The First Ski Descent of the
Looking up, I could see Dave right at the top of the Bottleneck.
Damn you Dave, I was thinking, you're going to do it. So the tango of
turns began. Dave would make a large left turn, then right, crossing the
trail from one side to the other, then stopping to rest, then repeating
the pattern. Dave explained that it wasn't the terrain that mattered, but
the altitude at which you were skiing. Dave explained, "At friendlier
altitudes, I could make runs twice as long, but here you run outta gas and
out of breath fast." Fact: Dave ski patrols in Indian Kashmir in winter
where he works for "the best powder skiing on Earth", as he put it. He
also helped develop the resort so more people could have fun. I've seen a
video of the place and I have to confess that "it's sick" I wish I could
take my daughter, Sunny, there for two months and spoil ourselves with
this Himalayan wonder.
I grabbed my camera and started to take pictures. As I reviewed the pics
on my small LCD screen I noticed a big white blob. I checked the
camera--it had gotten wet from dragging it through the snow, fogging the
expensive lens. I put the camera in the sun hoping I would dry fast--no
luck. So I convinced Mingma to stay and video Dave to preserve the
experience. Getting the video from Mr. Kim, however, would be another
None were in sight, nor were their tents. The only climber
in C4 who came up this route was Gerilnde. She started her lonely
descent, soon disappearing below the steep wall. She politely said goodbye
to all of us and took pictures with the Kazakhs and Santiago.
The Japanese, who
arrived for their summit push, were listening to our description of the
Traverse. Although they understood very little English, they got the
message. They would chat among themselves and soon announce that they
would descend in the morning
"Base Camp, Base Camp, this is Dave Watson in C4"
Dave decided to place a call to BC to announce Gerlinde's
solo descent and give them a heads-up about where she was last seen and to
keep an eye out for her as she made her way down. Dave's show of concern
for a fellow climber's fate was an indication of his clear state of mind,
even at 8000m.
The Japanese at this point reversed their decision for departure; their
leader came to our tent announcing their retreat for C3 that evening. Our
team, along with Santiago and his Pakistani partner, Querban, remained at
C4. My camera lens finally cleared so I started to take pictures again,
especially close-ups of Dave's turns. Dave Watson's achievement was a
first in Mt. K2's history, the first ski descent of the Bottleneck, let
alone to ski the highest point on this mountain, second only to the
highest altitude of Everest.
And Dave made it look easy.
As we settled into our tent for the night, Santiago came to ask for some
pictures showing his sponsor's logo; Dave and I simultaneously
declined his request.
The sunset was breathtaking--the other eight-thousanders glowed in the
G I, G II, G IV, Broad Peak. The sky was dark blue, not
quite black, no wind or distant clouds. Yes, K2 can be tolerable and
friendly. This optimism remained with us at least for the evening--we'd
see what the morning would bring. We decided to stay in camp to get an
idea how the bottleneck would look in the morning and how soon the sun
would hit its slopes. This was not only a curiosity but a
subconscious observation for our return. I could say that, so far, I
was pleased with my performance but, still without the summit, it would
mean I would have to start all over again next time: the sluggish,
hot six-day trek to BC, the gross ciapati smell, endless dancing and noisy
parties in the camps when I don't want to be disturbed. I'd have to put
up with porters and their sirdar, who are less than honest. I'll have to
be on the lookout for my barrels to be sure they won't be opened and
precious climbing gear stolen. I'll have to endure the acclimatization
process again, and be afraid, as I was so many times, during the
treacherous jeep rides to Ascoli.
I will have to deal with airlines that charge for baggage as much as they
charge for the entire ticket--I guess it's how they make money these
days. I'll have to leave the business in the hands of my partner, my
brother, Claudio, and expect him to carry on the work as well as the
business part. This was not going to be easy. Finally, absence from
my children hurts me the most. All these thoughts rushed to my mind,
imposing a sadness I couldn't bare. It would be counterproductive to keep
feeling this negative energy.
A cold night at 8K m
With only one sleeping bag between us, it was going to be a cold night. I
ate nothing that evening; instead I chose to take more pictures of the
fantastic display of light; the sun was getting low and darkness engulfed
the mountains and our tent. We turned on the headlamps and talked about
positive things, there was no reason to be bitter about our failure to
reach the summit. We gradually started to adjust and be comfortable with
our most important achievement: no one has died, no one got hurt.
Tired, we tried to sleep. The shared sleeping bag moved from side to side
by the two positioned on the outside of it, one of whom was me. I woke up
several times, cold to the bone, shivering and restless. Just before 4
a.m. I decided to start the stove to bring up the temperature inside the
tent a few degrees. The roof of the tent was frozen and stiff, sending
icicles of snow and ice down on us. It became a dreadful place to be, so
I opened the tent zipper to see how close we were from daybreak.
A faint amount of light poured over China so I guessed it would be another
45 minutes before we caught a better glimpse of the new day.
Dave was very cold and shivering uncontrollably, so I pushed the rest of
the sleeping bag on him. He was wet from swimming in the snow at the
Bottleneck; the wet down suit was almost useless, feeling like a wet suit
for scuba divers. Dave likes to sleep, and he would spend hours more in BC
than I, but still cold and miserable trying so hard to rest. My feet were
numb, so I moved closer to the stove; the gas had just run out so I looked
around the crowded tent and found an almost empty canister, started the
stove again and continued trying to get some warmth in the tent.
Dave continued tossing and turning, but a good rest would elude him.
Another view, unavailable for cash
It was light enough outside now that I decided to get out and enjoy
the unbelievable view. The upper part of the bottleneck was lit in
a soothing glow of yellow light. This display of colors reminded me of my
climb on Denali back in 1997. The tracks of Dave's ski turns were
accentuated by the morning light, a perfect chance to take pictures of his
entire route of descent. I then wandered around C4 to see if I could find
any signs of camps from previous years. Further down, there was an old
broken tent with silverware and pots scattered around it; although I
think the tent had been carried down from above by the weight of the snow
and ice. It was frozen solidly in place, proof that it was there a long
time. I returned after my twenty-minute walk around, finally feeling
sufficiently warmed up.
