On the 26th of July Chris Burke became the first Australian and New Zealand woman to summit K2 (8611m) in Pakistan. She, along with our good friend at Mountain Equipment Lakpa Sherpa have had little rest over the last 3 years, managing to summit seven 8000+m peaks in just that short time. Although experience on the first six could hardly prepare her for the consistency of technical climbing and exposure of K2, the climbers mountain. keeping to the rate at which she has been climbing, Chris will be heading back to the Himalayas in the next few weeks for an attempt at Cho Oyu and Mountain Equipment is proud to be partnering with Chris and sponsoring her to see out all fourteen 8000ers. But in the mean time Chris has taken some time out to recount her tales: K2 from Broad Peak base camp
" Nothing can really prepare you for K2. I thought that climbing Makalu in the northern spring of 2014 would be a great climb in its own right, but I also thought it would be good preparation for me leading up to K2. I was right on the former but not so right on the latter. I’ve concluded that nothing can really
prepare you for K2.
Its impossible to sum up our K2/Broad Peak expedition in 2 blogs – 50 blogs might do it – so I’ll just mention a few things, and let you enjoy the photos.
I went to K2 with the hope of reaching the summit – mentally, I needed to believe I could do it. But, I knew that getting to the top on a first attempt was a very rare thing for most. If I got to C3 first time, then that would give me a good grounding for going back only one more time. I hadn’t the funds to return time and again.
K2’s next door neighbour, Broad Peak, seems like Cinderella’s ugly sister, being relatively unheard of, and more so ignored. But, I cherish my time on BP and can’t want to go back to it again. It is steeper than I had been aware of from my reading, and seems steeper at those times when Lakpa and I free climbed sections of it, or climbed alpine style, before ropes were fixed. It is a mountain with great mixed climbing and the views are s-t-u-n-n-i-n-g, especially of K2, the Gasherbrum group, Masherbrum and surrounding glaciers.
Very few people reached the summit of BP this season – less than 10, I think. I can’t help but wonder if it was because not enough of those in BC went with the intention and resources to contribute fairly to the rope fixing efforts. The burden fell to a few and the burden was likely too much. 3 cheers for the Polish, Hunza and Sherpa teams for the rope fixing that they did and if others at BP BC contributed, cheers to you too.
As mentioned in a prior blog, we did not summit BP. But, having got as high at 7200m – 7300m on BP, Lakpa and I were well placed to move across to K2, well acclimatised. Ready to give K2 a go.
Once Lakpa and I moved across to K2 BC around 18 July, it was a case of waiting for a weather window for our summit push. We had heard that snow conditions under foot were particularly good this year and the weather window we could see seemed almost too good to be true. Unprecedented, we were told. Did the mountain want to put its best foot forward for this special 60th anniversary year?
I spent time at K2 BC staring at the mountain and looking at old photos to remind me of what was ahead. The shortest way to sum up our climb on the Abruzzi route to C4 is to say K2 is steep, steep, steep and, oh, steep, and there are no flat bits (except for C4 itself). I had heard about House’s Chimney but given my penchant for climbing door frames in my family home when I was a child, and climbing a rock chimney in Kathmandu, it was not so hard but, again, conditions were really good. The Black Pyramid was in good condition too so, again, it was hard but I survived. Overall, K2 is seriously tiring climb (huge understatement) particularly between C1-C3 and focus is a must. And, there was heaps of rockfall with helmets mandatory – I got showered with rocks many times either from climbers inadvertently causing rockfall (which was hard to avoid given the amount of loose rock) or from rock falling out of icefalls.
When you look up to the summit from C4 your mind tells you ‘that doesn’t look so bad’ and, well, your mind is playing tricks. It only gets harder. But, it can depend on the conditions of the day and your own strengths and weaknesses – its subjective to a degree.
At 3.45pm on the day of our summit push as we prepared at C4 the rope fixers came to our tent to ask Lakpa to join the team as they were now short of people. I said ’no’ knowing we all might have to descend and regroup. I offered an alternative solution but it was turned down. Many a person has died as a result of making a different key decision at high altitude – however, in the back of my mind I thought that despite my protests, Lakpa might be needed and I should start to prepare my thinking around that possibility – I needed to be flexible too, I realised. Lakpa did then scout around and help the rope fixing team get enough people and he sorted ropes and gear. We came as a team and wanted to climb as a team but I knew that might all change…
We were due to leave for the summit at 9pm, 2 hours after the rope fixers to give them a head start, but when they left at 8pm we decided to leave at 10.30pm. Before leaving our tent I was loaded up with hand warmers, body warmers (for my chest), and feet warmers, with some toe warmers positioned on an artery that goes down into the foot. With a lifetime of bad circulation, I was hoping to leave nothing to chance, and having hurt my fingers on Broad Peak, I knew I was already compromised.
