Descending from the summit

July 22, 2018

I have to get it together, I have to tuck away all of those emotions - which I really need to release - and focus on the dangerous job ahead of me. 

Every mountaineer knows that fatigue and gravity dangerously combine to make descending the most deadly part of any climb. I am also hyper aware that most of the silver plates at the Gilkey memorial which mark the death of K2 climbers before me are etched with the words "died on descent".  

Danger is relatively low on the slope just below the summit but the powdery snow makes it difficult to stay upright and I fall repeatedly.  I learn that the faster I move, the easier it is to stay upright.  I glance up from my feet for a second and am struck by the view. Ahead of me I can see hundreds of miles of pristine mountains and glaciers.  I will never have this view again; I know and I don't want to forget it; I need to relish it.  I stand in the snow for a minute and take a few deep breaths.  

Standing in the sunshine to admire the view is tempting but I'm still in the death zone and it's time to get back to work.  My job is to safely descend 7,000 feet (2100 meters) to camp 2.  I have to keep eating, drinking and monitoring my oxygen usage. 

Ahead of me I see a green figure slowly moving toward me and realize that it's Rob.  Rob is the strongest person I know.   For real.  During the ascent the tube connecting his regulator to it's oxygen bottle became detached, preventing the flow of oxygen to his mask, his brain, his body.  I was climbing behind him when it happened and helplessly stopped for a minute but couldn't offer any support.  Lakpa's radio requests for a spare regulator were fruitless so Rob somehow modified an older style regulator to his mask.  This  retrofit meant that oxygen continuously leaked from the bottle and he could only turn his head in one direction because the hose was too short.  I offer encouraging words as I pass Rob but he is hyper focused and hypoxic and he continues forward, only grunting in response. 

I just want to get past the traverse and hard ice above camp 4.  That's my goal.  I feel like I am moving efficiently until I reach the ice slope above the traverse which is jammed with climbers ascending and descending.  Thankfully we've rigged a new rope to rappel this section which should remove us from the traffic jam, but when it's my turn to rappel someone has started to ascend the rope that I am rapelling.  I stop and scream at him but he's laying on the rope, not moving. Garrett is above me and screams louder at him, the climber's helmet moves slightly but he doesn’t make an effort to get off the rope.  I think that he might be asleep.  While Garrett continues screaming, I consider my options, all of which end with me sliding uncontrollably down the mountain.  This is a mess.  A dangerous mess.  I rappel closer to the climber and Garrett keeps screaming and finally he wakes up. When I reach him we perform a very delicate dance as he unclips his ascender, stretches around me to reattach it to the section of rope above me, then tries to force his tired legs to climb upward so that he can finally move his safety carabiner above me as well. In the few seconds that I am between his ascender and safety he is leaning against me.  If he looses his precarious purchase I will slide with him which will be terrifying but both of our ascenders and the ice screws will hold I rationalize.  Even though the traverse is waiting for me, I want to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.  There are other climbers on this icy section of the route that are struggling as well and in my view are past their limits.  All that I can do is keep myself as safe as possible which means getting out of here.  

I round the corner to my left and now can see both the traverse and the giant imposing serac above it. I preferred this section in the dark.  There is risk everywhere.  Above me the unstable mass of ice looms and below me is thousands of feet of unprotected rock and ice.  "No mistakes", I say out loud and confidently step across.  

 The traverse.  Photo: Takayasu Semba

The traverse. Photo: Takayasu Semba

In the hours that followed I double-checked every rappel rig.  I tapped carabiner gates to be sure they were locked, I tested ropes to identify the most secure, and when rocks flew from above I thanked the mountain that they didn't hit me.  

It was midafternoon when I finally rested at camp 2.  I collapsed flat on my back in the tent still wearing boots, harness, and down suit.  I didn't want to move but I knew that the struggle wasn't over.  There were still plenty of ways to die on K2 and I had to continue taking care of myself. After several minutes I forced myself to put on dry clothes, eat and drink.  I snuggled into my sleeping bag and finally let the emotion take over.  I don’t remember when I stopped ugly-crying. 

 Back at camp 2 - no judging!

Back at camp 2 - no judging!

summit

July 22 - K2 summit 28,250 feet (8611 meters)

My "rest" at camp 4 concluded around 9 PM.  I could hear the camp outside come to life - stoves hissed in complaint of melting snow at 26,000 feet and oxygen bottles sputtered when regulators were attached.

