Austrian alpinist, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, at the Death Zone, on K2, the second tallest mountain in the world (Photo courtesy National Geographic Magazine, April 2012)
There is nothing romantic about the way it is named – ‘K2′, but it is easy to understand why.
Situated in the Karakorum ranges, straddling the border between Pakistan and China, K2 is etched in the annals of infamy as the mountain where one in every four climbers has died, attempting either to scale the near vertical faces or during descent.
If you are trying to break trail at 20000 ft on the K2, the terrain over which you are moving is hard ice so smooth and icy and so steep that a sudden gust can simply flick you off the face in an instant. No wonder that experienced Alpiners have for long taken to calling K2 ‘The Savage’.
You don’t conquer the K2. She simply decides to tolerate you and if you don’t promise to make your stay a short one, she makes you a permanent house guest.
K2 was so named by TG Montgomery of the Geological Survey of India around 1856, as he logged peaks in the Karakorum Range as ‘K1, K2, K2…’ and so on. No one knows why it never got a decent name after that. Maybe it was because it was not prominently visible from any of the trading routes in the Indian side. The Chinese had however noted it’s presence and began calling it “Qogiri” (pronounced “Chogori”, or “Great Mountain”).
At 28250ft, the K2 is just 750 ft lower than the world’s tallest peak, the distant Chomolungma, better known as Mount Everest. K2 is actually a longer and steeper climb than Everest, if measured base-to-peak. Chomolungma has a far smaller b-to-p height. K2 is also one of the ’14 sisters’, the fourteen tallest mountains in the world, all situated on the Himalayan Ranges and all above 8000 meters (26000ft).
Easy to sketch for even a six year old, because of it’s near perfect Euclidian isoceles shape, K2 is a quintessential mountain. Given a choice of mountains to die on, Alpine high altitude mountaineers would prefer to die on K2 and there’s a reason for that choice. On the other peaks, an accidental fall is short – maybe you’ll come to rest on a crag or a ridge a few hundred meters below, crushed but still breathing. Death will be a slow one, knowing there’s not a soul within miles and no hope of ever being found. The incessantly howling wind will smother you slowly, while the excruciating pain of shattered limbs courses through your body for hours before you lose consciousness.
That won’t happen on the K2, where your ultimate ride is going to be a long and painless drop – all the way down to the Qogir Glacier. You’ll of course be dead long before you hit a serac on the inching glacier, choked by icy wind rushing past at terminal velocity.
K2, the near perfect triangle (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
You have crossed over, up into the Death Zone, a term Alpiners use for heights above 8000 metres. At that altitude, rescue has never been successfully attempted. You know you have to either make it out of there on your own steam or perish and remain, perfectly mummified in the cold for the next thousand years.
But you are Gerlind Kaltenbrunner, an accomplished alpinist, in fact one of the best in the game. A few years back you conquered that peak over there to the south, Broad Peak, one of the ’14 sisters’. Cruel, but not as deadly as K2.
You have done it all and come out unscathed. This is your second attempt at K2 and by God you’ll get her if that’s the last thing you ever do.
The snow under your boots is frozen so solid that driving your front pointed crampons in requires real effort and you can slip from the recoil. A -60 windchill and the 80 kmph wind can easily pick you off the slope if you’re not tethered adequately.
It’s your turn and you are breaking trail, so you’re around 15 metres above and to the left of the others in your team of three. To lessen the weight, your team is climbing without oxygen and tents. You have packed bivouacs which are special lightweight sleeping bags that you can breath through without accumulating moisture. Trust me, at that altitude you wouldn’t want moisture.
The incline is approximately 60 degrees and it is a straight, uninterrupted 20000 ft drop from the narrow ice ledge over which you are inching forward.
You stop to drive a piton into the ice a few inches above your head, feeling your left crampon slowly sink into the hard snow under foot. The snow closes around the sharp spikes of your crampon tightly. Meanwhile, you snake your rope in through the eye of the piton you just drove in and snag it to your waist. You tug the rope to let the others know you’re secure. The Pakistani guide, Mohammed Arif Khan, tugs back in acknowledgement.
You begin to lift your left boot to inch forward. It won’t budge. The crampon is set solid in the ice. You wriggle your boot a bit and give it a second tug and there’s a clear ‘snap!’ as the crampon comes loose and remains in the snow when your boot lifts up.
All your weight is on your right foot now. You take a deep breath, steady yourself and move your chin down to take a look. The crampon is set into the ice and there’s no way you can bend down to prise it loose. Even if you did, it’d be impossible to slip it on again. You turn your torso slightly to look down at the others. The Pakistani has noted your situation and probably understood what has happened. With four previous summit attempts on the K2 and six of the fourteen sisters under his belt, he knows you are doomed. He gestures to the third member of the team, Jaegar, to halt.
That’s when you feel the snow beneath your right boot begin to give. You desperately try to grapple around in that narrow space trying to locate even a tiny hand-hold, but the ice face is too slippery and smooth. The ledge beneath suddenly disappears and you plunge. You fall 20ft before the slack is taken and the rope is taught, straining at the piton you just installed. The wind is picking up and blowing snow off the rock face and right into your eyes as you swing free, 20620ft above the Quogir glacier.
