I summited K2 (28, 251 feet or 8611 meters) on July 27, 2014 struggling and fighting for each meter. Three times I went to a place deep in my essence looking for the energy to continue.
Now the challenge was getting back to Base Camp and home. Through 2013, of the 84 deaths, 31 had occurred on the descent, 37%. On Everest the rate is 27%.
I was exhausted but more problematic was that I was developing High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema aka HAPE, a fatal condition where the lungs fill with fluids stopping breathing.
It would take at least two days to reach base camp and any potential evacuation. After taking six days to reach the summit, now I was dehydrated, exhausted and with HAPE symptoms. I left the summit knowing I would have to use all the experience and skills I had to survive.
All the enjoyment and fun of climbing K2 was replaced by emptiness and solitude. Did I have the strength, the willpower, the desire to live?
Life or Death
I lifted my head, balanced on my hands and knees, only to see everyone staring at me as I began gagging just to the right of our Camp 4 tent. I was at 25,000 feet on K2 having just returned from the summit, all of which was a blur.
A sudden convulsion brought my head back down as I looked at a pool of clear fluids on the snow.
Trying to maintain any semblance of dignity, I used humor as a coping mechanism once again. “I’m all right!” I called out as I rolled over on my back and spread my arms and legs like I was making a snow angel. The truth was very different.
I took off my crampons and harness then made my way inside the tent. Garrett soon joined me. Kami grabbed my empty water bottles.
“How do you feel?” Garrett began. “Lets get you on some meds. I think you have HAPE so this is life and death. I’ve had it and we have to be aggressive. Let’s aim for ABC today. We need to get lower.”
I tried to process his words but the only thing I wanted to do was lie down, close my eyes and …
“OK” I said, not ready to fully discuss my condition. Digging into his pack, Garrett pulled out the med kit. “Let’s start with four tablets of Dexamethasone (Dex) and one of a Phosphodiesterase (PDE5) inhibitor or .” All of this was designed to address the fluids gathering in my lungs.
I opened my hand and swallowed the five tablets hoping they would stay down. Lying back on my sleeping bag, it was hot inside the tent. The sun was blazing through the thin atmosphere, no wind; a perfect summit day.
I closed my eyes allowing myself to relax for the first time in 14 hours. I was tired. Physically I felt empty, no strength to get out of the tent much less down climb to ABC. Mentally, I understood I had to go lower; it was the only solution for someone with HAPE. Drugs would only delay the inevitable if I stayed at 25,000 feet.
Emotionally, I felt little. The wall I had built to protect myself from whatever was going on within my body and mind was strong. Any sense of accomplishment from summiting K2 was fleeting, shallow, invisible to my ego. I was living moment to moment with occasional thoughts of the next time I had to move.
Matt crawled in beside me so once again we were three men in a tent. Kami, Koncha and Kami Rita melted snow in a nearby tent, also taking a rest. The summit push on K2 had been demanding on all of us.
Expecting to fall asleep, I let my mind drift but struggled to form clear thoughts. Sleep was elusive. All I could think of was how tired I felt, how empty, how drained.
“Let’s go in about half an hour.” Garrett called out. We noted his order with silence.
As I came out of the tent a bit later, Kami was going though my pack removing almost everything and putting my gear into his already overloaded pack. I put my crampons back on pulling the straps as tight as I could. Kami knelt down and pulled them tighter.
As I stood up to put my harness on, I looked at the route towards the Bottleneck, the ice serac and the summit of K2. Tracing the faint boot path with my eyes, I tried to let the view sink into my essence, my soul. I closed my eyes then opened them somehow not believing what I was seeing. Not understanding I was just there.
As I took inventory, my mind became focused.
I was so tired I could barely stand up. My lungs were hurting so badly, I couldn’t take more than two breaths without a hard, painful cough. I was so dehydrated, I spit back up any water that trickled into my throat.
A thought formed in my confused mind: the descent will be worse than the climb.
I put my pack back on along with my oxygen mask. I would continue using supplemental oxygen as long as it lasted. I unclipped my carabiner from my harness to clip into the fixed line. There was no fixed line at Camp 4. I put the ‘biner back onto my harness. My mind failing to understand what I was seeing.
One by one our team of six started walking towards Camp 3 at 24,000 feet. Each step required focus, balance, strength – all lacking in my depleted body. Cresting the hill that hid Camp 3, I found the fixed line. I wrapped the line around my left arm, using the down suit as a cushion against the friction. Rotating sideways, I slowly let gravity pull me lower as my feet shuffled to catch up. I was going lower. I was moving. A small victory in a long battle.
