K2 2019 Dispatches

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Our K2 expedition team just arrived back in Islamabad, after the 100 km trek out from base camp to Askoli, 7-hour jeep ride from Askoli to Skardu, and a 34-hour epic drive from Skardu to Islamabad. All members of the team (climbers, Sherpas, Pakistan staff) are safely on their way home now.  (members Valerio, Gina, and Elizabeth had previously departed K2 base camp by helicopter)

It’s been a successful expedition in that we all returned safely, however, we didn’t achieve our secondary goal of reaching the summit. Although we reached Camps 3 / 4, and our Sherpas climbed higher to the Bottleneck area, we didn’t reach the top of the mountain.

This was a result of the snow conditions that were present during our summit attempt, as we learned from our Sherpas and from other teams who were above Camp 4 scouting the route below and above the Bottleneck. The conditions encountered during July 16-18 in this area were deep and unconsolidated snow, up to 2 meters in some places, resulting in 3 known avalanches in this area. Fortunately, no climbers were injured or killed in these avalanches, although some were carried down the mountain before stopping, and sections of the newly installed fixed-line were torn out during one slide. Clearly, this area of the route was very unsafe.

Given these dangerous conditions, we didn’t feel it was prudent to push another summit attempt since it would likely be many weeks or months before conditions would change enough to warrant a safe and reasonable attempt through this area.  A strong wind to blow this amount of snow off the slopes would likely not occur this season, or the alternative, a massive avalanche that would take the snow down the mountain leaving behind only hard pack snow or ice as we have climbed in the past.  Hence, we made the decision to conclude our expedition, along with other teams that arrived at the same conclusion, such as the Furtenbach, Imagine, Adventure Peaks, and smaller expedition teams such as Mike Horn’s team and the Czech team (approximately 80% of the climbers attempting K2 this season).  With these conditions, we felt this was the safest decision, shared by myself, co-guides Victor Saunders & Conan Bliss, and our Sirdar Aang Phurba Sherpa along with the other climbing Sherpas.

We later learned during our trek out that on July 24th several climbers reached the top of K2, led by a strong team of Sherpas and Nimral Purja (Nims). Adrian Ballanger’s private team was close behind them and also made the summit.  We were initially surprised by their success but also wanted to learn what allowed them to make the top.  Was it simply pushing hard through deep and unstable snow conditions (including the risk that posed) or did the conditions change in such a short time period to allow for safe and reasonable climbing?

I was able to have a WhatsApp conversation with Adrian after they got down to base camp, and he reported that essentially conditions had significantly changed since our attempt, allowing for safe and reasonable climbing.  In Adrian’s words “We sure were surprised…we could see it was stripped (the slope). Lots of signs of wind effect…some may have sluffed (avalanche). There was a big wind event on the morning of the 22nd…that may have stripped it. We fully recognize how lucky we got…I wouldn’t have guessed such a significant change was possible either, especially with no major weather change forecasted…know that your decision was absolutely the right one…with the available information.”  Our hearty congratulations to all those who reached the summit of K2 this season!  Well done!!

Hindsight is 20/20; if we were able to foresee the change in conditions from Camp 4 to the summit after the wind event on the 22nd that cleared the slope, and before the weather moved in on the 26th, then a short summit window would present itself. However, at the time we moved to Camp 3 (July 17th) and had to make a decision, we were acting on the best available information from our Sherpas and other climbers regarding the unsafe condition of the Bottleneck area, and our weather forecasting service which didn’t suggest any forthcoming weather activity to clear the slope.  It is likely that high winds the morning of the 22nd, in combination with an avalanche, cleared the slope. Fortunately, no climbers were on or above/below this area when it cleared, as it would not likely have been survivable. Luckily for Nims’ & Adrian’s teams, their timing was such that their scheduled summit attempts just happened to fall within the narrow weather window beginning on the 24th, whereas our team and most others that were slightly ahead of this schedule were attempting just a few days earlier when conditions were impossible.

It’s tough for us to come away without a summit, especially after putting in so much effort.  The training, time away from home, and the weeks spent on the expedition acclimatizing are all part of a monumental effort.  However, K2 is an extremely demanding mountain in good conditions by any measure, and with our primary dedication to safety, we are happy to have our entire team return in good health!

Conan, Victor, Rick, Brian and me are looking forward to a good rest here tonight in the Serena hotel after an “adventurous” drive from Skardu to Islamabad, but we’ll save that story for another time!

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The K2 trekking is complete.  The team had a marathon day by finishing the trek and then 4-wheeling for seven hours (!) to Skardu.  Here’s expedition leader Garrett Madison’s update:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 expedition team.  Today is July 26th and we finished our trek out from K2 base camp to Askole and then we rode by jeep for seven hours from Askole to Skardu.  We are very happy to be in Skardu and to have a nice lodge with a hot shower.  And everyone’s doing great.  We’re gonna take a rest day tomorrow and then fingers crossed for good weather, hopefully fly to Islamabad the following day.

(photo:  Madison Mountaineering K2 archives)

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Today the K2 team trekked to Jhola camp and now has just one more day of trekking left.  Expedition leader, Garrett Madison, talks about the long day:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 expedition team.  Today is July 25 and we have arrived at Jhola camp (3151m/10,338ft) on the trek out back to Askole.  It was a long day today.  We left camp about 6:00 AM and got in here around 7:00 PM!  But, a nice, beautiful day, lots of great views.  Everyone’s doing well and we are looking forward to our final day of trekking tomorrow and then driving by jeep to Askole Skardu.

