Beating a mountain of rock and ice, atoms and stars

Review: Vivien Horler

One Man’s Climb – a journey of trauma, tragedy and triumph on K2, by Adrian Hayes (Pen & Sword)

K2 is not the highest mountain in the world, but unlike Everest, very few people have climbed it.

It is more remote than Everest, which is why it never acquired a local name – the title K2 comes from the Great Trigonometrical Survey of British India, begun in 1802 and finished in 1871.

Italian climber Fosco Maraini referred to K2 as: “Just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no sense to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has all the nakedness of the world before the first man – or the cindered planet after the last.”

Adrian Hayes points out that Everest, 237m higher than K2, demands extreme physical fitness, determination, ability at altitude, reaction to supplementary oxygen, good experience and a hefty bank balance.

K2 demands all that, and more. The climb is difficult, exposed and has no quick and easy descents. No air rescues are possible once on the mountain. The weather is notoriously poor, there are unstable and dangerous snow and ice conditions, and there are constant rock falls and avalanches.

It was first summited in 1954, and until 2013 only 331 climbers had made it to the top – compared with more than 4 000 who conquered Everest in the same period. The mountain also demands human sacrifice – before 2013, a total of 81 climbers had died on the mountain, or one for every four climbers who summited. In April 2008, a total of 11 climbers died on K2 on a single day.

The first three Britons who summited K2 all died on the descent, underlining the remark of American mountaineer Ed Viesturs: “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”

Hayes is a former British Army Gurkha officer and Special Forces soldier who, before his attempt on K2, had summited Everest and achieved two Guinness World Records for polar expeditions. In 2012 he began toying with the idea of a bid on K2, but his responsibility to his two young children held him back. It was just too selfish, dangerous and reckless.

But he was divorced, and in the same year began a bitter five-year legal battle for contact with his children. Unable to see them, he decided to go for it. He linked up with a Canadian, Al Hancock, who had attempted K2 in 2012, and the plan was on to climb the mountain in the northern summer of 2013.

Among the other teams on the mountain that climbing season was the experienced New Zealand climber Marty Schmidt, who was making his third attempt on the mountain with his son Denali, 25, along with a handful of other teams who included the South African Mike Horn, and of course Sherpas, local men who were naturally acclimatised to the altitudes and would do much of the portering and roping of routes.

Just getting to Base Camp was a trekking ordeal, and then came the so-called rotations, increasingly high climbs up the mountain to acclimatise, before returning to Base Camp. Hayes says altitude is the greatest challenge facing mountaineers – if a person could be flown from Base Camp to the summit of Everest or K2 – which is not possible – without acclimatisation they would be unconscious within minutes because of the lack of oxygen.

News of a four-day good-weather window came, and the teams at Base Camp decided to set off on July 24 or 25, summiting on July 28, and spending nights at various and ever-higher temporary camps before the final push to the top.

But the mountain had other plans. Despite the forecast, the weather was appalling with cloud and snow, and when Hancock and Hayes reached Camp 2, their Sherpas, who had reached Camp 3 and returned, said going on was too dangerous. The other teams were in agreement, and descended. An upset Hayes and Hancock decided to spend the night at the camp, for further acclimatisation, descend to Base Camp in the morning and make another attempt a week later.

They believed they were the only two men on the mountain that night, but when they descended to Lower Camp 2 they found the father and son Schmidt team camped there. Schmidt senior said they were going ahead despite the weather, pressing on up to Camp 3 that day and then hopefully on to the summit.

Back down at Base Camp Hayes discovered that many of the Sherpas had pulled out, and there weren’t enough to support another summit attempt a week later. He was gutted, thinking of the 18 months’ preparation that had gone into the expedition.

That evening the Schmidts radioed to say they had reached Camp 3 safely, and would call in at 8am the next day to say whether they were going up or down. But when Base Camp called them the next morning, the only response was static. This was repeated at midday and at 6pm.

The day after that some of the Sherpas were going up the mountain to collect cached supplies, and were persuaded, with the help of several hundred dollars, to go as far as Camp 3 to see what they could about the Schmidts. When they reached the camp they radioed down: “Sad news for everybody. A big avalanche in Camp 3. There’s one tent but only half. 100 percent die.”

The tragic deaths of the Schmidts marked the end of the 2013 season. The climbers at Base Camp were devastated but, astonishingly, not discouraged. Part 2 of One Man’s Climb details Hayes and Hancock’s return to the mountain in 2014.

Hayes writes: “K2 is behind me and part of my history now, but I still see its shadow in everything I do… It’s a reminder of the shortness and fragility of our lives here on earth and what truly matters…”

Hayes is an adventure man, not a writer, and the text could have been better edited (how could the proofreader have missed the reference to K2’s “grizzly history”?). But for those of us who regard a trudge up Table Mountain as an achievement, this is a fascinating account of a truly heroic endeavour, and is well worth the read.

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