K2: Summit Ski in Jeopardy?
Frippe’s voice over radio static: “I’m leaving Camp 2 now. I’ll leave the radio on. Watch for me.”
From the avalanche plain at the bottom of the route I looked through the 20x lens of the video camera, straining to pick up any sort of movement, even a ridgeline feature through the blowing clouds. Nothing but the occasional glimpse of dark rock on flat white, but never a clear view of the steep rock band that Frippe was trying to find his way through. The same rock band that he’d downclimbed a week earlier, emerging with the conviction that the snow was just deep enough between the tightly spaced rocks to ski through.
But a lot had changed since his last trip and there was no guarantee the snowpack was the same. Even worse, the clouds and wind had blown in overnight, ending a four-day run of sunny skies, obscuring the route, and changing the snow conditions from soft to wildly variable. An error in judgment at this point could easily result in a 1,000-meter tomahawk. The avalanche plain I was parked up on certainly wasn’t the best place to be, but I’d rather be there than in Frippe’s boots, that’s for sure.
Three days earlier, Frippe had headed back up the route, climbing solo while I hung back at BC to see whether my frostbitten fingers decided to either heal up or fall off. After I thawed them out, the dull gray skin halfway to the first knuckle on the last three fingers of my right hand looked as though it could go either way. Luckily there was no shortage of expert opinion around base camp.
The Polish doctor who thawed me out prescribed 250 mg of aspirin and an hour in the Gamow bag, a compression chamber that simulates the air pressure and regenerative effects of lower–2,103 meters (6,899 feet) to be precise–altitude.
To be honest, I think the Gamow exercise was more for the good doctor’s entertainment than for my own treatment, but at that point I was open to just about anything that didn’t require scalpels or bone saws.
Fabrizio and Chris from Field Tours happened to be visiting from Broad Peak, and, knowing the two carry a load of alpine experience, I showed them the hand and asked what they’d do if it was attached to the end of their own arm.
“First, chopper out.”
“What? You mean to, like, Skardu?”
“No. I mean to, like, home.”
“Hmmm…I think I’ll give ‘em a day or two and see.”
“Your fingers, man, but if you want to stay then hit the antibiotics. Amoxicillin if you’ve got it. Cipro will work, but what you really want is a ‘cillin.”
Right, then. One five-day course of Amoxicillin coming up.
Of course, it wasn’t long before word spread through the porter underground. Muna, Armand and Abbas’s cousin, was the first to stop 'round.
“No. No problems there. Problem with frozen fingers. Frostbite.”
“Pee pee on fingers.”
Now I don’t know about most of you out there, but I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding peeing on my fingers for most of my 48 years, and while I was open to suggestions on anything that would get me back up the mountain, I thought I might have to draw the line at this one. Unfortunately, our “rest” area happened to be in full view of the porters’ peanut gallery, and the first time I returned without a dripping hand it was made known to me that this was not an option. There would be a post-relief inspection following all future ablutions.
Still looking for solid advice, I called Frippe’s friend, Sven Christjar, a Norwegian physician and mountain guide based in Hemsedal, Norway.
“Good. Without seeing it, it’s impossible for me to say for sure but it sounds like Level 1 frostbite, not too severe. Take 300mg of aspirin a day, clean, bandage, and keep warm. I assume you’re going back up so before you go, identify and eliminate the cause of the problem.”
Now that’s what I wanted to hear. Go the Viking doctor.
So I sit out three splitter days, take the antibiotics and the aspirin, pee on my fingers, and watch the color slowly but surely return. I’ve decided to make a tentative foray back up the mountain wearing my killer 8,000-meter mittens all the way from base camp and never, ever taking off the insulated trigger mitt liner that I’ve been wearing around base camp. I’ve also thrown half a dozen hand warmers into my pack. If that doesn’t work I’ll throw in the towel and descend. Game over.
But in the meantime, I’ve got Frippe somewhere in the clouds attempting the impossible. “I’m leaving C2. Watch me.”
But due to the clouds, I can’t watch anything; just listen to the radio and hope for the best. Frippe is totally on his own. I scan the whiteout with the video camera, seeing nothing until finally I hear his voice on the radio–calm, cool, collected. “I’m through the rock band. Better than I thought. I’m on my way down.”
Down on the avy plain in the shadow of The Savage Mountain I punch the air and dance in circles. Frippe has unlocked two of the three major cruxes of the ski descent–a massive achievement and a major step towards the goal of skiing from the summit to base camp. The most difficult challenges–the narrow 60-degree couloir at 8,300 meters (27,230 feet) known as The Bottleneck and, of course, just making it to the summit, a challenge that some of the world’s best mountaineers have failed to meet and that has taken the lives of many others–lie ahead, but at this point I couldn’t be happier.
Back in base camp, we celebrate by scanning the weather forecasts and looking for a window. We’ve decided to pass on a far-from-ideal calm period on the 17th due to its 50 kph (31 mph) winds. We’re betting instead on a longer, better window forecast for the 23rd to the 25th. It’s a big gamble betting on a window ten days away, but after a lot of discussion we feel it’s our best chance.
In the meantime, we’ll head up for one last acclimatization trip, which will give me my second night at 7,000 meters (22,966 feet) and Frippe his fourth. We’ll also see how my damaged fingers adapt: If all goes well, I’ll be ready for a summit push. If not, then my dream of climbing K2 is finished and Frippe’s quest to ski from the summit to base camp will be in jeopardy.
To learn more of Fredrik Ericsson’s past expeditions and his quest to ski the world’s three highest mountains, go to FredrikEricsson.com.