Climber's summit bid comes up short


Writing the final dispatch for an expedition is always hard. The end always comes with a BANG, not a whimper. I find myself a little drained and fighting for the words needed to sum up months of physical and emotional struggles. Sometimes, it is easier, like when the summit is reached. That always provides a convenient way to wrap up a climbing trip. But all too often the summit eludes us: weather, death and/or climbing conditions force us to turn back.

On this trip we did not reach the top. We took a gamble on the only summit shot that appeared: the tiniest of weather windows. Just about every climber in base camp shouldered their pack when Sunday looked hopeful. Tao and I headed up the SSE Ridge, climbing on Wednesday to C2 and on Thursday to C3. The weather was perfect and the climbing superb. The route is so aesthetic, ascending steep snow slopes, passing between rocky towers, traversing rock bands, wriggling through gullies of ice, and stepping airly across knife edge ridges. It was everything a mountaineer dreams of: technical and delicate climbing with a world class back drop.

We were feeling fantastic by the time we reached C3. The plan was for us to spend two nights there, at 7,050 meters (23,300 feet). During the "rest day" we would fix ropes toward the Shoulder at 7,800 meters. The Norwegians would meet us there and we would continue on to C4 together.

Meanwhile on the Abruzzi Ridge, climbers were passing through Camp 2 on the way to C3. We would all join forces for a summit bid on Sunday. The combined strength of a dozen plus climbers would produce a powerful summit team.

But sometime on Thursday night the winds tore across K2, bringing a 24-hour blizzard with it. At C2 and above, more than a meter of snow fell. Tao and I were trapped in the tents at C3 until Saturday morning. Radio calls went back and forth. At 9 p.m. on Friday night a new forecast came in from Switzerland. It was calling for the snow to stop late that night, but Sunday's summit wind speeds doubled to nearly 30 knots per hour. And the period of good weather that was supposed to have stretched from Saturday to Monday was now expected to end in storm by Sunday noon.

It was the classic delimna: we were 6,000 feet above base camp, the slopes were covered in a meter of fresh snow and bad weather was coming back in less than 36 hours. To move up was foolish, the slopes were primed to avalanche and even if the summit could be reached, the coming storm would kill us on the descent. And descent from C3 was equally crazed: with a meter of fresh snow, and the lower slopes of the route forming the sides of a funnel that drained most of the South Face, the avalanche risk was extreme. In 2002 six friends were torn from the lower slopes by an avalanche that killed one of them. The timing of our retreat was critical. The snow that had been falling was very, very cold, meaning that the crystals hadn't yet bonded together. Any early avalanches would be of soft snow, not the heavier, denser slabs that would tear from the South Face as the sun and wind compressed the crystals into giant chunks of snow.

Tao and I were descending before 7 a.m., greeting the rising sun as we started the first of 120 estimated rappels. We were carrying a bunch of gear for the Norwegians, just in case they couldn't make it back up to C3 to retrieve their more expensive gear. About 2 hours later we dropped into C2, where the Norwegians and some Americans were holed up. By 11:30 a.m. we were at the base of the mountain. We were back in base camp for just a few hours before the first giant avalanche completely scoured the lower slopes of the route. No one was caught in that avalanche.

The weather on K2 this season has been horrible. It reminds me of the summer I spent here in 2002. Both years, teams of strong climbers had prepared the routes, but every summit bid ended with high winds and snow blowing the climbers back to the safety of base camp. In 2002, tough, two climbers were killed. This year, we have all been lucky.

The forecasts are depressing. There is a potential window forecasted for nine days from now (and you know how accurate a nine day forecast in middle America can be, Karakorum forecasts change daily). Tao and I have decided that we can not put our other responsibilities on hold any longer. The forecasted window seems too elusive to delay a return home until September. We have called for porters and hope to be leaving base camp on Aug. 10, arriving in the U.S. around Aug. 18. We are leaving with most of the other climbers. Perhaps 10-11 climbers, from a handful of teams, are staying. We wish them the best of luck.

As I started this dispatch, wrapping up an expedition, especially one that failed to summit, is tough. I really wanted to reach the summit of K2. I wanted to reach it for deeply personal reasons. As I find myself getting older and my responsibilities getting greater, I know that my chances to accomplish such a monumental goal are limited. The timing of my tagging the top couldn't seem better than right now: my body can still handle the strains and my mind can still process the challenges, and before my heart finds itself too tied to home, and before the spark that fires my soul finds itself fueling different types of adventures.

But K2 could care less about bending to my time frame. Like many climbers before me, I am destined to walk from this mountain wondering when I will be able to return to her slopes and test myself, one more time, against the challenges she has to offer.

Originally published August 8, 2005, 3:05 PM EDT

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