I now sit in Islamabad awaiting the 03:50 am flight to Doha and finally London. I left K2BC at 09:15 on the 25th in a blaze of frenzied activity, helicopter churned dust and all too rushed handshakes. As the bottle green Army choppers prised themselves free of gravity my stomach sank twice – once in concert with the machine, but twice as the realization of what I had forgone screamed in my mind.
The twin helicopters, the other carrying a very badly injured Sherpa, flew in formation for the 90-minute flight to Skardu. The pair pirouetted between countless peaks and skimmed the tongue like glaciers with the pilots sucking feverishly on their own coveted supplies of bottled oxygen.
I sat shrunken, curled up on the back seats hemmed in by both my bags and stowed military equipment as the aircraft clattered towards Skardu. Finally the glaciers transitioned into vast river plains and this rather beautiful town hove into view, set as it is, within an oasis of poplar trees – a stark green smudge on an otherwise desert tan vista.
The Sherpa’s hideous injuries had prompted the flight to target the military hospital as its final destination, rather than the general military base, which was the norm. This, somewhat embarrassingly, prompted a frenzy of activity around me when, ridiculously, my helicopter landed first – the injured guy was in Chopper 2!
As formalities, the like of which one cannot begin to imagine, were completed by Army medical staff, I sat with the injured Sherpa. His injuries were staggering, but he sat silently and motionless. Even when ordered about during mid-examination, he didn’t utter a sound, instead keeping his eyes fixed on some distant point in space that only he could see.
It was obvious his colleagues, including members of Himex, had previously done all they could given the spartan BC circumstances. His rudimentary dressings and splints had the touch of professionals but now it was time to remove and examine. He didn’t flinch – his arm was in taters, broken in multiple places and severely dislocated. I could only marvel.
As the hours wore on we were treated to a steady procession of ever more important Pakistani military officials, each hell bent on introducing themselves, until finally, attired in full dress-uniform, the Base Commanding Officer appeared, with entourage and photographer. Suddenly, both the now semi-comatose pre-med Sherpa and I were posing, mid handshake for photos! It was totally surreal.
Formalities completed, I said my goodbyes to my injured friend, forced from my mind that this poor chap was about to go under the blunt knife in this austere military hospital, thanked my personal good fortune and left with my civilian liaison – a chap called Rhemet Ali – a Pakistani Bob Hoskins + moustache who drove me back to the Concordia Hotel – my starting point some 6-7 weeks ago.
Despite rudimentary rooms and negligible hot water, this was my first proper bed and shower in what was a long time. It was great to feel the tingle of cleanliness – until you have not washed for a month, you will never understand the pleasure of that first shower.
At 8 am the following morning Rhemet drove me to Skardu Airport in an attempt to secure a standby seat on the small Dornier turboprop flight to Islamabad. As we drove I enquired about marriage in his Skardu community and culture. I asked, seeing as there were so incredibly few women ‘on display” in their everyday life [99.9% entombed within the home], how did one find a bride.
He answered with a wry smile. Despite having improved a little over time, he said in his day his parent “sourced” him a bride who was delivered, sight unseen on the wedding day. I asked, had he had the chance to meet and see her in advance? He said that no, the first time he saw her was the first time he lifted her veil after their vows! He then said “it was the worst day of my life!” – I laughed, but then he turned to me sternly, and said ‘I’m totally serious, it was the worst day of my life – you haven’t seen her” – despite wanting to roll around on the floor with hysterics, I shut up.
Fortunately we were in good time, and while I lingered outside the small terminal being over-scrutinized by the inquisitive locals Rhemet charged himself with securing me a boarding card.
With the flight scheduled to depart at 10am we appeared to be all set, but as I sat amongst this chaotic, bustling melee and the minutes ticked by my confidence slowly evaporated. At 09:45 my phone buzzed with a Rhemet text requesting me to grab my bags, dodge past the entry door security and join him inside – things were “looking good”.
Twenty minutes later, somewhat stunned, we both walked from the Airport having been refused a seat on the plane owing to a power failure [which shut down the computerized booking system – despite a half dozen people desperate for 10 standby seats, none were allowed onboard. I was top of that days priority list, but to no avail. This intransigent, third world bureaucratic stupidity almost started a riot and it is this fear of using ones common sense and discretion that stains this culture I’m afraid. No one was “brave” enough to sanction carrying people and filling the empty seats.
Rhemet and I raced to the local PIA office [Pakistan Int Airways] where we were told that there were no free seats, over and above previous formal bookings, until the 8th August, some two weeks hence. With the imminent premature arrival of dozens of climbers this flight situation was looking messy to say the least.
Faced with no option other than to bite the bullet and drive to Islamabad, Rhemet drove to his local office, secured a driver and interpreter, handed over the car keys and we were off. This was 11 am on the 26th July.
