I am beginning to draft this blog entry while currently stuck in Islamabad, eager to get back home to Seattle after a long stint in Pakistan.
The idea for this trip started roughly one year ago. I was in Chamonix for one week, after a super successful trip to Alaska, and before an only somewhat successful trip to India. I was totally out of rock climbing fitness, but one day Aymeric Clouet kindly dragged me up a cool multi-pitch rock climb in the Flammes de Pierre area. We were joined in the venture by Mathieu Maynadier and Charlotte Barre. On the approach Mathieu mentioned that he wanted to go do an easy 8,000er, just to get experience at that altitude as a prerequisite for eventual more ambitious goals at high altitude. I was immediately interested, having already wondered about going to do an easy 8000er for the exact same reason. Both Mathieu and I really like ski mountaineering, and we were in agreement that if heading to an easy snow slog, the most fun would be to do so on skis. Thus, this past winter rough plans were made to go try to ski the normal route on Gasherbrum 2.
Over the years I have gone back and forth about whether I find high altitude climbing to be a satisfying challenge, or whether I think it’s unenjoyable, and would much rather do faster, more technical climbing at lower altitudes. Parallel to this discussion within my brain, I have gone back and forth about climbing in Pakistan – a country that has a lot of the world’s most awesome mountains, but a country that is extremely expensive to climb in, and an extreme hassle to travel in. My last trip to Pakistan had been in 2011, and when I got home from that trip I swore off climbing trips to the Greater Himalaya. I decided wholeheartedly that I preferred more technical climbing at lower altitudes, and for the next few years I focused nearly exclusively on Patagonian climbing. I think that this focus yielded great results, and in the 2012-2013, 2014-2015, and 2015-2016 Patagonia climbing seasons, I accomplished many of my best ever climbing achievements. However, slowly but surely, the curiosity about high altitude climbing crept back into my consciousness. In 2015 I made two trips to Nepal, in 2016 a trip to India, and finally this summer I found myself back in Pakistan, excited to go see what 8000 meters of elevation feels like.
The first mistake of the expedition, in hindsight, was choosing to go to Gasherbrum 2. Neither Mathieu nor I knew any better, but we now know that Broad Peak would have been a nicer choice. The normal route on Broad Peak rises right above its basecamp, but to get from the Gasherbrum basecamp to the actual base of Gasherbrum 2 requires climbing through a very annoying icefall, which, for the entirety of our expedition, was only reasonable to travel through between midnight and 8am.
When I landed in Islamabad on June 13, the only person on the expedition that I knew previously was Mathieu, aka Mémé. However, we were joined by two of Mémé’s friends from Briançon, Guillaume Vallot and Jérémy Rumebe. We were also sharing the cost of peak permit and basecamp logistics with Muhammad Hosseini, from Iran, and Raimund Rohlfs, from Sweden/Switzerland. Going on a long, sometimes stressful, expedition with a group of strangers is a big risk, and I had decided to roll the dice – Fortunately I got very lucky, and everyone in our group turned out to be friendly, cool people. Everyone got along well, and that, in one sense, can already be considered a successful expedition. Despite everyone getting along well, if I’m honest it wasn’t a very good expedition for me. I didn’t achieve my stated goal of climbing Gasherbrum 2, but, more importantly, I simply didn’t much enjoy the process of trying.
