Jake’s K2 Blog #19: Remembering the dead, and getting ready to go ‘up the hill’

July 16, 2018

Jake Meyer

Chief of Staff

K2 Expedition 2018

Location: Basecamp

Since we got down from Broad Peak, we’ve had a few days in basecamp to rest.

After any rotation up the mountain (especially a summit attempt), it always takes a few days to sort yourself out. This includes purely resting the aching muscles (my calves and thighs were really rather sore, especially after a 2000m descent), replenishing energy through eating as much as possible (and allowing your guts to recalibrate – whether that’s because you’ve been quite constipated up the hill, or the opposite!), sorting your kit out, which inevitably means lots of washing of the single set of clothes you’ve been working, sleeping and sweating in for 6 days, and finally waiting for the next rotation to occur.

Highlights of the past few days:

Rebuilding our tent platforms.

It seems to have been unseasonably warm over the last week or so, and basecamp is almost unrecognisable. No snow on the ground (even though we’ve got the ice floes of the glacier running alongside us). The moraine that we are camped on, is perhaps only a few inches of rock, covering the ice of the glacier, and as the sun heats up the rock and gravel, this in turn helps melt the ice underneath. There are constant rivulets of water running throughout basecamp, coalescing into small streams which in turn feed into raging rivers, carrying millions of gallons of glacial meltwater off down the valley. Our tents act as insulation and prevent (or at least slow) the melting of the ice underneath them, which therefore means that the platforms become higher and higher as the ice around them melts. As an example, I’m currently sitting in the big dome tent, and looking out the door, the surrounding ground is about 2-3ft lower than the tent itself (which was level when we pitched it only 17 days ago).

The rebuilding of our tent platforms helpfully provides a double service. Firstly, it allows you the chance to resite your tent on a decent flat bit of ground, which normally involves moving lots of rock and gravel to make a nice comfortable platform to sleep on. Secondly, as you have to move your tent to do this, it means that you are forced to ‘clean your bedroom’! As several of us were all doing this at the same time, basecamp did resemble the aftermath of a natural disaster, with our personal items strewn around the camp. I have to say that my ‘new’ tent is considerably tidier than it was – but we’ll see how long that lasts for!

Visit to the Gilkey Memorial.
A few days ago, we went up to the Gilkey Memorial. This is something that I’ve visited on both my previous trips, and is something of a rite of passage when you’re in the area. It’s only about 40 minutes from our basecamp, and situated on a rocky promontory jutting off the SE corner of Nera Peak (which is the southern part of the K2 massif), at the junction of the Savoia Glacier and the Godwin Austin Glacier.

Art Gilkey died on Charles Houston’s 1953 K2 Expedition, swept to his death by an avalanche whilst he was being evacuated down the mountain suffering from serious altitude (and potentially Thrombosis related issues) by the rest of the team. He and his resume team had just survived a serious fall (which would have resulted in all of their deaths), which had been arrested solely by the quick reaction of team member Pete Schroening. There is a rather romantic story that they suspected that following the fall that nearly killed all his rescuers, and recognising that he was endangering the lives of his friends and team mates, that Gilkey may have released himself from the rope and sacrificed himself rather than risk their lives again. Unfortunately, this is probably unlikely, as Gilkey was very well tied up, but is a classic story of K2 nonetheless. Gilkey’s body was lost (although it was found more recently), and the team dedicated a memorial to him, and the previous victims of K2 (namely Dudley Woolfe and several Sherpas who died in 1939) in its present position. Ever since then, memorials to those lost, not only on K2, but Broad Peak and several other nearby mountains have been attached to the rock at this barren and windswept location, as well as some remains of climbers found have been left here. When I first visited it in 2009, the near complete body of a climber was clearly visible in a small cave immediately under the main memorial (which is a 6ft high chorten of stones), however this has since been ‘bricked’ up, so it’s less visible. There is still a 1980’s plastic climbing boot which still has its wearers foot inside, and this time I noticed a plastic box which had a jaw and part of a skull inside it. I don’t know who there unfortunately souls were (although it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to work it out). Anyone who followed my expedition last time will remember us finding all sorts of body parts from numerous victims in the moraine above basecamp.

Something that I think is extremely magical about the Gilkey area, is that in this barren brown rocky outcrop, you find pretty much the only flowers that exist this far up the Baltoro Glacier. It’s as though the death of these climbers has brought life to this almost Martian landscape. Perhaps this is why the ‘53 expedition choose this location, because these fragile flora clinging onto existence in this most inhospitable and unlikely of habitats represent both the fragility of life and the possibility of new beginnings.

