K2 Expedition 2018
Broad Peak is the next door mountain to K2 and also happens to be another one of only fourteen peaks over 8000m in the world. The reason for this is that I wanted to do my acclimatisation on a different mountain to K2.
Whilst this might seem contrary to my mission and main effort, I did in fact do this for two main reasons: firstly, because I’ve been up K2’s lower slopes so many times I fancied a change and secondly, there are so many objective dangers on K2, that by reducing the number of times I actually needed to climb on its slopes (to just a summit attempt), I would therefore reduce my exposure to risk. Please see (Seperate blog post) for an all too real example of what can happen.
Of course there was also a back of my mind tertiary reason, and that was the opportunity to summit Broad Peak. There have been a very similar number (to K2) of Broad Peak summits in total (around 350), as well as number of British summiteers (around 10), and what’s more, there are very few examples of a Broad Peak/K2 double header (summits of both mountains in the same season) – and there could be a chance that I might become one of a very select few, and the first Brit to do so. Whilst I wouldn’t say that this became a distraction, it did indeed become a fair motivation to give BP a good go in advance of my main attempt on K2.
I had previously just done a quick day rotation to camp 1 on Broad Peak with the rest of the BP team as a chance to stretch our legs, get onto the hill and start our acclimatisation programme. This time we’d be going up with the intention of spending multiple nights on the mountain, and therefore taking everything that we needed to maintain ourselves for up to 7 days away from BC.
The route up to C1 (5600m) was not significantly different, other than the fact that I was slightly slower due to having a heavier pack. My pack weighed around 20kg as I left BC, which whilst certainly not light, was definitely lighter than the three Sherpas (Lakpa, Ang Dorge and Tenji), who were each carrying between 25 and 30kg. As I was a recent addition to the BP permit/team, I didn’t have a ‘personal Sherpa’ to help carry my own kit, whereas the other four climbing members (Dan, Dimitri, Bond and Saouri) were able to give some of their personal kit to the Sherps to enable them to climb with much less on their backs.
Our night in C1 was perfectly pleasant (I shared with Bond in a tent on a slightly uneven ledge cut into the snow) and the Sherpas kept us well looked after with plenty of soup and hot water to prepare our freeze dried food.
The next day I climbed up to C2 (6150m) with Sauori and the three Sherpas, whilst the other members did a short acclimatisation hike and then stayed in C1 for another night. The route was around 600m vertical, and 600m horizontal ascent, so the average angle was nearly 45 degrees. Most of it was on relatively solid hard packed snow, which made for pretty easy going, although there were a couple of sections where we were climbing in solid ice, using the tips of the front points of our crampons to grip as we tentatively made our way up.
Even though this is hard work on your calves (imagine climbing the stairs on tip-toes only on the edge of the steps), it made for a pleasant change to the snowy ‘stair master’ which was the majority of the of the rest of the route. I completed this section in just under three hours (200m ascent per hour is pretty good at this altitude), and spent the rest of the day in C2 drinking as much as possible and eating snacks to keep my energy up.
C2, whilst certainly bigger than C1, is no less precarious, with a line of tents pitched right on the edge of a cornice over a several thousand foot drop. The tent spaces themselves are made from small mounds of rock and gravel (as there isn’t s huge amount of snow here), and as a result, it’s rare to find a platform wide enough for a tent. This means that you have the dual challenge of not only the tent being pitched at a jaunty angle, but a proportion of the tent jutting over the edge of your platform.
Luckily I was on my own in the tent for the first night in C2, so I had pick of the sleeping arrangements. I started the night lying perpendicular to the tent (which is approximately 5ft wide), but initial sleeping position of ‘curled up in the foetal position’ soon became uncomfortable, and unable to fully stretch out, I then had to move my roll mat and thermarest so that I could sleep diagonally across the tent. Whilst unconventional, this actually proved rather comfortable, and wedged into place by my rucksack and boots, creating a barrier to stop me from sliding down the tent, I had a very fitful rest of the night.
The following day, I elected to stay in C2 and rest/acclimatise. There is no point going up too quickly, as the body needs time to adapt to the altitude, and you’ll soon regret too fast an ascent: not only is it likely to lead to splitting headaches and miserable nights sleep, but it could lead to more severe symptoms of pulmonary or cerebral oedema. Saouri and Lakpa went down later that day, as the rest of the team arrived. It was great to see Bond, however I was slightly vexed at having to rearrange my (now mastered) sleeping arrangements to admit him to the tent. I can certainly say that the second night in C2 wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the first night!
On the 4th day, having spent two nights at C2, I decided to ascend to C3 (7000m), and see how that was. This was a much longer ascent than the previous two days, and of course made even more challenging because of the increasing altitude. This time it was just me and Ang Dorje who climbed up to C3, whilst the others stayed in C2 to maintain their acclimatisation schedule.
I left at around 0730, and around five hours later, climbing over easy, but tedious snow slopes for nearly 900m, I arrived into C3. Ang Dorje started later in the day, as he was waiting for Tenji to descend to C1, collect some equipment (including Ang Dorje’s down suit, and a bottle of oxygen, mask and regulator), before he could start coming up to C3.