It was quiet at Santiago's tent. I discovered that Dave
was still buried in the sleeping bag.
"Time to wake up man, we gotta get down to BC, it's going to be a hard
long day," I insisted. The weather was perfect--no clouds, no
wind--perfect. "How's outside"? asked Dave.
"Great, man." "It was f***ing cold last night, my whole down suit is wet,"
Our Black Diamond tent had to be packed, and Dave knew that was his job.
By 7:30 a.m. we were ready to move down; I started first.
Immediately bellow C4 was a steep down-climb that required my attention
and at its bottom, a large crevasse that kept us for hours when we climbed
up. I managed it more easily than I first thought I would. Dave was
just five minutes behind and he managed a quick descent. Then he stopped,
strapping on his ski again.
OK, Dave, you want to get down fast, I thought. After all, Dave worked
hard to carry his ski up, now it's bonus time, to slide down painlessly. I
waited for him and offered to take pictures with my SLR camera. We would
talk on the radio when he got farther away from me so I could prepare to
snap a progression of pictures during his 'slalom' performance. I must
admit that with today's digital camera almost anybody can take great
pictures--out of a thousand you'll nail at least one that's worth the
publicity. Sometimes I keep the firing button down and take about three
frames per second. The white snow will fill the camera aperture, resulting
sometime in overexposure. Skiing down K2 and having Broad Peak in the
background was just plain great. Dave would slide into C3 where Louis
Russeau, Sepp, Mr. Kim and the Japanese team were standing ready to climb
down from their overnight perch.
We rested for at least twenty minutes before starting down toward
friendlier altitude. Once again I was ahead waiting for Dave to appear so
I could get more pictures. If we're going to document this ski descent, we
may as well do it right. As I reached C2 I decided to rest and take my
boots off, change my socks and spare my feet from further discomfort. Max
joined me inside the tent for a snack and I switched to lighter more
comfortable Gortex wear.
Just below the C2 was the well known House Chimney, impassable on skis,
naturally, so Dave down-climbed it as I waited for him to resume his ski
run. At the bottom of the Bottleneck, however, there was more rock that
interfered with a ski
approach. So Dave decided to illegally cross the border
into China by aggressively taking a wide left turn, treacherously landing
him in a shallow gully that led to a rock formation. There he stopped to
rest, turning right toward me. As he made the turn I noticed when his
ski carved into the snow, it exposed nothing but blue ice. This
translated into skiing on a very dangerous surface. Dave
knew this unwelcome condition, especially here, was not good.
Then I remembered his motto: "Never ski down what you never
climbed"...Dave had broken his own rule for the sake of his quest to
conquer this defiant terrain.
My camera and I stayed with him for a few more minutes until he
disappeared again below me and behind the rocky slope.
I radioed him to wait until I regained sight of him, assuming he'd stop in
C1 and wait for me. My radio call was never answered. I feared for the
worst. As I started to move down, I noticed Pemba climbing toward me. He
explained that he was going to C2 to clean up and take their stuff down. I
continued down and soon I could see C1. Only one rock obstacle was between
me and C1.
Down below was a Pakistani man fiddling with a couple of foam mattresses,
one had come off his pack and he was trying to strap it back on. The
combination of fatigue and wind made his attempt futile. I had to wait at
the upper anchor point in order to give the Pakistani man a chance to
regain better ground; he was clipped into the rope and had it pretty
tight. I couldn't even do the double arm wrap to descend safely, so I
waited and I waited. Ten minutes passed, and this man's persistence to
keep a lousy foam mattress was getting ridiculous. He realized it was too
much time for me to wait and motioned for me to descend. I told him
I'd rather wait til he finished. The man had no proper straps on his
antique back pack and he was gathering ropes from the mountain in order to
strap this lousy mattress. Another five minutes went by, and he signaled
me again to descend. I told him that I needed some slack in the rope so I
could do my thing. He was positioned in a dangerous spot, with only slabs
of rock under his metal crampons. My descent went quickly so I was able to
reach him in a couple of minutes. As I passed him I changed my
anchor again, at first rappelling with my back first. Then the rope
broke. With unimaginable luck I grabbed the upper part of another rope
with my right hand and stopped my fall. The man above me had cut the rope
for his f***king foam mattress. My heart was beating fast and it took me
some time to regain my composure.
"Mother f*errrrr, you cut the rope, you f*ing idiot!" I yelled at him.
People say that the word "idiot" is common in many languages, perhaps one
of the most common, aside from the word "mama".
The man was looking at me, knowing he almost killed me.
Down below was Santiago and Sergey, who were resting and saw the whole
thing. I was about to die only 60m from C1. I cursed the man many more
times. I could see Dave's tracks going down to ABC.
I felt better knowing he was OK but hoped he wasn't going to drink all the
Coke we asked our cook Muna to bring.
I continue my descent thinking again how close I was to losing my life.
Behind me Sergey was moving slowly, there was no need to rush except
to get down to better food and drink.
The snow was soft and manageable in some places and hard in others. About
half way down to ABC I was hit by a chunk of ice right behind my knee,
knocking me off my feet. Sergey dislodged the ice and it rolled down.
Well, had it been another meter higher, there would've been a different
outcome. Then I remember an incident from my 1999 Everest climb. There I
was, standing below the first step, waiting for the climber ahead to top
out. Man Bahadur Tamang and I were looking at the body of an American
woman who had died the year before, when a rock, dislodged by the climber
ahead, hit Man Bahadur in the back. Luckily he had Oxygen bottles that
spared him from what could've been a serious injury or worse. Still, the
rock made a hole in his back pack the size of a baseball.
Lucky, once again.
I was at the last rope when my legs suddenly sank into deep snow, all the
way up to my crotch. It took me almost five minutes to get my boots out
of the deep snow and ice. Then, as I sat for the last break before ABC, a
huge chunk of ice of more than one meter flew over my head, landing just
20 meters down from me. What if my legs weren't stuck in the snow just
minutes before? Lucky, again. And yes, climbing at high altitude, luck
can be as important a part of climbing as guts, strength and experience.
I could see Dave now, sitting by our tent, so I joined him.
