A Polar Traveler Looks at Winter K2

Arctic K2 Winter 8000ers
-40˚ and 50kph wind: About as bad as it gets in the Arctic. It can get much worse on winter K2. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Although I’ve lived in the Canadian Rockies for over 20 years, I’m not a mountaineer. I’ve also never been above 4,500m. But I do know cold, so it’s been fascinating to study the photos and reports from K2 and try to understand their experience of winter from the perspective of an arctic traveler.

For many reasons, it seems to be much easier in the Arctic. Those who’ve never experienced 40 below or colder may wig out at the prospect, but it really isn’t bad, especially if you think of it as one of the prices of admission to a world you want to be in. During the day, you stay warm at those temperatures by moving constantly. You eat, drink, and pee as you go, stopping for just a few minutes at a time. No long lunch breaks. You want to get going again before you cool down. It takes half an hour to warm up again after a too-long stop.

Staying warm

An arctic traveler wears thin layers, not down suits. You put on the down gear in camp, when exercise metabolism no longer warms you. Because you’re doing one basic thing — pulling a sled — it’s easy to dress for the conditions. You underdress slightly, in order not to sweat. Being slightly cool also lets you move faster. If you’re too warm, you slow down without realizing it. It’s easy to tell when you’re too thinly dressed: Your hands start to go numb. They’re the canaries in the coal mine. It means you either need warmer gloves or another layer. If the first doesn’t work, you try the second. It’s all pretty straightforward.

The climbers on winter K2 are all wearing down suits under a climbing harness, and aren’t carrying half a dozen kinds of handwear on a sled, so fine-tuning layers in the arctic way is impossible. “The better down suits have lots of zippers for venting,” explains 14×8,000m climber Ralf Dujmovits. “You open them on the steep sections when you start sweating.”

Although Dujmovits also tries to dress slightly cool, he wears several layers — as many as five — underneath his down suit. This includes a fisherman’s vest with lots of pockets immediately beneath the down suit. The vest holds his camera and spare batteries and keeps his chocolate bars unfrozen.

The wind problem

But while cold is largely a bogeyman, the wind is no joke either for mountaineers or arctic travelers. “I laugh at the cold, I laugh at the dark, I laugh at the ice, but I do not laugh at the winds. They are everything,” wrote the great Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. When Polish winter Himalayan veteran Jacek Teler calls his meteorologist for a forecast, “I don’t waste battery time asking about the temperature,” he says. “The climber only asks about the strength and direction of the wind.”

While Antarctica is famously windy, adventurers do their South Pole treks in the austral summer, when the sun is high and temperatures — while still cold — are mild compared to the arctic winter or early spring. The Arctic itself is not that windy, and when it’s coldest, winds tend to be light. The worst conditions I’ve ever had was -40˚ with 50kph winds, in northern Labrador. I sat out that storm for three days in my tent, sheltered in the last trees on the edge of the tundra. In his many years of exploration, that was also the worst that the early twentieth-century arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson endured.

Although last week’s K2 summiters had freakishly light winds, that is not the typical experience of high-altitude winter mountaineers. The berserk winds at altitude can easily flatten tents, as happened last week at Camp 1 on K2. And even in a Michelin-Man down suit and five sub-layers, how do you protect your face in even a moderate breeze? You need to cover your nose and your cheeks to prevent frostbite, but you also need goggles or sunglasses to avoid snowblindness. (In the Arctic, you can sometimes get away without eye protection, depending on the latitude, time of year, and whether you’re skiing into the sun or away from it. In mid-Labrador, for example, the snowblindness season starts in early February; much further north, on Ellesmere Island, it’s early April.)

If only we didn’t need to breathe

The problem is, when you breathe into a face mask, it fogs up your goggles. Always, always. Never mind anti-fog creams or double-lens goggles. They can’t dodge simple physics: Warm, moist air condenses and freezes on cold surfaces. I use controlled breathing, like a swimmer, try to breathe to one side (downwind) or out through my nose so that most of the moist air misses the goggles, but that just mitigates. You’re still half-blind. Sometimes I remove my goggles and a glove and scrape off the frost with a fingernail, but it keeps reforming. Those days are exercises in sensory deprivation, but on the arctic flats, it’s not dangerous. Not so, obviously, on steep mountain slopes. “The person who invents goggles that don’t fog up should win the Nobel Prize,” says Jacek Teler.

