KARACHI: It’s almost two years since Andrzej Bargiel achi­eved the unprecedented.

Now, sitting in his living room, he peers out of the window and into the distance as he reminisces that feat.

It’s understandable. It’s probably what helps him set perspective. Probably helps him set the agenda for accomplishing things that no one has before.

Bargiel is the only man who has managed to ski from the summit of the iconic K2 to its base camp. A documentary on the 32-year-old Pole’s journey, ‘K2: The Impossible Descent’, is being released on Red Bull TV on Wednesday, the second anniversary of his momentous achievement.

“The idea to ski down the K2 came to me when I had a glimpse of it during the first successful ski descent of Broad Peak in 2015,” the ski mountaineer told Dawn in a Zoom interview arranged by Red Bull last week.

“I first attempted the ski descent on K2 in 2017 but had to abandon that [after high winds blew away his skis] before I managed to make it happen a year later.”

On July 22, 2018, at 7pm local time, having been all alone in the perils and the wilderness of K2 — the world’s second-highest peak which at 8,611 metres is just 200 metres shorter than the Everest — for more than 15 hours, Bargiel turned up at the base camp with a full recording of his descent.

Those 15 hours included a near eight-hour climb to the summit from Camp IV, without supplemental oxygen.

“Most fears, I’d left behind at home,” said Bargiel, when asked about how he felt when he went solo from Camp IV. “When you’re preparing for the expedition, that’s when you’re thinking about how things would go but when you’re there, fear is a distant feeling.”

K2 might be one of Pakistan’s most proud emblems but its popularity fades in comparison to the Everest. Fewer than 500 have stood at its summit. It’s much more dangerous and more technical than the Everest, getting it’s moniker of ‘Savage Mountain’ from American climber George Bell in 1953.

If scaling the K2 is so treacherous, imagine what making a ski descent would be like. It was considered impossible. To achieve that, Bargiel used cutting-edge drone technology to join four separate climbing routes to make a skiing path downhill, navigating through the perilous crevasses and ridges.

Bargiel was named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2019 and you’d be mistaken to think he’s done with Pakistan just yet despite skiing down its tallest peak.

“I want to climb and ski down the Laila Peak,” said Bargiel, “it’s very raw and very steep.”

The Laila Peak, standing at 6096 metres in the Hushe Valley, can be viewed on the trek back from K2 and has a distinctive spear-like shape. The Laila Peak, though, isn’t as celebrated as Pakistan’s second-highest mountain – the 8126-metre Nanga Parbat.

If K2 is the ‘Savage Mountain’, the Nanga Parbat is the ‘Killer Mountain’ with a death rate of around 22 per cent. “Nanga Parbat is a dangerous mountain,” said Bargiel. “Most climbers are afraid but that’s the same with K2. I haven’t considered Nanga Parbat as yet [to ski downhill] but things might change.”

Most things are at a standstill for Bargiel with the global Covid-19 pandemic meaning he can’t travel as freely as he would like. He wants to come to Pakistan again once the pandemic risk is over but he also wants things to change here.

“I have great memories of Pakistan [from my trips],” he said, “the people are so hospitable and so open-minded but Pakistan needs to work on unleashing the true potential of the natural resources it has.

“It can start with the education of local guides. Pakistan already has climbers who can move very quickly. There can also be work done on the infrastructure, most importantly on creating an organisation of professional rescuers to enhance safety.

“Right now it’s the Pakistani military which carries out the rescue operations and it not only adds to the cost but also detracts people. People want to do things and I know a lot of them who want to contribute towards that. I think it will happen in the future.”

Bargiel, however, thinks the Pakistan Army’s steps to initiate Heli-Ski, where skiers are flown to the top of the mountains through a helicopter, as something he would like to take part in as well.

“I don’t think it would be possible to do that on K2 or the Nanga Parbat or any of the other high-altitude mountains but it would be fascinating as helicopters allow us to take more equipment and I can probably do ten descents a day.”

The test of ultimate endurance and skill, though, will remain climbing the mountain and skiing downhill and according to Bargiel, what sets apart Pakistan’s mountains is their “raw and wild nature”.

While Bargiel is of the view that Pakistan should commercialise its adventure sports potential, he cautions against overexploiting it like Nepal has done with Everest.

Overcrowding at the top of the Everest, with numerous tours operating, has seen an increase in the number of deaths of climbers. There is also a problem of more litter.

“With greater number of mountaineers and tourists, there are problems with litter and security and I don’t recommend K2 to follow the path of Everest,” Bargiel said. “But you could start with professional tour companies who deliver safety.”

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2020

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