I feel a low grade panic.  What if I didn’t have enough water, where was my fresh oxygen bottle, should I wear foot warmers … blah, blah, blah.  

At 10 PM it was time to go, the time for preparing is over.  The climbing begins with a short but steep hill which momentarily spikes my heart rate. The terrain levels off for what felt like at least an hour and while I am thankful for easy climbing I know that I'm not gaining altitude and not gaining altitude isn't getting me closer to 28,250 feet (6811 meters).  I realize that we must be on the shoulder, which is the usual spot for camp 4.  I'm tracking time and altitude with my watch because I have calculated that I will need a fresh bottle of oxygen in 5 hours and I am committed to eating at least a few bites of carbohydrates every hour in order to maintain my energy.  

Snacking while wearing an oxygen mask, climbing a steep slope, and wearing big gloves is a challenge.  It involves first identifying which pocket of my down suit contains the desired snack.  Carbs are on the right, chocolate on the left.  I wiggle my heavily gloved hand into the pocket and feel around until I think that I've captured a few crumbs of food (everything is loose in my pockets to simplify the whole process).  My next goal is to not drop the food which happens about 30% of the time.  If it makes it to my mouth I carefully slide my oxygen mask up so that the side of my mouth is exposed and I wiggle the food in, again trying not to drop it.  I probably expend more calories trying to eat than I gain by actually eating.  

There are several inches of fresh snow on the route despite another team's ascent yesterday.  I don't envy the guys at the front of our team who are breaking trail. We're all following one another closely, all using the fixed line, and I notice that my headlamp is not as bright as everyone else's.  I find the headlamp's button with my gloved index finger and click through its modes but it doesn't get any brighter.  Thankfully Lakpa is behind me and I can kinda see better with his headlamp sweeps across the slope.  I am pissed that the fresh batteries I installed just a few hours ago are failing but know that there is another set in my pack.  I manage to steal light from my fellow climbers as mine fades to black. I don't want to stop to change them until the whole team stops for a quick break.  Just before the terrain steepens we do stop just for just a few minutes.  I give up eating to deal with the headlamp.  Regretfully taking off my gloves to do so more quickly.  Someone told me once that if you take your gloves off in haste you risk doing everything else slowly for the rest of your life.

The snow slope steepens and I know that I'm climbing the bottleneck, a slice of snow between two rock masses.  The bottleneck is as steep as 80 degrees in places and the whole team slows in response.  Climbing slowly in this space is not desirable because we all know that looming directly above us is a fragile mass of ice and snow larger than an office building.  I refuse to think about the deaths that it has caused.  The light from my headlamp starts to weaken again.  The light itself is probably freezing and I swear that I will buy one with an external battery when I get home.  I can climb the bottleneck with deficient light but I won't attempt the sketchy traverse that way.  That'd be suicidal.  Using hand gestures and broken sentences I begin asking my team mates if they have extra batteries or an extra headlamp.  I hate this.  I hate making my problem their problem but I can't come up with a better option.  The team slows before the traverse and Rob graciously hands over his batteries, and helps me install them in my headlamp.  I can see again and when I glance up the light from my headlamp bounces off a wall of ice as far as I can see.  Maybe it was better not to know.  

The traverse is skinnier than my foot in places. I stand on its precipice watching Rob expertly cross and notice the snow crumbling down the slope into darkness with his every step.  Then I think that I see him step over the fixed line.  That can't be right.  But then he steps over it again when he reaches the other side.  I'd visualized the traverse many times and it never involved cartwheeling over the rope.  Deep breaths. I move my ascender and safety carabiner to the next anchor and step across.  I really don't remember what happened after that point.  I presume that I just focused on the circle of light from my headlamp and delicately inched across.  

Above the traverse is solid ice.  Hard ice.  The kind that your front points want to bounce off of.  I kick in as hard as my legs will allow and look for little dimples in the ice that will aid my movement.  Above me Rob is doing the same.  Every time I look up I see the glare of more steep ice, but as I look over my right shoulder I can start to see the horizon lighten and I am thankful for the promise of warmer temperatures and sunlight.

