On May 17, 10 weeks before they stood on the summit, Wilco and Gerard and the rest of their team gathered in sweltering Islamabad, Pakistan. From there it was a two-day drive along the Karakoram Highway to Skardu, then another day by jeep to the village of Askole: the end of the road. With an army of 100 porters, each carrying a 50-pound barrel of gear and provisions for the long siege of the mountain, they marched for a week up mountain trails to K2 Base Camp, a moonscape of shattered rock atop the crevasse-riven Baltoro Glacier at 16,000 feet.
Wilco had recruited seven climbers he really trusted and secured sponsorship from Norit, a Dutch water-purification company. Along with Gerard there were Cas van de Gevel, a broad-shouldered and soft-spoken boyhood friend whom Wilco had climbed with for decades, and Pemba Gyalje, a Nepalese Sherpa who had summited Everest a half-dozen times, as well as several younger climbers.
The first team to arrive for the 2008 climbing season, Norit K2 had Base Camp to themselves for several weeks, and they quickly set to work. Wilco's plan was to follow the Cesen Route up the flanks of K2, establishing a series of camps connected by fixed safety lines. It was to be a classic siege-style attack, setting 2.5 miles of fixed ropes up the mountainside to ferry supplies and equipment among four rather precariously situated camps. Their camp had a mess tent, a shower tent, a solar-powered internet hookup, even a refrigerator hacked into the glacier.
None of the team members would use supplementary oxygen, and the only Sherpa that they would rely on was Pemba, a full member of the expedition and the team's most experienced mountaineer. Climbing K2 is a colossal physical undertaking, but the work of fixing the lines – setting up higher and higher camps and moving up and down the route – would help prepare them for their final push to the summit. Only 50 climbers had ever reached the top of K2 via the Cesen, but both Wilco and Gerard considered this newer route to be safer.
During downtime Gerard wrote occasional dispatches to friends and family: a good-luck wish to his girlfriend back in Alaska, who was climbing Denali; a thanks to his mother for sending some holy water. For the most part the outside world faded away, and the team focused on the vast brooding pyramid that "we hope to befriend over the coming weeks," Gerard wrote. The mountain did not seem overly friendly. Jet-stream winds raked the summit, and avalanches rumbled ominously down its sides, sometimes sliding almost to Base Camp itself. At night the glacier groaned and cracked as it inched its way down the valley, sometimes disgorging the remains of dead climbers brought down from the upper slopes by avalanche: a human rib, a skeletal leg sticking out of a boot, an entire torso with the face half-pecked away by crows.
The climbing season is short in the Karakoram, from mid-June to early September, and in the first weeks of June a virtual UN of expeditions began to arrive to prepare for their own summit bids. A French team came, then a large, heavily outfitted Korean expedition, which had flown in several Nepalese Sherpas at great expense. Most other expeditions relied on Pakistani high-altitude porters, or HAPs, who were paid $2,500 each, with a $1,000 summit bonus, roughly equal to the average annual income in Pakistan.
They were followed by Serbians, Austrians, Singaporeans, and an Italian pair that included Marco Confortola, a 37-year-old alpine guide from Padua, with a gold hoop earring and a buzz cut. There was also an American-led expedition that included Eric Meyer, a 44-year-old anesthesiologist and specialist in high-altitude medicine from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The only medical doctor in Base Camp, Meyer became the de facto GP, doing everything from diagnosing acute mountain sickness to pulling rotted teeth.
Gerard's friend Rolf Bae, 33, a Norwegian polar-exploration legend, arrived in camp fresh from a 27-day ascent of 20,623-foot Great Trango Tower. He came to climb K2 with his wife Cecilie Skog, 33, the only woman to reach the seven summits and both poles. They formed a strikingly beautiful and charismatic couple, having been recently married and full of plans for a life of adventures together. By late June the population of Base Camp had swelled to around 80, the brightly colored tents scattered across the gray expanse of the glacier like candy sprinkles. It was still a far cry from Everest, with its internet cafe and high-paying clients.
