K2 west face interview. The Russian magazine Verticalniy Mir (No. 68) interviewed K2 west face expedition leader Viktor Kozlov in September 2007, shortly after he returned to Russia from K2. Following is an excerpt.
Q. How much useful information did you get from the reconnaissance expeditions you completed? Of course, they did not and could not provide a full map of the route. From under the rock wall, the upper part of the face is completely invisible. However, in 2005 we were lucky with the weather and could study the wall. Underneath there weren’t any rocks, which means they aren’t falling from the wall. The upper part, I repeat, we didn’t see at all.
Q. How did the team form? I return to our reconnaissance. When we approached the wall, we set ourselves a question: Is this suicide or a real possibility? And we answered: If we have a strong team and work constantly with two four-man groups, replacing each other, then it is a real possibility. And of course the usual requirements—excellent equipment and sufficient financial backing. The skeleton crew came together during the previous two expeditions— Lhotse Middle (2001) and the northern wall of Everest (2004)—and the four group leaders recommended the remaining members.
Q. Were there assigned roles for the groups—some handled the technical challenges of the route, some brought up the equipment? First of all, we had five high-altitude porters who brought our provisions to advanced base camp. Early on, we decided that after advanced base camp there would be no high-altitude porters. Secondly, there was the question of using the oxygen equipment. Not everyone was as decisive as Bolotov, Shabalin, Tukhvatullin, Mariev, and Totmjanin, who answered the question categorically: We will climb without the use of oxygen equipment. There were people who said: If we don’t make it without oxygen, then let’s use the medical supply. But during the ascent, despite the risk, the idea took shape in everyone’s head that we would not use oxygen. And we did not use it. We understood that, although we had a considerable reserve of time in case of bad weather, there awaited a huge amount of work on the wall and above. For that reason everyone labored hard, spelling each other. Indeed, during work on the wall some people had better weather, some people had worse, some people did more, some less, but everyone was working on a common project. There were leadership duties, groups spelled each other, and who would climb to the summit no one knew.
Q. Were there any surprises on the route? The beginning was technically very difficult. The same guys who were on Jannu and other difficult rocky routes, for instance on Aksu, they said: “Yes, this is extreme, we’ve never had anything similar, certainly not on an 8,000er.” When we talked about this in base camp, the guys came to this conclusion about the western wall of K2: This is the wall of Jannu plus the northern wall of Everest. Of course it may have been possible to go farther left, circumvent the extreme part via the snowy couloir, and then go up onto the wall—this is simpler, although more dangerous in terms of avalanches. But on principle we went up the center.
Q. Now that the route is done, you can evaluate—would it have been better to organize anything differently? Well, look, the weather forecast is for at most five days. And the approach to the fourth or fifth camp—this is a minimum of three, or even four days. For that reason the guys went up to work in any weather. We weren’t able to wait for a 10-day prognosis—no one will give you one. And there were occasions when guys sat in the fifth camp for four days. They arrived there and we got a forecast for a window for the next day, and suddenly it changes to four days away—and one had to wait. But when all the expeditions on K2 and neighboring summits were sitting in base camps, our guys were working. They climbed, waited, fought.
Q. The weather conditions were severe, but this is typical for K2. Can one say that you were not lucky with the weather? No, I wouldn’t say that. If we had had bad luck with the weather, we would not have reached the summit. June was sufficiently stable, and our altitude then was not that great; therefore we paid no attention to the caprices of the weather. In July our altitude increased and the weather deteriorated. August was completely bad. For example, a Pole and two Slovenes, who wanted to climb the left couloir in alpine style, turned back having decided the situation was hopeless.
Q. When Totmjanin’s group worked for several days above 8,000 meters and nonetheless was unable to make the summit, what thoughts arose? I was certain that on August 10 they would reach the summit. When they reached the end of the fixed ropes (7,850m), they climbed alpine style. And there turned out to be an awful lot of snow. In the video they took, I saw that in places they were climbing up to their chests in snow. But there was no avalanche—the Lord protected us all. The guys put up the sixth camp at 8,150 meters, spent the night in it, and went on toward the summit. While considering the route we believed that it was not necessary to immediately go out onto the ridge that divides the western and the southwestern walls. But the snow forced them onto this ridge. And after a short while the guys came up against a rock face of about 50 to 70 meters. They had no special equipment, and they didn’t risk climbing without it. They looked to the left, to the right. Altitude: 8,500 meters. Ultimately they understood that their strength was nearing an end, and they turned around and descended. They did the right thing.
Q. Mariev, Popovich, and the others who ultimately summited, they went along the snow-field, not out on the ridge? Yes, but this is not a field, it’s a slope with an average steepness of 45°, and in places reaching 60°. The condition of the snow was better—more compact—than it was for Totmjanin, Bolotov, and Kirievsky.
Q. Would you say that the successful expedition on K2 is your greatest achievement as an organizer of similar projects? I won’t say “I.” We had a powerful team. Of course I would like to organize something again, gather a great team. But for the time being there’s no answer to, “What’s next?”
Interview by Artem Zubkov and Ilia Kazarinov, translated from the Russian by Henry Pickford