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!