A video of Chris Warner talking to Google employees about leadership is on Broadband sports. It is a year or 2 old but a really good one about K2. Recently, he was rescued off Makalu, so seeing his thoughts here on K2 were insightful.
Chris Warner tried to climb K2 in 2002 ,2005 and 2007. By 2002 he had climbed Everest so was looking for another adventure. He was asked to climb K2 as part of an expedition with 12 other climbers. These were supposed to be elite climbers. Instead he was to find out this was the worst team he was ever on. He said they would not have been able to organize a picnic it was so bad.
He said that the leader of the expedition was a former LSD dealer who had spent 7 years in gaol. When he got out he wanted to never sleep inside again so he organized trips to the Himalayas and Pakistan.
The day the expedition was ending, he saw a man fall 5000 feet down the mountain. When this climber hit the slopes he exploded red. He stopped 500 feet from where all of the climbers were. There was a red trail down the slope from where he had fallen. His whole body had parts in the wrong place. The body had to be wrapped so that no one could see it, it was so shocking. they wrapped 2 tents around him, yet still his blood poured from it. It was not till they wrapped a garbage bag around the body did it stop bleeding.
Like all other climbers who die on K2, his plate was taken and they etched his name on it. The plate is then hung on the Gilkey memorial, which is a cairn.
In 2005 Chris Warner had learnt his lesson from the 2002 and decided to do it with only one trusted friend. They reached 25,000 feet on 2 occasions but were stopped by gigantic snow storms. When they decided to leave the mountain, they were completely exhausted. He had lost 35 pounds. He was peeing blood. And on the way out he kept saying to himself he was going to come back.
Amazingly, out of the first expedition where there were 12 climbers, 6 have since died.
In 2007 he organized an expedition to K2. They put people on it, not based on resume but on their proven record. One of the guys he put on it was Don Bowie. Though he had never summited an 8000m mountain he had a good record in high mountains and was a rescuer. And another a guy called Bruce Norman.
They had three goals:
1. All get back safely
2. Summit K2
3. Do it a style they were happy with.
They got there at June 1st and there were huge avalanches coming down.
On the second day there Bruce Watson nearly died while climbing over an icefall. The floor dropped away and he fell 25 feet down a crevasse. He was only tied by a rope to Chris Warner that stopped him falling further. Then the ground below Warner exploded and he fell 5 feet down another crevasse!
In June and July there were many attempts to climb the mountain but snow storms stopped them each time. They had to put 500 pounds of equipment up the mountain like tents and rope even in these storms. They would push no matter what the weather was like.
At camp 3 things really slowed down. The snow was waist deep. They could only make progress of only a 100 feet in a day before having to give up because of exhaustion. Then they decided that a team of 3 was too small to climb K2.
Once all the teams had experienced failure and not made it past camp 3 they decided to team together. They knew that if they did not come together no one was going to make it to the top. All of the team leaders got together and came up with a plan. The plan was to leave on the 15th of July which was Chris Warner’s team 5th attempt.
Climbing to camps 1 and 2 they were faced with low visibility and snow and winds at 60mp/h. They had to continually do frostbite checks. When they got to camp 3 the problem was that all of the other groups had turned back when the snow storms hit on the first day. So they had to make a push by themselves, despite the waist deep snow.
The next morning the weather was crystal clear. They went so slow that some of the other groups caught up with them from lower camps. The progress was so slow they could not make it to camp 4 so they all camped at what they called camp 3 and a half, 500 feet above camp 3.
They reached camp 4 under perfect conditions. That left them about 2700 feet to the summit. They were carrying the 3000 feet of ropes needed for summit day. They gave out equipment to the stronger members of the other teams. There was planned a staggered leaving of the groups so the lead would break trail, then the next would catch up and then lead.
Warner’s team took the third leg as this was the most dangerous. He did not want others in charge of their lives at this stage. And after them, the Russian group using oxygen would overpass them and take everyone to the summit. Warner’s team was the only one not using oxygen.
