The Colorado Mountain Club

Gasherbrum II:
A Journey to 26,360 Feet in the Karakoram

by Bob Ader

On May 16, 1997 a group of climbers departed from Denver to climb a remote Himalayan 8,000 meter peak on the border of Pakistan and China. Our objectives were ambitious but simple (1) raise a greater awareness of cancer and a minimum of $10,000 to support cancer research, (2) enjoy mountaineering and get everyone to the summit of Gasherbrum II, and (3) bring everyone home safely. We had a strong team of climbers including Gary Neptune, Gerry Roach, Kevin Volz, Eric and Stan Havlik, Kimberly Knox, Clyde Soles, John Goggin, Fred Barth (expedition leader) and myself. We were to meet our doctor, Allan Gionati, and Anatoli Boukreev in Pakistan. I had the least amount of experience with altitude having only been as high as the highest mountain in Colorado. I trained by climbing as often as possible through the winter of 1996-97 in the mountains close to home.

The expedition's peak objective was Gasherbrum II which is located in the wild and beautiful Karakoram Range of the Himalaya and stands at 26,360 feet above sea level making it one of the highest mountains in the world but a small 8,000 meter peak. The Karakoram which is more than 1000 miles to the west and north of Mount Everest has long fascinated American climbers who have played a major role in pioneering many routes in the range. Visiting this area would be like turning the pages of a mountaineering history book.

We flew by PIA to Islamabad to finalize permits and met with Naszir Sabir Expeditions which would make arrangements to get us to Base Camp. After a gracious reception by the Islamic Cancer Foundation we proceeded by jet to the northern village of Skardu. From here a 10-hour jeep ride brought the expedition to Askole where final arrangements were made for porters. It would take eight days of trekking up the Baltoro Glacier to reach Base Camp at 16,800 feet elevation. This trek took the team past some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world; the Trango Towers, Paju Peak, Uli Biaho, Mustagh Tower, Masherbrum, Chogolisa, Mitre Peak, Broad Peak, the 7 Gasherbrum peaks and K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Unbelievably beautiful mountains surrounded us at all times. It is a place that none of us will ever forget. Dazzled by the beauty and the immensity of these peaks, we arrived at base camp on June 1, and soon began reconnoitering the first obstacle to the climb, the heavily broken and crevassed South Gasherbrum Glacier.

Bob Ader and Route on G2
Bob Adder and Route on G2
Photo by Gary Neptune

The South Gasherbrum Glacier was a maze of fractured ice with criss-crossing crevasses. Members of the team would rise at 3:00 a.m. every morning to the task of finding a safe route up the glacier. Severe avalanche danger pre-vented us from bypassing this horrendous river of ice on either side. Even in the relative safety of the center the South Gasherbrum Glacier, some of us were wiped by avalanche winds of 40-60 miles per hour on two occasions during the middle of the night. After one snowfall I counted over 18 major avalanches in two hours. It was a very active area.

The oven-like heat of the glacier forced us to retreat to Base Camp before noon each day. Temperatures in the tents got as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The team was lucky to have brought white underwear, tops and bottoms, which became a symbol for the American team climbing on the glacier. As soon as the sun disappeared below the horizon, however, temperatures changed rapidly and often dipped below zero.

An initial estimate of five days to establish Advanced Base Camp required 18 days of exploration and load carrying over 7 kilometers of broken ice to the foot of the Gasherbrum II at 19,500 feet. During this time I developed a high altitude cough which started as an annoyance but would grow worse as we advanced higher on the mountain. After everyone on the expedition reached this camp however, storms dictated a retreat to Base Camp.

While back in Base Camp, many other expeditions began to arrive establishing an international village of sorts. Nationalities from Japan, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Korea, Iran, Nepal, Germany, Italy were only a few. With them came a visit from the final member of the expedition, Anatoli Boukreev who is noted for his abilities at high altitudes and exploits on the highest mountains of the world. He soon departed for his attempt on Broad Peak to return on a later date. The following day we were visited by Reinhold Messner who was trekking in the area. He stayed overnight and participated in a ceremony to commemorate Herman Buhl who had died 40 years earlier, that day June 27, on Chogolisa while descending in a storm with Kurt Diemberger.

