Broad Peak, the ever-whimsical maiden

In his seventh dispatch, Chris Warner describes a determined and harrowing attempted summit of Broad Peak

2005 K2 expedition

July 25, 2005|By Chris Warner | Chris Warner,Special to

At the crest of the Swiss Alps lies the most famous alpine trinity: The Jungfrau, the Monch and the Eiger. Broad Peak also has three summits and the folktales surrounding them might be the same. The Jungfrau is a maiden, pure of heart. She is protected by the Monch (a monk) against the evil intentions of the Eiger (an ogre). To the horror of the ogre, the monk is just too good at its job. The same holds true on Broad Peak, where many a suitor comes calling and too many are rejected.

We set off nearly a week ago intent on reaching the true summit of Broad Peak. We raced up to Camp 2, leaving base camp at 2:40 a.m. and reaching C2 by 8:30 a.m. The sun was just hitting the tents as we arrived. It was bitter cold, but warmed quickly.

At midnight we left for the summit, turning around at 2:30 a.m. in subzero temperatures. It was simply too cold to push upwards; the risk of frostbite tickled our toes and fingers, convincing us to retreat.

So we tried again Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Wary of the cold, we left at 4 a.m. This time a third person (Don, from Bishop, Calif.) joined our foolish circus. The conditions were much improved, with the footsteps to C3 frozen solid and the air temps much warmer. The three of us gained altitude quickly. When we reached 7,000 meters (23,050 feet), we were suddenly awed by the site of 27 climbers who were strung out between 7,500 and 7,700 meters. It was an impressive and unsustainable site. But it filled our hearts with hope. Clearly, with that many people clambering for the top, a firm trail would be stamped in the soft snow.

As we passed through C3, at 7,200 meters, we met the first of the summit hopefuls that had turned back. This sad Frenchman explained to us that the snow was just too deep. We dismissed him and motored on. As we reached 7,500 meters, another group of climbers turned back. No longer able to see the climbers out in front (they were hidden by the curves and dips of the glacier), it seemed obvious that the assault on Broad Peak was coming to an end. A supercharged Italian, Diego, attempting a speed ascent from base camp was the first to descend to us. "It is impossible, the snow is too deep," he told us.

But the sun was shining, and a picnic seemed in order before we would return to C2. We broke out a stove, melted some snow to refill our bottles and squeezed down some packets of GU. A picnic at 25,000 feet lacks ants and romance. But the sun felt good on our bodies.

Above us, the mountain was still crawling with climbers, and those at the front of the pack refused to accept defeat. They had been battling the deep snow since 2 a.m., and nearly 10 hours later their commitment had not ebbed.

We packed up our meager things and returned to the fight. Within an hour we passed six more climbers as they descended. Above 7,600 meters, Don decided to return to C2. Tao and I motored on.

Just below the col (a saddle between two peaks), we came across some Spaniards slowly descending. At this point it was actually so warm that I was climbing in two lightweight t-shirts (at nearly 26,000 feet). I clambered onto the col at 5 p.m. The wind whipping up the Chinese side was bitter cold, so I put on all my clothes, including down pants and a down jacket. At the col, I met some strong Italians. No one had reached the true summit, they told me. Broad Peak has a false summit, a handful of meters lower and about an hour closer than the main summit. Above me, strung along the ridge were nearly 20 climbers struggling to get down from the false summit before darkness caught up with them. Most were suffering from some level of exhaustion and dehydration.

Well, my little mind started to twirl. Certainly tagging the false summit was not what I had come here for - although I could do that and be back in my sleeping bag by midnight. I am something of an expert in almost reaching a summit, having once turned back at 7,800 meters on Broad Peak and at over 8,000 meters on Nanga Parbat. No, this time, I wanted the real thing, the tippy-top. The sun was dipping on the horizon. It was time to dig a shelter into the nearest snow bank. If we could find the perfect spot, we could build a snow cave, protected from the wind, in which to hide out for the night. Of course, the lack of a sleeping bag, sleeping pads and other luxuries was just an inconvenience. Give us a good shelter and we would survive a night at 26,000 feet and hopefully be frostbite free in the morning.

I rounded a hump on the ridge and wouldn't you know it - two Poles also had the same idea. They were scooping out a sad looking dish from the snow. I thought I spotted a better place. I dug and dug, good snow cave engineering tips colliding in my brain. Beneath a layer of wind-crusted snow lay a pocket of the sugar-like snow, all fine-rained and not sticking together. But unfortuntely, even with Tao sliding face-irst into the hole we couldn't seem to make the space big enough.

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