They left late in the night about 11pm, hoping to be at the summit about 12 hours later. Drama happened early when one of the Sherpas fell down the south face and died. He was only earning $25 a day to lead the Korean team. He may have been trying to pass some other climbers, and disconnected the rope and then fell. He tumbled down the bottleneck and went 9000 feet down.
Chris Warner thought about what he was going to do after this but decided he would keep going as he felt great and had been training for this day all of his life. And the day was perfect. The Korean team though was in shock and they knew that they could not be relied upon to do their job anymore.
Without the Koreans they would be lacking some equipment. At one point they ran out of equipment. So they called for the Russians to take the lead much earlier than expected because they had oxygen and were a strong team. The Russians brought rope and with some others helped set up the route.
Eventually they reached the summit with many other members from other groups. It took 15 1/2 hours to reach the summit much longer than expected. They reached it at 4:45 in the afternoon. Of the 25 who left in the morning, 14 made the summit. The Italian team apparently had not been communicating with each other all day, so they became separate, yet reached the summit.
A Czech climber made it to the summit then told Warner’s group that he felt very sick. This left them in a quandary. He had been vomiting all day and was dehydrated.
On the way down, it turned really cold maybe minus 20. Then they saw 2 climbers at nearly 5 in the afternoon still trying to reach the summit. They tried to dissuade them making the attempt but to no avail. It was the Italian team who had poor communication all day.
As it neared 8pm, Warner’s group were reaching the end of the rope, from where there would be an easier passage to camp 4. Then they came across what looked like a piece of garbage but was the Czech climber. he had collapsed and was suffering from hypothermia. They had to drag him in to their tents, and not his because his was too far away. Warner had to give his tent to the Czech and the tent was cramped because it was really only made for 3 people.
Warner went to the Italian camp and the one who was there had summited earlier. The Italian had no idea where his other team members were. Warner saw that they were at the top of the bottleneck, and were at least 3 hours away. He suggested to the Italian that if his teammates were not there by 12 midnight, that they all go and rescue them.
One of the Italians makes it back to camp. The other asks where is his fellow climber and he replies that he is right behind. They then fall asleep thinking the other is fine. Then at 3 in the morning they wake up, and one decides to look for the other climber, but the other one fell asleep. Warner’s group were not alerted that the climber was still missing. After 15 minutes the Italian returns without the missing climber. They then both fell asleep.
At 7 in the morning a blizzard hit the camps. They knew they had to get off the mountain in case they were to get trapped at a high altitude. A Portuguese climber and then the Russians take off down the mountain. The Italians leave their tents and try follow the Russians but lose the tracks and return to Warner. Warner is then told that the other Italian, Stefano, is dead. he had not even a radio. What emerged was that the dead climber had been left without a radio so the other could use the radio to get back down to camp. he had been left by his partners for dead.
One of the teams was in such a panicked state to leave they left a pair of crampons. So someone stole a pair from Warner’s team. That meant one of this team had to climb without crampons in a raging blizzard.
As they make it to camp 3, Don Bowie, without crampons slips and breaks his leg. They have to get Bowie down and the sick Czech climber, and they are 2 days from safety. The plan is for Bowie and Warner to go first and make it to the safety of camp 2 with the extra sleeping bag. But when they get there 4 other people are in their tent. The Italians said that they could not sleep in their tent because someone had let the flap open and ice was in it. An Italian climber was sleeping in Bowie’s sleeping bag. But the Italian said that he could not sleep in it, he would have to wait a day. That left Bowie and Watson having to sleep in the other tent with no sleeping bag.
Eventually they all made it to advance base camp and some Czech climbers came out to help Bowie. The next day 40 people come from base camp and have a stretcher for Bowie. Four days later a helicopter arrived to take Bowie out.
Warner found out that later the 2 Italian climber who were with Stefano spent 15 minutes with his family on the way back. Way too small a time. Warner was so appalled he flew to Italy and spent 8 hours with them.
What they could not work out was why Warner’s team made it to the summit and back safely and tried to rescue climbers, while Stefano’s team did not try rescue him. The Italian expedition leader said that above 8000m it was every man for himself.
Warner said the lesson from mountaineering was that if you put your desires ahead of the team, someone was going to die.