Dave had just become the first man to ski down K2 from the top of the
"Bottleneck"; I'm not sure it sank in--what he had just accomplished; it
didn't for me either. At his feet were two bottles of Coke, one half full
the other unopened. "This one's for you, buddy." Dave was smoking his
favorite cigarettes, "Black", and I joined him to vent out the stress of
almost two months of climbing on K2. I always joined in this habit of
having a smoke after the climb was over. We shared some of our precious
little spoiled coke with our Kazakh climbing mates. For sure they, like us
and the rest, craved the sweet but different taste of the American wonder
made in Pakistan, the all too known Coca Cola.
Dave started to tell me that while skiing down from C1 to
ABC making his left and right turns, he had started small slushy
avalanches, a combination of wet snow and ice carrying down more of the
mix and picking up speed.
"Mingma was ahead of me but I could not see him, then he
appear from under the rocks formation, it hit him on his legs and knocked
him down" Mingma had no idea what had hit him, he started to slide down
uncontrollably, Dave watched Mingma helplessly fearing Mingma will be
seriously hurt caused by his ski descent. Sick feelings feel his inner
body, what if Mingma will slam down into the rocks. Mingma fell for quite
a while but it take a lot to seriously hurt a sherpa. Then Mingma came to
a rest. Dave rushed to his side only to find Mingma's face bloody
complaining of pain on his right shoulder. He appear not to have any other
injuries but since Mingma's body was full of adrenaline, Dave stay on a
cautious side. It is well known that a fall could end up in serious
internal injuries, at first undetectable.
We looked up in silence, each of us with our own thoughts
of what we'd been through during the last months of preparations and the
climb itself, the sadness and the thrill, and of course the joy of being
alive, still being able to tell others of our experience. I've always been
willing to share with others my own experience of climbing and my personal
observations, what I've learned and what I keep from what I learned. So
here it is, albeit belated, a presentation of my Mt. K2 experience, where
I was part of a group of people, hungry to top out the mountain of all
mountains, the mountain that offers no easy way up, regardless
of which way you try. We're the ones who wrote for history, the K2 climb
Earlier: Louis Ruseau shines.
Gerfried spotted me and waved, then came to where Dave and I were sitting,
just under a rock formation, the place for the last anchor at the
bottleneck. Louis, a tall Canadian from Montreal, climbed and climbed well
with the Austrian team on Nanga Parbat. It was here that Louis displayed his
sheer strength and technical abilities, his youth of course being a huge
advantage. Dave and I let all the climbers in the vicinity pass, then I
decided to climb again, and Dave followed me soon after. We were climbing
in better snow conditions. Dave and I know very well how to climb and when
to climb, and as Gerfried put it: "I don't care if I am the last to summit
K2." The sky was clear to the horizon, there was no wind, the conditions
I opened the front zippers of
my jacket for ventilation, but I still felt pretty hot. Although our
snail's pace helped keep the temperature in check, eventualy I had to take
off my down jacket. Still too warm with my fleece jacket on, I had to unzip
even the polypro layers underneath.
You never know when you need
more ventilation, especially with the extreme temperature changes K2 is
Having enough physical strength to safely ascend K2 is not enough--we need
sufficient power to get back down, often more challenging on higher
mountains than going up. Saving energy for descent was one of the skills I
acquired for survival, having learned early on in my climbing career.
With the bottleneck fixed by 10AM, on a mountain that appeared very
friendly, with weather one only dreams of, I started to feel that by the end
of the day I would call myself a K2 summiter.
I could just feel it, taste the sweetness of a successful summit. I felt
that adrenaline rush, something close to how I felt when topping out Mt.
Everest. With not much to think about, I was fantasizing about a sure and
easy summit. I was already thinking about telling family and friends at home
how easy it was to climb K2.
Not again, God
Shards of ice rained down on us, I dodged a few, although they were nothing
compared with the torrent that came last year. I kept my eyes out for new
missiles and offered the local gods a quick prayer. I pray the serac will
stay in one piece.
I climbed up to Mingma who was now descending.
"I am going down, I am a young man, I have one young son, I don't want to
die", confessed Mingma. His face was gripped with fear--Mingma knew the two
sherpa who died last year, and exactly how they died. He looked determined
to abandon the climb. I leaned my head on his chest in disbelief and after
pausing for a few seconds, I asked him to reconsider. But with Mingma's own
instinct for survival, he knew better. I understood his view: the desire
to stay alive is so powerful, so it made no sense to push the issue. But
next to me was his client and climbing partner, Mr. Kim. Mingma had a moral
responsibility to honor his commitment to him, so I tried a new approach.
A climber without hands?
"What about Mr. Kim? I can't take care of him if he goes for the summit," I
tell Mingma. At this point Pemba was next to us and heard the conversation.
This very shy man from Makalu spoke little English but understood a lot
more. Pemba started downclimbing and continued without rest, Mingma was
still with me but no longer talking; he was thinking. "But George Sir, if I
die, who will take care of my family?" I had told Mingma repeatedly to stop
calling me "Sir", but even at this altitude he would not shake the habit--Mingma's
mind was clear and his judgment sound. Perhaps Mingma was just tired and
disappointed; after all, he had broken the trail on the entire bottleneck
and fixed the rope for all of us. "I worked hard on this climb, Sir. I carry
ropes, tents, ice screws, pitons, snow bars, I break trail, but in base camp
"We want to help too'."
Not so. They were the exact
words from one of the climbers from the Cesen route. Mingma was at the
pre-summit meeting and remembered those exact words. So, there was the
truth: plenty of opportunity for the others to help as they had offered; all
they had to do was to get in front and plow the snow. But no, those were
words of Ego or perhaps because the video camera was rolling, they wanted to
appear tough, but their words were empty. As they say, talk is cheap, very
cheap, and experienced climbers like Mingma knew all too well how we non
sherpa perform in the death zone. I, too, was invited to lead and break
trail but, ironically, only by climbers who never lead one inch of the
trail. I remember only their demands, not actions. But even at my age I'm
still learning; perhaps that never ceases. Some apparently need to realize
themselves. As long as I can
keep Mingma next to me and listen to his venting of dissatisfaction, it was
a good sign: he just may stay on the climb. Mingma never said he'd stay, but
after I decided to climb on, I looked back: he was still there. Then Mr. Kim
came but I don't think he ever asked Mingma to stay. Mr. Kim seemed to be a
very sensitive person and perhaps knew he won't keep Mingma from going down
if he really wanted to.
