JULY - AUGUST 2018
It was 8:30 PM and was now completely dark outside. My summit pack was complete and my down suit was filled with all the calories that I would need for the next 24 hours (or at least as many as I could fit). All that needed to be done was to fill my water bottles with 2 fresh liters that would need to last me the entire day, swap out my current oxygen bottle for a fresh one, and throw on my crampons. I methodically went through my mental checklist and knew that everything had been completed. At 9 PM, Jesse, David, and I stepped out of our tent, into the dark of Camp 4.
The winds has picked up and spindrift was being blown into our faces as we fumbled with our packs and cumbersome summit gloves. I saw a few other headlamps that had emerged from their tents and the first person that I recognized was Siddhi. You might recall that our standard team practice is for a climber and a Sherpa to team up on summit day and once again, Siddhi and I would be working together. This wasn’t by chance, Siddhi and I had become friends during our summits of Everest and Lhotse, and had stayed in touch over the past year. We often worked together on the mountain and Phurba knew that he could count on us to push the route for the team. We were both psyched on the opportunity!
Siddhi and I worked together on our final prep, as David did the same with Pasang, and Jesse with Dendi. When it was clear that we had nothing left to do and no more excuses to make, Siddhi turned to me and said “Ready, John Dai?” Wow, what a loaded question, I thought. In what felt like an hour but in reality was closer to 3 seconds, I thought about what might happen over the next 24 hours and whether or not I was truly “ready”. I thought about all of the training and preparation that had lead up to this point and the dreams that I had had of this very moment. I realized that I was not scared or apprehensive, I was ready. I answered, “Let’s do it, Siddhi!” and I could see the white teeth of his big smile in the glow of my headlamp.
Pasang and David had beaten us out of camp by 5 minutes but we followed close behind, with Jesse, Dendi, and Geoff another 5 minutes back. The rest of the team would take another 15 minutes to get out of camp, leaving all of the trail breaking to our crew. David and Pasang had a tough go of it as the snow above Camp 4 was quite deep, and the seracs above it had prevented any of it from consolidating. They punched their way up the first 500 vertical feet to the usual location of Camp 4, a broad expansive shoulder that leads up to the famous hanging serac known as “The Bottleneck”. At this point, they stopped for water and Siddhi and I took up the lead.
Now that we were on the shoulder, the terrain was no longer protected and while the spindrift had diminished, the winds remained. Above, the sky was crystal clear and stars could be seen in every direction, except for the directly ahead of us, where the mountain blotted out everything in sight, leaving only an obscure dark mass. Siddhi and I plodded forward, sometimes sinking into the snow halfway up our thigh. We were about 10 minutes ahead of the rest when we came across a section where the path had been buried by snow, so we spread out and began our search with the beam of our headlamps on high. After about 15 minutes, we were able to locate the rope and continued upward, and as we did, we noticed that the debris from avalanche and icefall was increasing. This was a good indicator that we were nearing the base of the infamous feature known as “The Bottleneck”, a gigantic overhanging ice cliff that has been known to sheer off and crush anything in its path. Teams attempting to climb the Abruzzi Spur, must approach directly beneath, ascending through rocks and debris, then when it is it reached, you begin “The Traverse” to the left under the serac.
We knew we were close to the first of the two major obstacles that we would face today, so Siddhi and I decided to take our first break after about 2 hours of work. Soon, Dendi, Jesse, David, Geoff, Pasang caught up with us and plopped down in the soft snow for a snack and a sip of water. Despite the daunting task ahead, morale was great and we enjoyed a few Gu’s and some Snicker’s in what were ideal weather conditions. We hopped up and Siddhi again took the lead, followed by David, Jesse, Geoff, me, then Dendi and Pasang. The next 2 or so hours of climbing would be absolutely miserable, as we scampered up rock that reminded me of the Black Pyramid but was completely covered in powder. Each step that someone took would result in a shower of snow for the climber following. Making matters worse, the soft snow hid the features of the rock, making it nearly impossible to be able to identify features that would hold our crampons in place. If someone had been able to shine a spotlight and record us, I’m sure that it would have been almost comical to watch. Unfortunately, it was everything but comical to us and my cursing reached an all-time high for the expedition. Each foot placement on the rock was preceded by me thinking “Please, just stick” and then hoping for the best. Seventy percent of the time it would but the other 30 percent resulted in me slipping, slamming my knee into a rock, or gripping my jumar for dear life. I just kept telling myself, “Just keep fighting and soon you will be at ‘The Traverse’, which has to be easier than this!”.
