After I had climbed the “7 Summits”, I was looking for a new challenge. And that challenge I found in Pakistan. K2 is the second highest mountain in the world and has never been climbed by a Belgian. For this expedition, I joined a group of climbers that was led by Fabrizio Zangrilli.
On 11th June, 2009 we left Islamabad for a 2 day bus ride to Skardu: a journey of 800 km over the Karakoram Highway. We stayed a few days in Skardu to pack all the equipment.
On 15th June, we loaded all our luggage on jeeps and drove over mountain roads to Askole, the starting point of the K2 basecamp trekking. There, we were welcomed by the 247 porters that would carry 25 kg each to K2 basecamp.
The trekking takes you from 2900 meter to 5100 meter. It is very different from the Everest basecamp trekking. The environment is much dryer. There are no lodges or teahouses so everyone sleeps in tents. And the K2 basecamp trekking is not as busy as the Everest basecamp trekking because apart from climbers hardly anyone else makes this journey. What both trekkings do have in common are the magnificent views.
After 6 days we arrived at the base of K2. Basecamp is located on top of a glacier. The movement of the glacier made the ice underneath our tents crack loudly during the entier expedition. At night we were often woken up by this cracking. Because the glacier was melting rapidly, we also needed to move our tents every two to three weeks.
Even in basecamp, you are dependent on porters. They bring fresh food regularly. So K2 is also a challenge from a logistical point of view.
As of the first day in basecamp, we started climbing. The weather was good and on K2 you need to use every available weather window. The weather is very instable in the Karakoram. During my Everest expedition we didn’t have a single day of snow. During the month and a half I spent on K2, it snowed on 20 days. This seriously limits the amount of climbing days. As soon as the weather is reasonable, you need to use that time to climb higher and set up the route.
We chose the Cesen route instead of the more popular Abruzzi route. The most important advantage of the Cesen route is that this route is safer. But even then … Up until 5800 meter the Cesen route is also prone to avalanches and rock fall. So you need to be alert all the time.
Fabrizio had climbed the Cesen route during a previous expedition in 2007. Because he had fixed all the ropes then, he rembered all the anchor points. Many of these anchors could be reused. Above camp 2 there were also parts were we could reuse the ropes from previous years. That saved us a lot of work on the way to camp 3.
The Cesen route is steeper and more technical then the Abruzzi. Because of the heavy snowfall, the climb up to camp 2 was a steep snowclimb. As of camp 2, there was a first piece of mixed climbing: technically not impossible but you are climbing at 6500 meter at that moment.
The camp sites on the Cesen are very limited. In camp 1 at 5900 meter there is hardly enough space for 3 tents that are too wide to fit. Part of the tent hangs over the edge. Best not to think too much when you go to sleep.
In camp 2 (6400 m) there is space for more tents, but 2 person tents are a little too wide as well for the space. We only used camp 1 in the beginning of the expedition for acclimatization. Once camp 2 was set up, we skipped camp 1. We even broke up camp 1 partially. We only left a tent there for emergencies.
Our goals was to be fully acclimatised by the 20th July. More specifically: every expedition member was supposed to have spent one night in camp 3 (7200 m). At the beginning of the expedition, a month seemed plenty of time to climb up to 7200 m and set up all the ropes and camps. But the heave snowfall disrupted those plans.
In the beginning, everything went smoothly. During the 2nd trip up the mountain, I spent a night in camp 1. During the 3rd trip we managed to reach camp 2 and spend a night there. But then the weatherchanged.
During the next trip, we wanted to reach camp 3, but we didn’t get beyond camp 2. A few climbers got sick. And when we got a fresh load of snow during the night, we had to return to basecamp in the early morning. Continuous snow and strong winds kept us in basecamp for several days.
In the end, we installed camp 3 on the 26th July. The only other expedition on the Cesen route had already attempted to reach the summit at this point. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and David Gottler got stuck in deep snow at 8300 meter.
7th August, the end date of our expedition was getting near and we had an awful lot of work to do. All of our equipment (tents, oxygen, ropes, etc.) had to be brought to camp 4.There was no more time for a seperate trip to camp 4 to carry of this equipment up.
On top of that, we couldn’t rely on our High Altitude Porters for this last climb. For safety reasons, it was decided that they would not go beyond camp 3. So we had to carry all the equipment ourselves from camp 3 to camp 4.
After a meeting with all the other expeditions on K2, we decided to join forces. On 4th August, we were going for summit attempt together. The weather forecasts for that day were the good: windspeeds up to 40 km per hour at 8500 meter.
On 1st August we left basecamp early in the morning, heading for camp 2. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner climbed with us because her climbing partner had returned home already. The next day we climbed to camp 3. Up until that moment, everything went according to plan in our summit attempt.
But the next day we had to continue without porters, pick up all our equipment in camp 3 and climb 800 meter to camp 4. My pack weighed more then 25 kg because I also had 4 bottles of oxygen with me. To limit the risks I had decided to climb with oxygen. I had climbed both Cho Oyu and Everest with supplementary oxygen and K2 really isn't the place to try climbing without oxygen for the first time.
As an extra safety measure, we had agreed a time limit for our climb to camp 4: whomever was not in camp 4 at 5pm would turn back. That meant that we had to climb 80 meter per hour on average which didn’t seem impossible. Especially because I was going to start using oxygen as of camp 3.
But my heavy pack made climbing extremely challenging. On top of that, the snow of the last weeks was becoming more and more of a problem. The higher we got, the deeper the snow. After 3 hours, we had only climbed 150 meter. At that moment, I realized that it would be very hard to reach camp 4 on time.
Another 3 hours later – we weren’t even half way at that moment – my oxygen mask stopped working. On top of that, the climber behind me said that he was going to turn back. I would have to take over his group equipment if I wanted to continu.
There was no chance that I was going to reach camp 4 on time like this. There was only one safe option left for me. I picked up my radio, contacted Fabrizio and ended the climb with these words: “Fabrizio, I’m not gonna make camp 4. I’m turning back with Paul.” After a short silence, the reply came: “OK. Good work on K2. Safe descent.” A painful decision, but safety is my highest priority.
A few hours later we were back in camp 3. Another two team members would return to camp 3 later that day. The next morning we descended to basecamp with the 4 of us. In the end, about 15 mountaineers reached camp 4, 4 of which via the Cesen. On 4th August a few of them left for the summit. But the snow was also very deep above 8000 meter. A few of them tried to plough through chest deep snow for hours and hours. But in the end, they all had to turn back. 2009 was not a good year for the Karakoram. Nobody reached the summit of K2 or Broad Peak. And only very few mountaineers reached the summits of Gasherbrum I and II.
On 7th August, we left basecamp after a stay of one and a half month. The hike back over the Gorghondoro La through snow and rain was still a challenge but after 4 days, we were back in Skardu were we could enjoy some basic luxury for the first time in 2 months.