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Kevin Mahoney: The Lifer

Wednesday, Septembre 7, 2016
On an attempt to get the first ascent of an elusive 7000-meter peak, Link Sar, in Pakistan, Kevin Mahoney balances family and passion.

Photograph: Jon Griffith

After a sleepless open bivy the night before and a day of hammering hard, Kevin Mahoney and Jon Griffith were roached. They needed a camp, stat. They had spent the last three days ascending the north face and entered the complex ridge of Link Sar—one of the few 7000-meter peaks in the Karakorum Range of Pakistan that has yet to see an ascent. The weather was worsening, snow falling at a constant and unrelenting pace.

The camp they eyed required identifying the safest point along a cornice’s edge. Jon blasted in a two-piece ice screw anchor, and Kevin set out to play a fun little game of cornice canary. On a tight belay, Kevin stepped farther out onto the cornice, probing eight, nine, ten feet. But in the next step, just past the attachment point, the cornice cut loose, and a car-sized chunk plummeted. Solid ground fell away.

It was a clean fall, luckily, and Kevin was able to climb back up, but he took mental note—the cornices were unstable. They built a quick camp farther back from the edge. The tent cornice bivy wouldn’t have been their first choice; it was grim, but it worked. Kevin thought of his family—a picture of his wife and daughters, ‘the girls’, continually stays tucked safe in one of his chest pockets. The two climbers were still for now, but there was a lot of terrain to go, and their position was precarious.

 

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Kevin, 45, is a Vermont-based alpinist who has been in the game for nearly 25 years. He has received numerous awards for climbs that span from India to Alaska and has won awards like the Mugs Stump and Golden Piton. He's accomplished, to say the least. But he'd never been to Pakistan.

Enter Jon Griffith—an alpinist, photographer and Mahoney’s drinking buddy from Chamonix. Jon himself has a solid resume under his belt, and when Jon’s partner for the trip dipped, he asked Kevin at the last minute to join him. It was a dream trip for Kevin.

As a full-time guide, a part-time tech rep for Black Diamond and a family man with a wife, Claire, and two daughters, Annika and Eliza, Kevin typically doesn’t plan trips—expeditions—of this size. Rather, he sticks closer to home or tacks on extra days around guiding stints in Chamonix or Alaska. Ten days away from home is long enough, and that works for him, his wife and two girls. But when opportunities like this fall one in his lap, they’re hard to pass up. So he said yes, and planned for the time away. But that’s not an easy job, nor an easy sell to Claire. It requires a skilled juggling act.


Photograph: Dom Francis

Kevin, a New Hampshire native, met Claire when he was guiding for NOLS and she was working as a cook. For the two, the kitchen was the best place to be after a long day in the mountains. They’ve been married for 13 years, and now that Annika and Eliza are older, they make a lot of family outings—skiing, hiking and generally romping around the woods. “It’s a bonding time,” Kevin says, “but it’s also a lifestyle.” While the family gets together in some form almost every day, Mahoney’s big mountain missions—long stints away from home, absence from his family and absence in helping with rigmarole of day-to-day “real” life—take their toll. It can be hard on Claire—keeping up with her own work and her girls’ schedules—but it’s also tough for Kevin, who misses the day-to-day gems like the rush of pre-school rituals in the morning or walking the dog with the girls.

“It’s the price of being an alpinist,” Kevin says.

 

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An elusive peak with two prominent peaks, Link Sar’s virgin summit has thwarted more than a handful of alpinists. In 1979, a group of Japanese climbers made the first, albeit unsuccessful, attempt on the peak via its east face. The area was then closed and finally reopened in the early 2000s. A handful of climbers have attempted to reach its summit since—from the south and west face—but the amount of objective hazards have turned all the groups back.

