| K2 is called
the Mountaineer's Mountain and the Savage Mountain for its deadly and
difficult reputation. I summited K2 on my 58th birthday, July 27, 2014. I
am asked many questions about climbing especially since I am not a professional
climber. So here are the most popular questions with my answers. As always,
this information was based on my experience and are my opinions so always
consult with a professional before making any serious climbing decisions.
Climbing K2, the world's hardest mountain
the world's hardest disease, Alzheimer's.
Summited July 27, 2014 at age 58 - the oldest American to
Q: Where is K2?
A: In northwest Pakistan about 30 miles from the border with India
and on the border with China. The nearest village is Askole, about a 4-6 day
trek from base camp.
Q: How did K2 get it's name?
A: Most mountains are named by the local people or after nearby
sites, the surveyor, some geographical feature or religious symbol. But since
K2 was not visible from any village when surveyed, it kept the name given by
the surveyor, TG Montgomerie, when he was surveying the Karakorum peaks in 1856. The
K in K2 stand for Karakorum.
Q: When is it usually climbed?
A: As with most Himalayan peaks in Pakistan, summer is best since
it was warmer with less threat of snow. The Karakorum does not have the same
monsoon influence as the Himalaya on Nepal where climbing was April/May and
Q: I understand that K2 is dangerous, difficult and rarely
summited. How hard was it?
A: K2 is dangerous and deadly. It starts steep and ends
steep. The objective danger was severe with serac release, avalanches
and rock fall. For every four people who have summited, one has died. There
were no summits due to weather in 2009, 10, 11 and 13.
Q: How does K2 compare with other 8000m mountains?
A: K2 is considered one of, if not the most, difficult
and dangerous of all the 8000m mountains due to weather and objective dangers
of rock fall and avalanches. The weather is notoriously difficult to predict
and can surprise climbers.
Q: How does K2 compare with Everest?
A: Significantly harder and more dangerous with the objective
dangers and steep sections. It is also a lot less crowded. You feel very
remote. The climbing is steep and continuous with
few breaks, unlike on Everest.
Q: How many people have summited and how many people have died trying
A: According to 8000ers.com plus
my own research the last year K2 allowed a summit was 2012
with 28 on July 31 bringing the total to 334 (compared
with approximately 6,800 on Everest). 83 climbers have died on K2, thirty-three
while descending from the summit making it was the second most deadly mountain
in the world. 11 died in 2008 including my friend Gerard McDonnell. K2
has a special reputation for women climbers. Prior to 2014, of the nine
women who have summited, five have died - 3 descending from K2's summit
and 2 on other 8,000m peaks. Basque climber Edurne Pasaban was the sixth
woman to climb K2 in 2004 and was the only one of four still alive today
along with Norwegian climber Cecilie Skog in 2008, Nives Meroi from Italy
and Austrian climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner who summited from the north
side of K2 in 2010.
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Q: What is Alzheimer's?
A: Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain
disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and eventually is
fatal. It is also the most common cause of dementia in older people.
Q: What is yours (Alan's) connection to
A: My mother, Ida Arnette died from Alzheimer's in 2009.
I took early retirement from a 30 year career with HP to oversee the care
of my mom for her last 3 years. Two of my aunts also died from Alzheimer's
Disease. I have not been tested and don't know if I have the Alzheimer's
gene. Today, I try to live my life to the fullest with climbing as my passion
and Alzheimer's as my purpose.
Q: What does mountain climbing have to do
A: I use a 'bait and switch' strategy to get people interested
in following my climbs (K2 will be my 36th major expedition and 9th on an
8000m peak) to get people's attention then gently discuss Alzheimer's.
If I said I wanted to talk to you about Alzheimer's you would probably find
something else to do :) but If I suggested we talk about climbing Everest
or K2, you might listen to me. I am not heavy handed or doom and gloom or
begging anyone for money, just want a brief moment to help people understand
the critical nature of this disease and the impact of individuals, families
and caregivers and how they can help.
Q: Why not just give the money you are spending
on climbing K2 directly research?
A: I have discussed this extensively with the leaders
of non-profits and most of them fully support my strategy as it educates
people they would not otherwise reach through their regular outreach campaigns.
I personally give to organizations in many different ways as well.
Q: What organizations supported
the K2 climb?
Abila serves strategic leaders and managers in dynamic nonprofit organizations,
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SaaS and software solutions. Organizations trust Abila to simplify and
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unique mission. For Abila, it's personal and backed by a team with more
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Cure Alzheimer's Fund:
Our mission was to fund research with the highest probability of preventing,
slowing or reversing Alzheimer’s Disease through venture based philanthropy.
