Jake Meyer on conquering K2
Jake Meyer, one of the youngest Britons to climb Everest, and the youngest man in the world to complete the Seven Summits, undertook his biggest challenge when he faced The Savage Mountain, K2.
Throughout my teenage years my dream had always been to climb the Seven Summits and as I started down the path of climbing the highest mountain on every continent it became an unfiltered focus for all my energy and effort.
When I summited Everest on the 4 June 2005, aged 21 and 134 days old, it was an incredible mixture of emotions – relief, elation and exhaustion.
However I also remember being acutely aware of a juxtaposition of fulfilment, but also of emptiness – like an addict coming down from my last ‘fix’, there was an unerring sense of ‘What next’?
I’d climbed as high as one could climb, and while Everest represented the toughest endeavour I’d ever faced, I also wondered if I could face an even tougher challenge at high altitude. Without any hesitation I knew that only one mountain would specifically fit this challenge. K2 – the world’s second highest mountain.
The Savage Mountain
Lying in the Karakoram range and infamously named ‘The Savage Mountain’, due to its dark history and incredibly high death-to-summit ratio (which was 1:4), K2 represents one of the world’s toughest mountaineering challenges.
With only around 400 ascents (and 85 known deaths), more people have been into space than have climbed K2. Whereas Everest can have hundreds of ascents every year (over 700 in 2018 alone), in 40% of years there are no successful ascents of K2.
K2 is considerably steeper than Everest and represents a much more technical mixed rock and ice climb. Even it’s ‘easiest’ slopes are constantly swept clean by biblical sized avalanches and peppered with a cannonade of rock and ice fall.
Very few of the ‘camp sites’ on the mountain have enough space to create a flat platform for a tent, so most tents are either tied onto the mountain at a very uncomfortable angle, and often with part of the tent hanging over the side.
K2 is also much further north than Everest, and as a result suffers from much worse and more localised weather, often with only 1-2 potential summit days per year.
Just getting to basecamp necessitates a 120km trek up one of the longest glaciers in the world, with all equipment and supplies being carried by porter or on the back of mules. On our most recent trip we employed over 240 porters to help us carry everything we needed for the 7 weeks on the mountain.
Tragedy in 2008
I was first due to attempt K2 in 2008 but, at the 11th hour, a sponsor pulled out and I had to cancel my trip. While bitterly disappointed, my frustration soon turned to relief as K2 suffered one of its worst seasons, with 11 climbers dying within 48 hours.
Following 2008’s tragic turn of events, I was first able to attempt the mountain in 2009 as part of an American-led international team. Working on the lesser climbed Cesen route, for 8 weeks we fixed thousands of metres of rope ourselves before making a summit attempt in early August.
Unfortunately for us, by the time we reached the upper slopes of the mountain (within hours of the summit) we found them too loaded with fresh powder snow – which made them not only exhausting and difficult to try and climb, but exceedingly dangerous. Recognising that it’s better to be a live donkey than a dead lion, we made the disappointing, but in the moment incredibly easy, decision to head back down the mountain and call off our summit attempt.
K2 then took a back seat for a number of years (an Operational Tour of Afghanistan, starting a career in management consultancy and starting a family slightly got in the way), but remained an ever present dream and desire.
In 2016, by a mixture of luck and opportunity, I was offered a place on a British Team attempting the Abruzzi Ridge – the first British team to attempt K2 since 2004.
Once again, for many weeks we rotated up and down the mountain, each time climbing a little higher to increase our acclimatisation before returning to the safety of base camp, to rest and wait out periods of bad weather. Eventually, seeing a potential good weather window, we struck out on our summit attempt, a 5-6 day round trip.
While climbing with the Sherpa fixing team, our third camp at 7300m was struck by a massive avalanche that completely destroyed it and swept around $200,000 of rope, oxygen and equipment off the side of the mountain. This (and some other factors) led to us having to once again abandon our summit attempt and return dejected, but lucky to be alive, back home.
'Third time lucky'
Roll on 2018. A third attempt was always going to be draw comments about ‘third time lucky’, and with increased expedition costs, another 2 months away from work and the family (including two young girls), there was a real sense of ‘please let this time be the one’.
This time I teamed up with a Slovenian climber and three Nepalese Sherpas, and we shared a basecamp with a team who’d be attempting to climb K2’s neighbour, Broad Peak (in itself another one of the 8000m peaks).
