Broad Peak, Karakorum, Pakistan, 12th Highest Peak
I remember it and will never forget. My climbing partner Jim Gile had departed base camp earlier that week, and with the expedition done, my identical twin brother Steve and I were left to clean the high camps on the 12th highest mountain in the world, Broad Peak in the heart of the Karakorum Range in Pakistan. Steve and I had climbed the previous day to camp 2 at 21,000 feet, but early that morning, he woke up with dry heaves, too sick to go higher, and questionable to help haul gear at all. I would have to ascend to 23,000 feet and pick up our high camp, or at least as much of it as I could put in my pack and tie on to the outside. I was not happy with the knowledge that I was going to be carrying down what took 4 men to haul up, probably 100 pounds or more!
As I headed out and tied into the fixed lines, (ropes we attached to the mountain for protection) the snow was hard and the crunch of my crampons overtook any dread. There were no other people on the route, and I was going to experience something that I feared, but also relished, a time to be completely alone on one of the world’s highest peaks! Soon I was in a climber’s trance, rhythmically climbing step by step to the camp. Although 4 hours passed, suddenly I found myself at our high camp, and with numb fingers and toes, I crawled into the tent. I fired up the stove to warm myself, and gritted my teeth as the blood poured back into my fingertips, creating an excruciating burn. The day was completely calm, no wind, and as I peered out of the tent, the hard blue sky and expanse of the Karakorum beyond froze my gaze in wonder, and I realized how small I really was. Fear crept into my mind at the thought of it; I was alone at over 23,000 feet, with no radio, no way of communicating with anyone should I need assistance. It was as lonely as I had ever been in my life.
Camp 2 Broad Peak
In a meditative trance, suddenly I heard voices outside. I thought to myself, “who in the world is that?” I started to pack up not paying too much attention and heard voices again. I yelled “ who’s there”. Nothing. I yelled again, “who is out there?” Nothing. Then I heard the voices again. I got out and walked over to the only other tent at that camp, only to find it empty, door open, totally abandoned by its owners left to become part of the landscape of Broad Peak. Shaking my head, I thought I was losing my mind. Was this hypoxia, was it my subconscious mind coming to my rescue, or was it a spirit from climber’s past who didn’t make it off the mountain talking to me? I had heard stories from more experienced climbers who said the mountains are alive with spirits. Others had heard voices that guided the living away from harm, and others that seemed to just want to live vicariously. I thought it to be mystical embellishment but here I was, “hearing” this first hand. I didn’t know what was going on, but I also didn’t want to ponder it as it was unnerving at best. I crawled back into our tent and started packing. Then I heard a single voice. “Hey MIKE! Everything is just great! This is going to be a great day….for YOU!”
I poked my head out of the tent, saw no one, and for an instant, was on the verge of freaking out. Then I heard the voice again more reassuringly. “Mike, you are going to be ok, and you are going to have one of the greatest days of your life….”
Stunned, I looked out at the view, and softly a calm came over me. Where I was, what I was doing, everything came into focus for a brief second. It was my time to speak. I whispered to myself, “this is going to be a great day! Look where I am, alone, a perfect day. Mike, you were born for this. Pack up, embrace the pain of hauling everything off this mountain, and don’t be lazy…..like the guys who left their tent.” Then I chuckled. And thought to myself, I can’t afford to leave any of this gear up here anyway.
A high camp for 3 people consists of tents, stoves, gas cartridges, food, aluminum pickets, trash, assorted climbing gear, ropes, ice screws, and in this case someone’s camera, and a sleeping bag. I jammed everything in my pack that I could starting with the tent. Knowing my pack was not nearly big enough for everything, I had carried up a handful of straps to attach things to the outside. After an hour, I had a full pack with so much gear hanging off the outside that I had to concentrate on leaning forward to avoid being pulled off my feet backward. I could barely pick up the weight and worried that my shoulder straps would break under the strain.
At 23,000 feet, the oxygen level is about a quarter of what it is at sea level, and although I was heading down, the physical strain of that much weight on legs tired from over two months of climbing and the lack of oxygen made my body shake under the immense strain on my back. The route was extremely steep and we had attached fixed lines to accommodate getting off with loads, but being short a partner, the task was monumental. I clipped the carabiner into the ropes and felt the “clink” through my gloves; the safety of being connected to the rope was comforting. I slid down the ropes with a metal rappel device connected to my harness. I could smell the dust burning from the heat as the friction from the rope passing through the metal controlled my speed. The rope was attached at various points with ice screws driven into the ice and pitons hammered into rock cracks to connect all the lengths of ropes entailed in fixing thousands of feet of terrain. At anchor points, I had to unclip from the rope, and carefully reattach to the line below, leaving me exposed for a few moments to thousands of feet below me. A fall here and I would have become part of the landscape of Broad Peak. Concentration was critical. I would then check the anchor carefully to make sure it had not come loose, and slowly lean back hoping that my assessment was accurate. This process only took a minute, but there were many of these anchors and repeating the process was extremely exhausting.
Broad Peak Route
Soon I was back at camp 2 where Steve had packed everything he could making his load slightly larger than mine. I was relieved to find him healthy enough to help with the work. He could not find room for a few aluminum pickets, a sleeping pad, and Jim’s book. I found room on my pack, and soon we were back descending.
With the added company of Steve, I missed the freedom of being totally alone, but he was feeling better, and seemed to be enjoying the day as much as me. There wasn’t a whole lot of talking as the work required effort and concentration, but I could tell; he was also realizing he was made for this. We were carrying probably the biggest loads of our lives, in the middle of the most dreaded part of any expedition- cleaning the mountain-, and yet we were having an incredible time.
We descended past the place of camp 1, and from there down, the route was nearly vertical. Again, we embraced the unnerving challenge and kept going. We had 3,000 feet to go. I had been up since 5 and had been on the trail for nearly 10 hours. The route was now in the dark shade which dampened my enthusiasm, and I was literally and figuratively at the end of my rope. I would pick a point, get to that point, take a rest and pick another point. In a dream like state, I found myself 10 feet from the end of the route, hanging. I opened my eyes to find my helmet resting on the granite wall in front of me with Steve yelling, “Mike! Are you ok?” I shook my head, looked down, and slipped the rope the final 10 feet. Steve helped me unclip, and we both sat down and just laughed! I told him about the voices I had heard that morning, and the laughter subdued to eerie silence. Steve looked at me and rather than call me out, suggested that whatever the reason, “Mike those voices were real…” “As you headed up, the entire face of Broad Peak below let go in a massive avalanche, and I was scared out of my wits looking at it. I didn’t hear any voices like you did, but calm came over me as I listened to the roar dissipate. I felt like I was not alone, and a wave of appreciation and humility overtook me and I knew it was going to be an incredible day. It was!”
Suddenly Mohamed our base camp cook arrived with his assistant. They had a thermos of lemonade and biscuits for us. The laughter resumed and was contagious and we sat there giggling. Over two months of climbing and finally we were off Broad Peak, safe and sound.
Success came in the strangest way that trip. It wasn’t a summit victory or a life-time ski run or anything like that. It was a single otherwise unnotworthy long hard day we dreaded, companions we heard and felt but could not see, and the magnificence and power of a remote and high peak……. That was in August 1997, but reflections of that experience, that day, have remained with Steve and I since then. I’ve heard voices a handful of times since then, and always, they are at times where I am at my mental, physical and emotional limits. I can’t explain them, but they are real. I don’t seek them, they just happen. I hear them, always with encouragement that helps me realize the gift I have been given.
Ascending Slopes to Camp 3, Broad Peak