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ExWeb Interview with K2 Climber Adrian Hayes, "It all goes back to starting too late."

Posted: Aug 09, 2013 10:35 am EDT

(By Raheel Adnan and Correne Coetzer, updated Aug 9 13:08 am EDT) The climbing season, Summer 2013, approaches a melodramatic end, leaving behind the memories of several tragic incidents. Presumably one of the most fascinating 8000m peaks, K2, remained unclimbed this year. Around 21 climbers attempted the mountain, including British adventurer and climbing enthusiast, Adrian Hayes, who teamed up with Al Hancock and Lakpa Sherpa. Unfortunately, Kiwi father and son, Marty and Denali Schmidt, were killed when an avalanche swept away C3.


Adrian spared some time to share his experience and thoughts about the expedition with ExplorersWeb. Despite bad snow conditions this year, he feels, some changes could have meant better chances of success on K2.


ExplorersWeb: The Pakistan summer climbing season got a shock with the Nanga Parbat massacre. How did you experience the atmosphere and the attitude of the climbing community?


Adrian: Yes, it was a big shock, with many of the victims known to climbers in Pakistan this season. And I guess it bought home to many climbers the paradox that, whilst it's understandable and an accepted part of the risks of the sport to die from avalanches, falls, altitude and so on, to be killed in a cold blooded mass execution by16 murderers isn't.


Having said that, whilst many trekking groups cancelled their tours – approximately 75% since the incident apparently – all climbers carried on without hesitation, though for those of us stuck in Islamabad there were significant uncertainties and delays. Climbers obviously face and deal with risk constantly and tend to evaluate it in a far more evolved, logical and less emotional stance than most people. 


Nanga Parbat is a long way from and far more unstable than Baltistan (the region of K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrum’s), which is safe and inhabited by a truly delightful and hospitable people. And I always take the view that, as in any terrorist atrocity, the days and weeks after the incident were probably the safest time ever to travel in Pakistan. We faced far greater risks on the mountain.


ExplorersWeb: It was disappointing not to have a serious attempt at the summit, but what have you learned in the process? Why is this mountain so difficult?


Adrian: As has been well documented, the Abruzzi Ridge is steep, committing, subject to constant rock fall and, sadly as proved once again, prone to avalanches. I think the steepness hit me the most, not in a technical or vertical sense, but in the sustained nature of it - from the moment one left ABC it was full on 60-75 degree or more slopes with little or no rest or respite. I suppose when one has to rise 3300 metres in little horizontal distance, there’s not going to be much respite.


On the weather side, though it is meant to be notoriously unpredictable, we had more than our fair share of fine days, something I learned has also been the case in the past. However, the snow conditions - deep, unstable and dangerous - high up the mountain appear to be more of a challenge than the weather.


ExplorersWeb: “Both poles were harder overall than any mountain I’ve ever climbed.” You told us before the start of expedition. Do you still agree having been on K2?  


Adrian: 'Hard' is obviously subjective and personal to individual climbers. As always I found the heat of climbing in bright sunshine on a glacier way harder to handle than the cold. Due to probably insufficient rotations, I also only finally found my full groove after we went up to C2 for our summit attempt.


It was hard indeed, but one always has to balance the relaxation of many days at base camp in good weather, which the Poles do not enjoy, I will always hold the view that trekking all the way to the North Pole is the hardest thing on Earth!


ExplorersWeb: Was summiting K2 totally out of the question this season or were there any chances of early or late success, if attempted?  


Adrian: There were one if not more chances earlier in the season and this brings up an issue which, as a Karakorum virgin, I wasn’t in a strong position to question, but which I now hold some strong views. A lengthy period of excellent weather in early July and another golden window of fine weather and far better snow conditions in mid-July were ripe for summit attempts, but neither was remotely possible because we far from being ready.


Obviously one swallow doesn’t make a summer but it did confirm to me a major flaw in K2 exped planning – that the standard start dates of approx. June 22nd ex-Islamabad is way too late. To me there is no logical reason whatsoever why expeditions to next door Broad Peak should start 2 weeks or more earlier than K2 and, though we were delayed 5 days by the Nanga Parbat murders, it seemed incredulous that a German/Austrian team were summiting Broad Peak when we hadn’t even arrived at K2 Base Camp!


