ON THE FLIGHT from Frankfurt to Islamabad, the final leg of my journey to Pakistan, I was constantly plagued by the chores that still lay between me and K2 (8610 m). Sue Miller and eight trekkers would arrive in just a few days, and I would travel with them to the base camp. Dan Heilig, Rob Hess, Greg Collins, and Doug Dalquist were already nearing the mountain with sixty-two Balti porters, our liaison officer, and cook. As I sat on the plane, the level of detail involved in planning and financing this trip felt oppressive.
After a year's delay, we had been granted permission for the Abruzzi ridge. A huge Italian team led by Ardito Desio climbed the ridge on the first ascent of the world's second highest peak in 1953. Though Americans have tried to climb the peak repeatedly since 1938, only once have we been successful. Two years of planning were behind us and finally we were on our way.
The support trek went smoothly, which is not to say that it was either easy or relaxing. I hired the services of Mohammed Iqbal to outfit the trek in order to alleviate some of the strain for Sue and I. None the less, there were hourly problems that needed solving. Including porters, kitchen staff, and Americans, we were a group of fifty when we left the village of Apoligon on the 130 km journey to Concordia. Leading a group of that size through difficult terrain in the Karakoram was no simple task.
We arrived at Concordia (the junction of the Godwin-Austen, Vigne, Broad Peak, and West Gasherbrum glaciers) on the morning of 15 June 1990. Two porters continued up the Godwin-Austen glacier to inform the expedition of our early arrival. That evening we were joined by Greg who, having heard by radio that we'd arrived, descended from Cl at 6100 m for a rest. He brought fine news he and the others had sieged all our mountain rations and gear up the glacier to advanced base at S335 m and then made several carries to Cl.
I left early the next morning for BC with my good friend Ahmad and his brother Gulam Mohammed. Hiking out of camp, I felt suddenly strong and ready for the awesome peak that loomed ahead. I left the many little problems that always accompany the eleven day approach and the details of organizing the expedition. Suddenly the mountain, which I had been unable to focus on through the clouds of logistics, was in sight and the climb was ahead of schedule. As I arrived at the 5000 m BC, Doug and Dan were moving up the 762 m snow and ice-slope to inhabit Cl.
BC was a pleasant place. Our cook, Gulam Mohammed, was a calm and generous man and a veteran of six expeditions to K2 including the notorious summer of 1986. We were well-stocked with food and fuel and had a comfortable dining/reading tent where we ate meals and endured storm days. We even had a shower and a magic tape deck that played for six weeks on one set of batteries; luxury!
After a two-day rest occasioned by the arrival of the support trek, we began working towards C2. Rob and Greg worked as one team, Doug and Dan as another, and I supported from below carrying loads to Cl. Besides the 'mini-freight train' sluffs of snow that followed the storms or materialized on hot afternoons, the forty-five degree snow slope to Cl was generally in good condition. There were traces of old fixed line but we never felt a need for rope on the slope.
The route to C2 was riddled with old fixed line which we improved using about 90 m of our own. Dan devoted much of his energy to making these old lines as safe as possible. The climbing was not difficult but we were often on rock and exposed to dangerous falls. Rockfall was an ever present concern and all of us wore helmets. Most of the route to C2 was tedious, crampon-dulling mixed rock and snow with fifth class moves here and there. After Doug and Dan succeeded in climbing through Rouse's Chimney, Rob and Greg established C2 at 6700 m on heaps of old tattered tents.
Though the weather was continuously bad higher up on the mountain, we climbed almost at will to C2. By the end of the month Rob, Greg, and I climbed through the most difficult section of the route, the Black Pyramid, to 7310 m with light loads. I remember that day, July first, as the best day of the expedition. We were soloing, as we always did, belaying ourselves on old fixed lines. As we climbed we rebuilt bad anchors, cut out bad sections of rope, and added short sections of new rope to protect the most treacherous sections. The Black Pyramid is very steep and the rock is highly fractured and loose. Though climbing at well over 7000 m we could make no mistakes; a dislodged rock could easily hit a climber below, a fall would test old ropes hanging from anchors in very broken rock. The route was exciting and challenging. It was a beautiful day and we all climbed with confidence and then triumphed as we moved through a final steep serac band to the gentle slopes above the Abruzzi ridge.
