Sarah Strattan recounts her summit of K2

Sarah Strattan lives, trains, and teaches in Colorado.

Making Turns…A Ski Attempt and Summit of K2, Pakistan

June 12, 2022 – August 12, 2022

Guest post written by Sarah Strattan

This summer I traveled to Pakistan to climb and potentially ski K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. Many people have heard about the technical nature of the climbing route (Abruzzi Ridge, the “easiest” way to climb K2), K2’s deadly history, and the numerous risks and dangers associated with attempting to reach the summit. However, for some reason these weren’t quite enough to sway me and I found myself drawn to the mountain. I first laid eyes on K2 last summer when I tried to climb and ski Broad Peak, a neighboring 8000 meter peak, and couldn’t believe how impressive and beautiful it was. There is no other mountain on Earth like K2 and I knew I had to try and climb it while life circumstances allowed me to. I also knew I had to approach the mountain with the perfect balance of respect, caution, experience, training, and confidence, otherwise there could be deadly consequences.

Abruzzi Ridge Route, Sarah Strattan

I consider myself a skier first and mountain climber second. This is mostly due to the number of years I’ve prioritized each activity, yet in the last 10 years I’ve focused more on combining the two…ski mountaineering if you will. Bringing skis on 7000 meter and 8000 meter peaks is a different ballgame than lugging them to the top of a 14er in Colorado. However, in my relatively limited experience I’ve found it worthwhile to carry them over to the Himalayas and Karakoram Mountains just in case there is some decent skiing to be had. This was my mindset going into my K2 expedition…most people thought I was stupid and naive to even think about bringing them along, and I understood why they thought that. However, that little voice in my head thought about how mind-blowingly amazing it could be if everything lined up perfectly and I was able to have some quality turns off the summit of K2. No woman had ever even made ski turns on K2 and only one person has ever made a true ski descent off the summit. I also thought that at the very least, even if I got to make 20 fun turns on the slopes of K2 somewhere, it would be worth the effort. The latter is what actually occurred, and I still stand by my decision to bring skis.

As is the case with most 8000 meter peak expeditions, just reaching base camp is an adventure in itself. This was my second time trekking up the Baltoro Glacier which is one of the most gorgeous and rugged treks in the world. In my opinion the Karakoram Mountains are the most impressive mountains on Earth and for six days your jaw drops consistently as you trek up amongst these giant peaks and spires. Unlike last summer, however, this time wasn’t quite as enjoyable for me due to a horrible stomach bug I got on the second day. I’ve never vomited so much in my life and my energy reserves seemed to disappear in an instant. There was one particular afternoon in Urdurkas where, after puking twice within the hour, I was walking uphill to our dining tent and had to stop to catch my breath after taking 10 steps. I sat on the dirt and looked around thinking, there’s no way I’m going to be able to climb K2 if I’m this weak already. I didn’t think I’d be able to regain my strength in base camp since it sits at a high elevation of 16,200 feet and I thought my expedition was ruined. 

Attempting to ski K2, Sarah Strattan

Going into this expedition I knew I had to be as physically and mentally strong as I could possibly be. However, it was hard to know if I had trained enough through an incredibly stressful and busy year of work and I definitely began the expedition with a lot of doubt. I was fairly sure that I was mentally tough enough to handle K2, however, I wasn’t sure I was strong enough physically. By the time I reached K2 base camp my stomach problems had improved but I had developed a cough which was more worrisome than the gastrointestinal problems. I caved and took some strong meds upon arrival and tried to rest, regain strength, and remain positive as more and more groups arrived at base camp to begin their expeditions. No one had been up on the mountain yet and there was a lot of fresh snow down low; I told myself that I had a lot of time and to take things slow.