We had some logistical bad luck at the start of our expedition, which resulted in hanging out in Islamabad for two days, and then again wasting a day in Skardu. While this sounds very minor, for me the sometimes incredible amount of time it takes in Pakistan to get from the international airport to the base of the mountain is part of why I consider it such a hassle to go climbing in this country. I had another, more significant, stroke of bad luck on the approach to basecamp, catching a cold from Mémé on the third day of the trek. When your body is already stressed by the struggle to adjust to high altitude, your immune system is in a compromised state, and a minor cold that might have never affected me at sea level started to take over my respiratory system. Each day we were doing a half-day of exercise, and sleeping at about 600 meters higher elevation than the previous night, and this gave my immune system no fighting chance against the virus. This pace continued up to our basecamp at 5,100m, an elevation to which one can never fully acclimatize, and I arrived in basecamp feeling very sick. Over the course of the one month I spent in basecamp, I slowly became more acclimatized and slowly became less sick, but I was never totally healthy for the entire expedition, and would start coughing anytime I was doing vigorous exercise. This is by no means an excuse for not climbing Gasherbrum 2, because by the end of the trip it was relatively minor, but it definitely was a contributing factor, mostly because I couldn’t start acclimatizing above basecamp until about 10 days after the rest of the group. More importantly, the physical discomfort of being constantly sick simply made the expedition less enjoyable for me, which in turn affects one’s psyche and motivation. As soon as I got sick, while still down at 4,000m, I should have stayed put until I felt like I was recovering. Unfortunately, being part of such a large group, making the trek to basecamp all together, I had no option to stay and recover at lower altitude. In a place like Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, on the other hand, which has an extensive infrastructure of lodges, I could’ve easily personalized my rate of ascent to my health, and gotten completely healthy in a few days.
In addition to the annoying icefall between basecamp and the base of the mountain, another reason that G2 wasn’t the ideal choice of mountain was that it turned out there were no good options for lower acclimatization peaks. The opposite side of the valley is completely off-limits to climbers by the Pakistani military, and near G2 the only lower peaks are G5 and G6, both with difficult avalanche conditions. This resulted in us acclimatizing exclusively on the same route which we intended to eventually complete – a logistical “advantage” for those prepping the route with fixed ropes and camps, and a psychological “disadvantage” to those who get bored of going up and down the same slopes. As we began to acclimatize, we began to talk tactics, and to my surprise, it turned out that of all the people who had come to try the normal route on G2 this season, I was the only person, out of roughly 30, who intended to climb in alpine style (without using fixed ropes or pre-stocked camps). I was not surprised that the 8,000m peak-bagger types preferred to climb in expedition style, although it had never even occurred to me that my teammates would have that preference as well. However, to be fair to Mémé, Jérémy, and Guillaume, it was a reasonably logical choice, considering that we only had our one route available to acclimatize on, so stoking camps 2 and 3 was a pretty easy choice for them while making acclimatization forays up and down that exact route route. Not using the fixed ropes or fixed camps was an easier choice for me, because of another difference in strategy – I preferred to try to climb the mountain in one day from a camp at the base (at 5,900m), while Mémé, Jérémy, and Guillaume preferred to attempt going to the summit from a high camp at 7,000m. Mémé specifically wanted to sleep at 7000m because he considered it a prerequisite experience for technical climbing high on a 8000m peak. I specifically wanted to try to summit an 8000m peak via a 2000+m day, as I considered it a prerequisite for the style in which I envisioned eventually trying technical routes on peaks above 7,500m. Thus, being the only person to not use the fixed ropes was a bit easier for me than it would’ve been for others, considering that I never carried bivy gear on the mountain. Likewise, it understandably would have felt contrived for Mémé, Jérémy, and Guillaume not to stock camps on the mountain, as they were carrying bivy gear up to those exact locations anyways while acclimatizing.
Yet another difference in strategy that developed was the use of skis. In the beginning all four of us planned to try to ski Gasherbrum 2. However, the icefall was so broken up that it required taking one’s skis on and off a lot, both while ascending and while descending. Similarly, the lower portion of Gasherbrum 2’s normal route turned out to have a pretty steep section, and during the course of our expedition this was only skied one time, by Jérémy, when the snow was in reasonable condition (it was often some mix of slush and breakable crust). There are many mountains where, with the right timing, being on the summit with your skis is massively preferable to being on the summit without your skis – it can simply be hugely more efficient (and fun) to be on skis sometimes. However, due to the icefall and the lower portion of the route, I soon concluded that Gasherbrum 2, at least in the conditions we encountered, was not one of these mountains. It seemed to me not a mountain that I would ski because it would be more efficient and more fun than without skis, but more like a mountain that I would ski simply to be able to say that I did. Thus, Guillaume and I decided to abandon our skis, while Mémé and Jérémy stayed true to that vision. In the end, none of us made a proper ski descent of Gasherbrum 2, although Jérémy did ski all the pieces of terrain below 7,850m separately, and Mémé and Jérémy did ski the majority of the terrain below 7,850m after their successful ascent to the summit.
