PreparationI have known for years that I want to try and climb an 8000 meter peak. Finally, the summer after I was supposed to graduate approached and I signed on with Field Touring Alpine to climb Gasherbrum 2. Well, there wasn't enough interest for G2 and since they were running a high profile Broad Peak and K2 double header they asked if I wouldn't mind climbing Broad Peak instead. I looked up the stats and saw more people had died on it so I asked the owners of FTA if it was more dangerous but they cited that mountain conditions on G2 have changed in recent years making it more difficult so it was about the same as Broad Peak. So I agreed and gave them a lot of money. I spent the winter doing climbing and hiking and shopping for overboots and -20F sleeping bags and other expedition gear. I went rock climbing in January and February to get used to trying to do technical climbing with frozen fingers on slippery rock. I ran with snowballs clutched in my hands. I soloed the easiest gully on Mount Washington in New Hampshire because much of the route on these mountains was supposed to be that steep. I spent most of the spring running a lot of miles and trying to rock climb as much as I could. I was able to turn in a few decent races and after my competitive season I ran a double marathon in 9:31 in May. I figured if I could run for 9.5 hours then hiking for that long shouldn't be a problem. A few last minute workouts culminating with a swim in Lake Michigan and at a point where I could honestly try to climb 5.12a in the gym had me feeling very prepared for this expedition.
TravelI left Wisconsin on June 8th. First it was an hour drive to the airport. Then a flight from Milwaulke to Cincinnati and another from Cincinnati to JFK in New York. Then a fantastic 13 hour flight from JFK to Dubai. That flight was terrible! I had an isle seat and so half the time when someone went past they would bump into me or my chair. I didn't sleep a wink on that flight. I watched a movie at the beginning while they served us supper then I spent three hours rolling around trying to sleep. After that I just gave up and watched three more movies. Emirates flights always have a tv in the headrest and they have dozens of new movies so I caught up on all the big blockbusters of 2008 and a few of 2009. Then I had two hours in Dubai to try and find my way around the airport and finally found my gate for the flight to Islamabad. It was a culture shock looking at the crowd waiting for a flight to Pakistan. I was the only white guy. There were a few people wearing Shalwar Chamises which looks like the same thing the Taliban wears, because it is what many of them wear, but it's also what 170 million people in Pakistan wear too. As I am waiting there, getting a few stares, three other members of the expedition showed up. We all started talking and since none of the four of us had ever been to Pakistan discussed our nerves a little bit and talked about the very low actual security risk. At least, we talked about the low security risk to make ourselves feel better because at least I was wondering 'what am I doing?'
We jumped on the Boeing 777 flight and I watched another movie and a half before nervously unboarding onto the tarmac. I stepped into a fully loaded airport shuttle that drove us the 2 minutes to the terminal. We went through customs where they only asked what country you were from and how long you were staying. No one ever asked if you had anything to declare. I had a few things that I thought they might take away but they never asked if I had any contraband. The next time I'm going to bring a lot more questionable things. Namely five pounds or more of good sharp cheeses. There we met another four members of the expedition that had arrived within minutes of us on other flights. The eight of us, each with our own luggage push cart full of expedition duffel bags, made our way out of the airport. When we got close to the doors they asked to see those little stickers that matched our luggage tickets to prove we weren't stealing anybody's baggage. Then we went through the glass doors and there were about two hundred people waiting behind a simple waist high metal fence in the lobby of the airport for their friends and family. They were all quite quiet (it was 4 AM). I was very surprised. In Costa Rica when you went out of the doors there were dozens of taxi drivers trying to mob you and lots of yelling. Here is was quiet. We found the bus to the hotel and piled our hundreds of pounds of stuff into the van. Most of us got seats but a few people ended up getting a taxi for the 20 minute ride to the Envoy Continental hotel. As soon as we arrived and signed the register we got our room key and I fell asleep for the first time in a day and a half.
