The Summit Push
On Friday 15th July our team of 4 clients was reduced to 3 when Bruce left Base Camp to join a Jagged Globe trekking team who had reached Concordia. Bruce who had been struggling a bit on the climbs to Camp 1 had decided not to carry on a few days earlier, this seems to have been the correct decision & once made his spirits lifted immediately. He also had the consolation of receiving his replacement trekking shoes which David had ordered weeks earlier.
We got off to a bad start having aimed to Set-off for Camp 1 at midnight together with the Kobler Expedition & several others but awakening at 11:00pm (16th July) it soon became clear no one else was moving. I’d slept poorly having had a bad dream about the climb going poorly & that we’d abandoned it as a result.
However at 12:15am Sharife came back from a Kobler Camp reconnaissance to confirm that at least 12 of their members were now on the move. This spurred us into action & soon we were on the go with Crampons, Harnesses & Ropes in place. 6 Hours later both our high altitude porters & ourselves made the error of following the footprints of the groups ahead causing us to take an unnecessary circuitous route into Camp 1 over crevasses we should have avoided & extending our journey into the early morning heat of the rising sun but no major damage was done. We arrived at Camp 1 at 9:00am having narrowly avoided Avalanches coming down the South face of Gasherbrum 5 (a mountain that seems to avalanche more than any other in the region).
The plan was Day 1 (17th July) Camp 1
Day 2 Rest Day whilst allowing Kobler groups to Fix Ropes & Climb to Camp 2
Day 3 Climb to Camp 2
Day 4 Rest Day
Day 5 Climb Fixed Ropes to Camp 3
Day 6 Summit Bid (22nd July) allowing us to get back to BC for a departure of 24th July in order to still board our return flights on time.
Tension in Camp 1 grew as the day went on leading to one of our party losing his temper with me late in the day despite my intention simply being to calm his nerves that we were all in this tight schedule together (his concern being would he make his flights out on time). To David’s credit he stepped in to back up my position but despite this it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I went to bed thinking ‘Do I need this? Bad vibe & I’m worried to shit that the Fixed Ropes aren’t safe as well as the Avalanche risks are still too high’ (a huge avalanche had come down our side of GII earlier that afternoon which narrowly missed our route ahead). Before sleep overtook me I’d convinced myself that first thing the next day I would announce ‘I’m pulling out’. Sleep was un-surprisingly again poor & a stiff wind convinced me the whole climb was likely to be called off avoiding me having to announce my personal decision to bail.
Woke at 6:00, wind had dropped so I would need to make the announcement but on putting my head out of the tent & looking at the route (Banana Ridge immediately above Camp 1) it became clear that several groups were on the move. More specifically a group of Kobler’s Porters were well ahead working on the ropes & their clients following at some distance behind. Finally the plan seems to be going to plan, ‘sit this out Paul, all is not lost just yet’.
The day passed inevitably hot & slowly but at 2:00am on Day 3 the alarm rang & our push to Camp 2 finally began. Climbing fixed ropes for 7 hours could not be described as either easy or enjoyable my fitness being counter-balanced by poor technique. In the middle of the steep climb was a short airy ridge which was a brief respite with simply jaw-dropping views of our environment before a short abseil led to more hard jumaring up steep fixed ropes but our arrival at Camp 2 secured a well earned achievement. To bolster this further our GPS’s confirmed we’d climbed further than anticipated to 6,550 metres.
Day 4 was a rest day but with the option of a short upward outing towards Camp 3. In honesty I couldn’t see the point of this as it gave very little in terms of improved acclimatisation (too late in the climb) whilst it would inevitably be another early start using energy that could be better saved for the bigger days ahead. In the end David pulled the plug on this idea. It was during this day that we learned that Sharife was now also out of the climb. He’d stayed in Camp 1 to help manage the evacuation of a Porter from another Expedition who was suffering from altitude sickness. Then the next day whilst climbing the lower fixed ropes to Camp 2 a falling chunk of ice had hit his ankle so he’d decided it was best to go down.
