As Polish ski mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel, 30, stepped into his skis on the summit of 28,251-foot K2, he was alone except for the drone, operated by his brother Bartek down at base camp. He had arrived on the summit of the world’s second tallest mountain—and arguably the most deadly—without the use of supplemental oxygen. His skis, designed by a friend, included the initials of his parents, his three sisters, and his seven brothers. Meanwhile a stealth support team with radios and a telescope helped him navigate the weather, seracs, crevasses, avalanche risks, and snowfields on his historic descent. In six hours, Andrzej became the first person to ski from the summit to base camp of K2 on July 22, 2018.
The entire descent is captured by drone, bringing this singular achievement to the masses. “I was a little bit impatient while waiting for the drone to come back after a battery change, but at the same time I knew that it won’t happen again,” recalls Andrzej, who first attempted the feat a year ago, but had to abandon due to dangerous conditions.
“Skiing K2 is something which I’ve been long wondering who and when, not if,” says ski mountaineer Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski the tallest peaks on each continent. “With Andrzej’s oxygen-free ascent, as well as his attempt and retreat last year due to dangerous conditions, he accomplished his K2 ski descent in a style to be admired. The bar has been reset and that is always a good thing.”
“This ranks right up there in the greatest ski mountaineering descents ever done,” say Skiing Hall of Famer Chris Davenport.
Now back home in Poland, we caught up with Andrzej about some of the details around his incredible ski descent.
You were alone at the summit when you stepped into your skis on the summit of K2?
Andrzej Bargiel: Yes, I was there alone, as long as we don’t consider my brother’s drone as a company. 🙂
He flew with his drone to that altitude once I reached the summit, made impressive shots of me at the top of K2, and landed with the drone behind my back. Apart from that I was there alone. There were other climbers ascending that day but I left Camp 4 late enough to reach the summit once they were already proceeding with their descents.
What were you thinking in that moment? What did you see?
Andrzej Bargiel: I guess it was a little bit different than for most of other climbers. I wasn’t euphoric about being at the top of K2. Neither I felt fulfilled nor relieved. I knew I had to be fully concentrated as my real challenge was just about to begin. Standing there at the top of K2 was just an intermediate goal.
To be honest when I reached the summit, I just made a few photos and videos and started to prepare for the descent. Of course the views were breathtaking and I was looking around, but at the same time I had to be really concentrated on not losing my skis while stepping into them. Besides the weather forecast was not that optimistic for the rest of the day so I had to proceed with my descent almost right away.
What were some of the obstacles you encountered on the descent? Did you have any close calls?
Andrzej Bargiel: Well, first of all, in the upper parts on the Abruzzi route there were members of few commercial expeditions operating there, and I had to be really careful to not put them in danger, such as by triggering an avalanche. There was a big avalanche risk. I was planning the exact way of descent while I was climbing up but still had to be very careful about that.
Messner Traverse was also a very risky part. Last year, during the first K2 Ski Challenge expedition, we saw a massive avalanche caused by one of the seracs. I knew I would do my best to pass this area quickly as possible. But being there even for 30 seconds is putting a person in a terrible danger. Literally something can happen at any time.
In the lower part on Kukuczka-Piotrowski route, the snow was heavy and I had to trigger little avalanches to make this snowfall before I could descend safely in those parts.
Why didn’t you have a ski partner for the descent?
You had to be in perfect shape at the top. It’s extremely hard for most of the people to even reach the summit of this mountain. From my perspective, putting my feet at the top was just a halfway though. I needed to be strong and conscious enough to start the ski descent in extremely demanding conditions.
It’s hard to find someone who will be willing to go skiing with you on K2. I worked a lot and for a long time to be able to go there and to proceed with the K2 Ski Challenge safely. Besides I feel good and safe when I’m alone. When I‘m with somebody else, I feel worried about this person. It somehow takes away all the joy and kills my focus on the goal which is crucial in that particular moment.
— Andrzej Bargiel
Was it fun? Or how would you describe it?
Andrzej Bargiel: Definitely there was a huge satisfaction after the descent because it was a really demanding project. I was realizing a precisely set plan so it was different from spontaneous freeride. But it was definitely interesting. At some point I just had this feeling that I was controlling the situation. I skied toward the middle of the mountainside and moved away from all the climbers from other expeditions. It was fun to be able to do that and have your own descent route over there which is not the same as the ascending routes of the climbers.
How long did it take to ski from summit to base camp?
Andrzej Bargiel: It took me about six hours to get to the Base Camp. Due to low visibility I had to wait for over an hour at Camp IV for the weather to get clearer. I also stopped for a while at Camp 3 to check on Janusz’s condition. Generally I was waiting at some points for my brother, Bartek, to change the battery in his drone. Our goal was to record this descent as we plan to make a documentary movie covering last year’s and this year’s expeditions. I was a little bit impatient while waiting for the drone to come back, but at the same time I knew that it won’t happen again. That here we are, this is happening now and if we want to have documentation of it, I just have to wait at some points.