This meant that I had quite a long time in C3 by myself (and without a tent). Fortunately, there were a few tents up which weren’t being used, so I put ‘squatters rights’ into action and made myself at home in one of them. I’m still not exactly sure whose tent it was, but it had a few roll mats inside, and I used their stove to keep myself hydrated (we later replaced their gas cylinder so that they weren’t out of pocket).
Using other people’s tents (without their express permission) is always a bit of a touchy subject on expeditions like this. Generally, the rule is respect the tent and the contents like you are a guest: don’t make a mess/leave your rubbish, don’t use anything consumable that you can’t replace like for like, and for God’s sake, don’t damage the tent itself (either ripping it accidentally with your ice axe/crampons, or setting fire to it). I always find that occupying someone else’s tent leaves you paranoid that they might reach you at any minute and peer inside and find you a la Goldilocks and the Three Bears: ‘Who’s been sleeping in my sleeping bag?’, ‘who’s been cooking with my jet boil?’, or ‘who’s been weeing in my pee bottle!?’.
Fortunately the three bears were otherwise occupied that day, and when Ang Dorje arrived much later, tired, but delighted to have reached C3, we decided to just stay in the tent, rather than putting up our own (which he was carrying).
There were a few other climbers in C3, and whilst some of them had made a small summit attempt to day before, they were keen to try again early the following morning. There were however concerned that one of their team who had gone for the summit the previous day still hadn’t returned, and they feared the worst (see separate blog post). We made a plan to leave Camp 3 at 0130, and make a summit attempt together. This was slightly later than I really wanted to leave (ideally around 2300 that evening), but I thought that strength in numbers would bring safety.
I didn’t really sleep much that evening, and as the alarm went off at 1230, I hurriedly got up. Ang Dorje got the stove on, and we had some tea as I got myself sorted. Ang Dorje had decided to stay behind, and not come on the summit attempt, as we only had one bottle of oxygen between us, and due to having just arrived at 7000m, I wanted to use it to maximise my chances. I didn’t put him under any pressure to accompany me, and he actually seemed rather relieved that I wasn’t expecting him to come (he could just go straight back to sleep, and then spent the morning preparing our tent spaces for the rest of the team).
Being a suitably prompt old chap, I was leaving the tent at precisely 0130, and whilst I could see lights on in the other two tents, when I called out, they definitely weren’t ready. ‘We be with you in 10 minutes’ came the reply – which was slightly annoying, as I certainly wants going to stand around getting cold for 10 minutes, so I started climbing. It was lucky that I didn’t wait, as I think that in the end they didn’t leave till way past 0200, which was when I first saw a line of 3 head torches some distance behind me.
There was no fixed rope, and the route certainly wasn’t marked, so using my head torch I tried to find any evidence of previous footsteps and crampon marks in the snow. Luckily I could just discern some footprints, but I did need to stop every so often when the trail became indistinguishable from the natural ridges and marks of the wind blown hard packed snow.
I started using the oxygen around an hour into the climb, not specifically as I was out of breath (as that is a given constant at this altitude), but more because my fingers were incredibly cold – I was climbing with fingered gloves (for contact dexterity) rather than mitts. The effect of the oxygen on my frozen extremities was amazing, within minutes I started feeling the painful (yet reassuring) stinging sensation of the blood returning to my frigid digits. Soon after that subsided, my fingers remained warm and actually useable for the rest of the ascent. Say what you like about ‘using oxygen is cheating’, but I’m rather fond of my fingers and toes and am very happy to be labelled a 10 fingered cheat rather than a stumpy frost-bitten ‘real climber’.
Half expecting the other climbers to soon catch up with me (they looked extremely fit and strong), it was rather disconcerting to look round after a couple of hours of climbing and see that their head torches had disappeared, and that they’d called off their summit attempt. I rather wondered if they knew something that I didn’t, but I didn’t give it much credence and continued up unperturbed. There were some sections of fixed ropes, and a few bergshrunds (small ice cliffs) to climb over, but it wasn’t until I got higher (and fortunately it started to get light) that things got a bit more interesting.
I’d rather stupidly assumed that the route would have fixed ropes to the summit, but I was soon disappointed to find that either they’d never been there, or they’d been buried under the snow. The snow itself was generally deep and sugary, and uncomfortably steep (especially considering the lack of protective ropes) – often finding with every step that my foot would slip down as the snow gave way under my weight and I was left thrashing around in in this 60-70 degree candy floss. I was climbing with an ice axe in one hand and a trekking pole in the other, the pole was generally useless, and often even the generally more reassuring ice axe would plunge through the icy crust and I’d be left ‘stirring the porridge’ underneath’.
Somehow, sheer grit and determination forced me to keep going, carefully scanning the slopes ahead to try and find better snow, and more forgiving ground. This rarely materialised, so I kept on swimming uphill through the frozen quagmire, thankful for when I found the occasional sections of fixed rope, which would at least give me some piece of mind.