All organizational expenses are paid for by the Founders and Board, allowing 100%
of other contributions to be applied directly to Alzheimer’s Disease research.
has one mission: to end Alzheimer's by 2020. We work to achieve greater urgency
from government, industry and the scientific community in the quest for an
Alzheimer's cure. In the three years since our founding, we have leveraged
support from our donors to increase federal funding for Alzheimer’s research
by $209 million. Our Founders have pledged to cover all overhead expenses associated
with USA so that 100% of your donation will support our innovative
Q: How can I help?
A: Click this link to
make a donation, join a team or become a team captain. As a team captain,
you can form a team to follow my K2 climb and help with the Alzheimer's
cause. We would provide you with all the tools, it would take as little
or as much time as you choose, you can stop at anytime. It would be managed
on my website, give you and anyone else the option to opt out, or to
donate once with no further contact.
You would also be able to send emails, upload pictures of your own life experiences
- climbs, Alzheimer’s, share your own story. In other words, you can help to
make a difference in our world. You can be my hero!
Q: What was your training plan?
A: Aerobic capacity, muscular strength, balance and attitude.
I mostly used real-world techniques to train by spending long days climbing
in Colorado with a 30lb pack. I find this build endurance and muscular strength
in the areas I use on along expedition. I do a little free weight training
to build upper body strength but not a lot. Also, I do some exercise to
build my core strength. To see what I did for Everest, please see my page
on training that
provides much more information.
Q: Will altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Absolutely, it was always a challenge on 8,000m climbs.
Some people do not use supplemental oxygen on K2, I did. To acclimatize
en route you trek 75 miles to the base camp from Askole at 9,500’ to K2
BC at about 16,500. This takes 6 days or more depending on your schedule.
Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach was to move slowly up the mountain (1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher, the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen, every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.
Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American
Lung Association this way:
The lower oxygen stimulates
chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering
of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys
begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take
many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many
other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to
release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production,
a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance
performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s
health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called
chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood
can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes
associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.
You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there are companies
that claim to help the acclimatization process through specially designed tents
that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. I have no personal
experience with these systems but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website.
See my recent article where I explore the use of altitude tents.
Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
A: Mostly I use the same gear
I used on Everest or Alpamayo. Lot's of layers. I use a 3 layer system:
base, warmth and wind/cold. My personal technical equipment included a
long handle ice axe, harness, carabineers and crampons. It was always critical
to protect my toes, fingers and face since these were most susceptible
to frost bite. See my gear page for
a complete discussion and my gear list updated for 2014. I am very pleased
with all my gear but had a few standouts that I note on my gear page.
Q: Anything special in your gear for K2?
A: K2 was known for horrible weather - strong winds and heavy
snow. I used everything on my gear page under 8,000m climbs including the
full down suit. I bought a new down suit from Mountain Hardwear and
new 8000m boots from Sportiva.
Q: Did you use Sat Phones?
A: Yes, I used my Thuraya phone for both voice and
posting dispatches on this site on
the dispatch page.
We will also had a Thuraya IP satellite modem with "unlimited" internet
access. When it worked it worked well but often it had hardware problems
preventing it form booting up. Also, there were other units at base camp,
so the issue of too many signals in the sandbox limited our speeds severally.
Finally, it seemed like every person was on facebook all the time. Facebook
is a data hog using a tremendous amount of bandwidth. if you have more
than 3 or 5 people on at the same time, it came to a halt.
at base camp.
For details on my expedition communications, please see this tutorial.
Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: Yes. Bottled oxygen is not always used on K2 but
at age 57, I did.
route did you use?
A: We used Abruzzi Spur which is considered
the "normal" route.
There were four camps at roughly 19,000', 21,000', 22,000' and 24,200'. The
summit was 28,251'.
It was unforgivably steep from base to summit.
Q: How long did it take?
A: 6 weeks home to home - very fast for K2..
Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a
A: K2 was not normally run as a "guided" climb
so costs vary wildly. A lot depends on if you bring support from Nepal,
the use of helicopters, base camp luxuries. The costs can range from
$9,000 to $100,000. However, climbing
in Pakistan was not as easy logistically as in Nepal so some kind of
assistance was necessary. See my Guide page
for more details.
Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: Yes, you must obtain a permit from the Pakistani Government
and a visa to enter the country. This was a complicated process that
takes several months. You will need help or sponsorship from an experienced
guide company or one of the expedition companies out of Islamabad.
Q: Do I really need a guide for K2?
