Back from K2, one of the best high-altitude guides on the planet tells what it’s like to be responsible for climbers on one of the deadliest mountains in the world.
Though he has yet to summit K2, Fabrizio Zangrilli may be more intimate with the 8,611-meter peak than many who have stood on top. Zangrilli, 37, has attempted K2 four times—most recently this past summer when he guided the first commercial trip on the the world’s second-highest peak, which has killed more than a quarter of those who have tired to climb it. Zangrilli’s not as concerned with tagging summits as he is with the purity of the line and safety of his clients. His first time on K2, he was yards away from the summit when he decided instead to rescue a Balti porter who had been left to die by his clients (Zangrilli’s partner decided to summit instead of helping in the rescue). After his attempt with clients this summer, Zangrilli was enlisted to help rescue a Spanish climber stranded high on an unclimbed face on Latok II. He sat down with us at Tibet’s restaurant in Louisville and via cell phone while conducting climbing clinics in the Midwest to give us his take on K2, guiding and alpinism.
Were you pleased with the results of the first guided trip on K2 this past summer?
It went quite well. No climber summited K2 this past season, but two of my clients and I reached a high point of 8,300 meters. The snow was waist deep at that point so we knew no one would be able to summit. We turned around early in the a.m. and made it back down to base camp the same day. I had done a lot of work fixing rope so we got off clean and safe. There were no injuries. All the clients made camp 3 at 7,300 meters and the stronger clients made camp 4 at 8,000 meters. I think that’s pretty successful.
Did you notice anything different on K2 this season?
The numbers were way down. I think because of the economy. We shared the Cesen route with two friends of mine—the only people on it. There were only three teams on the Abruzzi Spur [the most popular route up, which the Cesen eventually joins], which is way down compared to normal. It was really nice to be alone on the route though there was significantly more work fixing rope and breaking trail.
K2 is often called the deadliest mountain. Do you think it deserves that reputation? What makes it different?
There are no easy days on K2. On a lot of other big mountains you get at least a few easy days on the standard routes. There’s lots of avalanche danger, lots of rockfall. The weather is worse than any other big mountain. It’s just continually hammered by winds. The climbing is, on average, more technical than on most of the other big mountains by the standard routes, too, so it makes for a consistently hard season. If you look at the past 10 years, there have been several with no summits—that’s not due to the strength of the climbers but due to environmental factors. Look, the mountain is very dangerous, but probably not as dangerous as the general public thinks.
So what did you do to ensure the safety of your clients?
The most obvious safety net is fixed rope—I fixed 12,000 feet of rope on our route. When the weather goes bad, they can get off quickly. Fixing rope is a skill I have learned over a lot of expeditions. It’s not something you just go and do the first time well. The other big thing is forecasting. I had three different forecasts constantly, so that I was able to gauge the best days on the mountain. That’s a big advent that’s happened in the last half decade. Also, the time I have put in on K2 helps me interpret those forecasts. Having been there so much, I know the anomalies. If I’m at 7,000 meters, I know what will happen if winds will be 50 kilometers per hour. I know how long it takes to get from camp to camp. I monitor how people are doing. If they go too slow, I know what spot is the best turn around. That makes a significant difference.
Do you get a chance to enjoy yourself at all on a trip like this?
No [laughs]. Not at all. Guiding is a funny thing. I never think of guiding as an enjoyable thing. I’m there to do a job. That job is three months of worrying about people and making sure they get from point A to B and back without injury and to try to make it as fun as possible for them. There’s just no down time whatsoever. I’m constantly coordinating with other teams about forecasts, what type of rope is best in what place on the mountain. I’m having individual meetings with clients. And at the end of the K2 trip I had to hop immediately on the Latok rescue.
What happened with the rescue effort on Latok II?
The night I got to Scardu straight from the K2 summit attempt, I was asked to help in the rescue. I immediately said yes. I went straight to Latok basecamp. I was told at that point that I was going to be the only climber involved at that point for two days. I was to lead and coordinate all the efforts. I honestly thought we had a chance if everything would go our way. Latok is one of the hardest mountains in the world. It’s so steep and these guys had made first ascent of the northwest ridge. I was going to have to make the second with a group of phenomenal Spanish alpinists who just had not yet had the time to acclimatize and a team of untrained high-altitude Pakistani porters. The helis didn’t have enough rescue training. We tried for five days and on the sixth day it started to snow, a meter in two days. By day 10, it just seemed illogical.
What’s the most important quality for an 8,000-meter climber to have to succeed?
Tenacity. These trips are long. So many times things won’t go your way—you are going to have some stomach illness, tents will be blown off the mountain. You just need to go to the mountain with the right motivation because everything is going to go against you. The odds of climbing an 8,000-meter peak are so slim. There are a million reasons to turn around and only one to keep going.
And what motivates you to do what you do?
Guiding at high altitude is a really unique situation. It’s not about the climbing in any way. I do enough personal trips to get my climbing kick. The guiding thing is puzzle solving really, taking a group that has different strengths and weakness and trying to find a way to make them work as one team. I like the strategy. That’s what keeps me going.
I’m booking clients for Makalu for the spring. It’s rarely guided, easier than K2, but still quite a challenge. My next big personal trip will be a return to the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat—the biggest wall in the world—to finish a new route alpine style. The trip will be about commitment. It’s the kind of wall that requires 100-percent commitment. But being on the biggest wall in the world is pretty spectacular. These are the moments you train for, the moments you pray for.
Fabrizio Zangrilli will be training to climb the Rupal Face and updating his blog three times per week with training updates so that readers can follow his training regimen, even if they won’t be climbing Nanga Parbat any time soon. Go to: fabriziozangrilli.blogspot.com.