I was both right and wrong, it wasn’t long before we reached “The Traverse” but it definitely wasn’t any easier. As soon as we had no more room to move upward, due to the overhanging serac, we began to move to our left. The first couple of pitches were somewhat precarious but simple enough that I was grateful to be off the rock of “The Bottleneck”. Of course I spoke too soon and our forward group came to a complete halt as we watched Siddhi disappear around an ice outcropping. Our communication now relied on us passing back a message member-by-member because the route allowed for one climber to move along the catwalk-like section of ice, which was never more than a foot wide. Geoff and I yelled ahead to find out what Siddhi was doing because David was the only one that could see what was happening. We soon found out that there was a particularly dangerous section of ice and a portion of it had given out when Siddhi had tried to pass but he was able to catch himself on the rope. Because of this he had decided to reset one of the anchors, so we waited patiently.
After about 15 minutes, we saw David begin to shuffle around the corner and out of view, followed by Jesse. As we followed suit, we gained a better view of what type of terrain features had caused the delay. Immediately following the convex ice catwalk around the bulging serac, we found a concave portion of a far more precarious ledge feature and a fixed roped that was only attached at one point in the middle, causing the majority of it to hang over the dark precipice below. To make your way across the ledge, one had to face inward on the ice with your chest flat against it, your left hand holding your jumar and pushing the rope against the ice at the same time, your right hand punching the pic of your ice axe deep into the snow, while gently shuffling your crampons to the left. The ice below our feet had turned to snow and would give slightly with each mini-step. Our movement across the ledge required methodical and cautious movement because any major shift in weight would result in the ledge collapsing. One-by-one we made our way across the 50 foot section, each taking about 10 minutes to do so.
With my nerves nearly shot, I looked as Siddhi and David had begun their way up the steep slope that continued left at a 45 degree angle for the foreseeable future. In most years, this section is primarily ice, which I don’t mind because of my ice climbing background, but to my dismay, I saw that it was heavily covered in snow. I knew that this angle should be too steep to maintain that much snow but it just wasn’t the case. As Siddhi kicked steps in the snow, I could see that it was about 12 inches deep before hitting a solid surface and large chunks of snow had begun to sluff off as he moved higher. We were moving at the speed of a crawl and the bulk of our team had caught up to us at this point, when I looked up to watch Siddhi tackle a particularly deep snow drift. With one kick, I saw a fracture line form at his feet, creating a slab of snow that must have been 40’x40’. I watched in horror as I expected the worst… Both Siddhi and David were on top of the slab and as it began to slide, they both gripped the rope and in seconds the slab had disappeared into the black abyss below. In what was the equivalent of someone pulling a table cloth out from under a dinner setting, Siddhi and David were left hanging on the rope, undisturbed and unharmed.
While most of us were trying shake off the shock, Siddhi was back at work and moving up the mountain. I was in absolutely amazement at his perseverance and despite my own apprehensions about the terrain, found confidence in his strength, so I kicked the front point of my crampons into the ice and continued upwards. While we were near the top of the traverse, all of the extra route work that were required had cost us a great deal of time, approximately 1 ½ extra hours, and I knew that we were all probably running low on our first oxygen canisters. I looked down at my regulator and saw that it was just above zero. I knew that the terrain was too steep to make swap, so I calmed myself, controlled my breathing and took it slow. I kept telling myself “You’ve got this, John. Hold it together.”
Our progress was extremely slow because we had to sweep heavy snow off of the ice in order to find good foot placement but I wasn’t complaining now that I was out of oxygen. I looked above me and Geoff had caught up to Jesse who was almost at a complete stop. Judging by Jesse’s erratic footwork that looked more like a clawing motion than kick-steps, I had a hunch that he had run out of oxygen. Geoff soon confirmed it when I heard him yell, “Jesse, clip into that anchor! You are out of oxygen and we need to switch out your tank.” I watched as Jesse struggled to get his limbs to cooperate and recalled my experience on Everest when I ran out of oxygen without knowing that my tank was empty. I had felt helpless and knew that Jesse was experiencing the same thing at this very moment. Geoff and I were able to get him attached to the anchor and calmed him down as we waited for Dendi to move up the line with a replacement tank. A few minutes later, Dendi arrived and the four of us worked to get oxygen tanks switched out by the light of our headlamps while hanging off of the anchor. After a few minutes of careful maneuvering, we were all set and we took a few more to let Jesse regain his composure before continuing upwards.
