On the Couch with Victor Saunders: British Mountaineering legend

The spectacular Karakoram range, Pakistan | Michael Grimwade
The spectacular Karakoram range, Pakistan | Michael Grimwade

Victor Saunders is a world-renowned British mountaineer who became a UIAGM mountain guide in 1996 after a career as an architect in London. 

Victor was at the forefront of Himalayan alpine climbing in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and his first ascents include the North Pillar of Spantik, the first winter ascent of Langtang, the east face of Uzum Brak, the west face of Ushba, Jitchu Drake, and many others.

He has climbed the fabled Seven Summits, made a winter ascent of north face of the Eiger, and he climbed Shield Direct, the first grade VI route on Ben Nevis, in winter.

His other ascents include the Great Trango Towers, Manaslu, and Cho Oyu. He has summitted Everest six times.

Victor Saunders

Victor is a renaissance man whose talents include literary work. His first book, Elusive Summits, won the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature in 1990. His latest book is Structured Chaos (2021). An insightful, passionate mountaineer whose depth of knowledge of the Karakoram is unmatched, trekking with Victor is a rare experience and one to be savoured. Victor will lead our K2 and Gondogoro La trek in July 2023.

In this exclusive Q&A session, the mountaineering legend shares with us what draws him to the mountains and how his love affair with mountain regions has evolved.

How would you introduce yourself to our readers in 5 words? 

Still struggling to understand life.

Do you have a life motto. What is it and could you please elaborate on it?

Better to be twenty minutes late in this life than twenty years early in the next. In the mountains as in life, it is better to slow down and take stock of the situation before being too precipitated. 

What has been your most memorable mountaineering expedition so far and why?

The very first expedition in 1980, to Uzum Brakk in Pakistan. The first time is always the brightest and longest lasting. Your eyes and senses are filled with new experiences. You are like a newborn.

Which mountain/destination has long been on your mind, but you haven't had the chance to climb or trek, yet?

I have not yet had a chance to explore the length of Chile. I am keen to see the summit of Llullaillaco (6739m), the highest Inca burial site. I have visited bits of the Atacama Desert and trekked up Ojos de Salado, the second highest summit in South America. I have trekked in the Torres del Paine four thousand kilometres south of Ojos. In between there are a wealth of mountains in this amazing country. If laid across Europe it would stretch from Scandinavia to the Sahara.

What is it that draws you to the mountains and you keep coming back for more?

I don't know. It just happens

What is more important, the road or the destination? Can you please elaborate? 

The destination may be the initial prompt, the cause of the expedition, but the memories are always of the road. So, the process is what it is all about.

What, to you, is the best mountain view in the world? When did you get this view, what was it like? 

The best view is nearly always from the top. It doesn't last long. You have to go down, and not too fast!

You’ve visited Pakistan several times throughout the years. What memories do you have? Is there anything that stands out? 

Pakistan is a big complex country. When I first visited in 1980, there were still vestiges of the colonial past. In forty years, I have seen huge political upheavals and yet, all the time, the mountain people have been unchanged, the same friendly lovely people always.

What makes the Karakoram mountains unique? And what three words would you use to describe them?

Harsh, magnificent, remote.

What are you looking forward to the most from this trip?

Seeing the great granite spires of the lower Baltoro, the ice-covered giants of the upper glacier. These are sights that never tire. And then the descent into the Hushe valley where a mystical interpretation of Islam, Nurbakhsh Sufism, is practiced.

What should trekkers expect on this trek? What will be the biggest highlight of their experience?

The truly magnificent mountains, the arrival at Concordia, the crossing of a high Himalayan pass.

What would be your advice for someone who wants to do this trip? What tip do you have for their fitness/training routine?

A good general background of fitness is required. Long walks of several hours, as regular as possible. Go for endurance rather than strength.

What packing tip do you have for clients booked onto the K2 & Gondogoro La trek with you? 

As well as trekking boots for the pass, bring comfortable trainers for camping, wet river crossings, etc.

What does your role as president of the Alpine Club entail?

I have finished my last year of the presidency and have handed over the baton to Simon Richardson, a brilliant mountaineer who will be an excellent role model. So, in effect, I have no further role.

You published a new book last year, Structured Chaos. Can you give an introduction?

From the preface: "It has taken me a lifetime to realize that all the while, it was people and not places that I valued most. I have now been on more than ninety expeditions accumulating seven years under canvas. I have climbed on all continents, many of the trips bringing big adventures and occasional first ascents. And yet it is not the mountains that remain with me but the friendships.”

Victor Saunders, trekking K2, K2 base camp, K2 basecamp

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