I roomed with Jim, the doctor, so at 8 AM we were woken up three hours later with one of the trip leaders in our room asking about medical supplies. That was my introduction to the most famous climber I have talked to for more than five minutes. I went downstairs and had breakfast, complete with chapatis (tortillas). Most of the expedition was there. A few headed off that morning to the airport to get on a flight to Skardu. The rest of us talked about what to do and many of us decided to go to the supermarket. We didn't exactly translate our wishes to the bus driver very clearly but we ended up at an outdoor mall and after 30 minutes of walking around found a store with decent prices and a good selection. I bought some nuts and tea and a lot of Snickers. Then after everyone had their fill we headed back to the hotel. It was about 11 or 12 and lunch wasn't until one. I layed down on my bed, not expecting to sleep...
I woke up at 4 AM the next morning having missed two meals, including a roof top bar-b-que and team meeting where they told us we were driving the karakorum highway (KKH) instead of flying. My roomate slept through supper as well so we both woke up and had showers, watched tv, freaked out a little that we were in Pakistan, and coming down stairs at 6 AM we were greeted with "Where were you? We're driving, get your bags down here ASAP!" So we ran up stairs and grabbed our bags and threw everything together and were on the busses and off by 6:30.
The road started out on the highways of Islamabad and wound it's way northeast. The entire KKH is paved. I was expecting large sections of dirt but it was just 100 meters here and there. The pavement wasn't exactly the autobahn though, it was rather rough. The first day we just drove and drove with a stop every three hours or so. We had lunch at 4 PM at this little hotel in a steep canyon. Just after lunch we started to have a police escort. It varried from one guy on a moped to three guys in a 15 year old pickup, to one guy that didn't even have a vehicle but just rode in an extra seat in one of our two busses. Around this time we passed the cutoff to the Swat valley where much of the fighting with the Taliban was/is the sign said "Swat Valley 80 km." The escort continued into the night. Most of the time they would ride with us for 20 minutes or so and then we would get a different escort or not have an escort for awhile. When it got dark out the police cars would put a flashing blue light on top and all I could think was: 'Look here are the infidels. Direct all anger this way.' We had a stop at midnight were they wanted our passport numbers and for us to sign a log book. We were close to Chillas at that point which is close to where there is a lot of fighting and so it was a stressful moment signing onto the ledger in the dark in the middle of nowhere. But there wasn't a problem and we kept going and got to the Shangri-La hotel at Chillas at 2 AM. Jim and I once again skipped supper and went to bed thinking we would wake up at 5 for breakfast. It turns out that the Chinese were doing blasting on the road ahead and we weren't going to leave for awhile. Well, I woke up at 5 AM and quickly found out that we weren't leaving immediately so I lounged around in a chair and walked around the hotel a little. Finally at seven we ate. I sat at a table where everyone else had climbed Mt. Everest. It was quite intimidating because it's Everest and here everyone had done it. We started talking about mountains and it seems that many of them were very disappointed by how easy Everest was and so they were coming to K2 to be challenged more. It seems that Everest has fixed lines from base camp to the summit on both sides so there is really nothing you have to solo, unlike the mountains in Pakistan. Also on Everest the level of Sherpa support is enormous so you carry very little weight at any time. The weather is also very predictable in Nepal so it is rare to have to wait out a storm and you can pretty much write out the acclimation schedule before hand and then actually follow it which due to the storms in Pakistan is nearly impossible. As one Everest summiteer later told me "If you actually want to get to the top of an 8000 meter peak go to Nepal."
The second day of driving was only ten hours on the road compared to the 18 hours the day before. We had views of Nanga Parbat although it was mostly covered in clouds. We also stopped at the junction of the Indus and another river which is were the Karakorum, Himalaya, and Hindu Kush mountains all come together there is a little monument. The Indus river is quite impressive. There are no dams or cannals as far as I saw. It has rapids that are huge! It looks just terrifying most of the time. The best way to describe it is that the best kayaker in the world came to Pakistan and tried to go down it and he died.
Several hours later we finally made it to Skardu, which is at a spot where the river opens up into a wide plain so it is quite a different sight from two days of narrow canyons. Over supper that night we decided that we would stay in Skardu two nights to arrange everything like oxygen, tents, gas, rope, and cookware that would be needed on the mountain. The next day we spent time opening each brand new Marmot tent and tying on all of the cord and sorting gear to head to the two different base camps. We also spent some time shopping in the bazaar (down town). We also shot some video for a possible upcoming documentary about the 100th year anniversary of the Duke of Abruzzi's 1909 expedition to K2. We happened to meet the first Pakistanni to climb all five 8000 meter peaks in Pakistan and the guy who painted signs for the Central Asia Institute (Greg Mortenson's schools for girls). I bought some more food and a shalwar chamise and an Afghan hat. We also stopped at the "Internet for Tourists" internet cafe with five working computers used the surprisingly fast internet. Since we all finished our shopping and web surfing at different times I ended up walking back to the Concordia Hotel alone. It was terrifying at first. Here I am, a total foreigner walking alone down the street in Pakistan. It turned out fine obviously and I made it back to the hotel fine.