Having already spent plenty of time going up and down K2’s lower slopes, I was happy to minimise my time on the Savage Mountain, and so I did all of my acclimatisation rotations on Broad Peak, including a solo summit attempt (where I reached 7900m). This set me up well for the actual K2 summit attempt, and I was thankful that we’d only need to make one push up the mountain.
As with previous experience, the route was still steep, was still difficult, and certainly hadn’t got any easier over the years. While less snow on the route made parts of it easier to climb, it also meant that there was more rock fall to contend with.
While a fixing team was putting in safely ropes, you had to be very careful how you used them, and try to minimise your reliance on them. On one day, a Canadian friend of mine (who’d also been on the mountain in 2016 at the same time as me), was abseiling down one of the steepest sections of the climb when the rope he was on snapped. He fell nearly 2000m to his death.
Our small team of five ended up climbing alongside a larger team, and this allowed us the man power to break trail and fix the ropes up on the higher reaches of the mountain. Having spent a rest day (and waiting out the bad weather) at camp 3 (7350m), we put in a temporary camp 4 at 7650m before starting our 1000m vertical climb to the summit.
We left for the summit at 10.30pm, so that we could complete the majority of the climb while it was still dark (the cold of the dark keeps the snow, ice and rock consolidated). It’s also important that you can try and summit as early as possible during the day, so that you can return down the mountain during the light. Too many climbers (on K2 and other mountains) have been lost, or serious injured) when they’ve been forced to come down at night.
The route took us up onto the shoulder of K2, where the climbing angle momentarily abated for a few hundred metres, before becoming incredibly steep as we climbed up alongside the ‘Bottleneck’, a narrow but 70ᵒ snow funnel directly underneath an huge overhanding ice cliff called a serac.
It was this which had broken off in 2008, immediately killing several climbers, and leaving a number of others stranded above it, with their ropes cut. Thankfully, it held beautifully albeit ominously in place, and we then traversed a tentative and narrow path around from underneath it.
This led to another incredibly steep, but this time solid, ice wall which we scratched our way up, making use of the front points of our crampons and ice axes before joining the ever so slightly more generous summit ridge, which would lead up to the top.
At 0800 local time, after 9.5 hours of climbing, and now with the sun starting to warm us in our down suits, we crested onto the top of the summit ridge, and suddenly the ice sloped away from us in every direction – we were at the top.
It is of course incredibly difficult to do a moment like that justice in words alone. Like Everest, it was an incredible myriad of emotions – hugging and celebrating with fellow climbers, savouring the incredible view, trying to remember all the sponsor obligations that you wanted to make (banners, photos, videos etc), and of course the mundane but vitally important aspect of monitoring your oxygen and not losing your gloves!
In the end I spent around 45 minutes on the summit, before deciding that it was probably time to head back down.
Without wanting to be melodramatic, it is almost more important to keep your wits about you on the descent as it is going up. Of the four Brits to have died on K2, three of them died on the decent, having made it to the summit. While they might have been caught in bad weather, or other tragic factors, it is all too easy to make silly mistakes while abseiling or changing ropes (a Japanese climber would die the day after when he fell while descending from the summit), or to let exhaustion overwhelm you.
While the descent was incredibly gruelling, the five of us (and the rest of the larger team) managed to get back down to camp 2 (c6500m) safely, and the following day return exhausted but elated to base camp. It felt like once we were back in the comparative safety of base camp, we could finally relax, and it was only then that we could allow the enormity of what we’d just achieved to sink in.
They say that to climb Everest, you need conditioning, but to climb (and survive) K2 you need heart. Well, the last 10 years have required plenty of heart – and an unerring sense of determination, tenacity, sacrifice, stubbornness and a little bit of luck.
Three times I’ve trekked 120km up the Baltoro Glacier in search of satisfaction. Twice I’ve trekked 120km back defeated, broken but alive. Churchill is purported to have said: ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue which counts.’ Thankfully, there appears to be some truth in the old adage ‘third time’s a charm’.
Of course now, having finally reached the top of K2 (and returned safely), I’ve once again found myself putting one challenge to bed and immediately searching for the next. Fortunately, the world offers many more mountains, and the opportunities for many more adventures.
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