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.
'I Was Determined to Get to the Top of K2'
SPIEGEL: Did you discuss it?
Kaltenbrunner: No. We agreed long ago that, in a situation like that, we would accept each other's decision. All I asked him was: "How are you doing? Do you feel all right? Can you manage the descent?" He said that everything was fine and that he was sorry. For a moment, it was very difficult. We said our goodbyes, and I didn't feel relieved until that evening, when I heard over the radio that he'd made it down safely.
SPIEGEL: But, despite the risk, you kept going.
Kaltenbrunner: I was determined to get to the top of K2, and I felt I could do it.
SPIEGEL: When you're as famous as you are in the mountaineering world, when everyone is watching you, and when you're so close to summiting the last 8,000er, do people tend to take greater risks?
Kaltenbrunner: There is that danger. But, over the years, I've learned to weigh the risks. I listen to my body. If I don't have the right feeling in my gut, I don't think twice about turning around. I once turned around 100 meters before summiting Lhotse because I felt the risks were too great. And I don't allow myself to feel pressured by people's expectations.
SPIEGEL: When did you team up with Ericsson and his climbing partner, Trey Cook, on K2? Was it already when you first ran into each other at the base camp?
Kaltenbrunner: As chance would have it, we were on the same schedule of resting and climbing days, which meant that we would already be climbing in parallel starting out from the base camp. After Ralf turned around, we kept climbing to the shoulder, and we pitched our tents at the last camp at about 4 p.m. That was at 7,950 meters.
SPIEGEL: Were you able to get any sleep?
Kaltenbrunner: No. I was too tense. I melted snow to have as much drinking water as possible; you get dehydrated very quickly at that altitude. I also gave a liter of water to two other mountain climbers because their stove wasn't working right. At a quarter past one in the morning, I was ready for the ascent. The weather forecast was good. The wind and snowfall were expected to die down during the second half of the night, and it was even supposed to turn sunny over the course of the day. In other words, it was supposed to be perfect.
SPIEGEL: From that point on, were you on some sort of time schedule?
Kaltenbrunner: We planned to take 10 hours to reach the summit. It wasn't all that cold, only minus 23 degrees Celsius (minus 9.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Fredrik and Trey set out shortly before me, but then I caught up with them. We planted marker flags every 15 to 20 meters so we could find our way back down. After a while, Trey decided to turn around because his fingertips had gone numb and he felt tired.
SPIEGEL: After that, were you and Ericsson alone?
Kaltenbrunner: Yes. We took turns tracking through the snow, which was up to our knees in places, and we were making good progress. Dawn broke at a quarter after four. Shortly thereafter, we reached a steep cliff. There is a rock formation on the right-hand side that looks heart-shaped from a distance. In the middle of it, there is a gully called "the Bottleneck" that you have to pass through.
SPIEGEL: In 2008, 11 mountain climbers died at that very spot.
Kaltenbrunner: It's a dangerous passage. At the end of the Bottleneck is a large, cauliflower-shaped ice tower, known as a serac, that has a large overhang. You have to pass it on the left side. At first, we roped up in the gully because of the fissures in the ice. Then we reached 45-degree terrain, where you can continue going up without ropes. When the gully starting getting steeper again, up to 80 degrees, Fredrick wanted to "build a stand" -- that is, to hammer in pitons to secure himself there (Editor's note: Pitons are metal spikes that climbers drive into cracks to anchor themselves via a rope and carabiner). The rock wasn't solid enough in the first spot, so we climbed a bit farther up. Fredrik was 40 meters above me, to my right. For a moment, I wasn't looking up. I think he was trying to drive pitons into a section of rock, but something must have broken off. It all happened so quickly, and the fog was very thick. All I saw was that, all of a sudden, he was falling. He let out a brief scream. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him and some rocks falling past me.
SPIEGEL: How did you react?
Kaltenbrunner: I shouted something, though I don't remember what it was. I stood there as if frozen and thought: "Please! This can't be happening!" I held on tight to my ice tool. I didn't want to believe it.
SPIEGEL: Did you give any thought to continuing on to the summit?
Kaltenbrunner: Not for a second. I radioed my husband: "Ralf! Ralf! Fredrik has fallen!" And then I started my descent. I don't know why, but somehow I imagined I could find Fredrik.
SPIEGEL: Was there any chance he'd survived?