That night we descended all the way to the base camp, sliding on our seats down the 760 m slope below Cl. In camp late that night, having eaten a giant pizza prepared by Gulam, we sat quiet and content looking up at where we had been. Two days later Doug and Dan made a carry through the Black Pyramid but were stopped by snow and cold Bl 7160 m. July third we all enjoyed a much needed rest at base camp. Letters went out '.... next time we go up, it will be for a summit bid'. With a bit of food and fuel up high and the whole team healthy ind strong, a few days of eating and resting would ready us for an attempt.
The June storms lasted only four or five days and were followed by two or sometimes three days of clear weather (blown in from the north). The storms that began the evening of July third marked a change in ili.il pattern. For the next twenty-two days we were never able to climb above base camp for more than rwentyfour hours.
Every five or six days the storm relented and we would traipse off to advanced base camp, sleep a few hours, then leave at one or two In the morning for C2. Now well-acclimatized and used to the route, we could climb the 1370 m to C2 in less than six hours. But each time, somewhere between advanced base and C2, the monsoon-driven block clouds would threaten us on the southern horizon and returned In engulf us in storm. As a result we spent the better part of three sraight weeks bound to our books, games, and sleeping bags.
On July twenty-fifth Rob, Greg, Doug, and I climbed under a warm mm and in the deepest snow we'd encountered since early June to C2. The long storm took its toll on the team; Dan decided not to attempt the summit and Rob turned around at C2. The weather continued to I mid and three of us climbed the next morning, unburying fixed lines is we went, through the Black Pyramid. We found that ravens had invaded n cache at 7160 m. Luckily, we carried enough to replace it on our backs from C2 thinking storms might have destroyed some of the caches. we climbed on through the serac band and picked up the cache Greg and I had left at our high point almost one month before.
On the mellower slopes above, new wind slab made travel painfully difficult. Packs were now quite heavy but we feared the return of stormy weather and had decided to make C3 a high camp and go from there to the summit. After ten hours of climbing the sun was soon to vanish behind the west ridge and we were very tired. At four o'clock we began digging a camp at over 7470 m.
That night was not a pleasant one. Doug melted water well into the flight and none of us managed much sleep. I became nauseous and went outside. While there 1 experienced incredible views. There was no Moon; the snowy peaks were brilliant in starlight. Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums, Distant Chopgolisa, and Masherbrum were all shining and seemed far below, There was a light show of thunderstorms hundreds of miles to the south.
As we left for the summit in the morning we all moved slowly. The sky was clear and the air very cold. The new wind slab continued to make for tiring travel. I knew within a few steps that I hadn't the energy to reach the summit. The realization brought me mixed emotions; I was disappointed and yet tremendously relieved not to have to endure the painful, oxygenless climb to the top. Doug and Greg were already well ahead and as I carried wands and ice-screws they might need, I went on to catch them.
We gathered still within sight of camp and I found that Doug had also decided to turn back. His heart was racing at a dangerously high rate so we descended together to high camp. Greg continued for another hour or two and may have neared 7900 m, conditions were rotten and all three of us were very tired.
It took about two hours for Doug's heart rate to decrease. During that time I spoke with Rob on the radio and then overheard him speaking with Wanda Rutkiewicz of the Polish Broad Peak expedition. She informed us that Dan had obtained 20 porters at Concordia for our trek out. She spoke of tragedy on her expedition only a few miles away; their doctor had fallen to his death. She also said that the snow conditions up high on K2 '...are the most important factor' to one's success. I was consumed by the desire to get down, to get away from this high place that made me feel sick and offered me no reward for my struggle.
We cleaned the entire mountain as we descended. What we couldn't carry we rolled down a giant snow slope below C2 to Rob who retrieved it from below. The next day at 2 p.m. we began the trek out and six twenty-five kilometre days later we were in Skardu.
After the quick trip out, our journey home was stalled. We waited for days to get seats on flights to the U.S. Four days in Skardu, twenty-four hours on a bus, several days in Islamabad, and layovers in Karachi and New York kept us wondering if we would ever be done and home. Tired of rice and dal, Greg and I escaped from our Pakistan International flight in Frankfurt long enough to buy a six pack of German beer from the duty-free shop. We talked a bartender into adding ice to our grocery bag and reboarded. The German customs officer said only, 'very nice' as it went through the X-ray machine.
We returned quite weary from three months in Pakistan. When 1 ponder the reasons that we were unable to summit, I find several, not the least of which is that we were very safe and did not take risks. I'm proud of that and of the fact that we suffered no injuries and returned as five close friends. 1 still feel very disappointed at not reaching the top. j It bothers me to tell this story; unable to give it a satisfying end.
An American attempt on K2 (8610 m) in July 1990. They reached 7900 m on Abruzzi ridge.