What’s it like on the holy grail of big mountains? Here’s my climber’s eye view into the expedition, created as it happened using my solar-powered setup in base camp. Thanks again to everyone for following along and supporting the trip. Enjoy!
I’m back home eating like crazy and getting over my jetlag. The cuts, scrapes and bruises are all healing in the abundant oxygenated atmosphere. More reflection will be coming from my attempt on K2, but in the meantime, here’s a photo essay from the journey back home. In short, I think I set a speed record back home from Camp 2 as I barely even had time to stop and shower in Islamabad before catching my international flight:
July 26: Descend from Camp 2 to Base Camp
July 27: Base Camp to Ali Camp
July 28: (Well, technically we started climbing at 10:45PM on the 27th and crested the 18,400 ft Gondogoro La at 1:30AM) Ali Camp to Hushe (this is about 25 excruciatingly hard, trailless miles) covered in about 14 hours. Then 6 hour drive to Skardu
July 29: Flight from Skardu to Islamabad followed by Islamabad – Abu Dhabi – San Francisco
A huge congratulations to all of my teammates who were successful on K2. These were the first summits of K2 since 2014 and under 400 people have ever stood on top! Many thanks to Mountain Equipment, Dreamers Destination and Nazir Sabir Expeditions for making the trip possible!
“The need to climb comes from that tough, lonely place of searching for your dignity. You know, that place–where we actually choose to confront our weaknesses and fears, where we rebel against the terror of death–is actually about dignity. That’s why alpinism is not just the act of ascending a mountain, but also inwardly of ascending above yourself.” -Voytek Kurtyka
Tomorrow it starts. I am attempting K2 without supplemental oxygen. We have an intricate and excruciatingly hard plan…not out of choice, but necessity. The hope for perfect conditions and a beautiful, long weather window has predictably come and gone. K2 isn’t so much inviting us up as it is allowing us a glimpse of what we need…48 or so hours of 30 km/hr or less wind on the summit before it goes back to nuking. We are betting on the 26th (historically K2’s most popular summit day…44 ascents all time) but the window could move backward to July 27-28. I suppose it could also move forward in which case we have no chance to even be in position anyway. We only have the resources (not to mention the physical strength and sheer will) for one attempt, so this is it. So my plan as it stands follows:
July 23: Direct to Camp 2
July 24: Camp 2 to Camp 3
July 25: Camp 3 to Camp 4. Leaving early so we can be in camp by noon to hydrate and rest. Departure for summit around 10-11PM.
July 26 (Technically starting late at night on the 25th): Summit day and descend as far as possible. I expect at least 12 hours up and I will descend as long as I need to get safe. I am climbing with Nima who will be on oxygen and have extra for me in case I have a problem.
July 27: If this is summit day, I will likely take an extra day on the 24th or 25th in Camp 2 or Camp 3. I can not afford to spend extra time in Camp 4 without oxygen. Otherwise, descend to BC.
July 28: Reserve/descent
I will bring my DeLorme messenger up so “Where’s Hari” will be active. However, I may not take this on summit day (I am counting grams), so don’t expect communication/updates for periods as long as 48 hours or more.
I hope I’m not being too greedy by asking K2 for a chance. After looking up at winds ripping its icy flanks for the past month, I’d say I’ve already been humbled. But luck is nothing more than preparation and opportunity. I am hyperfocused garnished with a bit of aggression. I am ready for things to be far from perfect. I am prepared to suffer. If this mountain gives me a sliver of a chance, I am going to explode.
K2 Update: I’m happy and healthy in base camp, but there’s still no good weather window on the horizon. In the meantime, I’ve done some strength work and fast hikes, not to mention laundry and tent maintenance. Waiting and staying calm is a big part of the game. Instead of distracting myself with movies and the like, I’m using the time to visualize an objective that will require my complete focus. Weather here in base camp isn’t so bad, but up high the mountains are getting absolutely blasted by high winds. The stars at night are beyond belief…I feel like we’re aboard the Hubble!
