It’s the weekend at K2 Base Camp and Friday night was just like any other place on earth. Our team watched a James Bond Movie while many others danced the night away to Bollywood and Sherpa music in the “Disco Tent” aka the cooking tent :).
Thankfully the snow has stopped but high clouds filtered the bright sun light, a blessing for some …
It appears everyone is off the mountain and preparing for summit bids. Teams may start going back up as early as tomorrow, Sunday. We are looking a mid next week to start our summit push. Yes, to start our summit push of K2, hard for me to type those words.
This is the last blog post for our rotation to Camp 2 this past week. As I have said outright and hinted, it was hard on me at times, and this specific leg, the over nights at 22,000 feet and the return to base camp, pushed me to my limits. I feel like I have recovered now, after 3 days back in BC, but the memory is strong, the impact real and the lessons valuable.
We left Camp 1 as a smaller team of Garrett, Matt, Kami, Kacha and myself. Once again every step was committing. The fixed line waved in and out of the rock buttresses, seemingly random until a quick glance to my right or left revealed a 300 foot drop into a snow gully. A slip would be fatal, self arrest impossible. My breathing increased some from the altitude, but mostly out of stress. My pack was heavy for this altitude, maybe 30 pounds.
Kami ed me with respect and as a child. At camp he would grab my pack. “Too heavy” and he would immediately transfer a few stuff sacks to his already overloaded pack. His load was probably 70 pounds. At an anchor he would grab the rope and try to move my jumar pass the obstacle. I simply said no and shook my head. He eventually migrated from doer to manager to fellow climber stopping his overzealous help but never letting me out of his sight.
We climbed and climbed and climbed. At times the rocks became true vertical as in a wall in a house – 90 degrees. I pulled on the lines hoping the wisdom of Rick’s generation and their brilliant yet simple notion of a piton still worked in a rusted state. I used my free hand to place a leather gloved finger on any outcropping, no matter how small. My breathing raced, my heart struggled to keep up, my mouth revealed a tiny smile. I was climbing K2.
And it went on. It is hard to describe continuous rock climbing above 21,000’ over unknown and difficult terrain. Each step higher, each foothold, each glance was new, exciting, a discovery, and intimidating. It was hard to believe I was actually climbing this route, at age 57. My crampons scraped the rocks, while I created new bruises on my shins from smashing into sharp rock edges.
Each handhold had to be tested. The rocks were loose in places, putting all my weight on a rock, large or small, only to have it release would put all my body weight on the fixed line. Would it hold? Could I recover? Questions I had no interest in answering. So each step, each hold was a calculated risk, a premeditated move designed solely to move my body higher, or lower.
I was living in the moment, no thought of yesterday or tomorrow, no consideration of what to eat for dinner, if I could summit. It was total concentration in a world of distractions.
Hour three passed, then four came as we saw tiny yellow tents, Biblers, just before the brown rock wall that held House’s Chimney. If you climb mountains or even read about climbing history, House’s Chimney is like the Hillary Step on Everest but magnitudes of more difficulty in spite of the lower altitude. Free climbed by American Bob House in 1939, it is a 100’ shoulder width crack in a rock wall. Over time, it has been determined to be the safest route to the higher flanks of K2. Some rate it at 5.6 without aid, but at 21,500’ it is a challenge regardless of the rating, or aid.
The clouds have moved in lowering the temps and the winds were blowing steadily. We had left the nice weather of Camp 1 and were beginning to feel the real K2.
As I was sitting heavily on my pack recovering from the climb from Camp 1, I began to wonder if I had the strength and skill to climb the Chimney when I heard my name. Samuli Mansikka aka Sammy from Finland waved his gloved hand, we had climbed Alpamayo two years ago. It was supportive to see my friend, remembering looking at the ice flutes of Peru and doubting myself only to climb the route and celebrate the summit. But that was at 20,000 feet; lower than where I was now.
The rest of the team had gone on and topped out on the Chimney so I approached it alone. The lower section was a serious obstacle of thin ice over 45 degree angled rock with an anchor half way up the 30 foot ice rink. I front pointed to the anchor and passed my jumar by as my breathing once again took off. Two minutes later I stood at the bottom of House’s Chimney. I looked up.