A: You will need help getting a permit and entering
Pakistan and traveling to base camp since there are many military
checkpoints along the way. Once there, It all depends
on your skills, money and time available. K2 is a deadly serious
high-altitude climb. Some people go to K2 without a formal
guide and contract with local agencies for porters or carry
everything themselves. There are not a lot of climbers on K2 so you
may find yourself be alone. In harsh weather (white-outs) or in a
medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider your skill
level carefully. Climbing alone or in too small of a team is never
a good idea.
Q: Are there local guides for K2?
A: Yes you can organize local guides and HAPs through
local expedition companies in Islamabad.
Q: Who are High Altitude Porters?
A: These are Pakistani climbers who work on the 8,000m
mountains in the Karakorum each year. Similar to Sherpas in Nepal,
they carry loads and sometimes (rarely) fix ropes. However, they
have a different work ethic than the Sherpas you hear about, It was
not uncommon for HAP to refuse to climb in bad weather or above certain
altitudes. This means you have to be prepared to be self-sufficient
on the climbs. That said, there are exceptional Pakistani climbers
out there. The basic issue was a lack of training. There are serious
efforts underway to improve their overall skills.
Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb K2?
A: The simple answer was you need to organize it yourself. There
are a few Everest guides who are starting to run private climbs including
Garrett Madison of Madison
Q: What is involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear,
routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. There are local
companies in Islamabad like Nazir
Sabir who can provide some services such
as getting food or heavy tents to base camp. And some can provide a HAPs.
You can save a lot of money this way but as I said before, consider your
skills in the event that something goes wrong - are you 100% self sufficient?
What are your medical skills? HAPE and HACE are really possibilities on K2
- do you have the proper medicine and training to deal with it? And a hundred
more questions. See my guide
page for more. Again, climbing alone or in small teams was never a good
idea. Saving a few thousand dollars was not worth your life.
Q: What kind of weather conditions do you experience?
A: We had stellar conditions, very, very rare for K2. We had a
few days of heavy snow at base camp, low clouds on our acclimatization rotation
butt he summit window was a week of low winds and no moisture. It simply does
not get better than what we experienced on K2 and was a huge factor in so many
people summiting in 2104.
Q: What was the K2 plan?
A: We planned on minimizing our time on K2 to avoid the objective
dangers. Our team had 3 westerners and 3 Sherpas. the Sherpas did a couple
of carries to establish the high camps with tents and oxygen bottles but
then climbed with us ont he acclimatization rotation and summit push. I
climbed with Kami Sherpa, whom I summited Everest with in 2011.
Q: What route did you take K2?
The most popular route, the Abruzzi Ridge. There were several technically
difficult features requiring skilled climbing. These include Houses' Chimney,
the Black Pyramid and the Bottleneck Couloir. There are no easy routes on
had multiple camps:
- Base Camp: 18,650ft/5650m
- Advanced Base Camp: 18,650ft/5650m
- Camp 1: 19,965'/6050m
- Camp 2: 22,110'/6700m
- Camp 3: 23,760'/7200m
- Camp 4: 25,080'/7600m
- Summit: 28,251''/8611m
Q: What was the schedule K2?
I left the US in on June 26 and returned o August 6, 2104.
Days 1 -4: Travel to Islamabad and on to Askole
Days 5 - 12: Trek to K2 Base Camp over Baltoro Glacier
Days 13 -25: Establish High Camps, set fixed safety ropes, acclimatization
Days 26 -33: Summit Attempt weather permitting targeting July 27 as summit
Days 34 - 40+: Trek out and return to Islamabad
Q: Weren't you worried about the danger?
A: Obviously there was danger in climbing K2 and in Pakistan
these days but I understood what I am signing up for. For me this was
about bringing more awareness and money to Alzheimer's non-profits searching
for a cure and supporting caregivers. Obviously I love climb and K2
was a dream but this was more about the cause and not the climb.
Q: Why will you choose Madison Mountaineering to attempt K2?
A: Garrett Madison has lead more climbers to the summit
of Everest than any other guide. This experience plus the fact that
our climb will be supported by Nepali Sherpas
Q: What made you think you had chance at K2?
A: Fair question! There were a number of factors for
me in this attempt. I feel I have the proper experience given my
climbs on Alpamayo, Everest and other mountains with somewhat similar
terrain and altitude. My body performed very well on Manaslu in October
2013 as it did on Everest in 2011. I have worked extensively on my
technical skills over the last couple of years, for example crampons
on rock and rock/ice climbing skills. So given the team I'm with
and I'm climbing with Kami, the Sherpa whom I summited Everest with
in 2011, I am going into this confident about my skills. The weather
and route conditions were something I had no control over. All this
said, I clearly understood that K2 was in a different league than
any mountain I have ever attempted.
