K2: Courting Laila

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The courtship has begun. Yesterday we made a reconnaissance mission up the Gondogoro glacier to catch a glimpse of the lovely face of Laila Peak. It was a perfect day–blazing sun, not a breath of wind, not a cloud in the sky. Frippe and I were the first people to be this far up the glacier this season and there wasn’t another soul in the entire valley, not a footprint, not a sound. Nothing but snow and sky and rock and shadows. Heaven on Earth.

As we moved up the glacier, Laila’s stunning northwest face slowly came into view, a steep, snow-covered pyramid descending 1,000 meters (4,921 feet) at a pitch-perfect 45-50 degrees before it cliffs out in a 500-meter (1,640 feet) rock band with a narrow escape skier’s left beneath a serac. She’s absolutely breathtaking.

Now, climbers tend to approach mountains in a lot of different ways. Some see them as an opponent or adversary that must be attacked and defeated. I, on the other hand, have always looked upon my relationship with a mountain as more of a courtship. I find a peak desirable and I want to find out what she’s all about, learn what’s beneath her superficial beauty, treat her with the utmost respect, let her reveal her secrets when and as she wants. And so it is with Laila.

We found a big flat rock smack in the middle of the glacier and settled in. We ate some lunch, took some photos, had a little siesta, took some more photos, basked in the beauty of Laila, made a plan.

In regard to both mountains and women, the straightforward approach certainly has its merits. However, with Laila, the seracs that, at climber’s right of the rock band, are the equivalent of the don’t-even-think-about-it look from an attractive woman in a bar that’s waiting for someone who is clearly not you. They’d be OK for Frippe to make a couple of quick turns beneath on his ski descent but to make an approach beneath them would be to open yourself to almost certain humiliation and potential bodily harm.

No, our idea was to take a more indirect approach. We’d climb in from the west, set up a camp, descend, then wait for a weather window. It would take a bit more time and effort but Laila is worth it.

So we headed out from base camp around 8:00 a.m. and maneuvered our way through a short, easy rock band to reach a couple of nice snow bowls. The snow was perfect for hiking and by noon we were at 5,140 meters (16,863 feet) on a ridge leading to the west of Laila.

“Hi there. You remember Fredrik from 2005, right? Well, he’s just said so many nice things about you, and since we were in the neighborhood we just had to stop by and see you. And yes, all those things he’s said about you are true. Here we are surrounded by all these stunning faces yet you really do stand out. But enough of that, it’s a lovely weekend and the band is rockin’. How about a spin ‘round the dance floor? C’mon, it’ll put a smile on your face, and if it doesn’t, then just give us the sign and we’ll leave you alone. Promise.” Or maybe not that cheesy, but, y’know, something like that.

We began to shovel a tent platform. Light clouds skittered in from the south, and about the time we got the tent up it started snowing.

We ducked into our shelter–a confusion of down, elbows, and gear–and kicked back as the rest of the day alternated between snow, sun, and those rare magical moments when you are blessed with both. Laila was acting like the girl who surrounds herself with an impenetrable wall of friends but every now and then looks over and smiles right at you. Not a “yes,” but not a “no” either. More of an “I might be interested, but, you know, I’m not that easy. But after all, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

So after a restless night at our first camp over 5,000 meters (16,404 feet), we left the tent and descended back to base camp for a few well-needed rest days. Despite being surrounded by dozens of gorgeous faces glistening in the sun, tempting us with big, open bowls and steep couloirs, our thoughts are only of Laila.

–Trey Cook

For more photos of K2, check out climber Fabrizio Zangrilli's gallery.

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