Because visibility is so important to a mountaineer, Dujmovits will tape his mask to his face in the tent before starting, to form a hermetic seal. “Sometimes the skin comes off when you remove the tape, though,” he says.

Mountaineers’ hands are harder to protect than polar travelers’, especially during the climbing sections. As ice climbers know, when their hands are above their heads, the blood flows out by gravity, creating what is colorfully called the screaming barfies. Jacek Teler says that the chemical heat packs popular with winter day-trippers don’t work well in the thin air of high altitude. They need more oxygen to operate properly, so they emit little heat and die quickly. Foot warmers work even more feebly than hand warmers. Battery-powered socks don’t last through an entire summit push.

Mingma G reported that eight out of the 10 Nepali summiters suffered frostbite during their successful push. That may mean just a little frostnip on the cheeks, which looks like a light burn and is sometimes hard to avoid when it’s very cold. Or perhaps their hands (or even their feet) suffered deeper freezing. You lose warmth much more quickly at altitude, explains Dujmovits, because you’re breathing so hard. Every one of those breaths sheds precious warmth.

Tents

No polar traveler would carry the narrow wedge tents that climbers are using above Base Camp on K2. They’re too cramped. We’re out there for weeks or months at a time, not just for a few days on a summit push, when climbers are packing for a couple of mostly sleepless nights on a miserable ledge, not for long-term comfort. Teler says that an arctic tent looks like the size of a living room to him. Admittedly, more liveable tents won’t fit on some of those precarious perches.

Teler says that tunnel tents (which are better in strong winds than classic dome tents) work best when the wind comes from one predictable direction, as in Antarctica. That’s not necessarily true — in summer, I’ve seen the model below easily shed 80kph crosswinds, though I had to weigh it down with half a tonne of rocks instead of the usual quarter-tonne. But winter crosswinds bring drifting snow. You should always set up the tent with its nose into the wind, but if the wind later changes direction, the drift quickly accumulates on the long side. Every hour or two, you have to exit the tent to shovel or you will be engulfed.

A good tunnel tent can handle a strong crosswind, but snow drifts against the long side, forcing frequent shoveling to avoid being buried. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Teler points out that it’s worse in the high mountains, where violent winds swirl from all directions and you not only have drift but sometimes 70 to 90cm of actual snowfall in a day. In these conditions, he says, “the design of the crossing arches better withstands sudden impacts from many directions.” It also sheds snow better from above, he says.

Photo: Waldemar Kowalewski

In one of the K2 winter photos, Waldemar Kowalewski (who was later evacuated because of a hernia) was in his tent at Camp 1, in his sleeping bag and down suit. Although arctic travelers don’t wear down clothes to bed, but simply crawl into a much meatier bag, Kowalewski’s approach saves weight. You can sleep comfortably in a down suit down to about -20˚C, without any bag at all. I sometimes do that on milder nights in the Arctic in my down camp clothes, to preserve the sleeping bag as long as possible from frost accumulation.

Stoves

Everyone uses white gas in the polar regions and in ordinary winter camping. It works no matter how cold it gets, though at about -55˚C, you can snuff out a match in a capful of gasoline. But gasoline still ignites, and once you warm (“prime”) the stove generator by burning a little loose gas underneath it, it vaporizes obediently. The main issue is that the O-rings in MSR-type stove pumps get stiff and may leak gas at the joint between the fuel bottle and the stove connection. In recent years, MSR has made an Arctic Fuel Pump with a special O-ring that avoids this.

Cooking in a well-ventilated vestibule. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

But liquid gasoline is still messy, and high-altitude mountaineers use isobutane or isobutane/propane canisters. At sea level, these don’t work well in the cold, but high altitude extends their capabilities because the fuel mix vaporizes more easily at lower air pressures. Still, winter K2 temperatures push their limits.

Like most mountaineers, Ralf Dujmovits uses a hanging stove, such as the MSR Reactor, in which stove and pot are integrated. The pots in these systems used to be very small, but now they go up to 2.5 litres.

“When the wind is strong, it’s hard to cook with a hanging system,” explains Dujmovits. “We make space between the mattresses. It’s too windy to cook in the vestibule.”

