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.