Post #94: Aug 6, 2013: Warm and soft conditions too dangerous to summit.
After a final round of 4 days trying to go back up to the Summit, it’s safe to say the season here in the Karakoram is Finished. I hate to be so blunt about it. Unfortunately this expedition will end with no summit of Gasherbrum 2. On the morning of the 2 I climbed to Camp One with positive vibes. Arriving to the Camp One with just Mark and Grace, we were the only ones up there, not a soul in sight. It was a good thing we arrived in camp before 10am, as the sun came out and it was one of the warmest days of our expedition. Even with tent doors vented and open, there was no wind and it became incredibly hot all day. By noon and throughout the afternoon the loud sound of waterfalls tumbling down all of the very steep mountain faces all around us made the valley sound more like a tropical paradise than a high mountain environment. Rills of these waterfalls coated these steep faces including portions of the banana ridge. That evening the temperatures at 5900m/ over 19,000’ never dropped below freezing, therefore all that water and snowmelt never refreezed properly.
On the morning of August 3rd The weather was partly cloudy as we used Saturday the 3 for a rest day (Mingma and Dorjee came up from Basecamp to join us). But the day moved forward and the snow began to fall, dumping up to 6” of wet snow, hail, and freezing rain in the basins surrounding us and at camp 1. That evening it cleared and barely dipped below freezing again. We found that this made the conditions very dangerous on the steep faces of our route up the Banana Ridge. Snow underneath that had thawed so heavily in the warm weather of the 2 and 3 was covered by an insulating blanket of snow…..the results were disastrous. Corn and ice crystals and snow below the new layer never refroze properly…..this would be a problem when we refixed anchors up the banana ridge….they would not hold. Ice was also rotten due to the conditions and what had transpired. Add to that the overnight forecasted temperatures from the 4 through the 7 were barely at the freezing mark. In fact, freezing level went all the way up to 6500m/22,000’ . Obviously we like warm weather as climbers, but if it is too warm it can actually be a bad thing for steep snow and ice terrain. The 8000m level for the summit evening was predicted to be only minus 10 C or about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Good for going to the top, but bad if you can’t even climb up the steep snow and ice to get to your summit day.
Nevertheless, on Sunday Aug 4 the weather cleared. Despite the conditions, we decided we would at least go up the banana Ridge and ascend towards Camp III from Camp I so that if the weather was good, the 5 or the 6 could be a summit day. Stars were out at 330am as I shook the others awake in their tents. Our final team included Mark, Grace, myself, Migma and Dorjee. By a little before 5am I led us across the upper Gasherbrum Glacier to the base of the South Face of G2. It was becoming a bit foggy but nothing to be too concerned with. We started up some moderate blue-steepness ski slopes and gained elevation quickly in fresh crunchy tracks. By 630 or so we took abreak below the start of the real climbing near the Banana ridge. Post-holing through the fresh layer of snow for 6” was a problem all morning, but as we got higher it became worse. Not only were we breaking through that new layer, but then there was a 2 to 4 foot layer of snow and ice crystals below(Corn/sugar snow) that was making us sink even further. (On a few occasions, especially later in the morning, Mingma and Grace each had situations where they sank to their waists and plugged their boots. Once Mingma even had to dig out his boot it was so buried in the slushy corn!) Then as we climbed some steeper terrain, the morning sun got hot already by 7am. It turned the upper layers to mush while the lower layers made us sink with each step.
Then to add insult to injury, a steep 250 foot / 60 degreesection that helped us gain the top of an ice serac was facing southeast into the morning sun. As Mingma, Dorjee and I climbed this rotten ice section using the season’s fixed line, all of our ice screws, pickets and snow anchors pulled out! The corn snow layer underneath as well as the baked ice from the previous days was barely holding any anchors even when we refixed them. This section to nearly an hour to refix, and even then gaining the serac and the banana ridge was very dangerous. The thought went through our minds: Climb up this now, but how do we get down in another day and a half after we summit and the sun has baked these anchors? This feeling definitely resonated with Mark and Grace. They decided then to retreat. After waiting and watching us fix marginal anchors for an hour, they felt like it was to dangerous to continue. I climbed up to the Serac onthe Ridge and to a break with Mingma and Dorgee. At over 6200m/ 20,500’, higher than Denali, we looked at the rest of the Banana Ridge with critical evaluation. “Very Dangerous Conditions!”, said the 23 year old Mingma. We all knew we could keep climbing, but it was incredibly warm for only 830 in the morning. A decision had to be made. We tested a few more of the anchors a bit further up on the ridge below the steepest sections. Good 10mm yellow rope with solid ice screws and pickets was pulling out easily on rotten ice underneath sloppy slushy snow. For me the decision was easy: Gasherbrum 2 had won, and it was time to go down. The expedition was finished. We took a 30 minute break to let the decision sink in. I radioed Arnold in basecamp to give him the news. Even the lower section of the ridge would be a bit scary getting down in all that snow sloppyniess. Mingma, Dorjee and I took some photos and shot some videos of the conditions. It was really a gorgeous morning…..and I knew the choice was correct. Then it was time to get down safe and back to Camp I.
We returned to a very hot and Sunny Camp I mid-day and packed our things.
At 3am on the 5 in semi-frozen but blizzard conditions it was time to descend the glacier for a final time and get safely back to basecamp.
As I sat and enjoyed breakfast pancakes and humble pie upon safe return to basecamp, I still attest that failure is not the proper term to use to describe this expedition. I made it up to 7600m/25,000’ on July 27, and had the summit easily within reach if it wasn’t for those spindrift winds. Twice did I climb above 7000m on this trip, and three times I exceeded 6200m, the height of North America’s highest peak: Denali. Yes, this expedition was far from being a failure. I learned a lot about good decision making on a big 8000m peak. I also learned about how my body can handle climbing without oxygen up high. At the end of the day, the mountain makes the decisions. All you can do is put yourself in the position to go to the top and hope that the forces of nature line up in your favor. For not summiting I can put some of the blame on the conditions and the weather turning me back, but should also put some of the blame on me. I have been a bit conservative on this expedition, but I also believe that coming home and living to fight another day are more important than dying out here like 11 other people did this season on K2, Broad Peak and GasherbrumI. Once thing is certain, I will return to an 8000m peak and get a summit in the future, and all the things that I went through here are merely stepping stones to many more chances to climb 8000ers. I know that next time the conditions are right, (When things were good July 21-30) I can afford to be more aggressive in some of my decisions, which may pay dividends.
It’s been a long journey these past 6 weeks. Shoot, I even got to ski in Pakistan a little bit while I was up in the basins on the glacier….how many people can say they skied in Pakistan? I also recall that it was such a long journey to get here……the shootings at Nanga Parbat, the concerns over the Taliban, and a long trek into basecamp. Well, we are slated to leave basecamp in a few days and begin trekking out towards Askole….thenSkardu, then fly back to Islamabad. This will not be my last post as I will post a few more highlights not only from this expedition but the trek back out and my eventual return to Islamabad and the US. Oh, and I have so much more going on this Fall as I continue the Sleeping on the Summit Sequel on the California 14,000’peaks…..wow, I will certainly be acclimated very well for that as I have been above 16,200’ and beyond for more than a month now!
Thanks for following and I will update more soon. IF you have any burning questions for me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I will try to answer them in some upcoming posts, during the adventures on the way out of here.