A mountaineer’s guide on how to prepare for the world’s most dangerous peak

January 24, 2023

When you trained and prepared perfectly, but everything around you crumbles.

In the spring of 2022, seasoned high-altitude climber and mountaineer Michael Pfeiffer traveled to Pakistan for the most challenging climb of his life, trying to conquer the monster of all mountains, K2. Despite all his meticulous preparations involving high-altitude camp and extensive respiratory muscle training, he immediately knew it would not be the adventure he expected. The climb became a logistic and mental nightmare involving unnecessary danger and the death of a fellow climber on routes overrun with inexperienced climber “tourists.”

“The worst feeling when climbing a mountain is that of finding yourself in a critical situation  and not being able to do anything about it.”

High-altitude climber Michael Pfeiffer on the commercialized chaos on K2 

The world’s second-highest mountain needs little introduction. Part of the Karakoram Range high altitude climbers have named it King of Mountains or The Wild Mountain and say it is the most feared mountain climb. Only the toughest, most experienced,  and fittest mountaineers dare to push for the summit, as it is impossible to “walk” to the top because of the general steepness. The name K2 derives from the first survey of Karakoram. Back then, surveyors gave each mountain a simple designation with “K,” followed by a number. It has the second-highest mortality rate among the eight thousand-foot mountains. One person dies for every four who reach the top. 

The Italian conquerors 

The first to reach the summit of K2 were two wiry and sunburned Italians on July 31st, 1954. Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. Together with their expedition, they had spent months of rigorous tests with the Italian military before the climb. Finally, in July, a proud Italian nation could send its bold heroes to the Himalayas. Everyone was eager to conquer Savage Mountain and win the race to the sky, which would spur great acclaim and worldwide attention for the climbers and Italy.t, Compagnoni got altitude sickness on the ascent, and edema started affecting his mental state. After finally reaching the summit, they admired the view together before Lacedelli decided it was time to go down. This was also a test to be reckoned with in the 1950s without any known routes or prior mapping to lean on. But Compagnoni didn’t feel like coming and told the desperate Lacedelli that he would stay for a while but certainly would catch up later. He should just go ahead. Lacedelli, promptly realizing the situation, told his friend that he would “chop him up with his icepick if he didn’t get a move on.” Compagnoni later claimed that at this moment, the clear-headed Lacedelli saved his life.

Compagnoni (left) and Lacedelli at base camp, tired and worn after their descent from the summit on the 1954 Italian K2 expedition.

Climbing in the Karakoram for the 6th time

As a seasoned mountaineer and explorer, Michael Pfeiffer knew that K2 whispers tales of life and death to its guests more than any other mountain. Before trying to ascend K2 in the spring of 2022, Michael had faced the challenges of high-altitude climbing for decades and had many  6000-meter summits under his belt. He had already climbed mountains in Argentina, Bolivia, and the Alps, and his successes included ascending two mountains never climbed in the Karakoram. Both of these mountains were +6000 meters, and while he climbed the first with fellow climbers, the second was a solo climb. He successfully summitted, thankfully, but looking back at that decision, this is something he would never do today. Throughout the years, Michael kept away from the famous and more crowded mountains like K2, climbing less-known mountains. 

michael pfeiffer
A worn mountaineer inside the yellow belly of his tent
Michael Pfeiffer resting on his way up K2 in the summer of 2022

This, his sixth time in the Karakoram, was supposed to be yet another big scalp in his high-altitude climber career. Unfortunately, it didn’t go to plan, and the climb became a blueprint example of how not to climb a fierce mountain. Below you’ll find Michael’s story, including preparation for the danger-packed journey up the K2 – the first 8000’er he ever attempted.

The first meeting with chaos

Michael: “We arrived at base camp on 22nd June, and shortly after, our team fixed ropes to camps 1 & 2. After the rope fixing, the custom these days, none of the other expeditions offered to contribute to the costs of 2000m rope, and no one mentioned fixing camp 3. During the whole time at base camp, I only heard of one organized expedition leader’s meeting. Apart from this, there were rumors of “secret” meetings where two-three expeditions planned route fixing. This was so they could get a competitive edge.

Competition amongst individual climbers is something I struggle with. At the time of our ascent, a Norwegian tried to beat “Nims” Purja’s record. Plenty of climbers also competed to be the first from their country to summit. It goes on and on. Competition and prestige between expeditions are very obvious, such as who can maintain a 100% summit record and have most clients summiting. Nims even arrived by helicopter with a princess of Qatar. To her credit, she is a strong climber. One of the  expeditions even roped off their base camp area and put up a sign saying, ‘No entry!’ This was quickly removed by the Pakistani HAPs (high-altitude porters.)”

base camp
Michael Pfeiffer tent view at base camp before starting his nightmare trip up K2

Buying your way to the top of K2

Michael: “Many well-known leading expedition operators were present, offering all-inclusive deals for up to $100.000. Apart from high-class base camp services, their clients get 3-4 Nepalese HAPs each to assist them to the summit. They get supplementary oxygen from Camp 2, a few even from camp 1. And they carry very little. The climbers on our expedition carried their own gear, 15+ kg, and most used oxygen only from camp 4.

