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Jun 202022
 
Climbing the Black Pyramid on K2

With an estimated 348 people attempting K2 this summer, it begs the question if people have succumbed to marketing and clever public relations as to the difficulty of climbing this peak. I guess the question of difficulty begs the decision of which route, are you following Sherpas who broke the trail, what’s your experience, and these days, not if you use Os, but at what flow rate and from which camp?

If you look at what Canadian Ian Welsted and American Graham Zimmerman tried in 2019 with their alpine attempt on K2’s West Ridge with no oxygen, K2, shows why it is so damn hard. While the route has been partially climbed three times, the final few hundred meters have never been completed for various reasons. Ian and Graham tried and never reached the summit.

These days, the majority of all attempts use the Abruzzi Spur with the Česen, a distant second. Most teams shy away from the Česen due to the rockfall, avi dangers plus it’s steeper.

A few teams have already arrived at Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat base camps.

Big Picture – Weather Hampers Travel

With poor weather, teams are taking ground transportation to Skardu where they begin the Toyota FJ portion on dirt roads to the end of the road. This is quite usual as the Skardu airport has no radar so when the clouds are low, the flights are canceled.  Also, teams are reporting significant rockfall on the highway, again causing the usual delays.  A few teams have already arrived at Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat base camps.

The season is underway in the normal manner!

The Savage Mountain

K2 is a totally different climbing experience from Everest. It requires a honed set of skills and alpine experience. It is the second-highest mountain in the world at 28,251’/8611m. While 348 people climbing K2 is a historically massive number, it is dwarfed by the nearly 1,000 who attempt Everest almost every spring.

Down Climbing K2 Houses Chimney

Down Climbing K2 Houses Chimney in 2014. © Photo by Alan Arnette. All rights reserved

Climbing K2 is technical – meaning you are using feet and hands to climb; the exposure is dramatic – if you fall you will most likely die; and the weather is extreme – it is less predictable due to standing alone to the west of nearby mountains thus creating its own systems. It is common to have very different conditions on K2 than on Broad Peak or the Gasherbrums which are only a few miles away.

Unlike Everest, there are no long, flat sections i.e. the Western Cwm. K2 starts steep, ends steep, and never lets up. Objective dangers are constantly on the minds of K2 climbers. Avalanches and rock-fall are rampant and injuries are common. In a future post, I will detail the Abruzzi climb based on my 2014 summit using that route.

K2 is in a different league than most of the other 8000ers. Just because you summited Everest, doesn’t mean you are ready for K2. A bit of trivia, there are around 250 people who have summited both Everest and K2.

It is well documented that K2 sees significantly more deaths than Everest. Thru the spring of 2022, I estimate 11,345 summits by about 6,400 people and 308 deaths on Everest – 2.7% compared to 516 summits with 93 deaths on K2 – 17%. Of the 8000-meter peaks, Everest has the highest absolute number of deaths at 308 but ranks near the bottom with a death rate of 1.13. Annapurna is the most deadly 8000er with one death for about every four summits (72:365) or a 3.10 death rate. Cho Oyu is the safest with 4,038 summits and 52 deaths or a death rate of 0.40 with Manaslu next at 0.82.

The number one reason listed for death on K2 is “disappearance” suggesting that the climber fell in a highly exposed area, was blown away by winds, or was buried in an avalanche. 35 climbers have died while descending from the summit. 11 died in 2008 including my friend Gerard McDonnell when the towering ice serac just below the summit let a tiny fraction of its 100-meter vertical face loose. If you attempt K2, you must accept that dying is a real possibility.

Downclimbing below the K2 infamous ice serac

Down climbing below the K2 infamous ice serac in 2014. © Photo by Alan Arnette. All rights reserved

Years with No K2 Summits

The first summit of K2 was on July 31, 1954, by Italians Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. The first attempts began in 1902 by Brit Aleister Crowley. But it was the Duke of Abruzzi who made the most valiant attempts in the early 1900s thus naming the ridge most popular used today, the Abruzzi Spur. After five separate American attempts, Louis Reichardt and Jim Wickwire summited on September 6, 1978, and John Roskelley and Rick Ridgeway the next day. Amazingly Jim Wickwire spent a night in the open just below the summit at 27,000 feet without food, oxygen, or shelter in temperatures of -40 degrees.

From 1986 to 2020 there were 13 years with no summits including in 2020 when Pakistan closed summer climbing due to the Pandemic. From 2009 to 2018, there were only five years with summits – 2011 only from the Chinese side by Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner who became the first woman to get all the 8000ers san Os.  In 2012, 2014, 2018, 2019, and 2021 each saw about 30 – 62 people summiting – record-breaking years as a result of a week of excellent and rare summit conditions each of those seasons. Everest went from 1974 to 2014 with summits every year – 40 straight years!

