Guest Post: Skiing and climbing on Broad Peak, Pakistan June 14-August 7, 2021

This guest post was written by Sarah Strattan.

This past summer I ventured to the Karakoram mountains in northern Pakistan, which many argue to be the steepest and most rugged mountains on Earth. My goal was to be the first woman to ski from the summit of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain in the world at 8,047 meters (26,401 feet) tall. I also wanted to accomplish this without using oxygen or guides. While this blog post describes my journey at trying to reach the summit, it’s also a story about how not reaching the summit taught me more than I ever imagined. This was my first time in Pakistan and first time skiing on an 8000 meter peak. Despite not reaching the summit, I learned more about myself and my capabilities than I ever thought possible, and the beauty of the entire experience is almost indescribable.

Our expedition began with many travel complications and headaches due to COVID-19. However, once we arrived in Pakistan things ran pretty smoothly and we were in constant awe of the unique culture and beautiful scenery every step of the way. Pakistan still suffers from a negative global image, but I found everyone in the country to be incredibly friendly and welcoming the entire time I was there. Unlike Nepal, Pakistan hasn’t been able to utilize its tremendous tourism potential, but hopefully this changes in the future for the better.

My climbing partner Billy and I had arranged for a local Pakistani company Karakoram Tours Pakistan (KTP) to provide logistical and base camp support for us (food, tents, etc.), including all transportation, permits, porters, and necessary equipment we wanted to rent. We began the journey to Broad Peak with an incredibly scenic domestic flight to Skardu. This flight alone may have made the trip worth it, because the views of K2, Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums, Masherbrum, and hundreds of other jagged and beautiful mountains were mind-blowing. After this we endured a long and bumpy (and at times, scary) jeep ride to Jhola, where we began the five day trek to Broad Peak base camp.

The Baltoro glacier trek is rumored to be one of the best in the world, and for us it lived up to that reputation. Trekking up the valley with rock walls, glaciers, rock towers, and mountains towering thousands of feet above us was incredibly awe-inspiring and humbling. The incredible beauty was all around us – on every peak and wall, but also on every hillside, glacial stream, and blade of grass. We tried to enjoy the green vegetation before it disappeared entirely. It was a privilege to follow the same route that so many famous climbers and mountaineers had followed before us, all the way up to Broad Peak base camp at 4800 meters/15,700 feet, which would be our home for the next 5-ish weeks.

Besides the incredible views all around us, it was a pleasure to meet and get to know so many other climbers from all around the world. Everyone was coming from such different backgrounds and cultures, yet we all had such a similar goal and vision. Despite all of this though, the local Pakistanis deserve all of the credit for making expeditions like this happen. The superhuman porters who carry everything to the various base camps, the cooks, kitchen assistants, and so many others enable us to live our dreams in these wild places. I was glad to be providing them a means to make some money over the summer, especially after the negative impact COVID-19 had on the economy. 

Once Billy and I arrived in base camp we would spend the next 20 day going up and down the mountain to acclimate and stash gear, food, and fuel at the various camps. We had hired a high altitude porter to help us with this, as well as help get Billy’s oxygen bottles up the mountain that he planned to use on summit day. The average steepness of the west ridge of Broad Peak is around 44 degrees and entails mostly steep snow climbing with some sections of loose rock and ice. Even though the route warmed up throughout the summer and became icier and more prone to rockfall and wet slide avalanches, I was still able to make some quality ski turns during our various rotations.

Skiing on an 8000 meter peak was an experience like no other. Even if the conditions weren’t ideal (which a lot of the times they weren’t…flat light, heavy snow, wet slide debris, and/or crusty snow were common), each time I was able to make some turns felt like euphoria – one of those moments in life where I was 100% happy and couldn’t imagine doing anything else at that moment in time. Despite having some of the best turns of my life, in the back of my mind I knew that skiing from the summit is what gets you noticed, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that recognition. Most major Himalayan ski descents have been made by men, and I desperately wanted to even the playing field and make it known that women are just as capable at succeeding in the big mountains.

Base camp life always felt luxurious compared to life up on the mountain and usually entailed eating as much as possible (the food from KTP was delicious), showering, washing clothes, journaling, reading, listening to music, and trying to get quality sleep. We all had the occasional digestive issues that come from living off of base camp food and water in a foreign country, but fortunately neither Billy or I ever got sick enough to have it interfere with our climbing. It’s amazing how, with the aid of tents, generators, propane stoves, and human will, a desolate rock-covered glacial moraine can morph into a quaint little town that feels like home.


