Among the countless peaks around the world that have yet to be skied, one stands alone in prestige and allure: the 28,251-foot K2. The reasons it remains unskied are many—fatal exposure on much of the route, notoriously harsh weather, an oxygen shortage—but they do not include a lack of interest.
Over the past 25 years, a handful of the most accomplished steep skiers in history have tried to notch the first descent of K2—skiing off the summit and continuing uninterrupted as far as conditions allow back to base camp. All have failed. At least two, close friends and ski partners Michele Fait of Italy and Fredrik Ericsson of Sweden, died during their attempts. Fait fell while skiing low on the peak in 2009, and Ericsson fell near the summit during his ascent in 2010.
In recent weeks, two more aspirants began trekking into the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan to try to notch the historic first descent, which could happen anytime from mid-July through early August. One is Davo Karnicar, a 54-year-old father of seven from Slovenia who made the only complete ski descent of Mount Everest in October 2000, five years after he completed the first full descent of Annapurna with his younger brother, Drejc. The other is 29-year-old Andrzej Bargiel of Poland, who brings an impressive résumé of his own, having skied Shishapangma in 2013, Manaslu in 2014, and Broad Peak in 2015, the first complete descent of that mountain.
Though the two men do not know each other—and each is organizing his own expedition and support teams—their simultaneous attempts set the stage for a month of two-plankin’ intrigue unlike any in K2’s history.
Karnicar first attempted to ski K2 in 1993. But when a storm blew away his unanchored skis at 25,900 feet, he aborted his climb despite still feeling strong enough to summit. He has thought about the peak ever since, waiting for someone to ski it, wondering if he should return. Before he left for Pakistan, Karnicar said he wants to ski K2 for everyone who has failed, especially those who perished. “Each try to ski, each experience on the mountain, because of them I’m much closer,” he said. “We don’t know each other, but we are like one group with the same wish.”
Bargiel, meanwhile, observed K2 from Broad Peak in 2015 and says that he views it as “a next step” in his ski career, which began with skimo races in Poland and advanced to 8,000-meter peak expeditions starting in 2012. Both he and Karnicar dismiss any notion that they will compete for the first descent. “Safety is number one, and I believe we’re going to work together instead of everyone on his own,” Bargiel says. “Davo is very experienced, and I’m really looking forward to talk with him and share opinion on how to approach K2.”