K2: Frostbite and Ski Lines
It's 8:00 a.m., -20 F, and the winds are gusting over 60 kph (37 mph). Despite my 8,000-meter down jacket and neoprene facemask, I’m chilled to the bone and my hands are blocks of ice. I need to get moving. Frippe locks into his skis and edges confidently into the maelstrom, dropping straight into unexplored terrain. I’ll admit right here and now that I’m terrified for him.
We’d trudged outta camp two days earlier, spurred by a meager window with two days of sun, punctuated by a day of snow, followed by another sunny day. OK, more of a peephole than a window, but our camp supplies still hadn’t shown up and we were sick of eating leftover trekking food over a box in a borrowed cook tent. In addition, our previous forecasts had been just a hair more reliable than reading tea leaves, and the tea, like the rest of our BC supplies, was starting to dry up. Our days were numbered so our plan was to gun straight to C2. It would be a long day, but the Super Swede is on point like I’ve never seen before, and I was feeling strong enough to hang tight, drafting in his boot pack.
We drifted out of BC at around 6 a.m. beneath a cloudy sky with a few promising blue patches, and within a couple of hours we were down to base layers, and I was wishing I hadn’t left my lip cheese in my softshell pants when I’d made the switch to a stretch Gore-Tex pro shell. I’m convinced those softshells are the best thing to happen to mountaineering since Pop Tarts, but I’d made the switch to Gore-Tex in anticipation of extreme winds over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet)–a decision I would not regret.
On this, our third trip, we burned an hour off our original time to C1. In the five hours it took us to climb 650 meters (2,132 feet) to C1, the wind had begun to blow a hoolie. We pulled our hoods up and tiptoed through the next five hours, traversing a snow-covered rock band before entering the steep couloir leading to C2. This is the couloir that came close to taking me out in 2007 with a massive slide, wet as cement, that ripped through minutes before I was ready to unclip and start the long, slow grind up. It’s filled with nothing but dark, festering mojo for me, and it takes every ounce of grit I have in my skinny west Texas body to turn the corner and step into that thing every time I hit it. The upside is that the minute I’m at the top, it's a high point that I look forward to each time with unbridled enthusiasm. It’s hard to explain, but fear, and the ability to move through it, is a twisted but elemental part of the climbing equation for a lot of folk. Maybe it’s the same reason people go to haunted houses. Personally, I can’t go near those things. They scare the hell out of me.
The next morning at C2, the blowing snow made us question our plan to move up to C3, but knowing nobody ever gets anywhere by kicking back in their eiderdown bags, we pulled on our 8,000-meter down jackets, broke camp, and headed up knowing that if things got worse we could either dig in or turn tail and run. Sure enough, the higher we headed up the snowy rock ridge the more the wind and blowing snow increased. After about seven hours of relentless pummeling I have to admit that I was beginning to lose sight of the joy, and just as I was about to ask for the sat phone so that I could call my mama to come pick me up and get me the hell out of there we spotted a big black wall through a break in the clouds that indicated ground zero for Camp 3. I pulled on my face mask and we pushed through the screaming wind, but every step we took closer to the wall, it seemed to move further into the racing clouds. Hard ice ridgelines, waist-deep powder, rock and ice graveyards with no shelter whatsoever–fun, fun, fun.
We finally crawled to the base of the tower ten hours after leaving C2 and were, let’s say, ever-so-slightly disappointed not to find an even halfway decent tent platform. The ragged remains of shredded tents frozen on top of other shredded tents littered the base of the wall and made the place feel like some kind of post-apocalyptic campground. All that was missing was a zombie manager to assign us a spot especially reserved for fleshy westerners. But no such host appeared and, dog tired, we selected the least worst spot and started hacking away at the ice, and within an hour we were crowding inside our tiny tent with two legs hanging in the air and plenty of space inside for at least 1.5 average-size pre-teens. On the other hand, it was just so nice to be out of the wind that we didn’t care. We’d spend the night there and move the tent up to a better location when we reccied the route up to C4 on the next day.
However, our nightly radio call with Abbas, adventure chef and prince of the Baltoro, told us differently. The most recent weather report circulating around base camp claimed that our little one day of snowfall had been upgraded into a huge storm moving in the next afternoon and lasting through the next several days. We had desperately wanted two nights here at 7,000 meters (22,966 feet) for our acclimatization and the chance to scout what would be a long, heavy push to Camp 4 at 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) on The Shoulder. However, a storm at 7,000 meters is nothing to take lightly so we both agreed to gather our toys and run for home.
The next morning saw severe cold and high winds but okay visibility that gradually diminished as we broke down the tent. Although the clouds were blowing in and visibility was dropping, Frippe was determined to scout the ridge below C3 for a passage. I was less than enthusiastic. My hands were blocks of ice from breaking camp, and even though I had my 8,000-meter down jacket on I was freezing. All I could think of was getting out of there. Frippe threw his skis down, locked in, and yelled something to me across the wind about meeting me below. I watched my partner disappear into the blowing clouds at 7,000 meters into unknown terrain and thought to myself, OK, now we’re pushing it. This is what skiing K2 is all about. We’d been totally alone on this route since the first day we’d set foot on it. If anything went wrong, our options would be extremely limited. My comfort was in knowing the Super Swede was rock solid in the mountains and his decisions erred to the conservative. Or at least as conservative as a person who wants to ski the world’s baddest 8,000-meter peak can get.
Half an hour later, I was rappelling over blue ice littered with rocks when I heard a voice and looked over to see Frippe standing on the ridgeline to my left. “Can I get through here?” he shouted across the wind.
“Yeah, a couple of steps across the rocks and you’re back on snow.”
Three minutes later and the first of three cruxes had been solved. It was an incredibly exciting moment for us and a big step in the realization of the dream to ski K2. But due to the growing storm the celebration would have to wait.
A nice surprise was awaiting our return to base camp. Our waylaid supplies had shown up, and while we were gone Abbas had set up our mess tent, kitchen tent, and toilet tent, all comparative luxuries when you’re sitting out hurricane-force winds as we’re doing now. I’m nursing three frostbitten fingers and Frippe is thinking the thin line of snow he had to downclimb below C2 has enough snow in it to ski. The Polish are planning to head up the Cesen Route tomorrow, which means we’ll no longer be alone on the route, and Gerlinde and Ralf are thinking they’ll head up the day after. Although it’s been nice to have the route to ourselves, it will be reassuring to know that we’ll now have some backup if things go sideways.
Over on the Abruzzi, the Koreans have sent their high-altitude porters home, causing a minor political upheaval in base camp. They will now rely on George’s Sherpas to fix lines, set camps, and haul their oxygen bottles up the route. They, along with the Italians and Laila from Iran, all hope to reach C2 when the storm clears. As for us, we’ll take a well-needed break, see which direction this frostbite goes, and look for a four-day window that will allow us to charge up to C4 and hopefully make a summit attempt. Waiting, watching, fueling up, futzing with electronics…oh, the joys of base camp.
To learn more of Fredrik Ericsson’s past expeditions and his quest to ski the world’s three highest mountains, check out FredrikEricsson.com.