Frankly the drive is worthy of its own separate dispatch, if not book, taking 22 hours to complete. There is one road from Skardu, and that single dirt/tarmac track is pitted with crevasse like holes, such that our average speed rarely got above 30mph. One fords rivers, crosses fields, dodges cows, children and other suicidal drivers. The road, etched into the side of the mountains built by the Army Corp of Engineers between 1967 and 1978 is a stunning feat of perseverance but has inexplicably been left to deteriorate ever since. The remnants of thousands of mud and rockslides litter the route, forcing nerve jangling driving gymnastics from the driver, with wheels never more than a few feet from the abyss alongside.
With the raging, brown Indus River for constant company on our left the first 150km finally evaporated – the Skardu road had ended and the KKH, Karakorum Highway had begun. Prior to my departure I had failed to obtain personal insurance from any company for this particular segment of the journey – and now it was clear why.
Hemmed by a precipitous drop, cars and literally hundreds of heavily laden multi-coloured Cantiner trucks jostle, sometimes inches apart, for space on this essentially single lane. For the most part it has no finished surface, the road alternating between, dust, mud, rock, scree and free flowing rivers that cross the path flowing down from the mountain above.
As darkness fell I started to feel distinctly nervous. Not only was it becoming increasingly hard to see the pits and holes in the road, but also newly falling rain and the blinding headlights of the approaching Cantiners made a head-on collision something to truly fear.
However, we soldiered on, our young driver doing a quite spectacular job. At 12:30 am, some 13 hours and a minimum of twenty police checkpoints later the car suddenly made a disturbing noise. First a light clanging, then suddenly the brakes failed. The driver hauled the car to an unsteady halt and we all exited.
As a Westerner, suffering what appeared to be a pretty terminal breakdown, in pitch black, hundreds of miles from help prompted the prerequisite despair, but my driver and interpreter simply shrugged, jacked the car up and disappeared underneath – despite the mud. Bemused I called Vanessa on the Sat Phone at this point and asked her to move my flight back a day – there was no way I was going to see Islamabad on what was a new day, the 27th.
The clanging noise was diagnosed as a broken brake shoe/pad and the decision was taken to limp the car to Bashem, the next town enroute – every fast approaching, pitch dark, precipitous corner turned my bowels to water – but at 1:30 am we collapsed into guest house beds – alive.
By 9:30 am on the 27th our trusty driver had engineered a repair and we were off yet again. The early morning sun made this early stage almost enjoyable, especially in contrast to the previous night’s misery. Our driver had driven 14 hours straight the previous day with nothing for sustenance bar a packet of TUC biscuits and 70 cigarettes – a remarkable feat considering the effort and concentration he had to put in on such a tortured road.
Once again the Pakistani summer heat grew and before long we were all sweltering in the non-air conditioned interior of the Land Cruiser. I became convinced the heater was jammed in the “on” position, such was the blast-furnace temperature, but no, this was Pakistan business as usual.
As the hours passed and civilization crept up on us, so our speed fell and the heat seemed to increase. Bottle after bottle of water was drunk and countless cigarettes smoked until finally at 5pm we joined the M2 motorway that leads to Islamabad. After 30 minutes of weaving wildly amongst trucks, cars, bikes, horse and carts and the occasional cold drink seller pushing his trolley in the outside lane, we finally arrived at the offices of Nazir Sabir expeditions, our destination. We had driven the Karakorum highway and survived! I recommend everyone to do this just once – its hellish, but one sees Pakistan from its most rudimental to its most sophisticated in one go – I would not want to suffer such a drive again, but I am now very glad I missed out on the plane seat back in Skardu.
I am now sitting on the plane from Islamabad to Doha enroute London and home.
Five times in the past I have sat on planes from Kathmandu to Doha enroute London and home with a hugely excited and satisfied feeling in my heart and pit of my stomach. Every second of this trip has previously been an intense pleasure. I have had to deal with an intense fear that my flight may be cancelled, depriving me of that enveloping euphoria that comes with heady success and the expectation of seeing family after such a painfully long time. I have even previously concentrated on the aircraft engine note in the past, so desperate at that time to get home carrying my success, and “not die at the last minute” before that happened.
This time is very different. There is success, but no climbing success. The feeling in the pit of my stomach is very different – instead of thoughts provoking a warm embrace, now I just feels leaden. I was so looking forward to this feeling once again, but it was not to be.
I understand that in the dying moments of what has been a dire K2 expedition season, of the remaining Himex team have turned their attention to Broad Peak. As I ground along the KKH yesterday I heard that they had bullied their way to C3 and God willing were to attempt to summit – I wish them all every success in the deep snow – they deserve consolation.
I was and never will be interested in climbing Broad Peak or any other mountain that frankly doesn’t capture the imagination of people who donate to my charity. Not to belittle Broad Peak but it’s only as high as Everest Camp 4 [not that height is everything]. That’s why I have climbed Everest 5 times; not because I like climbing the same mountain, but because people know of it and after a while understand that I use it as a vehicle - K2 was and is a worthy substitute to this end – It was/is the greatest mountaineering challenge and despite my charitable backdrop, I would have personally loved to have summited.