Louis Ruseau, again.
In front now was Louis Rouseau, a Montreal climber who topped out Nanga
Parbat just weeks before. Louis started to lead the traverse from what I
could see was very dangerous ground. He not only had to keep his balance,
but place ice screws into the serac and plow the deep snow. He disappeared
behind a sharp turn, returning after only fifteen minutes. We all had to
wait for him or get a signal from him. Then his tall slender frame of a
climber appeared, shaking his head.
"Big snow," I thought he said.
"How big?" Gerfried asked.
Louis pointed, placing his hand barely below his chin.
Frankly I don't think any of us believed him.
Louis stated that he needed more screws and carabiners, and word went
out that more work needed to be done. Louis displayed his strength and
technical skills, using his ice axes for security, to turn the screws into
Louis disappeared once more, and soon all of us would follow, advancing 20m
Vasili, also out in front, then took the lead, going ahead for another 20m.
Louis decided to stay behind, I passed him but asked if he wanted to stay in
front of me.
"I think I did my share today" he replied.
I thanked him for the hard work he did for all of us and passed him.
"Gerfried, this is not climbing, this is waiting" Louis called out to his
partner. Louis was frustrated by our slow rate of progress and since he was
the first to see and taste it, he knew we were not going to get very far.
"One more hour," Gerfried yelled back.
Like me, Gerfried was hoping the snow would somehow compact at the top. With
only one section that was steep we would have an easy walk to the summit, we
had plenty of rope for security, and all we needed was snow not so deep,
snow or sugar-like.
Gerlinde tried but after only a few meters and without Oxygen she could do
no more. Then Santiago took the lead, he would push as hard as his
oxygenless lungs would allow. He would shove his axe forward, trying to move
the snow away from his path, only to have new snow come down to his
feet from above. The sugar-snow was a serious deterrent to our progress; he
would rest, then push, then rest, again and again. Then he, like the other
climbers before him, succumbed to the fatigue exacerbated by the thin air.
Louis called Gerfied again about timing--it was not promising. We were all
waiting under millions of tons of ice and, I assure you, everyone knew what
had happened in last year's tragedy. It was a bad place to hang around, and
Louis knew this was not a smart way to climb. "Only thirty minutes," once
gain came the answer from Gerfried. Dave Watson was the last climber who
took the lead, with his ski on his back. Dave was perhaps the only climber
who could not be mistaken. He put up a brave battle with Mother Nature, he
knew how close we were from the summit, he knew he could top out and back
safely, If we could only overcome this unexpected obstacle. But even Dave,
fighting Mother Nature indeed, fighting with K2, realized that, once again,
this mountain would prove that it's not enough to be fit and
have cooperative weather-- you need luck.
Luck did not visit K2 in 2009.
I could see Dave about 15-20m ahead, like Santiago he would use his axe to
move the snow to the side. Progress was miniscule. I called his name and
gave him a cross-arms sign to give it up. He would pause, then continue his
work. We all watched him trying his best to summit the mountain of our
dreams, going at it a few more minutes as voices from below would once again
call for his surrender. I, too, would call again to my partner once more:
"let it go Dave."
"I don't want to summit at 6 o'clock," Gerfried told me as he started to
descend. The climbers below got the message and started their own climb
downward. "We can come back tomorrow," Vasili said confidently. We left the
ascent attempt on a melancholic note and turned our attention to the
From here is only down
All my aspirations, my inner assurances that I would at last summit the
toughest mountain on Earth, had just come to a halt.
As I started downclimbing, I was thinking of Vasili's proposal to come back
the next day. I disregarded the fact that I would have no more oxygen for
one last try, nor did I have any food left. I rationalized that I wasn't
hungry anyway, I could go on for 3-4 days without eating. I had done it on
Everest so many times and, as for Oxygen, the climb I just made was easy
enough that I did not feel the need for the gas.
Yes, I'll try it.
I clipped my carabiner to the rope Mingma fixed and, with a double-arm wrap,
would slide down the bottleneck. The deep snow would make it almost
impossible to go fast, and I would take my time. I stopped from time to time
to take pictures on a day that only the lucky climbers could've dreamed of.
The sight was incredible.
In front of me was Gerlinde and Chris, they stopped from time to time for a
rest and chat, Gerlinde even made a satphone call. Dave was behind me as I
distanced myself from him, he was taking his time, too, like I was.
The last one was Santiago.
As I reached the spot where I earlier had my face-to-face encounter with
death, the hidden crevasse, I stood next to it to see how bad my situation
was. I discovered the angle of it was slightly vertical. I tried to see
down to the bottom of it but there was only darkness with nothing visible at
the end. I could see the disturbance of snow I had made crawling out of
this death trap. It would be eery to fall in it again, I thought, so I
shifted to the left and vaulted across it. The camp was nearby, taking only
minutes to reach it. Sitting everywhere were disappointed climbers like me,
no one engaged in conversation. Mingma was taking pictures and video for Mr.
Continuation from previous dispatches
The crevasse fall has sobered me for the climb ahead. I
was paying attention more than ever to where I was stepping, looking for
any sign of fault lines that may indicate a hidden crevasse that will
hurt me, or worse. I passed the climber ahead of me, the climber that
seemed to hear me when I was calling for help. I passed him without
saying a word; I knew speaking to him would've helped no one at this
point. I kept my concentration on the climb ahead and made good
progress. Standing still, seemingly for no reason, was Vasili, one of
"This is not the route," he claimed. I looked around and remembered the
photographs Chris had shown me from his attempt the previous year. His
partner was photographed standing on a rather flat spot right under the
bottleneck. The place we stood, however, was steep and very different. I
looked to the right and there, it seemed, was last year's route. I
approved of Vasili's discovery; after all, he had been this far
before. He had seen the north and the normal route, each side twice,
and this trip was his fifth. Vasili was on K2 four times, unsuccessful
on all four. What misfortune for a man clearly capable of
topping difficult mountains like Mt. K2. Max, his partner, was searching
for the way ahead along with the two Nepalese sherpa, Mingma and Pemba.
