American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Russian-American K2 Expedition

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1993

Russian-American K2 Expedition

Ed Viesturs, Unaffiliated

Our EXPEDITION TO THE ABRUZZI Ridge of K2 consisted of sixteen climbers, a doctor and a Base-Camp manager. The climbers were two Russians, a Ukrainian, 12 Americans and an Englishman. The expedition was organized by the Russians and funded by the Americans. Dan Mazur was in charge of getting the members from the United States, who joined the team by paying a fee to the Russians. Some were experienced Himalayan climbers and some were not. Remarkably, everyone got on extremely well and most of the members fulfilled their specific personal goals on the mountain. Scott Fischer and I joined in April when our plans for the north ridge of K2 fell through because of a lack of funding.

The Americans met in Rawalpindi on June 8. Traveling overland, the Russians entered Pakistan via the Kunjerab Pass and their arrival was delayed until June 15. They were the first Russians to climb in Pakistan.

On June 11, Fischer, Thor Kieser and I with two American trekkers started for Base Camp, where we arrived on June 21. This was remarkably clean and deserted except for a team of four Swiss and a French woman, Chantai Mauduit. After their arrival in Rawalpindi, Vladimir Balyberdin, the Russian leader, Gennadi Kopieka and Ukrainian Aleksei Nikiforov dealt with the Pakistani bureaucracy and acquired necessary supplies. They and the rest of the team arrived at Base Camp on June 30. Two days before, on June 28, a Mexican-New Zealand-Swedish expedition had also reached Base Camp. Since we were all attempting the Abruzzi Ridge, we coordinated our efforts to fix the route.

On June 25, Kieser established Camp I at 6100 meters. Fischer and I followed on the 28th. We began fixing rope above Camp I, joined on July 1 by New Zealanders Gary Ball and Rob Hall. On July 2, we established Camp II at 6700 meters. During this time, the Swiss-French team gave up at 7000 meters because of deep snow on the Black Pyramid. The Swiss left the mountain and Chantai Mauduit joined us.

On July 7, Fischer, Kieser and I began fixing the route toward Camp III through the Black Pyramid, while others supplied Camps I and II. By July 17, the route was fixed to the top of the Black Pyramid, Balyberdin and Kopieka finishing the last ropes. Up to there, the route was pleasant mixed climbing, averaging 45°. Above, it was all ice and snow All summer the weather was very unsettled with two or three days of good weather and then four or five days of snow and wind. Each time we went back up the mountain there was endless trail-breaking in new snow.

On July 12, in a small icefall at the base of the ridge Fischer broke through an ice plug, dislocated his shoulder and was incapacitated for two weeks. On July 15, Kieser, Neil Beidleman and I continued fixing rope above the Black Pyramid through the ice cliff and established Camp III in a small crevasse at 7410 meters. We eventually moved the camp 30 meters higher to escape spindrift avalanches.

On July 21, Balyberdin, Beidleman, Kieser, Chantai Mauduit and I left Camp III, hoping to establish Camp IV. The weather was so terrible that everyone except Balyberdin descended to Base. That day, Balyberdin bivouacked at 7500 meters. During the next three days, he inched his way higher, eventually reaching 8000 meters in deep snow and white-out, establishing no camp and going higher each day to acclimatize. He returned to Base on July 24. Again, the weather worsened and much snow fell.

On July 28, Beidleman, Kieser, Mauduit, Balyberdin, Kopieka and I left Base on our first summit attempt and were in Camp III the next day in a raging windstorm. Balyberdin and Kopieka continued on that day to camp at 7500 meters.

The next day, Beidleman and I descended to Base while Kieser and Mauduit remained at Camp III. The two Russians inched their way higher through storm and snow. Their climbing style is very different from ours and they push to limits beyond what Americans consider safe. On July 31, they reached the base of the summit pyramid in chest-deep snow and camped at 8000 meters. Nikiforov joined Kieser and Mauduit at the higher Camp III.

On August 1, Balyberdin and Kopieka reached the summit of K2 without supplementary oxygen at nine P.M. after climbing for 18 hours. Kopieka managed to descend to Camp IV for the night, but Balyberdin bivouacked below the summit, suffering no ill effects. The pair was back in Base Camp on August 3.

On August 2, Kieser, Mauduit, Nikiforov and Peter and Robert Green climbed to Camp IV, but the next day the Greens descended to Base. Kieser and Nikiforov set out for the summit at 5:30 A.M., followed at seven o’clock by Mauduit. She was climbing much faster than the men and passed them at the Bottleneck, getting to the summit at five P.M., the fourth woman to do so. Nikiforov summited at seven P.M., but Kieser had to turn back a few hundred feet below the top. On the way down, Mauduit, who was afraid of descending on her own in the dark, decided to bivouac at 8400 meters. Some three hours later, she was found by Nikiforov who convinced her to continue the descent with him. They got to Camp IV at seven in the morning where Kieser was waiting for them. The Ukrainian descended on his own to Camp III, where Fischer and I had arrived the night before. We plied him with liquids to help him rehydrate. Mauduit was snowblind and exhausted. It was with great difficulty that Kieser escorted her toward Camp III in bad weather. They had to bivouac at the edge of the shoulder that night. Fischer and I had tried in vain to climb up to them that day.