Why did you want to do this ski descent, which has been fatal for others?
Andrzej Bargiel: First of all, I’m a skier and my Hic Sunt Leones project is all about skiing down the highest peaks of the world. At the beginning I was focused on other 8,000-meter peaks. But then years ago while I was completing my Broad Peak Ski Challenge, I looked at K2 from the perspective of Broad Peak mountain, and it appeared to me that the ski descent from K2 is actually possible. So I started to think about it and decided to make attempt to do it. That attempt started last year, but that expedition wasn’t successful for me due to unpredictable weather and health problems of some of my team members.
In terms of fatality, lots of people die in other circumstances too, as doing sport activities is generally associated with risk. But I wasn’t thinking about it. I just knew that it’s possible. If you’re prepared well enough and the conditions are appropriate, then you can do it safely. I didn’t think that I will be putting my life at risk in order to do it. If something was doubtful and the conditions were uncertain, like during last year’s expedition, we just stopped the whole project.
Why did you choose to use no supplemental oxygen and no Sherpa/mountain worker support from Camp 3 to the summit?
Andrzej Bargiel: In terms of HAPS that were supporting me, they were supposed to have supplemental oxygen and be in good condition in case of emergency situation. That was their main task during summit push and descent. In case if I twisted my ankle for example, they were supposed to be ready to go for rescue.
I train a lot to be well prepared for physical activity at higher altitudes. I never use supplemental oxygen during my ascents and descents as I’m athlete, and in my opinion using supplemental oxygen is like cheating your body and altitude.
Have you climbed, skied other 8,000-meter peaks?
Andrzej Bargiel: Yes I did. The Hic Sunt Leones project started in 2013 with the Shishapangma Ski Challenge. Then Manaslu and Broad Peak expeditions followed in the next years. I summited and made ski descents from all of those summits. Actually I was the first person in the world to ski down from Broad Peak.
What were three important things in your gear kit?
Andrzej Bargiel: My skis for sure. They were specially designed. My friend Sebastian Litner made a graphic on all five pairs of skis that I took with me to Pakistan. The ones I chose for the descent had initials of my parents and three brothers and seven sisters. I was sure that they will give me strength during the ski descent from K2.
The second thing were my shoes. I use French, Pierre Gignoux homemade shoes. I’m really happy with them.
I used also neoprene overboots and electric heaters.
And the last thing is special suit which is always specially designed by Pajak for my expeditions. It is not that big and warm as the Himalayan suits and works perfectly for me.
What gear/tech helped you pull off the descent? A telescope, radios, drones?
Andrzej Bargiel: We were using radios, which is crucial for safety reasons and made it possible to discuss with the rest of the team weather conditions, current weather forecasts, and simply stay in touch.
The second thing was the GPS tracker which sent my current location and on special website people could follow my summit push and progress with the descent.
We also had telescope which helped the team in the Base Camp in navigating me in terms of avoiding crevasses, etc. And, of course, a drone, which accompanied me in the descent.
Tell us about your team for this mission. How did their support help you?
Andrzej Bargiel: My team was divided into two groups. There was the core expedition team that beside me comprised four members from Poland. There was Janusz Go??b, my climbing partner and a very experienced mountaineer who was accompanying me in the upper parts in fixing ropes. Also on the team was my brother Bartek, our drone operator, Piotr Pawlus, cinematographer, Marek Ogie?, photographer, and a team of four experienced HAPS.
Because the team was small, all the members were engaged in different activities. During the descent Marek, Piotrek, and Bartek were giving me updates, checking on weather with different people in Poland, and navigating me through telescope in the lower parts of the mountain. Micha? Pyka in Poland was providing weather forecasts, which was very helpful. Those forecasts helped us in choosing the best moment for summit push and descent.
And there were people organising the whole expedition in Poland, staying in touch with media, partners, and sponsors, and helping us from there in all possible matters. Not to mention my trainer Piotr Sadowski and Robert Szymczak, who prepared first aid kits for the expedition.
Tell us about your brother Bartek. Do you climb/ski together a lot?
Andrzej Bargiel: Yes, we do, as much as it is possible. I was attracting him to sports. He was living with me and was attending sport school. I was also supporting him as athlete as he was taking part in ski mountaineering competitions. Then he started filming and operating drones. It is really great that he can accompany me in my expeditions and has a really big input in that.
What will you do next?
Andrzej Bargiel: Right now I’m not thinking about it. I need to rest and spend some time with my family and friends. The winter is coming so there will be plenty of opportunities to travel and search for the best possible conditions for training. We will be definitely making films from those trips.
And once I set myself new goal, I probably won’t announce it until the very last moment. The thing is I need time, space, and concentration on trainings.