Because I was climbing in a different style than Mémé, Jérémy, and Guillaume, I found myself climbing basically alone. I don’t blame anyone for this, because I could’ve easily joined them if it was more important to me to climb with partners than to climb in the style I wanted to. Nonetheless, climbing alone, particularly on mundane snow slopes, was a bit boring, and I think this eventually contributed to me not being motivated enough to climb Gasherbrum 2.
During the expedition I made a few camping trips up to ABC at 5,900m (referred to by everyone in basecamp as C1, but the term ABC makes more sense), and I made acclimatization day trips up to 6,300m, 6,600m, 7,200m, and 7,400m, and every time felt pretty good. On the day that I finally decided to try for the summit, however, I turned around at merely 6,600m. I convinced myself that I felt tired that day, but ultimately I think it was a lack of motivation more than a lack of energy. I had gone from ABC to “Camp 2” (at 6,400m) in 1:15, at a pace that felt very conservative, and then descended from 6,600m back down to ABC at 5,900m in 40 minutes – times that seem to objectively indicate that I was performing just fine. However, regardless of if I was objectively performing just fine, I subjectively FELT like I was tired and slow, which ultimately has to do with this game of high altitude climbing.
The biggest theme and frustration for me on this expedition was returning to my longtime dilemma of whether or not I enjoy the challenge of high altitude climbing. I think that my strategy, of never sleeping higher than 5,900m, and attempting to climb the mountain as a day trip, at least made the experience of high altitude climbing as fun as it can be for me, but ultimately I still found it to not be very enjoyable, at least relative to alpine climbing at more moderate altitudes. I was usually moving significantly faster than any other people I was encountering on the route, but it was irrelevant, because instead of comparing to the people around me, I couldn’t help but compare to myself at more moderate altitudes, and from this perspective all the climbing felt abysmally slow and boring. I think the most significant quality I lack for 8000m climbing is patience, and by extension my motivation. Mémé and Jérémy were probably the highest-performing summiters of G2 this year, and even they took a whopping 9.5 hours to ascend 1000m of elevation from “Camp 3” to the summit. The majority of the other summiters this year took much longer, some in the vicinity of 24 hours to ascend and descend the 1000m of elevation from “Camp 3” to the summit of back. Even in my most exhausted experiences in alpine climbing, I have never had rates of ascent remotely close to these on non-technical terrain. Perhaps I’m simply naïve or unrealistic, but I think that personally I’m not interested in climbing above 7000m if I can’t move noticeably faster than these rates of ascent, at least on the non-technical terrain.
Aside from frustration with how slow 8000m climbing proved to be, I was frustrated with just the general feeling of the experience – The feeling of not getting enough air, the feeling of not having much appetite, the feeling of being less coordinated than usual, the feeling of having to try harder to concentrate. A lot of the days I enjoy most are the ones when I feel in unusually good form – days when you go to a sport crag and seem to never get pumped, and float up a whole host of routes that should normally all be at your limit – days when you go alpine climbing and seem to never get fatigued, cruising up huge amounts of terrain with ease and a smile on your face. In contrast to those dream days when you feel in super good form, I realized that high altitude climbing is like intentionally seeking out the days when you’re climbing at your absolute worst, slow and clumsy. If you took video footage of anyone climbing above 7,800m, and then told a viewer that it was actually footage shot at 1,600m in winter, the climbers in the footage would look like completely incompetent novices, regardless of if it’s footage of Messner, Kukuzka, Urubko, or Jornet!
It would be dishonest not to disclose one more significant factor in my expedition: This past winter I fell head-over-heals in love with a new romantic partner, and I missed Alisa’s company a lot during the course of the expedition. It would be naïve to not admit that this probably played a role in my level of interest in the project of climbing G2. In fact, after my last acclimatization trip up to 7,400m I came to the firm conclusion that high-altitude climbing wasn’t for me, and that I wouldn’t head back up on G2. I packed up my camp at ABC, and brought everything down to basecamp. Only after discovering that Emirates wanted to charge me $1000 to change the date of my flight home did I say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll try to climb G2 after all,” and carried all my bivy gear back up to ABC the day before my attempt. Considering that I had already TRIED to give up and go home to see Alisa, it’s not shocking how quickly and easily I threw in the towel on the day that I “tried” for the summit.
