Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»Big River« is what the Athabascan Indians call the Yukon. It’s one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohrbach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.
“Out of my league. I will never climb this colossus,” Tamara Lunger thought when she first beheld K2 in 2012. Back then, on her way to Broad Peak (8,051 meters), she was standing on Concordia, in the heart of the Karakoram range, the starting point for expeditions to K2.
She felt fear, awe and respect rising.
When Tamara once again spots the 8,611-meter high massif, something in her has changed. K2 is brightly illuminated; the rugged peaks rise up to the sky. The steep rock presents itself in all its magnificence. Snow glistens in the more shallow passages. At the foot of the eight-thousander, the wide crevasses move towards the base camp. The air is icy, the sky is blue.
That’s when the beast became a prince.
“The mountain’s beauty and grandeur were ineffable.” K2 is no longer terrifying or causes a feeling of discomfort. In fact, it’s warm and friendly. “I can best describe this harmony as being in love,” Tamara says. “When I really love a man, I already feel excited days before I see him to finally hold him in my arms.” That’s what it’s like with this mountain. And this although K2 has already taken the lives of over 80 mountain climbers and is said to be one of the most difficult among the eight-thousanders. Never before did Tamara feel so strongly drawn towards a mountain.
* * *
When Tamara was 15 years old, she saw a picture of Manuela di Centa in an Italian newspaper. She was standing on top of a high mountain, the headline read: Manuela di Centa is the first Italian to reach Mount Everest without oxygen. That’s when Tamara knew that someday, at the right time, she would get her opportunity. She would stand on top of the world’s tallest mountain without oxygen. She was sure of it.
Tamara grew up in South Tyrol as the eldest of three sisters. Tamara’s parents didn’t have a lot of money, but it was enough to provide for the substantial things in life. On the weekends, they drove out with their VW bus, cheering on their father at his bike races. He was her great hero, Tamara was his biggest fan.
From early on, Tamara had demanded everything from her body: as a young girl, she had been discovered by the Italian national team during a ski-tour race. She won medals, stood on the podium over and over again. She suppressed the pain in her knee. The sport made her happy – to a certain extent. “Everybody saw my success, my victories. But nobody saw my pain, my tears and my despair.” Sometimes, Tamara started to cry during training.
Winner Italian Ski Mountaineering Championships 2006 & 2008
Winner Ski Mountaineering World Championships, 2008
Island Peak, 6189 meters, 2009
Lhotse, 8516 meters, 2010
Khan Tengri, 7010 meters, 2011
Muztgah Ata, 7546 Meter, 2012
Pik Lenin, 7134 meters, 2013
Winner Trans Alpine Run, 2014
Only after a long period of therapy did the pain in her knee subside. But Tamara’s career as a ski-tour racer was over.
She had new goals: the extreme mountain climber Simone Moro wanted to take her to Nepal.
Soon the time had come: although Simone Moro had never witnessed Tamara at sports, he trusted her abilities. The professional mountain climber got her equipped, introduced Tamara to the expedition group and traveled with her to the Himalaya.
Once in Nepal, Tamara sat down on a giant rock, her hair dancing in the wind.
“I never had any doubts. I always knew that one day I’d be there – in my dreams.”
And although China had shortly before closed the border in Tibet and Tamara didn’t set a foot on Cho Oyu on her first trip to Nepal, Simone Moro was able to teach her all she needed to know about high mountains on Chukhung Peak (5,555 meters) and Island Peak (6,189 meters).
* * *
Tamara’s decision for K2 is rather on short notice. Although the year had been one of athletic success, Tamara had to fight with a loss. “I thought I’d found my love in life,” Tamara said. “But after some time he chose the mountains – and his freedom – over me.” The breakup pulled the rug out from under her.
“To be honest, at that time, I wouldn’t have cared whether I returned or not.”
Never before had Tamara been on an expedition with Klaus Gruber. They had met once and talked a few times on the phone. But she felt he was the right one for K2.
The road to K2 isn’t an easy one: the strict military in Pakistan forbids them to journey on, and then it is broken bridges and broken-down cars that make it hard to get to Askoli, from where they’re supposed to start trekking to the base camp.
Once they’re finally in Askoli, Tamara’s Achilles tendon is hurting, her skin is peeling off and itching water blisters are forming in the insides of her fingers.
Since a ski tour in Turkey, Tamara’s skin is so burnt that nothing helps. “At home this wouldn’t have been a biggie, but here, where you have only the bare essentials und have to focus on the peak, it’s also a mental burden.”
Still, Tamara knows: she’s in the right place. In between towering giants of ice, facing the 8,611-meter high massif, the second tallest mountain on earth.
* * *
At the base camp of K2, Tamara performs her daily beauty routine: liver compresses against the itching, cream and milk powder bath for her skin. The swelling goes back, her skin improves.
Tamara and Klaus soon trek to the first camp at an altitude of roughly 6,000 meters. At first, the path is level before the crevasses get bigger and bigger. From there, keeping to their left, Tamara and Klaus cross the séracs – white glistening towers of glacial ice.
Italians, a Nepalese women’s expedition, Macedonians and many other mountain climbers want to climb K2 that summer. For Tamara and Klaus, there’s hardly any room in Camp I. The spots that are available are either too steep or in danger of rockfall. On two square meters, they put up their tent against a hillside.