Kaltenbrunner: A very theoretical one. Below us, there was a ledge he could have landed on. But all I found was one ski. He was undoubtedly falling too fast to catch himself on the hard ice. Soon thereafter, Ralf radioed me that another climber had spotted Fredrik lying motionless in the snow at the level of Camp III. He had fallen 1,000 meters down a massive slope.
SPIEGEL: After the accident, you climbed more than 3,000 meters down to the base camp by yourself. During that time, what was going through your mind?
Kaltenbrunner: I was very tense, and I had to concentrate extremely hard to avoid making any mistakes. I couldn't really rappel down because falling rocks had damaged the ropes we had brought up with us. So I had to climb down. Ralf wanted me to spend the night at the level of Camp II, but I just couldn't imagine doing so. I thought: "I have to get down there today!" But I did take a break at 6,300 meters. I waited there until evening, when it cools off and the risk of falling rocks decreases. That's what I had promised Ralf. Eleven hours after the accident, I arrived at the base camp.
'When I'm on the Mountain, I'm Always Completely Focused'
SPIEGEL: As a high-altitude mountaineer, do you think a lot about falling? Or about death?
Kaltenbrunner: It doesn't even enter my mind. When I'm on the mountain, I'm always completely focused and very careful. I'm never afraid of falling. Of course, I do think about what I can expect on the mountain and what could happen there. But, once I've started climbing, I don't think about death. It doesn't exist.
SPIEGEL: Three years ago, you were buried by a snow slab on Dhaulagiri. As a mountain climber, do you get used to dealing with the fear of death?
Kaltenbrunner: It's a completely different story when you're fighting for your life. At the time, I was incredibly lucky. When the avalanche hit, I was in my tent. I was pulled along and buried, but I was still able to breathe and move my hand in a small cavity. I found my knife, slit open the tent and dug myself out. After that, I looked for two Spanish climbers who had also been buried. It took me two hours to dig them out, but by then it was too late. It was unbelievably painful.
SPIEGEL: Has anything changed for you since then?
Kaltenbrunner: I've become even more careful. Nowadays, I'd rather spend a night without sleep than bivouac in a spot where there's a risk of avalanche.
SPIEGEL: During your expeditions on the 8000ers, has there ever been a moment of pleasure?
Kaltenbrunner: Of course, or else I probably wouldn't be drawn to them again and again. We've experienced many beautiful moments on K2. The campsite at 6,300 meters is very safe. In the evening hours, when the sun is low on the horizon, the entire Karakoram range is lit up. It's pure energy.
SPIEGEL: That's the reward, the view?
Kaltenbrunner: The view combined with the silence. I think it's amazing that I, as a tiny human being, can be climbing this gigantic mountain and can see everything from up there. When I come down from the summit and the clouds suddenly open up, I feel like I could embrace the whole world. Those are the impressions that do it for me.
SPIEGEL: You are one of the stars of the high-altitude mountaineering world. How do the men in it deal with your success?
Kaltenbrunner: At first, they didn't notice me. But, over the years, after having popped up again and again, I was finally accepted. Unfortunately, I'm always confronted with outsiders who have never met me and presume that someone else has cut tracks for me in the deep snow and that I also get help from others in other ways.
SPIEGEL: Do you still have to prove yourself?
Kaltenbrunner: Not to myself. But I notice that the spitefulness bothers me. On Lhotse, someone once claimed that I had had myself flown up to the base camp in a helicopter and that two Sherpas were building the high-altitude camps for me. It was totally fabricated.
SPIEGEL: Where does all the gossip among mountain climbers come from?
Kaltenbrunner: It's jealousy and resentment.
SPIEGEL: Three months ago, even if by questionable means, the South Korean climber Oh Eun-sun became the first woman to have summited all of the 8000ers. Are you disappointed that you weren't the first?
Kaltenbrunner: I've always said that I'm not interested in setting any records for climbing all of the 8000ers. I'm happy that Oh Eun-sun climbed them all. Now it's a moot point.
SPIEGEL: Could you imagine forgetting about K2?
Kaltenbrunner: I'm not sure about that yet; I'm still thinking about it. For the moment, I just want to give it some time and see how I feel after that. I have been having frequent, long conversations with my husband Ralf, to help me work through my experiences. Then we'll see. In any case, it's not something that I want to try no matter what.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Kaltenbrunner, thank you for speaking with us.