In the summer of 2010, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner was perched on K2’s infamous Bottleneck couloir 400 meters below the summit. She radioed her husband, Ralf Dujmovits, who was hunkered at base camp far below the 8,611-meter summit of the peak on the Pakistan-China border. Through the radio, Dujmovits could hear the shock in his wife’s voice. Moments earlier her partner, ski mountaineer Fredrik Ericsson, had slipped while unroped, tumbled past her, and fallen to his death.
Kaltenbrunner immediately aborted her summit attempt to look for her friend. It was her fifth failed attempt on the world’s most deadly peak. K2 was the final summit remaining in her 14-year quest to become the first woman to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen or porters.
In 2011, Kaltenbrunner returned to K2, this time to the mountain’s north side to avoid the Bottleneck, where 11 climbers died in 2008. At 6:18 p.m. local time on August 23, Kaltenbrunner reached the summit. “I have never had a view like that. There were no clouds, you could see to Nanga Parbat. I had the feeling that I was one with the universe. It’s still present in my heart,” says the 40-year-old Austrian.
Her fascination with the world’s tallest peaks began when she was in her early 20s. When she was 23 years old, she reached 8,027 meters but not the summit of Broad Peak, also on the Pakistan-China border, which sparked the idea to climb all 14 peaks more than 8,000 meters tall. In 1998, Kaltenbrunner, a professional climber who trains year-round, reached her first summit, Cho Oyu, and began ticking off the peaks, sometimes two in a year. She became known for her calculated patience.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
This year on K2, the reminders of a misstep were always present. “Twenty or thirty meters beneath K2’s summit, you can look down and see the Bottleneck. It felt like Fredrik was near,” says Kaltenbrunner. “He was with us in a good sense.”