Day 5 we were due to set off at 3:00 so set our alarms for 2:00am with Luke aiming to be an hour ahead of us as he wanted to make sure he’d reach Camp 3 before the sun raised it’s head. However the wind picked up in the middle of the night so all plans were delayed with David saying we’d review things at 3:30am. By 4:00am the wind had dropped so we made plans to set-off at 5:00am or thereabouts. We jumared up the fixed ropes individually all taking about 3 hours to climb the 400 metres to Camp 3 with Rui setting a slightly faster pace than Luke & Myself. The weight of my backpack was proving to be a bit of an ask but at least I knew on summit day much of that weight could be left at Camp 3. David roughly calculated that allowing for a slightly slower pace our summit day climb would take 9 hours although I pondered that that was a tad optimistic, surely at least 10 or 11?
We were now at just under 7,000 metres with no one showing any major signs of the altitude affecting them badly other than effort being more strenuous. We would spend a sunny but cooler day prepping for the summit bid to come including sorting kit & fuel, eating & drinking as much as we could. Despite this I was estimating at best I was only getting 2,000 calories in a day throughout the summit push probably less than half of the amount I was burning.
In mid-afternoon a guide, Topo from the 360 degree expedition, came into Camp with his Client (wearing Oxygen Mask) & two Porters having spent 13/14 hours to get to the summit & back. Topo was able to give us good information about what lay ahead, mostly fixed ropes to Camp 4 (7,400 metres), some more fixed ropes on the final ridge to the summit & a straddling manoeuvre to get onto the summit itself. He also confirmed that approximately 12 people had summitted that day, mostly starting from Camp 4 as they had. David then outlined our own plan, moving as a group & that anyone who chose to turn around would be accompanied by a High Altitude Porter, (it was me who’d asked for clarification of this as I have to say I was reasonably convinced this would apply to me).
Day 6 (technically Day 5 still when it started) was to get underway at 10:00pm with us planning to rise an hour earlier. However as Rui & I settled down for the night at 6:00pm the wind stirred up all of a sudden & the next 3 hours were spent listening to constant & heavy spindrift hitting my side of the tent, it would soon be lying a foot deep. Despite this & my belief that the climb would be cancelled David’s voice came over loud & clear ‘wind’s dropping we’re going’, our summit bid had arrived! By now I’d been awake already 20 hours, hardly ideal but it was what it was. The next few hours would answer a lot of un-known’s.
We finally set-off at 10:15pm, Zakir led at a slow & steady pace followed by David, Rui, Luke, Me, Hassan & Yeossuf (the fittest of us all) bringing up the rear. The initial steep snow-slope (big drop off to our right) soon led to fixed ropes over mixed rock & ice. After a couple of hours jumaring up this Luke stopped to adjust layers & after several minutes Yeossuf told me to go past him which I did so by safely un-clipping & re-clipping my safety line before doing likewise with my Jumar. To begin with Luke then followed me at some distance but then after I’d climbed around a tricky rib his headtorch failed to follow. Not long after David called to me ‘where’s Luke’ & I explained my best guess. Next Yeossuf’s headtorch finally came into view there was a lot of relayed shouting between us which eventually transpired into Luke had decided he was turning around & David ordering Yeossuf to go down with him. Half an hour later we reached Camp 4 where we stopped briefly for a quick re-group before the un-protected long snow traverse under the mountains South-West’s face. No sooner had this begun when Rui announced ‘David I’m not feeling well & am turning back’. Rui who’d gone really well yesterday had been feeling below par since getting up but despite this I was more than a little surprised & even more so when David responded that he’d go back with Rui leaving me to go on with Zakir & Hassan. Within the space of 30 minutes & between the heights of 7,350 & 7,400 Metres our team had gone from 7 to 3.
I was now also on the part of the mountain I’d always feared The Traverse, not particularly steep but very long (estimated at one & a half hours to cross) & with a steep drop off to the right. In the Alps these have always troubled me mentally partly because I prefer facing in where you are unable to directly see the dangers & probably also a hangover from a fall on a traversing descent on the Aletschhorn back in 2015 where Tim’s professionalism saved mine & his life. Zakir led but kept on stopping too frequently making me want to tell him ‘keep going, I’m O.K.’. It wasn’t until 20 minutes or so later that at one of these stops Hassan asked me to lead-on, Zakir wasn’t stopping to help me he was clearly knackered after several tough days of carrying his heavier Porter’s loads establishing our various camps. It was now my turn to occasionally stop to let Zakir & Hassan catch up. The ridge at the top of the traverse seemed to get no nearer (lit up by 3 other climber’s headtorches whom started from Camp 4) for an age but eventually I reached it & sat down for a longer rest before being joined by Zakir & Hassan whom also had a Porter friend from another team in tow.
