Andrzej Bargiel has revealed how difficult it was to complete his historic feat of skiing down from the summit of K2, the world’s second highest mountain.
The 30-year-old has revealed all in a Q&A days after his amazing mission:
It’s such a challenging feat. Why did you want to do it?
The idea was born when I climbed Broad Peak. When I was younger, I competed in alpine skiing, but the conditions were too tricky for me to ski professionally. So I started to go on expeditions, and discovered that I loved ski mountaineering. We created the ‘Hic Sunt Leones’ (‘Here come the Lions’) team with the goal of summiting and skiing the world’s highest peaks. Shishapangma was a first test in 2013, where we learned what it means to organise an expedition – it’s quite a challenge! A year later we went to Manaslu, where I managed to summit and ski down in only 14 hours. After several more trips I ended up on Broad Peak and accomplished the first descent on skis. During the long ascent and descent I could see the face of K2, and I knew that it could be skied. I’d never thought about going there before, but when I saw the whole face from Broad Peak, I envisioned the line. I didn’t expect going there so soon, but after winning the Snow Leopard trophy (which included climbing and skiing five major peaks), I felt I was ready.
You’d made an attempt at K2 before and had to pull out because of the temperatures and dangerous conditions. Were you concerned something like that might happen again?
In retrospect, last year appears to have been much harder, because we had to leave without achieving our goal. There was a lot of rockfall, it was dangerous and the avalanche danger was extremely high. The whole situation was hard on me, I was desperate for the right conditions to come together that would allow me to make a serious attempt. Last year, a new summit route was opened, but I couldn’t afford to go. I wanted to climb the route which I would ski down later. At the time, nothing worked out, and afterwards I hesitated for a long time to come back. I don’t like to go back to the same places – but then I thought that I’d devoted so much time, research and money into the project already that I had to give it another shot. I was worried that due to climate change the big glacier would transform too fast, and that if I waited a few years before coming back the line I had in mind wouldn’t work any more and all the work would’ve been wasted. This year, everything fell into place, things felt much easier. I acted much faster, which is why (the ski first descent) ultimately worked out.
How did you train for the mission?
I didn’t have that much time to train because I had to focus on bringing the budget together until the last minute. I even had to borrow money from friends. I had the permissions but no money to go, it was tough. Fortunately, I live in the Tatra mountains, which is amazing, because I can go into the mountains even after work. I live only three hours from Mount Kasprowy, where I keep exploring new couloirs so I can develop and evolve my skiing and mountaineering. I also sometimes go the Alps, if I can afford it. Those are great places to prepare, with many challenges left. I love Chamonix, I feel good there. There are a lot of challenges left over there – I think I’ll be going back.
You helped to rescue Scottish climber Rick Allen, did that bring additional meaning to the mountaineering challenge?
We had to organise the whole rescue mission ourselves, because nobody was eager to do it. It was just after I was sick, and it was quite complicated. It cost me a lot of nerves, but in the end it all worked out and was a great success. The whole team put all their energy into it, and in the end other climbers helped us and supported the rescue.
Were there any close shaves this time around and how aware were you of the dangers during your ski down?
I was fully aware of the dangers at all times. I needed good visibility and excellent snow conditions. We had a large telescope that I used to observe the face all the time. It’s essential to have a lot of experience, so based on your knowledge and the information you draw from observing nature you can find the right moment to move and to act on the mountain. There are one or two steep sections where you have to pass at the right time to be safe – so that the snow isn’t too hard or too soft and there’s no avalanche danger, and the sun shines exactly on the spots where you need it but it’s not too warm, because otherwise you have seracs (ice blocks) falling on your head. There’s a lot of data. Anyone who’s professionally involved in mountaineering, climbing or skiing must have this expertise, because nobody can judge the situation for you. This was complicated, because the temperature differences on the face are significant: minus-30 degrees Celsius at the top, plus-30 degrees at the bottom. Add to that the temperature change between day and night, and you have to factor a lot of variables in. You have to go into this with a clear head and a calm mind.
When you are skiing down, is it a peaceful experience? Or stressful and feels like you are on the edge the whole time?
It’s 100 percent concentration. Reaching the summit, I didn’t feel like a winner. I got there, put warmer clothes on and took a photo of myself. I acted a bit like a machine, because I knew the most important and most difficult part was still ahead of me. Fortunately I work in a way that such a challenge cuts me off from everything. Nothing scares me. I might’ve worried before, during preparation, but when the time comes, I just do it. This is super helpful in crisis situations as well. I try to do my best, and I face threats when they arise. Everything I do, I do with confidence. This is crucial in a situation like this. Of course it gives me the joy and satisfaction when everything works out, because skiing gives me a feeling of freedom. That’s the reward for the struggle, the training and the climb to the top.
When you got back to Base Camp, what was the feeling? One of elation, exhaustion, relief, or a bit of everything?
Relief and joy. I had a lot of extreme emotions because not everything went to plan. I wanted to climb Gasherbrum for a change of scenery, but it snowed too much. Then there was the problem with Janusz Gołęb, who still had problems with his back. It was a huge relief because it was a mega challenge, and I was fully aware of the scale of the event. I had everything on my mind. Coming back after the first year’s failed attempt, I was fully aware of the risks, but I also knew how to do it, and in the end I managed to. It was difficult until the very end, but then I was as happy as a kid!
How difficult was it to capture all the footage? It must have been nice to have your brother with you and playing a key role?
Yes, this was the third time I’d taken Bartek along with me on these expeditions. I pay for all the drones he smashes. He’s been living with me in Zakopane since we were kids, so I’m super happy that we get to spend time together and achieve these crazy breakthroughs together. Marek Ogień, our photographer, also did a great job. The guys were watching me through a telescope, so on some sections they helped me to find my line, telling me via radio when and where to turn or to drop into the next face or chute. They were also checking the weather forecast non-stop. We were in contact all the time. Janusz also helped me a lot. It was a real team effort, and fortunately everything ended well. Everyone had specific responsibilities, so everyone had a tough job. I was always throwing new tasks at them, everyone felt responsible for their bit so we’d achieve our mission.
How on earth do you top this? What’s next – skiing down Mount Everest maybe?
Now’s the time that I have to go home to spend time with my family after all the stress they also went through. And I have to see my friends who kept their fingers crossed for me. That’s the most important thing right now. I need to be inspired for the next project. I never talk about projects until I’ve organised everything and I’m ready to go. I do have a lot of ideas and plans, but at the moment I don’t want to think about them. But I will certainly continue skiing, exploring different continents and go to exciting places with difficult ski challenges. You don’t have to climb and ski K2 to do something fresh and exciting that makes you happy. I’ll ride a lot on Kasprowy this winter, because it’s my home and I feel great there. We’ll see. For the moment, I plan to go on vacation, because I’ve never been on a long vacation, and I think I deserve it now.