Rest day at camp 2

July 10, 2018

It’s a 'rest' day at camp 2.  Resting at 21,450 feet basically means lying in a tent forcing yourself to breathe.  It also affords a lot of time to contemplate.  I've created a list of  the things that I miss:  soap, salads, my dog, my friends, chairs.

I've also spent hours today thinking about why I am here. Admittedly, I should have done this before I bought a plane ticket to Pakistan but, better late than never I guess.  I've devoted years to preparing for K2. I’ve redecorated my house with photos of its routes, I've willingly given up sleep, dinners with friends, and most of my free time to ensure that I am as mentally ad physically prepared as possible.  We are used to the principle that if you set a goal and work hard, it will likely be yours. But climbing isn't like that.  K2 doesn't care what I've given up, how committed I've been to it.  I am completely irrelevant to this mountain.  To any mountain.  Further, I've been beat up, disappointed and ignored by mountains many times.  So why do I keep coming back?  

Because I've also experienced the deepest sense of accomplishment that I can imagine.  And I hope that I've been an example to others that big dreams can be realized despite formidable obstacles.  The mountains have taught me that those obstacles aren't meant to prevent my success, they are just a part of the process.  And, if I work hard and paying attention, I am a slightly better version of myself when I reach the other side of that obstacle.   

Camp 2

July 9, 2018 

View from camp 2

View from camp 2

 I can't believe that I am lying in a tent at camp 2 on K2,  it feels terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.  And the view.  Wow.  The expansive view of the  Baltoro Glacier and the Godwin-Austen glacier twisting toward each other to meet at Concordia is awesome.  So often we are traveling on glaciers, and they feel static.  We forget that they are constantly moving. And in the case of the Baltoro and Godwin-Austen, they are always moving toward each other.  From here their confluence looks graceful, but I doubt that it is.  Tons of ice and rock slowly colliding can’t be.

 The terrain on K2 has shifted from snow with some rock to an even mix of the two.  Although it was difficult, I appreciated the rocky sections today because it felt good to really be climbing and because I had to engage my mind to think about how my body was moving on the steep, jagged terrain.  Also I finally get to use my upper body.  I didn’t do all of those pull-ups for nothin'!  I found that big, exaggerated moves where I didn’t have a clear plan for how my body would move were exhausting but that if I can took my time and moved with purpose, I felt better.  I was contemplating this in a semi-hypoxic state somewhere around 21,000 feet (6400 meters) and decided that is true of life, at least for me.  I generally feel more confident when I have a plan.

 House's Chimney is the crux of the route to camp 2.  I knew that we were getting close to it based on the elevation reading on my watch, but when I looked up all that I could see was an impenetrable wall of jumbled rock.  Finally I saw other climbers on top of the wall which meant that I was staring directly at the chimney but still couldn't distinguish it from the rest of the terrain. I can’t imagine Bill House and Charlie Houston standing below it in 1938 and deciding to give it a go.  Oh, and then free climbing it.  This lore had painted a larger than life picture of House's chimney in my mind.  I knew that it is a 100 foot (30 meter) chimney of poor rock and ice that would be rated 5.6 as a free climb.  But somehow I still imagined it to be impossibly heinous.  I found it more fun than heinous.  In fact, if it were at sea level instead of nearly 21,000 feet (6400 meters), it would have been 100% fun.  Getting to the chimney was a bit tricky as a slope of hard ice created a slippery ramp to its entrance.  I repeatedly slammed the front points of my crampons into it but usually found no purchase. I had much better luck resting my front points into the tiny depressions made by other climbers.  The chimney itself was littered with a vertical spiderweb of old rope and wire ladders.  All of the rope was aged and faded by the sun and harsh conditions. Near the entrance of the chimney I noticed a chunk of hemp rope iced into the rock.  So old, it was probably left there by House's expedition. Climbing House's chimney was hard but felt better than I expected.  What I didn't expect to be hard was the snow slope above the chimney.  This slope was all that separated me from the shelter of a tent at camp 2 but my body just didn't want to move as fast as my mind expected it to.  My body was screaming for oxygen but there just wasn't enough at 21,450 feet.  So I slowed down and took deep measured breaths while staring at my tent hoping it would begin to appear closer.  