It started with a simple email entitled “Cordillera Blanca.” In terms of lifelong dream trips, I’d say the top two ranges I wanted to visit were the Blanca and of course the Karakoram. Could I pull off both back to back? I agreed to meet with Justin anyway, despite my reservations about my current mental fitness…at the time, I’d been getting so confused with basic activities I wasn’t even close to being able to go for a weekend in the Sierra. But Justin had the right enthusiasm and attitude and we both agreed that we’d be able to make the trip work even if we weren’t feeling up to the bigger objectives.
I’m back down after a three-night all-inclusive vacation to about 7200m (~23,600 ft) on K2. It’s pretty hard! But I handled it quite well and am busy eating fried eggs and paratha, guzzling Coke and Mountain Dew, and slathering aloe vera on my face here in base camp. Maybe tomorrow will be my laundry day. Now we wait for the next stretch of good weather to go back up into the ethereal world of complete detatchment that comes with extreme altitude. Here are some photos from the acclimatization trip:
“Mystery is essential to mountaineering. What is unveiled to the individual when involved with creative mountaineering forms part of a new bond with the mountain experience…it is in forging true bonds rather than the collection of numbers or establishment of records that unveils a bit of mystery…
If there is such a thing as spiritual materialism, it is displayed in the urge to possess the mountains rather than to unravel and accept their mysteries” -Voytek Kurtyka, The Art of Suffering
After a few weeks of travel, a few years of planning, and a few decades of dreaming, I set foot on the world’s second highest mountain. Our first rotation was a relative success…some marginal snow conditions and weather made upward progress more challenging than it would otherwise be, but I spent a headache-free night at camp one and climbed halfway to camp two before descending back to base camp to outrun an approaching storm. Now, armed with an excellent weather forecast, I’m heading back up the mountain tomorrow for what I hope will be my final acclimatization rotation. My primary objective is to sleep in camp three and touch as high as K2’s “Shoulder.” Located at approximately 8000m and above most of the technical climbing on the route, this task is in certain respects one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried. I’m just ready to embrace the mysteries of K2’s higher slopes and to interact with such historic features as House’s Chimney and the Black Pyramid.
I’m feeling great after a few rest days in base camp: my sinus and throat issues have mostly cleared up, my acclimatization is excellent, and I’ve been walking 1-2 hours each day to keep the blood flowing. Follow along on the Where’s Hari tab to track progress….I’m anticipating 3-4 nights on the mountain before returning to this deliciously thick air!
“Every alpinist who climbs 8000-meter peaks searches for ways to prepare the body so that it will adjust to the variables. The environment at extreme altitude is as alien as outer space; the dynamics play out in ways we cannot fully understand. A mountaineer can only hope that a commitment to constant training will prop up his or her ambitions to explore the Earth’s highest reaches.” -Anatoli Boukreev
I have a confession to make: most of the climbing I’ve done in the past has been off the couch. It’s not that I don’t believe in training…far from it. But I think due to a combination of being lazy and rarely encountering my fitness to be a limiting factor, I simply chose to go climbing. But after last year, I knew I’d lost a lot of my overall athleticism, not to mention the mental fitness required to tackle big objectives in the alpine. Here, I’ll outline my approach to getting ready for the mountains, heavily influenced by my background in distance running and by works such as Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism and Steve House and Scott Johnston’s Training for the New Alpinism. These are outstanding resources.
First, I follow a progressive, periodized approach to training. This means that my preparation and climbing cycle consists of distinct phases, starting with a transition into training. When running was my full time gig, our coaches often referred to this period euphemistically as “active rest.” In college, I usually pounced on the week or two of freedom to go climbing. So starting this past late December, I started to very slowly build back. I could feel connective tissue straining, but I adhered to the main rule of this period: don’t get injured.
