Jim Donini on Latok I. Photo: Michael Kennedy

Latok I: The Magnificent Failure

Excerpted from Survival Is Not Assured: The Life of Climber Jim Donini by Geoff Powter (June 2024). Published by Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

By Geoff Powter 


In 1977, Utah climber George Lowe turned a page in a book and found a picture that stopped him in his tracks.

The black-and-white photograph that so captured Lowe’s imagination was a touch blurry, fogged in the middle and washed out at the edges, but it’s still easy to understand why it was so compelling.

In the background of the image, there are two regal rock towers topped by crowns of snow, painted with the gossamer haze of summits that are far, far up in the sky. An experienced eye will recognize the higher of the two peaks as Baintha Brakk (the Ogre), a fantastically difficult peak in the Pakistan Karakoram that was the scene of one of the most dramatic stories of modern alpinism, when Britain’s Doug Scott had to literally crawl down the mountain with two broken legs during the 1977 first ascent of the 23,900- foot monster.

But it’s the mountain in the left foreground that’s even more commanding— a spine of black rock that cleaves the glacier at its foot and soars unbroken to a sharp summit a mile and a half above. A climber bold enough can imagine a line right up the slender north ridge; it would obviously be a climb that would stay on very difficult ground at a very high altitude for a very longtime, and it would be a fantastic accomplishment in the 1970s—or any era.

It would also be a perfect target for a climber of George Lowe’s skill and interest. Lowe, from a legendary family of Utah climbers, had been on a run in the past few years, completing a string of outstanding ascents in Alaska and on big, dangerous walls in the Canadian Rockies. He was ready for the next natural step—a high, difficult, virgin peak in the much bigger ranges of Asia—and he had some friends and family who he knew would be very interested in this photograph.


The foursome that arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, in June 1978, on their way to Latok I was one of the strongest American climbing teams ever assembled.

George Lowe was on his years-long roll of climbs that were as severe as anything climbed on the planet at the time. In 1977, he’d completed two very hard routes back-to-back in the Alaska Range: the North Face of Mount Hunter and the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker. It was all the more impressive that Lowe did these groundbreaking climbs while starting a family and finishing a PhD in physics.

 At twenty-five, Michael Kennedy was the youngest member of the team. A smart and tough young wolf, he was just beginning his own outstanding career in the big ranges, but he had already been George Lowe’s partner on both Alaskan climbs.

George’s cousin Jeff Lowe, one of a trio of very talented Lowe brothers from Ogden, Utah, would arguably be the strongest member of any climbing team of the era. Manically driven and fiercely talented, Jeff was several steps along a path that would see him widely recognized as the finest alpinist of his generation.

Survival is Not Assured: The Life of Climber Jim Donini, by Geoff Powter, is available now.

Shipton’s picture was enough to hook all three men. “One look and you realize what a perfect line this is,” Kennedy said. “It’s huge, it’s remote, it’s going to be serious and hard, but it’s a ridge so it’s protected from hazards.” Most important to the climbers was the sense of adventure in attempting a peak that was, said Kennedy, “utterly unknown.”

Kennedy and the Lowes believed that a mountain this beautiful deserved to be climbed the right way. Recent ascents by British climbers of huge walls in India’s Garhwal Himalaya epitomized the evolving ethos of alpinism that Shipton, as well as Donini’s Italian heroes, had embraced: Don’t attack a mountain with a big team and an attitude of conquest; honor the mountain with fairer rules. Climb light and clean. Don’t lace your objective with fixed ropes, but instead move from bottom to top in a continuous push. Keep the team small, with no locals endangered after the approach.

Kennedy and the Lowes recognized that the right team for a climb of this scale would be four people, not three; facing nearly 8,000 feet of difficult climbing, it would be better to divide loads, keep people fresher and stronger, and have more brains to look at challenges. It took them only a few minutes to go through the list of climbers capable of climbing Latok the way they wanted, and Jim’s name was at the top of that list. Though none of them had done much climbing with Donini, aside from some sunny rock routes or short ice climbs, they knew his emerging reputation.

Jim joked that he was clearly the B-Team, but George countered by saying, “It was actually only a few days from when I asked Jeff and Michael to when we invited Jim. And honestly,” he added with a laugh, “if Donini is on a B-Team, who the hell is the A-Team?”


In his trailer one desert evening four decades after Latok, Jim pulled out his iPad to show me photographs of the trip. He began with a grumbling apology: he has reams of photographs from his many expeditions, but he’s never really gotten around to organizing them. So he started randomly, partway up the peak, a striking shot of three climbers traversing below an enormous wave of corniced snow. “Those traverses were really tenuous and went on forever. And, in a few places,” he said, pointing to a large gap in a cornice, “when we came back across them again, there were huge chunks missing. You sure didn’t want to be there when those went missing . . .”