Near the top of House’s chimney

Near the top of House’s chimney

Lying in that tent now, I'm also realize that while I am climbing I feel confident     . Even though every minute is hard, sometimes grueling, I know that I am in the right place.  It's the moments when I'm not climbing and my brain wanders to the challenges ahead of me that my confidence and motivation waiver. Although I am unable to articulate why, every day I think about going home.  When these thoughts creep into my head I fast forward to how I would feel in a month or a year or twenty years if I gave up.  And I know that I would regret it deeply for probably  the rest of my life.  So I have to keep trying.  I have no idea what will happen, but I have to at least try.

Rest day at camp 1

July 8, 2018

View from camp 1 19,700 feet

View from camp 1 19,700 feet

The weather today was stunning.  Absolutely beautiful. We can see for miles from our tiny perch at 19,700. The mood at camp today is somber as we learn more about yesterday’s accident. That additional information had led to a rope controversy.  Apparently the cause of yesterday's fall was rope failure.  

 Route fixing  (anchoring rope along the climbing route) on big mountains is an interesting arrangement. Generally one team takes responsibility and the rest of the teams either lend labor to the fixing effort or pay the responsible team for the use of their ropes.  This generally works well, assuming everyone is compliant, unless the quality of the rope is questionable, which it currently is.   'Korean' rope is commonly used on Himalayan and Karakoram peaks. It is lightweight and cheap and generally suitable on routes like the south side of Everest where there is little rappelling.  K2 is different, though.  Nearly everyone rappels and commits their full weight to cheap, lightweight rope. Plus, the rope on K2 often rubs against sharp rock, further compromising it.  It doesn't make sense to use low quality rope in a no-mistakes environment. Further, the new Korean rope, which has been in place for only two weeks is already fraying, making everyone question its quality.  Thankfully we brought 4 miles of legit climbing rope so the plan is to re-fix the route above camp 1.  Although this is a lot of work for the Sherpa team, it is the safest solution.  

Having a plan but remaining flexible is key to a safe and successful climb on any mountain, so the current  - revised - plan is for the Sherpa to leave camp 1 early tomorrow morning and begin re-fixing the route to camp 2. Mingma leads the route fixing efforts for our team which calms my stress a bit.  Aside from courageous, Mingma is always calm and serious which I appreciate, given his responsibility.  

 If the weather cooperates and route fixing goes well, we will be at camp 2 tomorrow. 

Camp 1

July 7, 2018

 

Camp 1 19,700 feet

We arrived at ABC in good time, and I am more thankful for the safe arrival of our whole team than I expected to be.  Every mountaineer knows that K2 is an unforgiving peak, I spent hours debating the risks associated with this endeavor.  I even made a spreadsheet of deaths, causes, and locations. I committed to this climb fully aware that I am accepting those risks.  

About two hours into this morning's climb, on the steep snowy slope below camp 1, I heard yelling from far above.  Yelling in the mountains is discouraged unless it is alerting fellow climbers of rockfall or some other hazard.  Yelling on K2 is not uncommon, given the amount rock and ice fall.  But this yelling sounded different to me. The screams didn't sound like "rooooockkkk!!!"  which is the standard call regardless of the falling object.  They sounded more intense and desperate.   I was in a safe place, so I stopped to listen and assess my surroundings, the muffled screams stopped and I didn't see any rock or ice falling towards me.  Seconds later the Sherpa behind me started yelling in Nepalese, I looked to my right to see gear tumbling down the slope beside me.  First a water bottle, then a mit.  "Someone dropped their pack", I thought.  I'd seen this happen before on Everest and I was instantly happy that I was out of the fall line.  But Lhakpa kept yelling and then he started praying and I knew it wasn't just gear.  I have never seen a person tumble down a mountain before and I was completely unprepared for it.  My immediate reaction was to run toward him but obviously that would have been futile. There wasn't anything that any of us could do.  When my brain caught up to my eyes, I realized that he was already dead.  For several more minutes gear continued to fall down the hill and I just looked away and repeated "breathe" out loud until my body listened.  My legs were shaking and I felt helpless.  We all did. The team moved to a flatter spot on the slope and talked about what we should do.  We were all shaken but ultimately couldn't do anything to help our fellow climber.  Many radio conversations followed to confirm that our whole team was safe and then we continued up the hill.  I don't know if this was the right thing to do.  Part of me feels like it was disrespectful to continue climbing, and part of me doesn't see any other option.  I don't know.  

