It can be the beauty of the mountain or its difficulty that challenges you. Usually one of those characteristics ignites a spark in me that eventually transforms into an idea. Beauty and difficulty sometimes meet in a shape of an incredible mountain like Gasherbrum IV. The spark and the idea happened already a while ago, but it wasn’t until this year that this was actually our project.
From playing with the idea in my mind, I quickly switched to working hard on strengthening the weaknesses I became aware of on an expedition to Makalu in 2011, where we failed to reach the summit. We were three guys working on a project, however only Aleš Česen and I eventually went to Pakistan. Michi Wohlleben unfortunately canceled the trip due to health problems. We knew what we wanted, so this didn’t affect us too much. “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal” are words of Henry Ford that Marko Prezelj passed to me. It became my motto.
Walking up Baltoro glacier for the first time, most of the people are staring at Gasherbrum IV. I won´t describe how we did the very same thing. Once in the base camp we set, up away from crowds of normal routes to K2 and Broad peak, we quickly started our acclimatization. After exploring below G4 up to 5800m and reaching camp 3 on Broad Peak we felt ready to try to go all the way to the summit of Broad Peak as our final acclimatization for G4. I really like a kind of acclimatization that is a small goal itself. Like this, it is easier to stay motivated during the whole expedition. It turned out that we were the only people summitting Broad Peak this season. It was definitely hard work to break trail especially from camp 3 to the col between middle and main summit. I was happy for all the hard work I did during last year as trail braking was mostly my work because Aleš didn’t feel good. Beside our abilities, it was for sure our simple approach of going relatively light and not losing time fixing ropes and camps that enabled us to use a short 2 day weather window to summit Broad Peak.
Back in base camp, we rested for a week in bad weather. Keith Richards autobiography was a good way to “move” myself out of a climbing bubble into a different world and not think too much of climbing. After all the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll it was time to pack for G4. Cook Mehdi and his assistant Alireza helped us to carry everything to the glacier below G4, where we set up an ABC (advanced base camp). While saying goodbye for a week or more we could feel their fear. I can imagine that standing below this giant steep mountain not being a climber, it must be difficult to believe that one can make it safely up and back down. Even as a skilled climber, it takes a fair amount of self-trust to believe in it. Just before leaving the base camp, I came cross a very appropriate saying on a tea bag which reminded me that: “Nothing is more precious than self-trust”. It could not have come in a better moment. The same day we reached ABC it started snowing in the evening. The weather remained bad for the whole next day. We were sure under pressure of trying a new route on the right side of the mountain and 20cm of fresh snow did not help us to relax either. We were sitting all miserable in a small tent and listened to the sound of falling snow on a tent fabric. “Fuck this!” I said to myself after sitting like that for way too long. “I was in a place I dreamed to be for a very long time. I will enjoy my time here.” I went out of the tent and made a snow man. I have not made one for years. With numb hands I made some photos of our new friend and went exploring the glacier around us. I found a surreal tunnel with glacier river and called Aleš to join me. We finally relaxed.
Next day the reality of inappropriate conditions and weather to try the new route didn’t bother us anymore. We decided to get the most out of the situation. North-west ridge of the mountain became our goal. First day we moved only for a few hours to the plato on 5500m. It was way too dangerous to continue. The warm sun triggered numerous avalanches, but this was also what we needed to “have” mountain reasonably safely climbable again. Next day we started with the first light up the long ramp system to the col where the ridge itself starts. The conditions in the lower part were perfect from all the avalanches the day before. The higher we were the more we were again into trail braking mode. There was no good place to have a rest on the whole 800 vertical meters of that ramp system so I just kept going already in quite deep snow it the last couple hundred meters. I saw Aleš far below. “Im not trying to fake it that I can´t follow. I really feel burned out.” were his first words when he reached me. It stayed like this for most of our climb but we managed to keep the moral high. One part that first day took so much out of us we already thought we will need to retreat. We needed 3h for 100 vertical meters to literally dig our way up steep and unstable snow.
On the better side of thin tent fabric on 6700m where we had our second bivy we managed to recover enough to continue the next day. We were happy to reach steeper more technical parts of the ridge. This were the only rests from exhausting trail breaking. We found some old fixed ropes and we pulled on them here and there or clipped in for protection. “Are we climbing in alpine style?!” hit my brain immediately when I first pulled on a piece of worn out rope hanging from something. Would there be a difference if I would “just” have it next to me for just in case? That day we pitched our tent in a crevasse at around 7500m. 3 hours and half later we finally had enough liquid for the night and next day. In the early morning we woke up to a familiar sound on the tent fabric. We decide to try our summit push despite bad weather arriving earlier than forecasted and hoped. We took only little food and drink and spare warm gloves in our packs. We knew we have very limited time if we want to make it back safely. At mid day we were only a couple of hundred meters higher in very poor visibility and quite heavy snowfall. The terrain below the north summit is steeper and it already started avalanching. We were very close to turn around. We had a feeling that we see the edge through the thick fog and made a decision to try a bit more and try to reach at least north summit if it doesn’t get “too dangerous”. In about two or three hours the clouds and fog cleared a bit as we climbed the final meters to the north summit.
It was one of the craziest experiences of my life to enjoy the sun on such a place after fighting really hard with snow, weather and own fears for a whole day. I don’t believe in any god, but moments like that makes you want believe there is something. It was immediately very clear we will not climb G4 on this expedition. We could see a higher main summit, but we decided we had pushed it far enough in unstable weather. Soon after starting the descent we were back in fog and snow. It wasn’t easy to navigate our way back even though we went up there only a few hours before. Already in the night we reached back our tent. We dug it out of snow and very tired fell in our sleeping bag. Next day we could feel the tiredness from the previous day. We would prefer to rest and rest, but we know we need to descent before there is to much new snow. We spent the rest of the day descending and we decided to continue through the night. We knew we might get stuck high on the mountain if we don’t keep going. This pushed us deep into our tiredness. Most of the time we tried to belay or rappel somehow even though the terrain wasn’t very steep all the time. This proved to be very smart. Being not so we would probably end in China with one of the many windslab avalanches we triggered. At five in the morning we were finally back at the plato at 5500m where we felt safe. For an hour or two we “died” before we slowly continued the descent. The same day we ate dinner in base camp.
On the long trek out following back the Baltoro glacier I thought about our failed attempt to climb G4. I definitely don’t want to die in the mountains. At the same time I feel the need to push myself many times. I believe that to find the right balance between these two things is the main goal of many alpinists that want to be old alpinists one day. I’m proud of how far we pushed it on this expedition and came back healthy with our skills and smart decisions. How ever I can’t deny that even not being totally recovered the “call” of the unclimbed line is still quite strong.