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.
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.