guides.
My email is address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The website address is: http://www.himalaya-alpine.com.
On instagram, my address is: @luke_smithwick
On Facebook, my address is: facebook.com/jameslukesmithwick.
Editor: Thanks for sharing a bit about your adventures in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, Luke. Enjoy Gulmarg.
Luke: Thanks for the interview.