Kurt Diemberger part 2: Shaksgam Valley

In part 2 of our interview with Kurt Diemberger, he talks about record chasers and Shaksgam Valley.

Shaksgam Valley: Diemberger has a fascination for the region
Diemberger has a fascination for Shaksgam Valley© Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

Do you see yourself as a pioneer of ‘extreme sports’?
I don’t think so. I’m not a pioneer of extreme sports and I don’t have anything to do with high speed and other records; it’s actually the opposite. I’m a known proponent of slowness! If you walk slowly, you walk well. If you walk well, you walk far. I’m the living proof of that. My understanding of extreme sports is that it’s not about finding the path, the solution to a mountaineering problem; it’s about adding a new, more risky path to one that already exists. I often feel like it’s all about immortalizing your name. I’m actually not a friend of extreme sports, especially not when it’s all about speed records.

Are there exceptions?
Of course there are excellent mountaineers that can climb safely at high speed. There’s Ueli Steck, for example. He climbed the Eiger north face in 2 hours and 47 minutes. It’s certainly remarkable but I always ask myself, first of all, why, and secondly, what can you even see along the way?

It seems that your motivation as an alpinist is more comprehensive.
To me—I was initially looking for crystals—mountaineering is mainly about discovery. When I think back to the Schaumrolle at the Königspitze, there are several reasons why I wanted to climb that one back in 1956. The main reason was: I wanted to know what it looked like on the inside—inside of this formation that I had pictured as blue ice dome from down below. Only the second reason was athletic in nature: Is there a way for me to get across or through this massive dome?

Kurt Diemberger posing for a portrait
Kurt Diemberger: a legend among mountaineers© Kurt Diemberger

You are known for your opposition towards commercialised and medal-rewarded alpinism?
I’m against the excessive sponsoring we have today, and I’d like to see more moderation instead of the unregulated invasion of advertisement into alpinism. Mountaineers today are plastered in all sorts of branding from head to toe. If it’s for an expedition—all right, it’s OK to have a sponsor to support them. We’ve had sponsored expeditions since the beginning. In the 1950s, for example, the Sport Scheck in Munich sponsored our equipment for Broad Peak. When Julie Tullis and I went up Mount Everest in 1985, the glass company Pilkington paid for practically everything and in return they made adverts with it.

In addition to the mountains of Karakorum, you’re also fascinated by the remote desert of Shaksgam Valley. Why?
Shaksgam Valley is the big unknown on the other side of K2; it’s on the Chinese side. This is a 200-kilometre-long river valley. Most of the time, it’s dried up and only a little bit of water trickles through in between the stones. But when the glaciers melt in July and August, the whole valley is flooded. There are still so many unknown mountains and nameless crests there. Over there, the golden age is not over. There are mysteries to discover and plenty of paths that nobody has walked before, even to the eight thousanders.

What is it that fascinates you about this valley?
The fact that it is one of the least accessible areas in the world. Nobody lives in this mountain desert and it has a wonderful ambiance. In order to reach Shaksgam, you have to cross the Aghil Pass, which is almost as high as Mont Blanc. Before the pass, there comes one last Kirghiz village. I definitely want to go there again. The Americans have been calling me “Shaksgam groundskeeper” because I know the valley like the back of my hand. There’s still a barrel of materials hidden under a moraine from my seventh expedition to Shaksgam back in 1999, and there’s a piece of paper attached that says “Still needed!”