A: Yes on my 58th birthday, July 27 2014, at 8:30am. You can
read more at these links:
Q: Who was on your team?
Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering lead the team. Matt Du Puy, Rick Sylvester
and myself were the climbers. Rick pulled out early due to illness. Our
Sherpas were Kami Rita Sherpa, Fur Kancha Sherpa (both of Thame Solu Khumbu,
Nepal) and Kami Tshering Sherpa (of Pangbotse, Nepal).
Q: How many people summited and died in 2014
A: (estimated) 49 summits and 1 death: 32 on July 26, 12 on
July 27 and 5 more. Included in these numbers are 6 women on K2: The Nepali
womens team (Oasang Lhamu Sherpa, Maya Sherpa and Dawa Yangzum Sherpa); Chris
Burke (New Zealand), Luo Jing (China), Tamara Lunger (Italy). The best year
ever for K2 was in 2004 with 51 total summits.
Q: What was your summit push schedule?
A: We did one acclimatization rotation to Camp 2+ then returned
to K2 Base camp for about a week. The weather window appeared starting July
25 with low winds and no precipitation prediction for a few days so we choose
July 27 as our summit day. We left BC then spent a night each at ABC, C1,
C2, C3 and C4 leaving for the summit at 10:00pm on July 26 summiting early
the next morning. We descended to Camp 3 for the night and then on to Base
Camp on July 28.
Q: Can you describe the Abruzzi Route and the technical nature
of climbing K2?
A: The climbing was steep from start to finish as in
40 degree minimum snow slope angles and near vertical rock or ice walls.
ABC to C1 it is a long snow slope with some rock. The rock climbing starts
upon leaving C1 to C2 and included House's Chimney - a 100'
near vertical rock crack at 21,500' - just below C2. The Black Pyramid consumes
the entire route from C2 to C3 and is the technical crux in my opinion with
sustained rock climbing ranging from high class 4 to 5.9.
From C3 to C4 it is a short (3 hour) snow
climb but the angle is still very steep - 50 degrees - you don't want to
fall. From C4 you can see the Ice Serac plus the summit.
Leaving C4, it starts off on another steep
snow slope, maybe 40 degrees then hits the Bottleneck. We avoided the Bottleneck
since it was filled with rock and huge ice blocks and took a right hand
variation onto a large buttress still well underneath the Ice Serac. This
was safer with respect to the gulley aka Bottleneck but put us under the
The Traverse past the Bottleneck was unrelenting but only about
500 meters in total distance. There was one exposed section that required
using your crampon front points on a 2 inch ice stub to support your weight
while maintaining balance using the fixed rope at your chest. But most of
the traverse allowed for full purchase with crampons. From here it was another
2 hours to climb more steep snow slopes at 50-60 degree angles to the summit.
Q: Was K2 crowded like Everest?
A: No, 2014 was the 60th anniversary of the first summit so
there were more climbers than usual. But we never had to wait for anyone else
on the mountain.
Q: Did you feel safe in Pakistan?
A: Yes. Personally I never felt in danger in the least however
it was “interesting” going through so many checkpoints along the Karakorum
I felt 2014 was as safe as climbing could be because of the massacre on Nanga
Parbat last year (note it is quite far way from K2). It was the 60th anniversary
of the first K2 summit so there was more interest than normal. There was a
Pakistani national team climbing K2 plus the Pakistani mountaineering community
wanted to prove climbing was safe in the Northern Territories and they proved
correct for 2014.
Overall, I think Pakistan did an excellent job of making us feel safe.
Q: How did Madison Mountaineering perform?
A: Very well. Garrett is a true professional as are the Sherpas.
The climb was very well organized and run by Garrett. We used the logistical
services of Seven Summits Treks and permit services of Nazir Sabir. But our
team ran independently when climbing
Q: Do you feel anyone can now summit K2 since you did at age 58?
A:The last thing I want is for someone with limited experience to say “Hey this
58 year-old guy made it so can I.” However, I think the formula for climbing
K2 is being found – Sherpa support, good weather windows, solid base camp
support BUT it can all change in a blink.
First I want to make clear I am no rookie. I have climbs on 9 8000m peaks:
Everest (4X), Manaslu, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Broad Peak, plus Alpamayo, Denali,
the 7 Summits and lots of climbing in Colorado including 150+ summits of the
14,000′ mountains. So I knew what I was doing … and I struggled on K2.
I addressed “Why K2 is not Everest”is this blog post and I encourage you
and others to read it.
All this said, K2 is achievable by “normal” people. If you have the experience,
team support and drive – go for it but be careful who you climb with.