I left Vasili still deep in his own thoughts. No ropes were fixed and a
faulty move or a slip would send a climber down to his death. I had to
stay focused on every step I made. Sometimes the ground got easier,
sometimes steeper. There were times the snow was so soft I'd sink in up
to my knees, while at other times my newly sharpened crampons would
hardly bite into the frozen surface. Behind me, the shadow of a person
was closing in. The climber would make repeated stops, firmly
planting the two ice axes for security. As the person got closer, I
noticed it was a woman.
Woman on K2
With only one female on the entire mountain, it had to be Gerlinde.
She used no Oxygen, so her repeated stops made sense to me. It
was grueling work at this altitude and in such a dangerous
and inhospitable place. She sat down just above her two
temporary ice-axe anchors, and realized that in the middle of the night
we got somewhat lost. Dave, just below, soon caught up with us. He sat
down, leaning on his right side, his skis strapped to his backpack. I
was hoping Dave would choose to summit 'only' instead of having to haul
an additional 1.5Kg on his pack for the descent. But no, Dave
real mission was to ski down K2 and perhaps the summit was a mere bonus.
One must understand one's love for skiing and Dave has inside him this
passion, burning like an eternal flame.
"How do you feel?" I asked.
"Fucking great, dude, climbing K2 with a full moon!" It was not quite a
full moon but big enough to light our path; however, we needed a very
clear view of where we were going. Some climbers suggested we wait til
daybreak, but we found the fierce cold forced us to keep moving. I could
see a faint light on the horizon and judged it would be still at least
30-45 minutes before there would be light sufficient enough to see
all the way up to the bottleneck. The serac was silhouetted against the
sky but no details were visible. I was climbing alongside other climbers
but only when I was close enough could I identify the climber. I had
Dave in my vicinity and that was all I cared about. The ground was
getting steeper and steeper so I suggested we start fixing the rope.
Pemba, carrying 200m (yards) of Korean rope, pulled it out to hand over
to Mingma. I cut the wrapping rope and handed one end to Mingma.
From here the rope couldn't be touched by anybody. I belayed Mingma for
a good 15 minutes and when the rope was about finished, I gave him a
gentle tug. He did not seem to get it that the rope had no more slack
and that he had to fix the anchor; instead he kept pulling. I hoped he'd
get on the radio to clarify the situation, but Mingma just
continued pulling on the rope. I had Pemba radio him several times
without any luck, so we started to yell to him. But Mingma, 200 m away,
couldn't hear us. Then Dave suggested we let go of the rope, suspecting
Mingma was perhaps in a bad spot, with nowhere to put the anchor. It
made sense so I let go of the belayed rope. Mingma was pulling it slowly
and soon we saw the rope disappear. We had no choice but to keep
climbing without the aid of rope. The sky was lighter now, so we could
see more details of our route. We climbed for another 50m and found the
rope once again--this time the rope was limp.
Mingma Sherpa open the Bottleneck
Mingma found a place to anchor the rope, offering us a secure line for
climbing. Not only had he fixed the rope but also opened the trail for
us. Dave, for some reason, was getting closer to Mingma; later Dave
admitted he hadn't trusted Mingma's ability to properly make the anchor.
It is well known that a bad anchor could spell disaster for those who
use it, so Dave wanted to make sure this wouldn't be the case. Mingma
was encountering deep snow and his progress slowed to a crawl. His
strength at this altitude was a bonus for all of us. I was thinking how
fast I would be if I were to break trail on my own, just like Mingma.
But since I knew there would be lots of disappointed folks down below, I
was grateful Mingma was the one who broke trail. He seemed to wander a
little of a straight line, so sometimes we had to yell to him which
direction to take. The immensity and scale of the mountain makes it all
too easy to stray. He would find an outcropping of rock and place the
anchor there. Since it required a piton and needed to be properly
placed, Dave was just next to him to help place the crucial piton in the
proper crack. Then Mingma would continue the trail breaking with a thin
lifeline behind him. Then another rock, another anchor, and Dave.
Mingma was approaching the upper part of the bottleneck
and instead of going straight up it, he went to the right--hugging the
right-hand side of the gully. Although it made no sense for us
below, Mingma knew better. We could see him swimming in deep snow, making
even less progress. After getting at the top of the bottleneck, he turned
left and disappeared from sight. In another ten minutes we got the
go-ahead to climb on. I decided to wait and let other climbers go ahead,
Dave stayed behind as well. Pemba went first.
Behind me was the "wonder man", Mr. Kim, jumarring on his own, just like
he said he would do. He had a custom-made jumar with a custom-made metal
device that had velcro strapped to his wrist. The combination of these two
devices allowed Mr. Kim to disengage the jumar with a single move--it was
all about a screw and a slotted hole, simple and efficient. He stood next
to me when I asked him if he was OK, he gave me a positive sign with his
distinctively Korean body language. Mr. Kim could not give me a thumbs up
or down, he has no fingers. With the two sherpa ahead, crucial to his
climb, Mr. Kim was just fine, the weather being better than we all could
hope for. All he had to do was change his jumar at the anchor
points. The sherpa help also included taking pictures during the climb,
since Mr. Kim couldn't even do that. That left me thinking of my brother
Claudio's suggestion to have a helmet camera. I had seen a video from such
a camera, filming while on a dirt bike, and the quality was quite
acceptable. "Mr. Kim, "you need one of these toys."
Sergei and Santiago climbed on as well. As I look down, I notice a climber
in a yellow down jacket without any pack, not using oxygen, but too far
away for me to be absolutely sure of his identity. As I waited he came
close enough for me to make a positive identification. It was Gerfried.
