In the far north of Pakistan, deep inside the Karakoram Range which forms a sort of natural barrier between Pakistan and China, is a small hill that has a monument on it, an earthen mound with a cross and a thin tin plate nailed to it, with a name embossed by hand on it, possibly with the point of an ice pick – “Art Gilkey(USA), RIP, Aug 10, 1953, Avalanche”
In the seven decades since, that hill has become home to hundreds of such monuments and the reason for that is the mountain standing next to it, another mountain, a behemoth that seems to pierce through the clouds and reach high, right into the heavens.
The makeshift monuments are a grim reminder of what it is like, to challenge the behemoth, the mountaineers’ mountain, the killer mountain, the mountain with no name…..K2.
The only way to reach K2 from the west is to catch a flight to Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad and hire a Jeep and drive to a tiny picturesque town called Askoli. There is an alternative that could take a lot less time – a 1 hour flight to a town called Skardu and from there, a drive to Askoli, but flight schedules get cancelled at short notice pretty regularly due to weather.
So let’s assume you chose the drive. You will have to be careful not to blunder into Indian territory since it’s close. You’ll actually be driving in an arc, skirting the Line of Control with India in order to get to Askoli. At some point you’ll get onto the Karakoram Highway, the only paved road that leads through the Karakoram Range into China. A technological marvel, the 1500km long highway is the highest paved highway in the world , with spectacular bridges spanning deep gorges and long tunnels. Some call the Karakoram Highway the 8th wonder of the world.
After a while you’ll get off the highway, take a right and head for Askoli, where you‘ll stay the night at a lodge and then, at first light, you’ll begin your trek to Base Camp. The drive took you three days in total and now the trek will take you 10 more days and it will be a trek of a lifetime.
Around the 7th day of your trek, you are on the Baltoro Glacier. The mule trains and porters ahead of you are picking their way through this treacherous ice field of cracks and crevasses and creating a trail for you to follow. Over here a shattered kneecap or ankle, from tripping over all those loose boulders and you’ll forget the jaw-dropping scenic beauty, while the helicopter airlift and hospitalization sets you back $30000.
As you inch forward, large walls of ice that weigh tousands of tons, called seracs, loom above you. Seracs are what cause avalanches, when they gain more weight through snowfall than they can bear, ultimately breaking loose, to tumble down the mountainsides like a thousand freight trains all at once, obliterating everything in their path.
As you pick your way through the rocky floor of the Baltoro, around you are mountains, not just any mountains, but tall peaks rising thousands of metres, mountains that are tall enough to have their own names – Paiyu Peak, Great Trango Tower, Cathedral Towers, Muztagh Tower, Mitre Peak, Sia Kangri. Among them, towering even higher are some 8000Plus metre peaks – Broad Peak, Gasherbrum-II and Gasherbrum-IV, the 12th, 13th and 17th highest mountains in the world. And if you look beyond, across the glacier to the left, you’ll see K2 in the distance, towering over everything else – the 2nd highest peak in the world.
As the shadows lengthen at the end of the 7th day, you are at Concordia, a chaotic, boulder strewn field that is at the confluence of three glaciers that flow around the base of K2 – the Baltoro Glacier, the Abruzzi and the Godwin-Austen(a.k.a Qogir). It is a breathtaking 360° panorama not witnessed anywhere else in the world. The locals call it “The Throne Room of the Gods”.
You spend the night at the “Throne” and begin your scramble forward on the 8th day. Another stopover further ahead and on the 10th evening, you are at the Base Camp. You are breathing a little harder. It is 16400ft above sea level here. But you made it. It has been a half of a mini Himalayan expedition.
The Base Camp is nothing more than a bunch of tents belonging to the various expeditions, a few toilet tents and a couple of medical tents, with a doctor specializing in high altitude medicine. The Base Camp doctor is usually a member of an ongoing expedition, present there on a strictly voluntary basis, his expenses paid for by his service
The most popular tour package among macho thrill seekers round the world is the 4-week K2 Base Camp package. For $30000, they’ll take you up to the Base Camp, acclimatize you on the way, with many overnight acclimatization stopovers and then let you spend a few nights at Base Camp. You’ll hobnob with experienced alpinists getting ready to make their fifth or sixth summit attempts, take autographs and then the guides will bring you down.
If you are lucky you won’t get HAPE during the time you are at the Base Camp – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, an often fatal affliction that fills the lungs with fluid and asphyxiates to death, unless given immediate medical care in the form of a pressurized, hermetically sealed oxygen tent. (HAPE can happen at altitudes above 8000ft, which is well below the Base Camp height).
No one knows why the world’s second tallest mountain didn’t get a decent name. It was designated Karakoram-2(K2) by one T.G.Montgomery of the Geological Survey of India around 1856, when he was logging peaks in the Karakorum Range as ‘K1, K2, K3…’ and so on. The second mountain in his list happened to be K2 and Monty simply left it at that.
K2 has other names that accord it a certain degree of respectability. The Chinese call it Qogir Feng , meaning ”magestic mountain”. Likewise the Tajiks, the Tibetans and the Pakistanis have their own names, all expressing awe – Dapsang, Chogori, Lamba Pahar and so forth. But to the world at large, it remains simply K2. A much lesser peak – situated 32kms from the K2 – the Masherbrum, which is a puny 7821 metres by comparison, has been logged as the K1, as if to deny the Qogir it’s rightful place at the top of the Karakoram peaks.