You’re no sissy. You survey the ice face as you continue swinging, trying not to dwell on the possibility that that piton you drove in may not take your weight for too long. A little over six metres to the left and above, you see a niche around four feet wide and as deep. It’s on the far side of the others but you have no other option. You start widening the swing of the rope, feeling it abrade against the rough surface and soon you are swinging in 60 degree arcs. Your next swing brings you close enough for you to grip the ledge of the cornice and you pull yourself up into the niche. You push yourself as far back into the little dugout space as possible and are relieved not to feel the pinpricks of the blowing snow anymore.
Sometime during the afternoon, you peek over the edge of the niche. The base is obscured by a thick layer of clouds, like cushions strewn haphazardly around. You peer to the right. The Pakistani and Jaegar are out of your field of vision. They did right. They moved on, since there was absolutely no possibility of success of any rescue attempt. A helicopter extraction in the Death Zone is unheard of and has never been attempted. The niche is virtually inaccessible to climbing, the faces on either side nearly vertical and solid ice.
You know that your time is up. Your eyes stray to the luminous dial of your watch. It’s getting to 2pm. By the time the dial reaches that position in twelve hours, you will be dead.
During the afternoon another expedition passes within 50 meters of your shelter, so close you can see their faces. You watch and weakly wave as the trail breaking lead trains his glasses at you and waves back. He has obviously been notified about you over the satellite radio. The expedition moves on and disappears from your line of vision after a while. You don’t hold it against them. There is simply no way that they can come to your aid, so inaccessible is your perch. Besides, you say to yourself, this is the life you chose.
Above the Death Zone, immobility means death and they had to keep going. Before the sun has dipped over the the 24100 ft Skil Brum, to the west, two more expeditions pass you by. They too spend a brief while peering at you. You smile a drunken lightheaded smile. You have become something of a spectacle. You try to wave back at them but your hands can’t seem to be able to move up from where they are, on your lap.
You shake out of your stupor and see that the sky is clear, a deeper, darker blue. The wind has stalled. To your left, on the ice face, the trail along which you had seen the three expeditions pass you by, is no longer visible, having been overtaken by the lengthening shadows.
You stare out into the void. The view makes you catch your breath. Over to your right, around 10kms as the crow flies, seeming so near that you could reach out and touch it, is another one of the fourteen sisters, the 26100 ft Broad Peak. You note a wisp of what looks like smoke from a chimney but is in fact snow being blown off the peak by 100 kmph winds.
You remember losing Kurt on Broad Peak last August. Over the years you have lost many partners on the thirteen sisters that you have summited. This was to be your fourteenth and last. You think of the Vienna University position you wanted to take after this. And the Vienna University history scholar you’d spent the winter with. Ralf was right now waiting anxiously at the Rawalpindi hotel for word from your team leader. Maybe he already knew by now, thanks to modern technology, a.k.a. satellite phones.
It is dark now, still clear, the wind velocity almost zero, the entire vista bathed in diffused moonlight reflecting off the snows. You are a headstrong woman and you will choose even the way you die. You stretch and start moving on your belly toward the edge, the lip of the niche. Your head clears the edge and you stare into the void below. The view is obscured by the cloud tops at 15000 feet. You swing your legs over the edge of the niche and pause for a moment as you hang.
At that moment everything suddenly clears. Like as if a veil has lifted from your mind and your heart and you clearly hear the voice. You are fourteen and it’s your father, Hans Gunther and he’s looking up at you, his face calm and composed, while you hang precariously from the lip of that recess a thousand metres from the base of the Eiger.
“It’s OK, Gerlinde, I have you. You can let go now….. Geree, let go, the rope won’t hold…… Let go, Geree. Now”
You crane your neck one last time to look down at the cloud tops far below. Hans is a tiny dot down there but you can make out his broad smile. You let go.
You don’t come to rest a 100 metres below in a crag, a gulley or an out crop and writhe in pain for hours before you die. There are no crags or outcrops on this baby. You sail through the rarefied air, swiftly attaining terminal velocity. You keep descending at a steady 200kmph, until you hit a ridge at 7000ft, bounce off it and come to rest on the Qogir Glacier, a full 20000ft below where you lost your crampon.
In all, the fall has taken approximately two minutes, give or take, not enough time to see your past flash by, the -50 windchill ensuring that you’re dead long before you hit the glacier and disappear into one of it’s many crevasses.
High above the inching Qogir, sudden streaks of lightning blaze through the dusk and it starts snowing, the wind picking up speed until the snow is gusting horizontally. In minutes, the world turns into a wall of thick white.
The Savage is celebrating. The Savage doesn’t like you. And by the time the night is done, the Savage won’t leave any traces.
The above is fiction. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner made it to the summit of K2 in 2011, just as she had done with the other 13 sisters.
Together with Spanish alpinist, Edurne Pasaban, she is one of only two women who have climbed all fourteen eight-thousanders. However, unlike Pasaban, Kaltenbrunner climbed without supplemental oxygen, which makes her the first woman to officially summit all fourteen eight-thousanders without the use of supplementary oxygen.