Thursday, December 11, 2008

K2 Tall Mountain – Mixed Emotions

This morning we have a pretty special post from Dave Watson, who spent his summer climbing and skiing abroad in the high mountains of Pakistan. Dave’s K2 Tall Mountain Expedition was covered on the blog throughout the summer, with weekly and sometimes daily reports on the conditions, their adventures on Broad Peak and K2, and general life on a mountaineering expedition. They faced challenging weather, conditions and watched emergencies unravel firsthand. While Dave’s group was preparing to move from Broad Peak to make an attempt on K2, tragedy struck several climbing parties high up on the K2. The K2 Tall Mountain team assisted where they could, and stayed on an empty mountain afterward, hoping for improving conditions that never arose before making the decision to hike out. Dave sent over this entry a couple weeks back, after his return to the States had allowed some reflection on the ever-changing balance of risk and reward as we pursue adventure.

As I start to gather my ski gear and take inventory of what I need for the upcoming winter in the Himalaya, I think back to last winter in Kashmir and the past summer in Pakistan. I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent 6 months of the last year in the Pir Panjal and Karakoram ranges of the Himalaya. And now, 5 weeks away from another 3 month adventure in Kashmir, I can't help but think of how these trips are affecting my life, especially my marriage.

Shane McConkey and Jeremy Jones joke about the Gone Husband Award. They keep track of how many days they are away from their families and my days away equal more than both of theirs combined. Not proud of it, in fact I think it's really lame, leaving my wife to take care of the house, yard, bills, vehicles, food shopping, loneliness, happiness, horniness. She is incredibly supportive and also incredibly busy, working over 100 hours a week. It is so unfair of me to put this on her, to leave yet again. I feel like such a douche. But the mountains, especially the Himalaya, keep calling me back. Is this addiction? The desire to do things in excess, especially when they are potentially harmful to you. The feelings I get in the high mountains are as nourishing as the love of family and friends, feelings so strong they can not be put into words.

(Broad Peak basecamp, K2 in the background. Photo by Dave Watson.)

It used to be that when I got back from a trip I would feel recharged and ready to jump back into the rat race once again. The feelings of renewed motivation and change of perspective have waned over the years and now it is hard to find the motivation to compete even the simple tasks of the western lifestyle. Scrubbing the tub seems so lame as I daydream about skiing breakable crust at 25,000 ft in no-fall terrain or trying to clip into Dynafit bindings while hanging off of an ice screw on a 70 degree slope.

(Dave Watson takes XCD Guides over 20,000 feet on Broad Peak. Photo by Chuck Boyd.)

These expeditions let me experience and explore nature and the human psyche in ways only found in survival situations. As I am not-so-slowly finding out, these incredibly intense situations are becoming the most satisfying moments in my life. I am not a gambler in the traditional sense, and I do have fear, but to be breaking trail at 28,500 ft with the world below gives exhilaration beyond words.

These moments can also have incredible consequences. This past summer on K2, 11 men never went home, and their wives, children, parents and friends must some how come to terms with how a person that they loved had put their own "selfish" desires above the responsibilities and obligations of being an active participant in a life that they themselves had built. Death is a very real possibility when recreating in alpine terrain, it isn't fair that something that gives me so much joy and a feeling of purpose (which is ridiculous) could cause the people I love the most to lay awake at night in fear and worry that I may not come home. If those fears are realized, lives are changed forever.

(Sunrise on K2. Photo by Dave Watson.)

It isn't only those who are left at home who are affected by the loss, witnessing your partners death will have the same outcome. I met an awesome couple this summer, same age as me and my wife, married the day after we were, many common friends and interests. They were climbing K2 together, and he'll never be seen again. I could hardly look her in the eyes, overwhelmed with incredible sadness. I couldn't help but see Audrey's face with same expression of shock and pain, eyes red and rocked to the core. Since then, I've had many nights alone in a tent, thinking about why and how I should change my life, but when I step out of the tent in the morning and look at the South face of K2 in the cold crisp air, I want to ski it even more.

It is almost like a mid-life crisis for my ski mountaineering career. I can see the end closing in on me, babies. Once we have children I've vowed to not attempt extreme lines on 8000 meter peaks. And with children on the horizon I feel this is my only feasible chance to send something this big. I hope the challenges of fatherhood can provide an alternative outlet for my focus and energy, and I'm sure it will. But for now I see the next couple years as my last chance to ski K2. I'll never be younger, stronger and faster than I am now. I just need the opportunity to try it.

(Dave Watson and his Spire BCs in front of K2. Photo by Andy Selters.)

Last summer I went to try it, but because of the weather, I never got a shot at it. In the three months spent on the Godwin-Austen below K2 and Broad Peak there were only about 10 days of good weather. Much of that was spent acclimatizing to the extreme altitudes only found in the Himalaya, the other days were spent making an attempt on the summit of Broad Peak.

(Sunrise in the Karakoram Mountains, Broad Peak summit day. Camp 3 (7000m) is visible in the distance. Photo by Dave Watson.)

I didn't summit Broad due to fatigue. That fatigue made me concerned for my safety. Trying to ski the summit ridge in a tired state would be a mistake, so I decided it wasn't the right time and I turned around for the first time in a really long time. I had 1 more month in the area, more than enough time to make and attempt again on Broad Peak and on K2. The weather never allowed another day of skiing.

So as I gather my gear and tune some skis in anticipation of another awesome winter of powder skiing in the Himalaya, I have mixed emotions. My last run started at over 25,000 ft on the 12th tallest mountain in the world, and was AWESOME! Huffing and puffing while negotiating breakable crust and 2-foot-high sastrugi on 50-60 degrees then onto wet cement "powder" at 30-40 degrees then to frozen corn at 50-70 degrees then to shave-able corn at 50 degrees and then to rock strewn slop and cramponing down another 3000 ft to the bottom. So epic! So enjoyable! A true BIG mountain line.

I also think about Audrey, as I gather my Avie gear. Where I'll ski this winter has incredibly huge and destructive slides that go every storm cycle. The risk is manageable and acceptable. But the thoughts of her working 16 hour days then having to shovel snow, do the food shopping and all else that I can barely muster the motivation to tackle, it doesn't seem fair. I go from the high of reminiscing of high-mountain skiing to the lows and feelings of lameness for putting such a burden on my awesome partner.

I don't know if I'll ever get comfortable with these feelings or situations, I'm sure things will change, they always do. Will I find some other, safer and more responsible way to fulfill the need to be satisfied with my youth? We'll see, but for now I just want to ride powder.

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1 comment:

josh madsen said...

thanks for sharing dave. the closing part was especially cool for me. thank you.