K2 is more technical and challenging than Mt Everest says Andrzej Bargiel in an exclusive interview with Jerry Kobalenko, the editor of ExplorersWeb
Andrzej Bargiel and his astonishing ski descent of K2 headlined this year’s Banff Mountain Film Festival, which finished last Sunday. Before Bargiel’s onstage appearance, ExplorersWeb had a chance to sit down with the soft-spoken 31-year-old Polish skier and athlete, along with his brother Bartek, who filmed the descent.
Bartek Bargiel used three off-the-shelf drones, including two that he modified to fly fast enough to go from K2’s Base Camp around 5,000m to the 8,611m summit in seven minutes. He deliberately chose a slightly older model, in order to more easily get around the company’s software that prevents their drones from flying at 8,000m, where they might intrude on commercial airspace — not an issue around K2.
“The drones will work in up to 70kph winds,” he explained, “and up to 100kph on the summit of K2,” because of the thin air. Summit temperature was around -15°C when Andrzej began his descent. Before he started to ski, he packed away the summit drone, which was out of battery power, and carried it with him on his descent of K2.
Tell us about the gear you need to ski an 8,000m peak.
It’s all super-lightweight, both because you have to carry it up and also for skiing down. When a lot of alpinists see my boots, which are custom-made for me by Pierre Gignoux, they scratch their heads and ask how can that work. Of course, it’s not a mountaineering boot, but in the cold, you can use toe warmers and footbed warmers. A pair weighs just 1,400 to 1,600gm. My skis weigh just three kilos a pair. Finally, the bindings are also super light and don’t release. You don’t want your skis to pop on those steep slopes!
You took seven hours to ski the 3,700m from the summit of K2 to Base Camp. That sounds like a long time for a ski descent. Did you have to sidestep a lot on the steeper sections?
I didn’t do much sidestepping. The only time I was sliding was in the very narrow snow passages, where there wasn’t enough space to make turns. There was about three hours of pure skiing. I spent an hour at 8,000m waiting for the fog to clear. Then at Camp 3, one of the team members was feeling sick, so I waited until the support team came to get him. Filming also took quite a lot of time, because Bartek often had to exchange batteries on the drone. Once, he couldn’t find me on the wall, so I had to wait. Finally, on the last bit of snow, I had to walk over some rocks. I wasn’t in a hurry at that point, because skiing was done.
How many jump turns can you do in a row at 8,000m?
I stopped to catch my breath every five minutes or so; sometimes less.
What were the snow conditions?
Over the 3,700m descent, I had everything from blue ice to heavy, wet slabs. On those slabs, I had to ski cut: to release the avalanches first, so I could then ski safely.
It was also important to time my descent because some areas are only safe at certain times of day. The most dangerous part, for example, was the Messner Traverse, because you’re crossing underneath seracs. Here, there are only two safe windows: very early in the morning, and in the afternoon between two and three p.m., when the shade has just settled over the seracs. You don’t want to postpone it too late, because the ice freezes too quickly, and this can cause the seracs to fall.
When you were skiing, did you think of Fredrik Ericsson and Michele Fait, [who died trying to ski K2], or were you completely focused on the job at hand?
When Ericsson died, my friend Darek Zaluski was there, so I got first-hand information on what happened. The accident wasn’t caused by Ericsson’s mistakes, it happened on fairly easy and mellow terrain when a rock hit him. Of course, I thought of it now and then, but I kept going. The fact that Ericsson tried was very inspiring to me.
Turning to Everest, are you going to try again?
I got back less than a month ago and it’s too fresh at the moment to say. I’m hoping for a good and active winter on smaller mountains and smaller projects. I’ll look at plans for next year later.
How did you plan to ski the Balcony and the Hillary Step on Everest without fixed ropes? Can you ski across the ladder sections of the Icefall?
It is very different terrain in the autumn compared to the spring and summer. What is usually exposed ridges are now snow ridges that take you up to the summit. You can avoid most of the ladders by staying high on the Nuptse wall. Once you hit 5,500m, the Icefall becomes much easier to navigate through.
Tell us about the serac that stopped everyone on Everest this fall. How big was it?
With Bartek’s help, I was able to measure it, because he has a very precise GPS on the drone. The serac was about 50m high and 30m wide, which is the size of a small house. We would have had to traverse a narrow valley 800m below that. In 2014, 14 Sherpas died from a serac half that size. That’s why we pulled the plug. When we were there, the serac actually moved, so it was active. It will probably fall before spring.
How difficult would it have been to ski Everest compared to K2?
K2 is way more technical. There is basically only one line you can ski down. Everest is easier because you can choose different lines to ski, and it’s not as steep. The danger comes from passing underneath those seracs.
You’ve now skied four 8,000m peaks: K2, Shishapangma, Broad Peak and Manaslu. Would you want to ski all 14 peaks of 8,000 metres?[laughs] No, I like skiing in general, not just 8,000m peaks.
ExplorersWeb did a story recently about how many climbers do not reach the true summit of Manaslu, but stop at a sub-summit. Did you yourself get to the top? Why don’t Sherpas fix ropes all the way for their clients?
Yes, I did reach the true summit. Many stop a little short because of that final knife-edge. Manaslu has become pretty commercial, and only one person can go to the true summit at a time. That person has to go and come back, then the next person goes. Big groups would have to spend too much time up there.