It was now around 3:30 AM and we could see the glow of the rising sun peaking over the horizon. I’ve always found that climbing through the night is one of the most incredibly lonely feelings that I have ever experienced. For this reason, a hint of the sunrise was a very welcome sign and I could hear the same anticipation in my teammate’s voices when they noticed it. With this new found inspiration, we dug deep to haul ourselves up the very steep final pitches of blue ice that lead to the summit ridge. I can’t begin to explain how much I anticipated getting off of “The Traverse” and onto the summit ridge, which was supposed to be a cake walk after “The Traverse” and “The Bottleneck”.
I suppose most things in life are relative because when I pulled myself over the lip of the final ice pitch, I set my eyes on the summit ridge and was wildly disappointed. Rather than the meandering snow hill that I had pictured for so many weeks, it was a steep corniced ridgeline of deep snow that provided no protection on either side. On the left, you could clearly see basecamp 12,000 feet below and would be there in a matter of minutes if you took a misguided step. On the right, it wasn’t as steep but you would definitely still take the express route to China if you made a mistake. As I made these observations, the bulk of our team caught up to our lead group and we all began to stuff ourselves with some quick calories and water before our final push up the mountain.
After 5 minutes, we pulled our packs back on and made our final gear adjustments for the conditions that we would face on the top. Sunglasses and goggles were the most common adjustments, as well as some quick sunscreen for the small exposed areas of skin on our face. Before I took my position in line, I found myself gazing blindly at the horizon and soaking in the scene as the sun began to expose the Karakoram Range. It was beyond incredible and unlike any mountain range that I have ever seen in my life. The peaks were like blades cutting into the sky and so dramatic that they looked like something from a fictional movie, such as The Lord of the Rings. I must have been hypoxic and lost track of time because before I knew it, Geoff was asking me if I was ready. I turned around and started what would be a long slog up the final few hundred feet.
The snow was deep, worse than anywhere else on the mountain. If I was lucky, I would only sink in a foot and if I was a little lucky, it would be 18 inches. Far more often than I would like, the snow step that was cut by Siddhi, David, or Geoff would collapse and I would slide to the previous hole, or even worse, through two cut steps. When I finally accepted the fact that all I could do was kick my best step and hope for the best, I came to a shocking realization; Geoff was in front of me! Why is this relevant? Well, up to this point, only 19 Americans have summited K2 since the first successful ascent in 1954. With Geoff in front on this narrow ridgeline, I was all but guaranteed to be 21st! Yes, this is petty but give me a break, I’m a guy and am a little competitive, if you couldn’t already tell! After the initial shock wore off, I laughed to myself as I realized how incredibly stupid I would sound if I told someone what was going through my head at that moment. I had to get my head back in the game and focus on the task at hand…
Everyone was showing signs of demoralization from the snow conditions and the heat of the sun on our backs was beginning to thaw us out, adding to the content sensation of fatigue. Siddhi and Dendi took turns breaking trail at the front, both of which preferred to lead but would reluctantly defer to one another every 15 minutes of grueling work. They wouldn’t have allowed Geoff, David, or me to take a turn even if we wanted to, so we allowed them to continue at the lead. After approximately 2 hours of feeling as if we had made no progress, we were finally within reach of the summit and Dendi’s legs churned through the last snow drift.
At 6:40 AM on July 22nd, I stepped onto the summit of K2, the 2nd tallest mountain in the world. Dendi, Siddhi, David, and Geoff grabbed me and everyone began cheering. I gave Jesse a hug as he reached the top and then it all began to hit me, so I sat down on my pack and just began to stare out over the horizon while the rest of my team celebrated. I reached into my inner collar pocket of my down suit and pulled out my satellite phone to call the one person that needed to hear my voice. When I heard my Mom’s anxious voice on the other say, “John! Is that you???”, I immediately lost whatever limited composure I had at the time and responded with the most controlled “Yes, Mom, I made it” that I could muster. The sound of pride in her voice during our brief conversation was unlike nothing that I have ever experienced and it is without a doubt the proudest moment of my life.
After I shook off the emotion, I knew that I had to get to work on a couple tasks before we descended; my usual routine of collecting snow from the top in a bottle and then all of the pictures that I had planned. Conditions couldn’t have been better with winds at about 5-10 mph and while there were some clouds in the sky, they were all below us, creating a cotton-like carpet over the almost all of the surrounding peaks. Even the summit of Broad Peak, the 12th tallest mountain at just over 26,000’, barely peaked its way out of the clouds. Even with these fantastic conditions, I was careful to only have my gloves off for a few seconds at a time because my fingers would almost instantly go numb each time that I removed them. I rushed to get all of the pictures that I had made a mental list of because I knew that we would need to descend soon.
