Final Climbing Dangers
The summit, 12 to 24 hours away depending on weather and physical condition, is roughly 2,100 vertical feet (650 meters) above Camp 4 perched on The Shoulder. Most climbers leave Camp 4 between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Now the prospective K2 climber faces his greatest and most dangerous alpine challenges. The climbing route up the Abruzzi Spur from here to the summit is fraught with perilous dangers that can kill him in an instant. These dangers include the extreme oxygen-depleted altitude, fickle and frigid weather including strong winds and bone-chilling temperatures, hard-packed snow and ice, and the danger of falling ice from a looming serac.
Next the K2 climber heads up steepening snow slopes to the infamous Bottleneck, a narrow 300-foot couloir of ice and snow as steep as 80 degrees at 26,900 feet (8,200 meters). Above overhangs the 300-foot-high (100 meter) ice cliffs of a hanging glacier clinging to the ridge just below the summit. The Bottleneck has been the scene of many tragic deaths, including several in 2008 when the serac broke loose, raining huge chunks of ice on climbers and sweeping away fixed ropes, marooning climbers above the couloir. Climb challenging and steep ice up The Bottleneck with your crampon front points to a tricky and delicate traverse left on steep 55-degree snow and ice below the serac. A thin fixed rope is often left on the traverse and in The Bottleneck to allow climbers to safely ascend this section and to quickly descend out of danger.
To the Summit
After the long ice traverse below the serac, the route ascends 300 feet up steep wind-packed snow to the final summit ridge. This ice-enameled helmet is not a place to linger. Several climbers, including the great British alpinist Alison Hargreaves and five companions in 1995, were swept off this snow helmet by gale-force winds to icy oblivion. Now all that remains is a sharp snowy ridge that climbs 75 feet to the airy 28,253-foot (8,612-meter) summit of K2-the second highest point on the earth's surface.
The Dangerous Descent
You've made it. Take a few photographs and smile for the camera on the summit but don't linger. Daylight is burning and there is lots of difficult, scary, and dangerous climbing to do between the summit and Camp 4. Many accidents occur on the descent. The most startling statistic is that one in every seven climbers who reaches K2's summit dies on the descent. If you don't use supplemental oxygen, it's one in five. Just remember-the summit is optional but returning to Base Camp safe and sound is mandatory.