K2 Nord Expedition - Dispatch #8

Dear Friends

After almost 80 days on the ‚road’ or rather on the mountain, we arrived back home last Sunday morning. Since then, I have had time to reflect on a very intense and enriching time with extraordinary people, and I am extremely grateful for it. My life’s dream to stand on top of all 14 8,000m peaks, and after several setbacks, to reach the summit of K2, has finally come true. I would like to thank every one of you with all my heart for having believed in me – or rather us. Thank you, for being with me in your thoughts. I could really feel it and gain my energy from it.

The fact that Ralf turned back on the mountain made it possible for us to keep you informed about our summit attempt, however, now that I am back I would like to give you some more impressions.

When we left base camp to get to Camp I, it was snowing very heavily and we knew that we would have to have a rest day there. Fortunately, the sun was shining triggering many avalanches, which meant that our way to Camp II would be safer the following day. However, it started snowing again at around midnight and when we left our tents at 5am the next day, there were another 15cm of new snow on the ground. We were making good progress to the traverse but we knew that the beginning of the couloirs could be somewhat dangerous.

Just before the traverse, Ralf suddenly said to me: “Gerlinde, I am going back – this is far too exciting for me.” This was a very difficult moment for both of us. If we turned back and waited, the new snow would be too much to get any higher on the mountain. I shared my thoughts with Ralf and told him that my gut feeling was good. On the contrary, his gut feeling was completely different. We respected our individual decisions and Maxut, Vassily, Darek, Tommy and I continued climbing up the mountain. It was important for us to stay together during the ascent in order to minimise the risk.

Like many times before, the snow was very deep on the snowy ridge. Every 50m, Max, Vassily and I alternated breaking trail. As we were making pretty slow progress, we knew that we had to bivouac somewhere on the rocky shoulder. In case of emergencies, I had packed a very light two-man-tent, which we pitched late in the afternoon and tried to fit five people into it. Tommy decided to descend to Camp I in the evening and we managed to squeeze all four of us into the tiny tent. Every once in a while it stopped snowing, which made us feel more confident for the next day.

Given the circumstances, we had a pretty good night even though all of us were a bit twisted when we crawled out of the tent the next morning. We packed up all our gear and continued towards Camp II in strong winds and intermittent snowfall.

We managed two difficult traverses and each of us was secretly hoping that it would stop snowing as Charly had predicted; that the wind would abate and that we would have sunny weather to continue to Camp III the following day. Well, we were hoping….

Once we had reached Camp II, we built another platform and fixed our wind-beaten tent with strong anchors. From there, I was finally able to talk to Ralf on the radio, which we had deposited at the camp. He was very happy to hear from us. He told me that he had spoken to Charly in Innsbruck, who told him that the jet stream should move towards the North the following day. This was a huge boost for our confidence!!

Camp II at 5am. The storm was still raging outside even though we had thought the jet stream would move on. The weather normally changes very quickly but the jet stream seemed to be moving very slowly. Despite the miserable conditions, we were still planning to reach Camp III. We were breaking trail in very high winds and, like always, were working very well together. In the afternoon, we reached the site of our Camp III. We were feeling very cold and quickly pitched our tiny tents.

When I called Ralf, he was already on his way down to our advanced base camp with Tommy. They told us that the jet stream was finally supposed to die down – Maxut and Vassily only nodded nonchalantly and I have no idea what they were really thinking at this moment. However, Charly was right this time and the wind almost died down completely. The past few days were mentally pretty hard for us, which we only noticed now that the weather was improving. The atmosphere among us was quickly improving and everyone seemed to be more relaxed. Ralf ensured us that the jet stream would have swept away the new snow and that we would not have to break much trail further up on the mountain – and he proved to be right. We made pretty good progress and reached Camp IV in the early afternoon. We quickly pitched our tents, boiled water and had intense discussions. How would we proceed?

We knew that the long traverse just before the Japanese Couloirs would be another huge challenge. Whether we would make good progress in the current snow conditions was pretty uncertain. In case of emergency, I packed my tiny tent, a pot and a stove, and Maxut and Darek put a gas cylinder each into their rucksacks. We were also carrying 50m of rope each. The traverse was pretty delicate and we only could make slow progress. Ralf was watching us with his binoculars and I was very happy that I was able to consult him by radio every once in a while; especially when we reached the point, where we were not sure from where we should best traverse the steep slope.

