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To the Savage Mountain

Just getting to K2 is an arduous journey in its own right, though far easier than it was when the first expeditions traveled for months to reach the peak. I had arranged to accompany the 2011 team to Advanced Base Camp. We all met in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashi, or Kashgar, in the far west of China, and then headed south on June 19 in three Toyota Land Cruisers followed by a truck overloaded with more than two tons of equipment in blue plastic barrels: tents, sleeping bags, stoves, parkas, ice screws, solar panels, batteries, computers, 9,000 feet of rope, 525 eggs, packages of freeze-dried pasta primavera, a bottle of Chivas Regal, a DVD of the movie Hall Pass.

The road skirted the western edge of the Taklimakan Desert and passed through farming towns lined with silver poplars and orchards irrigated by the brawny rivers draining the Kunlun Mountains to the south and the Pamirs to the west. After a night in the dimly lit Yecheng Electricity Hotel we drove over the Chiragsaldi Pass and crept through billows of dust at ten miles an hour until we reached a desolate truck stop called Mazar. In the morning we turned west onto the ragged road that follows the Yarkant River all the way to the Kyrgyz nomad village of Ilik, population 250. We unrolled our sleeping bags in the rug-lined living room of a mud-brick house that belonged to the local mullah. Most of the village turned out in the morning to help lash the expedition’s gear to a herd of camels, and by midday the caravan was heading into the valley of the Surukwat River: 40 camels, eight donkeys, six cows, a small flock of sheep slated for Kyrgyz cooking pots, a Uygur liaison officer named Iskander Abibullah, and six mountaineers in high-tech fabrics and “day for night” sunglasses.

Gerlinde and Ralf were thrilled to be approaching K2 from the north for the first time. The first night in camp Ralf brought out a composite portrait of the mountain made using satellite mapping data and photographs. Maxut studied the daunting details of the North Ridge, which had been first climbed by a Japanese party in 1982; he and Vassiliy had spent many weeks on the ridge in 2007, before bad weather and shortages of food and water forced them to retreat.

“Too soon you show us these,” Maxut said, only half joking. “Hard to sleep now. Where is vodka?”

On the third day we crossed Aghil Pass, at 4,780 meters, and descended into the valley of the Shaksgam River, which rises from the glaciers below the Gasherbrum peaks. Giant terraces of mud-packed rock framed a broad, gray stone plain braided with half a dozen or more channels of silty water. The channels didn’t look too hard to cross, until you saw one of the mountain donkeys knocked off all four feet and whisked downstream like a plastic soda bottle. We crossed on the camels.

On the fifth morning, after an hour of walking, everyone suddenly stopped and stared up at the cloudless sky to the south as if flabbergasted by a UFO. There it was: K2, a colossus erupting out of the earth, its ice-draped walls shimmering in the morning sun like a mirage. It seemed unreal, and yet even from miles off its power was palpable. It was easy to understand the allure it held for mountaineers, no matter that its beauty was imbued with death and its frozen flanks were full of bones and buried bodies. And just as easy to understand why armchair mountaineers might shrink from the thing in dread, and wonder about the balance of reason and desire in those determined to climb it.

Gerlinde, who’d seen K2 many times from the south, sat down on a rock and gazed at the peak with what seemed a welter of emotion in her eyes.

Not wanting to intrude, I asked many weeks later what she’d been thinking about.

“I was thinking, What can I expect this time? How will it be?”

Her K2 history was shadowed with hard memories. She had made three expeditions to the southern side—the last in 2010. On the trip, after a rockfall above Camp III turned Ralf back, Gerlinde joined forces with a close friend of theirs, Fredrik Ericsson, an extreme skier who was attempting ski descents of the world’s highest peaks. Carrying his skis in his pack, Fredrik set out with Gerlinde for the summit from Camp IV. At the base of the steep gully known as the Bottleneck he stopped to set a piton, and as he was hammering it, he lost his footing. He plunged past Gerlinde in an instant and was gone.

In shock, she climbed down as far as she could but found only a ski before the slope vanished into the misty void. Fredrik’s body was later spotted in the snow 3,000 feet below the Bottleneck. He was 35.

As had been the case with the tragedy on Dhaulagiri, Gerlinde wanted nothing to do with K2 after Fredrik’s death. Numb, sad, disillusioned with the price of the life she’d chosen, she went home. At the end of the year she and Ralf took a vacation in Thailand. For four weeks they lived by the sea. They ate fresh fish. They climbed on sea cliffs where falls ended in warm, green water.

People had always asked her why she kept going back to K2. For a long time she didn’t have an answer. But gradually she began to think it wasn’t the mountain’s fault that Fredrik had died. The loss was savage but not the mountain. “The mountain is the mountain, and we are the people who go there,” she says. Friends took a picture of beach stones arranged in the shape of a heart around a message they’d written with pebbles:

Gerlinde + Ralf
K2 2011

She used a print of it for the cover of her packing list.

