Among the countless peaks around the world that have yet to be skied, one stands alone in prestige and allure: the 28,251-foot K2. The reasons it remains unskied are many—fatal exposure on much of the route, notoriously harsh weather, an oxygen shortage—but they do not include a lack of interest.
Over the past 25 years, a handful of the most accomplished steep skiers in history have tried to notch the first descent of K2—skiing off the summit and continuing uninterrupted as far as conditions allow back to base camp. All have failed. At least two, close friends and ski partners Michele Fait of Italy and Fredrik Ericsson of Sweden, died during their attempts. Fait fell while skiing low on the peak in 2009, and Ericsson fell near the summit during his ascent in 2010.
In recent weeks, two more aspirants began trekking into the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan to try to notch the historic first descent, which could happen anytime from mid-July through early August. One is Davo Karnicar, a 54-year-old father of seven from Slovenia who made the only complete ski descent of Mount Everest in October 2000, five years after he completed the first full descent of Annapurna with his younger brother, Drejc. The other is 29-year-old Andrzej Bargiel of Poland, who brings an impressive résumé of his own, having skied Shishapangma in 2013, Manaslu in 2014, and Broad Peak in 2015, the first complete descent of that mountain.
Though the two men do not know each other—and each is organizing his own expedition and support teams—their simultaneous attempts set the stage for a month of two-plankin’ intrigue unlike any in K2’s history.
Karnicar first attempted to ski K2 in 1993. But when a storm blew away his unanchored skis at 25,900 feet, he aborted his climb despite still feeling strong enough to summit. He has thought about the peak ever since, waiting for someone to ski it, wondering if he should return. Before he left for Pakistan, Karnicar said he wants to ski K2 for everyone who has failed, especially those who perished. “Each try to ski, each experience on the mountain, because of them I’m much closer,” he said. “We don’t know each other, but we are like one group with the same wish.”
Bargiel, meanwhile, observed K2 from Broad Peak in 2015 and says that he views it as “a next step” in his ski career, which began with skimo races in Poland and advanced to 8,000-meter peak expeditions starting in 2012. Both he and Karnicar dismiss any notion that they will compete for the first descent. “Safety is number one, and I believe we’re going to work together instead of everyone on his own,” Bargiel says. “Davo is very experienced, and I’m really looking forward to talk with him and share opinion on how to approach K2.”
Among those who have made past attempts, Hans Kammerlander may have come the closest to skiing K2, in 2001. The brash Italian claimed to have skied off the summit for a few hundred feet before witnessing a Korean climber fall to his death in fading light, at which point he took off his skis and downclimbed the rest of the route. (Though some doubt his claim.) Two of the most recent attempts, by Connecticut-born ski patroller Dave Watson, in 2009, and German mountain guide Luis Stitzinger, in 2011, came tantalizingly close in their own rights. Watson was in position to summit with a handful of other climbers, but after ascending just 150 vertical feet in four hours due to deep snow, the group turned around. Watson skied the infamous Bottleneck—the first person on record to do so—from about 700 feet below the summit.
“Every turn was a crux,” Watson recalls. “I would throw a turn and be skidding to a stop, and while I was skidding to a stop, I’d feel the power leaving my body. I had black dots swirling around in my eyes, and I was hyperventilating, trying to catch my breath.”
Stitzinger also turned around shy of the summit due to bad weather. He skied from 26,400 feet and continued almost without interruption to the Abruzzi Glacier, downclimbing only a 700-foot section of steep ice and rock near Camp 3. Both Watson and Stitzinger believe the Cesen Route, which follows a precipitous south-southeast ridge from the Shoulder down, on the peak’s south side, allows for the best chance at an uninterrupted ski descent. Karnicar intends to follow that line, while Bargiel says he may combine it with portions of the nearby Polish Route, an über-exposed line on the south face, depending upon snow coverage. The Cesen includes a rock band just above Camp 2 that could require a detour through some couloirs that Stitzinger estimates are 55 degrees.
Karnicar, whose primary sponsor is the Slovenian shopping-mall conglomerate Tus, will have a small team, including one friend to help fix ropes to Camp 3 and four Pakistani high-altitude porters, three of whom have summited K2. Bargiel’s team includes three climbing partners and a video production crew, with much of his financial support coming from the Polish Mercedes dealership Sobieslaw Zasada.
As with any major expedition, optimism reigns in advance of the men’s attempts. But it is also tinged with caution—from the skiiers, as well as those who grasp the task at hand.
“I hope they will not risk too much,” Stitzinger says. “K2 really is a maneater.”