I was one of the first to summit and ended up being one of last three to leave, spending about 40 minutes on top. It was bittersweet leaving the summit, knowing that I would never set my eyes on that same incredible view again but also knowing that I had a lot of work left ahead of me on the descent. Our team made slow progress on the route down and it’s probably safe to assume that it had something to do with the fact that you look straight down the side of the mountain when arm wrapping the descent.
At the base of the summit ridge, we encountered the first climber who was attempting to summit and not part of our team, a Polish ski mountaineer, Andrzej Bargiel. He was on his way to the top and would be attempting to become the first person to ever ski down K2. He was visibly nervous and his voice wavered as her described his plan to Jesse and me. We spent about 5 minutes talking to him, doing our best to reassure him in the process, and then we said goodbye. It wouldn’t be until the afternoon of the 23rd, when we had successfully arrived at basecamp, when we would find out that he accomplished the feat after 6 hours of hard work!
We continued down, doing our best to avoid the Japanese team that had decided to make a late summit attempt on the same day. They used ropes without rhyme or reason and in one case were using 3 of the 4 lines that we had set to allow 3 of their team members to ascend at the same time. Common practice is to ascend on one line, one after another, but there was no logic to how they were attacking the mountain. As Siddhi, Jesse, Geoff, Dendi, and I weaved our way through their ranks, we lamented that they probably wouldn’t all make it back. Personally, I hate to pass judgment on another climbing team but many of their practices were questionable at best and their late start didn’t leave any room for error.
With so much chaos on the ropes, we had to take the opportunities to pass when they were given to us. Jesse and I did so, as we rappelled past one climber who was in a complete stupor after running out of oxygen. I yelled at his teammates to get him to a nearby anchor where he would be safe, rather than hanging on a line that so many needed to use. He was drooling and mumbling to himself and I was amazed to find out later that he would end up surviving the day, more than can be said for one Japanese member.
David, Jesse and I managed to reach Camp 4 around 11 AM and spent the next two hours, repacking gear that we had left there for the summit push and rehydrating. At 1 PM we began our wobbly descent back to the safety of Camp 2. By this point, we had been climbing for 16 straight hours and were beginning to show major signs of fatigue but we knew the finish line was within reach. We powered on my Bluetooth stereo, turned it up all the way, and gave ourselves a little pep talk. The music, each other’s company, and our recent summit of K2 were able to bring enough enjoyment to our climb down that we almost didn’t mind the drowsiness and body aches. At 5 PM, we descended the last pitch of the Black Pyramid into Camp 2.
At this point, I knew that I was safe for the day and plopped down on the snowbank above my old tent. Jesse and David were already settling into their tent but I wanted to take a moment to be alone. I sat above the range and couldn’t help but smile to myself as I thought of what we had just accomplished. It was surreal and the magnitude of it all had yet to hit me, but I found happiness in knowing that the true danger had passed. It was then that it dawned on me that the last time that I had been sitting in this exact location, I had been in the midst of the debate that would determine whether we went up or down the mountain. No one had been right or wrong in that moment but for once in my life, I was sure glad that I didn’t win the debate. I laughed to myself at the thought of how many people would love to hear me admit that.
Moments later, Garrett and Geoff dropped down from the rope above and I snapped back to reality. Hugs and high fives were aplenty as we settled into the tent that the 3 of us had shared for several nights. I gave Garrett a hard time for being so elite as the 4th person to summit K2 a 2nd time and then jokingly admitted defeat to Geoff for becoming the 20th American to summit, rather than a pedestrian 21st. It was all in good delirious fun, as we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags. The last thing that I remember before falling asleep was thinking about how proud I was of those guys and how lucky I was to have them by my side on this mountain. Then, I faded to my dreams with a big grin on my face.
Camp 3 was dead silent that morning, as everyone slept in from the big move up through the Black Pyramid. At least that was the case for everyone except, Garrett, Geoff, Phurba, and me, who were in the routine of waking up for regular 6:30 AM radio call. While we weren’t eager to wake up, we were eager to hear whether Dawa’s Seven Summits team had been able to break through the heavy snow during the night and make an honest attempt on the summit. Calls went out to Mingma at Camp 4, who said he had yet to hear anything but that they had departed around 9:30 PM the night before. Then we called Dawa and waited for a response…
Moments later, Dawa voice crackled through the radio and said that the last report that he had received was that the leading members of his team were finishing up “The Traverse”, a precarious angled ice section above “The Bottleneck”. While they hadn’t yet reached the summit, we knew that the only thing standing in their way would be heavy snow on the summit ridge, which consists of 750 vertical feet of climbing on an exposed and very narrow 40-45 degree slope. Barring any extreme circumstances, they should be able to reach it in the next two hours.