The weather improved and the team headed back up to advanced base camp but this time not alone. Other expeditions benefiting from the route already established by the our team had relatively easy going and their hired Sherpas from Nepal, recently off Everest, quickly began to fix ropes on the mountain.

We had also begun to separate into teams for climbing on the mountain. The teams were not chosen, they just turned out according to who was where on the mountain. They consisted of 4 or 5 climbers, just large enough to occupy all the tent space in each camp planned for the mountain. The first team established the first two camps: Banana Camp at 21,000' and Ridge Camp at 22,500'. In addition, 2 of the 3 tents needed for High Camp were secured at Ridge Camp. But then the weather turned for the worse. On July 10, in deteriorating weather with no definitive forecast, food to last one day and fuel two days, we decided to retreat to Advanced Base Camp. The combination of digestion problems, coughing, and the lack of sleep left me weak and anxious about making it to the summit. I could feel myself getting weaker and losing weight each day and realized, that to a certain degree, making it to the summit would be a race with time before strength would give way to complacency.

The storm only lasted one day which allowed two members of the second team to establish a High Camp on July 11 at 24,000 feet while the others rested. On July 12, the two who had established the High Camp rested while the other three members moved up to High Camp. On July 13, four members of this five person team reached the summit. On that same day, our team moved up to Ridge Camp in a single day, by-passing Banana Camp. We hoped and prayed that the first team made it to the summit. On this day , at Ridge Camp I cracked some cartilage on the right side of my rib cage during an uncontrolled rage of coughing. Sleep was close to impossible. After this setback I was more than ever plagued by feelings of uncertainly and anxiety. Would the summit be possible? Should I even try? That evening we learned of our companions' success.

On July 14, our team moved up to High Camp at 24,000 feet. The team which had summited on the previous day was preparing to leave when we arrived. The summit team was happy but some members were totally spent. At about 1:20, Anatoli Boukreev arrived in camp, he was on his way to the summit from Advanced Base Camp. Gary Neptune and I made him a hot drink to help him on his way. At this altitude, we could stir the boiling water with our fingers. Anatoli was off after that and on his way to the summit. He stopped back in High Camp on his way down for another drink and to pick up extra clothing and supplies he had left with us. He eventually made it back down to Advanced Base Camp, having moved up and down 7,000 feet at high altitude in a single day.

Masherbrum and Nangga Parbat
Masherbrum and Nanga Parbat
Photo by Kevin Volz

The views were absolutely spectacular from this camp. We were confident that the weather would hold for us as we settled into our sleeping bags. My coughing persisted -- another sleepless night. The coughing was taking its toll. The next morning Gary and I awoke at 2:30 with the wind howling outside the tent. We contemplated delaying our start to in hopes the wind would stop, but after a while realized it may never subside. We had to take turns dressing and putting on boots in the cramped quarters of the summit tent. Finally at 3:30, we seemed to be ready to embrace the realities of the outside world. The cold and wind combined with the darkness gave me an eerie feeling. The moving headlamps created a surrealistic scene of horizontally blowing snow in flickering lights surrounded by total darkness. Visibility was 7-10 feet. Shadows of climbers behind the lights blended into the darkness and moved in what appeared to be a disorganized gesture to find buried packs, ice axes, and crampons. Above us, stars could be seen between the waves of blowing snow.

Lights were on in the other tents and the others ventured out as Gary and I put on our crampons. In a few minutes it seemed as if the entire team was out and going through the same odd movements. Everyone was getting ready. Was this not madness? Surely, we would not make it if the wind persisted. But we continued, realizing that this may be our last chance.

Gary was the first to leave camp. Off he went into the whiteout. No ropes were carried and everyone would move at their own pace. Fred, who was not able to summit the previous day, had stayed another night at High Camp to have another go. One other climber joined the American Team: Mikel, a Basque climber from Spain.

