Few mountains demand such respect as K2. The highest point of the Karakorum range, on the China-Pakistan border, claims one life for every four attempts at its summit. Around 300 people have successfully climbed the 8,611m (28,250ft) giant, but 77 have died trying.
For Polish ski mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel reaching K2’s peak on 22 July was only half the challenge. Once at the top, he promptly strapped on a pair of skis and set off to achieve what many thought impossible: a descent, on skis, from the second highest point on Earth.
Seven hours, several avalanche scares and one of the greatest feats in ski mountaineering history later, the 30-year-old achieved his goal. Yet despite etching his name into the record books, Bargiel tells RSNG that meticulous planning and a lifetime of experience meant the outcome was never in doubt, at least in his own mind…
RSNG The confidence required to even attempt this descent – on a mountain that has claimed so many lives – is mindblowing. How sure were you that you were going to be successful?
ANDRZEJ BARGIEL, SKI MOUNTAINEER ‘The awareness of just how dangerous K2 is certainly didn’t fill me with confidence, but I tried not to think too much about the risk. I just knew that it was possible and that if you’re prepared enough, and the conditions are appropriate, you can do it safely. If at any point there were any doubts, or the conditions were uncertain, I was ready to stop the whole project. But I fully believed that it would work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.’
RSNG In order to descend, you first had to climb to the 8,611m summit without supplementary oxygen (an incredible feat in itself). How many months of training did you go through to prepare your body for the ascent?
AB ‘It wasn’t particularly complicated for me, because I train a lot – whether that’s running in the mountains, going to the gym or cycling – and I spend most of my time in the mountains. I have been doing sports for many years and I had full confidence in my physical ability to reach the summit.’
‘Of course, you also have to be skiing a lot in very steep and exposed areas to feel confident over such terrain. Years of consistent work and gaining experience allowed me to make the right decisions, and estimate and analyse risks during this type of challenge.’
‘Standing at the top of K2 was just an intermediate goal for me’
RSNG As you stood on the summit, about to attempt something no one had ever managed before, what was going through your mind?
AB ‘I guess it was a little bit different than for most other climbers. I wasn’t euphoric about reaching the top of K2. Neither did I feel particularly fulfilled or relieved – I knew I had to be fully concentrated, because the main challenge was about to begin. Standing at the top of K2 was just an intermediate goal for me. I wasn’t thinking: “I’m about to do something historic.”’
‘To be honest when I reached the summit I just took a few shots and a bit of video, then began to prepare for the descent. I had to be very careful not to lose my skis while stepping into them, and the weather forecast was not that optimistic for the rest of the day, so I had to proceed with my descent almost right away. Also, my brother had just landed his drone at the summit [Bargiel’s brother filmed the descent by drone] so I had to pick it up and take it back down to him!’
‘I was so focused I don’t remember what I was thinking about, but I was calm’
RSNG One slip would have meant a fall of over 3,000 metres (9,800ft) – how did you manage to hold your nerve in such a life-or-death situation?
AB ‘If I hadn’t meticulously prepared the route of my descent, or analysed the time of day I should be descending in certain parts of the mountain, or if I felt any fear at all, I wouldn’t attempt it. Once I feel ready for such a challenge, everything is checked and the conditions are favourable, there is no need for me to hold my nerve. It’s all under my control and that’s exactly how I felt. It was amazing to be there at such altitude and feel in control of the situation – despite the magnitude of the task and difficulty of the terrain.’
RSNG What was the most difficult part of the descent?
AB ‘It’s hard to say. The upper parts were quite dangerous. There was lots of snow on the hard ice cover and I had to be careful to not to cause an avalanche. The part above the ‘Bottleneck’ (a narrow, 50° couloir) was difficult. Messner Traverse was also a very risky part, because during last year’s attempt [Bargiel had to abort an attempt last year due to unfavourable weather conditions] we saw a massive avalanche there caused by one of the seracs [a ridge of ice]. I knew I had to get through there as quickly as possible; being there for just 30 seconds is putting yourself in a terrible danger.’
RSNG What was your overwhelming emotion when you completed the descent?
AB ‘Relief and pride. The past two years were spent building up to this descent, and the challenge itself was so tiring. In the end I was proud of myself, and when I reached 10 minutes from base camp I laid on the snow for an hour: enjoying the moment, reflecting on what I had achieved.’
RSNG You’re still only 30 – do you plan on taking on similar challenges for years to come, or is it a young man’s game?
AB ‘I’m aware that you have to be able to walk away at the right moment. I’m young and I can still develop, but on the other hand, it is so risky that I know that the moment will come when I will have to let go. At the moment, skiing is my greatest passion, but I don’t feel the need to ski down every 8,000m summit to enjoy it.’
‘Next, I'd like to do a smaller and more peaceful project. There’s a chance I’ll go with my two brothers to Cho Oyu [the sixth highest mountain in the world, at 8,188m] to make a ski descent there. My brothers have the proper skills to be able to do it and I would like to help them. I would also like to go to Denali [the highest peak in North America] in the spring and make an interesting ski descent there.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the incredible drone footage of Bargiel’s K2 descent.