Laying in my tent this afternoon, I can’t get the image of his flailing body out of my mind.  Every time I close my eyes he is there.  I expect that most people feel the same way.  I feel like I need to resolve his death in some way and I haven't figured out how.  I know that can’t change that he died, and I know that if I’m not able to witness the fall of a fellow climber, I shouldn’t be here.  Perhaps all that I can do is use his death to make me a better climber.  I don't know yet.

Arriving at camp 1

Arriving at camp 1

Acclimatization Rotation Begins!

July 6th - advanced base camp

Our first and only acclimatization rotation started today!! The plan is to spend one night at advanced base camp (17,700 feet, 5400 meters), 2 nights at C1 (19,700 feet, 6000 meters), two at C2 (21,900 feet, 6700 meters) and then return to BC (16,400 feet, 5000 meters) to rest and wait for a good weather window that will allow us to attempt the summit. While this plan looks good on paper, it is entirely dependent on the weather and mountain conditions so we have to remain flexible.  I still feel like I’m acclimatizing slowly, and maybe I'm just being hard on myself but I decided to spend tonight at ABC instead of moving from BC to C1 in one push tomorrow. This way, I get an extra night above BC - which will help with acclimitization - and I don’t have to get up at 3am - which is always rough. I didn’t see much downside.

Before leaving for ABC in the afternoon, I had a relaxing day prepping for the rotation.  I made a long list of things to pack and started organizing them in piles in my tent yesterday so that today I could take my time and not rush.  I even took a shower and washed my hair!  Even though the shower entails standing in an empty fuel bucket of ankle-deep warm water, it felt luxurious.  Just the smell of soap was incredible.  Afterward my tent was warm from the afternoon sun and I laid there with my eyes closed for a long time, enjoying the comforts of base camp … showers, my own tent with a thick mattress, chairs, good food, the company of our Pakistani base camp team.  I will miss all of these things when I am on the mountain.

I think that a few calming moments of focus helped today because I felt sooooo much better walking to ABC.  I still had to slow down and breathe on the steep sections in the icefall, but I made it here in the same time as before but with a heavier pack. I know that tomorrow will be harder than today, the slope to camp 1 is 40-45 degrees, and I will definitely feel the lack of oxygen. But I’m just going to take my time.  I’m sure that I’ll be there in good time. I’ve climbed steep, icy snow before, and I can do it again.

It feels good to start climbing!

Advanced base camp and a view of the snowy route to camp 1

Advanced base camp and a view of the snowy route to camp 1

Another rest day at Base Camp

July 5th, 2018

Another three inches (8 cm) fell on my tent at base camp last night. It melt during the day when the sun warmed everything up, but the snow makes me feel very far from home. My friends are likely talking about how summer “just started” in Seattle, and planning weekend trips to warm, sunny lakes. Yet, I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. Although this mountain kingdom is daunting it makes me feel free and alive and happy.

Overall, I am feeling well. I started taking antibiotics three days ago to hopefully stymie some nasal congestion. The cold, dry air always leads to respiratory irritation when I’m climbing big mountains and this time I am determined to stay ahead of it. Because breathing is extra important to me right now. When I climbed Everest the congestion was so bad that I am still shocked by the things that my nose expelled when I blew it. I took pictures. Which I will not share.

In addition to trying to stay healthy, most of the team is preparing to move up the mountain, beginning tomorrow. Despite the snow, Purba led the Sherpa team up the mountain at 4 am carrying heavy packs of gear. For our team of ten climbers and three guides we have 60 tents, 4 miles (6 km) of rope, and stacks of oxygen bottles. It seems like a lot and all of it has to be carried up the mountain on the backs of incredibly strong men. I have had the pleasure of climbing with the same group of Sherpa several times and I am perpetually amazed at their strength and geniality.

I spent a few hours myself in the tent organizing gear and food for our rotation. It feels good to begin the process of preparing, instead of lying around thinking about preparing. I made piles of food and clothes and gear in my tent, carefully considering the weight and utility of each item.