K2 Routes

There are 9 named routes on K2: Česen, Northeast Ridge, North Ridge, South Face (Central Rib), South-southwest Pillar (Magic Line), Northwest Face, Northwest Ridge, and West Face with the Abruzzi Spur aka the Southeast Ridge. No one has climbed the East Face, due to the instability of the snow and ice formations on that side. There are no easy routes on K2.

The Abruzzi has been used for 75% of the summits. There are several technically difficult features including Houses’ Chimney and the Black Pyramid. The Bottleneck Couloir is one of the most dangerous sections serving as a blowing alley for rock and icefall. The Abruzzi usually has 4 camps on the mountain:

  • Base Camp: 18,600ft/5669m
  • Advanced Base Camp: 18,650ft/5684m
  • Camp 1: 19,965’/6085m
  • Camp 2: 22,110’/6740m
  • Camp 3: 23,760’/7240m
  • Camp 4: 25,080’/7644m
  • Summit: 28,251’/8611m

Schedule

Everything starts in Islamabad, then the drive to Askole, the trek to base camps, and the climb begin. This is a typical schedule:

  • June 15: Islamabad
  • June 18 – June 28: Trek to BC on Baltoro Glacier
  • June 29 – July 15: Establish High Camps and Acclimatize
  • July 15 – Aug 31: Summit Bid
  • July 31 – Aug 5: Travel Out

Record Climbing Year in Pakistan?

After two years of COVID restrictions, the pent-up demand is revealing itself in force across the 6,000 to 8,000-meter peaks. Karrar Haidri, Secretary of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, and Managing Director at Saltoro Summits Treks & Tours Pakistan told me that there are 57 expeditions across 23 peaks this summer with a combined total of 672 permits issued:

As for permits, including members and support climbers (Sherpas and HAWs), the largest number is for the combination of K2 and Broad Peak with a stunning 348 followed by G I & II have a combined total of 101 and Nanga Parbat at 82.

Keep in mind that it has become common for operators to sell the combo of Broad Peak and K2, similar to Everest and Lhotse, but few accomplish this Pakistani double as it requires actually climbing both peaks from their respective base camps, unlike the Everest/Lhotse link.

The Foreign Operators in Pakistan with permits for both members and support, often are 2:1 ratios including:

Of note German alpinist, Jost Kobusch will be alone on the 7453-meter Muchu Chhish Peak. Also. Kristin Harila, is after all five 8000ers in Pakistan after bagging six of Nepal’s eight in April and May. She is after all 14 in record time. If she gets the Pakistan five, she will need to get Cho Oyu, from the Nepal side, then permission from her Chinese for Shishapangma. It remains unclear when she got Manaslu during this effort. She is supported by 8K Expeditions with Sherpas, Dawa Wongchu Sherpa, and Pasdawa Sherpa who will share in the record if set.

As for the largest Pakistani Operators, Karakorum Expeditions led by Mirza Ali’s has 18 clients on K2 and Broad Peak.

And the Other 8000ers

While K2 gets a disproportionate amount of attention, the other four deserve an equal amount of attention.

Gasherbrum I/II

At 26,362’/8035m. GII is often considered the most attainable of the Karakoram’s 8000ers. There have been about 360 summits of GI and 950 of GII. 32-year-old Pakistani Sirbaz Kahn is on a mission. He wants all fourteen of the 8000ers and has Annapurna and Everest plus six others. Now he will go for G I.

Nanga Parbat

NP is often considered one of the most difficult 800ers with steep rocky faces and plenty of avalanche and rockfall dangers. There are an amazing 82 climbers there this year.

Broad Peak

BP is often considered a warm-up for K2 but that grossly understates the difficulty of this 26,414’/8051m peak. About 445 people have summited Broad.  Every season people talk about summiting both but it is rarely accomplished as I described in this post last.

I’ll be reporting on progress this season as I did for the Nepal 8000ers season.

Climb On!
Alan
Memories are Everything


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  5 Responses to “K2 2022 Summer Coverage: How Hard is K2?”

  1.  

    Beautifully written with great detail. Would like to point out that Sirbaz Khan summited GII last year. I believe he will only go for G I.

  2.  

    Whoa! I hope they reserved their camp sites. How do you camp that many people up high? That number seems… scary.

    •  

      You don’t all at once. C1 holds about six tents so 15-20 people max, and so on.

      •  

        But with 348 climbers? I suppose some side treks could find new camping ground…. What are the possibilities at c3, where the routes meet? I get the sense c4 has room.

        •  

          The route on these ridges is super narrow, there are few alternatives to “go around or next too.” The tiny spots start with C1 and can accommodate maybe six tents, then C2 is a bit larger for room for 20 if crammed, 3 is small again with 10 or so and yes, C4 is the largest with space for 20 to 30. But it’s the smallest spot that dictates the flow and pace. This is for the Arizzi, the Cesen is even tighter.

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