I left for the summit first with Lakpa’s nephew (Tsering) and Lakpa was to come from behind. I knew Tsering was not feeling particularly well so I was mindful to keep an eye on him too. Ahead of me were head lamps of maybe 15-20 climbers. (There were around 30-35 climbers above C4 on that day).
All too quickly we caught the rope fixers in the Bottleneck and found ourselves standing in the below freezing temperatures in the middle of the night – waiting, and fighting off the cold. Within a hour of waiting, I lost feeling in the toes on my left foot and could not regain it even with wriggling and 3 chemical warmers. Lakpa was still nowhere to be seen. I said to Tsering that if Lakpa did not appear soon we would have to descend to see what had happened to him. In that moment, Lakpa appeared right behind me having passed a series of climbers. I explained there was some problem ahead causing delay and asked him whether we descend to C4 and try again the following night, or whether he wanted to go ahead to see if he could help the other Sherpas. We considered the options and Lakpa decided he would climb ahead. (In addition to fixing ropes, the Sherpas were breaking trail, followed by the Italian/Pakistani team. I believe 2 of the I/P team also helped carry rope for the rope fixing task.).
The grand traverse below the serac
As more time passed and there was no movement in the queue I shouted ahead to Tsering that I needed to go down as I still could not feel my toes. Tsering looked ahead, discussed something with somebody, and then shouted back ‘you can move up now’. Soon after moving up, with the greater movement I was able to reignite the feeling in my toes, with huge relief. Although Mallory was ok with the thought of losing a finger or two for a summit of Mt Everest I remain unprepared to lose a finger or toe for the same on any mountain.
After Lakpa had climbed ahead I did not see him until well after daylight struck as he was needed to help with the more technical aspects of the rope fixing on the top of the Bottleneck and across the Traverse, including helping to add back up anchors. Over the course of our summit day we would have had waiting times accumulating to easily over 6 hours in total, closer to 8 hours perhaps, as the rope fixers were faced with a task much harder than anticipated. Worse than the affects of the cold and the waiting was the reality of being stuck so long under ‘the Serac’, and the Serac needs no explanation as it dominates the upper mountain. It loomed over us threateningly and I just kept telling myself that it was not my time to ‘go’, nor the time for the Serac to ‘go’. I just hoped, anyway…
K2's magnificent serac
I met Lakpa again in daylight on the Traverse under the Serac (approx 8,300m) and from there we climbed together to the summit (8,611m). The queue of climbers was tight simply because of the waiting at times we would move 1 metre every 15 minutes, if we were lucky.
When Lakpa, Tsering and I reached around 120 metres from the summit with a group of other climbers we again faced a large section with no fixed rope. It would take the rope fixers maybe 1 more hour to sort out. By now, it was around 12pm.
I was nervous and considering whether this close to the summit we would have to descend – time was running out. I didn’t like being up so high so late in the day, despite the weather appearing perfect. So, Lakpa and I discussed whether we would climb the final section (intended to be fixed ropes) alpine style, and not wait for the fixed ropes. We roped ourselves up and climbed a section. One other climber + sherpa had decided to do the same before the rope fixers said they would definitely fix the section. We waited another 20 minutes or so and then decided to just rope up again and climb ourselves, and we did, to the summit. On the very top, I stopped to ponder the view and to think how lucky, truly lucky, I was to be on the top of K2. I looked at my watch – it was 2.15pm, local time.
Summit with Lakpa Sherpa, Chris Burke and Tsering Sherpa
Once the fixed lines were secured, other climbers made their way to the summit maybe 40 mins-1 hour or so behind us. I allowed myself 20 minutes on the summit and then said ‘let’s go down’. The weather was perfect but our weather forecast indicated some afternoon precipitation, so I wanted to move – Lakpa and I were the first to leave the summit. Just before we reached the Traverse it began to snow and soon became a whiteout. The snow continued to C4, more than forecast. I thought of all the climbers above but was pleased to learn all made it back to C4 ok.
Approximately 80% of all accidents on big mountains occur on the descent and so I was extra cautious watching my every step. The descent was made harder by the fact that my Lhotse knee (see Lhotse 2013 summit day blog) decided it had had enough and I had to be so careful as every slight misstep caused me agony. I know now that I must get it checked when I land back in Sydney.
Returning to K2 BC was a treat to see all the faces of those who had been on the mountain. The Italian Pakistani team were ecstatic at their success, rightly so, especially with it being the 60th anniversary of the first ascent – on the mountain the team were considerate and respectful, and always had words of encouragement whenever we encountered each other. On top of that, their rope fixing on the mountain up to C2 was very professional – good rope, well placed, and with sound anchors. A Greek chap, a strong alpine climber I am told, was a great personality at camp, friends with everyone and very generous with his professional weather knowledge. He made a very courageous decision to turn around close to the summit but his philosophical approach to his climb was inspiring.