To be clear, most everything I’ve written above about 8000m climbing is about my personal feelings and conclusions, at this point in time. What makes different types of climbing enjoyable is totally subjective, and I’m by no means trying to say that 8000m climbing is lame and bad choice for everyone. It should be clear by the fact that I didn’t climb G2 that I’m in no position to call 8000m climbing lame or easy, and in fact I am very impressed by the feats many climbers accomplish on 8000m peaks.
While I can’t pass judgement on the value of 8000m climbing, since it is so subjective, I can’t help but pass judgement on many of the 8000m climbers. In Gasherbrum basecamp this year there were a small handful of experienced, “real-deal” 8000m climbers, people who are skilled and experienced on all sorts of alpine terrain, and who happen to really enjoy the challenge of thin air, such as Alberto Inurrategi, Mikel Zabalza, and Juan Vallejo – they wanted to try a cool and creative traverse of G1 and G2. In contrast to these Basque badasses, however, was the majority of climbers who were 8000m normal-route collectors, trying to be the whatever-number-th person to do all 14 8000m peaks. I am NOT trying to say that goal is flawed, because what one person finds enjoyable is totally subjective. I also am NOT trying to imply that the 8000m normal-route collectors are bad people, as nearly all the people I met in basecamp were totally friendly, interesting, cool people. However, the average level of alpine climbing skill and experience in Gasherbrum basecamp was shockingly low, and in the case of some climbers, insanely low. People who did not have sufficient skill and experience to safely climb Tahoma without a guide, were throwing themselves against a very serious mountaineering objective. It was downright scary, and I was quite concerned about the potential of getting involved in a dangerous rescue of a reckless climber (this did eventually happen, see below, but I was already gone). One conclusion that I had firmly come to by the end of the trip is this: 8000m peaks have a reputation of being very dangerous, with ridiculous statistics of how many people die per successful summit. What I realized on this trip is that 8000m peaks are not that inherently dangerous, but they tend to attract dangerous people – people who are unskilled and unexperienced, but quite crazy, willing to push much farther past their safe boundaries than most of us would, certainly way further past their safe boundaries than I would be willing to do.
Considering that the terrain on G2’s normal route is mostly very easy, people were climbing past their safe limits not merely in terms of risk of falling on the few steep sections, but more often in terms of surpassing their reasonable limits of fitness. I have believed for a long time, and still strongly believe, that having a high level of fitness, and a big reserve of physical endurance, is not merely useful for achieving impressive climbing accomplishments, but a very important safety net for when things don’t go according to plan. Only a few times in my life have I come even remotely close to my physical limits of exhaustion, and 99% of the time I never come anywhere near them. This is part of why I’m unwilling to go from 7000m to the summit and back in 15 hours – to me this incredibly slow pace represents pushing too far beyond my safety net of decent physical performance. In my opinion, at least several of the people who summited G2 this season were recklessly beyond their safety net of physical performance. In one case this was demonstrated to be true, as one man who reached the summit returned to “Camp 3,” passed out, and woke up the next morning to find himself too exhausted to descend. He passed a couple days in “Camp 3” getting progressively weaker, until the Badass Basques came to rescue him and assist him down to ABC, where he could be evacuated by helicopter.
For one last, more humorous, note about the 8000m peak-bagger scene, I can’t help but share this story. Early in the expedition a climber from another group came over to our basecamp to discuss the fixing of ropes. He proceeded to declare that, “Other than G2, I have climbed all the peaks in this region!” It didn’t take long to decipher the truth: He had climbed the normal routes on K2, Broad Peak, and G1. I mean, after all, G4, Masherbrum, Mustagh Tower, Nameless Tower… those are just little hills, right? 😉