Most important, certainly for alpine climbing, is the base phase. This is where the vast majority of work gets done, and for something as aerobically demanding as my objectives this summer (I’m targeting summit days to be 18-24 hours of brutal aerobic effort, but I’d like to be able to climb for 40+ hours without food, water or rest in a survival situation). In short, I need to be resilient. The base period is where this capacity to endure comes from, and it’s all about relatively easy aerobic exercise. Since ankylosing spondylitis ended my running career in 2009, I opted to use biking and hiking as my primary modes of aerobic work. Of all the aspects of training, this is the one you can’t cut short. As Coach Weisend would say in high school, “You can’t pay someone to run your miles for you.”
Additional components of my base phase were mostly designed for me to gain some functional strength. I focused on core strength as well as coordinated body weight exercises like pull ups, push ups, dips, lunges, squats as well as some truly goofy looking balancey sequences. Once I’d gained a solid foundation there, I started focused on developing max strength in a few key areas that I find useful on really big mountains like quads, triceps and a few other areas. I added in maximum-intensity, 8-second hill sprints to develop maximum power in my quads. I quickly felt the gains on climbs on the bike and when carrying a pack.
Next up, things start to get fun…converting these general gains into more specific fitness required for the mountains. One of these was improving the efficiency of my fat burning metabolism. In the high mountains, it simply isn’t possible to eat enough to fuel your climbing. So training in a way that makes you highly dependent on carbohydrates really can backfire, leading to the classic “bonk.” To address this, I started taking morning bike rides of 3-5 hours with 3-5000 ft of climbing without breakfast or any food along the way. The other improvements I wanted to make were in muscular endurance and improved efficiency in high altitude climbing movements (kicking steps in steep snow and ice, plunging through deep snow with a heavy pack, etc). I did this in the best way possible, a quick alpine climbing trip in Peru!
“The cliffs and ridges of K2 rose out of the glacier in one stupendous sweep to the summit of the mountain, 12,000 feet above. The sight was beyond my comprehension…I saw ice avalanches, weighing perhaps hundreds of tons, break off from a hanging glacier nearly two miles above my head; the ice was ground to a fine powder and drifted away in the breeze long before it reached the foot of the precipice, nor did any sound reach my ears.” –Eric Shipton, upon his first view of K2 (from the north side) in 1937
After a week of trekking, along the raging braided channels of the Braldu River to the endless gravel, boulders and ankle-breaking cobbles of the Baltoro and Godwin Austen Glaciers, I have arrived at the foot of the world’s second highest mountain. It’s not an exaggeration to claim that this is the single most mountainous valley in the world, dubbed by Galen Rowell as the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods.
Overall, the trek was objectively challenging but I did a good job keeping it relatively comfortable. Not easy, considering it’s about 65 rugged and dirty miles. I nursed a few things along the way (sinus and cold symptoms, very minor GI issues back in Skardu), but I’ve been able to bounce back quickly each time. So I’m hoping a couple days here in base camp will help my sore throat from all of the huffing and puffing in the cold dry air. My acclimatization is outstanding…I can’t even tell I’m at altitude here at base camp at 16,000 ft, so I’ll be eager to start getting higher ASAP for some added stimulus.
From here, we’ll rest, sort gear and prepare for our first rotation up the mountain. We’re the first large team to arrive attempting the Abruzzi Spur, so this likely means we’ll have our choice of good camping spots at the expense of additional work preparing the route.
“Allahu akbar! Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah”
The morning call to prayer jostles me awake at the unholy hour of 3AM. As I roll over, the light body aches and night sweats of the fever I’m running add to the unpleasantness of the moment. It’s Ramadan, and the chanting over the loudspeaker serves a practical purpose for the Skardu locals: it’s their last chance to eat until sundown. At our northerly latitudes, people here will be fasting for 18 hours each day until we arrive in base camp next week. In any objective sense this is a strange time and place for me, but for some reason, I feel at home. More than ever, now I must go to the mountains as a process, a practice, a return to fundamentals.