Dawa included initial condition reports from his team, which could be summed up as: slow progress due to heavy powder snow but minimal avalanche conditions. With the impending success of the Seven Summits team and their reports over semi-favorable conditions, we were certain that we would be moving to Camp 4 today and making our summit bid this evening. As soon as we were off the radio, we began passing along the word to prepare for the move and packing our own gear.
Within an hour, everyone had finished their oatmeal breakfasts and were breaking down tents. By 9 AM, the first wave of Geoff, David, and me began the grueling slog up the snow slope to Camp 4. This section is unlike any other on the mountain because it is straightforward and lacks many of the obstacles that we had come to expect. The climb for the day would only be about 1,000 vertical feet but the snow was 1-2 feet deep and we were covered by a cloud, which kept out even a small breeze for ventilation. It made for an eerie and somewhat lonely setting because the sky almost blended into the terrain and you could only see about a hundred meters in any given direction. The clouds and the heavy snow muffled all noises, except for the sound of our breathing, which sounds like a more rapid version of a scuba diver or Darth Vader.
While communication was limited to hand motions, we all had the same concern on our minds, avalanche. Because it is a sustained 35-45 degree snow slope on top of a giant hanging glacier, it regularly “sheds” after heavy snow fall. When it does “shed”, it does so off the side of the mountain and anything in its path will end up on the glacier at the base of the mountain in just a few moments. This was the case in both 2015 and 2016, when heavy snow avalanched all of Camp 3 all the way to the Baltoro Glacier, ending all expeditions for both years.
We kept this in mind as we cautiously made our way to Camp 4, with Geoff stopping every couple hundred feet to perform quick stability tests on the snow. This would consist of him cutting a block into the snow about a foot deep and then putting pressure on the uphill side until it broke loose. If it breaks easily and the majority of it remains in a slab, we have problems, but fortunately, it had remained cool enough over the past couple of days to keep everything in powder form. We all hoped that this would remain the case as we moved up the mountain.
Geoff lead the charge the entire climb to Camp 4, reminding me of an arctic ice breaker ship as his legs plunged through the snow, breaking trail for the entire team. I followed with David a hundred feet behind me and we did our best to help stamp down the steps that Geoff had kicked in. About halfway up, we saw a climber descending from the cloud, looking quite haggard, and as he passed, he muttered “that could have gone better”. Based on the comment and the time of the day, we knew that he must have turned around on his summit bid. Not a good sign but at least he was alive…
We pushed upward, slogging our way through the snow and working up a sweat. I had every possible vent on my down suit unzipped but there was nothing I could do to cool down without a breeze, I knew that I would just have to sweat my way to camp. Finally, I saw a blurry orange glow through the clouds and knew that it must be Camp 4. The location for this year’s camp was about 500 vertical feet lower than normal due to avalanche danger at the higher site, which was a blessing today but would mean more work tomorrow.
Almost as soon as Geoff and I dropped our backpacks, a couple of climbers appeared from the cloud on the slope above. It was Nol, the lead climber on the Seven Summits team, and a couple other members! The way they were moving down the rope, we knew that they had made it to the top and we greeted them by hollering “Congrats!”. We spent the next hour sharing some team and snacks with them, as our both of our teams trickled into Camp 4, ours from below and theirs from above. We tried to glean as much information on the route conditions as we could and they were happy to provide detailed reports. The two main obstacles that we would face were some questionable conditions on “The Traverse” that might require some creativity and of course a lot of deep snow that would kick our butts the entire way up.
With this knowledge in hand, we began our preparations for the evening and settled in, 3 to a tent. For a change, it was Jesse, David, and me sharing a tent, even if it would only be for a few hours. At this point it was around 2 PM, and the plan was to prep our summit packs, then eat our freeze dried dinners around 5 PM, sleep for a few hours and then wake up at 8 PM in preparation for our 9 PM departure. The following hours were a blur to me, as I double, triple, and quadruple checked everything. I obsessed over the precise number of power bars and energy Gu’s to carry, and which pockets of my down suit they belonged in. Before I knew it, it was time to eat but my focus easily overwhelmed any appetite that I had and my prior excitement at saving a freeze dried pad thai meal for summit night was gone. Nevertheless, I overfilled it with water so that I could simply force it down by drinking it and quickly began my attempt at sleeping.
