K2: How to Climb the Abruzzi Spur Route

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The Abruzzi Spur Route Description

K2 is not only the second highest mountain in the world but also one of the most dangerous.

The most common climbing route that climbers take to ascend K2, the second highest mountain in the world, is the Abruzzi Spur or the Southeast Ridge. The ridge and route loom menacingly above Base Camp on the Godwin-Austen Glacier on the south side of the mountain. The Abruzzi Spur route climbs steep snow and ice slopes broken by rock ribs and a couple cliff bands that are surmounted with technical climbing.

K2's Most Popular Route

About three-quarters of all the climbers who ascend K2 do the Abruzzi Spur. Likewise, a majority of deaths occur along its well-traveled ridge. The route is named for Italian climber Prince Luigi Amedeo, the Duke of Abruzzi, who led an expedition to K2 in 1909 and made the first attempt on the ridge.

The Abruzzi Spur is Long

The route, beginning at the base of the ridge at 17,390 feet (5,300 meters) ascends 10,862 feet (3,311 meters) to K2's summit at 28,253 feet (8,612 meters). The sheer length of the route, coupled with the severe weather conditions and objective dangers, make the Abruzzi Spur one of the most difficult and dangerous common routes on the world's 8,000-meter peaks.

Major Topographic Features

Major topographical features on K2's Abruzzi Spur route are The House Chimney, The Black Pyramid, The Shoulder, and The Bottleneck. Each offers its own set of technical difficulties and dangers. The Bottleneck, located below a 300-foot-high hanging ice cliff, is particularly dangerous since parts can break off and avalanche at any time, either killing or stranding climbers above it as happened in the 2008 tragedy.

Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp

Climbers set up Base Camp on the Godwin-Austen Glacier below the great south wall of K2. Later, Advanced Base Camp is usually moved to the base of the Abruzzi Spur itself a mile farther up the glacier. The route is divided into camps, which are located at various points on the mountain.

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The Abruzzi Spur: Camp 1 to The Shoulder

Most climbers ascend The Abruzzi Spur or the Southeast Ridge of K2.

The House Chimney and Camp 2

From Camp 1, continue up mixed terrain on snow and rock for 1,640 feet (500 meters) to Camp 2 at 21,980 feet (6,700 meters). The camp is usually set against a cliff on a shoulder. It can often be windy and cold here but it's safe from avalanches. In this section is the famous House Chimney, a 100-foot rock wall split by a chimney and crack system that is rated 5.6 if free-climbed. Today the chimney is fixed with a spider-web of old ropes, making it fairly easy to climb. The House Chimney is named for American climber Bill House, who first climbed it in 1938.

The Black Pyramid

The imposing Black Pyramid, a dark pyramid-shaped rock buttress, looms above Camp 2. This 1,200-foot-long section of the Abruzzi Spur offers the most technically demanding climbing on the entire route, with mixed rock and ice climbing on almost vertical cliffs that are usually covered with unstable snow slabs. The technical rock climbing is not as hard as The House Chimney but it's steep and sustained nature makes it more serious and dangerous. Climbers usually fix ropes up the Black Pyramid to facilitate climbing it and rappelling down.

Camp 3

After climbing 1,650 feet (500 meters) from Camp 2, climbers usually situate Camp 3 at 24,100 feet (7,350 meters) above the Black Pyramid's rock wall and below steep unstable snow slopes. The narrow valley between K2 and Broad Peak often acts as a wind funnel, channeling high winds through the gap and making the snow slopes prone to avalanches from here to The Shoulder. Climbers usually stash extra gear, including tents, sleeping bags, stoves, and food, on the Black Pyramid because they are sometimes forced to descend for supplies if Camp 3 is swept away by an avalanche.

Camp 4 and The Shoulder

From Camp 3, climbers quickly ascend steep snow slopes that range from 25 to 40 degrees for 1,150 feet (342 meters) to the beginning of The Shoulder at 25,225 feet (7,689 meters). This section is done without fixed ropes. The Shoulder is a broad, low-angle hump on the ridge that is covered by a thick layer of ice and snow. There is no exact place to erect Camp 4, the last established camp before the final summit push. Usually, placement is dictated by weather conditions. Many climbers place Camp 4 as high as possible, lessening the elevation gain on summit day. The camp is between 24,600 feet (7,500 meters) and 26,250 feet (8,000 meters).

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The Abruzzi Spur: The Bottleneck and The Summit

Seracs on the hanging glacier above The Bottleneck can break off and kill climbers below.

Final Climbing Dangers

The summit, 12 to 24 hours away depending on the weather and a climber's physical condition, is roughly 2,100 vertical feet (650 meters) above Camp 4 perched on The Shoulder. Most climbers leave Camp 4 between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Now the prospective K2 climber faces his greatest and most dangerous alpine challenge. The climbing route up the Abruzzi Spur from here to the summit is fraught with perilous dangers that can kill him in an instant. These dangers include the extreme oxygen-depleted altitude, fickle and frigid weather including strong winds and bone-chilling temperatures, hard-packed snow and ice, and the danger of falling ice from a looming serac.

The Bottleneck

Next, the K2 climber heads up steepening snow slopes to the infamous Bottleneck, a narrow 300-foot couloir of ice and snow as steep as 80 degrees at 26,900 feet (8,200 meters). Above overhangs the 300-foot-high (100 meters) ice cliffs of a hanging glacier clinging to the ridge just below the summit. The Bottleneck has been the scene of many tragic deaths, including several in 2008 when the serac broke loose, raining huge chunks of ice on climbers and sweeping away fixed ropes, marooning climbers above the couloir. Climb challenging and steep ice up The Bottleneck with your crampon front points to a tricky and delicate traverse left on steep 55-degree snow and ice below the serac. A thin fixed rope is often left on the traverse and in The Bottleneck to allow climbers to safely ascend this section and to quickly descend out of danger.

To the Summit

After the long ice traverse below the serac, the route ascends 300 feet up steep wind-packed snow to the final summit ridge. This ice-enameled helmet is not a place to linger. Several climbers, including the great British alpinist Alison Hargreaves and five companions in 1995, were swept to icy oblivion off this snow helmet by gale-force winds. Now all that remains is a sharp snowy ridge that climbs 75 feet to the airy 28,253-foot (8,612-meter) summit of K2--the second highest point on the earth's surface.

The Dangerous Descent

You've made it. Take a few photographs and smile for the camera on the summit but don't linger. Daylight is burning and there is lots of difficult, scary, and dangerous climbing to do between the summit and Camp 4 below. Many accidents occur on the descent. The most startling statistic is that one in every seven climbers who reaches K2's summit dies on the descent. If you don't use supplemental oxygen, it's one in five. Just remember--the summit is optional but returning safe and sound to Base Camp is mandatory.