The night of the 10th we were waiting on a weather call from Jim, the weather guy in Jackson. The reports from the Spanish, from Chamonix, and from the Italians were all varying. So, we were going to make our call based on the final American forecast. Griber talked to him at 10pm, and based on the weather feedback, we made the decision to go.
We left BC two hours later, at midnight, in steady snowfall for a direct push to Camp 2. It was fairly smooth going, and after a very brief pit stop at Camp 1, we arrived at Camp 2 mid-morning. The weather was rough throughout the day with whiteout conditions prevailing on our final approach to Camp 2. We were hoping that by climbing to and through the lower camps in the bad weather that we would get our clear weather window for Camp 3 to the Summit in a couple of days.
As we climbed through the night and the snowfall, once at Camp 2, we were forced with another decision- make the move to Camp 3 or stay one more night at Camp 2 and make the summit push through Camp 3 the next day. The group opted for the former, and a better rest at 21,000ft. It was a long rest day and we were eager to get moving as we hunkered down in the tents and planned for an early am start to Camp 3.
Sunday the 13th we awoke around 4am and headed up to Camp 3. The weather was marginal, and we pushed through the cold and snow once again to our tent at 3. Once there, we again had to redo the original tent platform and then dig out another spot for our other VERY small tent. We squeezed 3 people into each two person tent- warm but very, very tight. We would spend the next 3 nights at Camp 3 during our summit bid process.
Due to heavy snowfall, and the need for able bodies to break trail to the summit, we opted to make an attempt the following night. The 14th turned out to be a beautiful day, with avalanches careening around us, and several other teams making their way to Camp 3. We had committed to leaving the night of the 14th and aimed to summit the next morning with an agreed predetermined turnaround time of 2pm.
As we started assembling our gear, packed in like sardines at 11:30pm that night, the snow and the wind pounded our tents. We had committed to leaving, and with limited fuel and food reserves, our options were limited. By that point, all the other teams had backed out of the plan to move, but we pressed on.
Our two tents set in motion around 11:30 pm, and Griber and I headed out about 12:30am to start breaking trail. As he and I changed up lead on the initial slope, I flicked out the line and a small soft sluff cascaded down upon us- that was to occur several more times ahead. We were looking at a lot of new snowfall above. Kris and Hil followed up behind and we started leap frogging up the mountain. It was a very cold, very windy, and a very snowy effort.
We made our way to about 7400+ meters, regrouped, and made the decision to turn around. The avalanche danger was high and we were breaking trail in extreme conditions. After six hours of some serious work, we returned to Camp 3. On the return, Griber and I got some pretty nice turns on the last pitch back down to the tent, limited but worth it.
As we proceeded to get bombarded by unbelievable weather forces, every two hours or so, we had to dig out the tents, and though we felt safe in location, we were still concerned with wind transported snow crushing our very small tent spaces. It was an intense 24 hours back in camp 3…our plan was to be at BC the next afternoon, with another alpine departure planned for the next morning.
We rose at about 4am on the 15th to a beautiful but cold morning. We had some additional concerns for the snow pack in our descent. Due to some frozen extremities on some folks, we got a later start then planned but headed down the lines safely.
Immediately out of Camp 3, we encountered thigh deep snow and deep trail breaking. Due to the conditions, we opted to ski the last 1/3 of the climb down into Camp 2. The snow was decent but we were wary of crevasses and of slide potential, not only for us, but for those potentially climbing below. Turns out, however, that no one chose to climb up from Camp 2 that morning.
Our packs were about 70lbs plus each coming down, as we cleared each Camp. The heavy loads limited our agility, speed and progress. Arriving to the lowers of Camp 2 and into Camp 1, we encountered severely isothermic snow. The crevasses had opened up significantly, and the farther we moved down from Camp 1, we found ourselves making big leaps across the open gaps. Each step was arduous as we punched through into our knees and deeper, worsened with the added weight. The temperature gradient continued to be extreme as we were below 0 degrees leaving Camp 3, and by the time we hit the lower glacier, it was well into the 90s.
Due to loads, timing, team health etc, we had to time our last push and this journey as we did. Though not summiting was a great disappointment, we all feel good about our efforts, and as climbing as a team. As Kris has mentioned- if we had endeavored only to climb, without the combined climb and ski goal, we may have been able to move quicker on our 1st or 2nd trip up to Camps 2 & 3, but then also lost some members in those bids. By the end of this trip, most of us had spent 4 nights at Camp 3 at 23,500ft, 3 nights at Camp 2 at 21,000ft, 5 at Camp 1, hauled our ski gear to 24,500ft+, and broke trail for most of our big efforts. We headed out of BC on the 18th.
Our departure was preceeded by a garbage bonfire party and a final singing/dance session with the porters. Kris also pulled out a pretty fun fire trick to entertain the masses. The next few days we got our move on- It took us 2 weeks to get to BC from the States, and it took us 4 days to leave. We combined some long days of trekking (25+km) to make flights back from Skardu to Islamabad to home. The atmosphere on this return was much calmer for us, and temps much cooler with overcast skies and rain. We have befriended porters and are no longer such an anomaly for our foreign hosts. As we now sit in Islamabad having our first pizza (and beer in Muslim country) of the trip, we have some fond memories upon which to reflect.
- Kim Havell