Link Sar is hemmed in, as Jon notes, by “the K7 massif on one side and a death valley on the other side” and accessed via Taliban-controlled land—there’s nothing easy about getting there. Both of its summits are difficult to see from anywhere but on the mountain itself. From the valley floor below it, it’s hard to get a good look—K7 obscures most of the view, and if you back up far enough, you butt into K6. It’s one of those peaks with lots of unknowns, and a gothic beauty, two things that have captivated Jon, who has tried to reach the summit twice before.

Jon and Kevin arrived in Islamabad at the beginning of July 2014. Mahoney had planned five weeks for the trip—a short amount of time to try a 7,000-meter peak—but it was all he could carve out from work and family. So they had to divvy up their time wisely. They spent July getting to basecamp and getting acclimatized on some of the smaller peaks. They started up towards Link Sar on August 1 beneath bluebird skies, approaching via the Charakusa Glacier and traveling up the tight valley between K7 and Link Sar.


Photograph: Jon Griffith

While Jon hade been training for a third attempt for months, Kevin was a late sub-in. He did a last-minute, two-month training period, which basically just meant he did more trail running than before, squeezing in workouts during the day and in between shuttle duty to gymnastics or swim practice.

But the workouts paid off. Jon and Kevin punched up the previously unclimbed north face to the ridge. They probed for a safe spot to gain the ridge, and then the cornice dropped out. Shaken, they settled in for their third night, near where Mahoney and the cornice had let fly just a few hours earlier.

They’d made a solid effort, but the snow continued on outside, slowly racking up depth. Thoughts of Kevin’s family—which he keeps compartmentalized during high-risk climbing that demands his full attention—now started to creep into his mind.

They spent the fourth day hydrating, resting and digging out their campsite. They discussed their position: They weren’t moving as fast as anticipated, and the summit was still a complex ridge away—even though the top was a mere 300 or 400 vertical meters away. They were maybe a half-kilometer from the west summit but a full kilometer from the main summit.

August 5 dawned with more snow. With vulnerable cornices, they would need good gear. But on lead, everything Jon found was unreliable: aerated ice rendered screws basically useless, and the rock was totally fractured. For a full 60 meters, Jon searched and probed—hours on the hunt—but he came up with nothing. That’s when they made the decision to bail.

If Kevin didn’t have a family at home, he might have been tempted to keep going, but the risk was too great. “I don’t make decisions on the front side based on family, but in the moment, for sure,” says Kevin. “If it’s something I can’t manage and mitigate then I’m not going to launch into it.”

By the time they got back to the glacier, the weather was practically clear. But with only a few days left, there wasn’t enough time for another attempt. Kevin returned to his family with no real thoughts of going back for another summit attempt. While Jon will return this summer, for Kevin this attempt was satisfying as an honest effort.

There is a balance that must be met between Kevin’s love for the mountains and his love for his family. "The whole deal hinges on coming back," he says, and that is a huge part of his decision-making in the hills. It sometimes means coming up empty-handed.

“I’m ok with that,” Kevin says. “I used to wonder how that would affect me, and it doesn’t. It doesn’t affect me at all. If I feel like it’s beyond my objective comfort level I’ll turn around, I don’t even second guess it.”

Going into the unknown is part of what drives Kevin, but it’s a stress on the family. “In the end it doesn’t diminish those passions, but it makes me question them, and I’ve figured out that this is a selfish passion any way you slice it.”

“Kevin is the toughest I ever tied in with,” says Jon. “I can’t really think of anyone else who I’ve tied in with who was willing to keep pushing on in such an environment.” But, Jon says, “I can see how it’s quite a tough internal struggle being ‘passionate' about two completely mutually exclusive things.”

Kevin, though, has found a good balance.

“The mountains are pretty compelling and can cloud your judgment tremendously,” he says. “But the reality is that the mountain is going to be there whether you wake up the next day or not and whether you go to bed with your wife the next day or not. The mountains are still going to be there, but if you’re dead on the side of it, the rest of that aspect of life which is what really sustains you, isn’t going to be there.”

—Whitney Boland


Photograph: Dom Francis

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