The next day, the 14th of June, we loaded ourselves onto jeeps and began the 6-16 hour jeep ride from Skardu to Askole. A flat tire, a mud waterfall, and too many hairpin switchbacks slowed us down a little but it still took
In Askole we set up the North Farce tents (North Face tents that are gray market with terrible zippers that regularly fall apart) that we would use the rest of the expedition at base camp. I had a fun moment while we were setting up the tents because I happen to own a North Face Mountain 25 and we were using VE 25s which is quite similar so I had no problems setting it up. There were two English Everest veterans that were having a rather difficult time though so I made the joke they could climb Everest but couldn't set up a tent. They shot back that not everybody is a rocket scientist like I am. I don't remember many of the jokes but I did spend a lot of time laughing in Pakistan.
ApproachThe next morning at 6 or something we had breakfast and the porters gathered for the opportunity to get a 25 kg load and carry it up the valley to base camp. There was really not that much chaos. The sirdars and guides kept it pretty organized. The porters were only let into the tiny ATP (Adventure Tours Pakistan) compound when there was a load for them. After video taping a little of the spectacle I headed off in a light rain up the valley. I was planning to hike with the camera crew but they two of them kept stopping and after an hour I gave up and did my own thing. I put in my iPod Shuffle and the first song that came up was "Live your Life" by T.I. and Rihanna which is the most appropriate song I can think of to start an expedition.
Several hours of hiking later after passing and getting passed by David and Gerlinde (rock stars of 8000 meter climbing) I made it to Jola, a barren patch of rocks and dirt. When I got there Taqi our high altitude poirter greeter me by grabbing my shoulders and saying, "You are strong". That made me feel good because he's a pretty strong climber. It was not warm or sunny and it was a little windy. One great thing about expeditions is climbing into a solid tent on flat ground not at high elevations and into a warm and dry sleeping bag. I slept really well throughout the expedition despite the wind and snow storms that happened at night.
Summit PushI was in team two and there was four of us plus Taqi the HAP. Two headed up leaving at 12:30 AM and the other one and I woke up and had breakfast at 5 AM. We headed off and off we went to camp two. I climbed right near Taqi until ABC and then he just took off and I didn't even see him until camp two. We caught the early crew just before camp two and passed them arriving at camp two to see the surprise of one of our guides still at camp two. Apparently he had headed up to camp three and had bonked half way there and decided to abort his summit push. When moving around on these mountains people often moved independently out of sight or hearing range from anyone else. It was a rare day when I was close enough to someone to have a conversation.
The route to camp three from camp two goes through the steep rocky section then the broad ridge then the unroped nearly flat section then another 100 meter, probably less, steep section with a rope then the last hour or so was completely unroped and icy. Again I was happy I had sharpened my crampon points. I arrived at camp three just before 2 PM feeling good. I checked both of the tents for the remaining member of our team that was still up the hill and he wasn't there so I radioed I was at camp three and that we were still missing one member. I sat outside my tent then and turned my GPS on and it read 23,050 with an accuracy of 20 ft. I got in the tent and saw there were some freeze dried breakfasts there and I hadn't brought a freeze dried meal because I thought I wouldn't have the appetitie to eat one but I was hungry. So I radioed to the guide who owned them and he gave me free rein so I ate one and then searched the tent for other good food but there was nothing good. I had some hot chocolate and GU and Shot blocks and I think a Clif Bar or Builder Bar. During this time I kept sticking my head out the door to watch a man and woman from the German expedition descending very slowly. About 3 PM they reached camp. She was in bad shape. She got in the tent and I thought 'I'm going to have to help rescue her'. About an hour later she emerged from her tent looking much better and descended with a high altitude porter. I think she had HACE. The man who helped her descend eventually had bad frostbite on one toe and was helicopted out two days later. About this time the member that had made it to 7700 meter got down to camp two. Except that the three tents we had at camp two were gone. All of our stuff was in a pile covered with rocks. It turns out that Taqi had taken down camp one and two and gone down to BC. While this was inconvenient at the moment the next day when the rest of us came down it was much appreciated.
