National Geographic : 2012 Apr
• It was 4:35 p.m. She could see the summit dome. "You can make it!" Ralf cried over the radio. "You can make it! But you are late! Take care!" She sipped from her water bottle. Her throat was cracked; it hurt to swallow. It was too cold to sweat, but they were all getting dehydrated just from panting for air. When Vassiliy caught up, he said she should go on to the summit, he would wait for Maxut. Like Gerlinde, he and Maxut stood on the brink of the only 8,000-meter summit they hadn't climbed. He wanted to go to the top beside his partner but didn't want people to think he couldn't have gotten there as quickly as Gerlinde. "You have to say I waited for Maxut," he told her. "Yes, of course," she said. And then she walked the nal steps to the apex of K2. It was 6:18 p.m. She wanted to share the moment with Ralf, but when she opened the radio she couldn't speak. There were moun- tains in every direction. Mountains she had climbed. Mountains that had stolen the lives of her friends and nearly claimed hers too. But never had she invested so much in a mountain as the one under her boots at last. Alone, with the world at her feet, she turned from one point of the compass to another. "It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life," she said later. "I felt as if I were one with the universe. It was so strange on one hand to be extremely exhausted and on the other to be getting so much energy from the view." Fi een minutes later Maxut and Vassiliy ar- rived, shoulder to shoulder. Everyone embraced. Half an hour later Dariusz staggered up, his hands su ering from having taken his gloves o to change batteries on the video camera. It was 7 p.m. eir shadows reached far across the top of K2, as the pyramidal shadow of the mountain it- self reached for miles to the east, and a beautiful golden light began to burnish the world. Dari- usz lmed as Gerlinde tried to articulate what Valley, and Maxut had been rubbing yogurt on his sunburned legs. ey set out again around 7 a.m. as another immaculate morning dawned. It was now or never. In her rucksack Gerlinde had spare bat- teries, extra mittens, toilet paper, a second pair of sunglasses, bandages, drops for snow blindness, cortisone, a syringe; for her main sponsor she also carried a ag with the name of an Austrian oil company. For herself, she had a tiny copper box containing a gure of the Buddha, which she planned to bury on the summit. Inside her suit she tucked the half liter of water she had managed to melt; in her pack it would freeze. ey worked their way up the slope toward a 130-meter ramp of snow that angled up to the summit ridge. They were still suffering from the cold but by 11 a.m. could see they would soon be in the sun. At 3 p.m. they reached the base of the ramp. For the rst 20 meters they were exhilarated to discover they sank only to their shins. But soon the snow was chest deep. Where they had switched leads to break trail every 50 steps, they now had to switch every 10, with Maxut and Vassiliy taking extra turns. Oh my God, Gerlinde thought, it's not possible that we've come so far up and will have to turn back. Desperate for an easier way, they stopped climbing in single le at one point. From below, Ralf was astonished to see their track split into three lines as Gerlinde, Vassiliy, and Maxut searched for better footing. Ahead lay a band of snow-patched rocks tilted at 60 degrees. Steep as it was, it proved easier to negotiate. Climb- ing single le again, Gerlinde changed places with Vassiliy and sank only up to her knees. With a surge of energy and hope she clam- bered out of the ramp and onto the ridge, where the wind-packed snow was like a sidewalk. OH MY GOD, GERLINDE THOUGHT, IT'S NOT POSSIBLE WE'VE COME SO FAR n Society Grant The International 2011 K2 North Pillar Expedition was funded in part by your National Geographic Society membership.