But it is easy to understand why the K2 is so despised by alpinists who make the trip from distant lands to attempt to conquer it. They almost never making it on the first attempt. In fact they consider themselves lucky if they are alive after even a failed attempt. Straddling the border between Pakistan and China, the 8611-metre behemoth is well known as the mountain where one in every four climbers has died, attempting either to scale the near vertical faces or descending from them. Only those who are trained rock and ice climbers rolled in one, can successfully scale it. If you are trying to break trail at 20000 ft on the K2, if you happen to be the one fixing the ropes, the terrain over which you are moving is hard rock and ice, steep – with a 60° slant that is so smooth, that a sudden gust may simply flick you off the face in an instant.
To experienced Alpiners, K2 is known by just one word, The Savage. You don’t conquer the Savage. 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. The Savage is a testament – to bravery and futility, ambition and failure, to the fatal attraction for a beast like none other.
At 28250ft, the K2 is just 750 ft lower than the world’s tallest peak, the distant Chomolungma, better known as Mount Everest. Although it is second highest, K2 is actually a longer climb than Everest, if measured base-to-peak, not sea level to peak. It has a far larger base-to-peak height, which means that you have to climb more. The Everest may be taller, but it’s base – the base camp from which attempts to the summit begin, is already at 17600ft. In comparison, the K2’s base camp height is only 16400ft. The K2 climb is therefore 1200ft longer. That 1200 ft means two hours more at the Death Zone, a term that alpinists use for heights above 8000 metres.
Easy to sketch for even a six year old, because of it’s near perfect Euclidian isoceles shape, K2 is a quintessential mountain. K2 also belongs to an exclusive club known as the ’14 sisters’, the 14 tallest mountains in the world, all situated on the Himalayan Ranges and all above 8000 meters (26000ft).
If given a choice of mountains to die on, Alpine high altitude mountaineers prefer K2 over the others and there’s a reason for that choice. On the other peaks, an accidental fall can be 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 slow. 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, having been choked to death by icy wind rushing past at terminal velocity.
You have crossed over, up into the Death Zone. 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 five 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. Nothing, not even Everest, is as deadly as K2.
You have done it all and come out unscathed. This is your seventh attempt at K2 and by God you’ll get her if that’s the last thing you ever do.
It’s your turn and you are breaking trail. You are around 15 metres above and to the left of the others in your team of three. You started at 2:30am local time And it’s now nine in the morning and you are in the Death Zone. The sun is up, its a clear day, the horizon a turquoise blue and the wind – the deadly wind – is almost non-existent. The wind seems to have lost interest in you and you are thankful for that.
But you know that the weather on the Savage can turn swiftly on a dime. It’s the reason why this is your seventh summit attempt. High up on K2, there are no long stretches of good weather. Your visibility can get to zero very quickly and in the white out, you won’t see rocks falling from above, large boulders that can crack your skull or dislocate your shoulder or simply flick you off your perch like a backhanded swipe from an angry giant. Being injured anywhere on a Himalayan peak can be a death sentence but you are climbing K2, where any small injury that hampers movement is certain death.
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 even a 40kmph wind can easily pick you off the slope if you’re not tethered adequately, but this morning the windchill is only -30° and the wind just a breeze. The incline is approximately 60° and it is a straight, uninterrupted 20000 ft drop from the narrow ice ledge over which you are inching forward.
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.
You stop to drive a piton and an ice screw 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 foot 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 now 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. Far below, 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 from a near vertical ice face 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 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 could come to your aid, so inaccessible is your perch.
Above the Death Zone, there are certain codes of conduct that trained alpinists strictly adhere to. First – immobility means death and you have to keep going. It is the second code which applies to your situation – if a fellow climber contracts HAPE or is injured and dying or is otherwise incapable of moving ahead, you don’t try to save him. You leave him and you try to survive yourself. These codes of conduct are strictly not the ones that civilized folks follow but the Death Zone decides what civilized behaviour is and what isn’t.
Besides, you remind yourself, this is the life you chose. It was you who decided that a life on the edge was what you wanted. You are at that edge and the game is finally up. It has been a wild ride while it lasted and your lips form a smile at that thought.
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 back 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. Strangely, you don’t feel the cold anymore.
When exhausted and oxygen-deprived alpinists realize they are at a point of no return, they get into a dreamlike state of complete apathy. The urge to stay put becomes overpowering, even though it is fatal to remain still. Even time seems to stand still.
You are now approaching that dreamlike, light-headed stupor. The sky is now a clearer, 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 from adjoining peaks. Idly, you wonder how many made it to the top.
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 last winter with. Ralf was right now waiting anxiously at the lodge at Askoli for word from your team leader. Maybe he already knows by now, thanks again to 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 down 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.. Now”
You crane your neck one last time to look down at the cloud tops far below. In real life, Hans had been above you but now he 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 -30° 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, as if a funeral shroud has come down and wrapped everything under it, including you.
The Savage is celebrating. The Savage doesn’t like you. And by the time the night is done, the Savage won’t be leaving any traces.
The above is fiction. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner summited K2 in 2011, just as she had done with the other 13 sisters. But For K2, it took seven attempts before she finally made it.
Together with Spanish alpinist, Edurne Pasaban, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner 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 supplemental oxygen.