Hirotaka Takeuchi cooks on a hanging stove during an alpine-style ascent of the South Face of Shishapangma. Photo: @RalfDujmovits

No one, says Dujmovits, uses single-wall tents, because you can’t vent properly with them, and carbon monoxide remains the same danger with these stoves as it is with white gas models. “Climbers die routinely from carbon monoxide poisoning,” says Dujmovits.

Fire is also an issue for both high-altitude mountaineers and in the polar regions. In the Arctic, the danger comes from those leaking O-rings, if you choose to cook in the tent. But also in the Karakorum, “the cases of the tent catching fire are common,” says Jacek Teler. “A few years ago, my partner set fire to the vestibule and the sleeping bag (and almost burned me) at 7,300m on Gasherbrum 2.” Dujmovits adds that 50 percent of the incidents on McKinley involve tents burning.

Canister stoves work feebly in extreme cold, and it can take ages to melt a single pot of water from -40˚ snow or ice. Dujmovits warms a fuel canister on his body before using it. Often, he places the canister into a close-fitting plastic bowl and pours some warm water in it to keep the canister from freezing. “The water needs to be changed with every new pot of water,” he says. Dujmovits even used to carry two stoves, one that worked feebly but which he kept burning underneath the main one just to warm it up.

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About the Author

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. Canada's premier arctic traveler, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and is currently working on a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada.

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Marlon
Marlon
3 months ago

“Fifty percent of the deaths on McKinley are from stoves.” source?

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Farukh Ali
Farukh Ali
3 months ago

Thank you for sharing this very informative article, Jerry. I strongly believe the weather forecast should be based on the windchill and I’m surprised to read the exact thing in this article. For example, right now the K2 summit temperature is -48 C and windchill temperature is -67 C. Tomorrow the windchill temperature will be -78 C.

Wind is the biggest worry for a climber in terms of strength, direction and chill.

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Farukh Ali
Farukh Ali
3 months ago

Yes it does sound tough when someone mentions he embraced -70 C and makes sense about appearing it hardier. Thanks for clearing that up.

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Vincent
Vincent
3 months ago

Ralf is a genius: grat trick the fishermen vest! But 5 layer, and he only climbed 8000ers in Summer (execpt one try on Nanga Parbat)

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Juliet Humphrey
Juliet Humphrey
3 months ago

Fascinating! Mind blowing extremes! I grew up camping in South Africa, hiking and sleeping in caves and overhangs in winter (which would be like a mild summer for you I guess) and I’ve recently been wild swimming everyday in the St George’s Channel, North Wales, Uk…so I’m learning about cold, (about 6degrees C) working with the breath and managing the body! I once had a Nova Scotian Christmas…and whilst standing at a bus stop…felt a thousand teeth attack my face..along with the wind! Pain indeed! Thanks for taking me on new (armchair) icy adventures! 😉👍

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Gary Goldenberg
3 months ago

Jerry, informative as always. Your book, “The Horizontal Everest,” inspired me to do a (short) traverse of Ellesmere, through Sverdrup Pass, in 2003.

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Drewbach
Drewbach
3 months ago

Fascinating read, thanks for sharing!

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tim
tim
3 months ago

I think you sort of missed the biggest difference between the two environments. Lack of O2. You cannot generate warmth, raise body core temp by working hard if you aren’t able to take onboard sufficient O2. The reason for the multiple layers and large down suits is to keep as much warmth in the body core. In the artic, just eating and drinking well will help allow the body to control it’s temperature. At altitude you struggle to eat and hydrate adequately due to both the time it takes to prep the food/water and the benefit of once you actually… Read more »

Michael Henry
Michael Henry
3 months ago
Reply to  tim

Good point and can’t be over emphasized enough that without oxygen we are dieing.
I think very few people on planet Earth as a whole have any experience at extreme Alpine height’s, but nearly everyone can relate to being cold which I think the author was trying to compare and contrast.

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Marco Cayuso
Marco Cayuso
3 months ago
Reply to  tim

Very very good observation. The lack of O2 is maybe the key factor when comparing the cold in the polar regions with the one in a high mountain climbing. Probably minus 20°C at 7000 mts high is much worse that minus 40°C at sea level… Anyway, a very interesting and informative article!

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Murthy
Murthy
3 months ago

“Carbon monoxide is heavier than air and pools near the floor.”

Jerry, you probably meant carbon dioxide which is much heavier than air. Carbon monoxide is in fact slightly lighter if not the same density as air.

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