31.08.2021

Skiing down Gasherbrum II

After two beautiful first ski descents of the Garmush Zom (6244 m) and the Garmush Zom 2 (6185 m) in Pakistan in July 2021, aspirant mountain guide Aurélia Lanoe and her teammates Guillaume Pierrel, Boris Langenstein and Tiphaine Duperier tackled the main objective of their expedition: ski down Gasherbrum II (8035 m), the thirteenth highest summit on Earth.

Text: Aurélia Lanoe
Pictures: Aurélia Lanoe, Guillaume Pierrel and Boris Langenstein

Boris and Tiphaine in Ice Fall
©Aurélia

CAMP 4, 7300 METRES

The tent rattles from the howling wind as snow filters through the ventilation in little sizzling clouds which settle on my sleeping bag. Everything is covered in frost. My eyes open in the darkness, I slowly wake up, realising the situation: there is a hell of a lot of wind, which wasn’t part of our plan. The night is clear, but the wind has formed a snowdrift in front of the tent, meaning the stove which was waiting to be lit at the entrance is now under 50 cm of compact snow.

We leave, our bags much lighter than the day before as our bivouac stays put. 15 min later, Guillaume stops because he cannot manage to warm his feet. He had grade 2 frostbite on his toes last winter and made a promise to himself to come back with them all intact! I stop, he is mad at himself but takes a wise decision and goes back to the tent to warm his feet on the stove before starting again. Tiphaine and Boris are quite a way in front of us, opening the trail. I try to find a regular rhythm but progress is not easy, sometimes on the rocks, sometimes in deep snow. I alternate between moments during which I find it ‘easy’ and others when I feel I will never manage. I can see Guillaume back on the trail, signalling everything is OK! He catches me up 2 hours later and we progress together until we reach a huge, distinctive block signalling the end of the mountain crest. Here, we have a break. Guillaume is now feeling more enthusiastic and confident about time. The sun is finally shining, the wind has stopped blowing and that’s a good thing since my feet were freezing. It has turned out to be a perfect day, but the going is so slow, and the summit seems so far!

Guillaume between C3 and C4
©Boris

« I alternate between
moments during which
I find it “easy”
and others when I feel
I will never manage. »

Aurelia at nap time
©Guillaume

We reach the 7700 m pass, which indicates the last stage of our climb. We are now at the foot of the pyramidal summit, the last slope to climb. I can see Boris and Tiphaine on the last part and I begin to climb. The trail is good and I am grateful to our two teammates for preparing it nearly all the way! I stop to take a breath and admire the panorama. It is absolutely breathtaking! The light is unique, while the lack of oxygen induces confusing feelings. Soon, Boris and Typhaine, after crossing the summit crest on the left, disappear over the other side. Guillaume quickly follows them and I find myself alone, slowly realising that the others must be at the summit and I will soon be there too. The crossing is challenging and I have to focus on every single step I take. Guillaume suddenly stands out on the crest and throws me a rope to which I hook myself onto.

« This is the summit Auré! Come on, you’re nearly there! »

SOMMET, 8035 METRES

I step onto and over the other side of the summit and finally see them. My emotions get the better of me and that tell-tale lump in my throat makes it hard to swallow as tears burn my eyes when my friends start to shout and wave at me. This moment seems endless: I move towards them, like a slow cosmonaut, each step taking me closer to the goal. When reaching them, we hug each other and I can’t control my emotions any longer. I start sobbing and laughing at the same time. I have never had this happen to me before. When looking around me, nothing catches the eye since we are high above everything. Only K2 and Broad Peak stand out thanks to their distinctive shapes. At the bottom of my vision, huge glacier tongues flow towards secret valleys. Behind me, China and its closely guarded virgin mountains. We made it!

« We have just climbed
the Gasherbrum II
using the hard “Voie des Français”,
opened in 1976 by Marc Batard,
Yannick Seigneur and their team,
and seldom repeated ever since.
And for Guillaume, Tiphaine and I,
this is our first 8000 metre summit! »

Tiphaine under the GII summit
©Aurélia

Aurélia in the GII climb- ©Guillaume
C4 7300m - ©Aurélia

SKIING DOWN THE GASHERBRUM II

We start to prepare ourselves for the descent: removing our neoprene over shoes, spikes, tightening our shoes, switching on the GoPro… All these acts at a lower altitude are simple tasks but now take on a magnitude that requires such concentration as well as becoming greatly time-consuming.

Guillaume goes first since he wants to get ahead and take footage with the drone. Then Tiphaine goes and I follow her to record with the GoPro. I am behind her on the crest. This is incredible! Directly below our eyes, thousands of metres down, huge glaciers and mountains stretch on endlessly.

This first part is quite pleasant to ski, accepting the fact that we need to stop each 4 turns to take a breather as well as to let the intense burning in our thighs die down. Tiphaine doesn’t feel great: as when climbing Nanga Parbat in 2019, she has balance problems and all the sounds feel louder and resonate in her head. She finally gets in line with Guillaume’s track as we join him and we carefully get back to our camp.
We dismantle the camp and as we leave, we feel the heavy load of the bags again. We ski towards the end of the promontory, rappel down a 30-metre cliff composed of rough rock and reach or 3rd camp, 6900 metres high. We are now tired, and seeing the difficulties of the rest of the way down, we choose to stay here for the night. Therefore, we have to build the camp and melt snow to make water before sprawling into our sleeping bags. Tiphaine feels better and we are all in good spirits! I share my last dried meal with Guillaume, realising we only have a few cereal bars left for the next day. Despite being extremely tired, I can barely sleep this night.
At sunrise, clouds are starting to pile high in the sky, and have us making haste: we definitely have to reach Camp 1 before the storm!

Tiphaine, Boris and Aurélia on the "éperon des Français" between C1 and C2
©Guillaume

When I load my huge bag on my shoulders, I realise how exhausted I am. I try to follow my three teammates, but it is now beginning to get really hard. The snow is crusted, sometimes icy, and we have to weave through the cracks. Finally, we reach the end of the promontory to tip into the last part towards Camp 1. A 600-meter slope which starts at 55° to end up at 45°, with parts of ice under snow with a pretty good grip. I get tense: last week, during acclimatisation, I got caught in a little avalanche on that same slope and thank God the accident was a near-miss. Remembering this, I am now petrified thinking I have to get down that slope again. Boris and Guillaume both help me get down with a rope, and I somehow slide, slip and skid down the last half, with shaking legs and very nearly out of breath, crying with exhaustion and fear. I have seldom been under such stress! I draw upon my last remaining resources, pushing me to the limits.

GII summit
©Guillaume

Finally, we reach the glacier, and then Camp 1, this marks the end of our epic adventure!