The distance between these high camps was short but the angle steep. The sight of yellow tents came into focus as I got nearer, now at the end of our group, content to go at whatever pace I could muster. Any sense of urgency had long since left me, Any feeling of danger and fear was quickly dismissed. A singular thought became my obsession: exhaustion.
As I walked into Camp 3, I found Garrett. “I can’t go to ABC or even Camp 2. I don’t have the strength to down climb the Black Pyramid.” I mumbled. I looked at him, with tears welling in my eyes and simply said “I just can’t do it.” He nodded and said let’s get you in the tent.
Once again, I went through the routine of removing the climbing gear and crawling into the thin nylon protection from wind, sun and snow. I crawled into my sleeping bag. I rolled over to take a sip of water but this time it went down violently. I started to cough, hard with a sense of purpose and lack of control. Slowly I brought the attack within my limits. I breathed hard, panting for oxygen. I now knew I was not hurting, I was hurt.
My stomach was empty after going on 24 hours with little to eat, but I was not hungry. I tried to nibble on some Honey Stinger gels. I put some Tang in my water bottle hoping to get a little sugar into my system. A miserable cough accompanied each bite or swallow.
Just as I looked around the tent for a baggie, my stomach went into a convulsion. Everything I had just eaten came back up in a flow of orange, frothy fluid. Thankfully the baggie took the majority of the force. I let my body collapse into my down sleeping bag. My will to fight dissolving.
I’m not sure how or when but sleep found me. Exhaustion had taken its toll, my body finally surrendered. It was dark when I woke up, Garrett was sleeping by my side so close I could feel him. He felt me move and said it was time for more meds. I took them like a sick child forgetting what had just happened. They stayed down this time. My body was reacting to the rest. I closed my eyes again, hoping the next time I would see the morning sun.
It was now 32 hours after we had left the summit. I heard the Sherpas melting water as one by one they came by to check on me. Garrett and Matt were outside putting on their crampons and harness. I knew what I had to do.
Still in my full down suit, I sat up and packed my bag into the stuff sack. I let the air out of my mattress and put it into its own bag. Slowly I crawled out of the tent. Looking around, I could see Broad Peak, one the 14 mountains higher than 8000 meters. We were almost level with the summit. A thin layers of clouds now occupied the recently blue skies. The weather was changing.
I sipped on some black tea as I put my harness and crampons on. Words were few but looks were meaningful. My mind had cleared after some sleep but quickly became filled with the next part of climbing K2, the down climb of the Black Pyramid.
We were at 24,000 feet and Camp 2 was at 22,000 feet. I had to get fully focused on rappelling 2,000 feet of jumbled steep rock where one mistake would cost me my life.
Garrett took the lead and I followed him towards the top of the rocks. I felt better than yesterday but with each step, my body reminded me I was still sick. The cough soon returned. While I had been able to consume a couple of liters of water, there was no sense of needing to relive myself. My body was severely dehydrated, undernourished and on the edge of not being able to support itself.
I approached the first anchor holding the thin nylon fixed line with trepidation. The steps were simple, they were part of my muscle memory. I knew exactly what to do, what order to do them in and how to perform each critical step.
Running on experience and instinct, I began to rappel down the Black Pyramid wishing I would have as much fun as I did climbing it a few days earlier, but knowing K2 would test me in my condition.
Arriving at each anchor, I first moved my safety carabiner onto a loop that is part of every anchor. This way if I fell I would be stopped by the anchor itself. A rule of climbing is to always be clipped in.
Next I traced the spiderweb of old ropes looking for one leaving the web. But often there were many lines going lower. I had to pull on some to see if they were tight or loose, tight meant they went to the next anchor, loose was a death trap.
Unthreading my rappel device or ATC from the line above, I grabbed the tight rope with my right hand. I made a small loop with a short section of lower line and threaded it through the ATC and onto a large carabiner attached to my harness. Letting the ‘biner clip shut, I heard a reassuring snap. I was now attached to K2 by two lines.
I began to down climb placing my crampons carefully on the largest piece of flat rock I could reach. I moved slowly balancing my weight on rocks and the fixed line trying to avoiding weighting the line fully as I had no faith the anchors or the line would hold me if I fell.
It was tedious, physical and mind consuming. Each anchor required concentration. It had taken four hours to climb the Pyramid, I was hoping to do it in half the time but at my pace, it was gong to be longer. Once again, I began to feel the weight of K2 and the unrelenting demands placed on mind and body.