Just a few months ago, I wasn’t even sure I’d be functional enough to make it here. To say last year crushed me would be an understatement. The short story is that my mom died. The long story is a circuitous inward journey to depths of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I moved home last March following my mom’s terminal breast cancer diagnosis. Showing the hallmark signs of Pierce family stubbornness, she furiously resisted my return home saying I should focus on work, but I could tell things were descending into chaos and everyone else urged me to apply for Santa Clara’s generous family medical leave. The first month and a half or so were filled with endless appointments, phone calls and meetings to get her things in order and streamline my grandfather’s affairs. We took time to fit in some of mom’s favorite activities: putting together puzzles, going to meditation groups and bossing me around in the garden 😉 During one last trip to the beach with friends in April, however, her condition worsened to where she went on oxygen 24/7 and even went so far as to take a quarter of an anti-nausea tablet. Despite constant and excruciating trouble breathing, she managed to resist medications even in her last hours. For her, my hunch is, the integrity of the process was more important to her than even the worst life had to offer.
Over the next few months, her condition progressed and layers of her independence, personality and dignity faded. New and unforeseen problems abounded. For a while, patchwork solutions such as my teaching her the “rest step,” a high altitude technique to save energy, served as a temporary way for her to ascend the stairs to her bedroom. Negotiations over her move downstairs into a hospital bed produced some of the greatest anger and irritability one could experience. Then, one weekend in the beginning of August, fluid enveloped her heart and lungs drove her into constant and unmitigated torture.
The disease walked a tightrope between life and death, creating the sensation of drowning, vivid violent and paranoid hallucinations and profound nausea. The eerie parallels between her cancer and the symptoms of mountain sickness and the struggles to survive I’ve faced in the high mountains were not lost on me. Health crises manifested at all hours of the day and night, and multiple times we saw all the resources hospice had to offer. Finally, after six weeks of the worst suffering one can experience, she took her last breath, the trials of taking on cancer on her own terms over at last.
For a couple months I held my shit together. During September and October, I routinely logged 16 hour days settling her affairs, working on the house and getting ready for a move back west to return to Santa Clara full time for the winter quarter. Oh, and I quickly prepped for an expedition to Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley and Ama Dablam. In case you missed it, check out the trip reports linked in the previous sentence and the new expedition video.
Then, during AGU, the largest earth science conference of the year (of course!), things changed. Instead of hopping on the train to San Francisco, I found myself shaking in the fetal position at home, my head racing. For the next few months, I was unable to focus on anything. Among other things, I became lost on the way to the grocery store, routinely sat in parking lots for hours on end trying to figure out if I needed to eat, drink or pee. Communication of all sorts was an enormous challenge. When people asked how things were going, I rarely knew how to respond. I tried to focus on the positives and use my time to work on things that made me happy like going for a walk, but often that was too daunting of an undertaking. Brewing with frustration, I routinely lost control and broke my things, often for reasons unknown to me even in the moment. I lost confidence in myself all of my abilities to work, be happy or contribute to my relationships. I wrote Mingma Gyalje and told him I might not be able to climb this summer. He told me he’d lost his father to intestine cancer and found himself slowly getting more hopeless and weaker. He told me he changed his routine, returned to trekking and climbing, shared moments with friends and gradually came back.
Slowly things began to change. Michelle got me a watch to track my activities. Old interests like biking and gear-fondling re-emerged. I bought a Pivot, a gorgeous mountain bike just begging to climb the steep fire roads and rip singletrack descents in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Michelle and I had recently moved. At first I was self conscious about the purchase, but soon the freedom opened me up. But the epic rains of this past winter quickly put the trails out of commission, so I did the only logical thing I could think of: splurging on a ridiculously capable BMC road disc bike ready to hit the rough pavement and gravel climbs. Soon, I felt my complete self returning to form. My legs rounded into shape and my aerobic fitness skyrocketed. I could finally focus long enough to send an email. I could do the dishes, make the bed and fold laundry. The house in Virginia sold, and I finally wasn’t getting caught by daily legal and financial surprises in the mail for my mom and grandpa. I started to feel new emotions: gratitude for my privileged and rich life, the support of those around me, the freedom from Santa Clara to focus on my health, and a desire to get on with things. I was on my way.