Russ’s decision to withdraw from K2 is not one I would or could question. The conditions were unusual and extreme and not limited to our Cesen route. The Abruzzi route suffered identical issues, largely dictated by the ultra warm weather. I don’t think I will ever get over the painful irony that we were forced off the mountain by “great weather” – but there it is. Russ is a consummate professional and took the unpalatable truth by the horns and delivered a decision that was not liked by all. His decision not to send the Sherpas into harms way again closed K2 on me – it’s was over and time to go home.
In many ways the expedition has been a great success – through the generosity of many I have raised a lot of money for the Nspcc and the thousands of children who so badly need it. The only person who has lost out has been me, who didn’t get the opportunity to attempt a summit – but this must surely be considered trivial when contrasted with the overall good.
The emotional rape of the last few weeks has left me resolute that despite the deep disappointment I will try and be a better husband and father to my Vanessa and kids. As the altitude and isolation inevitably strips the pompous facade and self-importance from you it is important to absorb the lesson – not just temporarily. I have failed many times in the past, in many ways, but I pray I have the spine to remember and act upon the faults brought into stark relief by this experience.
I would have loved [more than any alive realize] to summit K2. I have been robbed by nature and nature will not hear my screams of frustration no matter how desperate or loud.
My summit now lies elsewhere – much closer to home.
As the reality of Mike Horn’s departure was sinking into our collective consciousness a Sherpa from Garrett Madison’s team was venturing up the Abruzzi route. As he neared C1 a huge rock plummeted down, just missed his head and sadly pulverized his left arm, breaking it in 2/3 places and also dislocating the shoulder in a forward direction.
If the mess tent was not already somber, the news of yet another rock-strike and yet more broken bones further lowered the mood. The day had been dominated by a string of rock strike injuries, the background roar of large and small avalanches and lastly the news that Seven Summits group had lost a ton of equipment that had been stored at their Abruzzi Crampon point when struck by a huge avalanche.
This last piece of news was disconcerting in its own right, as it brought home to many [as if they needed it] that even crampon point was dangerously vulnerable. Apparently the team had worked feverishly to recover, boots, crampons, harnesses and helmets from the snow, but I understand to no avail – quite what the owners will do now without this equipment is anyone’s guess and few if any people carry spares.
Medically qualified members of our team raced up the moraine to help the badly injured Sherpa, further depleting the Himex drugs, which to this point had been distributed freely to many ill and injured. As graphic reports of his trauma were received in camp, one could sense something had changed.
I had a few quiet words with Russ and it soon became apparent that he was semi resigned to relinquishing any hold we had on K2. He was rightly of the opinion that the threat, not just at higher levels, but now owing to the thaw, the lower levels too, was becoming way too great to order his staff into harms way. The climbers had earlier sat in semi-stunned silence listening to Mike Horn declare bluntly that despite this being his 4th attempt and having spent 18 months of his life at K2 BC trying to succeed, he was adamant that K2 could not be climbed this year. Coming from just anyone, this revelation could have been taken with a pinch of salt – but coming from such a strong group of climbers [the likes of which I have never previously seen] it struck home like a missile. No one in the Himex team could hold a candle to their strength in sugar snow and one could sense this fact pass through all minds.
It was clear that things were coming to a head and Russ gave the collective the night ponder their reality.
Dawn broke unexpectedly clear and beautiful – not what the forecast predicted which irked certain members who felt cheated of their current shot at Broad Peak. The forecast and all the accompanying charts had been clear as day – the weather today was due to be awful, but it appears their calculations and models had misjudged things by 24 hours.
In the context of this tense atmosphere, Russ took the bull by the horns and called a meeting, the point of which was to both canvas the climbers’ mood and intentions and also make his own opinion known. It soon became clear that no one could fault Russ’s thought process and logic as it pertained to K2. It was exceptionally dangerous and with the forthcoming dire weather, likely to get a whole lot worse. He was reluctant to send the Sherpas into harms way, to the extent that retrieving a substantial and expensive quantity of equipment was not really an option unless the weather improved – this would however, be the only [potential] future K2 foray if circumstances allowed.
The remainder of the meeting was dedicated to the assessment of Broad Peak and the potential retasking of people and resources to make this summit a reality after the expected bought of foul weather. It was “agreed” that in the time left available to the expedition, taking into account that Porters would take 5/6 days to arrive once requested, and that the walkout would take another 3-5 days, that subject to weather, Broad Peak would be the collective aim.
Once K2 had been effectively “closed” [a decision I happen to agree with] I determined to exit, as Broad Peak has no interest to me whatsoever. My focus had been K2 and will always be K2.
Our Pakistani liaison officer suddenly pulled me aside and suggested that, as K2 was now off limits to me that I use the imminent Sherpa helicopter medical evacuation to leave BC. There was nothing left for me to be gained from sitting through a week’s foul weather – nothing was going to change for me. I gratefully accepted the advice and in 45 minutes had packed my essentials, leaving the majority of my legion kit to be freighted back to the UK.