The main cairn, as well as much of the rock and cliff face around it is decked out in all manner of memorials to those who’ve died in these mountains. Many are the classic metal mess plates, with names, dates and messages hammered into them (of course these are the traditional ‘in the moment’ items, hurriedly produced in situ by grieving team mates before their departure). Others are most significant plaques and signs, with poems, biographies, pictures or reliefs of the deceased, embossed, laser cut or embossed, produced professionally and then brought back to Pakistan by family or friends sometimes years later. They represent climbers from all nations, all ages, all very different in who they were – yet connected by the same dream, the same passion for the mountains, for which they sadly paid the ultimate price. Brothers and sisters alike – now all equal in their ascension from this life to the next. Whether their bodies were repatriated, or were never retrieved or found and still lie on the mountain, they are all remembered here.

There was one thing which was new about the Gilkey which slightly troubled me, and when I saw it/them, I wasn’t quite sure how to react. This was a collection of brand new plaques, all acid/laser etched, all essentially the same, mass produced and placed haphazardly in a pile on a section of the rock 20ft from the main memorial. They were (I believe) produced by an individual who had done a review of all the original plaques, against those who are known to have died on K2, and (this individual) then made plaques to commemorate those who didn’t have their own memorials, or weren’t mentioned. Whilst I know that the intention was entirely positive, and it is right that those who’ve died on K2 do indeed have their names remembered, there is something rather cheap about the way it’s been done. Part of the charm (if I can use that word) about the Gilkey is the sheer variety of styles of plaques and ways that people are immortalised, and the homogeneity of these factory-run plaques seems out of place. Personally, I’m also not sure if creating generic plaques for people that you never knew (and I’d imagine that families weren’t contacted or asked their opinion) seems rather perfunctory. I think that if I’d lost a loved one in the mountains, and a ‘random’ person who never knew them, and had no connection (other than they’d climbed the same mountain) took it upon themselves to create a memorial to them, I’d find it very odd. Anyway, rant over, this is purely my personal opinion, it just makes me feel uncomfortable – and like I say, I have no doubt the person who did this only had the best of intentions.

Probably the most famous Brit to have died in K2, Alison Hargreaves in 1995, exactly 3months after she became the first British female to climb Everest without Oxygen – a truly inspirational woman.

Catching up with other teams.
We’ve also had a good opportunity to visit K2 basecamp several times and catch up with some of the other teams there. From our meetings, we are aligning ourselves more closely with Dawa Sherpa’s Seven Summits Team, with whom we’ve not only made positive allies, but good friends. When it comes to the summit push, we’ll be responsible for providing 400m of ropes at C4 (8000m) and helping Dawa’s team with the fixing to the summit. It seems like Madison Mountaineering aren’t in too much of a rush, a may be looking at a slightly later summit attempt (to be fair – their Sherpas have done an amazing job refixing the fixed lines up to C3 (7300m), especially after the accident which killed Serge).

The weather still continues to be oddly good – with most days being perfect blue skies. We’re all getting rather suspicious, and half hoping for a good storm to reset our expectations, as this spell of great weather surely can’t continue forever.

That being said, unless anything changes significantly, it looks like we’ll be starting our summit attempt (which will take 5-6 days) in the next few days).

This may well be the last blog that I write before I head up the K2, for what I hope will be my last (non-fatalistic!) time. I know that I’m probably tempting fate by saying something like that, and it may well be that we make an attempt, the weather forces us back, and we’ll try another summit attempt before the end of the season. It feels rather odd preparing for a summit attempt on K2, without having set foot on it yet this season, but I feel strong and confident given my acclimatisation and work on Broad Peak, and I’m now excited about the opportunities to put all the preparation into practice.

I know that whilst there won’t be any formal blogs whilst I make my summit attempt, that Pip and Matt will be posting updates about my progress, and of course you can track me on the website. A reminder that I am raising money for Walking With The Wounded, and I know that many of you have already given incredibly generously, but I’ll also be asking Pip to send me updates of the fundraising total as I head towards to the top, so if you’ve enjoyed following the expedition, please do spare a few pounds/dollar/euros etc – it’s all for an amazing cause, and the thought of your generosity is always a huge motivation when I’m having a grisly miserable time up there.

If this is the summit attempt, then I hope that the stars align, the weather holds, the snow is kind, the avalanches are on holiday, and everything works out to make this 3rd time lucky. Regardless of the outcome, I look forward to sending some photos back of my attempt in a week or so.

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