I went to K2 alone and arranged to climb with a Pakistani high altitude porter (HAP). This reasoning was two-fold; I planned to use oxygen (K2 is a whopping 28,251 feet tall and since I hadn’t yet climbed a lower 8000 meter peak without oxygen, I figured this was the smart decision) and since oxygen bottles are heavy I predicted I’d want some help carrying loads up to the camps. I also figured it’d be safer to climb with a HAP, especially one who had summited K2 previously (which Muhammed had). All this being said, there were many times on this expedition where I felt lonely and missed the camaraderie that comes with climbing with a close partner or group of friends. Even though I was successful on K2 this summer, I’m not sure I want to climb in this style again on an 8000 meter peak…it’s just not as fun. Movies like “Vertical Limit” make basecamp look like one giant party, however, K2 base camp is spread out and I found that most companies and climbers kept to themselves. 

Basecamp with cook Ali Must
Camp pizza

Basecamp with Lina

I used the same Pakistani company that I had previously used for base camp and logistical support and had no major complaints. Not only does Karakoram Tours Pakistan (KTP) provide everything necessary for a successful expedition at a fraction of the price that bigger name companies do, but I feel better that my money stays with Pakistanis rather than foreigners. There were only three of us total using KTP for K2 base camp support which I believe led to higher food quality, lower stress/drama, and a more enjoyable expedition. I shared most meals with Lina from Spain and Jan from the Czech Republic, two incredibly strong and experienced climbers who were also climbing independently; Lina was also climbing with a HAP and Jan was solo and attempting to summit without oxygen.

After a few days of rest and recuperation in base camp it was time to start acclimating. I was feeling better and hoped the meds would kick this nasty bug once and for all. After roping up and breaking trail through the recent snow to advanced base camp (17,400 feet), I climbed up the lower slopes of the Abruzzi Ridge for a couple of hours with my skis and made some fun turns back down to ABC. Just these ski turns alone made hauling the gear over from Colorado worth it. It was fortunate I felt this way too since these would be the only good ski turns I had on K2 for the rest of the expedition. As far as I know I was the first female to ski on the slopes of K2, however, I hope someday soon a woman makes a complete ski descent from the summit!

I had been hearing rumors of the unprecedented number of permits issued for K2 this summer and the predictions of massive crowds never before seen on such a dangerous mountain. Whether or not people were antsy for big climbs after COVID or the general increase in popularity of 8000 meter peak climbing or both, climbers and support staff flocked into base camp over the next couple of weeks from all over the world. While this has gotten only negative press and some say K2 is now “ruined” like Everest, I never had a major problem with the crowds on K2 this past summer. Camps 1 and 2 on K2 are small and there is limited tent space which sometimes causes problems, but this has happened every climbing season in recent years. I never had to wait at some of the technical sections like House’s Chimney or the Black Pyramid to climb up or rappel down, and on my summit day there were only five of us on the mountain above camp 2. 

That being said, with increases in crowds typically comes more problems with trash and waste in and above base camp. I was appalled at how much trash, both old and new, had accumulated at camps 1 and 2, everything from old tents to abandoned climbing gear, food packaging, fuel canisters, and human waste. While there was a valiant effort from the Central Karakoram National Park “clean-up committee” to remove huge bags of trash from base camp, more needs to be done to make and keep the camps on K2 clean going forward. Many climbers are exhausted on the way down from their summit push and don’t have the strength and/or motivation to carry down everything they brought up, and it doesn’t appear to be a high priority of anyone – climbers, Sherpas, Pakistanis, and the various companies – to address this growing problem. 

Camp 2
Camp 2
View from Camp 2
Camp 2
Camp 1

The biggest problem with more people on K2, however, is it results in more rockfall. While there would’ve still been rockfall on the Abruzzi Ridge regardless of people (normal freeze/thaw, snow melting, etc.), I witnessed a few inexperienced climbers knock rocks down that could’ve severely injured (or killed, under the right circumstances) someone. More climbers I talked to than not had been hit by at least one rock by the end of the expedition. Sometimes this resulted in a scratch on the helmet and other times it was worse, as was the case when a Sherpa got hit in the leg and had to be flown out in a helicopter. Rumor was he might have to have his leg amputated due to the wound infection. I had to dodge rocks on occasion but was fortunate that one never hit me. I’ll never forget the sound a rock makes as it whizzes through the air close to terminal velocity and the resulting adrenaline rush as I feared for my safety. Rockfall was by far the biggest risk I faced on K2, more so than avalanches, falling, altitude sickness, or bad weather. 