Frankly I was surprised to see him this early on. Along with Louis Ruseau
and Sepp, Gerfried started from C3 in the middle of the night, now he was
getting "in the front lines", saying, "Every climb I ever made, I had to
make some sort of breaking trail," but this one was nothing we'd ever
Earlier Updates are below
Summit Push. Part One:
The light of my headlamp is facilitating my upward progress, I just
left C4 alone, Dave is due to start any moment. I am taking it easy
hoping he will catch up soon, the path is straight up and I am about
to make the first turn. The Kazach climbers Max and Vasili have
started ahead with Sergi, the Russian veteran who is on his 4th K2
summit attempt, one more light is visible about 100 m (yards) ahead of
me. The almost full moon is shining on the icy slopes of K2, stars are
in the zillions. The windless night gives me a sense of luck, I'm
Then, it's dark.
Sudden darkness is
something unwelcome, but at 8000 m, is very dramatic. The hard snow
under my boots gives way, I am falling like an eternity, then stop.
The light of my headlamp and the moon and stars are all gone, I try
to move but can't. Panic and an adrenaline rush reach my inner core. I
manage to rip the Oxygen mask off my face. My body is jammed into a
crevasse, the backpack is keeping me hanging. My right leg is jammed
against one of the walls, the left is hanging with nothing under it.
My right elbow is slightly above my head, I am still holding Lakpa's
ice axe in my right hand. My breathing has gotten fast and heavy, I
could feel my heart beating faster. I am scared I will fall even
I've fallen in the
crevasse before but never over my head, now I don't even know how deep
I try to jam my left
knee on the wall but without success, the crack is too narrow. I
pulled on the ice axe but the soft snow above offered no support, in
fact the shaft of the axe came at my head. I reached my arm over the
shaft and have it under my armpit. I rest for unknown number of
seconds, then I pulled on the ice axe. The lights came on. I could
see the myriad of stars. What a wonderful view.
Now that I know I am not
so deep, I could relax for a while. Having my right leg jammed against
the wall was crucial, I pushed on it along with my right arm and came
to see even the Moon. My head now is just above the rim of the
crevasse. The tightness of the crevasse is keeping me from breathing
normally. I try one more time to get out but fell in above my head
again. Once again the Moon is gone. My head is tilted back and I am
once again staring at the stars. Will I fall even more? My physical
energy is draining fast. Still holding the ice axe, I pulled once
again. Success. Once again my head is above.
I could see a climber
about 60 yards ahead, resting.
"Heyyyyy!!" I yelled,
His headlamp turns down
toward me, he could definitely hear me.
"I need help, I am in
The light moves again.
It seems the climber is turning down but then stops, it seems, and
starts to climb again. I turn my head down looking to see if my
partner, Dave, was coming. I could see his head lamp still near the
tent. Dave was too far away to hear me and a good 15 minutes from my
Okay, George, if you
want out of this ice cage, you will have to do it yourself.
The snow and ice that
fell on the back of my neck was melting and I started to feel cold.
I thought I'd rest for a
minute and then try to put all my energy into a bold all-out move to
get out, just like a rock climber puts all his energy into a bold move
in order to overcome a difficult obstacle.
I wished I had the
second ice axe handy but it was strapped on my backpack.
Leg muscles are very
powerful and in mountaineering we use them more than any other
muscles. Still with the right crampon jammed against the wall, I
pushed as hard as I could ever push; it worked. Perhaps filled with
adrenaline but gripped by fear and panic, I wasn't very effective in
getting full power behind my leg. With my left hand freed and my
chest above the crevasse I could at least breathe normally. I swung
my ice axe and tried to use it as the tool it's made for, an anchor,
but the soft snow offered no purpose. I tried again in a different
place, again and again with the same result. No ice, no hard snow and
you are out of luck. I grabbed the middle of the axe shaft and slammed
it through the soft snow. The shaft went deep into the snow, I pulled
back and, success, the technique worked. With only my hips inside the
crevasse, I started to feel life again.
I decided not to stand
up, I was afraid the snow would collapse, so I kept my entire belly on
the snow and crawled and crawled in a swimming motion for about 2
meters (yards). When I thought it was safe I stood up, still breathing
I look back to see what
the fuck was that.
And there it was, my
The luck was in the
shape of the crevasse, it was not vertical but at an 80-degree
angle; looking down on it reminded me of a sherpa saying:
"You fall down on it,
you will go all the way to America."
Well, that would have
been great for me, getting home so fast.
I can't imagine the
death climbers die when they fall in the crevasse. I would prefer an
I regained my climbing
composure quickly and as I kept on climbing I remember the
acclimatization trips and in particular the trips to ABC. Dave would
always come behind me and I always found the soft bridges in the
glacier that would sink me to my hips and fill my boots with icy
water. In one instance I almost fell under the ice of an icy pool of
water, and that was scary. The weight of my body seems always to be
too much for the bridges, and Dave had many laughs at my misfortune.
What is it this year that I found all the holes that existed on K2?
This year is my second
attempt on K2.
Last year's tragedy of
11 deaths largely overshadowed the success of its multiple summits,
and I was glad I was not on the summit push with them. This year is
different, with fewer climbers and lots more snow.
The rock fall last year
was something I would remember for the rest of my days. This time, no
rock falling at all.
Not one single time this year did I have a
close call with rock falling, compared to last year when my group had
several very close calls.
Once I was climbing with Mingma and
Rinjing just below C1, I was climbing above Rinjing when a rock the size
of a football went just inches by his left cheek. Since he only saw
it in the corner of his eye, he didn't even have a chance to be scared.
The second incident happened above C2 when
we were coming down. With Rinjing down climbing above, with me in the
middle and Mingma below us.
We were very tired being pinned down in C2
for two days and two nights by a vicious storm. As we came down, Rinjing
somehow dislodged a big rock that passed me without my even noticing
it. It started rolling, bouncing and gaining speed, the big boulder
landing just one meter from Mingma, crashing on the rocks below and
shattering into a dozen pieces.
With such velocity and weight, Mingma
would never have survived
the impact of what seemed like a
We were lucky, once again.
But that was last year on Mt. K2. This
year the snow and ice kept the loose mountain together. Climbers felt
safe in that regard. I did too.