The next slide was a ghostly portrait of Jim, slumped in a snow cave, glowering, exhausted, near the end of the expedition, his eyes as hollow as a battle-beaten soldier’s. He made a passing comment—“You see what a starvation diet will do to someone with my metabolic rate. It took me six months to recover”—before he moved on to another random picture. 

This time, the image was of his three partners up on the first bivouac, on a perch of rock with enormous drops to either side. They’re shirtless. “It was incredible how hot it was those first days,” Jim said. Michael and Jeff look a little feral after the long walk in and a hard day’s climbing. Jeff sits in the forefront, with his signature handlebar mustache and his long, blond hair tied back with a leopard-print bandanna. Michael has a beard that’s heading wild and a glare up at the wall that says it all. George is still somehow clean-shaven and neat. Behind them, a sea of unclimbed and unnamed 6,000- to 7,000-meter peaks fades into the dusky desert horizon of Xinjiang, China.

Jim was about to jump to yet another random image. I had to ask him to take me back to the beginning of the story.


Before George called,” Jim began, “I’d never even heard about Latok.” He hadn’t really thought about going to the Himalaya either—“I thought expedition climbing was already over”—but the call from Lowe and the first glance at the picture changed that. “I was so stoked,” said Jim. “It was one of the most obvious lines that I’d ever seen, and it completely met my need for challenge and exploration.

“And to be invited by these three, that was incredible. There was no one that I could imagine would be better for a climb like this.”

He agreed to join the team without a moment’s hesitation, despite the reality that he was committing to months away from home, with a daughter who would be barely eighteen months old when he left.

It’s a difficult dance for adventurers—stepping away from their everyday lives and committing to the distance and perils of expeditions, going off to have an experience that their partners, their children, their families won’t share—and perhaps can’t understand. The choice to step out the door with no certainty of return can be incredibly selfish, and with hindsight, Jim acknowledged that uncomfortable truth. “When I was deep into my obsession with remote alpine peaks,” he said, “I suspect that people around me might have been giving only reluctant support. I think that in those days a lot of us had blinders on when considering the effect of our choices on our families.”

But in the moment, Jim believed that Janet was fully on board. They both told me they talked through the challenges and possible consequences of the Latok trip, and they agreed that even if going to Pakistan didn’t make sense in a conventional way, it did in the mountain world. Janet assured him that with the support of family and friends, she’d be fine.

Still, when it came to the final decision to go, this was an expedition of its time carried out by men of their time. Each inhabited two very separate worlds: the one they lived at home, and the one of the mountains, which could be all consuming and didn’t always welcome the intrusion of the domestic. More often than not, when men like these headed into the mountains, they left the rest of their lives far behind.


Pakistan was the first taste of the strange madness of Asia for Jim, Michael, and Jeff. The team landed in withering heat in Islamabad on June 10, 1978, and stumbled through frustrating permit delays and ritual protocols in the bowels of the vast city.

When their bags finally cleared customs a week later, a flight northeast to the launching pad of Skardu brought relief from the heat, but not the chaos. Somehow, all the team’s equipment disappeared, and it took five days of berating airline officials before the bags were found in Rawalpindi.

The pause gave the men the chance to take stock of one another. George was the sober, methodical, planful one, the master of the route. Michael was the organized one who sorted out the food and logistics. Jim was in charge of the gear. And Jeff was in his happiest place: the energizer, perpetually psyched, already talking about the next big plans.

Then there were the doctors: George’s dad, George Lowe Jr., had come along for the approach march, and he’d brought his friend Ralph Richards. Both men were physicians and very strong despite being in their sixties. Jim remembered that they all gelled immediately. “We were all getting along great, with lots of laughs and lots of chances to meet the locals and get steeped in the idiosyncrasies of Pakistan,” he said. 

The delays were due in part to the Latok team’s commitment to minimalism. They were a small team that would neither be adding much to the local economy nor generating much attention for Pakistan, so they simply weren’t a bureaucratic priority. By the time the gear finally arrived, other teams heading into bigger mountains had hired many of the better porters in Skardu, but the tiny team’s size meant they hardly needed any support staff. The Americans shouldered loads just as big as those carried by the small team of Balti porters and finally headed into the mountains.


The dust, the heat, the dubious water and food—they all took their toll. Latok I was only a forty-mile trek from Skardu, but the team had to navigate the tortured path of the Indus River, then the roaring, gray Braldu, then the desolate Panmah Glacier, to access the moraine-streaked Choktoi. “It felt,” George Lowe recalled, “like we had walked off the edge of the world.”