Muhammed and I made only two rotations on the mountain before our summit push. In a perfect world, weather, physical fitness/acclimatization, and time would’ve aligned for us to make at least four so that I was so well acclimated I could’ve given the summit a try without oxygen. This was because, for some reason, I acclimated on K2 better than I had on any previous expedition. I had no altitude headaches, I slept relatively well at each camp, I had a decent appetite, and typically I felt strong. When I was on my summit push I considered not using oxygen, however, I ultimately decided to put the mask on so that I was more mentally focused on the descent and wouldn’t lose as much energy. The final climb up to camps 1, 2, and 3 on the summit push were the scariest out of them all as far as rockfall and damaged fixed ropes were concerned and I knew that I had the highest odds of having an accident while descending from the summit back to base camp. Even though it goes against many climbers’ ethics to use oxygen, I still felt that I had enough strength and climbing experience to have the right to be on K2. I took the safer decision by using oxygen and even though it’s still a big goal of mine to summit an 8000 meter peak without it someday, I’m glad I used it on K2.

Climbing to Camp 1
View from Camp 3

The route from ABC to camp 2 consisted of steep snow and loose rock scrambling/climbing with the steepest part being House’s Chimney, a 150 foot nearly vertical cleft in the cliff face just below camp 2. This section, along with the steepest section on the Black Pyramid, had old metal ladders that sometimes helped with a foot or hand placement.

Peter and Paul on the Black Pyramid

However, most climbing was accomplished using jumars, fixed ropes, and the actual natural holds on the rocks. While the climbing was fun at first on each rotation (and got more fun as I got more acclimated), conditions deteriorated so much by the summit push that I just wanted to get off the mountain and never go back. Most of the snow had melted from the lower route, leaving annoying loose rock and dirt, and the conditions of the fixed lines got worse and worse each day. There are tons of old and damaged ropes all over K2 from previous years and over time the “new” fixed ropes began to look like the old ones and it was impossible to tell which ones were safe to use and which ones weren’t. 

Fixed rope mess
Houses Chimney
More fixed lines

After the decent ski turns I first had above ABC I made one more attempt to ski on the expedition. It had been hot and sunny for many days, however, I was convinced the skiing below camp 1 would still be good. This wasn’t the case at all; I skied down from camp 1 and hit some blue ice that was hidden underneath the small amount of remaining snow and took a pretty scary fall down the face adjacent to the fixed lines. Fortunately I used my whippet (a super handy tool that is a ski pole and ice axe combined) and didn’t go very far but it was enough to rattle my nerves and squash any remaining desire to ski ambitiously. It left me shaken for days but I was so grateful I didn’t get hurt or worse. I hauled my skis up on the summit push just in case but ended up leaving them near camp 2 and focused solely on the summit climb.

The snow slope I first skied became a face of blue ice, running water, and rockfall by the end of July. At one point I gazed over at Broad Peak and could see the slopes I had had fun skiing last summer below camp 2. Those were also covered with blue ice, runnels, and rockfall by the end of July. This part of the Karakoram experienced an unusual amount of warm and sunny days throughout the summer which enabled a lot of people (myself included) to successfully summit these big peaks, but unfortunately it didn’t allow for great skiing conditions. It was still a cool experience though and just being able to ski on K2 made my expedition much more worthwhile.

