Woman Reaches K2's Summit, And A Place In History

Aug 25, 2011
Originally published on August 26, 2011 9:50 am

At more than 28,000 feet, K2 is the second-highest mountain in the world. And when Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner reached its summit this week, she became the first woman to climb all 14 of the world's tallest peaks without using any supplementary oxygen.

Morning Edition guest host David Greene caught up with Kaltenbrunner, of Austria, at K2's upper base camp, speaking over a crackling satellite phone connection. She and her husband, Ralf Dujmovits, have also been writing a blog from the mountain for the National Geographic website.

"It was a big challenge, and now, finally, we could reach the top," she said.

Straddling the Pakistan-China border, K2 is known as the "Savage Mountain," because it presents such a treacherous climb for the alpinists who hope to reach its summit.

On her climb, Kaltenbrunner's husband — who has previously climbed K2 — ended his attempt to reach the summit.

"He tried to convince me to come back with him, of course," Kaltenbrunner says, "because he has another view of risk than I have. But I could convince him that I have a very good feeling, I know that there is avalanche danger, but we can avoid the danger somehow. I had a very good feeling."

Kaltenbrunner, 40, approached the summit along with three other climbers, coming from the Chinese side of K2 — considered a longer and more difficult climb than ascending from the Pakistani side.

She had already tried to climb the mountain at least four times; several of her teammates died in those attempts, including one last year.

"He tried to live his dreams, and we do the same," she says of her 2010 teammate, Fredrik Ericsson. "We know that something can happen. But the mountain is still there — very beautiful, very powerful."

During their two-month trek to K2's summit, the team of climbers sometimes waded through waist-deep snow and had to fight high winds. There were moments when Kaltenbrunner said it was so cold, she lost feeling in her fingers and toes.

But at the top, Kaltenbrunner says, the view from the peak was magical. In her words, it was "the most wonderful moment ever."

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

Kaltenbrunner is a part of a National Geographic expedition. She and her team approached K2's summit from the Chinese side of the mountain, which is considered a longer and more difficult climb than ascending from the Pakistani side.

M: Four times I'd tried already on the south side, on the Pakistani side. There were some very big moments with accidents, sometimes bad weather or too much snow. It was a big challenge, and now, finally, we could reach the top.

GREENE: I know your husband has made it to the top of K2. He was with you on part of this trip but decided, hearing about the avalanche dangers, to turn back and go back to base camp. Did he try to convince you to come with him?

M: Yes, he tried to convince me to come back with him, of course, because he has another view of risk than I have. But I could convince him that I have a very good feeling. I know that there is avalanche danger, but we can avoid the danger somehow. I had a very good feeling. And I spoke with my other team members and we decided to continue and (unintelligible) with it.

GREENE: Gerlinde, this is a very dangerous mountain and there have been fatalities, people attempting to climb K2. And I understand one of your team members last year died on the mountain. What - how did you keep going? How did you have the stamina to try it again this year?

M: Last year, it was really a very critical moment for me when Fredrik fell down, but I know that he tried to live his dreams, and we do the same. And we know that something can happen. But the mountain is still there - very beautiful, very powerful. And I needed some time to let past what happened on K2 last year, but then I got the very strong feeling to return.

GREENE: Now that you've climbed all 14 major peaks in the world, what's next?

M: Good question. Now I'm just so happy about K2. Now I have to stay with this. And I know that there are many plans and dreams in my mind about other mountains. I think mountaineering will be my passion until the very end. Sure.

GREENE: Gerlinde, congratulations and I hope you get some time to relax now.

M: Thank you very much.

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GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.