I never had the chance to sleep the night before my summit of Mount Everest and I always thought that I would have if I had been given the chance. Well, if it had been anything like tonight, I would have just been pretending to sleep because the best I could do were sporadic 10 minute naps, followed by an abrupt awakening because of something that I remembered that I needed to do. This would continue for the next couple of hours as the daylight faded and my anxiety level rose. Rather than allow myself to get stressed out by waiting for my alarm to go off, I got myself up about 15 minutes before it would go off and began my final preparations…
Today was a pivotal day, we would either be heading up for a summit push or down to lick our wounds. Descending would mean at least 3 rest days at BC, to recover from our failed attempt, and then however many days it took to find a favorable weather window. I knew it, the team knew it, and Garrett knew it, which is why he woke up earlier than normal to fire up the radio.
Initial reports were that both the Sherpa team at C4 and Dawa’s team at C3 were in a holding pattern. We weren’t surprised since it was still early and no one had been able to do a full assessment of the night’s snowfall, so we held out hope. As reports began to trickle in, our optimism increased and then we received the call from Dawa to inform us that his team had begun to move and snow conditions were heavy but very stable. Then Phurba received a call from Mingma, who called in to report the exact same conditions above Camp 4 and he was optimistic that he would be able to move without issue. With this information in hand, we knew that yesterday’s decision to remain patient had paid off for the time being and we would be moving to Camp 3 today.
The news was initially communicated to the other tents by yelling but then in person when a more detailed plan had been orchestrated. We knew the routine, pack your packs, break down the tents, and get out of camp by 9 AM. The entire team did so with precision, probably due to the anticipation that had built over the past 2 days of waiting.
At 9 AM, the entire team began moving up the famous feature known as the Black Pyramid. It is an incredible 2,000 vertical foot section of the Abruzzi Spur that is comprised of rock that is so dark against the snow that it appears to be black. The rock itself is sharp and angled, requiring mid-5th class rock climbing skills (think easy-to-moderate at the rock gym). The movement required on these features require your full focus, unlike some of the monotonous snow slopes below C1 and above C3. Additionally, passing other climbers would be incredibly difficult, so the order of ascent was more or less determined by the order in which we left camp.
The day was grueling to say the least and the sheer mental focus required to safely navigate the rock made the 6 hour climb feel like 10+. Nevertheless, we pulled it off without issue, which is all that we could ask for. Gradually, the entire team hauled themselves up the last 500 vertical feet and onto the glacier where Camp 3 resides. I arrived around 3 PM with others almost 2 hours behind me but regardless, we were all spent. Each of us crawled into our tents as soon as we could build them and finished dinner just as quickly, in order to maximize our rest.
Whenever I awoke last night, I could hear the pitter-patter of the heavy snowflakes landing on our tent walls. I didn’t let it keep me awake but I made mental note of it because there was a very good chance that it would affect our plan. Sure enough, when I woke up, the walls of our tent were sagging more than usual and sounds from outside were muffled.
I remained curled up in my mummy bag, while Garrett took his usual 6:30 AM call with the Sherpa team and one of the other teams on the mountain. First was a call to Camp 4, where Mingma had been hunkered down for a couple of days while attempting to do rope work. No response. Next, a call to the Seven Summits International Team Leader, Dawa Sherpa. He reported that his team was still at Camp 3 but despite the heavy snows that his team was reporting, he intended to move them up to Camp 4 in preparation for a summit push. Garrett asked Dawa to keep him posted on conditions and Dawa assured him that he would.
It wasn’t long before we heard from Mingma and Phurba on the radio. They informed us that Mingma and the two Pakistanis with him had attempted to set lines at the infamous “Bottleneck” but their effort was thwarted with thigh deep snow. Dawa called in shortly after and also reported 1-2 feet of snow at Camp 3 but provided no indication of whether or not their team would be moving from C3 to C4. Despite Dawa not committing his team to one action or another, Garrett, Geoff and I knew that the likelihood of the team moving up was shrinking rapidly.
Geoff, Garrett, Rob, and Ang Phurba convened to discuss the circumstances and the consensus was that we would not be moving to C3. Even though Mingma and his team had been unable to set ropes high on the mountain, the primary concern was the section of glacier between C3 and C4. This area is considered by most to be second most hazardous section of the mountain, after the Bottleneck, due to its avalanche prone characteristics. Garrett, in particular, was wary of this section, after avalanches in 2015 and 2016, which destroyed their entire camp when the team was lower on the mountain. The heavier than expected snowfall would be annoying to break trail through but something that we could deal with but an avalanche, on the other hand, was not something to be taken lightly.
