K2: Ericsson Skis from 7800 Meters
With the summit of K2 rising above us so close we feel like we could have touched it, Frippe locked into his skis and dropped into the massive 45-degree face that stretches from The Shoulder at 8000m to below Camp 3 at 7100m. This big, beautiful face radiates down upon base camp and all the way to Concordia making every skier in the area fantasize about arcing fast steep turns across it. Of course, if it were that easy we’d have all seen it in the latest TGR film, but simply putting your boots on at this altitude makes you gasp for air and making two or three turns with a heavy pack would bring most hardcores to tears. I’m here to tell you that after three long, hard days of climbing Fredrik Ericsson earned every one of those awe-inspiring turns.
So before we go any further I should start by thanking our good friend, The Ripper Dave Schipper, for posting our progress live from the mountain. We hope he’ll still have the patience left to deal with our frantic, confused phone calls during one more summit push.
So yeah, assuming you’ve been following along you’ll know we left base camp a few days earlier based on a weather forecast from an acknowledged expert in Austria who pointed us to a sliver of a window on the 27th. The group that charged out of BC on the 24th could hardly have been stronger or more experienced. Out front was Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, an Austrian whose friendly smile and sisterly spirit hides her astonishing strength in the mountains. This is her fourth expedition to K2 and after summiting Everest this spring without oxygen, if successful, will make her the third woman to summit all 14 of the world’s 8000-meter peaks and more importantly, the first to climb them all without oxygen. Huge respect.
Right behind Gerlinde was Fabrizio Zangrilli, a professional climber and guide for one of the two commercial expeditions attempting K2 this year. On his sixth expedition–four on the Cesen Route–perhaps no one has more experience on this side of the mountain than Fabrizio.
Of course, Fredrik, The Super Swede, was right up front with Gerlinde and Fabrizio, swapping leads and breaking trail. Just keeping up with those two is a huge feat in itself but to do it while carrying skis and wearing ski boots is a whole other level.
With a perpetual smile on his face, Ralf Duimovits, a highly accomplished German guide and Gerlinde’s life partner, first climbed K2 in 1994. If he summits again he’ll be the fifth person to have ever climbed K2 twice.
Kinga Baranowska arrived with the K2 and Broad Peak Polish Expedition 2010 and hopes to make K2 her eighth 8000-meter summit.
And, me, a bit slower than a lot of climbers but a little faster than most freelance writers. Did I mention devilishly handsome and passively courageous?
So if you’ve kept up with past episodes you’ll know that we battled high winds and driving snow that blasted us in the face as we moved up the mountain from Base Camp to C2. From C2 to C3 was more of the same although with the benefit that the wind had scoured the snow from the ridge making the surface hard-packed, easy walking.
In the meantime, over on The Abruzzi Ridge, the crew that had planned to meet us on The Shoulder for a combined summit push had arrived at their C2 to find all but one of their tents either blown away or shredded. The Italians, Giuseppe and Sergio, decided to descend while nine other climbers bivvied below House’s Chimney in three tents in what sounds like truly miserable conditions.
Back on the Cesen, Frippe and I were super excited about moving from C3 to C4–a day that would take us from 7100m (23, 294 ft) to 8000m (26, 247 ft) in one long day. To climb that much at that high altitude we reasoned the route must go straight up with no side variations and be fairly straightforward climbing. Gerlinde and Ralf told us to expect eight hours. I knew that with this crew it would be anything but leisurely and began to worry about the extra 140 meters (459 ft) of rope and gear in my pack for fixing The Bottleneck higher up.
Sure enough, the next morning as we were breaking down our tent when Gerlinde and Ralf blew past as if they were shot from a cannon. We dropped in behind them with Fabrizio and Kinga not far behind.
The climbing turned out to be sustained 45-degree climbing over snow and loose rock with old, badly damaged fixed ropes and sketchy anchors that kept everyone honest. Straight out of the gate I was feeling a high-gravity day and passed our tent to Frippe who added it to his already heavy pack. I also passed 60 meters of rope to Fabrizio who gave it back three pitches later after I had eaten a bit and was feeling stronger–lifesaver. The wind still blew like crazy but the sun came out for the first time in several days which made everyone feel a whole lot better. Until it went down.
From the back of the line Fabrizio shouted over the wind for a halt. “It’s still 250 meters (820 ft) to The Shoulder and it’s going to be dark soon.”
Our summit push that would ideally have started at 10:00 or 11:00 that night had relied on us reaching The Shoulder early enough to pitch our tents, brew up and rest for a few hours before starting for the summit. Clearly, that dog wouldn’t be huntin’. And since there was no place to pitch tents on the rocky face we were climbing, and going down was not an option, the decision was made to continue.
An hour and a half later, just as it got completely dark, we all pulled up to a small shelf in the face about 100 meters (328 ft) below The Shoulder and started hacking tent platforms out of the ice. The wind that was forecast to have dropped still screamed and to be quite honest, after 12 hours of climbing I was completely wasted and happy not to hear any discussion about a summit push that night. However, I know the Super Swede would have gone for it if any of our crew had suggested it. As it were, our window never really materialized and with snow, wind and limited viz forecast for the next few days Frippe had to settle for an epic ski descent of close to 3000 meters (9842 ft). Darn the luck.
We’re back in BC now sitting out bad weather days that have kept us from charging batteries and updating the blog. On his way down Frippe found that the wind and snow had changed conditions dramatically since his last descent from C3 less than two weeks ago. This makes us wonder if the route will hold until we can get back up again. If not, Frippe’s ultimate goal of skiing from the summit of K2 to base camp will not be possible and all our efforts over the past two months will have been for nothing. However, the snow in the forecast will surely make a difference and if we can just get lucky with a window sooner rather than later…
But for now, we wait. August is notoriously unkind to K2 climbers and all we can do is hope for the best and be patient. Not easy. The weather in northern Pakistan this summer has been the worst in 20 years with torrential rainfall killing more than 300 people and hundreds of thousands losing land and property.
The Koreans have packed up and left as have Giuseppe, Sergio and the guy who never said anything. On the other hand, two strong Kazakhs have just arrived, already acclimatized from climbing in the Tien Shan range, and we’re hoping they’ll be a strong addition to our team. The two Americans, Dave and Adam, have yet to spend a night in C3 so are still a day behind the current summit group. The Poles have flights scheduled for the 17th and will need a window soon if they want to make it. Frippe and I are intent on staying until we get the job done but we’re down to our last jar of Nutella. The two of us can suffer through a lot but running out of Nutella could just spell disaster.
To learn more of Fredrik Ericsson’s past expeditions and about his quest to ski the world’s three highest mountains check out www.FredrikEricsson.com.