Prior to our summit push in late July I went to a friend’s birthday party in base camp and got sick a couple of days later, this time with a strange illness that consisted of a cough, fatigue, and painfully achy legs. I had heard rumors that COVID had been circulating in K2 base camp and wondered if I had it…I’ll never know. While the majority of climbers went up for their summit push when the first good weather window appeared, I stayed in base camp to let myself recover and let the masses go up and down so that my summit push wouldn’t be crowded. Muhammed was antsy to go up the mountain but I insisted we stay in base camp and wait for the next weather window. It was a risk, and part of me worried this would be the only good time to summit, but my weather forecaster Chris Tomer kept me optimistic by saying there weren’t any huge storms moving in and the jet stream was staying away from K2 for the time being. 

Sarah and Muhammad

At this point I had spent 13 days in base camp and hoped I hadn’t lost too much strength and acclimatization to go for the summit. I was becoming mentally exhausted by all of the uncertainty of success, planning discussions, attention to detail, and endurance required by everything up to this point. 8000 meter peak expeditions really are like ultra marathons and staying mentally and emotionally strong is the only way to succeed. Not only that, the encouragement and advice I received by some key friends and family from back home through my Inreach device was pivotal in my decision making and positive mindset. Without them I would’ve felt truly alone and might not have been mentally strong enough to summit K2. 

Muhammed and I set out from base camp on July 20th for our summit push. I had read accounts from Ed Viesturs and others that talked about climbing from base camp to camp 2 in one day…one famous climber has even mentioned that if you can’t climb to camp 2 in one day, you shouldn’t be on K2. So I wanted to see how I’d do and what I was capable of. It was a long tedious day full of dangerous rockfall and damaged fixed ropes but I made it in 15 hours. There was also the fact that we didn’t have a viable tent in camp 1 to use anyways, not to mention that camp 1 had become a rockfall target as the snow had melted off the route above. The climb up to camp 3 was somewhat easier, especially above the black pyramid when the steepness eases up and it’s all snow slopes from that point on. 

View from Camp 3
Broad Peak from Camp 3

I’ve heard it said that bad things happen in threes. Over the course of the summer, three climbers died on K2 – one Afghan climber from altitude sickness, one Australian (Matt), and one Canadian (Richard), the latter two presumably from falls. While I didn’t know the Afghan climber, I had chatted with Matt and Richard from time to time since they were both on a team with another climber named Rob who was also from Colorado and had skis. Matt had shared a story with me about his recent kidney surgery and recovery from kidney cancer and how him going on this K2 expedition was pretty much a miracle. It was one of those humbling discussions where I went to sleep that night scolding myself for ever complaining about anything in my own life and reminding myself that I should be incredibly grateful for everything, despite what relatively minor suffering I might be going through on this K2 expedition. Matt and Richard were kind, funny, humble, and climbed with a ton of strength and endurance, and I will always appreciate the interactions I had with them on this expedition.

Besides the deaths this summer, there were three dead bodies that lined the climbing route and were impossible to avoid. One was just above base camp and had been there for a long time – no one knew who they were or when they died. The second body was the Afghan climber just below camp 3, and the third was a climber who died during the winter attempt of K2 in 2021. His body lies above the bottleneck and traverse on the way up to the final summit ridge. Seeing these dead bodies was a harsh reminder that I had to stay mentally and physically focused at all times, no matter what. I shed some tears as I passed them and reminded myself that life is fragile and pursuing passions like this can oftentimes be tragic, so I better appreciate the rewards and good times while I can. 

Muhammed and I left camp 3 and at this point I knew we were on our summit push. We had a good weather forecast for July 24th, however, some snow moved back in on the 25th so it was important that we summit and descend as quickly and safely as we could. Peter and Paul, two British climbers I had met last year, were also on my same summit schedule with their HAP and the five of us left camp 3 and headed up the relatively easy snow slopes to camp 4. We settled into an empty camp 4 which has to be one of the coolest places I’ve ever camped. The shoulder of K2 is big, vast, and a scary place to be in bad weather as history has shown. However, when the weather is good and everyone is healthy it’s a shockingly unique place with beautiful views in all directions. As I crested the final hill to reach the flat expanse of camp 4 and saw the upper slopes of K2 towering above us – the bottleneck, the serac, and the upper summit slopes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had seen photos of these features and read about tragic accidents surrounding them, but at the time I felt incredibly fortunate to be where I was and excited for the fast approaching summit push that awaited us. 