We waited patiently to hear from Dawa, hoping to get more details on the conditions between C3 and C4. When the call came, we weren’t surprised to hear that they had decided not to move to C4. Garrett pressed Dawa over whether or not they would be descending and after a long pause, Dawa said they would. With this information in hand, Garrett made the decision for us to do the same, a logical decision based on the fact that we wouldn’t have any information about snow conditions on the upper mountain.
My pack was buckled shut and I was just about to tuck away the straps of my crampons when Garrett emerged from our tent with an announcement. He had just received another call on the radio from Dawa, who told Garrett that he had changed his mind and his team would be sitting at Camp 3 for a day with the intent to make a move to Camp 4 if conditions stabilized. We all just kind of stood there for a moment, letting the information sink in. We had already accepted the fact that we would be descending and knew deep down that the odds of us having another good weather window were slim at best. Now, we had a glimmer of hope, but at what cost? We all knew the risk that the slope between Camp 3 and 4 presented after heavy snowfall and personally, it terrified me. I know that I have the ability to conquer this mountain but the uncontrollable perils of objective hazards, such as avalanche and rock fall, were what could ultimately prevent me from fulfilling my dream.
The entire team stood outside of our tents with our backpacks at the ready and the debate ensued. Jason and James took a strong stance for remaining at Camp 2 and waiting for word from Dawa’s Seven Summits team. David and I took the opposing stance and lobbied to descend as quickly as possible in order to provide as much time as possible to rest before the next weather window. Part of me knew that the odds of us having another good weather window on K2 were slim to none but I had also promised myself that I wouldn’t take any unnecessary risk. Both sides stated their case, while the rest of the team took a somewhat neutral stance. After about 15 minutes of debate we turned to Garrett and asked him to make the final decision based on what information we had available.
After 5 minutes of side discussion between Garrett, Rob, and Geoff, they returned to the group and Garrett announced that we would sit out the night at Camp 2 to wait for word from the team above. Despite my initial stance, I was at peace with the decision because it did not put us in the path of immediate danger. With the decision made, the team settled back into their tents for the afternoon in anticipation of the news to come.
The team was supposed to depart for C2 at 9:00 AM but David, Geoff, and I were ready at 8:30. Several members of the rest of our team were also ready early and I began to wonder if they knew our plan to race to C2. It was almost like a scene from a movie, where everyone looked around, made eye contact, and knew each other’s motives. We stalled for Jesse but it was too late, four others had started up, so Geoff, David and I took a route to the right of the main line and pushed to pass. It reminded me of a few cars trying to pass slower traffic, only to have the slower vehicles accelerate in an attempt to prevent a passing. The effort was respectable but we were too fast and soon overtook them.
With Jesse stuck in traffic, the three of us moved freely at the head of the pack. I turned up my Bluetooth stereo and we rocked out, pitch-by-pitch. I have to say it was some of the most enjoyable climbing of my life and was definitely the most that I have ever laughed during a technically challenging climb. It’s might be hard to imagine 3 guys laughing and listening to music while climbing on the side of one of the most challenging mountains in the world, but good company makes all the difference!
Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the base of House’s Chimney with the bulk of our team a good distance behind us. As the forecast had predicted, the weather was beginning to change and we could see clouds rolling in from the Southeast. Temps were dropping and snow began to fall, so we decided that it would be best to move quickly to C2, which rested on a ledge just above House’s Chimney.
Geoff led, I followed, and David followed me up the famous rock feature. I timed myself, due to my competitive nature, and after hauling my 250 lb mass of body and backpack up the chimney, I finished with a time of 6 1/2 minutes! I would have basked in my self-bestowed glory but the weather was turning nasty much faster than we expected. I jumarred my way up the final couple pitches of ice and snow slope, yelled “Geoff!”, and hopped into the tent from which I received a response.
It wasn’t long before we heard Garrett’s voice outside of the tent. We yelled at him to hop in because the wind was coming in strong over the ridge and snow was beginning to dump. At this point, we were expecting that we would need to be 3 to a tent but the joke was on us because the remainder of the team would end up being 2:1. This would become a trend throughout the majority of our summit rotation, resulting in the nickname “3 Dudes in a Tent” and a lock of jabs. That being said, the company was great, we had a lot of laughs, and it gave me the opportunity to be involved in the logistics of the days that ensued.
Conditions on the perch, where C2 is located, are generally amplified over other areas due to its exposed nature, but what we were experiencing was almost surely worse than expected. While we were confident with our planned schedule and the forecast, the weather was reminding us of who is ultimately in charge.