The views of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, kept us continuously enthralled as its south face rose 12,300 feet above us at the head of the valley. I never got sick of staring at it and wondered if my future would entail anything related to its steep and deadly slopes. One of my favorite things about climbing an 8000 meter peak is how you get to know the surrounding peaks by seeing them for so many days in so many different conditions, angles, and weather. You begin to pay attention to the small details of a certain ridge in the distance or how a certain valley winds its way around a particular peak. In these ways everything becomes more beautiful as you spend more time in one place.

During our time in Pakistan, Billy and I received weather forecasts on our InReach mini from a friend and meteorologist back home named Chris Tomer. This was the third expedition of mine where he had provided weather forecasting, and I still firmly believe that a successful summit isn’t possible without high quality weather forecasts like the ones he provides. After we completed three rotations on the mountain, he predicted a good weather window for mid July, so up to camp 3 we went. Our backpacks were heavy and the air was thin, but we, along with maybe 20 other climbers, were somewhat optimistic about our summit chances. 

The 2021 summer climbing season was abnormal due to COVID-19, mainly because there was not a huge Sherpa presence and coordinated rope-fixing effort that usually occurs on 8000 meter peaks. In addition, many climbers and companies had cancelled their summer climbing plans (we almost had too, especially when we had multiple flights cancelled). While this benefited us on Broad Peak because it meant fewer people and less crowded camps, there was a consistent lack of coordination with trail-breaking and rope-fixing duties among us climbers and high altitude porters, for better or for worse. When all was said and done, some climbers did more or less than their fair share of helping with this, which is to be expected with the extreme conditions that living on an 8000 meter peak provides and how different everyone’s mental and physical capabilities can be on a day-to-day basis.

The day before our scheduled summit push, a small group of climbers tried for their own summit push but ultimately got stopped by deep and unconsolidated sugar snow and a big crevasse above camp 4. This left Billy and I feeling less optimistic about our chances for success, but we decided to give it a go anyways. Things got off to a rocky start though right away when we set off on the night of July 17th. At first Billy wasn’t feeling well and needed to spend some more time in Camp 3. We also had communication problems with our high altitude porter Akbar, which ultimately resulted in Billy not having all the oxygen bottles he would need to summit.

The sunrise that morning was spectacular and temporarily numbed all the typical mental and physical summit day suffering I was experiencing. All in all I was feeling pretty good though considering I was carrying my skis and climbing without oxygen above 7000 meters. The route was straightforward and the climbers ahead of me had found a way around the crevasse that had stopped the climbers 24 hours ago. However, when I got to around 7700 meters (25,200 feet), I found myself below the infamous notch where the summit ridge begins. There were lots of climbers bottled up there waiting to ascend (some were descending as well), and at this point it was around 1pm. Billy had run out of oxygen and the snow was starting to get very soft from the sun and heat. I knew that continuing upwards could mean spending the night out in the dark above 8000 meters and/or skiing down in the dark. Both of these were unappealing to me and didn’t seem safe.

I weighed our options and ultimately decided the smart decision was to descend back to camp 3. Just below the notch at 7700 meters would be my highpoint. I forced myself to set aside the accumulating negative emotions that were entering my brain from turning around and focus on the task ahead of me – skiing safely and in control back to camp.

Fortunately, skiing typically forces the brain to be engaged in the present moment and I enjoyed the skiing back to camp, as exhausting as it was stopping to catch my breath every five turns. Billy and I would then begin the tiring effort of descending back down to base camp the following day, unaware of the events that had unfolded up high the previous night.

Once I arrived back at base camp I learned of the bad news. Apparently two climbers had fallen through a cornice on the summit ridge while descending from the summit. During the night, one had been rescued while the other one had died. The climber who had died was Mr. Kim, a well-known Korean climber who, despite losing all his fingers on one hand from frostbite on Denali, had climbed all of the 8000 meter peaks except for Broad Peak. Vitaly, a Russian climber and skier, was the primary rescuer that night and had heroically gone back up the mountain for the rescue after returning to camp 3 from his own failed summit push like we had. He went up and tried to haul Mr. Kim back up to the summit ridge but unfortunately Mr. Kim somehow became unattached from the rope and fell to his death. 