I’m still fighting the overwhelming feeling of climbing K2, but I’m focused on the next step, which is to walk to ABC tomorrow. It’s just a walk, and then the fun begins :)

Rest Day at Base Camp

July 4th, 2018

Happy Independence Day!

Unfortunately there won't be any fireworks to celebrate with at base camp.  Instead, we spent the day developing a plan for our first and only acclimatization rotation.  Climbing a big peak requires several laps - or acclimatization rotations - from base camp to successively higher camps on the mountain.  During a rotation, climbers will generally spend one or two nights at a higher camp before returning to base.  This routine stresses the body by depriving it of oxygen, and the body responds by building incremental red blood cells which will carry the additional oxygen needed to survive at elevation.  

K2 is dangerous.  There are many objective hazards like rockfall and avalanche that we'd like avoid, and the longer we are on the mountain, the more likely we are to encounter these hazards.  So, we've decided to limit our acclimitization rotations to just one climb to camp 2.  While this isn't ideal in terms of allowing our bodies to develop more red blood cells, it is prudent in terms of avoiding risk.  And I'm all about avoiding risk.  

The general plan is to leave base camp in two or three days, depending on weather, and to spend two nights at camp 1, two nights at camp 2, and then return to BC.   As we talked about the plan, and the idea of climbing to camp 2, I could feel my palms get sweaty and nervousness rise in my stomach.  But I am going to stick to my agreement with myself and only focus on one day at a time.  Today, all that I have to do is relax and eat at base camp.  I'm confident that I can accomplish those two things. 

Ibrahim at K2 Base Camp  photo:  Muhammad Ibrahim

Ibrahim at K2 Base Camp

photo:  Muhammad Ibrahim

The population of base camp is shrinking slightly.  Now that we are settled and everything is running smoothly, Muhammad Ibrahim, who coordinated our trek and base camp organization is leaving.  We're all going to miss his gregarious smile and spontaneous dancing.  To return home, Ibrahim will trek for three or four days, over the 18,323 foot (5,585 meter) Gondogoro Pass.  Some of my team mates have traveled over the pass before, and were amazed when Ibrahim said that he's do it in running shoes.  The tenacity of the men who support climbers in the Karakoram is astounding.  Ibrahim's eyes lit up and he became more animated when he talked about returning home and seeing his wife and five children for the first time in months.  It is so humbling to me to learn about the people who live and work in the Karakoram, and conversations like the one today with Ibrahim make me want to always be thankful for every moment in my life.  

Advanced Base Camp

July 3, 2018

Time to start climbing!  Kinda.  The route from base camp to advanced base camp is really just a slog across flat snow followed by a small ice fall and then a walk on a rocky ridge.  

DLG00383.JPG

Today's plan was to walk to ABC, spend an hour or so, and then return to BC.  I expected it to be easy, since most of the route is flat but I am slowly learning that nothing is easy on K2.  Despite the mild terrain I felt excruciatingly slow.  And then I began to worry.  Because, I've spent 5 days lounging at base camp hopefully provoking my body to build more red blood cells but my lungs don't feel ready for casual walking with a light pack above 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).  Mental strength is an important component of a successful climb, and today I didn't feel like I had it.  Even a little bit.  Instead, I fabricated scenarios in my head that all ended in me not being acclimatized or strong enough to summit.  These mental games were a total waste of energy, and I know it, but I couldn't break through the negative thoughts.  And then I got mad about that.  Argh!

My attitude toward K2 is notably different than Everest.  On Everest I felt a quiet confidence that I would safely summit.  I don't know where it came from or if it was even real but I carried with me a sense of success.  Now, I find myself doubting whether I should even be here.  I need to eradicate that notion from my mind if I am going to be successful.  So I have two new agreements with myself.  

  1. I will take things one day at a time.  It's very easy to look at the massive peak in front of me and become overwhelmed with the challenges that I know it will present.  I'm not going to do that.  Instead I will just focus on what I need to accomplish each day.
  2. When I become discouraged I will ask myself if this is all that I am capable of.  Today the honest answer to that question was no, so I am going to snuggle into my sleeping bag now, sleep well, and be as prepared as I can possibly be for tomorrow's challenges.