Gasherbrum II: A Climber’s Guide

8000ers Karakorum
Photo: Alex Gavan

At 8,034m, Gasherbrum II is the world’s 13th highest peak. It’s commonly considered one of the easiest 8,000’ers, but Romania’s Alex Gavan warns that it’s still a serious mountain. Do not underestimate it, he cautions.

Gavan knows Gasherbrum II well, because he failed three times before he finally managed to summit in 2019. None of his other seven 8,000m peaks –- always climbed without O2 or high altitude porters — required as many attempts.

GII route and approximate camps from Camp 1. Photo: Alex Gavan

Gavan made his first attempt on Gasherbrum II in 2007. Bad conditions forced him to switch to Gasherbrum I, where he notched the first Romanian ascent. Since then, he’s seen what has changed on the mountain, and what remains just the same.

The Trek – Experience of a Lifetime

Even if you are not climbing, walking up the Baltoro is one of the most wonderful treks in the world, according to Gavan. “In a few days, you’ll be surrounded by the highest density of 7,000m and 8,000m peaks on the planet,” he says.

At Concordia’s glacier joint, the route parts ways from the path that leads to Broad Peak and K2, just a few hours away. Reaching the Gasherbrums involves one more day, making of it one of the longest approach treks to an 8,000er — 120 to 130km, he estimates.

Gasherbrum Base Camp from the icefall. Chogolisa in the background. Photo: Alex Gavan

“Base Camp is set up along a long moraine by the Abruzzi Glacier, but usually not at its far end,” he said. Typically, you can’t see the summit of GII from there, but you do get wonderful views of Hidden Peak and Baltoro Kangri.”

Base Camp (5,000m) to Camp 1 (6,000m): The glacier

There are several routes and variations up GII, but most expeditions take the SW ridge.

“One of the things I most like about having summited GI and GII is that I never need to go through that broken glacier again,” Gavan said. “Depending on the season, it can be as dangerous as Everest’s Khumbu Icefall.”

Lotta Hintsa returns to Base Camp through the icefall. Photo: Alex Gavan

“The route is an ever-changing labyrinth, which zigzags around ice blocks and crevasses. You also have to avoid the avalanches from nearby peaks, especially GI and GV.”

An avalanche from Gasherbrum V almost killed Denis Urubko, Simone Moro, and Cory Richards on their descent from the first winter climb of GII, Gavan recalls.

It takes several hours to reach Camp 1, on the Southern Gasherbrum Glacier, from BC. Before proper acclimatization, it may take up to seven hours.

It’s important to start early from Base Camp. By 9 am, it can get very hot on the glacier, and the snow bridges start melting. “I can’t stress enough what a deadly trap this glacier can become if you are on it during the day,” says Gavan.

Don Bowie climbs a serac at about 6,100m, G5 (right) and G6 in the background. Photo: Alex Gavan

Camp 1 (6,000m) to Camp 2 (6,400m) : The Banana Ridge

From Camp I, which is common to GI, GII, and GIV, the route separates from that of G1. While the curved snowy ridge known as the Banana is the GII route’s most characteristic feature, the precise path changes year by year, depending on conditions. An experienced climber reads the face and decides the safest way to go.

In any case, the climb is not straightforward. Ice screws are necessary because of the icy sections and fairly steep, exposed climbing. Two ice axes will come in handy.

Don Bowie and Lotta Hintsa climb on the Banana Ridge. Photo: Alex Gavan

This section takes four to six hours, depending on conditions and the climber’s strength, Gavan estimates.

“Of course, it makes all the difference if there are fixed ropes on the route or not,” he says. “If not, this is a proper, serious ice climb that allows no mistakes.”

So much for the “easy” mountain.

Almost on top of the Banana Ridge, near C2. Photo: Alex Gavan

Shortly before Camp 2, there is a small saddle beside a rock pinnacle, mostly covered in ice and snow, that needs crossing. You continue up the steep ridge, then downclimb about 30m to a small plateau to set up the tents, amid amazing views.

Alex Gavan in Camp 2 on GII, with Gasherbrum I in the background. Photo: Don Bowie

Camp 2 (6,400m) to Camp 3 (7,000m) and Camp 4 (7,400m): The Face

From Camp 2, the route continues briefly along the ridge, then goes right up the face. It rejoins the spur at Camp 3. Some crevasses lie along the route. Avalanche-prone sections, steep at times, also require special care.

Don Bowie climbs toward 7,000m with G5 (right), Chogolisa (middle, far background), and G6 (left) in the background. Photo: Alex Gavan

“[Reaching Camp 3] was tough,” recalled Gavan, “because we were loaded with fuel and food for four to five days, plus rope for fixing the section just below camp. We got stuck up there in bad weather. At times, the wind was so strong I thought the tent might just blow away.

C3 with the massive bulk of G5 and the sharp Masherbrum on the right. Photo: Alex Gavan

“When the skies cleared five days later, we had run out of food, gas, time, and most of our energy.”

Some other climbers shared their food and fuel, so instead of going down, they headed up toward the summit.

From Camp 3, the route follows a hard snow ramp, then goes along the rocky spur toward Camp 4. When Gavan climbed this last section, he didn’t follow the edge of the spur, but a slightly lateral line on its right side.

Summit Day (8,034m)

It’s 1,000 vertical metres from Camp 3 to the summit, which makes for a long day.

“I felt quite tired after so many days at altitude,” Gavan said. “In addition, there were very few ropes, placed without continuity here and there.”

The time to the summit varies greatly, but on average, without O2, it’s about 12 hours from Camp 3 and about seven hours from Camp 4.

GI from 7,900m on GII. Photo: Alex Gavan

The spur leads to the summit pyramid. In fact, there is a direct route from there to the summit, but for some reason, the normal route traverses horizontally under the base of the pyramid. “The direct line is definitely more straightforward and maybe safer, but every year, teams follow the traverse route,” said Gavan. “Possibly it’s just a question of habit.”

G2 routes from the south (Urubko’s 2019 line not marked). In Pink, the first ascent’s route, by Austrian climbers. Photo: Gripped Magazine

The traverse under the summit pyramid can be tense because of avalanche danger. It’s also a long way, partly on steep terrain. “If you fall, you go all the way down to Camp 1,” Gavan notes. “Again, [fixed] ropes make all the difference, especially on the way down.”

Gavan also sounds a cautionary note about how the ropes are fixed. “One cannot simply hang from ropes fixed by other people and blindly trust them,” he says. “Every year, I hear about accidents on 8,000’ers because of this. The quality of the belays varies hugely, depending on who made them. Having the skills and being self-sufficient is a must.”

The summit ridge of GII, with the Golden Throne (Baltoro Kangri, 7,312m) and the Abruzzi and South Gasherbrum Glaciers on the left. Photo: Alex Gavan

After the traverse, there is a tiny saddle. From that point, you have to turn sharply upward in order to mount the back of the mountain, up the pyramid toward the summit. Or rather, what you think it is the summit.

“Most of the terrain is exposed, partly ice, partly frozen snow,” Gavan recalls. “Later in the day, you can also have soft snow with dangerous ice underneath. At your feet, the void leads all the way down to China. Do not fall.”

As for the elusive summit: “All the way up the final part, you think you are seeing the top, but in fact, you are not,” he says. “When you get almost to the top, you meet a final knife edge, about 70m long, all icy or frozen snow.”

G2 summit selfie with Broad Peak to the right and K2 in the background. Photo: Alex Gavan

Finally, at the highest point, there is a small basin where you can sit, sheltered from the wind. “[There is] the most stunning panorama at your feet, with endless peaks in all directions,” says Gavan. “A perfect, safe spot to feel the universe with your fingertips.”

Gavan rarely stays on a high summit for more than 10 minutes, but on this occasion, he lingered there for almost an hour.

“I remember there was a rocky spot on the other side of the ridge,” recalls Gavan. “Obsessed as I am with reaching the true summit of a mountain, I started thinking about what would happen if, with global warming, the snow that I was on melted and it turned out that the rocks in front were actually higher. So I went all the way there and back, to make sure.”

The descent

“The descent is long and exposed, as usual,” said Gavan. “I was really tired and couldn’t trust myself to downclimb the rocky spur via the line we had followed on the way up. Instead, I managed to find my way down the edge of the spur. I found some old ropes that showed me the way down from Camp 4 to Camp 3, where I stayed for the night.”

Almost back at Base Camp, after the summit and 11 straight days on the mountain. Photo: Alex Gavan

“The following morning, I kept going down to Camp 1, where I had to spend one more night. The following morning, I managed to find someone to rope up with, and we negotiated the glacier. I had been up there for 11 days, the longest continuous period I had ever spent above a base camp.”

Right now, a French ski team has bagged the first GII ascent of the season, and we can’t wait to read their story. But many more climbers are about to follow the route that Alex Gavan did.

More in this series:

Everest: A Climber’s Guide

Broad Peak: A Climber’s guide

Gasherbrum I: A Climber’s guide

Dhaulagiri: A Climber’s Guide

+4

About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
×