Camp 4 looking up

The five of us departed camp 4 around 10:45pm and headed up the steepening snow slopes to the base of the bottleneck couloir, a steep and rocky chute that funnels everything down from above – rocks, snow, dropped climbing gear, and the occasional ice chunk that breaks off from the giant hanging serac above. Fortunately for us this part of the mountain was quiet and inactive for the time being, but I couldn’t help but think about all the accidents that have occurred here. We climbed up in the dark (no moon, just the light from our headlamps), but at one point I looked up at the serac towering above us for just long enough to be able to see the faint outline of the ice against the sky. I couldn’t believe how big it was and that I was in the presence of this incredible feature I had read and heard about so many times. 

Traverse in the dark

We didn’t climb up the bottleneck itself but rather to the right of it through steep rock and snow sections. After this it was time for the infamous traverse. Here the route traverses below the serac and then curves up and around to the final summit ridge. I had been the most nervous for the traverse since I feared that it would be icy and I would have to front point with my crampons to climb across it which can be exhausting and dangerous above 8000 meters, especially if the fixed lines weren’t in good condition. Luckily there was a relatively easy snow path to follow from previous climbers and the fixed lines and anchors were mostly in decent shape. After the traverse I expected the route to ease up and get easier – not so. The snow slopes above were steep, icy in areas, and wind-affected. I was very glad I wasn’t hauling my skis up…the only skiable terrain I had passed so far was the flatter area down by camp 4, and even that would have been wind-affected and not very fun.

Summit day views

Summit day views

I had been anticipating the sunrise all night and when it finally came my spirits were lifted, I felt optimistic about our chances, and I was able to really appreciate the special place that I was climbing. I kept my energy up by having a GU/shotblock once per hour but taking breaks was hard on the steep slopes. I ran out of my first bottle of oxygen less than an hour before reaching the summit, and even though I had been keeping it at 2 liters per minute, I noticed the lack of oxygen right away – my legs felt heavy and my brain felt cloudy and surreal. I forced myself to pay attention and attached my second bottle without dropping the bottle or regulator – a challenging task on steep terrain while wearing gloves.

All five of us stayed somewhat close to one another all the way up to the summit (28,251 feet or 8,611 meters), however, I reached the summit first and had some time to stand on top by myself; an experience I will never forget. It was around 7:45am and I couldn’t believe the views or where I was at that moment in time. The wind had picked up on the final summit ridge and some clouds had moved in which worried me initially, but fortunately nothing got worse and we were all able to spend as much time on top as we wanted to. I was able to take my gloves off and easily have a snack and take photos which meant it couldn’t have been extremely cold. I thought about what a unique location I was currently standing on and knew there weren’t many places in the world like this. Despite these positive thoughts, most of my mindset was thinking about the descent I had ahead of me and how I wasn’t finished yet. I remembered this feeling from previous big mountain summits and even though I took my photos and tried to appreciate the moment, I knew I couldn’t really relish in my success until I was back at base camp. 

Muhammad approaching the summit of K2

Sarah on the summit of K2

Everyone went their own pace back to camp 4 and for the most part it was relatively uneventful. My HAP, myself, and Paul made it down in good time, however, there was a point where we were very worried about Peter and their HAP, especially after Peter dropped his backpack and oxygen down the bottleneck after he took a fall. He was extremely lucky he wasn’t injured, and I didn’t know this had occurred at the time, but the three of us worried about them when they didn’t return back to camp 4 for some hours. Once everyone made it to camp 4 we headed down to camp 3 reluctantly, for it would’ve been easy to sleep at camp 4 with how tired we were. The following day Muhammed and I descended to camp 2 and then base camp the day after.