Of all the international mountaineers who had arrived in Base Camp by the end of June, only Shaheen Baig, a skilled Pakistani HAP, had previously stood atop K2. Despite all their preparation and training, none of the other climbers was familiar with the uppermost reaches of the mountain. If for some reason Shaheen Baig could not make it, the summit push would become that much more difficult.
As June wore into July, the peak remained almost perpetually shrouded in storm clouds. The Norit K2 team made a dash for the summit around July 4, only to turn back before reaching Camp 4 when a brief weather window slammed shut. "Morale hit a new low for the team," wrote Gerard on July 16.
Whiling away the seemingly interminable days in Base Camp, Wilco worked on a meticulous model of an old barn he was renovating in Holland. Gerard, a talented musician, kept his spirits up by playing drums with the HAPs and camp staff on upturned supply barrels. When a pregnant mouse started hanging around the mess tent he named her Sheena and serenaded her with the old Ramones tune "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." Voluble and friendly, the Irishman was well-known and well liked in every expedition's camp. He kept his hopes up for a change in weather, but he knew the short season was dwindling away. Even some of the food barrels were beginning to run low. Still the team tried to stay hopeful. A snapshot shows a party they threw for their Italian friends, a few precious cans of beer scattered on the table, Marco's arm thrown around Gerard's shoulders.
To keep their hard-won acclimatization, small groups would hike to the Base Camps of neighboring peaks, or trek up to the Gilkey Memorial, a cairn of glacial stones erected by an American expedition in 1953 after the death of their 27-year-old teammate Art Gilkey. The entire team had abandoned its summit bid in a fruitless effort to save Gilkey's life, at great risks to themselves. Their actions are now legendary among mountaineers and are often cited as representing the highest ideals of selflessness and teamwork, the very soul of mountaineering. The cairn has since become a monument to all K2's fallen, adorned with plaques and tin plates stamped with the names and dates of those who never returned.
So late in the season, it became clear that any sign of decent weather would lead to a rush on the peak. There were big egos on K2, of course, not the least of which was Wilco, who worried that some of the other expeditions weren't as well organized as his own. Wilco was especially critical of independent climbers who show up in camp and sponge off more prepared expeditions. He mentions Nick Rice, a 22-year-old self-styled "extreme high-altitude athlete" from California, who brought a generator to run his blogging laptop but no rope. "This is not how you climb K2," says Wilco.
With so many climbers on the mountain, the teams recognized that their best hope was to work together, to avoid getting in one another's way. A successful summit push would require careful planning of who would bring what supplies to Camp 4 at 26,000 feet – particularly the final sections of rope to be fixed on the route toward the summit. "The expedition leaders met 10 times. We were really ready for it together," says Wilco.
Only, the weather failed to cooperate. On July 20, frustrated by the heavy snow and wind, a 61-year-old independent French climber named Hugues d'Auberede decided to give up and head home. But two days later there was a great surprise: Four independent weather reports, paid for by different expeditions, identified a likely shift in the jet stream by the end of July. "Just skip your work for another two or three weeks and then you can summit K2," Wilco told him. Hugues phoned his wife in France and decided to stay.
"Morale in camp is very high," wrote Gerard in a dispatch. "Electric."
Final preparations were made, and the strategy was set. A large group – the Koreans, Serbians, Norwegians, Americans, Austrians, Spaniards, and Italians – would start up the standard Abruzzi Route on July 27. The following day the Norit K2 team, along with Hugues and a few others, would ascend the Cesen Route. The two teams would converge July 31 at Camp 4, on a corniced ridge called the Shoulder. They would join forces to set fixed ropes for the final push to the summit, more than 2,000 vertical feet above.
Before leaving Base Camp, Gerard sent one final message, finishing with the lines: "Let luck and good fortune prevail!!! Fingers crossed. Sin e anois a cháirde. Ta an t-am ag teacht."
The last lines were in Irish Gaelic. They mean, "That's all for now, friends. The time is coming."