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!