Descending back across traverse

Descending to Camp 4

Descending to Camp 3

For the most part, I wasn’t as exhausted descending as I had been on previous expeditions, especially Makalu back in 2019. However, since I was still pretty tired and my backpack was heavy with gear we were bringing down from the various camps, I forced myself to focus, take my time descending the fixed ropes, and ensure that I didn’t make any stupid mistakes. I knew this is where most accidents on big mountains occur. I couldn’t believe how bad the fixed ropes were on the descent, how loose all the rocks were, and I wanted to get off the route as soon as was safely possible. I had an inner warm glow from knowing I had summited K2, but by the time I reached ABC I was mostly filled with relief and exhaustion. Here I chatted with Rob and his team who had been looking for Matt’s body but unfortunately it had been buried underneath the recent wet slide avalanche debris (where it still remains). I offered what condolences I could and felt incredibly sad that their expedition had ended so tragically. 

I rested and waited in base camp for a few days before a bunch of us began the trek out back to civilization. Prior to leaving I paid a visit to the Gilkey Memorial, a place where those who have died on K2 are honored. I felt incredibly fortunate to be visiting here after making it off of K2 alive and unscathed since so many others before me (many of whom were stronger and more experienced climbers than I am) were not so fortunate. I recognized some new plaques that had been added since my visit last summer and reminded myself, once again, that if I ever let my guard down at the wrong moment, my name could end up on a plaque somewhere like this.

Gilkey Memorial

Like last summer we trekked out by going up and over Gondogoro Pass, and similarly like last summer the weather was horrible and we had no views. The lower Hushe valley, however, was lush, green, and gorgeous and I enjoyed descending to a lower elevation all the way to the town of Skardu. Leaving base camp after a successful expedition has always been somewhat sad for me but this time I had a lot to be grateful for. I reflected on how many doubts I had had going into the expedition and silently congratulated myself on proper planning, training enough, being physically and mentally strong, having the right gear, and keeping a positive mindset when it mattered the most. I looked forward to resting, enjoying things in life I typically take for granted, and loved the overarching sense of relief I had after making it off K2 alive and unhurt. It sure is a big and beautiful mountain and I’m so glad I made the effort to climb and ski on it this summer.

Hushe Valley trek out
Laila Peak trek out.

I owe the most thanks to the friends and family who encouraged me and gave me advice before and during this expedition: my sister (and social media manager/K2 expert) Elizabeth, Billy, Brad, and many others. The biggest thanks also goes to Chris Tomer for another expedition of timely, accurate, and extremely helpful weather forecasting, especially on a mountain that has a reputation for poor and unpredictable weather. A huge shout-out to some companies who provided the highest quality of gear I’ve ever used: Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Hestra Gloves, and Kästle Skis. To Karakoram Tours Pakistan (KTP) for another expedition of excellent logistics and base camp support. To the state of Colorado for yet again being the perfect training ground. And to the people I met on this expedition and the Pakistani locals, you made it all worthwhile. Thank you!!!

With Jan, Muhammad, and Ali

To conclude, here is a quote from Tom Hornbein (Everest: The West Ridge 1965) that I believe accurately summarizes why climbers like myself are drawn to these types of experiences: “Existence on a mountain is simple. Seldom in life does it come any simpler: survival, plus striving toward a summit. The goal is solidly, three-dimensionally there – you can see it, touch it, stand upon it – the way to reach it well defined, the energy of all directed towards its achievement. It is this simplicity that strips away the veneer of civilization and makes that which is meaningful easier to come by – the pleasure of deep companionship, moments of uninhibited humor, the tasting of hardship, sorrow, beauty, joy.”

Sarah Strattan

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6 thoughts on “Sarah Strattan recounts her summit of K2

  1. The General

    Hey Sarah,
    Beautiful Read. Felt like I was their climbing with you and feeling your ups and downs. So glad your got to make a few “Turns”. Great Accomplishment. A feat you Treasure Forever. Hope to see you soon.

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