On Sunday, July 22, history was made when Polish ski mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel became the first person to successfully complete a full ski descent from the summit of K2.
Standing on the China-Pakistan border, K2 is the second highest mountain in the world behind Mount Everest.
The 28,251-foot peak is notorious for treacherous conditions and for taking the lives of the brave adventurers who attempt to climb it (in August of 2008, 11 climbers died in what was deemed the K2 Disaster), and until now, a skier has never been able to successfully ski the entirety of the peak.
In 2001, Italian mountaineer Hans Kammerlander attempted a K2 descent on skis, but after watching a fellow climber fall to his death, he was unable to complete the task. Eight years later, in 2009, Italian Michele Fait died after a fall. Swedish ski mountaineer Fredrik Ericsson was in pursuit of the same endeavor a year later but was tragically killed while approaching the summit.
For years, a complete ski descent of the mountain that has been deemed the most dangerous in the world seemed out of reach. But for Bargiel, an athlete who has already conquered feats like winning the Elbrus Race in 2010 (a timed climb to the top of the highest peak in Europe, Mout Elbrus, which stands in Russia at 18,510 feet), a race which he is also the current record holder of, it was only due time before he checked another major mountaineering victory off of his list.
"It's incredibly exciting. This is something that's been on people's minds, including my own, for a very long time," says ski mountaineer Chris Davenport on Bargiel's accomplishment. "This ranks right up there in the greatest ski mountaineering descents ever done. It's [K2] not as high as Everest, but it's more steep, more dangerous, and more demanding."
For 30-year-old Bargiel, this was his second attempt at skiing K2, as he had to abandon his effort last year due to poor conditions. However, this year the mountain worked in favor of him and his team, providing suitable weather and snow for a complete descent.
"There is a super high-risk factor on K2 and just trying to hit the mountain when the weather, snow, and the team can come together is difficult, but it seems like everything came together that day," says Davenport. "It was perfect. I'm super proud of him. I think a lot of people thought it could maybe never be done, but the younger generation seems to see mountains with different eyes nowadays."
Bargiel was accompanied on the expedition by his brother, Bartek, who captured the historic descent via drone. Climber Janusz Gołab, cinematographer Piotr Pawlus, photographer Marek Ogień, and a team of Sherpas were also present.
Before heading for the summit, Bargiel spent weeks acclimating at camps in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan.
On Thursday, July 19, Bargiel and his team made their move to the second base camp. The next morning, they made their final stop at the third base camp, where they would wait until Bargiel would make his way for the summit on Sunday, July 22.
Impressively, Bargiel was able to reach the summit and ski the entire peak without the use of oxygen, which is something few climbers on K2 opt to do, or can even physically handle.
"He [Bargiel] is somebody who has spent all of his time developing strong technical skiing and climbing skills. He's obviously incredibly fit to be able ski off the summit without oxygen at that altitude. He's at the pinnacle of the sport," says Davenport.
After leaving camp at 4 a.m. that Sunday, Bargiel soon became the 13th Pole to stand atop of K2, reaching the summit just before noon.
"There's a lot of history there [K2] with ski descents that have failed, but I think it was just a matter of time before someone put it together. Bargiel is incredibly talented, and he comes from a country and culture with such an incredible history on K2. It's fitting that a Pole was able to pull it off," says Davenport.
Once on the summit, Bargiel clicked into his skis and did what he had come to do—ski.
Bargiel dropped into the southeastern side of the peak, where he followed the shoulder on the Cesen Route. Along the way, Bargiel, by himself, had to navigate various seracs, crevasses, and ridges of sheer rock.
Before reaching the base to complete his longtime dream, Bargiel had to navigate the most harrowing part of his line—the Messner Traverse to the arête (a small ridge of rock) on the Kukuczka-Piotrowski route. Thankfully, Bargiel was able to finish the task and ski into the record books without any issue.
As for what will happen next in the world of ski mountaineering, even Davenport is unsure. For so long, K2 had seemed untouchable. But now, the peak and its skiability no longer remain a mystery.
"K2 is called the Savage Mountain for a reason. I don't know what will be next. I'm not sure where we will go beyond this," says Davenport.
At the end of the day, high in the Himalayas, Bargiel was able accomplish a dream that even the world's best skiers and mountaineers can hardly imagine attempting, yet alone accomplishing.
"This will go down in history as one of the greatest ski descent ever completed," says Davenport. "He [Bargiel] will stand out in history forever."