At the time we learned that the weather on
Aug 4 would be favorable for a summit push, we were readily prepared for
the challenge, although the meeting we had in regard to the teams'
collaboration did not bear much fruit. Along with the majority of
climbers I proposed that we have the two sherpa and perhaps other
climbers in position to help fix at least the bottleneck. The idea was
swiftly rejected by some without taking the time to analyze the benefits
of it. The display of Ego was noticed by most of the climbers and in one
of my previous dispatches I gave a fair warning of "I told you so."
I offered my idea based on serious
consultation with Mingma and Pemba, the two strong Nepali
Sherpa, who assured me they were willing to do it if a couple of
other climbers would assist in carrying the ropes and hand to them. It
was a generous and brave gesture, confident of their strength, fitness,
and skills. They were just as disappointed by the rejection.
I discussed it with Dave and told him that
once in C4 everyone will be out for themselves. The experience taught
me that above 8000m this always happens--subzero temperatures make the
body cold, the mind numb,
judgment impaired, and decisions based on
a natural instinct for survival
will lay the ground for the inevitable.
I always said that the success of Everest
summits is largely based on the help of sherpa. There they fix the ropes
on the entire mountain, ropes that we all jumar on, most of the time,
all the way to the summit.
"If and when I return to
K2 I will bring four sherps with me" said Christian, the
Austrian "sky-walker" and speed climber.
Chris, as we called him, never climbed
with sherpa, but for K2, Chris understood the importance of having them
around. I thought this was more than a compliment, coming from a guy
who is clearly one of the fastest on the mountains.
Chris was also one of the staunch
supporters of the idea of having sherpa fix the bottleneck one day ahead
of the summit day.
At the time of our meeting, the Japanese
team had not decided whether or not they would join us for the summit
push, and the next day one of their members became seriously ill and had
to be airlifted from BC. Assisting the evacuation, the Japanese team
delayed their departure from BC by a day, and knowing their pattern of
climbing we knew they wouldn't be on the summit push with us.
Dave and I left BC just before noon on Aug
1 and made it to C1 relaxed and without any event. But it took us 5-6
hours to get there due to the slushy deep snow and of course a bright
sun made it all the more difficult for us to proceed. Sergei and his
Pakistani partner were there in C1 and resting. Vasili and Max were
to catch up a day later, and did. The two young Kazachs have seen plenty
of K2 before, although none of their earlier K2 attempts were
The next day the mountain was getting more
crowded. Santiago and his Pakistani partner would arrive on the same
day as the Kazachs.
On the Cesen route the International team
along with Gerlinde were aiming for the same Aug 4 summit day.
Occasionally we'd listen to the common radio channel to learn of their
progress. Chris, the BC manager who was in charge of communications for
all K2, was doing an incredible job. He always spoke clearly and with a
crisp understanding of the situation.
"Not too bad for a Canadian" he said when
the climb was over.
Chris was also serving the entire K2 BC
and in several instances he helped patch things up for us when our other
resources were not working, including personally walking to our camp to
pass on information to our base. Chris was a great asset this year.
We thank you so much, Chris.
Our trip to C2 went smoothly, but at the
foot of the House Chimney, Dave decided to
free-climb the technical rock crux. I was ahead of him when I
noticed his climbing moves. Dave did not give me any warning he was
going to try to free-climb the chimney--I guess that's how he is.
I got my SLR Nikon ready and started to
take pictures of his various positions, he would raise his head, smile
or even wave.
I always thought Dave was a smooth rock
climber, his moves always calculated and crafted using his own climbing
style and skills. He touches the rock a lot, feeling it. But now, with
heavy ski gloves and fingers numbed by the chill of Mt. K2, his
tactile skills were severely impaired, so he was wiping the snow off the
rocks and pulled on them higher and higher. To be safe, Dave had his
ascender (jumar) clipped onto one of the fixed ropes and was advancing
it for security. He topped out the chimney without any faulty moves.
"Dude, you just free-climbed the House
Chimney. Congratulations, Mr. House", I said to him, referring to Mr.
House, an American K2 pioneer who eventually discovered the crack
and climbed it. It would become, forever, the way to the top on a route
that was called the Abruzzi Ridge or Spur.
Dave offered a smile in exchange for my
Dave free-climbed the House Chimney
with his Karhu skis strapped on his back pack. Perhaps no one
ever free-climbed the chimney with skis on the back or free-climbed it
since its first ascent.
But skis are intended to do what they are
designed to do, ski on them, and Dave was carrying them to ski K2 from
the top, a feat no one has ever accomplished. In talking with
Christian, who is an acquaintance of Hans Kamerlander, he said of him,
"His skis are still on the shoulder" (C4).
This year two other daring climbers came
to conquer the same feat, but early in the season one of them, Italian
Michele Fait, fell on the Cesen route and was fatally injured. Fait
died perhaps in a matter of seconds, his body was retrieved and flown
out of the mountain.
In the beginning I thought this was bad
luck and hoped Dave would give up the idea.
But Dave was not deterred.
"Dude, you have a good camera, this will
bring sick shots from the mountain, I know it's heavy but I'll help
carry it," Dave told me more
than once. I knew my Nikon SLR was
capable of getting perhaps the best pictures on the mountain but its
weight was a serious deterrent.
However it was the only camera I had
with me, so I had no choice but to take it with me as high as I would
In C2 we tried to be as comfortable as
possible, we eat and stay hydrated. The night was calm and we rested
The night sky is filled with heavenly
lights of the obvious
Milky Way stream, with its myriad of stars, beacons across the
sky. The display of light was magical. Away from city lights the
starry night sky becomes as inspiring as it was for the Egyptian
pharaohs when they decided to build the pyramids.
We were however in a less hospitable place
to be much inspired by this beautiful display of light. I look only for
signs of weather.
The cloudless sky was a good sign that we
may get a break and climb the next day without tiring in high winds or
When I departed C2, and in the first hour
into the climb, I was already tiring. Then slowly the body adjusted
itself to the grueling effort and higher altitude. I finally got my
rhythm and climb to C3 without any problem.
sat right next to a large crevasse, so being careful not to
wander around was a must.
( Dave climbing just
The Kazachs had an early start and I was
grateful the trail was broken for me. Stepping onto a broken trail is
a huge advantage. Being first, in front, is very tiring. But the two
young men were not deterred. They would get a break from time to time
waiting for Sergei, the Russian K2 veteran, and when he got close by,
they would continue their march.