Eventually there is a gentler snow slope and the team has spread out a bit now as folks are stopping when they can to eat and drink and rest.  Above this gentle slope is a ridge and I sit in the snow with Lakpa and three other teammates.  When I look up, in the daylight now, I see steep snow and a line of dark dots slowly moving up it in unison.  I check the altitude on my watch and consider that this could be the final push to the summit but I've been fooled before by mountains so I don't get excited.  Even the part of the slope that I can see from this vantage point will take hours to climb so celebrating would be foolish.

I shoulder my pack and start walking, my goal to catch up with the last climber in front of me.  The slope steepens again and is covered with about a foot of fresh, sugary snow.  Making progress is now mentally and physically excruciating.  Everyone is slow and I use the time waiting to shove chocolate crumbs in my mouth.  After a while - I don't know how long because I've lost the energy and motivation to track time - I look up and think that I can see a long ridge to the left.  I realize that could be the summit.  It probably is the summit.  Of K2.  Emotion starts to well inside of me but I push it back down because I can't afford to lose focus now.  The familiar fog of oxygen deprivation also creeps into my brain and I realize that my bottle is nearly empty.  I decide to push forward to the summit to change it there.

 K2 summit

K2 summit

I've never experienced a euphoric moment on the summit of a mountain.  I wish I could say that I had but I am much more practical.  The summit of K2 is long and narrow and when I joined my teammates there I had three things to do:  change my oxygen bottle, spread my dad's ashes, take photos.

On the summit I kneel in the snow and unzipped the top of my pack.  I'd been carrying my Dad's ashes there for two years and have sprinkled them on nearly every summit since.  Dad spent his whole life in the flatlands of Illinois, so the idea of climbing into the clouds was foreign to him.  I know that it scared him immensely that his oldest daughter spent so much time in dangerous environments.  But he was always proud and always supportive of my mountaineering accomplishments.  I learned that he had stage 4 lung cancer after I summited Everest.  Cancer had taken over his body and most of his mind by the time I returned home from Nepal but with a raspy voice he managed to ask me if I was done climbing mountains.  "There's just one more" I told him.  It seemed very fitting that I was now releasing the last of his ashes on that last mountain.  

Jason is to my right, making a satellite call to his teenage daughters.  Through tears he tells them to never give up because they can be anything that they want. I know that these are my dad's words to me too.  And now I am flooded with emotions that I can't hold back.  My forehead falls to the snow and tears stream down my cheeks and freeze.  After a few minutes I stand, now next to Jason.  We silently hug and cry.  There are so many words that I want to say to him, a million ways that I want to thank him for encouraging his daughters to be strong women but in this moment my hypoxic mind can't make my mouth work so I turn to descend.

camp 4

July 21, 2018 - camp 4 26,025 feet 

It's hard for me to believe that I'm lying in a tent at camp 4 on K2.  

Took less than three hours to get here, despite deep powdery snow, which I was honestly disappointed by because it was a signal for me that camp 4 is lower than it's normal location.  A lower camp 4 means that we are further from the summit and will therefore will have a longer summit day tomorrow as we’ll have to climb about 400 more feet than usual.  I know that this doesn't seem like a lot, but every step counts.  

As the team arrived at camp 4 today, the team that we've been trailing was descending  from the summit.  They really looked strong, not tired or beat up by the mountain.  I made it my goal to look and feel the same tomorrow.  We waited in the snow for them to vacate our shared tents and then dove in ourselves.  We're now organized three per tent, I generally take the middle position in this situation, because I am the smallest and create a buffer for my male tent mates.  It's also warmer to be in the middle.

 Cozy at camp 4 with Jason and Semba

Cozy at camp 4 with Jason and Semba

Jason, Semba and I are lying flat on our backs, fully dressed in down suits and boots, wearing oxygen masks. We look ready to start climbing, but in fact I feel like I have a lot of work to do.   Primary on my list is to eat and drink.  Thanks to Jason's (https://www.jasonblack.ie/k2/) expert nutrition advice, my focus is on consuming carbs,  mostly in the form of Pakistani flat bread called chapati.  I've been carrying this chapati in my backpack for four days so it's more like chapati crumbles.  I finished with a chocolatey delicious bar-in-the-jar (http://www.barinthejar.com/order/) because chocolate is it's own food group and shouldn't be excluded from any meal, especially at 26,000 feet.  In a couple hours we'll all have soup.  My appetite is better than expected, and luckily I am able to force myself to eat when my body isn't interested.  Aside from eating and drinking, I’m double checking the chocolatey carby snacks in the pockets of my down suit, and memorizing which food is stored where. I’ve replaced the batteries in my headlamp with new ones, and tucked another fresh set in an inner pocket so that they (hopefully) won’t freeze. I still feel like I’m forgetting to do something important.