The well known ladder was there but it was a rock climber’s ladder, not like those used in the Khumbu Icefall or 2nd Step of Everest’s North side. I don’t think Home Depot stocks these. It was narrow, a foot wide with rope rungs covered with a thin metal covering. They are known as Etriers or Aid Slings and are mostly used in Yosemite, the Dolomites and other big wall areas.
The ladder blew in the breeze along with the other lines, teasing me. Another rope dangled in front of me to be used by my jumar and the rock walls of the Chimney proper, about three feet wide, towered above, eager to be used by the front points of my crampons. With these two “aids” and the rock walls, I looked up 100 feet and began a climb of dreams.
My right foot found a resting spot for the front points, I pushed the jumar higher on the loose unweighted roped, my left hand reached for a rung of the ladder missing it as the wind blew it out of my reach. After 20 feet, I got the swing of the Chimney. And soon I was climbing House’s Chimney! The grin returned.
Then my foot placement scraped the wall, my left leg dangled as I weighted the jumar. Fresh snow hit my helmet as the wind at the top of the Chimney choose now to send a reminder of where I was. I silently hoped no rocks were part of this welcome package. My left foot found a placebo of a placement and I pushed off higher. Then I saw an anchor – half way up House’s Chimney, I had to place both feet against the rock walls, hoping my calves were ready for the ultimate test.
I quickly moved my safety ‘biner above the anchor knowing that if I fell now at least the safety would hold my deadweight dangling in air, what would happen next I had no idea. I grabbed the rope that was intertwined within my jumar. Similar to 50 previous times over that morning, I used my thumb to release the life saving teeth from the rope, moved it above the anchor and slipped the rope back into the teeth, released the gear and pulled on the jumar to set the device. The entire process had taken 2 minutes. My calves were grateful when they were released from active duty.
I continued climbing. As I reached the top, Matt walked away. He had been watching me the whole time.
The final 200 feet to Camp 2 was steep, what else? I was a deadman walking, empty yet alive with the energy that comes with accomplishing difficult things in your life. I quickly found the rest of the team. Camp 2 was perched, and I mean that literally on a steep slope with 16 tents carved into the mountain side. Once again it was obvious that a slip was fatal. I sat on my pack, secured with a ‘biner into my ice axe driven to the head into the snow, as a man approached me.
He stuck out his gloved hand. He was a member of the Pakistani team climbing for their cause, the 60th anniversary of the first K2 summit. Welcome, he said. He was tall, maybe 6’6”, had a dark beard, broad shoulders, a look that women – strong, dark and handsome. I didn’t belong here, 5’10”, white goatee that was growing quickly to make me look like a homeless Santa Claus. I was tired, had a thousand yard stare in my eyes.
I took his hand in mine. “Where are you from?” “America” I said. “Ah. Ah. Very good. Welcome” he responded as the handshake became more firm. Then I noticed he had a thousand yard stare in his eyes.
I crawled in the tent with Garrett and Matt – 3 Men in a Tent – as we would soon call ourselves. After a simple dinner we tried to go to sleep – at 4 PM. I was tired. I was proud, I was doubtful, I was …
The night was horrible. I closed my eyes only to have them snap back open. I lay on my back, my side, the other side; my breath was labored. I know from years of high altitude climbs, this my 9th on an 8000m peak, that the first night at serious altitude is hard, but this felt different. The sun finally set behind the Black Pyramid, another famous K2 feature. It only made matters worse. The only comfort I could find was to sit upright. My head nodded bringing me back to life. I needed to use the bathroom, but there was none, and to make my own on a 60 degree slope at night was simply unwise if not impossible. My mouth opened as my lungs demanded more air.
Garrett soon asked if there was anything he could do. It was 8:00pm, I had 12 hours to go. I shook my head and said, just a shitty night at altitude, part of the deal. We both smiled in the glow of a headlamp.
Morning came slowly. It was tedious, painful, demanding, and nonnegotiable. The sun greeted us with gale force winds. I forced myself to address the toilette problem with an Cirque Du Soleil style balancing act involving a zip lock bag, and a fixed line. Houdini would have been proud.