Next up was an un-anticipated steep snow slope to a gap in the ridge above (I’d been expecting a mixed scramble on rock & ice). For some reason un-beknown to me this slope I now call the elephant, it had the 3 climbers above clearly struggling. Again I led catching the last of the 3 as I topped out where I waited several minutes for Zakir & Hassan to arrive. This gave me time to admire the beginning of the sunrise as well as look at the route to come. Again the surprise of a very long & arduous snow slope (no scrambling!), ‘this could take best part of an hour in itself & still no summit in sight’. On the slope moving each way were a number of Camp 4 climbers all moving slowly & to make the picture worse the fixed rope only began halfway up.
Having been joined by my teammates I set-off slowly but surely, left foot crampon, right foot crampon, ice axe in (just as the snow was pretty hard), left foot……. & so on & so on, stopping occasionally for a breather. Before reaching the fixed rope I’d passed two of the group of three as well as a group of seven descending all but one of which using Oxygen. By the time I reached the rope I knew I’d done well (it had been far from easy) but as they say pride really does come before a fall. As I knelt down with the front points of both crampons in the snow I placed my axe & was then simply gone! It all happened so fast, I was sliding & gathering pace at an alarming rate, I’m pretty sure I had time to think ‘this is it’ & certainly didn’t have the time to think ‘keep your feet in the air’ but did still have my axe & had the presence of mind to constantly flail it at the slope as hard & as often as I could, eventually it bit into some softer snow & I began to slow my descent. Coming to a stop I just lay there in shock, it’s hard to explain how I felt at the suddenness of it all & what would have happened had I not held onto the axe. I had been speeding towards precipices of well over 1,000 metres, yes my slope would have eased before them but enough to stop me, I’ll simply never know the answer to that. The climber without the mask (I’d later find out he was Ralph the descending groups leader) & Zakir reached me to see how I was. I think Ralph said ‘that was a most amazing self-arrest’ but he could equally just have said ‘you idiot’, I know I said ‘I’m O.K. just in a state of shock’. Zakir, removed my backpack & gave me time before helping me to my feet. I can’t remember any impact but clearly my left foot had hit the snow at some point as my ankle gave a searing pain when I put weight on it. Before getting up I also remember debating in my mind ‘what do I do now, do I really want to go back up?’ In all I had slid more than 100 metres & was now both physically & phycologically a different person.
To cut a long story short I did go back up, I clipped onto the fixed rope without a second mishap & reached the top of the long arduous slope. Here the loss time created by the fall played against me in three ways. Firstly I had to wait frustratingly whilst three climbers descended a short technical fixed rope section (my only safe option so at least I was thinking straight), secondly the sun was heating up turning the snow softer & more arduous to push through & thirdly the same sun was cooking me somewhat quickly. ‘No choice Paul, stop, wait for Zakir to climb up to you & whilst doing so remove your 8,000 Metre Down Jacket & Fleece. When Zakir reached me I also felt it was time for me to retrieve my backpack from him, he’d been a star but enough molly-codling it was time for me to support myself again.
We were now on the final snow slope, again steep to begin with but then easing in a dog leg to the left & rope fixed all the way. My un-robing had allowed a slower climber above to move ahead so I had a free line albeit at a pace a fair bit slower than my pre-fall exploits. The ankle was noticeable but clearly not broken I’d surmised so a bit more hard work was feeling manageable.
I reached the crest, un-tied from the rope, straddled the ridge before my left leg followed the right & walked the final few metres to the summit. Hassan who was already there (the question of what happened to him in the aftermath of my fall I guess can only be answered with ‘Young & In-experienced’) greeted me & the American climber who’d I seen earlier congratulated me. I sat down on what was like a purposefully designed snow perch, watched Zakir emerge onto the summit & then got an energy bar out & took a drink. A little refreshed Zakir & I then took it in turns to photograph each other where un-like me he had the ware withal to re-don his Down Jacket whereas I remained in two Merino base-layers. Still K2 & Broad Peak look very close & confirm that I was there, on top of GII, on an 8,000 Metre Peak!
Had I not fallen I believe I would had summitted at circa 7:00am a little under the 9 hours David had predicted, as it was I reached the summit at 8:25am.
I was planning to include the descent in this blog but it wasn’t as simple as I hoped (well descents often aren’t are they) so having already prattled on for long enough will leave that story for another day.