They had. This was a barren land of rocks and dirty ice, with big elevation gains and losses required to avoid landslides and dangerous water. To varying degrees it beat everyone up, but Jeff suffered the most. Usually a powerhouse, he was visibly knocked down by a fever that took him to the edge of delirium. Everyone was thankful they had doctors along.

Whatever suffering they endured, it all seemed worth it when the team turned the elbow at the north limit of the Choktoi Glacier and finally looked into the tight hollow of peaks at its western end, the massive north ridge of Latok I soaring far into the sky. “I’d seen very big walls in Patagonia,” said Jim, “but this was on entirely a different scale.”

That afternoon, they set up a spartan base camp at 15,000 feet. After a couple of days helping the team get ready, the doctors said their goodbyes and left with the porters. The two base camp staff—the Liason Officer and the cook—settled in for a wait of uncertain length, and the four climbers cast off up the peak.


Style mattered. Jeff Lowe was the strongest advocate for a true alpine style ascent—using no fixed ropes, no retreats to base, and constant movement of the camps up the wall—but the others believed that the scale of Latok meant that they’d stand a better chance, perhaps their only chance, if they climbed “capsule style,” shuttling fixed camps up the wall. 

They already knew they’d be coming down the same way they went up. The photograph of the route, and especially the view from base camp, told them there was no other sensible or safe way off the mountain. They also saw that the cornices high on the route meant that they should carry ropes to fix just a few spots—they didn’t want to have to reclimb these dangerous traverses on the descent. Still, a commitment to capsule style was hardly a capitulation: they’d all be climbing, not just fixing ropes from bottom to top and yarding up the ropes, as expeditions on other mountains were still doing.

The plan was to stay on the ridge itself whenever possible, but it was soon clear that it would be more efficient—and, at times, necessary for safety—to leave the ridge. That was true from the very first day, when the men elected to climb a gully left of the ridge, a decision that let them gain height quickly and, more importantly, avoid the dangerously hot sun. The high-altitude rays broiled the men and triggered nearly constant serac fall. When they finally reached their first bivouac site, Jim said, “It was so warm that we didn’t even bother to set up our tents. We just dug out platforms and slept out in the open.”

When I asked about the technical challenges of the climb, I got predictably modest answers: Sure, there were hard sections, but nothing that hard. It was merely big, rather than difficult. The hardest and most dangerous stretches were avoided by traversing.

Photographs from the ascent and comments by other climbers who attempted the route in the years that followed, though, suggest such modesty was misleading. This was a very, very big climb, with more than ninety technical pitches of rock, ice, and snow that demanded exceptional route-finding.

There was joy in this route when you were on the sharp end, but heavy loads made following tedious. And then there was the weather. Some 3,500 feet up the wall, the first of several storms boiled up out of the valley and pinned the men down for days, changing the feel of the ascent. There’d be no more climbing in T-shirts. Instead, as George wrote in his journal, “We’d spend day after day in the tents listening as the north face boomed and bellowed all around us. Conditions were obviously getting pretty interesting up there.”

But then it cleared and the men moved again, blessed by another stretch of sunny days. At the end of the second week, they were finally at the long section of heavily corniced ridge at the middle of the climb that worried them in the pictures. “That was some pretty stout climbing there, and we were damn lucky that it hadn’t stayed warm,” George recalled.

Above, both the climbing and the bivy sites started to get leaner. The sheer volume of climbing, the conditions, and the altitude started to add up, and everyone was visibly wearing down. But the men still made impressive progress over the next week and were now staring up at what they believed would be the last big obstacle: a headwall of white-veined black rock that appeared to lead to easier snow and the summit. Jeff and Jim started digging a cave, while Michael and George led up the difficult wall, then fixed a rope for the next morning’s climb, which might well take them to the top.

“All of us suddenly thought that we could make it,” Michael said. “We believed we had maybe 600 feet of easy snow to the summit . . . but that was before we saw the storm rolling in from the west.”

It was a torment of a storm that hammered the tiny snow cave and sucked the remaining life out of everyone. They all suffered, but everyone’s attention was on Jeff, who had a fierce headache and a wracking cough. The following day, their twentieth on the climb, a foot of snow fell outside the cave, and the men elected to wait one last time for better conditions.

When they woke the next morning, the storm had abated a little, but the situation was clear. They had almost no food left. If they were going to summit, it had to be now. Despite how poorly he was doing, Jeff rallied and said that he felt strong enough to follow the others up.

Michael and George jumared back up the final pitch of the headwall and started up the snowslope, but it was clear almost immediately that Jeff could go no farther and needed everyone’s help to get back to the snow cave. That was it. No one would be going higher. Getting their friend down became their whole purpose. “We had really pushed the envelope,” Jim said, “certainly more than was prudent. But on that ledge, at that time, we didn’t have to say one word . . . we just started down.”