I was really excited that all 3 Sherpanis reached the summit – Pasang, Maya and Dawa – strong climbers and great team members – an inspiration to all in Nepal for their achievement. They are evidence the talent is in Nepal and they just needed the opportunity. A young Italian woman, reached the summit and was noted by many for her strength. I’m not one for comparisons but I did have to keep reminding myself that I am old enough to be her mother! It was also great to be welcomed back to BC by the local Liaison Officers who had facilitated our presence in the border region to climb.
K2 Summit women
What I noticed at K2 BC during my time there was a kind of energy that I had not seen at BCs on other 8,000m mountains – from time to time I tried to figure out what it was. I wondered if it was ‘ego’ playing a bigger role on this mountain or nerves! I then concluded that many climbers possessed a very focused energy, all sensing the difficulty of the task before them. No-one underestimated their mission.
On arriving back at K2 BC, Lakpa and I had the decision of whether to return to BP to attempt the summit. There were many factors that would influence our final decision.
I posed to Lakpa that if we were to climb BP we had to do it properly and not make it any harder than it needed to be (having considered all the factors), especially since we had just expended a lot of energy on K2. We would need to have the power to climb large sections alpine style. We would be on the ice tools again for lengthy periods due to absence of rope fixing in key sections as some ropes had been removed, we were told. We both did not want to make a half hearted attempt, nor a more dangerous one. I particularly was keen to give BP the respect it deserves and not have it as a climb we did secondary to K2. We decided to return another time. Within hours of our decision, the biggest avalanche that we had seen on BP flew off its high slopes, into the path near crampon point, with its cloud reaching BP base camp. Maybe it really was time to go home…
I know I have not done this expedition justice trying to sum things up so briefly but I have received questions so I’ll do a short Q&A blog too and add a few more photos. We made it back to Islamabad on 5th after a 2 day bus ride and I’m tried hard not to move from lying on a bed in our accommodation! Actually, it was not so hard. Many of us feel like we have been hit by a fleet of buses, we are so tired. 7th I reached Kathmandu. After a couple of days in Kathmandu to sort things I plan to fly to Australia and NZ to see family and friends. I can’t wait!
Thank you hugely for all the messages. Lakpa and I feel extremely grateful. To be honest, I got a bit teary reading all the lovely messages. So, thank you, thank you.
Thank you to Himalayan Ascent, Nazir Sabir Expeditions and Seven Summits Treks, and all the staff and porters for their hard work as part of the broader team!
Additional blogs you might like to have a look at on our K2 expedition: see www.alanarnette.com or www.alhancock.com.
Afterword: the night before we left K2 BC we were informed that a climber we had made acquaintances with in camp, Miguel, was in trouble but had made it safely back to C4. We were elated. We were extremely saddened to hear later that he had died during that night. My thoughts are with his family and friends.
Chris, along with her climbing partner Lakpa Sherpa, has now completed 7 of the 14 peaks above 8000m, and she is heading straight back in a couple of weeks to attempt Cho Oyu. In 2013, Chris became one of only a small handful of climbers, female or male, to reach the summit of 4 x 8,000m peaks in a 12 month period when she reached the summit of Lhotse, G1, G2 and Manaslu. Available statistics indicate she may be only the [fourth] woman in the world to complete the Gasherbrums double, to climb both G1 and G2 in a single season. She reached the summit of 5 x 8,000m peaks in 1 year and 12 days (not sure how many hours!). Chris is also the first Australian or NZ woman to reach the summit of Lhotse (4th highest) and Makalu (5th highest). Born in Timaru, a town nestled in the shadow of the Southern Alps in New Zealand’s South Island, and with dual Australian and New Zealand nationality, Chris is proud to carry the banner for both countries. Australia and New Zealand are two great countries – she feels pretty lucky to be able to climb and do so in the ANZAC spirit, so the ‘Kia-Ora – Cooee’ is always with her. When not working as a business trainer (learning and development), public speaker, adventurer, lawyer or climbing, she spends her time with family and friends, and raise awareness for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal
, and promote the work of the following charitable and community organisations, which are close to her heart: The Eggtober Foundation
(Sydney based), Streetwork
(Sydney based) and the Australian Himalayan Foundation
(which also partners with the Himalayan Trust of NZ
). She also undertakes and assists with private charitable and educational initiatives in Nepal. She was previously a Partner at leading Australian law firms Gilbert + Tobin and Minter Ellison. Her home bases are Sydney Australia
, where she has lived and worked since 1993, and Rakaia, in Canterbury, New Zealand
, with Canterbury being the province of her birth. Although, for the indefinite future ‘home’ will be various mountains of the world, with Chris returning to Australia and New Zealand between climbs. For more stories, photos, and information on Chris's adventures visit her website here