On the morning of August 5, Fischer and I braved the weather to meet the other two struggling down the mountain. Just below the shoulder, we felt the potential avalanche conditions were so great that we decided to wait. Just then, a spindrift avalanche swept over Fischer, who was leading. After a 200-foot slide, I managed a self-arrest and held Fischer. We traversed off the slope and eventually met up with Mauduit and Kieser. We assisted Mauduit to Base Camp over the next two days.

Due to time constraints, many of the Americans had already left the mountain. During breakfast at Base Camp on August 7, Berlyberdin announced that the expedition was over and that with the “summer season” past there was no more possibility of climbing the mountain. Americans Fischer, Charlie Mace, Mazur and I and Briton Johnathan Pratt were stunned and committed to staying longer. With the assistance of the liaison officer, the leadership was officially changed to Mazur. The remainder of the team left.

The weather was horrendous until August 11. The upper mountain was scoured by a raging jet stream. That day, three Mexicans, Mace, Pratt and Mazur climbed to Camp II. On the 12th, Fischer, Hall, Ball, three Swedes and I climbed from Base Camp to Camp III, where we met those from Camp II. On August 13, everyone except Pratt, Mazur and one Swede went on to Camp IV.

The morning of the 14th was bad and Mexicans Ricardo Torres and Adrián Benítez began their descent to Base Camp. At a small ice step at 7775 meters, rather than down-climbing, they set up a rappel from a ski pole as anchor. Torres rappelled first. As Benitez rappelled, the anchor pulled out and he fell 1000 meters to his death. He probably died instantly since after he stopped falling, he never moved. Pratt and Mazur spent the next two days trying to get to him, but the snow conditions were too dangerous and they descended to Base.

The weather on the 15th was still bad and so the Swedes and the remaining Mexican descended. At midnight, it looked good enough for an attempt on the summit. Fischer and I left Camp IV at 1:30 A.M. on August 16, roped together. Mace left shortly after and soon caught up. All of us were without supplementary oxygen. Hall and Ball followed about an hour later, using oxygen.

We three climbed steep, firm snow up the Bottleneck, but higher the snow conditions worsened: deep and soft or breakable crust. We traded leads often. At the top of the Bottleneck, the New Zealanders quit as Ball had fallen ill. We continued in warm, snowy weather, breaking out of the clouds into sunshine 200 feet below the top. When we arrived on the summit at noon, we became the first Americans to complete the Abruzzi Ridge. After a half hour on top, we descended in storm and white-out, getting to Camp IV at five P.M. The storm worsened in the night and our tent was partially buried by a spindrift avalanche.

On August 17, Americans and New Zealanders began our descent. We managed to pick our way down the shoulder, following wands we had placed on the ascent. Ball began to weaken from pulmonary emboli complicated by pneumonia. We Americans arrived at Camp II at four P.M. and the exhausted Kiwis at ten P.M. Ball was so much worse the next morning that he had to be helped at each rappel. By the time we got to Camp I, he could no longer walk. That day, Pratt, Mazur and three Swedes climbed up to Camp I with oxygen for Ball and then, as a team, we lowered him by midnight off the mountain. On August 19, he was helicoptered to the hospital in Skardu, where he recovered uneventfully.

Pratt and Mazur made one more unsuccessful attempt. K2 had lived up to its reputation as “The Savage Mountain.”

The New Zealanders found a human foot in a sock and boot at the foot of the south face, halfway between the usual Base Camp and the bottom of the Abruzzi Ridge. This must have been Dudley Wolfe’s, lost in 1939. None of the Sherpas who died in the same year had such big feet. No subsequent expedition used boots with iron hob-nails.

This was the first successful team on the Abruzzi Ridge since 1986, despite some 20 attempts. We put six of our team and one other onto the summit without oxygen. Balyberdin was the first Russian and I the first American to reach the summits of the three highest peaks in the world and both of us without the use of supplementary oxygen. Only five other people have achieved the three peaks. Now 72 people have climbed K2, one of them twice. For Fischer, this was his second 8000er.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Karakoram, Pakistan.

Ascent: K2, 8611 meters, 28,250 feet, via the Abruzzi Ridge. Summit reached on August 1, 1992 (Balyberdin, Kopieka); on August 3 (Mauduit, Nikiforov); and on August 16 (Fischer, Mace, Viesturs).

Personnel: Vladimir Balyberdin, leader, Gennadi Kopieka, Yelena Kulishova, Base Camp manager, Yuri Stefanski, expedition doctor, Russians; Aleksei Nikiforov, Ukrainian; Neil Beidleman, Doug Colwell, Scott Fischer, Peter Green, Robert Green, Larry Hall, Thor Kieser, Charles Mace, Daniel Mazur, Gayle Olcott (f), Kelly Stover, Ed Viesturs, Americans; Johnathan Pratt, British; and, after the departure of her expedition, Chantai Mauduit, French.

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