As many of you have already reminded me, it has taken me a couple of weeks to compile my notes from our summit rotation, primarily due to the limited amount of downtime during our trek back to civilization but also some cumulative fatigue on my part. And those are the last excuses that you will hear from me!
The entries that you will find below are my firsthand account of our successful summit bid on K2. I will limit it to actual events that transpired on the mountain and the emotions that I felt at the time, leaving my reflections for a later time. I’m sure that you are probably relieved to hear that, considering how long winded I can be. So, without further ado, I hope you enjoy my adventure to the 2nd highest summit on earth!
The nerves were there all night, some fear of the unknown and excitement for the remainder. I tossed and turned for the first few hours and eventually zonked out for a couple hours… until I heard the cooks. Breakfast was to be at 5:00, which meant the cook staff had to be up by 3:30 to start making a light meal for our departure. They weren’t loud but the sounds were enough to wake me up in my hyper-sensitive state. Obviously, I laid there for the next hour, running through all the scenarios and obstacles that I might face over the next 5 days.
Minutes seemed like hours but finally my alarm went off and I dug around my sleeping bag for the clothes that I had stashed to ensure that they would be warm when I put them on in the morning. An alpine start is always awful, considering that I’m not a morning person, but it is 10x’s worse if I have to throw on cold clothes. I threw them on in my preplanned order, top first to stay warm while putting on pants, which are a little trickier in a mummy sleeping bag.
I hustled out of my tent to breakfast, determined not to be the last one, especially because I planned to have my customary call to Mom before we broke camp. I finished my meal first and got back to my tent as quickly as I could, hoping that I’d be able to finish an emotional conversation with my Mom before the rest of the team was back to hear. Of course, she was waiting by the phone and answered immediately. The conversation was brief and consisted of her reassuring me of my readiness, rather than me reassuring her! It’s funny how the roles have developed over the years, I always assumed that I would have to be the strong one but these days I find myself getting choked up at the sound of her voice. Perhaps it is the pride that I can hear in her voice or maybe even a little guilt for doing this to her, again. Regardless of the cause, the outcome is always the same, a renewed calm and confidence.
Our team departed BC at 6:10, less the 4 members who had moved to ABC the night before, and made quick work of the move, enjoying the sunrise and a little music along the way. It was strange to say goodbye to my tent, wondering whether I would be returning to it victorious or defeated… When we made it to ABC, we knew the routine of where and when to throw our gear on; harnesses and helmets first but wait for crampons until after you make it through the rocky section. And we were off to the races!
We flew up the mountain, powered by our increased hemoglobin count and a dash of excitement for what lay ahead. The contingent that had been at ABC had begun more than an hour before us and we ended up passing half of them. When we arrived at C1, around 11 AM (over an hour faster than our first rotation), we had slim pickings on tents because the good ones had already been spoken for. The options were to build a new tent platform or try to overhaul an existing one. Geoff and I opted for the deformed, lopsided and dirty tent, while Jesse and David decided to spend an hour building a new platform. Ultimately, the time that we saved not having to build a platform, was probably lost in filling gaps under our pads with clothing to try to compensate for the uneven rock and snow foundation. Having been shafted at almost every camp, the four of us conspired to get an early jump the following day and have our pick of the (tent) litter at C2!
Yesterday, on July 22nd at 6:40 AM, my dream of summiting K2, “The Holy Grail of Mountaineering”, became a reality. It was a surreal moment filled with emotion and even after 40 hours and 12,000+ ft of descent, it has yet to truly sink in. Perhaps it is the sheer exhaustion, extreme caloric deficiency and dehydration, or the psychological toll that it took. Maybe it is the years and thousands of hours of training leading up to this point. I really don’t know at this point…
What I do know is that I couldn’t have done it without the overwhelming love and support that I have received from you. The mountain was utterly terrifying and it was easily the most challenging task of my entire life but you gave me the strength that I needed to overcome it. Together, you helped me become the 21st American to ever stand on the summit of K2!
Now that I am back at basecamp, away from imminent danger, I will spend the next couple of days recovering, collecting my thoughts, and responding to the countless messages that I have received over the next few days. I’m sure that many of you are looking forward to a detailed account of our summit and I promise you that I will get that to you as soon as possible. Until then, thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your messages and for joining me on this journey!
Around 7PM PST, John officially reached the second highest point in the the world, the summit of K2 at 28,251 ft!
Prayers for a safe descent for John and his team and hopefully we will hear from him as soon as he’s back to Camp.