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."