Pakistan has its own “Sherpas,” especially from the remote village of Shimshal, which is hidden away at 3200m in the Karakoram. These are hardy and excellent climbers but less known than the famed Sherpas. Our expedition, and previous expeditions I’ve co-organized, only have Pakistani HAPs and porters, thus supporting the local communities.

During the acclimatization rotations, I passed many of these clients and was astounded to hear their Sherpas saying, “let me do it for you,” and then fixing the safety and jummar for them. The jummar is a safety device used to haul yourself up steeper sections, but for those mentioned above, it seems most used the jummar to haul themselves most of the time. This caused a lot of unnecessary stress and movement on the rope. At camp 2, I even overheard a “climber” telling off her Sherpa because she’d run out of special personal snacks. The poor guy did his best, offering her dried fruit and different chocolates to her yelling response, “I don’t eat that shit!”. She really needed a slap. It was obvious many of these clients were not very experienced and therefore needed help all the time.”

“At camp 2, I even overheard a “climber” telling off her sherpa because she’d run out of special personal snacks.” 

High-altitude climber Michael Pfeiffer about climbing K2
camp 2
Tents lined up at camp 2, where needy amateurs rested with the sherpas and seasoned amateurs.

The biology of the perfect high-altitude climbers

Sherpas are an ethnic group of Tibetan descent living in the Khumbu region of Nepal, where they spend most of their lives at about 4,000 meters above sea level. Many work in the mountaineering field as climbers or guides, as their genes have genetically adapted to high-altitude environments. Studies have shown that this gives Sherpas unique physiological and psychological advantages when working at high altitudes compared to lowlanders. 

Heavily packed Sherpas on the trail nearing Lobuche in Nepal

Living Sherpa legends of high-altitude climbing that have helped inspire the high-altitude climbing boom are the likes of Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who climbed the world’s 14 highest peaks with an altitude greater than 8,000 meters in 7 months and 6 days between April 2019 to October 2019 in his “Project Possible.” He was the first person to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks without using supplementary oxygen. Between the 7th and 16th of May in 2022, set new records by summiting three +8,000m peaks – Everest, Lhotse, and Kanchenjunga – in 8 days, 23 hours, and 10 minutes without oxygen. A former Gurkha in the British Army special forces for over a decade, he gained valuable experience in high-altitude mountaineering and survival skills. Nims’ military education, small frame size, strong mindset, and genes make him the closest you’ll ever get to the ultimate mountaineer explorer.

Pre-acclimatizing in high altitude and breath training with RMT

Michael: “I had COVID 3 months before the trip and laid in bed for a week straight. So my preparation after this was very important and also very intense. I was still coughing from the infection when I started preparing for the climb, and breath training was a good way to ease me back into training while I was still recovering. 

I started training twice daily in late March of 2022. Despite starting at the beginner level, I quickly progressed to the advanced level of the exercises in the live training programs. When I started out, my vital lung capacity (VLC) was around 5 liters. But during the intense period of roughly two months of training, my VLC could hold as much as up to 6.7 liters. Quite an improvement, that for sure is a benefit for high altitude mountaineering, and I especially felt the triangular breathing exercises, the anaerobic regimens, and the breath-hold exercises made a difference.”

How 2.5 months of respiratory muscle training gave Michael an extra 1 liter of air to Michaels VLC.

“Later, during my most intensive training for the K2 climb, I did 6 weeks of hypoxia training at home. This included sleeping in a pressurized tent over my bed which simulated 4000 meters. I was also on my exercise bike, wearing an oxygen mask system, again simulating the oxygen level at 4000 meters altitude with short bursts of up to 6000 meters.”

Michael with his Airofit PRO on K2 at basecamp, 5000m.
Michael with his Airofit PRO on K2 at basecamp, 5000m.

Respiratory muscle training and hypoxia camp paying off

Michael: “The trek to K2 base camp is 90 km, and I was feeling great and keeping pace with the local Sherpas without problems. I have always been pretty good at acclimatizing. But this time, my acclimatization was brilliant, with no headache or dizziness. But still, it was a tough process. At 5000 meters, you only get 50% oxygen compared to sea level. At 7000 meters, you are filling your lungs with as much air as possible, and still, you can literally feel like you are suffocating. The feeling is a very intense and claustrophobic one, that can’t be explained if you haven’t tried it. It can be life-threatening if it causes panic, as it only worsens everything up there. Here the psychological aspect comes into play. With more knowledge of how your body and mind react to simulated hypoxia at sea level, you can somewhat simulate this, making it easier to cope at high altitudes. I am in no doubt that Airofit was a significant help to my acclimatization.” 