With Discovery cameras whirring, I said my goodbyes and bolted to the Helipad, where I joined the badly injured Sherpa and team. In minutes I could hear the clatter of the two Army helicopters entering the valley. The first swooped in confidently and lightly touched down on the carefully prepared rock surface. In moments the Sherpa was gently hustled aboard and the dark green bird was airborne.
The second swooped in, tottered in the air for a moment before plonking down. I was ushered forward, threw my bags in to the back seat and hauled myself aboard. The pilots, both wearing oxygen masks to void the altitude, turned and smiled – the rotors spun up, I waved and suddenly K2BC was gone.
I sat in stunned silence amidst the roar of the jet engines. How had all the work, training, effort, expense and emotional drain come to this – nothing to show? I feel hollowed out having worked so damn hard to make this a reality. We have been undone by warm conditions – the irony screams – I want to scream. K2 was rendered lethal and impassable by good weather!
I cannot find the words to express how I feel right now.
However, Russ’s decision is sound – I cannot fault it. Mistakes in my job cost no one their lives – Russ doesn’t have my luxury.
Mike Horne, the Swiss/Sth African superman and his equally talented team left BC yesterday morning and climbed to C3 uninterrupted. This 6-man team is the strongest climbers I have ever encountered. I have briefly run into Uli Stech on the slopes of Everest, but these guys take all prizes.
On our first foray up K2 to C1 all those weeks ago, Mike and his team came careering down the mountain, virtually free-falling through the waist deep snow and not clipped into any of the safety ropes – they had declined to wear harnesses!
Upon arrival at C3 the “superteam” intended to sleep the night, and upon awakening this am, continue to climb to Camp4, a “camp” or point on the mountain so far unreached by any team hunkered down here at BC.
I woke at 5:45, grabbed my comms gear and grabbed my normal seat in the mess tent before expectantly training the team telescope on C3 and Mike’s team. It was immediately clear that they were breaking camp and collapsing their tents. The power of the telescope allowed me to see them quite clearly, stuffing their packs and gradually preparing to move out.
Suddenly one of the group broke free, but instead of continuing as expected higher, to my absolute horror he started to descend. Over the course of the following 45 minutes individual members of the team broke away and before long all 6 had started to descend.
The telescope allowed me the opportunity to examine the snow above their camp for new tracks; evidence that perhaps they had ventured higher but turned back – but there were none. The only tracks were the old footprints left by our young Sherpa team left when setting the high point of the ropes some 10 days ago.
Something significant had altered their bold plans – they had not only planned to try and summit in what we understand from our weather reports to be an “eye of a needle” weather window, but had also planned to summit without the use of supplementary oxygen – a challenging combination to say the very least. As I write the superteam are still descending in the full glare of the scorching sun and owing to the teams disdain of two-way radios we do not yet have a clear indication of why their plans have reversed.
My perspective is somewhat simple. The main problem with K2 this year is the weather. I suppose one could say every season is dominated by the weather as the mountain is static, but this year seems exceptional. The warmth at BC and lack of any wind has forced the “freezing layer” up to circa 6000m. The already deep snow above C3 is not bedding down but remaining sugary and making the breaking of a trail that remains in place very difficult. We actually need the temperature to drop, freeze the day-warmed snow of nighttime and embed a relatively easy route. The snow may still be deep, but the lower temperature allows for a workable crust to form. Right now its sugar snow and frankly exhausting at sea level, let alone at 7000m+.
I remains to be confirmed when Mike and his team arrive back at BC, but I suspect they decided the snow to be impassable, especially without supplemental oxygen and called time. We shall see, but if that is the case I have just witnessed the strongest of the strong give up – not a sight to fill me, a much weaker climber, with much confidence.
There is also a collection of climbers from other teams currently struggling up Broad Peak. A Spanish pair left at 1am for the summit and now seem to be floundering in deep snow hours from their goal and baking in the sun – most feel they either C4 way too late or either don’t have the strength to move fast enough to make the summit in good time. We shall watch with interest, especially in the context of the predicted violent weather change.
In the midst of this coming and going, we held our daily weather briefing this am. Russ showed us a plethora of charts from various respected agencies all agreeing that the next couple of days will mark a change, but not a change for the better. We are expecting a violent pressure change, thunderstorm style, which suggests reasonable precipitation. As I have explained the freezing layer is currently so high, this probably means rain at BC and snow at the higher reaches. The only good that can come from this is that somehow the ambient temperature drops.
The outlook beyond the 25/27th thunderstorm is elevated wind, with the days from the 27th onwards predicted to be 50/60kmph – not especially difficult, but if the snow is heavy, producing significant avalanche conditions. Our only hope is to see this weather bomb though and pray to any and all Gods that there is brighter weather thereafter. The clock is ticking and winding down on us, whether we like it or not.