Although the men are quick to dismiss the nobility of their decision to abandon the attempt so close to the top, history has been more generous, calling the descent from Latok I one of the most selfless and expertly executed acts in mountain history. Conditions were part of that appraisal. A storm bulldozed back up the valley, pinning the men in the cave again, with increasingly dangerous implications. Jeff worsened dramatically.

And that’s where Donini stepped in. Michael was effusive while remembering what he saw: “Jim can come across as such a hardcore bastard, but he was like a mother caring for a child when he took charge of Jeff. It was phenomenal to watch. He had a real gentle touch, and without a word you understood that you could just step aside. Jim knew exactly what to do.”

After five storm-walloped days in the cave, they finally started descending for the last time. They divided Jeff’s load, and foot by foot, the three shepherded their friend down the endless rappels and the traverses over huge chasms.

On the second morning of the descent, everyone woke with fears about Jeff’s condition. He was covered in frost, his head resting on Jim’s shoulder. “I was sure,” Jim explained, “that I was waking up next to a corpse.”

But when George called over to ask how Jeff was doing, it was the corpse who shivered to life and said, “Oh, I’m fine.”

Even with Jeff improving, the rest of the descent was still epic. Everyone was at their limit, and it took another five days before the men took their last, fumbling steps on the Choktoi, came around a boulder, and surprised the hell out of their liaison officer and cook, who were in the last stages of abandoning base camp. There were shouts and hugs and cries of gratitude, and the Baltis proclaimed it a miracle. After all, the climbers had been gone for twenty-six days—ten days longer than planned. There had been terrible storms. There had been no sign of headlamps on the wall for ten nights. All hope seemed lost. Then, just as the food at base camp ran out, the climbers, who looked like ghosts of the men the Baltis knew, reappeared. 

Clearly, they said, Allah had intervened. 


All these years later, I asked Michael, George, Jeff, and Jim if they’d understood the significance of the achievement and how it would be received. “Not really when we were up there,” said Michael. “When you’re on something that big and that long, you can lose any realistic sense of what you’re facing. You just do the work, and it’s hard to compare it to anything else.”

George added, “But we did know that we’d done some hard, complicated climbing, and knew that we’d come really close to the edge. I’d say we had maybe a forty percent chance of actually making it down alive when Jeff got sick and the storm was happening, maybe even thirty percent, so I understand why people talk about it the way that they do.”

Unlike some historic climbs that lose cachet when modern advances rub the shine off the original accomplishments, the reputation of the north ridge of Latok I and the legend of the American team have only grown with time. Since 1978, thirty-nine expeditions, which have included some of the very best climbers of several eras, have tried the ridge or variations on either side of it, and not only has the entire ridge likely never been climbed, the American highpoint has only been reached once. 

Jim and his partners are quick to insist that the lack of success by later teams is due to luck and not because the 1978 team were better climbers. “Everything has to be right on that climb,” George said. “A little more snow or a little less snow, and it’s a very different climb.” It’s important to note, too, that all the attempts since 1978 have been in pure alpine style versus the modified capsule style used by the American team. An alpine-style ascent of such a big route is—as the Americans appreciated—a far more serious commitment.

It took until 2018 for Latok I to be climbed by any route from the north. That summer, a strong team—Briton Tom Livingstone and Slovenians Luka Stražar and Aleš Cesen—had eyes on the summit rather than on an unwavering commitment to the ridge proper. They found a creative solution in a traverse right of the ridge at 6,300 meters, which allowed them to reach the col between Latoks I and II, and thence to the summit of Latok I from the south side of the peak. It was a fantastic ascent, but the prize of the entire ridge to the summit still awaits.

Despite the hardship of the 1978 climb, Latok only whetted the appetites of everyone on the team. All four followed up with hugely influential climbs—George on the Kangshung Face on Everest and the North Ridge of K2; Michael on the Northeast Buttress of Thalay Sagar, the Northeast Face of Ama Dablam, and the Wall of Shadows on Alaska’s Mount Hunter; Jeff on Kwangde Ri and Tawoche in the Nepal Himalaya, the Trango Tower in the Karakoram, and a stunning solo of a new route on the Eiger Nordwand; and Jim, in the pages that follow.

All of the men remained lifelong friends and, with the exception of Jeff, have continued to climb well into their seventies. In 2000, Jeff was diagnosed with a motor-neuron disease similar to ALS, and he spent the next eighteen years battling progressive incapacitation, climbing while he still could and remaining very much a leader in the climbing community. He passed away in August 2018 and was rightly heralded as one of the very best climbers of the modern era.


Excerpted from Survival Is Not Assured: The Life of Climber Jim Donini by Geoff Powter (June 2024). Published by Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Feature Image: Jim Donini in a snow cave on Latok I. Photo: Michael Kennedy.

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