A Conversation with Luke Smithwick: The Most Prolific Himalayan Climber You’ve Never Heard Of
The 39-year-old American climber Luke Smithwick tends to fly under the mainstream radar. That’s hard to do that given over the last nine years he’s racked up 69 climbing and skiing expeditions in the Himalaya, with ascents of 64 peaks over 6,000 meters, plus the standard route on the north side of Everest and a ski descent of Shishapangma (8,027 meters).
Born and raised in North Carolina, Smithwick was guiding in Colorado from age 18, and has been skiing for 29 years and climbing for 31.
Rock and Ice caught up with Smithwick to find out more about his career, his outlook on expeditions and stewardship, and what’s next on the horizon for arguably one of the most prolific Himalayan climbers of recent times.
Q&A with Luke Smithwick
Interview by Ash Routen
I last caught up with you just after you were on Labuche Kang III [at 7,250 meters The highest unclimbed legally-accessible peak in the world] last year. Can you give us the lowdown on what you’ve been up to since?
Since we last spoke I’ve had four more Himalayan expeditions, and also been backcountry skiing new areas in the Himalayas. Mostly in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian Himalayas.
Last August I made a first ascent of a granite and glacier-clad north face (Peak 6398m) in the Pangong region of the Indian Himalayas. There’s so much more there. Two months prior (June 2018) I skied off of three 6,000-meter summits that hadn’t seen ski descents. That was also in the Changtang Himalayas.
In autumn 2018 I went to Nepal and climbed a new route on the north face of Mount Nirekha ( 6,069 meters) in the Khumbu Himal. It wasn’t a wildly exciting route, but it did allow Fredrik Sträng and I time to work through systems and equipment for bigger objectives in 2019. We were also attempting unclimbed Khangri Shar (6811 meters) on this same trip, but rockfall was a constant and we decided on a new aspect in the future.
Two weeks prior to this we climbed the South ridge of Singu Chuli (6,501 meters) in the Annapurna Sanctuary.
This winter I was on the same circuit for skiing. A month in Kashmir with great snow, and then a month in the Langtang and Annapurna Himal for more powder skiing. Powder skiing is the critical link in the balance between climbing and alpinism seasons.
I see you’ve been putting in the grind training recently, are you training for anything specific?
Currently yes, I’m logging 15 to 20 hours per week of training. Lots of long runs and also gym sessions. I’m getting ready for two peaks in the Karakoram this summer. Both are unclimbed. I’ll return to Labuche Kang III in Tibet to hopefully complete last year’s route in September 2019. There are a few more things in the works but that’s the basic summary.
You seem to have a high success rate on lesser known or unclimbed/skied lines and peaks. How do you manage this? Do you use certain tactics?
Stubbornness. I’m a fairly quick acclimatizer and so are most of my climbing partners. Every expedition has a certain amount of time and we get to base camps and in position for attempts as quickly as possible. When the windows of good weather are there, we go. That is the one thing I’ve learned thus far: when the weather is there, go. Himalayan ascents rarely run according to a schedule.
What draws you to unclimbed peaks, and what do you look for aesthetically in a route?
I like unclimbed peaks and routes for their wilderness appeal. I seldom see anyone else out on these climbs. For aesthetics I like a peak that simply inspires and is well guarded, i.e. not easy to climb. Many times my expeditions start from a topic wholly unrelated to climbing. I don’t read a lot about climbing and skiing.
As an example, I was interested in the last hunter-gatherer tribe in Nepal, the Raute people. From my research about them I found unclimbed peaks in Api Himal. We went in and climbed some new mixed routes there in November 2017. We didn’t find the Raute people, however, so will need to return. I think we were slightly distracted by the climbing.
A British climber (I think) once said, “If you’re not doing new routes, you’re just jackin.” Do you agree with that sentiment given your focus on unclimbed peaks?
I don’t agree. Climbers and skiers who are getting out and getting after it, no matter the route, are winning in my book. We all have to have the right mindset to accomplish our personal goals. Each person’s workflow and creative process is unique. I respect everyone’s and do my best to let my actions speak.
You’ve clearly spent a huge amount of time in various parts of the Himalayas. Is there a particular area that captures your imagination?
I’m really only getting started in the Himalayas. I have been fairly immersed the past nine years with back-to-back expeditions (69 Himalayan expeditions), yet I still don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface. I think that’s because I’m interested in more in the Himalayas than just skiing and alpinism. In terms of culture and history there’s many lifetimes to learn there along the way.
I’m currently focused on Karakoram projects. What has piqued my interest there is the blend of ancient traditions with modern day belief structures and how that plays out in rural village life.
