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