Vanessa and Ethan, my son, arrived home from Cornwall yesterday and to my intense relief this morning, I managed to have a 30-minute chat. For the first time in while I managed to explain the overall situation, hear her voice and benefit from the reassurance she unwittingly gives me. It must be strange for her to realize that despite my outward confident persona, I am more reliant upon her to remain upright than I am my spine.
The endless hours of isolation and solitude sit well with some people, but not with me. Despite having, compared to some [at least relatively] stacks to do, I agonize and squirm in pain throughout every day – the sense of “loss” of family growing exponentially. I look around and see others much less occupied and apparently unconcerned. I simply do not know how they do it – I am mystified.
The advantage, if there is one, of such loneliness is introspection. One is inevitably forced to look inwards and self-examine. Emotions one has perhaps shelved because of lack of attention or time, simply bubble unhindered to the surface and dominate your existence. It is as if because they have been ignored or parked “conveniently’, they determine to exact a brutal revenge. I have been ravaged by the pain and guilt of how I have lost sight of what is most important in my life to the point that I have been rendered almost crippled.
My daughter Hannah who I am ashamed to say I have not spoken to for 3+years, recently said that when I go on expedition I suffer a “spiritual awakening”. Her question was whether the “expedition me” is the “real me” or a temporary phenomenon that is shed like snakes skin once home and I am once again immersed in self-importance.
From my own frank perspective, sitting where I do now, feeling increasingly stripped bare, I know the “real me “is here and now. This miserable image crushing experience removes the trappings of self-importance and opens the theatre curtains to what is important and also what you have grievously neglected. There is no escape. I have neglected my sons Oliver and Seth and especially my daughter Hannah in too many ways to mention and know I must make emends – if they will let me. I am sorry.
Irrespective of whether this mighty lump of rock allows me to climb it, my true battle is always with myself at BC. The true altitude sickness – introspection and self examination, weigh on me more than any pack, more than any extraordinary Sherpa load, for I have a lot to answer for – a reckoning that has now come due.
Perhaps the planets will align, perhaps the weather will smile upon us and perhaps I will stand on top of another giant rock. Good will have been done irrespective of my success or failure – many have contributed to my cause and the Nspcc, and for that I am grateful. However, the brutal, hostile and revealing nature of this cursed place will I hope serve an equally important purpose – to strip me of my arrogance and self importance and allow me to regain the love of those within my family who frankly deserve so much better.
Nothing that happened in my childhood, or luggage I may have carried since I was 10 years old justifies such behavior. If nothing else, this brutal expedition will help me, for once and for all, rid myself of this legacy and allow me to be the Father my children so deserve.
I wont let it be any other way – I just need a chance.
The weather is simply everything – success or failure is now totally dependent on conditions that we deem suitable for a relatively safe summit attempt. Last Monday we awoke to both rain and very “wet” snow. There is what we are terming a “lazy cloud system” hovering over the region, meaning we are experiencing cloud, snow and rain, little wind and unseasonably high temperatures – the freezing point actually being found as high as 6000m!
This weather pattern has, instead of crusting the snow, keeping it “dry” and hence providing a stable surface to walk on, turned the snow to a “wet and bottomless” surface. This bottomless snow is very hard to break-trail through and is also just perfect avalanche conditions – as we saw tragically on Broad Peak.
Rock fall is the second byproduct of the warm weather – rock usually bound in place by ice is now dropping freely providing a second lethal hazard. A number of people here have been struck including one of our Sherpas who damaged his knee.
So despite what appear to be somewhat idyllic conditions at BC; sometimes a sweltering, t-shirt and flip-flop world, the mountains rain down debris. Every 15 minutes as the day’s temperature rises, one can hear yet another avalanche or rock fall echoing around the valley, constantly reminding us all just how vulnerable we currently are.
And so we wait – the forecast, which we receive daily from Switzerland, points to reasonable weather for today and tomorrow at BC, but afternoon snow higher on the mountain. The difficulty is estimating the degree of precipitation and therein lays the danger. To be caught high on the mountain in a severe blizzard spells a very bad end.
The 25/27th alludes to a considerable atmospheric pressure change – the sort of thing pilots avoid like the plague – perhaps a thunderstorm – which alludes to a snow dump. This wont be as bad as it suggests as long as the temperature drops!
So, all in all, allowing for a currently accurate forecast we have no choice but to wait. The last week of July has historically been the “summit week” on K2, but this obviously isn’t set in stone – as we now know.
Yesterday afternoon a contingent from our team trekked down to Broad Peak BC to offer help to the injured lady climber – the survivor of Monday’s avalanche. It turned out that their help was very much needed. In the end three doctors attended the lady who had suffered a very bad lower leg injury/broken ankle/compound fracture/exposed bone etc.
The team essentially built a mini hospital and operating table and finally worked in quite extreme conditions to straighten and set this lady’s leg under a general anesthetic. The wound was flushed and cleaned as best they could and she was administered a course of intravenous antibiotics. The team, returned to BC late in the afternoon after a job well done. This poor lady has been waiting for helicopter extraction, but the weather has simply been too bad further down the valley towards Skardu military airbase to allow flight. Lord knows what this poor woman is going through and quite what the long-term effects of only “temporary” medical treatment will have on her health and leg going forward. I wish her all luck and hope the Heli can come today. They’re for the grace of God etc.….