Ralf was able to see the couloirs from a completely different perspective and discovered a crevasse, which went from the right edge of the couloirs to the left. He advised us to move directly underneath the crevasse in order to avoid possible avalanches. We followed his advice and were able to proceed safely across the slope. Time moved on quickly and even though we were all pretty exhausted, we were feeling well and decided not to go back down to Camp IV. Just underneath an icy ledge at about 8,300m, we dug a small platform on the 50 degree slope that barely fit our small tent. We only needed it for a few hours though as we were planning to continue up the mountain around midnight. With the additional volume of our downsuits it was even more of a squeeze inside the tent than at our bivouac at the rocky shoulder, however, we were still able to melt some snow to drink. It was only for a few hours….The night was bitterly cold and was increasingly getting colder. In order to control the feeling, I was concentrating on each of my body parts. Despite the fact that we were all very tired, none of us were able to sleep a wink that night. We shared a few sips of hot water and the four of us ate one bowl of soup together. We supported each other and despite the difficult circumstances, we were all immensely tolerant. We all had a huge common goal, which we could only reach together – and only together.

At 1.30am, Maxut, Vassily and I started our climb, however, after about 50 vertical metres we turned back as we could no longer feel our fingers and toes. We waited until 7.30am, and once we could see when the first sunrays would reach us we started off again. We had a lot of snow from the very beginning and climbed along the very left edge of the Japanese Couloirs. We gained altitude pretty slowly. Ralf, who I was in constant radio contact with, was encouraging us: “Once you get to the ramp that leads to the summit ridge, the snow will be much better.” This statement kept us going, however, when we got there we realised that the complete opposite was the case. We literally got stuck in the snow. We tried to climb into three different directions, but in vain. The snow was hip-deep with a hard crust on top of it. We broke trail for ten steps each, gaining about 10 vertical metres each time, and then changed. Could it be that K2 was refusing us again? Vassily, Maxut and I looked at each other but no-one said a word. Metre by metre we were working hard until we reached a rocky area, which was much easier terrain. All of a sudden I could feel an incredible surge of energy. When I reached the summit ridge, I contacted Ralf. The only thing I could hear him say was: “….you will make it, you have almost made it.”
When Vassily reached me, he asked me whether we could make it.
The ridge leading to the summit was completely wind-swept and when we were just below the summit, we could look down towards the bottleneck on the other side. I stopped for a minute – Frederik felt very close at this moment.

While Vassily was waiting for Maxut, I continued towards the summit. The very last steps were the most special and most intense moments I have felt on this expedition. I had fifteen minutes on my own on the summit and I wanted to share these moments with Ralf. This day, the amazing evening light with almost no wind in the air were a huge present.

I was thanking the universe, the creation, Ralf and everyone, who was with us in thoughts. I am literally unable to put my joy into words. First, Maxut and Vassily arrived, closely followed by Darek. At around 7pm after we had taken our summit photos, we started our descent. When we left our bivouac in the morning, we already knew that we would be descending in the dark. We all had spare batteries for our head torches, and the most important thing was to keep up our concentration until we get to camp. The slightest mistake could be fatal. We came off the summit ridge just when the sun was going down and disappeared into the night. Vassily and I reached our bivouac at about 11.30pm and I immediately turned on the stove to melt some snow. Maxut and Darek arrived a little bit later. Vassily and Maxut decided to stay the night at the bivouac – Darek and I carried on to Camp IV.

When Maxut and Vassily arrived the next morning, we descended together to Camp I. The snow was still very deep making our progress, once again, very slow. We finally reached Camp I at 3 o’clock in the morning. As Ralf had already booked the camel herders for the next day, we had to be at the Chinese Base Camp the following evening. The next day, we carried our heavy rucksacks down to our deposit camp, which we reached at 10am – Ralf and Tommy met us there shortly after. The joy and relief that I felt when Ralf took me into his arms are almost impossible to describe….The burden of the last days were lifted off my shoulders – we had made it. My life’s dream has come true…

Once again, THANKS A MILLION to all of you for being there!

I would also like to thank my sponsors, who have generously supported me over the years.
THANKS to our friend and meteorologist, Dr Charly Gabl!
THANKS to the whole National Geographic team!
THANKS to our fantastic home team – Kathrin and Nicola

With all my heartfelt regards!

© TEXT G. Kaltenbrunner | TRANSLATION: Billi Bierling