The mountain that brings out the best, and worst

a forestbather in ukraine
5 min readFeb 14, 2018

K2 laughs, a lot. Perhaps because it is only the world’s second. When it laughs it’s sides shudder, great roaring clouds of ice and snow tumble down it’s flanks, sweeping all in their path, climbers of all categories, the best, worst, the best-prepared, the unprepared, the slowest and most careful, and least, the fastest, fittest, most eccentric, conventional, and the sherpas too.

And then, K2 wheezes, and monsoon-like winds lash rock faces and ice walls alike.

It depends where you are on the mountain: above say, 6,000 metres is not a place to hang around. Supplies come slow, the weather changes fast. So do we. It becomes harder and harder to go up, decisions get worse and worse. And by the time one gets to say, 7,000 metres, well, things begin to get very serious. Without oxygen tanks, survival is a question of hours. But oxygen tanks do not arrive on the mountain by luck; they must be carried, carted up, and they weigh heavy on a back, and mind, so heavy that a climber often takes a brave but correct decision in eschewing these metallic cylindric objects from his or her pack, in order to move more quickly, or at least leave them in his or her tent from where he or she has invariably slept an uncomfortable night before making his or her summit push.

Weather controls summit attempts: blizzards are bad enough, but hot sun can often be more dangerous, melting snows into avalanches, and causing great blocks of ice to fall and perhaps even severe ropes, or legs.

It is said by some, that when you have stepped on a summit you have conquered a mountain. Others, like me, disagree: you can only have truly conquered a mountain by coming back down again, and K2 is a mountain that challenges any descent, perhaps even more vigorously, humour replaced by a furious anger, in attempts to shake the intruder who dared stand at the peak, off the mountainside.

In such a climate climbing is a logistical nightmare: at what height did we pitch the tents, how much food did we leave, and oxygen? Will others have used the oxygen and eaten the food, mistakenly or not?

And then come the bigger questions: what do we do with those too tired, too frostbitten to carry on? Or those suffering from altitude sickness that hits anyone at any time, despite acclimatisation work on the way up? Do we promise them we will come back for them, or that someone will? How long will they have to wait, drifting out of consciousness?

Different factors influence decisions. Not least the financial one. A permit to climb K2 costs nearly $2,000 each. A bond for a rescue by helicopter is $6,000. A companion who is not able to make the summit push from the last camp cannot be taken down immediately. Everyone understands this, because after all the training, the long trek to the base camp, the complex series of climbs before the attempt, well, to have come so near and then just turn around: that is not an option.

There are usually 4 camps up K2, which are notionally each one climbing day apart. But it is not that simple. Acclimatisation, and ferrying supplies up, means that climbers will move up and down the mountain between various camps for a number of days, or even weeks, sometimes sitting at the base camp for long spells waiting for the weather to break.

And, again, these waits cost: there are porters to pay, cooks, liaison officers, and other costs that climb when the climbers do not, and all of this affects decision-making, while resources drain.

K2 is in the heart of the Karakoram range, between Pakistan and China, it may forever be the second highest mountain in the world, but it is also the deadliest to climb. 302 people have climbed K2, and 2,700 people have climbed Mt Everest, or Chomolungma. Some may feel it is more important to stand on the heighest point. Others know K2 is the real mountain of mountains.

Here is a list of those known not to have made it, only from the year 2000, and not therefore including those killed last century:

2014, 30 July, Miguel Ángel Pérez, Spain, Probably altitude sickness, 2013, 26/27 July, Marty Schmidt, New Zealand /USA, Avalanche, 2013, 26/27 July Denali Schmidt, New Zealand /USA, Avalanche, 2012, 6 February, Vitaliy Gorelik, Russia, Frostbite, Cardiac Insufficiency, 2010, 6 August, Fredrik Ericsson, Sweden, Fall, 2010, 17 July, Petar Georgiev Unzhiev, Bulgaria, Altitude sickness, 2009, 23 June Michele Fait, Italy, Fall with skis, 2008, 2 August, Dong-jin Hwang, South Korea, Fourth serac fall, 2008, 2 August, Kyeong-hyo Park, South Korea, Fourth serac fall, 2008, 2 AugustHyo-gyung Kim, South Korea, Fourth serac fall, 2008, 2 August, Mehrban Karim, Pakistan, Second or third serac fall, 2008, 2 August, Hugues d’Aubarede, France, Fall during descent, 2008, 2 August, Ger McDonnell, Ireland, Second or third serac fall, 2008, 1 August, Pasang Bhote, Nepal, Fourth serac fall, 2008, 1 August Jumic Bhote, Nepal, Fourth serac fall, 2008, 1 August, Rolf Bae, Norway, First serac fall, 2008, 1 August, Jahan Baig, Pakistan, Fall, 2008, 1 August, Dren Mandić, Serbia, Fall, 2007, 20 July Stefano Zavka, Italy, Lost, 2007, 20 July, Nima Nurbu, Nepal, Fall from bottle neck, 2006, 13 August, Arkadi Kuvakin, Russia, Avalanche, 2006, 13 August, Aleksandr Foigt, Russia, Avalanche, 2006, 13 August, Piotr Kuznetsov, Russia, Avalanche, 2006, 13 August, Yuri Uteshev, Russia, Avalanche, 2004, 19 August, Manel de la Mata, Spain, Pulmonary edema, 2004, 2 August, Dauoud Khadem, Iran, Lost in storm, 2004, 2 August, Sergei Sokolov, Russia, Lost in storm, 2004, 29 July, Aleksandr Gubaev, Kyrgyzstan, Lost in storm, 2004, 8 June, Kyong-kyu Pae, South Korea, Avalanche, 2004, 8 June, Jae-koung Kim, South Korea, Avalanche, 2004, 8 June, Hwa-hyeung Lee, South Korea, Avalanche, 2003, 21 July, Klaus-Dieter Grohs, Germany, Fall, 2002, 22 July, Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan, Fall, 2002, 13 July, Sher Ajman, Pakistan, Avalanche, 2001, 22 July, Young-do Park, South Korea, Fall.

K2 does not discriminate.

I wish I had gone on an expedition to the mountain. A challenge such as that brings out the best, or worst in a person. It would have brought out the best in me. And after a climb like that, one changes, and becomes a different person. Would I have made it, though? Perhaps not, and I would like to think I would have therefore died an honourable death, though all are.

So maybe it is right that I never went into the heart of the Karakoram, a name that still rolls so delightfully off the tongue.

Maybe, however, just perhaps I could make it to the base camp, one day, travelling first the long journey on the dusty train of Pakistan railways, resplendent of a glorious past, and pulled by the Chinese-made deep-throated chugging Caterpillar ZCU-30 engine, then the long walk of ten days until about 5,500 metres, passing the memorial of inscribed tin plates and plaques to those who were taken by the mountain, and then gaze in awe at the majestic, bitter, dangerous beauty that is K2.

blinded by a need
stronger than reason
 — a moth understands