The weather forecast for this evening and tomorrow looks really good, which is unbelievable for K2.  The snow has tapered off, and winds at the summit should be around 15 knots, the temperature -17C.  That probably sounds horrible if you're reading this from sea level, but at 28,000 feet (8,600 meters) those are perfect conditions.  I can't imagine any reason that we wouldn't follow our current plan, which is to leave camp 4 around 10 pm.  

 “Resting” at camp 4

“Resting” at camp 4

Although I have been preparing for and thinking about this moment for years, I feel apprehensive and a bit nervous.  Regardless of how much I've trained for this mountain, there are so many unknowns ahead of me and it's easy to get stuck thinking about "what if".  So, instead I am going to spend the rest of my time at camp 4 soaking in all of the love and support around me, and visualizing my safe summit and descent. 

Camp 3

July 20 - camp 3 - 24,000 feet

 

Rock climbing at 24,000 (7,300 meters) feet while wearing crampons and a down suit SUCKS.

There's only one obstacle between camp 2 and 3. It's 1,500 feet (500m) of unstable rock and ice.  The black pyramid, as it's called, is not only exposed but includes vertical sections of rock and ice, one of which was aided today by a steel rope ladder.  Even with the benefit of supplemental oxygen climbing up here was hard.  Really hard.  Several times my body wanted to stop.  And each time I asked myself "Is this all that I am capable of?" And each time my honest answer was no.  So I kept moving.  It helped to shift my focus to how my body was moving on the tricky terrain.  I'd scan the rock above me and look for the best place to put my free hand (while the other clenched my ascender).  Next I'd look down between my legs to find the best chunk of rock to balance my crampons.  Then I'd breathe.  And breathe again.

I was initially relieved when I finally reached the top of the black pyramid and the rock gave way to snow.  But unfortunately climbing on steep powdery snow wasn't much easier.  All of the fresh snow that's accumulated over the past two days is loose and sugary and one step up often leads to sliding backward for several feet until either my ascender or snow accumulation under my boots stopped my slide.  This was more mentally challenging that physically because I felt like I wasn't progressing upward.  By early afternoon the clouds became so thick that when I looked up all I could see was a wall of white pierced by the bright orange rope of the fixed line.  I found some comfort in this sensory deprivation.  It was comforting to just be in my bubble and not consider the challenges above me or the free air below me.  In fact, I couldn't even see camp 3 until it was right in front of me.  Seeing the smiling faces of my teammates and knowing that I'd safely climbed the black pyramid lifted my spirits instantly.

Inside my tent, I took my oxygen mask off as I unpacked my sleeping bag and food.  When I was done, I measured my oxygen saturation.  53%.  As a point of reference, if I were at home I would be admitted to the hospital if my oxygen saturation were less than 90%.  It's laughable that I felt satisfied when I put my oxygen mask on and it shot up to 70%.  Oh my poor brain cells!

Although it's cloudy now, it's hardly snowing and reports from above sound like we should be able to complete the short climb to camp 4 tomorrow.  

Camp 2 - still

July 19 - camp 2 21,450 feet

K2 is fickle, and even though we have the best forecasts available the mountain is in control of what ultimately happens, and we have to be smart and adaptable.  I spent most of last night listening to snow pile up outside the tent, eventually sounds were muffled and I knew that the tent was completely covered. When I reached a hand outside my warm sleeping bag and slapped the tent wall closest to me my heart sank as I watched inches of fresh snow slide down the side, I knew there was much more than the predicted 3 inches (7 cm).  

Motivation is scarce at 21,000 feet (6,400 meters) but eventually I peaked outside the tent to confirm that there was a foot (30 cm) of new snow.  I knew that our move up the black pyramid to camp 3 was now questionable, and radio conversations with the team above us and the Sherpa team above them confirmed even more snow higher on the mountain.  Feet of fresh snow is an avalanche hazard, especially on the steep slopes above us.

IMG_8237.JPG

I laid back down in my sleeping bag and waited for what I knew was coming, we were descending.  I began packing and gearing up and was mad, really mad.  Not at anyone, not at the mountain, just at the situation.  I was minutes away from stepping outside of the tent to put on my crampons and begin descending when someone on the team, I don't know who, questioned the decision to descend.  