Approaching an anchor, I started the dance. Removed the ‘biner, attach the safety, look for the new line, unclip the old one, form the bite, thread into the ATC, lock the ‘biner around the ATC and fixed line. Double check everything.
I leaned back to weight the rig and saw the new line slip away from my body. I had completely missed threading it through both the ATC and the ‘biner on my harness. I stumbled two steps lower before righting myself against an outcropping. I looked below to see several hundred feet of black rock leading to a snow gully of several thousand feet.
My heart raced as I gulped for air from the oxygen mask trying as hard as it could to keep me alive. I looked above and below for teammates, and silent support, but found myself alone. Taking two steps higher, I found a stable spot to re-rig my rappel properly this time. Double check everything. I know, I know.
Exhaustion was setting in as I maneuvered around one anchor after another. I was losing both physical and mental focus, discipline and willpower. Each anchor was taking longer and longer to manipulate.
My cough was getting louder, harder, courser. My lower back hurt. I could feel my chest getting tighter. I was lower in altitude but my body was getting weaker. This is not what is supposed to happen.
I pulled out my camera to record a video. I had wanted to document climbing K2, the good and the bad. The wind picked up as snow flakes fell gently on my outstretched arms. I pointed the camera at my face and started talking. The wind was the only sound I captured. But my body told the story. I was weak, getting weaker and mentally fighting to keep it together.
The choices I had were poor. My ability to make good decisions was waining. I was losing and K2 was indifferent to my plight. My teammates were fighting their own battles, if I were to survive it was going to take everything I had.
I thought about my battle to reach the summit but now I was fighting to get home. Once again, my emotions betrayed little of what I was feeling. The fatigue had drained every sense of satisfaction, optimism or even desire from my essence. I was fighting to go lower. I was fighting again to stay alive. I was fighting.
Looking lower over the rocks, I strained to locate the tiny cluster of yellow tents marking Camp 2 at 22,000 feet. I knew they were behind a rock buttress and would be hard to spot but every few steps I would glance in that direction. Garrett was below, Matt was above me and the Sherpas, loaded with huge packs followed us all.
The Black Pyramid’s steep angle began to ease giving me encouragement I was approaching Camp 2. I turned a corner and the tents appeared. “Maybe I can stay here for the night” was my simple, misguided thought. “I needed to get lower, to ABC perhaps, but not base camp, I simply couldn’t do that.” I told myself.
It was noon and I had been down climbing for three hours. Once again, I approached a tent. “Come on in, don’t worry about your crampons.” Garrett said. I gently controlled my body as I crawled inside leaving by boots and sharp spikes dangling outside. “Pull everything in.” Garrett said, so I crossed my legs onto a thick nylon mattress trying to avoid putting hole in the tent.
It was time for another round of meds. I thought about staying here but it was obvious I needed to get lower. I stared at my boots, avoiding eye contact, or worse, saying what I was feeling. I needed to find my own way down and it had to come from within.
The break at Camp 2 was short. I drank some water and ate an energy bar. I left camp on my own headed towards House’s Chimney and the 100 foot down climb of the tiny weakness in a huge rock wall.
It is Over
My mind was unfocused, my steps sloppy as I left Camp 2. I clipped my ‘biner onto the fixed line, used an arm wrap instead of my jumar and started lower. The angle increased to 50 degrees leading to a drop off of thousands of feet towards the Austen-Goodwin Glacier and K2 Base Camp.
Without warning, my foot slipped on the snow. My body stretched as my head hurled towards the slope. My right arm was pulled above my head as my feet strained to regain . In a blink I was prone, on my right side, arm towards Camp 2, feet towards House’s Chimney.
A pain in my wrist took over my thoughts. I looked up to see it twisted around the thin white nylon line. It didn’t look real, the angle not normal. I pulled my feet underneath me to remove the pressure from my wrist. I unwrapped the line and pulled up my sleeve, my wrist was cut, burned by the friction, the lacerations were bleeding.
My wrist had stopped my fall, probably saving my life but I didn’t know if it was broken. Righting myself, I sat heavily on the snow slope, unaware of my surroundings, any potential danger.
Slowly I moved my index finger, then the next, testing each finger for feeling and movement. Then I rotated my hand. My wrist was not broken, just cut, strained, hurt; like the rest of me.
I pulled my knees against my chest and hugged them as I looked ahead. I could now see base camp, 6,000 feet below. I let my head rest against my knees. I was finished. I was done. It was over.
A calm feeling came over me as I sat quietly, giving up, surrendering to lack of strength, lack of willpower, lack of life. For the fourth time on K2, I gave up.