I was at a Big City Mountaineers event in January 2014 and spoke with
Ed Vestures about K2. I asked “Ed, what about k2?” He looked at me and simply
said “It’s hard.” The he went on. “When I climbed with other people they called
out ‘Ed this is hard.’ to which I responded “This is K2, what did you expect?”
He went on to say they turned back but he kept going.
K2 is a deadly, difficult climb I suggest only for those with solid rock,
ice, extreme altitude experience and the right team – less than that – don’t
even think about it – you will die.
Q: What were the keys to your K2 success this year?
A: ORGANIZATION:I have to start with how the climb was organized by
Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering. Garrett has taken more people to the
summit of Everest than any other guide and summited six times himself so he understands
expeditions very well. He thought through the schedule in an aggressive yet simple
manner to minimize our time on K2 exposed to the objective dangers but also to
reserve our energy for the summit push. As a result we only made one acclimatization
rotation. This proved to be sufficient and we used supplemental oxygen. Others
climbing without O’s made as many as four rotations to the higher camps.
While we used the base camp and logistical services of Seven Summits Treks,
we were a self contained team with our own Sherpa support. It was a comfortable
base camp with good food and general support. I never got sick before the
summit push, lost weight or felt stressed – all this was key to going into
the summit with a good mental attitude.
A final factor was that I employed every trick and technique I knew
throughout the expedition from sleeping to gear to eating, drinking, foot
placement (simple, small steps), clothing layers, attitude, who I hung out
with, etc. One proof of how it worked was that I never lost my appetite, rare
WEATHER: We experienced some of the best weather K2 has seen in modern expedition
times. There was over a week of minimal precipitation and very low winds.
When we summited at 8:00am on July 27, the winds were less than 10 mph. It
was cold, maybe 0F and my fingers got very, very cold as I took off my gloves
to make phone calls, etc. But for the summit of K2 at 28,251′ – this was nothing.
We did see 3 feet of fresh snow the previous night covering some of the fixed
lines but again, this was not a major issue. During our acclimatization rotation,
we had a couple of days of high winds, heavy snow and low clouds that gave
us a hint of what K2 could provide but for the summit window – it was perfect.
PREPARATION: My fitness was at the best level for an 8000m peak ever including
Everest three years earlier. In the previous 6 months, I climbed over 15 14,000
Colorado mountains with 30 pound packs and did a total of 58 outside activities
from 14ers to day hikes. I went to K2 at my target weight which was 177 pounds
for my 5’10″ frame.
That said, in hindsight, I could have used a bit more upper body work given
the extensive rock climbing on K2, plus more cardio work. I think these are
given on such a high altitude technical peak such as K2.
SHERPA SUPPORT: This should be no surprise to anyone who followed me that
having my Everest summit partner Kami (Ang Chhiring Sherpa – Pangboche) was
a perfect match for me. At age 49 with 15 Everest summits, and an attempt
on K2 in 2008, he had the maturity, experience and personality I needed. It
goes without saying I trust my life to Kami. He was always supportive, professional,
competent and is a genuine nice person.
Kami along with Kami Rita Sherpa, Fur Kancha Sherpa made a couple of carries
to establish the high camps plus were there by our sides as we climbed. I
want to be clear, I would not have summited K2 without their support. Also,
having a small team of myself, Garrett and Matt Du Puy was perfect. We got
to know and trust one another. It is not a gross overstatement but we almost
climbed K2 in alpine style as a small team – perfect for such a dangerous
PURPOSE: In looking back at my other climbs, I hit my mental wall way before
my physical wall and quit too soon. I never understood how much reserves my
body really had. Again, many people talk about mental toughness but my previous
experiences showed me how far one can push their body if the mind is willing.
So in the last few years, I have been working on mental toughness. When the
time came on K2 to push my body, my mind was willing. However, I had to reach
into depths I didn’t know existed on summit night plus the descent. More on
this as I write about the overall climb later.
But the biggest difference was the inspiration and motivation that came from
watching my mom struggle with Alzheimer’s. She did it with class, dignity
and humor. She never let on how much it hurt. Her strength and courage kept
me going every time I felt weak – physically or mentally.
In addition, knowing that there are millions going through the same struggle
inspired me knowing that all of you were watching me. I simply could not let
you down. So perhaps the pace went a little quicker.
K2 was the most challenging climb of my life. It started steep
and never ends. The upper sections were dangerous and have turned back
many mountaineers. We were lucky with the weather otherwise summiting
would have been in question. The views during the trek up the Baltoro
Glacier are mind blowing as are those of K2 up close. All in all it was
quite a different experience from anything in Nepal or Tibet. The trek
was a difficult but rewarding for everybody into mountains and the climb
at least something to consider given proper experience and skills.