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The Deadliest Mountain

Three ski mountaineers vie for a complete first descent of the world’s most challenging peak.

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In August, American ski mountaineer Dave Watson stamped out a platform in the snow at 27,400 feet on Pakistan’s K2 and prepared for his first jump turn. He was in “the bottleneck,” a zone of ice and snow that tilts as much as 50 degrees with an enormous hanging icefall above that has taken out many climbers. A thought suddenly crossed his mind: He hadn’t been on skis since April. With his uphill hand brushing the 50-degree slope and his other hand reaching into a yawning high-altitude abyss, 33-year-old Watson realized this would be the most important turn of his life. “If I blew it there and didn’t self-arrest right away, I was gone,” he recalls. “They wouldn’t even find my body.”

Less than an hour before, as he wallowed in thigh-deep sugary snow, Watson made the painful decision to turn back just 650 vertical feet from the summit. This was his second attempt to ski the mountain. Last summer a month of stormy weather prevented him from getting anywhere near the summit. This year the weather was stellar but crowds on the preferred Cesen Route on the south-southeast spur had forced him onto the more technical Abruzzi Spur. In the end, deep snow and a lack of time forced him to abort.

Watson joins an elite cadre of ski mountaineers that in recent years has turned its attention to 28,251-foot K2, the second-highest peak in the world, considered by many to be the most dangerous of the 14 peaks over 8,000 meters tall. It’s never been skied continuously from its summit. Since the 1930s, 78 climbers have died on its precipitous slopes, almost one death for every three who have summited. It is, in the words of renowned Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner, “the mountain of mountains,” and it doesn’t exactly lend itself to skiing. There is no straightforward ascent or descent. Unavoidable seracs and icefalls threaten to avalanche down on climbers. The weather is often atrocious. Continuous sections of 50-degree terrain broken by cliff bands, where a fall would be catastrophic, challenge the skills of even the most composed steep-skiing specialist. Throw extremely high altitudes into the mix, and you have a Pandora’s box of deadly situations.

K2’s lethal reputation was reinforced in June. Just more than a month before Watson’s attempt, Italian Michele Fait, hoping to bag the first ski descent of K2 with his Swedish partner Fredrik Ericsson, was descending from Camp 2 while on an acclimatizing climb and ski. After negotiating a steep and rocky section near 20,000 feet, Fait lost his balance skiing relatively benign terrain. He fell backward and tumbled hundreds of meters to his death while a helpless Ericsson looked on.
The quest to ski the entire mountain continues. Legendary Slovenian mountaineer and skier Davo Karnicar has been eyeing K2 ever since 2006, when he became the first human to ski from the highest summit on each of the seven continents—Everest, Denali, Aconcagua, Vinson Massif, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, and Australia’s Kosciusko (substituted for Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid). He’s no stranger to tragedy on K2; in 1993, as a member of an all-Slovenian expedition, he was weathered off the mountain at 25,600 feet by a storm that eventually claimed the life of teammate Bostjan Kekec. For Karnicar, a return to K2 in the summer of 2010 would be both homage to his late climbing partner and also a personal mission for the restless 47-year-old alpinist. “K2 is something special for me. I want to ski the entire mountain without any rappels or downclimbing,” Karnicar says. “That to me is a pure ski descent.”

As for Watson, he says his descent wasn’t about being the first, although that would have been nice. He achieved what he aimed to do: ski the infamous bottleneck and as much of the Abruzzi Spur as he believes is reasonably possible. He says a third attempt for the summit might be pushing his luck, so he’s not planning one. “The whole way up, other climbers were literally begging me not to ski it,” Watson says. “That’s the kind of mountain K2 is.” However, he has studied route photos and scoped the mountain thoroughly enough to know that skiing it from summit to base camp is possible, especially by the Cesen Route. Perhaps next summer Karnicar will be the one to do it.
—Andrew Findlay

And You Thought You Were Tough
Meet the three guys who’ve set their sights on skiing Pakistan’s K2. —Jake Davis

Dave Watson
Watson began skiing at age nine and climbing at 19. A two-time Everest summiter, he has skied Everest’s North Ridge from 23,622 feet, Broad Peak (near K2) from 24,934 feet, and K2 from 27,395 feet. Next up, the Minneapolis local plans to focus on new ski descents in the Himalaya. Watson’s secret tip: The powder skiing in Gulmarg, India, is so good it could spoil you for all subsequent ski experiences.

Fredrik Ericsson
Originally from Umeå, Sweden, Ericsson now calls Chamonix, France, home. He has made ski descents of China’s 26,289-foot Shishapangma and Pakistan’s 26,361-foot Gasherbrum II, and a partial descent of Nepal’s Dhaulagiri. His project for 2010 is skiing all three of the world’s highest mountains—Everest, K2, and India’s Kanchenjunga—without supplemental oxygen.

Davo Karnicar
A former member of the Slovenian alpine ski team, Karnicar has been an avid climber since 1980. In 2000, he became the first person to ski from Everest’s summit. In 2006, he completed ski descents of all seven continents’ highest peaks. He’s also skied off the top of the Eiger, the Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc. All that, and in 2001, he opened a school for Nepalese children on the Khumbu Glacier.