But this time was different. For the first time, I didn’t know where to look for the power to continue. I lacked the desire to even try. The energy that got me to the summit was now evasive. I was content to sit in the snow. I was content to spend eternity in this very spot. It was over.
My breathing slowed as my heart stopped racing. My wrist stopped hurting. My eyes focused on nothing. I took a deep breath. The calm, tranquility and serenity felt good. I was no longer fighting. I was satisfied. I was at peace.
I closed my eyes.
“Alan.” I heard a voice saying my name. It was Garrett passing by. “Let’s go.” Was all he said as he approached the top of House’s Chimney. He had no way of knowing I had given up, to him I was resting on the snow.
I looked at him trying to understand what was happening. I watched him follow the fixed line lower. He moved carefully, easily, professionally. I admired his skill.
Without thought, I stood up. I grabbed the line and wrapped it around my other wrist. I took a step lower and another. I had no destination in mind, only lower. I followed the rope.
Standing at the top of the Chimney, I pulled the line attached to the top anchor and again arranged my gear for a rappel. I was on automatic, not thinking. “Double check everything.” I heard my friend, Jim’s voice in my head.
I checked my set-up. It was good. I weighted it as I leaned back. I stepped back up to release the tension and checked everything again, the fourth time I had checked it. I started rappelling down House’s Chimney. My breathing picked up as I looked for places to attach my crampon front points.
I was moving lower in an unconscious state. However I was moving, it was beyond my control, not within my ability to decide; somehow, the energy I sought had returned, the will to survive had trumped my desire to remain sitting on the high flanks of K2. The spirit of life had returned.
At the anchor half way down, I found a good place to plant my boots. I looked at the anchor with puzzlement. I knew what needed to be done but was having a hard time understanding how to do it. I let time pass by. I looked down to see Garrett and Matt sitting by a tiny tent at the base of the Chimney. I looked back at the anchor and started my routine. Move the safety, find the new line, unclip the old, thread the new … double check everything.
I reached for a new ‘biner from my harness. I don’t know why as I didn’t need one. But in the process I released the SPOT GPS tracking device. It flew down the Chimney landing at Garrett’s foot. He attached it to his harness. From here on it would be Garrett’s movement not mine showing up on the map on my website.
I reached the bottom of the Chimney. I had completed the two most challenging parts of down climbing K2, The Black Pyramid and House’s Chimney. Short sections of rock and long steep snow slopes remained between me and ABC, and rest.
I reached Camp 1 feeling a bit better, even joking with Matt asking “Matt you just climbed K2, what are you going to do now?” But my show was just a show as I knew I was struggling. I drank the last of my water and began the down climb towards ABC.
Each step, each motion was accompanied by a pain in my lower back, my chest. Finally I felt the need to urinate. Again I was shocked at the dark, almost black color. My confidence was destroyed, my mind rampant with wild thoughts. Each breath was a fight. But I was moving lower. Once again, I took out the camera to make a video.
Kami was now at my side. I felt better knowing he was near me. We stopped for a break as he checked my oxygen. “Oxygen gone.” Was all he said. I had no idea how long I had been climbing on an empty tank.
I arm wrapped the long fixed lines as they were too tight to set up a rappel to my ATC. Each section felt endless, the glacier below seemed like a mirage. The short rock sections became another obstacle that occupied my brain for a moment allowing me to focus on something other than my wilting existence.
Knowing I was a few hundred feet above ABC, I let go of my thoughts. My shoulders relaxed. I had been climbing for 6 days. I was on the summit of K2 48 hours ago. I knew if I could reach ABC, there would be water, food and a tent to spend the night.
As I looked lower I saw a man waving to us. One of our Pakistani cooks held an oxygen bottle above his head. He met us two hundred feet above ABC. Kami silently replaced my spent bottle with a new one. He turned it up to three liters per minute.
As I stepped on the rocks holding ABC, I knew I was safe. I sat down on a large boulder as Kami took off my crampons. Once again, I felt like a child, not a K2 Summiter. The only emotion I felt was exhaustion. I had nothing left.
There were no tents at ABC, they had been taken to base camp. Having no choice, I knew I had to make the final walk to base camp to use my own tent, my own sleeping bag and the end of this climb.
I walked slowly on the glacier, still on automatic, following my teammates, coughing. Looking ahead for any sign of tents as the sun began to set behind K2.
I stopped mid glacier as the last of the days’ light faded away. K2. I looked at K2.
Had I escaped? Was I let go? What had happened on that mountain? What had happened to me? Why did a million tiny things go right when if one of them had gone wrong my body would be still up there?
I stared at the mountain as it faded to black in the night sky.
Memories are Everything