Interview: Andrzej Bargiel On His ‘Impossible Descent’ of K2

photos :: Red Bull

Of all the climbable 8,000-metre peaks, K2 is often referred to as the most dangerous, and for good reason—it’s estimated that 1 in 4 climbers never make it off the mountain. So, when Andrzej Bargiel announced he wanted to ski a continuous descent from the summit, many deemed it impossible.

Spoiler alert: Bargiel completed the feat, and shook the ski mountaineering world to its very foundation.

We sat down with the dynamic athlete to hear about the challenges and what he learned as he skied down the world’s most dangerous mountain.

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Were there specific high exposure lines that you skied before the trip as training for the K2 descent?

The thing I needed to work on the most before skiing the line was the descent. I did that in the Tatra mountains & the  Alps.

The crown jewel of ski mountaineering—for now.

Chamonix was also a great place to practice because you need to get calmer, you need to get the skills, the competencies, and the experience to make you feel good on lower mountains, and then translate all these experiences and skills into such a challenge as K2. So, basically working on experience and skills was most important—but there were no specific lines that I trained on.

What was your essential gear on the ascent, and what skis did you choose for the descent? Were they specifically modified?

The equipment I chose was is definitely very specific. We have to remember— I have to climb there with my skis, and make it back down on the skis. So, the ski is definitely shorter than the preferred equipment I would usually take, because we need to always strike a balance between what is necessary and the weight that I can carry it up.

It took me years to gather proper equipment and lots of experience. We created a special ski suit for the expedition, for every type of condition that I’m going to face there because there’s no gear out there that I could take.

Bargiel’s custom made suit for his first ascent—one of the many pieces of gear tailor-made for the expedition.

On top of that, the bindings on the skis had to be adjusted so there was no chance of me losing the ski.

When it comes to the shoes, I collaborated with a close friend who had a pair of boots custom made. Of course, they’re very light and made out of composite. However, it’s not very protective when it comes to temperature. So, I had special Neoprene socks to protect me from frosting. And I had to take up all the necessary climbing equipment. So crampons, ropes, harness—everything you would need for a climbing expedition. Also, don’t forget the helmet and glasses. Glasses are very important because the sand there is very dangerous and can actually blind you.

High camp on K2 while Bargiel acclimates for his final summit push and descent.

I also take equipment for sleeping up there. So, a proper sleeping bag, everything you might think of.

While it is a lot of equipment, we have to remember, that the equipment is much more friendly than in the past. Because of the evolution of technology, it is so much easier than during the first expeditions.

Since drones played such a big part in filming and safety on this, do you think that drones are now an essential part of high altitude mountaineering?

The drones really played a big role. And I think in film industry, they have great future and great potential, but also in these types of expeditions. One big hurdle with it was that we didn’t have much tech support. We did it learning step by step.

But with the involvement of specific institutes or a tech company, the potential is limitless. So, a lot to be discovered. The thing that really differentiated our expedition was that we really got high, high in altitude. Maybe in the future, others might follow.

But another important usage of the drones could be in the rescue and medevac. Because if some people are lost, they are short on food, short on ropes, we can find a better path for them to even descent on their own. You don’t have to involve people. You can then mitigate human exposure. And I, myself, I work in mountain service. So, I know that really involvement of this type of technology could be very useful.

For those who haven’t experienced the death zone, how would you describe the sensation of being 8,000 meters?

I don’t even like this wording, “death zone”, because I don’t think that it really refers to anything. But the truth is, I tried to spend as little time as possible because it feels uncomfortable and it’s not something that anyone would enjoy. So, I would rather spend as little time as possible and just concentrate on the ascent.

 Was there a specific crux of the line that you felt home free after skiing?

I would say that the Messner Traverse was this point because there were high risks of avalanches and not only risk, but they were present. So, when I passed it, I really felt relief and really reassured that this would go well. But of course, I had to keep focused, but it went really well.

Sounds like an insane experience overall, and we really enjoyed the movie, Andrzej. Now go have a beer, you deserve it.

To watch the full movie, head over to Red Bull.