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.
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.”
Adventure: How do you train to climb the world’s tallest mountains?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: Lots of endurance training. Many hours of rock climbing, backcountry skiing, trail running, cross-country skiing. I have a bouldering room in my house. I relax by swimming. This is, of course, also my profession.
A: Of the 14 8,000-meter peaks, was there a particular summit that stays with you?
GK: Mount Kanchenjunga. It is the third highest peak in the world and also very difficult. Ralf and I tried it in 2003 without success. In 2006, we tried again and we got good weather at the very last moment. Within 80 meters, it cleared up and was sunny and we could get through the final meters of climbing. It was together with Ralf. This was a very special moment.
A: What were the low points of your 14-year quest?
GK: In 2007, we had an avalanche on Dhaulagiri. Two Spanish friends died in their tents at Camp Two. I was very lucky. The avalanche swept my tent 40 meters downhill. I was able to crawl out, but my friends were buried. This was a bad moment. I left immediately from base camp. One year later, I returned to the mountain. I felt that this was the moment I could overcome the grief of the accident. We set up our tent a hundred meters above the avalanche site. In the morning it was very very cold, but it was so beautiful, perfectly clear. I understood how close these most tragic moments and these most beautiful moments are.
A: Why does the style of climbing peaks without oxygen or porters matter so much?
GK: From the very beginning, it was very important to me to climb these peaks with my own energy, without the high-altitude porters, and, of course, without the supplemental oxygen. I wanted to feel good about how I climbed. It was the best way to climb for me. When I went to Everest, I didn’t know if my body would be able to go up to 8,850 meters without supplemental oxygen. If I felt bad or wasn’t able, I thought, I will just come back.
If my body hadn’t been able to handle it, I would have just rather gone and climbed a 5,000- or 6,000-meter peak, rather than use oxygen.
A: Everest is taller, but K2 is regarded as the most difficult. What makes it so hard to get to the top of it?
GK: The Karakoram has bad weather. We had a lot of snowfall. Even the easiest route on K2 is difficult.
A: You chose to go back this year and try the North Pillar, which is considered more difficult than the Abruzzi Spur, the standard route on the south side.
The North Pillar was very steep. There was a lot of snow. We had to worry about avalanches. In past years, we had tried the south side, through the Bottleneck. Last year my friend Fredrik Ericsson died there. I decided that if I was going to go back to K2 I wanted to try something new to avoid the Bottleneck.
A: Was his memory with you this year?
GK: Everybody on the team knew Fredrik. Everybody had been on the south side last year. We spoke many times about him. He was a very good friend. Many times in base camp, but also on the mountain. He was with us in a good sense, not in a heavy way. When I came back to the base camp, Fredrik’s father called me immediately. He was the first person who called me. It was a very emotional moment.
A: What’s next?
GK: I’m off to Nepal. We are going trekking in Mustang. We are going to have some quiet time. There are many 7,000-meter peaks I would like to climb.