In the summer of 2011, I was determined to raise my mountaineering bar again: I wanted to climb two 8000-ers in a row. I chose Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II which are both located in the Karakoram in Pakistan with about 10 km between them. Both of them are giants but I wanted to make an attempt to complete this double challenge as the first Belgian. I called my new project the Opteon expedition 2011.
The trip started with a number of setbacks. First of all, there was a strike in Brussels airport which meant that my departure was delayed with a day. Once I got to Pakistan, the weather didn’t co-operate either. The consequence was that I couldn’t fly from Islamabad to Skardu. Just like on my previous trip to the Karakoram, I had to spend 2 days on a bus instead. And to make matters worse, I started having stomach problems. Fortunately, none of these setbacks delayed the start of the expedition.
In Islamabad and in Skardu, I got to know the other members of the expedition: Hokan (Norway), Andre and Mike (South-Africa), Jeff (Hong-Kong), Rob, Kerr and John (US), Lakpa (Nepal), Tim (Australia), Danielo (Canada) and Sophie (France). Chris (Canada), the expedition leader, I already got to know on K2 in 2009.
We left Skardu in jeeps to get to Askole and after that we continued on foot to Broad Peak basecamp. Because of my stomach problems and because of the heath, I had a bit of a slow start. But overall, the hike progressed well.
In six days we covered 110 km on rough terrain. But then I faced another setback: a chest-infection kept me in basecamp for another 10 days while the rest of the team climbed to camp 1 and even reached camp 2at 6400 meter.
I had to be patient and wait until the doctor declared me healthy again. So when he did, I decided to try and catch up on acclimatization. While the rest of the team was enjoying a well earned break in basecamp, I climbed to camp 1 at 5800 meter.
The next day, the weather wasn’t great but I managed to climb up to 6300 meters and then return to camp 1 for a second night of acclimatization. The next morning, I repeated the same climb but this time I brought my backpack with me. Despite the extra 15 kg in weight, I managed to climb to the same point faster. That night, I slept in camp 2 for the first time.
Even though I had achieved the goal of my acclimatization trip, I dediced to climb higher the next day because the weather was that good. I ploughed through kneedeep snow up to 6800 meter. As far as acclimatization was concerned, I managed to catch up with the rest of the team. Only Sophie and Lakpa were better adapted because they had each just climb another 8000-er in the Himalays. They were ready for the summit, but I didn’t feel like I was entirely acclimatized for a summit attempt yet.
So when I returned to basecamp and people were all talking about a summit attempt, I decided to let this opportunity pass me by. In the end, nobody would actually reach the summit in this attempt.
However, I did use the weather window to reach camp 3 at 7200 meter in my second acclimatization trip which completed my acclimatization. The first day, I climbed to camp 2 in one go. And the following night, I was the only one in the team to sleep in camp 3. The next day, I returned to basecamp.
Soon after that, the jetstream disrupted climbing plans for about 10 days. High windspeeds above 7000 meter made it impossible to climb to the summit. Climbers in some of the other expeditions were running out of time and decided to go home. But when we finally found a gap in the bad weather on the 24th and 25th July, our team was still pretty much complete. Only Lakpa and John had been forced to forsake the summit.
But as we left basecamp for the final climb, we faced another setback. On 23rd July, 11 team members were geared up for a heroic summit attempt. The very same day, four of them were knocked out with stomach issues. One of them was Chris, our expedition leader. So there were 7 of us left. During the climb from camp 2 to camp 3, another 2 members had to turn back for the same reason.
Andre, Mike, Sophie, Jeff and myself left camp 3 on 24th July at 10pm for the final climb, together with another 15 climbers from other expeditions. The first two hours went pretty smooth but then we faced deep snow. With 6 to 7 climbers we took turns to break trail for the rest of the group. Slowly but surely we continued to climb through the night and reach the coll at 7800 meter by 9am. At that point, there were 10 climbers left and we had another 250 vertical meters left to cover.
While taking a break, we looked at the final challenge on our way to the summit: a precarious summit ridge with a 500 meter drop on either side. Every wrong step could be fatal at this point. Mike and Jeff decided to return to camp 3 at this point. Sophie, Andre and myself continued with the remaining climbers.
In the mean time, time was running out. We had set ourselves a target to reach the summit at 2pm at the latest. That left us 5 hours to reach our goal.
One of the challenges was to actually find the real summit. There are a number of summits on the ridge so it can be tricky to figure out which one is the highest. One of these summits is even called the “Fake summit”. When I arrived there, some of my fellow climbers started congratulating me. But I had to disappoint them: we weren’t there yet. At 2pm Sophie and me reached the prayer flags that mark the real summit. And with that, I became the first Belgian to reach the true summit of Broad Peak.
But at the summit, a mountaineer is only halfway. And that has never been more true than on Broad Peak. While we were descending the summit ridge, we received horrible news: Jeff had made a fatal fall during the descent. While we were digesting this, we continued to descend. But it was getting late, the sun was disappearing behing the mountains and we were in a hurry to reach camp 3.
But the challenge wasn’t over yet. At 7600 meter, Andre made a wrong move and tore his calf muscle. An inconvenient situation at sea level, but a very serious problem at 7600 meter, especially after 22 hours of climbing. All the other climbers were gone, so I was the only one left to help Andre.
We got in touch with basecamp and camp 3 to discuss our options. We agreed that a Pakistani High Altitude Porter would climb towards us while we would descend in complete darkness. Andre actually made pretty good progress but in the darkness we lost our way. And a little bit later, we found out that the Pakistani couldn’t come up to help us.
So we had no other option left but to stay calm and find a way out of this life threatening situation on our own.
In the end, the solution to our problem turned out to be in my pocket. With my GPS and with some directions from camp 3, I managed to find the correct route again after a few hours. At 2am we reached camp 3 after a 28 hour summit attempt. The next day, we could have a modest celebration in basecamp.
In the end, this would turn out to be the end of the Opteon expedition 2011. I moved to the K2 basecamp with some other climbers and figured out from there what the situation was on Gasherbrum II: too much snow and not enough manpower meant that any summit attempt would be shaky. And my first concern is always safety. But the final result was still pretty good. Broad Peak was my third successful climb on an 8000-er. That inspired me to plan new challenges. In other words: to be continued.