This entire time I was going crazy because there were still people up the mountain and it was getting cloudy and a little windy with snow flurries so not great conditions to descend unroped from 8000 to 7000 meters. I ate some amazing cheddar cheese while I sweated fear for those still up the hill. There was one person staying in our tent that was not part of our expedition and so we thought he was still up the hill. The last two members of our team arrived around five or six. Then around five I was looking out the door and I saw three dots appear just below the col. There was a lot of radio traffic. Then there was four dots. Then six dots, nine and finally 13. The rumors were that someone had fallen (on these mountains, unroped a fall almost certainly means death otherwise people wouldn't be talking about someone falling.) Since I was feeling really good, probably because of adrenaline, they told me to get the names and expeditions of everyone coming down so they would know who is ok. However, half an hour later they decided that radio silence would be better and to worry only about the one remaining member of our expedition. So around 6:30 I went outside the tent to watch the survivors come in. The clouds would obscure the view and there were bumps on the route down so I would see people then they would disappear for awhile. When they got closer I could watch them walk a little ways then sit down in the snow. People don't really sit on the snow if possible. You can sit on a backpack or rock but plopping down on the snow like they were doesn't keep you very warm.
First a pair of skiers came down. Two turns and a rest, two turns and another rest it was rather slow. People trickled down in ones, twos and threes over about three hours. I stood outside of my tent watching the spectacle. At one point I'm sure I saw someone fall and slide and I'm sure their feet were level with their head. I thought I had just watched another person die. It was getting dark so I went back in the tent still missing our member and the sleeping bag in our tent with the mysterious person was still empty. At 8 PM the four of us called off our summit bid because we fully thought we were going to have to help people down or we might have one member that wouldn't be going home. Finally around 9 PM after I had been in my sleeping bag for an hour, not sleeping, but waiting the mysterious man showed up and the remaining member of our expedition showed up. I was so relieved.
Not many people can sleep at 7000 meters. I am a pretty good sleeper but I just rolled around and got a little sleep here or there. This was the only time I wore my mittens. I wore them for about 15 minutes while I was still trying to warm up inside my sleeping bag. This was also the only night I wore socks to bed. Finally I gave up at 5:30 and got up and started boiling snow. I had a slight altitude headache but it went away with a half liter of water and tea. It was snowing so we just sat in our tents eating, drinking and talking. The Dutch/Swiss leader of the Swiss expedition was in our tent and we talked about everything from organizing an expedition to the alps and he even show us pictures of his family. We also talked about the woman that died because he knew many details. As I learned later she slipped and fell and went 400 meters down to where camp four usually exists. She was more experienced at that altitude than almost everybody else up there. All it takes is one wrong step and years of experience don't matter. She was far more experienced than I and she lost just like that. These are very serious mountains.
At 8 AM we got out of the tent and started taking it down. It was difficult taking the poles apart because after maybe five second the cold would seep through my gloves and I would have to swing my arms to warm up my hands again. Eventually we finished taking down the one tent and I strapped the tent body onto my backpack and headed down.
I stopped at camp two to pick up the food I had left there and take a dump. Relieving yourself up above 6000 meters is always an event. Using a pee bottle and then putting it at the foot of your sleeping bag to keep your feet warm is nerve racking because of the fear that it might spill. Taking a dump can pose other problems. It is important to not pollute the snow near camp because of the people in the future that will melt that snow and drink it. Also, one member on our expedition actually got frostbite at 7500 meters because he had to go and while he was his figure eight was hanging off of his harness and stuck to his skin. Several days later he had a small black spot. The perfect frostbite?
When I got to the base of the route I heard "I-dawg!" and I looked around puzzled and then saw Chris and Taqi who had brought up tang and cookies. We embraced and then I sat down on a rock and drank a liter and a half of tang in five minutes. We hiked back across the glacier together and it was by far the easiest trip down the glacier of the entire expedition.