We had breakfast of hot chocolate, corn flakes and hash browns and suited up for a sortie partway up the Black Pyramid. The Pyramid is a jumble of rock, just like the climb from C1 to C2. We climbed a few hundred feet and reed to our yellow tent for the day, pleased with getting our hearts and lings working at altitude.
Throughout the night I wondered if I should go down and not spend a second night at 22,000’ My body was saying leave but my mind and emotions said stay – 2 of 3 won the debate.
Three men in a tent spent the day talking, no Internet, no phones, just some guys talking about life for 8 hours. The investment paid off as I slept better that night.
Once again, as the sun rose, we heard strong winds but this time snow and hail assaulted the tent. Kami and Kacha in a tent next to our shouted out their thoughts – let’s get out of here, now! We had a hasty breakfast, left gear for our summit bid – another act of commitment – and headed back to top of House’s Chimney. This time we would rappel down the 100’ crack.
I used a large figure of eight device that accommodates large icy ropes., not the small ATC type that is hard to thread in hash conditions. I set up the rope to the rap device leaned back to put tension on the setup and took a step, then another. I looked at the rope ladder as a distraction.
My progress was fast. I reached the mid-point anchor and quickly moved past it with an efficient unlink/relink of the rap device. At the bottom I looked up with a sense of satisfaction. But as I arm wrapped down the icy footing, I slipped falling on my face, only my ‘biner saved me. I stood back up with the grace of a new born giraffe and continued lower.
The snowstorm had coated the rocks, good to prevent rock fall but every surface was slippery. It took every ounce of my physical, mental and emotional strength to navigate the steep (that word again) rock walls. Matt and Garrett moved at a faster pace. Kami never let me leave his eyesight. We worked lower passing the anchors and pitons.
My upper body cried out as I used every muscle to maintain control. I was not a pretty sight. I felt awkward, silly at times, not deserving to be here. But I was. I was committed. It only took two hours to do what had taken two days before.
I sat down on my pack at ABC. Kami came over to take off my crampons. I let him. My pride was gone. I was tired. I looked up the shoulder of K2 and could see our route. It was steep. We would have to do it again. My shoulders ached, a tendon in my right hand spasmed probably from the death grip I had been using.
My emotions were out of control. This rotation had taken a lot out of me. It created more questions than answers. And it proved to me that I can climb at this level, while not pretty, I did it.
I walked out with the team on the glacier. At one point, I slipped into a watery trap covered with slush and ice. K2 seemed to be trying to grab me. Why – to return or not come back?
As I was deep in thought, I heard a cacophony of noises. A small group of Sherpa had hiked out to meet us with hot lemon tea. One of the Nepali women climbers, Passang, was with them. She gave me cup full of the hot drink. All I could say was “Thank you Didi” as my eyes welled up. Another came over to me as the wind picked up and put my hood over my ears and zipped my jacket up like I was a six year old, the wells turned into tears, my dark glasses hiding the emotions.
We walked back as group, I drew strength from their laughter. I felt like I belonged. Kami’s laser focus never dimmed.
I am climbing K2. I jokingly say I need to start using the hashtag #scaredshitless. 🙂 but it is not far from the truth. I feel confident but also I don’t know how or where the strength will come from. This is not a public question, it is something I need to answer myself. I need to reach to someplace I have never touched, to feel something I have never felt, in order to do something I have never done.
My purpose remains strong, my commitment strengthened. What I am doing pales in comparison to years of research for an Alzheimer’s scientist, an in-home caregiver on call 24 by 7 or a person who knows they are slowly drifting away and there is nothing they can do to stop the decline. These are the real battles, the real struggles, the real climbs.
They deserve our respect and support. All I can do is climb to the of my ability and hopefully honor these individuals with a nod from the summit. You can join me to honor them with a donation today. My sincere thanks to the many of you who have already donated.
Memories are Everything
An anonymous donor has generously agreed to match all donations made to Cure Alzheimer’s Fund throughout our K2 climb, to a maximum of $25,000.
Double your impact and make a donation to end Alzheimer’s today!