SPIEGEL Interview with Mountaineer Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: 'I Don't Think About Death'
Austria's Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has climbed 13 of the world's 14 highest mountains. In an exclusive SPIEGEL interview, the high-altitude mountaineer speaks for the first time about her recent failed expedition on the final peak, K2, which she aborted after watching fellow climber Fredrik Ericsson fall 1,000 meters to his death.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Kaltenbrunner, K2, with a peak elevation of 8611 meters (28.251 feet), is the second-highest mountain on Earth. Its peak lies in a dead zone where the air is almost too thin to breathe and where there are winds of storm-like strength and temperatures hovering around minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Why would someone want to go there?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: I know that outsiders find it difficult to understand what we do, and I'm often asked what the point really is. But this is our world; it's the way we want to live. We have learned to move about safely in this world, though there always remains an element of risk.
SPIEGEL: Just a few days ago, you returned from your most recent expedition on K2, in the Karakoram range running along the borders of China, India and Pakistan. While climbing to the summit in early August, you lost your climbing companion and friend, Swedish mountaineer Fredrik Ericsson. How are you doing?
Kaltenbrunner: I feel worn out. After the accident on K2, we encountered yet another disaster on our trip home.
SPIEGEL: The flooding in Pakistan, you mean.
Kaltenbrunner: We flew out of Skardu, a town in northeastern Pakistan. On the way there, we came to a village that a mudslide had almost completely destroyed. It killed 15 people, washed away entire houses and buried the streets. It was shocking.
SPIEGEL: In May, you had just climbed Mount Everest and, in June, you and your husband, Ralf Dujmovits, set out to climb K2 after a short rest at home. You push yourself pretty hard.
Kaltenbrunner: After Everest, I was still feeling energetic, and my mind was clear. I was really looking forward to K2.
SPIEGEL: It was your third expedition on the mountain, the only one of the world's 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters (26,250 feet) that you still haven't summited. What is it about this mountain that attracts you?
Kaltenbrunner: It's a beautiful, magical place. It exudes strength and power. In 1994, when I first saw K2, I was fascinated. This mountain got into my head; I can't resist its lure.
SPIEGEL: For others, it's been a monster. Mountain climbers die on K2 almost every year.
Kaltenbrunner: I have a huge amount of respect for this mountain. But I'm not afraid of it. I've grappled with it very intensively, and I know it in great detail.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Kaltenbrunner: For example, on the route we take, there's an avalanche you have to wait for before beginning your ascent. It comes crashing down somewhere between 7,000 meters and 5,000 meters up in a massive cloud of snow. This time, I was almost able to predict the exact hour it would start.
SPIEGEL: On this ascent, you originally set out with your husband as a team of two. When did you first meet up with Fredrik Ericsson?
Kaltenbrunner: At the base camp at 5,000 meters. He was there with his friend Trey Cook. Fredrik was a great person, a first-class mountaineer. We had known each other for a long time, and we had been good friends for about a year.
SPIEGEL: Ericsson was an extreme skier, too, and had planned to ski down K2.
Kaltenbrunner: That was his big dream. It's strange. When we were climbing, I didn't think for a second that something could happen to him on the way to the summit. But, somehow, I was concerned that he might have an accident while skiing down the mountain. A year ago, I watched through binoculars as his climbing partner fell 700 meters to his death while skiing down K2. I couldn't get it out of my mind.
SPIEGEL: The last time you tried to summit K2, you turned around because there was too much snow in the summit zone. How were the conditions this time around?
Kaltenbrunner: The weather forecast was good, and when we set out from the base camp, the mood was practically euphoric. The problem was falling rocks. It had been an extremely warm summer in the Karakoram, and even large boulders that are normally held in place by permafrost had been coming loose. It was very dangerous. You kept hearing the whistling of falling rocks. Where we set up our third camp, we even kept our helmets on at night.
SPIEGEL: Your husband, who has already summited all of the 8000ers, turned around before reaching the so-called shoulder of K2, at 7,600 meters. Why?
Kaltenbrunner: He felt it was too dangerous because of the falling rocks. He had already climbed K2; he didn't have to go up again.
- Part 1: 'I Don't Think About Death'
- Part 2: 'I Was Determined to Get to the Top of K2'
- Part 3: 'When I'm on the Mountain, I'm Always Completely Focused'
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