Climbing K2 (2014)

Life on K2 – 29th July 2014, K2 base camp

Rites and rituals

“Tok tok tok” In the stillness of the day, the sound of a hammer pounding on a tin-plate resounds through base-camp. However, this was not some enterprising local Pakistan handicraft or gear repair; it was a memorial for one of our team-members, M, who had died.

The plate stated simply M’s full name, birthday and place of birth, summit date on the 28th of July, 2014, and date of demise on the 30th of July, it said nothing about him being a father of three, a high-flying executive in charge of a thousand people, or whether he was a good or a bad man. Only simply that he had been born in Madrid, trod on earth’s soil for 46 years, summited K2, and met his death the day after reaching the summit.

A whole life, starkly captured in three lines. Such is the reality of making a challenge on the big mountains.

K2 is the second tallest mountain in the world, and is also known as the Savage Mountain for its unpredictable and harsh weather, as well as the ~25% fatality rate for those who managed to stand atop its summit. For every 100 people that have summited Mount Everest, only ~6 have stood on top of K2.

As I write this, it is hard not to wonder at the meaning of life and think about how time flows on inexorably. Just the previous night, we had heard news that M had made it back to high camp safely, but at breakfast that morning, we were informed that he had passed on in the night as a result of his exertions reaching the summit.

For ourselves, we knew exactly the incredible physical toll that a summit bid made on the body. Very often, the effort to reach the top meant that people had no more reserves in order to make it back down safely. For M, he had made two summit attempts, determined to finally stand atop K2. He had succeeded finally, but paid the ultimate price for his perseverance. From Camp 4 (at 8000m, in the death zone, where the resting pulse rate of more than 100 meant that even when lying down the effort was similar to walking), we could see base-camp down on the Baltoro glacier – so close and yet so far away. With limited food and water, dehydrated and weak, every step was agony, especially because of the thin atmosphere. The mind was obsessed with getting down, to the (relatively) thicker air at base camp’s 5000m, to the food and safety we knew it represented. And yet in the heart of the moment, when it could take more than 20, 30, 50 breaths after a particularly hard crux move, it was hard to imagine that we would ever make it to the top or back down safely; yet those moments of pain and suffering had passed. Like an audience at a movie, at times it felt as if we were only spectators, powerless to change the plot, to fast-forward past the painful parts, or to linger over the pleasurable moments to savour the feelings of success.

Why do people do this? Push themselves beyond their physical limits, tempt fate, set aside friends and family for two months (not counting the time spent training) at high cost in order to stand atop a mountain, where the only souvenirs are intangible memories and photographs? What possesses men and women at the top of their game, physically and mentally to tempt fate? The reasons are different for everyone. Some are there to challenge themselves, others to make a name, still others perversely because of the mountain’s fierce reputation. But one thing is clear – none have come to die. Everyone is here because they want to live, and to feel alive.

“Tok Tok Tok” With a final bang, my team-mate has finished the plate, and a group of us make the pilgrimage to the nearby Art Gilkey memorial site, where the mountain-side is festooned with similar other plates and plaques paying tribute to those who had given their lives in pursuit of summits of K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum I and II, the magnificent 8000m mountains that give the area the sobriquet “The Throne-Room of the Gods”. There are memorials stretching back more than 30 years – the names going down in the lore of the mountains, with the latest ones from 2013. We had meant to pay our respects after our summit bid, but little did we know that we would come to add another plate to the mountain walls – another shiny addition that would stay here for a long time more.

As the plate was hammered in and the incense lit, our thoughts turned to another one of our team members, who was exhausted and stuck at Camp 4, her final fate uncertain; we knew that prolonged stay in the Death zone did not bode well for her or her sherpas.

Rites and rituals surround us and give us meaning as we come, climb and leave; some are successful in their quest, but many others are not. In the past 5 years since 2008 (the year of the last major tragedy), there has only been one successful season from the South side, when the weather permitted a record number to make the summit in one day. With life and death at stake, with so much time, money and energy invested, with the odds of success so slim, it is no wonder that we turn to rituals to make sense of what we are about to do.