On the way back to BC I fufilled a long held desire to go running. The first time I went running about 30 seconds in I felt like I couldn't get enough air in and I only lasted another 40 seconds. The second time I went running just before camp it was 40 seconds before I ran out of air and I only made it another 50 seconds. So now I know what running at 16,000 feet is like.
The next day we woke up at 5 AM and had breakfast. We said goodbye to the four members that were going over to K2 and started heading to Ali camp. It was an eight hour day, it could have been seven but we wandered around the glacier by Concordia with the Germans, but trying to take a short cut on the Baltoro Glacier isn't the best idea.
We woke up at 3 AM and had breakfast and then starting hiking in a light snowstorm toward the pass. It was so beautiful the dark with our headlamps illuminating the falling snow and the crunch underfoot were like a Christmas movie it was so perfect. It was cloudy all day and once we hit the fixed ropes we began to pass the porters for the German expedition that had left at 1 AM. At the top of the pass visibility was 20 feet. I waited for the next person to come up and it was Javid our waiter/cook. He didn't even turn around to check the view but kept going and told me I should not stay up there. So I descended the icy slopes clutching the fixed ropes. Then after the fixed ropes was a traversing section with very poor steps and none of us had crampons so it was a little sporty but I never took the ice axe off of my pack because it wasn't terribly bad.
The next day was a three hour hike to Hushe where we ate lunch at Taqi's house with all of our cook staff instead of them serving us and then we got on a jeep to Skardu. The jeep had suspension problems and we had to stop several times to weld it together and tie a piece of wood into the suspension. At one point along the road while we were waiting for it to get fixed one of the guys on our expedition was watching these three girls play and one of them saw him and brought four apricots to a rock and then he walked down with a big goofy smile on his face and brought them back. When the little girls saw we liked the apricots she went into the house and got a five inch plate to bring us more and we laughed. Then her brother came out with a 10 inch plate and we laughed harder. So we ate our fill of apricots. Further down the road at a security checkpoint after signing our names to the register we wandered to the side of the road and I climbing on another persons shoulders and grabbed a bunch of fresh apricots but I only had a dozen before I was told to stop or it would not be good.
Upon arriving at Skardu we ate supper and I had some culture shock because there were two other families with about 20 people total in the dinning room and the women weren't wearing head scarves and they were all very noisy. After quietness at every meal and headscarves on the local women for five weeks this was very odd.
We waited five nights in Skardu for a flight. It was bearable because the hotel had HBO and Starz. We also went to the Shangri-La hotel for bar-b-que night which was really nice. That was July 25th which is a holy day for Shiite Muslims so we took a detour around a self-flagellation ceremony after one of our crew went in and took a bunch of pictures. While there I bought a yak hair rug from Hunza. We also had a banquet with all of our cook staff. The first full day we wanted to shop and rest but then we didn't have tickets because ATP screwed up and confirmed tickets for us for August 8th, then several days the plane didn't fly but finally two of us got on the flight on July 28th. I then spent three nights in Islamabad watching HBO and Starz out of India.
I got onto the flight to JFK and fell asleep in maybe 10 minutes after we took off. I woke up at one point and everyone was finishing their suppers. I slept about five hours total then watched more movies I hadn't seen. I went through customs and I declared an animal product (some xue horns, it's a cross between a yak and a cow) and they asked if it was prepared at all and I said it was cleaned with alcohol which it was and they never even looked at it they just took my word and let me through. I had to go to the ticket counter to recheck my bags and get the next two tickets. Then a flight to Detroit (which is my favorite airport because it's so simple) then to Milwaukee and out to the Olive Garden with my parents.
For More InformationRead my blog. It will be updated with various stories and some of the seven hours of video from this expedition for the rest of this year. I only took 150 pictures on this trip but the video more than compensates for the lack of pictures.
Field Touring Alpine Dispatches
Jake Meyer's Blog
For information on a possible documentary from Ursus Films read their blog.
Fabrizio Zangrilli's blog.
Documentary MovieI took eight hours of video on this trip and have put together a 78 minute documentary. The trailer on YouTube is well worth your two minutes, in my opinion.
If you are interested in seeing the full length film you can buy the DVD: My First Expedition: Broad Peak.