Furthermore, when one analyses K2 summits statistics the past 20 years, it gives a fairly clear picture that, in years where there has been success, the vast majority of summits have taken place in the last 10 days of July. As such, to allow just 4 weeks to trek in, establish camps, fix lines and acclimatize is pitifully short for the World’s second highest mountain - and likely gives a single weather window for a summit attempt.


On the late possibilities, in the two days after the summit push was aborted on 25 July, due to dangerous snow conditions, a few of us vainly tried to gather enough manpower and willpower to plan for a second attempt in early August, but there was a general malaise and resignation that a summit attempt was likely impossible this year and all expeditions were abandoned.


No-one can be sure whether that is true or not, but the avalanche that tragically killed Marty and Denali Schmidt and wiped out all of our tents, oxygen and equipment at Camp 3, curtailed any such possibilities. Again it all goes back to starting too late – one summit window aborted and it was all over.


ExplorersWeb: What about the traditional Broad Peak and K2 Double, i.e. acclimatizing on Broad Peak prior to attempting K2.  


Adrian: I’m not sure whether this is a reason K2 starts have been later than Broad Peak but, personally, I think the practice is deeply flawed. I’ve spoken to or heard of numerous people who failed to summit one or even both due to attempting the double and, in fact, I'd be fascinated to know the last time anyone did manage it!


The weather window is short enough as it is and K2 a serious enough objective on its own without having to summit another 8000 metre peak a week or so earlier, If you want to acclimatize prior to K2 then, with an earlier K2 start, go and climb an 8000 m peak in Nepal in Spring first!


ExplorersWeb: With the exception of last year, there have been no summits from Pakistan since 2008. What's your views?  


Adrian: Traditionalists and those attempting K2 Alpine Style - though there was and is some debate whether this is possible on such a route as the Abruzzi - may baulk at my comments, but those I have spoken to, who were on the mountain in 2012, said summiting would have been impossible without the very large team of Sherpas present, who broke trail through very deep snow above Camp 4.


This year our team had four Sherpas, of which I brought 3 myself - not for personal use but to provide some manpower up the mountain – but with only another couple from other teams plus 2-3 Pakistani High Altitude Porters (HAPs), it simply wasn't enough. 


Unless you’re a particularly strong climber therefore - and even that may not be enough – it seems to me that if you are serious about a summit attempt then you need to assemble a very strong team – or dip into one’s pockets for support.


ExplorersWeb: Given what happened at Camp 3 to Marty and Denali Schmidt, is the Abruzzi Ridge still the standard route of choice?  


Adrian: Karakorum veterans and better climbers than me are more qualified to answer this, but the Cesen route is well known for being safer than the Abruzzi, with less rock fall and little avalanche risk.


What also struck me was how much more direct and clean a line it is up to the shoulder together with the closeness to Base Camp, which allows for far quicker and easier access with more rotation opportunities. And, above all, having witnessed the problems of not knowing what had happened to or the location of missing climbers on BP and K2 this season, the fact that the whole of the Cesen is completely visible from Base Camp seems to be a huge advantage that seems to be largely overlooked.


ExplorersWeb: It must have been extremely shocking when you have learned that Marty Schmidt and his son Denali have been swept away by an avalanche. You had a dramatic photo of an avalanche at BC after you have retreated. Tell us a bit more about the conditions on the mountain. Why were they so eager to go up?


Adrian: The circumstances and reasons behind the tragic deaths of Marty and Denali death is a long one and I’ve been asked by quite a few people similar questions of why they went up to Camp 3 when every other team retreated to base camp. I’ve also always referred them to Chris Warner, the Schmidt’s 3rd team mate, who also came down to Base Camp and who knew Marty and Denali much better than anyone else.


The facts of the tragedy are that, on Thurs July 25th, after 2 days of heavy snow on the first stages of our summit attempt, our Sherpas struggled to climb through 3-5 feet snow depths trying to reach Camp 3, were constantly enveloped by snow drifts and were close to being hit by a small avalanche.


They eventually abandoned the attempt and retreated to Camp 2, imploring to all the teams that a summit attempt then was highly dangerous. The result was that not only did teams return to Base Camp but a general feeling took hold that a summit attempt was probably impossible this year.


Marty and Denali obviously didn’t agree and climbed up to Camp 3 the next day, Friday July 26th, to be hit, as our Sherpas discovered two days later, by a huge avalanche that night. It was the night all the teams planned to be at Camp 3 – had we done so resulting in potentially the accident and loss of life in Himalayan history. But we didn’t.