Well-earned rest at camp 3 at an altitude of 7,200 meters (23,600 feet), where the oxygen level is about one-third of what it is at sea level.

The easiest route through the mayhem 

For mortals like Michael who don’t have Sherpa genes but still dare to push for the K2 summit, prior training and route strategy are even more essential. If you get stuck or move too slowly, you will  pretty soon be forced to turn around. The southeastern Abruzzi Spur has become the go-to route on K2, with about 75% of all climbers tackling this route on the Pakistan side of the mountain. This route is faster but takes climbers through some of the mountain’s most technical segments and climbs. On average, the steepness is 60%. When you finally reach Camp II at 6700 meters, you still have the worst before you as the route only becomes more technical and dangerous. Between camps 2 and 3 lies The Black Pyramid, the most technical and challenging part, which is about 300m and very steep. The climax on the Abruzzi Spur route is the infamous Bottleneck, located 400 meters from the summit. The Bottleneck is a narrow channel dominated by seracs from the ice field east of the summit. For around 100 meters, climbers are exposed to the potential of falling blocks or columns of ice from the seracs. These blocks are formed to the size of big stones, houses, or even larger. 

Due to the altitude of around 8200 meters and the inclination of the slope of 50°- 60°, this section is the most dangerous of the route. 13 of the last 14 deaths on K2 have occurred in the Bottleneck or near it. Despite all the dangers, the Bottleneck is still technically the easiest and fastest route to the summit. So most climbers take it to minimize the time required to ascend above 8,000m, called the “death zone.” It is actually possible to avoid the danger of the Bottleneck by climbing the rock cliffs that ascend to the left of it. However, due to the technical difficulty of this approach, it was only done once by Fritz Wiessner and Pasang Dawa Lama Sherpa in 1939. They stayed only 700 meters from the summit without being able to reach it.  Put in perspective, man visited the moon almost 70 years ago, but mountaineers have yet to conquer K2 in wintertime. 

Queuing to push for the summit of K2

Michael: “Rockfall, especially on the way from ABC up to camps 1 & 2, was a constant hazard on our trip, and sadly several climbers were killed during our ascent. The steepness of K2 means frequent rockfall is a hazard we had to navigate through, but rockfall due to clumsy climbers above should not be an issue. On too many occasions, rocks came cascading down from groups of climbers above. I usually get increasingly motivated while attempting a mountain. Still, the longer I spent on K2 surrounded by the crowds, witnessing the ridiculous competition, and seeing camps littered with rubbish, the more it affected my motivation to climb. These distractions have no place on a rugged mountain.”

crowds lining up for the summit
Crowds are queuing while lining up for the summit push on K2.

“During the summit push, all camps were very crowded, and while ascending, there was a frequent buzz from drones filming from above, which I really could have done without. Places like the lower and upper chimneys and the Black Pyramid had lengthy queues, and the ropes were a complete mess and not to rely on.

Another team member and I reached Camp 3 (7350m) late in the afternoon. For the last 2 hours, we battled a blizzard, were damn tired, and I had a nasty cough. Oxygen cylinders were piled up all over the camp, and everyone was due to push for camp 4 the next day. The Bottleneck had yet to be secured from camp 3 to camp 4, and the crowd followed in the heels of the rope fixers. The thought of joining, clinging to a single rope together with hundred-plus climbers while feeling pretty crap, was not an option, the situation was madness and not my idea of mountaineering at all I made the easy decision to descend. “

camp 3b view
The amazing view from camp 3 on K2 

Deaths on the mountain  

Michael: “One of our climbers, who’d been advised several times to return to camp 2 because he was so slow, never reached camp 3 after us, and the blizzard during the night prohibited a proper search. In the morning, I found him huddled in the snow, maybe 200m below camp 3, still alive despite being out all night. We gave him oxygen, which helped him, and he assured me he could make it through the Black Pyramid, but I was skeptical. After a short while, sadly, he collapsed and died of heart failure. We could do nothing to save him.

Descending through the camps, where there were a lot fewer climbers by now, and seeing the amount of trash piled up was shocking.

After the first summiteers returned to base camp, several large expeditions celebrated with fireworks, all while other mountaineers descended. Sadly, some fatalities occurred during these fireworks celebrations.”

Rubbish and litter paving the way down the K2 

“As the interest to climb K2 has exploded, expedition leaders have unfortunately adapted their offerings with the so-called “all-inclusive” package to satisfy these demands. From a business perspective, I can understand why they have adapted to the demands, but as a passionate mountaineer, it hurts my heart to see this development. Too many leaders are riding the wave with their massive egos.

I will surely not return to K2 and any of the major 8000’ers as long as this madness continues. There are plenty of other mountains out there.”

/Michael Pfeiffer

*All pictures above are credited to Michale Pfeiffer unless otherwise stated.