‘It gives you the idea it doesn’t want to be climbed’ — SA mountaineers conquer the formidable K2
In what is reported as a first for the country, South African mountaineers John Black and Warren Eva reached the perilous 8,611m summit of Pakistan’s K2 — dubbed ‘the savage peak’ — on 22 July.
In mid-June, South Africans John Black, Warren Eva, Robby Kojetin and Allan Dickinson set out on a mission to climb K2 — the world’s second-highest peak and one of the deadliest.
However, only Eva and Black made it to the top. Kojetin was struck by altitude sickness and was airlifted from Base Camp early in the expedition and Dickinson decided to remain at Base Camp in a support capacity.
Eva and Black’s expedition has been hailed after the pair became the first South Africans to summit K2, according to a website owned by mountaineer Alan Arnette, which is regarded as a reliable source of information among mountaineers. Their achievement has been widely reported in the media, but it is tricky to verify due to a lack of comprehensive records.
K2 lies about 1,300km north of Mount Everest, in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, and closer to the polar region.
At 8,611m, K2 is about 238m lower than Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak at 8,849m. But while perilous Everest treks continue to be written about in books and made into movies, the lesser-known K2 has retained a sense of mystery. It’s also way more dangerous.
Among hard-core mountaineers, its climb is considered far more treacherous and technical.
“As a mountaineer, K2 is considered the ultimate — the mountain of mountains,” said Kojetin.
Describing K2 as very remote and situated in the belly of the wild, Kojetin said: “The base camp trek to get to K2 was over 100km… it’s fierce terrain, over glacial rock, and barren. It’s tough to just get to the mountain.
“It gives you the idea that it doesn’t want to be climbed.”
The mountain’s main climbing season is between July and August. But most summit bids, Black said, have been between mid-July and early August.
“It’s about a three-week window.”
This year, the first K2 summits were on 22 July. CNN reported that the mountain saw a record-breaking number of climbers, with officials saying 207 permits had been issued this season, amid a post-pandemic surge.
Climbing K2 — as with climbing Everest and other high-altitude peaks above the 8,000m mark — is not a bottom-to-top journey, but a series of ascents and descents done in rotations.
“We needed to take equipment up the mountain, and we couldn’t do it all in one go,” said Black, who added that while some climbers have this done for them, their expedition did most of this work themselves.
To acclimatise to the thin air, Black explained, the hikers had to climb incrementally.
The entire expedition took nearly eight weeks, and by the time Black and Eva summited on the morning of 22 July, they had climbed the mountain almost twice to restock camps and adjust to the altitude.
“More importantly, you need to expose yourself to the higher altitude to give your system the opportunity — or the shock — to adapt to it,” Black told Daily Maverick.
“By climbing high and exposing your system to the higher altitude, it shocks it into producing more red blood cells. You then drop back down to a lower altitude to recuperate and recover, and then you climb back up again.”
One of the dangers is altitude sickness. On the day the expedition began their first rotation, climbing from Base Camp to Camp 1 and back again, Kojetin fell ill.
“It’s completely indiscriminate — it doesn’t matter that I’ve been to high altitude before on previous mountains. This time it just hit me out of the blue,” said Kojetin, who summited five of the Seven Summits and climbed Kilimanjaro nine times before attempting K2.
En route to Advanced Base Camp, at an elevation of 5,200m, Kojetin began experiencing severe symptoms of altitude sickness, including shortness of breath, coughing fits and dizziness.
“There are two kinds of altitude sickness: high-altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema. They’re both pretty much fatal if not addressed, and the only way to address it is to go to a lower altitude as fast as possible,” he explained.
It took Kojetin about five hours and thirty minutes to walk the 6km back to Base Camp.
“When I eventually got to Base Camp, my oxygen saturation was at 52%,” he said.
He was airlifted to a military hospital in Skardu, Pakistan, within 24 hours of experiencing symptoms. There, he spent 36 hours in ICU before returning to South Africa.
Kojetin said that after not being able to fulfil his dream of reaching the summit, “there’s a lot of acceptance that needs to happen”.
“It became our reason for getting out of bed for more than a year — training, preparing, saving up… to throw it all away at Advanced Base Camp.
“I wish I could’ve been up there with them. But I also had to realise that the mountain makes the final decision. Had I ignored what I was feeling and tried to recover in Base Camp and go up again, they would’ve probably brought me down in a body bag,” Kojetin told Daily Maverick.
The ‘Savage Peak’
Unlike Mount Everest, K2’s steep faces require advanced technical skills. Climbers are constantly exposed to the dangers of rock falls and avalanches.
While it is reported that Mount Everest has seen more than 9,000 summits, only 377 climbers had summited K2 as of February 2021. K2 also has a much higher casualty rate than Everest, killing one climber for every four who successfully reach its summit — hence its tag, “the Savage Peak”, as Al Jazeera reported.
There have been a number of attempts by South Africans to summit K2 over the years, including explorer Mike Horn who has tried three times, most recently in 2019.
The Abruzzi Spur, which follows the right-hand ridge of the mountain, is the main route. It takes climbers through The Bottleneck overhung with seracs (columns of glacial ice) to the summit.
From Base Camp, there are five stops along the way: Camp 1, Camp 2, Camp 3, Camp 4 and the Summit. Black and Eva used four camps above Base Camp.
“Some people make use of an Advanced Base Camp — which is in between Base Camp and Camp 1 — but we didn’t,” Black said.
“You’re either climbing rock or you’re climbing snow and ice, and it’s unrelentingly steep,” he said.
“To climb Everest, you cover more horizontal mileage than you do on K2, and you climb more gradually. Whereas the moment you leave Advanced Base Camp on K2, from there to the summit, the mountain is so steep that if you fell at any point, you would fall off the mountain.”
K2 has several perilous landmarks, including House’s Chimney, a 30m crack in a rock wall; the Black Pyramid, a buttress that looms above Camp 2; The Bottleneck and The Traverse, located just below the summit.
Black said The Traverse, which the pair ascended in the dark and descended after sunrise, was one section that was “particularly unnerving”.
“The Traverse has certainly lived up to its reputation as being a place that you don’t want to hang around in. It was very exposed, very scary and not a place to be taken lightly,” said Black.
“It’s a section of the mountain where there’ve been many tragedies in the past, and it’s one of the sections where you are exposed to danger outside of your control,” he added.
It’s roughly 900m from Camp 4 to the summit.
“To put that into perspective, that’s more or less the distance from Camps Bay beach to the top of Table Mountain (1,086m). But at almost 9,000m above sea level [the K2 summit bid] is a different kettle of fish,” said Black.
Warren and Black spent about 20 minutes on the very top of K2 on 22 July, revelling in the feeling of being the first South Africans to make it. Black recalls feeling “a niggling concern” over making it down safely.
“We had good weather, amazing visibility and the views were incredible… But we were very aware that we needed to get back down safely, and that that was where things often went wrong.
“It was a relief to be on the summit and it was amazing to be there. But, really, I think the true joy or happiness only hit us when we got back to Base Camp and we could breathe a sigh of relief,” said Black. He described the descent as “quite hairy” at times.
“Our journey back down was fine, but we had a couple of close calls with rockfalls and we were very relieved to get back to Base Camp,” he said. DM
Daily Maverick contacted the Alpine Club of Pakistan for confirmation that Black and Eva were the first South Africans to summit the peak, but had not received a response by the time of publication.