That’s the facts. As to the reasons, Chris will have a better viewpoint but, aside from him, having been the last people to speak to them at Camp 2 on the morning of 26th they were ‘disappointed’ by the white flag being hoisted and I believe were trying to inject some positivity into a negative malaise as well as do their own thing. There is much more to this, but I think Chris should have the bigger word when or if he feels.


[Ed note: update Aug 9 13:08 am EDT: New Zealand's climbing magazine, The Climber, posted a report by Chris Warner on August 9, explaining what happened in Pakistan with Marty and Denali. Chris: "I felt it was better to simply descend and rest, then wait for the next weather window rather than push into new snow. Marty and Denali didn't flinch, they said ok to my decision and were adamant about continuing up. We sorted the gear again as they were going lighter in loads, reducing the food to two days but taking some extra screws, stakes and only 60m of 7mm rope. Both Marty and Denali were in the same frame of mind. One did not convince the other to go up, they were both motivated and prepared to assess the conditions and turn around if need be."] 


ExplorersWeb: Will you be coming back to K2 (or 8000m peaks in general)? If yes, when?


Adrian: Indeed I will, next year in fact – an 8000m in Spring in Nepal followed by K2 with a hopefully a bigger Sherpa team, on the Cesen and with a proper start date of around 10 June.


ExplorersWeb: There has been a penalty of Search and Rescue operations in the region, this year. Do you have any observations, suggestion or recommendation to share?


Adrian: 10 deaths plus the 11 murders is quite a total. With the remoteness of the area and helicopters being controlled solely by the military, search and rescue is obviously always going to be difficult and expensive.


The main observation in the Iranians' death on BP was the lack of a direct communication channel to their Base Camp, instead routing to Iran and via a number of channels before the messages came back. But even this and 3 times daily radio calls wasn’t enough to save the Schmidts.


Adrian Hayes is the British, UAE-based, polar explorer & adventurer, speaker, business coach and sustainability leader. Introduced to a life of adventure since his childhood in the New Forest in Hampshire, UK, he served for two years with 21 Special Air Service Regiment, before attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and becoming a British Officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas, serving for six years in Hong Kong and Borneo.


After a two-year posting in Oman, he left the Army to pursue an MBA at the University of Nottingham, UK, before entering the business world and being appointed Regional Sales Director Middle East for Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, followed by Dubai, UAE. He set up his own company in 2007 as a professional adventurer, speaker and business coach.


An experienced mountaineer since his teens, Adrian has set two recent records for polar expeditions – reaching the North Pole, South Pole and summiting Mt Everest in the then shortest period of time and, with Canadian team mates Devon McDiarmid and Derek Crowe, for the longest unassisted Arctic journey to date (kite supported), the 2009 vertical crossing of the Greenland ice cap.


His most recent expedition (before K2) was a 44 day and 1600 km crossing of the Arabian Desert from Salalah, Oman to Abu Dhabi, UAE, by camel and foot in the trail of 1940s British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger. Hayes’s book ‘Footsteps of Thesiger’ is available worldwide on Amazon and the documentary of the same name has recently been broadcast on Discovery Channel.




ExWeb interview with Adrian Hayes, "K2 is serious business"


Marty and Denali Schmidt Reported Missing on K2 - updated [1], [2], [3]


Summit Push Aborted on K2, Gasherbrums Update


Adrian Hayes' pages







#Mountaineering #K2 #Interview

Adrian Hayes at K2 Base Camp.
Adrian Hayes (sitting first from right side) and the team on the way to Base Camp. "This year our team had four Sherpas, of which I brought 3 myself - not for personal use but to provide some manpower up the mountain but with only another couple from other teams plus 2-3 Pakistani High Altitude Porters (HAPs), it simply wasn't enough."
"K2 is steep - from the moment one leaves ABC (Advanced Base Camp) on the Abruzzi Ridge it is full on 60 degrees or more snow or mixed ice/rock slopes, with regular 90 degree rock bands to climb," Adrian Hayes climbing towards C2.
Arthur Gilkey Memorial near K2 Base Camp "which is covered with the names of those who have lost their lives on K2 and the other three nearby 8000m peaks - Broad Peak, GI and GII." 10 climbers died in Karakoram, this year.
Image shows an avalanche coming down to glacier from the slopes of K2, around 500m away from BC. K2 Summit bid was thwarted on July 25th due to excessive snow and avalanche risk. Marty and Denali Schmidt decided to go forth to C3, were killed when an avalanche swept away the camp.