The two sherpa, Mingma and Pemba were also
ahead. The almost featureless landscape to C4 was never ending. I had
not gotten this far on K2 before, and the sherpa were saying it would
only take 2.5 to 3 hours to C4. The snow was very deep and it seemed to
take an eternity til we reached a big steep wall guarded by a very long
Santiago's climbing partner)
The rope was fixed on the wall but that
was days before. Since Mingma and Pemba were first, Pemba fixed that
rope, and because he was the only one who ventured that high on the
Abruzzi Spur, he was ahead trying to lead us to the shoulder. I slow
down when I notice there was a problem. The sherpa were wandering
around but not upwards. They went right, then the middle, then left.
On the far left a ramp offered a way over
the crevasse but it was too far off the route that Pemba had climbed
before as well as nearly vertical blue ice. At one point Mingma almost
fell into the crevasse. He began to complain that the pressure of the
rope after the fall must have injured his chest.
There was no other choice now but to try
the ramp on the far left. Pemba took his ice axes, screws and a rope
provided by the Kazachs. Like a spider spinning his web, Pemba climbed,
leaving the yellow tether line of rope behind him. He climbed to the top
of the wall and moved the existing rope anchor, facilitating our climb.
We were stuck for almost two hours, a mere 30 minutes from C4. Again
the sherpa with their strength and skills
facilitate our upward progress.
When I got to C4, Dave was waiting for me
with his camera ready.
"Camp 4, buddy," he exclaimed laughing.
Not knowing what to expect, arriving in C4
is very dramatic. The last pitch is between 65-70 degrees and you
can't see the camp until your head is literally above the top of the
steep wall. Then, there it is, another mountain
I thought, the entire pyramid with its
infamous bottleneck at the foot of it, the traverse and then the
summit dull ridge with its very prized crown summit. I thrust my ice
axe once more, pull up and drop on my back, exhausted, Dave's camera was
filming my pitiful state of exhaustion. He was laughing at the dramatic
way I was displaying my state of fatigue.
I was not faking anything.
I was totally spent.
I lie down in the snow and stare at the
cloudless sky. I just did not want to see this "other mountain" I'm
supposed to climb the next day, in the dark.
It took me several minutes to get my
breathing normal again, then, I look again.
"My God, Dave, this is another mountain.
I noticed Mingma and Pemba busy preparing
the platform for our temporary shelter, they'll use our tent along with
Mr. Kim, the Korean wonder man, the man without hands, lost in a
climbing accident on Denali.
An occasional cloud makes the "other
mountain" ahead disappear. I wanted to see the details of the
bottleneck, the immensity of its scale made me judge incorrectly
its steepness and difficulty. But the bottleneck was the part that
looked easy, above it was the not less infamous "traverse" with the
killer towers of the serac that collapsed last year while climbers were
under it. First it broke the ropes the climbers had fixed for a safe
descent and once more, taking several climbers with its boulders down
into the abyss. The description given by eye witnesses was too graphic
for publication. I was going to stand under this same gigantic serac
and I was going to take my own chances, just like they did last year.
(Upper part of "the
bottleneck", "the traverse" and "the serac" and a dark
Maybe I was hoping the weather would not
be so hot, for obvious reasons. The top part of the mountain looked
smooth, so I thought that may be a good thing, having easy ground at the
end of the upward journey will help preserve the energy for descent.
I turned my attention to the routine,
getting into the camp and ready for the chores of high camp, hydrate,
High altitude food never appealed to me,
so I asked Munna, our cook, to have several plastic bags filled with
chicken and mutton packed. The bags were frozen, so all we had to do
was immerse them into hot water, then enjoy. We were on the last
portion, implying that one attempt will be possible.
The two sherpa and Mr. Kim found our food
innovative and very tasty, I remember Pemba would hand feed Mr. Kim
since he had no hands to help himself, like a chick bird he'd open his
mouth and, food delivered. The nutritious food would offer a delayed
boost of extra energy, the slower digestion would enable us to keep the
precious nutrients in our bellies longer.
The sun was getting closer to setting and
the display of light, along with the shadow of the summit pyramid
projected to the end of my visible horizon, it
offer a photo-op I can't resist. Fainted beacons of the rainbow's
color spectrum. The highest peaks and in particular the neighboring
Broad Peak, G I, G II and G IV were lit in a warm evening sun glowing
like a jewel that they are.
pyramid shadow and glowing giants)
None of the Cesen route
climbers arrived yet, and it was
getting toward the sunset when Gerlinde
arrived. Later two more climbers made their way into camp.
I see the look on their faces,
perhaps just like mine only 2.5 hours before.
"Dave, they don't look very
enthusiastic," I lament to Dave.
They are f**ked, is too late",
The tired climbers pitched
their tents and started to make water. We will listen to the
radio and learn that they'll start between 11 PM and 2 AM.
In consultation with Mingma we decided that perhaps between
12 and 1 AM will be our time of departure. But it won't
be until 2 AM that we begin our quest, the summit.
At this altitude the plans
are not always on schedule. Just to get the boots on takes a
ridiculous 15 minutes. Everything and every climber is in
slow motion at this altitude. Trying to rush things will
only bring rapid breathing that eventually will slow us
down or even stop a climber from proceeding upwards. Oxygen
will help, of course, its benefits are known to
be a fact of science but is disapproved of by some
climbers who want to be "purists". I, too, adopted this
purist approach at one time, and I admire those who climb
oxygen-less. But after having trouble remembering details of
my own oxygen-less ascent of Mt. Everest and being told by
my family that the memory I used to have is no longer there,
I began worrying of the possibility of a self-inflicted,
premature Alzheimer's. With two young children, I started to
wonder if I would some day be able to walk my daughters to
their weddings or would they be taking me by the hand every
day, even to the kitchen. Once the brain cells are lost,
they are gone for good. So I decided a long time ago to use
Oxygen in the saw-called "death zone".
Here I reached C4
without Oxygen, but as Vierstus put it: "Ascent is
voluntary, but descent is mandatory."