It seems my dispatches will either become shorter or less frequent whilst we wait for a suitable weather window prospect – there isn’t much to say. My personal problem with simply waiting is the pain of being away from home is simply exacerbated. I understand the weather threat, but the prospect of being away from Vanessa an extra week compared to what I recently expected is literally torture.
Point me in the direction of the mountain, tell me to climb and I am good. Tell me to sit in isolation, away from the one who means the most, waiting for a possible chance to climb and I suffer.
Anyway, thanks for all the messages of support. I cannot be more grateful.
The operating table...
TBC, but one climber missing and two seriously injured. We saw the people get swallowed by the avalanche from K2 BC, but all members of our team were safely at BC owing to the overnight snow. The numbers of dead and injured fluctuated wildly at first, but to the best of my knowledge the statistics above are correct.
My thoughts are with the injured and families. Very sobering - Broad Peak C1 was my first climb of this expedition.
Pictures from the C2/3 acclimatisation rotation. We awoke to think snow this am - a surprise which has necessitated the Sherpas returning to BC once more until the layer melts and avalanche threat is reduced. We have been knocked back once more. Dt
Altitude finger splits...
The 16th dawned fine, if 3am can be considered “dawn”. Pre-prepared the previous day I had little to do but grab my pack, remember my Thermarest [lightweight blowup mattress] and exit my tent for a brief breakfast. I was utterly determined to be the “tail end Charlie” of our climbing group and steadfastly remained at the rear of the chain as it plodded and wound itself up the moraine towards crampon point.
This was to be the first real test for my knee since I had damaged it during the descent of Broad Peak, K2’s sister mountain over a week ago. During the interim period I had taken all and every drug including two rounds of Cortisone and painkiller injections. Right now it felt ok, but my apprehension was making me subconsciously limp.
One of our slower climbers was at the head of the column and predictably it wasn’t long before the natural course of things took over and the faster people drifted gently to the head – people have their “natural pace” and there is no way of fighting it.
Crampon point, sitting amongst the colossal piles of previous avalanche debris came and went and in minutes we were climbing the early steep, frozen face. This area of the mountain seems to be the most dangerous sitting as it does, so threatened by billions of tons of teetering ice. I was keen to be rid of this gut-clenching threat and powered on regardless of my knee and soon left the rest of the crew way behind.
Employing my newly developed left-legged sideways crab, the vertical metres dropped away and the sun slowly broke over the surrounding mountains. Occasionally pausing to gather my breath I marveled at the now [almost] familiar stunning landscape that surrounded me. At my back, the looming and massive Broad Peak, topped with a button of random cloud, planted in the vast Boltoro glacial valley. Ahead and above me the huge ice cliff that so threaten the lower reaches of K2 with lethal, random avalanches.
Minutes later I entered a vast couloir and became separated from the fall line and immediate avalanche threat. The sun started to beat down, overwhelming the low ambient temperature and chilling wind, but promising to suffocate me as the temperature inevitably rose. Every exposed inch of skin was liberally coated with factor 30 to deflect the sun’s extreme high altitude radiation.
On approach to C1, as I rested on the ropes, I rummaged in my right trouser pocket for a piece of chewing gum and accidentally dislodged my reading glasses – the last I saw of them was them skidding remorselessly down the ice slope never to be seen again. For those blessed enough not to be “glasses dependent” this must seem a non-issue, but for me it’s the equivalent of almost going blind. I groaned out loud, watched them disappear but hauled myself forward.
Three hours into the climb I passed the tiny rock platform that is dubbed C1 and simultaneously took the position of lead climber. I was feeling good and despite having to adopt a somewhat unconventional climbing style, was moving quite fast – the training had obviously paid dividends. If there is a period of the acclimatization/preparation during which to “push” this was it. Much better to test the body now, survive the 3-day rotation, then rest before the summit push.
I maintained the same pace, one step in front of another, over and over again, all the time contending with variable snow quality – one minute hard and frozen, the second sugary and powdery [and exhausting]. Nevertheless, at the end of 6.5 hours of I was confronted with a 2-3 meter cliff that announced the arrival of C2, a collection of just 6 tents spread equally over two tiers. I selected the most hospitable of the top-tier tents and tried to make myself comfortable.
The tents had been “well used” by the previous Sherpa tenants and it took me a while to make my tent habitable. The vestibule area was a bombsite of previously used but unwashed cooking implements and waste food, now all embedded into the frozen ground. I chipped the pots and pans free, collected a bag full of snow, lit the small Epi-gas cooker and set about boiling some water with which to clean everything with. This was a job I didn’t need after such a climb.