To go along with that is the sharpness and technicality of the Karakoram mountains above these hamlets. There are many lifetimes of skiing and alpinism to be pursued in these areas. I’m simply inspired by them, that’s what keeps me going and drawing me back.
How do you fund and organize your expeditions? Are you sponsored? Do you have family or a team that supports you?
Basically, Himalayan expeditions are my life focus. Everything goes into them. I have a small room in Kathmandu, Nepal and in Ladakh, India that I rent. I’m trying to live in the U.S. for portions of the year in Idaho, yet I’m mostly in the Himalayas full-time. I have very few possessions. Recently I’ve also been making climbing and skiing trips to Patagonia and Antarctica.
I’m a Mountain Hardwear ski mountaineering and alpinism athlete. Through their support I’m able to train full-time and also receive assistance in some of my personal skiing and climbing projects. I also work with other brands.
I own a guide service that I founded in 2012, Himalaya Alpine Guides. I organize all of the operations for the company and also guide trips occasionally for the company (alpinism and skiing).
I don’t have a family or team that supports me in any way. I don’t take days off. Days are filled with my training, photography and videography. Nights and early morning are filled with computer work. I can’t get enough of what I’m doing. It doesn’t make financial sense but I do it because all of my youth I dreamed of it. I’m pursuing it now.
The local culture and history seems to draw you to the Karakoram. do you ever reflect on how your expeditions May impact these communities, both good and bad?
Great question. Stewardship is a big part of what I do. Most recently I started the Kashmir Avalanche Association in the Western Himalayas. The goal of the program is bringing awareness to rural communities about snow safety. When big storms come, we teach about how to avoid avalanches and keep pastoral communities safe.
Prior to this program I worked in water quality on my expeditions, discussing with school groups about the importance of clean water, and also issuing water filters where there was a need.
My newest project is working with Leave No Trace. With this program I’m working with locals in these communities to get the message out about keeping their natural resource clean not only for tourism but also for the residents themselves.
Tourism changes culture without a doubt. I feel like what I’m doing is on a smaller scale. I haven’t even actually left a record in any alpine journal or magazine of what I’ve done. You and I have had these conversations, but there isn’t much detail.
Perhaps through my efforts this way I can return to some of my more memorable climbs when I’m 85 and still see those valleys the same. Empty and peaceful. Clean and undisturbed. Quiet. I think that can be a good goal for a lot of us.
You obviously actively address and think about stewardship. But do you ever muse on your environmental impact of climbing and skiing around the world?
Stewardship is a big one for me. Respecting local custom, keeping awareness and respect of localism, and doing what I can to help along the way.
It appears that I fly around the globe continuously. I fly to Asia usually once a year from the United States, recent years it has been twice. I do my best to reduce my carbon footprint but flying is a reality for me to be able to see my family and also pursue my goals in the mountains that I love.
You say expeditions are your life. Do you see a point where this stops, or do you intend to keep on going forever like Fred Beckey?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop pursuing expeditions in the Himalayas, I’m simply interested in too much. In my senior years I’d like to pursue more natural history and cultural pursuits, plus I want to have a part in training the new generations for skiing and alpinism, 25 years from now perhaps.
Do you have a preference for skiing or climbing? does your heart lie more with one than the other? And do you consider yourself more accomplished in one discipline?
I’m a climber and a skier. My heart lies in both. I don’t really look at what I do as accomplishments. Yes I’ve done a lot, yes I want to do more. I think in the long run what I want to contribute to the mountain world is simply how important it is to pursue nothing at all. The importance of a life well lived. The wilderness is made for us to go out and enjoy it. To feel alive, to experience nature.
I think we all have to be careful to always ensure that our inspiration is coming from the right place. For me, that inspiration is aesthetics. The beauty of a place. There are many factors that contribute to the beauty of something. I respect climbers and skiers pursuing speed and certain grades, but it certainly is not my focus. I like massive climbing and skiing routes.
Is there an active climber who inspires you, and if so why?
My friend Jordi Tosas inspires me. Jordi is a Himalayan skier and alpinist from Spain who has climbed many massive routes in the Himalayas in alpine style, and skied some of them. He has done it quietly.
Final one. Where can we follow you?
For my personal expeditions Instagram and Facebook are probably best for day-to-day updates. I also post monthly expedition updates on my website, http://www.lukesmithwick.com. Finally, I own the guide service, Himalaya Alpine Guides. Most of those expeditions aren’t guided by me but I do create them.
To read more work by Ash Routen, visit ashrouten.com.
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