Because it is there: a tale of high altitude junkies
"Because it is there”
George Mallory’s enigmatic answer to the question of why he was obsessed with climbing Mt. Everest has come to define the elite field of high altitude mountaineering.
Mountains are in the news again for depressing but familiar reasons. Three mountaineers, Muhammad Ali Sadpara of Pakistan, John Snorri of Iceland, and Juan Pablo Mohr of Chile were recently declared dead after going missing high on the slopes of K2 in the Karakoram Range, on the Pakistan-China border. They were last heard from on Feb 5th as they climbed past 8000m. Two other climbers, Alex Goldfarb and Sergi Mingote also perished this year on the slopes of “The Savage Mountain”.
[Authors: as we published this article, we discovered that two climbers, Abdul Waraich from Switzerland and Puwei Liu from the USA, recently died high on Mt. Everest.]
Mourners pay tribute to Muhammad Ali Sadpara in Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan [source].
First climbed in 1954, K2’s epithet is well deserved. Striding to the top of an 8000m peak has never been easier, thanks largely to the plethora of commercial operators who do much of the heavy lifting for their (relatively) pampered clients. In contrast, K2’s reputation as the climber’s mountain remains unscathed. At a towering height of 8611m, it is second only to Mt. Everest (8,848m), but is far deadlier than its more famous cousin. Only 337 intrepid climbers have stood on K2’s summit, a far more exclusive club than for the comparatively pedestrian Everest (over 6500 summiteers), and fewer than the number of people who have been to outer space. One person dies for every four that reach K2’s summit, a sobering statistic considering that the statistic for Everest is one in twenty-five.
Pakistan’s Karakoram range viewed from the summit of Gasherbrum II. Broad Peak is centre left, with K2 behind it [source].
The fallen climbers were part of a group of expeditions chasing a prized first - a winter summit of K2. At the beginning of 2021, fewer than 30 people had ever summited any 8000m peak in winter, and none on K2. On January 16th, an expedition of 10 Nepalis became the first humans to stand on K2’s summit in winter, braving 200 kph winds and temperatures as low as -60C. To place their achievement in context, the previous highest altitude reached on K2 in winter was 7,750m, well below the summit, and nearly two decades ago.
The Nepalis faced a gruelling uphill slog up K2’s icy slopes along the Abruzzi Spur. Among the most infamous, and breathtaking, sections of K2 is The Bottleneck at 8200m, a treacherous gully section of the climb that claimed eleven lives in 2008. Watch an incredible short video of this deadly, but beautiful, feature here.
The Bottleneck, as viewed from the Pakistani military helicopter used to search for the missing climbers on Feb 7, 2021. [source].
The "normal" route on K2, via the Abruzzi Ridge [source].
Above 8000m - the “Death Zone”, the human body suffers tremendously from the lack of oxygen, only 34% of its concentration at sea level. At these dizzying heights, climbers are only a few thousand feet below passengers in commercial jets, but are a world away from the creature comforts of even economy class, comparatively meagre as they are. While the use of oxygen bottles is common, climbing purists disdain the use of so-called “unfair means”. Incredibly, one of the Nepali summiteers, former Gurkha Nirmal Purja, reportedly did not use oxygen on his ascent.
Only 14 mountains are over 8000m, all of which are in China, Nepal and Pakistan. Summiting all 14 is among the most sought-after prizes in mountaineering, one that fewer than 50 people have achieved; at one stage, more people had walked the moon than had bagged all 14 summits. Nirmal Purja conquered all 14 peaks in an astounding 189 days (previous best: nearly 8 years). This superhuman feat included summits of Everest, Lhotse and Makalu, ranking first, fourth and fifth highest peaks respectively, in only 48 hours.
The mind boggles at the hardships faced by mountaineers. Climbers are typically supported by a series of camps that generally degrade in comfort and safety as one climbs further up the mountain. All material (and there is a lot of it) is laboriously carried from base camp by industrious teams of porters; these tend to be Sherpas in Nepal or Hunzas in Pakistan. Along the way, fixed ropes are set into the mountainside to aid other climbers.
Following the maxim “climb high, sleep low”, mountaineers typically ascend to one of the high camps on the mountain for acclimatisation, before returning to base camp to allow for their bodies to rejuvenate. Over several such trips, the climbers’ bodies gradually adjust to the low oxygen environment. Each trip up the mountain goes to a progressively higher camp, until the expedition leader is convinced that climbers are ready for the final push.
Weather forecasts are carefully checked for possible windows. Some teams pay for dedicated weather forecasts by expert teams. Come summit day, teams depart the highest camp, C4 on K2, in the wee hours, generally around 2am. Already weary from several days of unending climbing up icy slopes at temperatures well below freezing, climbers trudge past morbid reminders of the magnitude of the challenges ahead - the frozen corpses of climbers who perished on the mountain. Decomposition is severely limited in these bitterly cold conditions, so corpses remain on the mountain as eerie reminders of the dangers ahead. Watch this incredible video of the discovery of the remarkably well preserved body of George Mallory, who went missing high on the slopes of Everest a scarcely believable 76 years previously.
Back to the present. The aim is to summit early, typically around noon, in order to get back to camp before dark. After pausing for the obligatory summit photograph, the exhausted climbers trudge back to one of the high camps to recuperate. Experienced climbers bear in mind that the summit is only halfway through their journey, but the journey back is frequently the most dangerous part. Statistically, most deaths occur on the way down, as the combination of oxygen deprivation and fatigue reduce cognitive and physical abilities. For climbers who are unable to make it to camp that night, chances of survival are depressingly grim. The lucky survivors enter a world of potentially lucrative book deals and motivational speaking.
Mankind is running out of firsts on Planet Earth. We’ve conquered the mountains, both with and without oxygen. Likewise, we’ve visited the deepest points of the five oceans. Explorations of both poles are now relatively old news, with the comfortably middle aged Jeremy Clarkson and James May even driving (sailing?) to the North Pole in a car.
Maybe it is time to set our gaze higher and cast our net wider. In a previous article we discussed mankind’s fixation with the stars, and why none of our cosmic neighbours have come knocking (or have they?). In the spirit of exploration, may we suggest a summit attempt on Olympus Mons, the behemoth Martian mountain that is the size of Arizona and a staggering 25 kilometres high? We’re no astronauts, but we suspect oxygen will be required, climbing purists notwithstanding.
A computer-generated view of Olympus Mons. (Image credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team/ O. de Goursac, Adrian Lark)[source].