Updated: Mar 25, 2019
Last week, I watched a movie called "Free Solo," the internationally acclaimed documentary that followed rock climbing legend Alex Honnold as he attempted to climb up Yosemite's El Capitan without using ropes, harnesses, or any other tools. The film explored both the intricate process someone like Honnold takes when trying to conquer something as extreme as free solo rock climbing, as well as take a look at the tragic past of this deadly sport.
To me, the film exists to show all of us that there are still people on this planet who are doing absolutely incredible things every day, no matter the attached risk. After watching, I wanted to find another story in the extreme sports world that received far less press and yet would inspire me the same that Honnold had. That led me to a YouTube video released by Red Bull.
The video in question showcases one of the coolest and most terrifying things I've ever seen on a computer monitor. It shows a man descending down one of the two places on planet Earth that genuinely freak me out, the summit of K2. But not only does this video show this man rushing down the second tallest mountain in the world, he's actually skiing down. Forget about your black diamonds or your double black diamonds, this feat has all but marked the final frontier of extreme downhill skiing and is something to behold.
Now why is that exactly? What is it about K2 that makes what Andrzej Bargiel did on July 22, 2018 so impressive? Well to understand that, let's take a closer look as to what makes K2 so infamous in the mountaineering community.
Standing at 28,251 feet (8,611 meters), K2 is the second tallest mountain on the planet and rests on the country line between Pakistan and China. The peak rests in the middle of the Karakoram Mountain Range which spreads across China, Pakistan, and India and is next to the more famous Himalayan Mountain Range which extends to the south and to the east.
Its inconspicuous sounding name came from British surveyor Thomas Montgomerie who gave the peak it's most famous title when he was said to have discovered it in 1856 while working for the Great Trigonometrical Survey of British India. The "K" stands for Karakoram and the two comes from the fact that it was the second mountain logged. The name stuck until the modern day because before Montgomerie came to the region, the mountain reportedly had no local designation. With that being said people from around the world have since made alternate titles for the mountain including Mt. Godwin-Austen, Chhogori, and Qogir Feng.
K2 was first conquered on July 31, 1954 by an Italian mountaineering team led by Ardito Desio. On that day, two climbers named Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli reached the summit, however they would later be embroiled in a major controversy after news came out that they supposedly left teammates Walter Bonatti and Amir Mehdi to die while making their final push to the summit. While every climber would survive that day and subsequently go home, this chapter only proved to be an eerie preamble as to what was going to happen in subsequent decades.
Since that summer day, scores of climbers coming from all corners of the globe have tried and failed to reach the summit. However, one thing that became clear rather quickly was that a massive percentage of people who attempted to summit would die. In fact from 1950 to 2012, 26.5 percent of those who made the pilgrimage would die while going up. To put that into perspective, only 3.9 percent died on Everest over the same time period.
These adventurers died from a myriad of different causes including falls, avalanches, complications due to altitude sickness, and getting caught in ravenous storms. For every four people who have reached the summit, one person had died either while heading up or making their way back down. According to The Explorer's Web, 10 percent of people who reach the top die on their descent. And much like its older brother over in Nepal, K2 has been known to have several bodies stuck on its highest ridges because other climbers find it next to impossible to move those who have perished off this most dangerous beast.
With that all being said, scores of the most hardened mountaineers take their pilgrimage to the roof of Pakistan ever single year. And with each subsequent season, the international climbing community understands the mountain more and more. To say it simply, these climbers are inching ever closer to taming this beast.
One such adventurer who wanted to join the small but growing fraternity of K2 summit reachers was a Polish skier and mountaineer named Andrzej Bargiel. However, there was something different about this individual because not only did Bargiel strive to reach the peak, he wanted to then ski back down starting at the very top, something that had never been successfully completed.
Bargiel started his historic attempt in late Spring 2018. The Pole was hoping to complete his goal not only for the personal pride associated with being the first to achieve this seemingly insane endeavor, but he also wanted to do it to celebrate Poland's 100th anniversary since they regained independence in 1918. The 30-year-old had already made a name for himself in the skiing world a few years earlier after he won the Snow Leopard Award for summiting, and then skiing, all five mountains in the former Soviet Union that stand at least 7000 meters tall. So if anyone had the ability to get this done, it was Bargiel.
After several weeks acclimating to the air high up on the mountain, he began his final push on July 19th, and finally reached the summit three days later. Over that three day span, Bargiel faced strong winds and lowering oxygen levels all the while not having a partner to provide potential backup. And to make matters even more difficult, Bargiel did all of this without using any supplemental oxygen. To put this into perspective, that would be like climbing a mountain while walking backwards or with a blindfold on. It's potentially possible, but it instantly puts you at a distinct disadvantage.
Andrzej finally reached the peak at around 11:30 in the morning on July 22nd after seven plus hours of arduous hiking and climbing on some of the most advanced track on the face of the planet. Right after making it to the top, he promptly put on his skies and started his long, and I mean long, trek back down to second base camp where the rest of his team was watching with bated breath. One person who was keeping his eye on him was his brother Bartek, who was maneuvering a drone that would help give us some of the most spellbinding video ever recorded.
Now Bargiel isn't the first man to attempt this feat. In all, four other crazy men have tried this in the past. And while Italian Hans Kammerlander and American Dave Watson both survived after skiing down but from lower starting altitudes, Italian Michele Fait and Swede Fredrik Ericsson both sadly died on their way down. You see, even in descent, the Savage Mountain still finds ways to take lives.
The Polish Dynamo finally made it safely back after more than seven hours going back down. On his ride, he carefully brushed past some of the deadliest ledges on the mountain and somehow kept his nerves in tact. He forced himself to wait around an hour at one of the higher camps after the clear weather he experienced all day transitioned into conditions deemed too dangerous. Luckily it wasn't snow or gusts of wind that peppered the peak, it was a mass of clouds that dramatically decreased visibility.
Luckily, Bargiel was able to weather past that bump in the road and reach Base Camp unharmed and in high spirits, even if at that point he was both physically and emotionally drained. He had done it, he had defeated the Savage Mountain. And subsequently, he etched his name in the history books as the first human being to ski down K2 from the very top.
For those of you who still believe that this is not possible or not real and need further evidence that humanity at its best is simply unbelievable, I've added the same video I watched earlier this week that caused my jaw to fall to the floor. Enjoy!
Hey, everyone. I hope you all enjoyed this story. Athletes like Andrzej Bargiel show us that there are still people out there who are daring enough to spit in the face of the impossible and inspire many around the globe. While I have no personal aspirations to try and replicate what Bargiel did last year, I will certainly attempt to relay more stories like this to all of you.
Bargiel would later be recognized as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2019 for his unbelievable achievement. At some point, I want to touch on some of the others on the list, however right now, I will share a link to the winners page on the Nat Geo website.
Over the next few weeks, I will also try to ramp up production on this blog and tell you more stories from all over the globe just at a quicker rate. All sports are fair game. If you have any ideas for future blog topics, let me know on our Facebook page. If I think it's interesting enough, I'll take a look.
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Photo Credits: Twitter.com