On our arrival, we moved huge rocks and set up our prayer flags in order to erect our Puja – a Nepali prayer flag praying for the mountains to be kind and grace us with good weather, as well as our safe return. Ropes, crampons and ice-axes are left at the base of the Puja. Although a Nepali Buddhist tradition, they reflect that the Nepali Sherpas are increasingly moving into the mountains of Pakistan, bringing along with them the quiet confidence and professionalism that they possess on the mountains.

Risk and challenge

Many people ask about the difference between Everest and K2. It boils down to technical difficulty and risk. K2 is steep – it starts steep (at least 60 degrees), stays relentlessly steep, and occasionally rises to near vertical rock or hard-ice bands along the way, requiring significant rock and ice climbing skills at high-altitude. This imposes much higher demands on strength and skill. The steepness and rock-bands also give rise to a much greater risk of falling rocks (exacerbated by more climbers above you) and avalanches. This imposes much greater demands on luck (and judgment). I recall several times when falling rocks hurtling past had us all staring up in fear – the rips and holes through the tents were testament to devastation the rocks could wreak as they made their way down the mountain.

For myself, one of the hairy moments I recall was during the descent – I was rappelling when I veered 2 steps away from the path and suddenly fell into a crevasse. It is hard to describe what it was like when you suddenly find yourself suspended in a void held up only by a thin rope (which has taken alot of abuse in the course of the season), where you cannot even see the bottom of the ice. Below you is the blue-black void, like an alien magical form of cold jade. It is eerily quiet, and flailing, your arms and legs can barely touch the sides of the crevasse. Under such situations, one is alone in the world and can only depend on oneself. The essence of mountaineering is being able to make the right judgments and being able to get down safely (summiting is optional).

Other aspects of risk that are perhaps out of one’s control is the political climate. On the day that we were to head out of Islamabad, all the roads out were sealed, due to a political rally. Being trapped in the city while scenes of violence a few kilometres away played out on the screen brought out the reality of how volatile the region was. As we drove along the Karakorum highway, we saw burnt-out buses as evidence of previous terrorist attacks (as well as overturned jeeps from landslides), and looming over us was Nanga Parbat (one of the 8000m peaks in Pakistan), which was where 11 mountaineers were shot dead last year, including some of China’s finest mountaineers, who had almost accomplished the 14 summits. Ironic that they risked their lives on the mountain, but died due to human causes.

Strength and skill

Very much like life at McKinsey or in business school, the climbing community at base-camp is highly international – there are Italians, Americans, Nepali Sherpas, Pakistanis, Czech, Polish, Bulgarians and Chinese amongst others. In my team alone there were representatives from Macedonia, Turkey, Iran, Spain and America with correspondingly many different styles of climbing, equipment, gear, approaches to risk, food on the mountain. With high stakes at play, and the strong personalities inherent in a group of high-altitude mountaineers, this dynamic occasionally made for friction and challenging interactions.

One theme that stood out clearly for me was the importance of capacity to learn. While every climber on K2 had at least one other 8000m peak under their belt (some with several), this experience set did not always translate into better climbing skills or judgment. Some were obsessed with the summit and what it represented in terms of their personal achievement, with seemingly little awareness that the real heroes of the day were often the Sherpas that laid the fixed-lines or helped carry up their oxygen. In the rarefied air of an 8000m peak, perspective and good judgment sometimes melt away. For myself, a small part of the success lay in being able to tap into the lessons that I had learnt over the past 15 years of mountaineering, in the different mountains, some big, some small.

I’m grateful to have had the chance to have been there, to visit Pakistan, in all its glory, to meet and climb with an amazing group of people, to be with old friends on the mountain again, but above all, to have an audience in the throne room of the Gods and to walk away in one piece, slightly thinner and wiser.

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