I inflated my mattress, laid open my sleeping bag, moved the Sherpa residue into one compartment and finally with boiling water now in good supply, finally lay down and rested. I gazed out of the tent, past my slowly bubbling “boil in the bag” lunch and once again reflected on just how did I manage to get here. The introspection is an inevitable part of such seclusion and one has to fight not to be overwhelmed by it.
My tent mate didn’t arrive until 2.30pm, some four and a half hours after my arrival and was soon squeezed into our small, precariously perched tent alongside me. If there is one thing I dislike, it’s sharing a tent. I assume everyone does, but I think my dislike operates on an entirely different level.
As the sun slowly set, and he temperature dropped like a stone, I sat crossed legged wrapped in a sleeping bag spooning my second chicken tikka with rice bag meal into my mouth, my tent mate already asleep and curled into a fetal position. I hurriedly replenished my water bottle, brushed my teeth and wearing literally every piece of clothing I owned zipped myself into my own back and tried to fall asleep. It was 6pm.
I left C2 at 6:30 am. I didn’t wait for anyone, determined, as I was to simply get on with it and also get it over with. I was again charged with carrying the same load as the previous day, which included, exceptionally, my Down Suit [for summit day which would be left at C3] a bottle of high altitude oxygen and also a couple of cans of Epi Gas. All in all this amounted to quite a weight, but its strange how the body simply ignores the burden – perhaps because there is no choice. However, only a small proportion of the climbers elected to carry a “Sherpa” which irritated me no end. The whole idea of me carrying extra weight was to hopefully minimize the number of prospective Sherpa loads and expedite the point at which we, as a team, would be ready to attempt the summit. Climbing the mountain isn’t just about the physical challenge; it’s about the logistics - a whole complex world of rope, tents, cooking equipment, sleeping bags and of course oxygen cylinders. Everyone doing his or her bit would have helped, just that little bit.
The C2 to C3 terrain, at least in the early stages was quite exposed as my videos hope to demonstrate, but before long the crazier stuff was behind me and the never-ending snow slope was all that was between C3 and me. I clipped in and out of rope segment after rope segment, finally catching sight of the top of the dark green tents that were to be my home for one further night.
I was frankly surprised to have arrived so soon – the C2-3 leg had been pre billed as a killer, but I had completed it in 4.5 hours. The next person arrived some 90 minutes later, by which time I had selected a comfortable tent, distributed the Epi and sleeping bags and simply made myself at home. My tent mate had decided to stay at C2 a second might and the math’s suggested I was very likely to end up sleeping solo – a seductive thought. This was confirmed when the remainder of the exhausted team arrived – euphoria!
With no “space invasion” I spent a long afternoon lying on my back, reading, boiling water, watching an iPad move, boiling water, taking photos, boiling water etc. This c2/3 rotation is simply an endurance exercise; just survive, count down the hours and at some point you will be back at BC. I simply set my mind to ignore time, think about the million things you would prefer to be doing and wait it out.
At 4 am on the morning of the 18th I awoke to the sound of light snow on the tent. The forecast had been non-specific, but now the snow had arrived it demanded an early exit - none of us wanted to get caught at such an altitude in a surprise blizzard. In moments I was packed and on my way down.
I loath descending. The physical dynamic of leaning away from the mountain face, crashing down into the deep snow steps made during a gentle ascent removes energy at a 3x rate. One performs an exercise called arm wrapping – where the rope coils around your right arm and runs through your gloved palm. This rudimentary braking system avoids a headlong plunge down the slope but is energy sapping to say the very least. Meter after meter, rope segment after rope segment pass – I passed both C2 and C1 making the appropriate radio calls, before some 3 hours later finally emerging at the foot of the mountain, amidst the avalanche debris and squarely at Crampon point once again.
It was hot. I stripped layers, helmet and gloves and without much ado, began the hour-long grind back across the ever changing rock and ice moraine to BC and sanctuary. I admit to feeling tired – quite excessively so, which I later blamed on letting myself get too dehydrated. My problem is I don’t get thirsty and simply put don’t have the normal alarm call to drink – I need to tell myself to drink and hence suffer the consequences of not drinking to plan. I drank gallons over the remainder of the day, but by bedtime had still only peed once! I promise to drink more in the future.
I relished every single luxurious moment of sliding into my sleeping bag. I craved sleep, having both missed much at C2/3, but also having resisted the doze temptation upon arrival back in BC. The sleep was like a pleasant death.
So, C2 and C3 have been claimed and now I sit at BC waiting for the 3-4 day summit push. Ropes have been fixed to within 2-300m of C4 as I write, but I admit to a fear of failure not borne of my own ability or lack of it.
We need many stars to align, not least Sherpa enthusiasm for the summit, in order to achieve our goal. Right now was are close to being ready, but we are not ready enough. I hope its only “Tait paranoia” grabbing hold of my mind yet again, but my instincts are normally pretty good. There is some way to go before we are all facing the same way and ready – and I don’t have all the time in the world to get this done. All options need to be recognized and considered.