While I’m by no means an expert on the matter, I’ve found that humans handle death in a wide variety of ways. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one in a climbing accident, but I also know that risk is an unavoidable part of climbing mountains that we all have to accept if we are to gain the tremendous rewards from what climbing beautiful mountains can provide. Some climbers opted to end their expedition after Mr. Kim died, while others, myself included, wanted to try for the summit one more time. Billy decided to end his expedition and trekked out, one of the reasons being he didn’t have enough oxygen left to try again. After Billy was gone I found myself lonely but still motivated for a second attempt. With the promise of another good weather window, I headed up the mountain for the fifth and final time with about 20 other climbers.

This second attempt was unfortunately unsuccessful as well, although this time due to dangerous avalanche conditions that had formed on the route from the most recent storm. All climbers were in agreement about turning around and returned to camp 3. As we descended, headlamps were visible over on K2 as climbers went around the giant serac and headed up to the summit. K2 would see many successful summits that night/morning, unlike Broad Peak. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly defeated and devastated after this second attempt. All the time, money, and effort I had put into Broad Peak and not been rewarded with a summit…it was impossible not to cry.

The skiing from camp 3 back down to base camp was once again rewarding and engaging, especially since I skied down with the Russian team. While ski conditions from camp 3 to camp 1 were relatively good, the conditions below camp 1 had majorly deteriorated and we were faced with blue ice, rockfall, slushy snow, and deep runnels with water gushing down them. Making it down safely felt like a huge accomplishment, especially with how exhausted we were and how heavy our packs felt.

It was a quick effort back in base camp to pack up and head back to civilization after only one day of rest. I opted to trek out a different way than we had trekked in, this time going up and over Gondogoro Pass and descending out the Hushe Valley. Even though we didn’t have good weather on the day we went up and over the pass, the valley below was incredibly lush and gorgeous, especially since we had views of the striking 6000 meter Laila Peak. After just 4 days since leaving base camp, I found myself back in Skardu, still trying to process and make sense of the entire expedition. 

I knew I had a lot of mental work to do that involved changing my mindset from “this entire thing was a failure because I didn’t summit” to focusing on what went well, what was a success, and all the things I had learned. Unfortunately though it would take a lot of time for this to happen. The first few weeks being home were rough though…I found myself in a dark place, feeling ultimately defeated and like I had failed at my goal. It felt like the biggest failure of my life…there were so many “shoulda coulda woulda”s. With enough time though, I slowly was able to recognize what had gone well on this summer’s expedition. First and foremost, the skiing. Not only had I been able to ski the complete route on Broad Peak from 7700 meters/25,200 feet down to crampon point, but the skiing had been highly enjoyable, worthwhile, and better than expected. To my knowledge I was the first female to make turns on that mountain, which I was proud of. 

In addition to the skiing, I was proud of how I had organized and led the expedition, as well as how high I had climbed without oxygen. I had previously been up to 7400 meters on Makalu (an 8000 meter peak in Nepal) without oxygen but had used oxygen on summit day.  I now knew that I was capable of climbing an 8000 meter peak without oxygen and felt better prepared to do so on a future expedition. I also eventually realized that not only had I made smart decisions on this expedition, but that I would make those same decisions again. These decisions not only kept us alive, but prevented other injuries or illnesses that are sometimes common on an 8000 meter peak. We were also fortunate to have good enough weather to go up the mountain five times and try for the summit twice, as well as the fact that there had been an above-average snowy spring that enabled me and others to have great skiing conditions. 

Finally, I reminded myself that it’s all about the beauty of the mountains…mountains are the reason I went to Pakistan in the first place, and the mountains at home helped me rejuvenate, refocus, and will help me retrain for the next big goal. We saw so much beauty in Pakistan despite not summiting, and it would be wrong for me not to appreciate that above all else. I’m already thinking about Pakistan for next summer and can’t wait to return to that amazing country to climb and ski big and beautiful mountains. 

I owe a HUGE thanks to the American Alpine Club for helping me fund this expedition through the Live Your Dream Grant. In addition, everyone who helped and encouraged me before, during, and after the expedition, as well as everyone I met along the way that made this expedition fun and enjoyable. A big thanks to my climbing partner Billy, as well as Chris Tomer for weather forecasting. 

-Sarah Strattan

Sarah’s full trip report can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Skiing and climbing on Broad Peak, Pakistan June 14-August 7, 2021

  1. Cole Noble

    This sounds like an incredible trip! Thank you for underscoring the importance of knowing when to turn back and still have a positive experience!

  2. Deb Smith

    Thank you for sharing this amazing story Chris Tomer and Sarah Stratton. I commend you and enjoy reading about these adventures.

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