Broad Peak has several main summits (three of which are above 7950m), and the main Col (saddle) at just over 7900m) marks the end of the snow faze and the a rocky climb to the true summit. The inverted apex of the Col had been my target since it got light – once I reached the Col, I knew that I turned right (South) toward the Rocky Summit, and then onward towards the true summit.
As I got closer to the Col, the climbing became steeper, the snow even more unconsolidated and the the ropes less secure or reliable. Edging along the cliff face under the Col, with my boots struggling to find purchase on the snow and my gloves desperately trying to grip to any decent rock handholds, it really was becoming quite desperate. Ahead of me lay one final section of fixed rope which seemed to head round a slight rocky buttress, and as I hoped, would be my stairway to heaven out of the couloir and safety line to the top of the Col itself. A mixture of tentative gymnastic moves and flagrant thrashing lunges led me finally to my roped salvation, only to find that having clipped onto the rope and breathed a monumental sigh of relif, upon peering round the buttress to follow the line of the rope – it ended in a frayed end only a couple of feet further on.
This is what we call in climbing an ‘oh shit’ moment. Not specifically because of the immediate danger, but because of the Rubicon decision moment that it poses. Continue or retreat? Catching my breath, I spent several minute surveying the immediate and surround area. Was this the actual route? Was I supposed to be somewhere else? Did it look easier on the other side of the Col (around 100m across a pretty treaturous looking snow slope)? Were there any other ropes or anything man made which suggested the route from here?
For better or worse, all observations suggested that I was indeed in the right area, and surveying the sheer rock climb above me, I was faced with the brutal fact that whilst I ‘thought’ I could climb through it (a fall here would be completely catastrophic), I had no rope with which to down climb it on the descent. If I started climbing, then I would very quickly become 100% committed and the slightest slip, mistake or piece of loose rock would prove my undoing. All I really needed was a well secured climbing partner and 50 metre of dynamic rope and a few pitons/anchors and I’d be over this final rock buttress in a jiffy. Unfortunately I had none of these.
It’s moments like this which you must imagine how incredibly difficult it is to make the decision. You’ve been climbing for five days and have the opportunity to make history if you can continue – and to turn around is to admit defeat and come home empty-handed. Goodness knows that I’ve had similar decisions to make twice before on K2, as well as countless other trips. However – in the moment, somehow things become incredibly clear, and I’ve always found the immediate decision very easy.
I’d weighed up the options, looked at the risks and the obvious answer was to turn around. I took that decision without a second thought, and even during the descent, you don’t second guess yourself, you don’t wonder ‘what if’ or ‘did I make the right decision’, but you remain completely and utterly focused on getting back down to camp safely. The self-questioning comes later, normally when you have the comfort of safety and time to consider the situation.
Do I wish I’d made it to the summit of Broad Peak – of course, without doubt. However, in the cold light of day, do I genuinely think that I could have continued safely AND returned safely from the summit? No – and that’s the kicker – there is a thin line between boldness and recklessness, and both in the moment, and on critical reflection, I don’t think that there was anything else I could have done to reduce my vulnerability and increase my chances of success. This is what makes these kinds of decisions incredibly easy – when given the opportunity to assess and act upon risk, and when your life is in the spotlight, the risk/reward balance is very tangible. I refer back to the main aim of this expedition: ‘Attempt to climb (a mountain) and RETURN HOME SAFELY’. Whilst mountaineering might seem like a relatively ‘insane’ pastime, these decisions are the sanest ones we can make.
The descent was no less exhausting than the ascent – especially having to down climb the very steep (still sugary, and now slightly slushy in the sun) snow sections, without safely lines in place. You want to try and get down as quickly as possible, but it takes every once of your concentration and effort to perfectly place each foot, and ram home the ice axe – however agonisingly slow this might seem. Below me the slopes dropped for hundreds of metres until they reached the seracs at the edge of the upper glaciers, beyond which you would fall for 2000m cartwheeling and careening down the rocky west face of Broad Peak. Whilst it might be a quick descent, it wasn’t the route down that I really wanted.
I arrived back in C3 at about 1430, around 13 hours after I set out. By summit days, I’ve certainly had longer ones, but somehow due to the route and the fact I’d been by myself all day, I felt as though I’d been out for 20 hours, and was completely and utterly exhausted. I lay in the door of my tent for nearly 45 minutes before I could summon the energy to take my boots and crampons off and actually get into the tent properly. Thankfully, the sun was lovely and warm and I spent most of the rest of her afternoon dozing in mixture of fitful contentment and sheer exhaustion.
Well, whilst I might not have reached the summit, to have been to 7900m of a 8050m mountain solo in pretty bad snow conditions isn’t too bad of an achievement for a day’s activity. It would also mean that I would have spent two nights at over 7000m, which was excellent for my acclimatisation. Having subsequently spoken to other basecamp climbers, I don’t think that anyone has spent nearly as much time, as high on either mountain in the last few weeks (other than some of the Sherpas), which means that I stand in good stead for refocusing on my true objective – K2. I now feel ready to give the ‘Savage Mountain’ a good seeing too…
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