This “blog” was always intended as a place where the physical and emotional toll of mountaineering was to be discussed. The physical is self-explanatory – there are legion descriptions of how climber X put one cramponed foot affront another to achieve his lofty goal – but that’s not the whole story – at least not for me.
I find this place, isolation and enforced co-existence miserable. It has to be tolerated in order that one at least gets a shot at the summit, but I have to say I loath it. As each interminable day passes after another I find myself becoming increasingly mentally frail – it is never the physical element of climbing that phases me.
Today I awoke frankly struggling to control my emotions and as the day has worn on, things have not improved. I have retired to my tent for fear of embarrassing myself; I don’t want to lose it and crumble in front of anyone. The irony isn’t lost on me as most would consider me a shoe-in [physically] for the summit. However, I pledged to write the Gods honest, so this is the way it is.
Perhaps the trigger has been the fact that Vanessa and the kids are in Cornwall now, ironically cut off from direct phone contact owing to “lack of cellphone signal”. I guess I am more dependent and reliant on the voice of my wife than I normally admit – but I am, simple as that. Without it I appear to be half the person I believe myself to be.
However, there you have it. I’m not good with isolation, I’m not good with being apart from my wife but I appear to be good at physical tests.
Right now I’d very much prefer to be with her.
View from C2 tent
C3 tent selfie
The Camps - C4 is over the horizon....
C 2/3/4 Distant.
Back in the “world”, time seems abundant; a commodity rarely in short supply and never concrete enough to feel as if it were literally slipping though ones fingers. Even when “drinking from the CS [work] fire hose” time is always available if one tries – utilizing it is simply a case of organization and working at a somewhat frenetic rate. However frenzied, there is never a sense of ‘running out” of time – never a feeling there will never be “no more”.
My attempt to summit K2 is however, most definitely time-dependent. Much like Mount Everest there is a Nature dictated window through which I must attempt to pass in order to succeed. Miss it, through either not being adequately acclimatized, suffering a lack of operational readiness or Nature herself simply changing her mind and the many weeks of pain, effort, filth and tedium are all for naught.
We lost another valuable day yesterday owning to a small difference of opinion between some of our staff and a third party on the mountain, which dictated a brief hiatus and suspension of our rope-fixing effort. The differences were debated and resolved back at BC in very short order, but nevertheless the day and the vertical advances we had planned were all shunted back 24 hours.
These delays, albeit trivial to the casual observer, feel overly significant to people like me, who don’t have limitless time available to achieve my goal. That being said, we have been very lucky with weather and logistics to date; it just doesn’t feel that way.
This is best explained as Tait paranoia – I am fully aware that all has been done that can be done, but that clock continues remorselessly and ticks ever louder in my ears. Some may recognize my race against time mentality - I don’t think this is an expedition phenomenon!
So, our Sherpas left this morning at 4am, hauling a large quantity of oxygen bottles for stockpiling at C3 and C4, in anticipation of our summit attempt. Both the climbers and Sherpa will use the oxygen – there are no “oxygenless” ascents planned.
All being well I will leave at 3-4 am tomorrow morning hauling a heavy pack containing Oxygen, my down suit, food, Thermarest, pee bottle, extra clothing, water, spare heavy gloves, medical/toiletries, ice axe, camera, sat phone and avalanche transceiver and begin the slog to C2. After one night perched on this forbidding ice shelf, I will slog another vertical 1000+m to an even more inhospitable C3 and hunker down for a further night. The oxygen will be limited at this altitude and it is likely that sleep will be fleeting. However this is the high-altitude shock ones body needs to be ready for the rigours of summit day.
Having suffered C3 night, I will descend to BC for a rest [and wash] and then rest in anticipation of our summit push, which I hope Nature will facilitate a matter of a few days later.
The current weather forecast is for relatively fine weather for the next 2 days followed by a narrow and shallow trough, with light precipitation followed by [fingers crossed] relatively fine weather once again. The “typical” summit week has historically been the last week of July and I am praying to all Deities that this hold to be true in 2015.
I have reached the stage in the expedition where I repeatedly scroll through my iPad and iPhone pictures – it happens every time. The expeditions break down into segments or phases; I have now reached the “stare at pictures of family and home stage” – its painful.
That being said, I am encouraged by our progress to date, and if the old adage “nothing good comes without a great deal of effort” is true, we are on course for a happy ending. We just need Lady Nature to sympathise.
For the uninitiated, I am attempting to climb K2 on behalf of the NSPCC, a UK anti-sexual abuse charity, partly to raise awareness of the daily horrors inflicted of very young children and partly to raise funds to combat these heinous crimes before they happen.
Any donation to the cause, large or small is more appreciated than I can articulate. The money is used carefully and intelligently; I can attest to this fact having previously been a Trustee.
Please consider donating – and to those who have been so kind to have done so, thank you.
All my expeditions past and present have been 100% self-funded. All the money donated goes directly to the Charity and the children who need it.
C2 View from BC -Distant
C2 View from BC - Medium
C2 View from BC through telescope...
The Camps - C4 is over the horizon....
C 2/3/4 Distant.