It was pitch dark when we started and the wind was blowing too hard to follow Gary's tracks as they were covered soon after they were made. I tried to follow by setting a course for the glimmer of Gary's headlamp. How Gary navigated remains a mystery. I soon fell behind feeling the effects of oxygen deprivation and no sleep. It was cold and stops were taken to cover my face and catch my breath. It was like gasping for air after getting the breath knocked out of you. Each time I stopped, however, I began coughing, so these stops were relatively short.

Bob Ader, Gary Neptune and G5
Bob Ader, Gary Neptune and G5
Photo by Kevin Volz

Soon the darkness turned into shapes and shadows of different shades. In front of us, wind from the east blew snow up over the south ridge for what seemed like thousands of feet into the air. The sunlight on these wind driven plumes reminded me of enormous flames that were starved of oxygen but forced into the air by 40-60 m.p.h. gusts of wind. The distance between climbers increased as our team moved up the mountain. The day before Fred had to turn around because of cold feet and exhaustion. He appeared to be doing OK today. Ahead, we could make out what turned out to be three Japanese climbers.

By the time I made it to the south ridge my hands were ice-cold once more and I was exhausted from fighting the gale force winds. Hands had to be warmed and crampons adjusted. Here the sunshine was welcome but it did not seem to help with the cold. Gary who had waited quite a while for me had to leave because of the inactivity. The cold was seeping into his body. I wished him good luck and he was off. We had passed two of the three Japanese climbers who were huddled in a bivy sack to get a reprieve from the wind. Gary and the lead Japanese climber now moved slowly up the slope toward the summit. Another 1500 feet? How long would it take? Would my energy last? Go slow so you do not have to stop and cough. The summit seemed so close now but how much time would it take? Distance here should not be measured in feet or meters, but rather in terms of time. Everything takes so much more time than it would in Colorado at 14,000 feet. It was 6:00 before I departed, having taken three hours to cross under the summit pyramid. The two Japanese climbers arrived as I was getting ready to depart. The others had fallen further behind. How was Fred doing? I had no one to ask and a started off alone with my thoughts.

Walking was an effort, slow and frustrating at times. It took so long to cover so little ground. Time seemed to be flying past. Not too fast now, breathing , step, breathing, step. I needed four to seven breaths per step. I made every effort to go slow to keep from coughing and further injuring my ribs. Short stops were taken each time I moved my ascender to the next fixed ropes. A little way up the slope and the wind magically began to dissipate and the sun began to warm us. The summit seemed so close but it was taking so long. In Colorado it would require little more that an hour. Now it was 8:30 and I could see the third Japanese climber and Gary was at the base of the summit ridge. The slope steepened near the top and the Japanese climber hesitated, he seemed to want Gary to go first. Was the summit ridge that steep? What was the exposure like? Move, breathe, step, breathe, look up again. Gary moved in front of the Japanese climber. Was it exposure? The Japanese climber appeared to follow only after Gary's lead appeared satisfactory. After a few minutes, Gary had summitted and I began to realize that my dream to be on the summit of an 8000-meter peak was also about to unfold.

I reached the summit ridge at about 9:15 and rested, taking in a view into Tibet, the Shaksgam, and K2. Slopes ran steeply down on both sides but it did not seem overly exposed. After a few minutes rest, I climbed onto the ridge and could see Gary. His encouragement sounded; muffled but it rang in my mind. The summit ridge was fairly level, but exposed in places. Slowly, concentrate, foot placement. I wanted to run the rest of the way but could not. The summit. Slopes fell off on all sides. Mountains everywhere, K2. Fantastic, incredible, the summit. So this is what is was like. Joy, relief, and happiness mixed with a funny exhausted feeling.