(photo:  Madison Mountaineering K2 archives)

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As the K2 team continues to trek out, Garrett checks in from Khoburtse camp on the Baltoro:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 expedition.  Today is July 24th and we trekked down the Baltoro Glacier from Goro 2 (4285m/14,058ft) to Khoburtse camp (3827m/12,556ft).  We had a nice day.  It was beautiful weather, great views!  The team did excellent but we did have a little surprise here in camp.  Right before dinner there was a small landslide.  A glacier lahar must have broken loose in a small lake up above and so we saw some rocks and mud come down which was exciting but nobody was injured and no gear was lost.  So, all’s well here.  Looking forward to another great day of trekking tomorrow.

(photo:  Madison Mountaineering K2 archives)

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The K2 team is trekking out and enjoying the continued great weather.  Garrett calls in from camp on the Baltoro Glacier:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 expedition team.  Today we trekked down from base camp (4968m) to Goro 2 camp (4285m) on the Baltoro Glacier.  We packed up base camp and left at about 7:00 AM this morning, made our way down past Broad Peak, and through Concordia then on to the Baltoro.  Beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, amazing views all around.  And the team’s doing great.  We’re looking forward to another great day trekking down to Khoburtse camp (3827m).  We’ll check in soon.  Thanks!

K2 stands tall - view from Concordia camp as we said good bye to the mountain

K2 stands tall – view from Concordia camp as we said goodbye to the mountain

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With the season over, the base camp departures begin.  But if you are still in base camp, you might as well enjoy yourself!  Garrett provides these details:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 climbing expedition.  Today is July 21st and we’re down in base camp.  A few of our members helicoptered to Skardu today, Valerio, Gina, and Elizabeth.  The rest of us, myself, Victor, Conan, Rick, and Brian are still in base camp.  We’re gonna continue packing up tomorrow and then start trekking out on the 23rd of July towards Skardu.  So, looking forward to heading out of here.  All’s well!  We had a great expedition and looking forward to heading home towards family and loved ones.

Rick chipping ice with a wooden ice axe, for gin and tonics in base camp

Rick chipping ice with a wooden shaft ice axe for gin and tonics in base camp!

View of route to K2 summitt from camp 4

View of the route to K2 summit from camp 4

Helicopter taking Valerio, Gina, & Elizabeth out of K2 base camp to Skardu

Helicopter taking Valerio, Gina, & Elizabeth out of K2 base camp to Skardu

 

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The whole team is down off the mountain and all safely in base camp and will be heading home soon.  Stay tuned over the next few days for Garrett’s complete expedition recap as the team makes their way back to Islamabad and beyond.  Here’s Garrett with today’s expedition dispatch:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 expedition team.  We’re having a great time here at dinner!  Good spirits all around, you can hear the laughs in the background.  The whole team’s together and we’ve made the decision to head home.  We’re not gonna stay and climb anymore.  So, it’s been a great expedition here, wonderful journey, and we’re looking forward to heading home to family and loved ones.

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The season’s snowfall on the upper slopes of K2 has won out, and unfortunately, the summit will have to wait for another year.  Today the team made the prudent decision to abort the summit push.  While one team member and his climbing Sherpa partner ascended to Camp 4 to spend the night, the remainder of the team descend from Camp 3 and are doing well in base camp.  We expect everyone to be in base camp tomorrow.  Here’s Garrett’s update:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 climbing expedition.  We made a great attempt on K2 and unfortunately the snow conditions were just too unstable, too deep, and the avalanche risk too high for us to climb up past Camp 4 into the Bottleneck and the Traverse area.  Magnificent job by all pulling together as a team and working hard and in position for a summit, but The Mountain said no this time.  So, we’ve respected the mountain and we’ve come down to base camp.  All’s well here, and we’ll check in soon.

Descending the fixed ropes after we made the decision to turn around

Descending the fixed ropes after we made the decision to turn around

Descending the Cesen route on K2

Descending the Cesen route on K2

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The team made the move up to K2 Cesen Camp 3 today under beautiful conditions.  Expedition leader, Garrett Madison, has this update:

Hello!  This is Garrett calling in for the K2 climbing team.  Today we climbed from Camp 2 (6311m) on the Cesen route up to Camp 3 (7013m).   Everyone did good today.  We had nice weather.  And we arrived Camp 3, settled into our tents, and now melting some snow for water, getting ready to have some dinner soon.  We’re looking at the options for tomorrow.  But ah, beautiful views here today, spectacular visas, looking out over the Karakoram peaks in China and Pakistan.  So, very happy to be here.  Everyone’s doing well. Check in soon.

K2 Camp 3 (7000m)

K2 Camp 3 (7000m)

The incredible view from Camp 3 on the K2 Cesen route

The incredible view from Camp 3 on the K2 Cesen route

Hanging out at K2 Camp 3 on the Cesen

Hanging out at K2 Camp 3 on the Cesen

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After yesterday’s big initial push up from base camp, the K2 team has been resting up at Camp 2 today and will move up to Camp 3 tomorrow.  Garrett fills us in on the details:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 climbing team.  Today is July 17th, and we decided to take a rest day here in Camp 2 on the Cesen route.  The weather is great!  Litte bit of uncertainty regarding the rope fixing up high, so we decided to wait a day, give ourselves a little more time, and also rest up from the big push we did yesterday from base camp up to Camp 2 (about 4,500 vertical feet).  Our plan is to climb up to Camp 3 tomorrow.  Everybody’s doing well.  We’ll check in soon.  Thanks!

Camp 2 on the Cesen route

Our Mountain Hardwear tents at Camp 2 on the Cesen route

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