Communication Lessons From A Karakoram First Ascent

This summer, Graham Zimmerman—along with Steve Swenson, Chris Wright and Mark Richeymade the coveted first ascent of Link Sar (7041m) in the Central Pakistani Karakoram via its 3400m Southeast Face. At about 6200 meters, they got stuck in a storm. “We had a choice of going back or sitting out the storm until it cleared, but going up was impossible. Some of us wanted to go back to our last bivy, but others felt going down was a bad choice because it would turn around our upward momentum on the mountain,” Zimmerman says. Instead, the team decided to dig a snow cave. “This gave us something to do, it kept us warm, and when the snow cave was complete we were able to sit in it and giggle about our situation comfortably until the weather cleared and we were able to start going back uphill.” For the team, this was just one example of how they were able to make decisions as a group and find creative solutions for problems that came up during that decision making process, he says.

The ascent required the combined efforts of the team’s multiple generations for what Swensen called "one of the most complex and difficult routes I have ever climbed." And, according to Zimmerman, it would not have happened without the kind of clear communication and efficient, respectful decision making that ended in the snow cave. We chatted with Zimmerman to find out more about how the team made it work—and how you can apply the same techniques to your next climbing objective.

On a climb like this, if communication is difficult, or decision making is s struggle, what are the consequences?

Communication is paramount and taking the time needed to make a good, well considered and balanced decision is always important. On Link Sar, we had four very experienced alpinists working together and we wanted to make sure everyone's knowledge was leveraged so that the best and safest decision could be made. Sometimes this took a while, but in the end, it was a vital tool that allowed for us to both succeed and survive. 

As a team of four, there’s a lot of varying experiences among you. Did you discuss communication style or decision-making protocol beforehand?

On this trip we were very democratic. Everyone shared what they thought and we made a decision together. It kept everyone happy and it worked really well.

What would you say your personal weakness is, as far as communication in this type of environment?

My personal weakness in terms of on-route communications can be getting too excited and talking over others—this is something I have worked on for a number of years. On this trip I felt like I did a good job of listening a lot, which I felt really good about. 

What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned over the years about communication and decision making that has helped you work successfully with a team like this?

Setting up a steering structure for communication is super important. Having someone ask if anyone else has anything they want to share, or asking, “Does everyone feel good about this?”

Have you ever had a trip or a climb go horribly wrong because of differences in opinion or poor communication?

I've always been really careful about my climbing partners, which has meant that I've not had any major problems with communication. That said, motivations have sometimes been tricky and if they’re not matched up it can mean that going down is the right option. That said, going down or going home is never a failure since getting home safe is the No. 1 goal.

What was it like having a diversity of ages on your team?

Having a diverse group of ages on the team was awesome. We have had tons of experience from different generations to help us get up and down safely.

What advice would you give to other climbers who'd like to be better partners or hone their collaborative decision making skills?

Listen well, share with confidence and remember that getting home safely is really the only thing that matters.

What exactly is it you're looking for when you're being selective about your partners?

I think that climbing partners are not that dissimilar from romantic partners. One person's perfect partner is not the same as another's, also, the seriousness of the objective dictates how discerning you need to be—a date being similar to cragging and a route Link Sar being something more similar to marriage. Too much? Anyway, we all have different needs and communication styles that work better with some people than others.

For me, I’m looking for climbing partners with a similar drive, motivation to train, attention to detail, ability to identify risk and tolerance to that risk. Additionally, I’m looking for partners who have skills that I don't. Examples of that can be as simple as being a better rock climber or as complex as more education in the realm of avalanche science.