At the end of July, during a rare instance of good weather, an estimated 45 people reached the summit of Pakistan’s K2. This is an unusually high number on a mountain where one in four people who attempt the climb die. A Spanish climber descending from the summit was this season’s sole casualty.
Though this year seemed like a summit free-for-all, climbers are quick to caution those who might think K2 is the next Everest. The combination of a great forecast, skilled climbers, and a bit of luck is to thank for the season’s successes.
This year a favorable 10-day forecast rolled in around July 22nd and triggered a wave of summits over the weekend of the 25th.
“The weather this season was excellent for this part of Pakistan,” said Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering. “We got lucky with the weather and the route conditions. Sometimes there is too much snow and it is too arduous to break trail.”
K2, 785 feet shorter than Everest, may be the world’s second-tallest mountain, but it’s regarded as more deadly. The weather is volatile and severe, and the climbing more technical. Only some 376 people have ever reached the summit of K2 and 84 have died trying. The number of Everest summits is 18 times that, at more than 6,000.
The hazards of K2 are many, and end up reading like a plan to beat the last level of a video game: Avoid falling rocks and soft snow avalanches on the way up, scale the Black Pyramid to refuel at Camp 3, traverse the notorious Bottleneck above Camp 4, don’t fall off the side of the mountain and you’ll reach the magical summit.
From base camp late last month, Madison confirmed that his team had reached the mountain’s 28,205-foot summit, and more importantly, made it back down.
Other successful groups included the first ever Pakistani team expedition and a three-woman team from Nepal climbing to raise awareness for climate change and to promote tourism in their home country.
This is good news both for the climbing community and for Nepal, a country shaken by a recent landslide and the April avalanche on Everest that killed 16 Sherpas, many from a string of towns in one small area, the Thame Valley. The three Sherpas that climbed with Madison—Kami Rita, Kami Tshering, and Fur Kancha—are all from that valley.
“The whole climb was extremely difficult. You have to be on your game 100% and can’t make any mistakes,” said Madison, noting that climbers also need to be totally self-sufficient. “On Everest a helicopter can rescue you anytime up to 7,800 meters. On K2 there are really no helis, except from base camp, and they’re very complicated and expensive.”
According to climber Alan Arnette, it’s best to acknowledge the danger of the mountain, but avoid fixating on it. During the traverse of the Bottleneck just below the summit, the front two inches of Arnette’s crampons were his only point of contact with the mountain—the rest of his boots were hanging off the edge as he gripped a rope. “That was the point during the climb that I thought, ‘How am I going to climb down?'”
Madison’s team included two other American climbers, Matthew Du Puy, and Arnette. On July 27th at 8:00 a.m. local time they became the 16th, 17th, and 18th Americans to stand on top of K2, and Arnette, at 58, became the oldest American to summit. Arnette had also been climbing to raise awareness and money for Alzheimer's research, the disease that claimed his mother, Ida, in 2009.
“We pretty much climbed as a little pod the entire time,” said Arnette from his home in Fort Collins, Colorado. “There was not one moment where we had to wait on the way up or down. In Everest terms that’s unheard of.”
He summarized the feat that the team had just conquered succinctly: “K2 starts steep and ends steep. It’s unrelenting.”
And the trek just to get to K2 doesn’t offer climbers a break either. Teams fly from around the globe to Islamabad, Pakistan and cross their fingers for a flight to Skardu. If they can’t get on one, then it’s a two-day bus ride to travel the 395 miles. From Skardu, it’s on to the “end of the road” in Askole to hire porters.
Madison hired more than 70 porters to haul gear and supplies for the 75-mile, 5-day trek over the rock and ice of the Baltoro Glacier.
“The trek to K2 is about twice as long as the Everest trek, and there are no villages or lodges like in Nepal,” said Madison, “It's tough trekking.”
And each porter needs their own porter to carry a personal food supply and gear. It took nearly 150 people to equip a six-man expedition. Since everything needs to be carried into base camp you just can’t afford to run out of supplies, said Madison.
Dawa Yangzum, part of the Nepali expedition, said that the trip across the glacier and the Karakoram highway was arduous. It took a week to reach base camp.
“It was very tiring, and it’s a very dangerous road,” said the 24-year-old. “And we drove through Taliban areas. It was scary.”
The long journey makes getting to camp even more of a relief. And while base camp may not be the party that it is on Everest, the Madison Mountaineering camp was comfortable enough.
“We are definitely the 'high end' camp here,” said Madison. “And I don't mind other climbers stopping by to surf our wifi, or watch a movie on our big screen.”
The movie of choice? Ironically, Vertical Limit (a drama, yes, but one where everything goes wrong on K2).
Expeditions plan to spend around 45 days at base camp acclimating, setting up their high camps, plotting their route, and waiting for a good weather window to make a summit bid.
Roughly 32 climbers went for the summit the night of July 25 in order to reach the top the following afternoon. Since they were the first groups to go all the way up, a fair amount of lines still needed to be fixed, which made for a very long summit day.
The Nepali expedition—Yangzum, Maya Sherpa, and Pasang Lhamu—reached the top at 2:30 p.m. on the 26th, hanging around for half an hour to take pictures and wait for friends. According to Yangzum, the group chose K2 precisely because of the challenge it posed.
“We call it the ‘mountain of all mountains’,” said Yangzum, whose previous summits include Everest and Ama Dablam. “It’s the most challenging 8,000-meter peak in the world.”
Madison’s group waited until that evening around 10:30 p.m. to head to the top, and as a result, had very little route fixing to do, making for a speedier ascent.
The team was joined by just one other climber at the top, and otherwise had the summit all to themselves, spending about 45 minutes soaking it in.
“It’s a glorious morning, hardly any wind, views in every direction for 360 degrees,” Madison wrote on his blog. “Some clouds building on the horizon, but just a spectacular day.”
After losing three Sherpas in the Everest avalanche and two friends on Rainier in May, Madison had something to smile about.
“We had a good time up there,” said Madison, who was en route to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro.
And after that?
“Maybe Cho Oyu.”