Bob Ader on G2 Summit
Bob Ader on G2 Summit
Photo by Gary Neptune

The weather was now rapidly improving and the last of the clouds were dissipating. A berm of the east side of the summit protected us from what remained of the wind. Magnificent mountains stretched in every direction. To the east the Shaksgam reminded me of Utah, with rivers of ice. To the south Kashmere and Gasherbrum I , Baltoro Kangri, Chogolisa. Magnificent peaks. Glaciers everywhere. To the west the Karakoram extended for many miles, a sea of rock and ice, unnamed peaks and unclimbed routes. The Gasherbrums looked so close. A stones throw. The Baltoro Glacier which we had followed for 8 days extended to the west. Visions of its magical towers and massive peaks flashed in my memory. Would we ever see anything like them again? Our tents were tiny dots in the snow, barely visible from here. To the north Broad Peak looked so different than it had from the Baltoro Glacier. Was this the same mountain? Unclimbed shear rock and ice faces totally unlike the views of its massive bulk from other vantage points. And then K2 sweeping almost another 2000 feet higher. K2 the Savage Mountain. K2 Mountain of Mountains. It is no wonder after seeing this peak, people seem to want to add something more to its name for a better description. It is truly a magnificent mountain surpassed only by one other in height but by none other in the impression it makes on you.

Summit rituals were carried out. It was unfortunate that photos could not capture my feelings. I took time to think of my wife and daughters, my relatives and friends, Kurt Diemberger, Herman Buhl, and Pete Schoening. A time to reflect and rejoice. A time to soak in as much as I could in as little time as possible. It was 13 years since I had read my first mountaineering book the Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage by Herman Buhl and first dreamed of climbing an 8,000 meter peak. So many things had changed since then. It was only a dream that seemed to grow more unattainable as time passed with children and added responsibilities. But now it was possible, it was real, it was here.

At 10:00 Mikel, our Basque friend, reached the summit. Later, another red parka reached the summit ridge. "It has to be Clyde", I said, but something didn't match. Something was out of place. It was Fred, who had to turn around the day before. He was going to make to the summit. Unbelievable! What a day! Clyde and Kevin soon reached the summit. Everyone had made it. The team had placed everyone on the summit who was able to stay with the expedition, went on to return everyone home safely, and raised more than $10,000 for cancer research. The expedition was successful in meeting its goals. But didn't I get something more from this experience? Was meeting these goals our most important accomplishment? Wasn't there something else?

I felt thankful to have had the opportunity to live this dream surrounded by spectacular mountains and incredible people. Memories from the top of this mountain will stay with me for the rest of my life. Memories of the anticipation and of our struggle will linger but over time they to will fade. I had learned a great deal about myself and the other hidden treasures of living this dream. I had formed friendships with great people that will last a lifetime. I gained an intense appreciation for those I love and for those who love me. I realized that returning to my family was the greatest reward of all. To me, living the dream of climbing an 8,000 meter peak was important but I learned that the real treasures of climbing these mountains are not obtained at the summits or in feet of elevation gain or from any accomplishment on the mountain. The treasures of mountains are those intangible things that change who we are and how we think, those things that will determine how we will live the rest of our lives.

This article first appeared in Thin Air, Volume 10 Number 1, January 1998, the newsletter of the High Altitude Mountaineering Section of the Colorado Mountain Club.

Don't Miss the March HAMS Program!

All That and Gasherbrum II

7:00 PM
Monday, March 23, 1998

A number of notable names from Colorado spent five weeks last summer climbing the 8,035 meter (26,360 ft.) Gasherbrum II. The group spent their time around camp in the evenings discussing the climbing history of the region and the first ascents of many other well known peaks in the area, including Gasherbrum I & IV, Broad Peak, Trango Towers, and K2. Bob Ader, one of the nine climbers to summit Gasherbrum II on the '97 trip, will present his slide show of both this climb and the area's climbing history at the March HAMS Program, on Monday, March 23rd at 7:00 p.m. Come see this great show at our NEW (and permanent!) LOCATION in the just- remodelled American Mountaineering Center, 710 10th Street in Golden, just south of Highway 58 and Washington Street.

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Colorado Mountain Club