One With the Universe

Around 7 a.m., Monday, August 22, Gerlinde, Vassiliy, Maxut, and Dariusz set out from Camp IV for a place that was as much the culmination of a common dream as a crowning point of Earth. It was a cloudless day, the weather like a gift. They were climbing up a steep chute of ice, the so-called Japanese Couloir, the predominant feature high on the mountain’s north face. But with only a third of the oxygen at sea level, snow up to their chests in places, and stinging blasts of spindrift that forced them to stop and avert their faces, they made painfully slow progress. By 1 p.m. they had gained less than 180 meters.

Although they’d spent time above Camp IV in 2007, Vassiliy and Maxut were unfamiliar with the Japanese Couloir, and the way up was difficult to see. Gerlinde reached Ralf on the radio at Advanced Base Camp. Since turning back above Camp I, he had devoted himself to supporting the summit party, passing on weather forecasts, advice, and encouragement. Though miles away, he could see that the best place to cross the couloir was below the lip of a long, thin crevasse that ran the width of the slope, where the snow tended to be not as deep and the natural fracture in the slope would lessen the chance of the climbers triggering an avalanche. He helped guide them to the crevasse and watched as their figures, no bigger than commas on a page of paper, began edging across the couloir under a series of seracs—bulges of ice that protruded from the 45-degree slope like dormers from a roof. The seracs might protect them if avalanches swept down from above.

Nearing the rocky left edge, they turned to ascend directly up the slope until they came to a final serac at around 8,300 meters. They’d been climbing for 12 hours; they were 300 meters below the summit.

On the radio Ralf urged Gerlinde to return to Camp IV for the night now that they had broken the trail and knew the way.

“You cannot sleep there, you cannot relax,” he said.

“Ralf,” said Gerlinde, “we are here. We don’t want to go back.”

They had known when they set out that morning that their only chance for the summit might require a bivouac. The possibility had prompted Gerlinde to add the extra weight of a three-pound, two-person tent to her rucksack, as well as a pot and stove, and the same tacit understanding had prompted Dariusz, Maxut, and Vassiliy to tuck extra stove-gas canisters and food into their rucksacks. Days later Maxut tried to explain their state of mind to Tommy. “This was the limit,” he said, tracing a line on the ground with his boot, “and this was how far we went beyond it.” He put his boot half a yard beyond the line. “We completely passed the limit. I risked everything, even my family, my wife, my son, my daughter, everything.”

With the sun low in the west, they stopped in the lee of the last serac to prepare a site for the tiny tent. For an hour and 20 minutes they hacked at the ice, until they had a level platform four feet wide, five feet long. They anchored the tent with two ice screws and a pair of ice axes. By 8:15 they were all inside, sitting on their rucksacks, a stove hanging from the ceiling with a pot of melting snow. Gerlinde made some tomato soup. The temperature was minus 13 Fahrenheit. The plan was to rest until midnight, then resume the push for the prize, now so close.

At one in the morning Vassiliy, Maxut, and Gerlinde strapped on their crampons and by the light of their headlamps started up the steep grade above the tent. Dariusz was still inside getting ready. Gerlinde swung her arms in big circles, but she couldn’t feel her fingers, and she was having trouble unclipping from the rope. Maxut’s feet felt like blocks of ice. They retreated to the tent to try to get warm and wait for sunrise. Gerlinde shivered uncontrollably. It was hard to believe that eight weeks earlier they had all been sweltering in 100-degree temperatures in the Shaksgam Valley, and Maxut had been rubbing yogurt on his sunburned legs.

They set out again around 7 a.m. as another immaculate morning dawned. It was now or never. In her rucksack Gerlinde had spare batteries, extra mittens, toilet paper, a second pair of sunglasses, bandages, drops for snow blindness, cortisone, a syringe; for her main sponsor she also carried a flag with the name of an Austrian oil company. For herself, she had a tiny copper box containing a figure of the Buddha, which she planned to bury on the summit. Inside her suit she tucked the half liter of water she had managed to melt; in her pack it would freeze.

They worked their way up the slope toward a 130-meter ramp of snow that angled up to the summit ridge. They were still suffering from the cold but by 11 a.m. could see they would soon be in the sun. At 3 p.m. they reached the base of the ramp. For the first 20 meters they were exhilarated to discover they sank only to their shins. But soon the snow was chest deep. Where they had switched leads to break trail every 50 steps, they now had to switch every 10, with Maxut and Vassiliy taking extra turns. Oh my God, Gerlinde thought, it’s not possible that we’ve come so far up and will have to turn back.

Desperate for an easier way, they stopped climbing in single file at one point. From below, Ralf was astonished to see their track split into three lines as Gerlinde, Vassiliy, and Maxut searched for better footing. Ahead lay a band of snow-patched rocks tilted at 60 degrees. Steep as it was, it proved easier to negotiate. Climbing single file again, Gerlinde changed places with Vassiliy and sank only up to her knees. With a surge of energy and hope she clambered out of the ramp and onto the ridge, where the wind-packed snow was like a sidewalk. It was 4:35 p.m. She could see the summit dome.

“You can make it!” Ralf cried over the radio. “You can make it! But you are late! Take care!”