I think that I experienced every emotion in the next few minutes.  Everyone on the team argued their opinion and eventually we agreed to wait at camp 2 one more night to see whether the mountain would allow us to climb higher. Even without  the benefit of hindsight (which I have now), this was the right choice.  We have enough food and fuel to extend our summit rotation by one day, the weather forecast from a new source calls for improving conditions beginning tomorrow for the next 3 days, then poor conditions beginning on the 24th.

It's late afternoon and it's overcast and snowing lightly.  I'm trying not to spend too much mental energy willing snowflakes back into the clouds. Fingers crossed that we can move to camp 3 tomorrow.  

Camp 2

Camp 2 - 21,450 feet

Today K2 reminded us that she is in charge. There were about 6 inches (15 cm) of fresh snow at camp 1 when I woke up this morning. Six inches isn’t enough to prevent us from climbing, but because our movement depends on another team whose tents we’re sharing, we waited for a couple of hours to be certain that they were moving up the mountain so that we could occupy the tents they vacated at camp 2. Thankfully, after many radio conversations in English and Nepali we confirmed that they would climb to camp 3 today.

When we began climbing it was snowing lightly but within an hour that changed to full-on blowing for the next three hours. I was quickly wearing all of my extra layers and still chilled, but not cold. Although there is only a thin layer of nylon separating me from the weather outside, I feel comfortable and warm in this cramped tent.

Fingers crossed that the mountain allows us to climb the black pyramid to camp 3 tomorrow!

Camp 1

July 17, 2018 - Camp 1 19,700 feet

Sometimes I feel like I will safely summit this mountain, and sometimes I feel like shit.  My perspective can change in minutes.  I really don't feel like I have acclimitized as well as I should have after almost three weeks above 16,500 feet but there's not much that I can do about that now. Today I was taking three breaths per step most of the way to camp 1.  Counting steps is abysmal, and usually only serves to make the route feel more monotonous than it actually is.  So instead, I think "step, step, slide" (slide referring to the movement of my ascender up the fixed line).  This phrase becomes a meditation for me and I am usually able to turn off all of the chatter and pain in my brain.   Today I decided to switch my mantra to "step, step, strong". A small thing perhaps, but if I'm going to be forcing my thoughts, they might as well be positive!

Klara and I are sharing a tent up here at 19,700 feet and it's a bit comical.  Real estate at camp 1 is more than sparse and the slope is steep.  So steep that I need a harness to prevent rolling down the mountain when I go to the bathroom.  I'll spare you the details.  Back to our tent situation … we're sharing tents with another team which means that we’re moving up the mountain a day after them and sleep in the tents that they've just left.  There's always interesting things left behind, like chop sticks and pee bottles (ugh!) but the most exciting thing is that we're using rolled-up tents on the floor of our tent to level it (in case you're thinking of trying this, it doesn't work). Also the tents are soaking wet.  Klara unfortunately is on the downhill side of our soggy, crooked tent and I am constantly sliding into her, pushing her into the side of the tent. Which is concerning because there is a label on our tent which makes me think that it's been in use since 2009! I'm worried that the aged nylon will rip and we'll both pop out.

I had another special surprise today … my period.  I hope that's not too much info, that's just what happens when you're a girl and you climb mountains!  

It's snowing now as predicted but the plan is still to move to camp 2 tomorrow.

 Climbing to camp 1

Climbing to camp 1

Summit rotation begins

July 17th - Advanced base camp

The summit rotation.  It's hard to believe this is happening.  Aside from some nasal congestion, I feel strong physically. Mentally I still waiver. And I am really, really trying to focus on only the things that I have to accomplish today.  Sometimes I have to filter my focus to just the things that I have to accomplish in this moment.

Klara - my amazingly strong and  positive Czech partner - and I decided to spend one night at ABC again on our way to camp 1.  The rationale is the same as the last time:  it allows is to sleep higher on the mountain and eliminates the need to depart base camp at 3 am (as we would do if we climbed from BC to C1 in one push). Mostly my decision was based on sleep. 

Despite hours of packing and discussing gear at base camp, Klara and I both forgot that our eating utensils are at camp 1, while we’re thousands of feet below at ABC.  Klara, ever resourceful, scrounged around the rocks and snow last night until she found two discarded tent stakes, which are now our spoons: