How Safe are the Ropes on K2?

8000ers K2
Pioneer Adventure sherpas at work. Photo: Pioneer Adventure
As summit pushes end on Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II, the attention switches to K2. The route to Camp 4 has been set, and most climbers have touched Camp 3. With supplementary oxygen, that’s usually enough for a summit bid. So if the weather improves as forecast in a couple of days, expect the action to begin in earnest.

Almost all the climbers –- more than 50 — will follow the standard Abruzzi route. Only Ian Welsted and Graham Zimmerman are trying a different line, up the West Ridge.

A Sherpa climber with Pioneer Adventure fixes rope. Photo: Pioneer Adventure

Korean ropes

At this point, it is significant to have a look at the year’s most hotly discussed issue: the route conditions, and in particular, the ropes.

Too often, poor rope management (old or low-quality ropes or incorrect fixing) causes accidents in high-altitude mountaineering. K2 is no exception. Last winter, climbers criticized the excess of fragile, old ropes jamming belays, as well as the poor fixing.

The mess of old ropes on K2 last winter. Photo: Elia Saikaly

This season, Pakistan’s Mirza Ali has a lot riding on good rope fixing by his strong local team, aided by two European guides.

Madison Mountaineering and Pioneer Adventure have set their own Sherpa force to the task since they hit Base Camp. Even some smaller, independent teams have contributed to the work.

We asked climbers about the results. So far, the overall impression looks good. Photos from K2 show much a cleaner route. In places like House’s Chimney, the ropes all look pretty new.

A spool of Madison Mountaineering’s ropes on K2. Photo: Madison Mountaineering

It’s much harder to find out who has done what.

“The route up to Camp 3 is in great shape compared to previous years, because there is a fair amount of snow covering and holding loose rocks in place,” Garrett Madison told ExplorersWeb last week. “We’ve removed a lot of old ropes from the route and also cleaned up a number of old anchors.”

Madison, however, did not shy away from certain issues. “The ropes our team has fixed are good quality [semi static kernmantle], unlike the cheap and frail polypropylene Korean rope that some other teams put from ABC to just above Camp 1,” he said. “I’ve personally seen climbers fall to their deaths on Ama Dablam [2003] and on K2 [2018] when the Korean rope they were clipped into snapped. Korean rope is generally fine on snow but breaks down quickly when touching rocks.”

Are old ropes still in place?

The question is, which other teams, if any, have fixed that section from ABC to C1? The ropes Madison refers to could have been there since last winter or earlier. Some teams currently on the mountain may even have swapped out those Korean ropes in the week since the conversation with Madison took place.

We asked around. Mirza Ali of Karakorum Expeditions responded quickly: “We use two types of ropes: Korean rope on the easy sections and dynamic ropes on dangerous sections. We cut away some old ropes when my team fixed to Camp 2 and we are planning to replace any ropes damaged from tension around the sharp rocks.”

Mirza Ali has sent this picture of House’s Chimney, pointing to the orange rope his team fixed there.

Ali added that he had the ropes sent in from Nepal. “I have more than 3,000m of both types of rope at Base Camp,” he said.

Division of labor

Ali’s Karakorum Expedition team fixed the ropes up to Camp 2. However, Carlos Garranzo reports that Oswald Rodrigo Pereira, Jeff Spelmans, and Niels Jespers fixed the ropes from 200m above C1 on July 1.

“From Camp 2 to Camp 3, the Pioneer Adventure team did the fixing,” Mirza Ali noted. He said that he was not aware of the exact sections fixed by Madison’s team.

The Madison team published a clarifying note yesterday stating that while Pioneer Adventure fixed from Camp 2 to the top of the couloir/Black Pyramid on July 8, Madison’s Sherpas continued the fixing from there to Camp 3 on July 9.

Summit Karakoram, the local operator working with Pioneer Adventure, confirmed that Pioneer’s Sherpas, led by Lakpa Sherpa, fixed 900m from C2, and Madison’s crew completed the remaining 200m to Camp 3.

Sherpa climbers in the Pioneer Adventure team.

Since then, the rope fixers went up again over the weekend, taking advantage of the good weather, and fixed up to Camp 4.

“Today [July 18], Madison Sherpas Siddhi Bhadur Tamang, Dorjee Gyalen Sherpa, and Pasdawa Sherpa have opened the climbing route up to Camp 4,” Summit Karakoram reported.

The outfitter estimated that Madison’s work above Camp 3 was 500m on July 17, while Pioneer fixed 300m more to a “low” Camp 4. Deep snow prevented the fixers from reaching the usual C4. The following day, however, Pioneer Sherpas continued to the proper Camp 4, then returned to Base Camp. Now they rest and wait for the weather. The next time up, the goal is the summit.

Snow on K2: good or bad?

As Madison pointed out, more snow on the route may mean a safer passage from the base of the mountain to Camp 2. These steep, barren slopes can become a deadly shooting gallery in dry seasons because of constant rockfall. Last winter, when the mountain is typically dry and icy, a falling rock possibly caused the accident that took Sergi Mingote’s life.

Camp 4, marked with wooden poles. Photo: Pioneering Adventure

At the same time, excess snow increases the objective danger from Camp 3 upward. Ralf Dujmovits previously remarked that the terrain around the Shoulder (above Camp 3) is especially avalanche-prone.

“There, wind-driven snow builds up in the flatter areas, creating a hard slab on top that can let go at any moment,” he said.

Then there is the steep gully known as the Bottleneck, and most of all, the dangerous traverse under the Great Serac. Here, a piece can drop loose on either the climbers or the route. It is particularly hazardous if temperatures are high and lots of snow weighs down the Serac. Finally, the slopes leading to the summit may be slabby and dangerous as well.

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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!

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Don Paul
Don Paul
2 months ago

Great news that they are cleaning up this mess. In rock climbing we take great care to make sure the ropes don’t go over sharp edges, especially when rappelling. If it must go over an edge, we use a rope pad, which is connected to the rope with a small piece of kevlar string. Why does Mirza Ali use polyproplyene ropes? I had never heard of this before. Rock climbers use nylon ropes. And speaking of Kevlar, why don’t they use a thick (12mm) Kevlar rope for static sections where they don’t expect long falls are possible? It looks like… Read more »

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