She sipped from her water bottle. Her throat was cracked; it hurt to swallow. It was too cold to sweat, but they were all getting dehydrated just from panting for air.

When Vassiliy caught up, he said she should go on to the summit, he would wait for Maxut. Like Gerlinde, he and Maxut stood on the brink of the only 8,000-meter summit they hadn’t climbed. He wanted to go to the top beside his partner but didn’t want people to think he couldn’t have gotten there as quickly as Gerlinde. “You have to say I waited for Maxut,” he told her.

“Yes, of course,” she said.

And then she walked the final steps to the apex of K2.

It was 6:18 p.m. She wanted to share the moment with Ralf, but when she opened the radio she couldn’t speak. There were mountains in every direction. Mountains she had climbed. Mountains that had stolen the lives of her friends and nearly claimed hers too. But never had she invested so much in a mountain as the one under her boots at last. Alone, with the world at her feet, she turned from one point of the compass to another.

“It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life,” she said later. “I felt as if I were one with the universe. It was so strange on one hand to be extremely exhausted and on the other to be getting so much energy from the view.”

Fifteen minutes later Maxut and Vassiliy arrived, shoulder to shoulder. Everyone embraced. Half an hour later Dariusz staggered up, his hands suffering from having taken his gloves off to change batteries on the video camera. It was 7 p.m. Their shadows reached far across the top of K2, as the pyramidal shadow of the mountain itself reached for miles to the east, and a beautiful golden light began to burnish the world. Dariusz filmed as Gerlinde tried to articulate what it meant to her to be there at that moment: “I’m so deeply filled to stand here now after so many tries, so many years.” She began to cry, then composed herself. “It was very, very hard, all the days now, and now it’s just amazing. I don’t find the right words.” She gestured to the sea of peaks in all directions. “You see all this—I think everybody can understand why we do this.”

Stand With Us

Ralf was up most of the night monitoring the descent. More than a third of all fatalities on K2 have happened on the way down. Around 8:30 p.m. he could see four tiny pinpricks of light moving down the ramp into the Japanese Couloir. As she descended in the dark, exhausted, Gerlinde found herself repeating a phrase that had been in her mind: Steh uns bei und beschütze uns. Stand with us and protect us.

“We spoke many times on the descent,” said Gerlinde. “We asked each other again and again, ‘Is everything OK?’ It was just a very serious, very exacting climb. If there would have been just the cold, it would have been hard enough. But there was the steepness, the altitude, the wind during the night and the morning, and the psychological effects—we didn’t have any rope left to fix the route, and the terrain was very steep and exposed. Everybody had to take a very long time and be very careful how they moved.”

Two days later, when Gerlinde came down from Camp I, Ralf met her on the glacier. They held each other for a long time. At Camp I she had found the letter he had left for her in the hope that she would return—a four-foot-long missive written on toilet paper avowing his love and explaining his decision to turn back. “I don’t always want to be the person who holds you back…”

In base camp Gerlinde spoke by satellite phone to Fredrik’s father, Jan Olaf Ericsson, who wanted to know everything she had seen from the summit of the mountain where his son was buried. The president of Austria called to congratulate her. The prime minister of Kazakhstan congratulated Maxut and Vassiliy on Twitter. In the dining tent Gerlinde fell asleep over a plate of watermelon.

At the airport in Munich her whole family turned out to greet her. Her father cried when he hugged her, and for the first time he did not say she’d climbed enough mountains and should stop.

With hardly an ounce of fat to start with, she’d lost 17 pounds. At a ceremony in Bühl, Germany, Gerlinde was showered with bouquets and gifts, including a jeroboam of red Rhine wine labeled with a picture of her atop K2 with her arms over her head. “Normally you will not find me with my arms over my head,” she says. “It’s not that I felt like a queen, but that I wanted to hug the whole world.”

Her friend and fellow climber David Göttler had arrived in Bühl from Munich to help edit the video of the climb for the lectures she would give. He tried several different pieces of music for the crucial summit scene, but none worked as well as “Ára bátur” by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. He arranged the pictures and footage so the chorus of angelic voices and symphonic strings and horns all came to a crescendo just as Gerlinde thrust her arms overhead at the summit. He showed it to Ralf, who was thrilled by how powerfully it conveyed the glory of Gerlinde’s triumph.

But when they showed it to Gerlinde, she frowned and shook her head.

“No, Ralf, it’s too much. I’m sorry, David. I think it’s too much.”

They protested, to no avail. Then David, who had attempted K2 with Gerlinde in 2009 and knew her well, began to rework the scene. The pictures were the same. The music was the same. But the effect was completely different. The flow of photographs that ended with the climactic picture of Gerlinde’s upraised arms had been altered so that the crescendo of the music did not proclaim the glory of one mountaineer that sundown hour on the summit of K2 but the great world she could see all around her, transfigured in golden light.

She smiled when she saw it.

Chip Brown reported on the search for Cleopatra in the July 2011 issue. Tommy Heinrich photographed a Polish expedition to Nanga Parbat for the January 2008 issue.
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