The next day, they continue to Camp II: the path is steep, the rocky passages grow more numerous. Before they reach “Bill’s Chimney”, a crack in the rock that runs upwards in a vertical direction, there’s a vertical wall they have to overcome. The rock is icy, the wind blows in their faces. But Tamara feels good.
Bill’s Chimney is one of the most challenging passages on the Abruzzi route.
After five hours, Klaus and Tamara reach the second camp – sheltered by a huge rock at about 6,700 meters.
Destroyed tents, plastic waste, empty oxygen bottles, old clothes: Camp II is littered with the old belongings of previous mountain climbers. Seventy to eighty tents, frozen into eternal ice. Left behind by exhausted mountain climbers who didn’t have anymore energy or who left their lives on the mountain.
After one night, Klaus and Tamara return to the base camp before starting their third phase of acclimatization. Not far from her tent at the base camp, Tamara soon finds the mountain’s first victims. Most accidents happen at a traverse or at Bottleneck, a narrow couloir at 8,300 meters altitude. From here, the dead bodies fall into a channel, where the flowing glaciers move them towards Concordia. The remains appear time and again along the glacier tongue before they are ground up by the glacial movement.
On the flank of K2 at 7,700 meters altitude
The corpse’s hip is visible on the surface; the rest is buried in the ice. But this sight no longer pushes Tamara to her mental boundaries like four years ago. At Lhotse she had first seen a dead climber, at Cho Oyu she had even helped recover the Italian Walter Nones. Back then, the mountains had suddenly lost their beauty, their magnetism and their uniqueness.
But when Tamara now sees the remains, she has rid herself of her fears.
“Let that be the story of his life, but you are going up there – and you’re going back down.”
“Every time I go on an expedition, I’m aware that I might not see my home again,” Tamara says. “If someone dies in the mountains, then I’m consoled by believing they found it was worth the risk. I understand this passion.”
* * *
A huge tear in the tent goes all the way up from under the tent. The sides are peppered with holes. Tamara and Klaus have just reached Camp I. It is their third phase of acclimatization: this time going straight to camp two, then spending two nights at Camp III.
Tamara and Klaus temporarily glue the tear and try to repair their tent for emergencies. There are already a lot of mountain climbers and high altitude porters on the mountain that day. Most of them are already above the camp, again and again, causing rockfalls: rocks the size of a human head shoot down like cannon balls from above. Tamara can hear them from a distance. Bang! She looks up and walks to the left side that’s a bit more sheltered. A rock from this height could strike her dead.
On the next day, a bad weather front approaches the mountain. The wind howls, whirls up the snow. Before Tamara and Klaus: an almost 400-meter long wall of rock and ice. It’s the most technical passage. But after the long route at the foot of K2, Tamara welcomes the change.
Camp III, at approximately 7,300 meters, lies on the shoulder of K2. The winds here are extreme, blowing between K2 and Broad Peak and keep causing avalanches. It’s not unusual that the camps get swept away by the descending masses of snow.
It snows non-stop. Except for three Czechs, all groups decide to descend. Tamara and Klaus decide to wait a little, check the weather reports, debate. Tamara wants to stay there for two more nights, but there’s no point.
It’s too steep, the weather is too bad – they’re without a chance here against an avalanche.
The snow pinpricks Tamara’s face. She struggles with every step on her descent down. She can no longer see Klaus, the spindrift is too heavy. The fine-grained snow is whirled up by the wind and the steep slopes. Small waterfalls of snow crash down the slopes, making it hard to breathe, to see.
After arriving at Camp I, Tamara and Klaus take down their tent which is now completely torn to pieces. Slowly, the wind dies down, the route down to the base camp becomes less exhausting.
* * *
It snows for several more days. But the weather forecast is promising: many commercial groups plan to climb the peak on July 26th. The risk of running into a mass of people that’s not moving anywhere, at more than 8,000 meters altitude, is big. Nevertheless, Tamara and Klaus and a group from Italy want to join them. After all, the weather won’t stay nice forever.
“There was a special energy in the base camp: a blend of tension and anticipation.”
Tamara knows she and Klaus can do it.
On July 23rd, Tamara and Klaus set out for the peak. They already know the first part: the path is level until the glacier moves apart, then cross all the séracs until they reach the base camp on the moraine. There, they will put on their crampons and hike to Camp II. After that night, Tamara and Klaus take down their tent, in order to set it up again in Camp IV and later only return with two to the base camp.
The heavy backpack brings Tamara to her knees. It’s the heaviest backpack of the entire expedition. Again and again, she has to take it off, take a short break. After arriving in Camp III, she’s close to tears, exhausted, drained.
The route from Camp III to Camp IV is a long hike through the snow on to the shoulder of K2. On a less steep part, Tamara first beholds the giant sérac. “It was so gigantic, I couldn’t believe my own eyes”, Tamara recalls. Tamara looks up to the peak, she’s beaming.
“Joy, fear, respect – I was in a turmoil of emotions.”
The night before the final ascent, Tamara doesn’t get a wink of sleep. 20 minutes past midnight she and Klaus set out. But already shortly after Bottleneck, the narrow couloir at 8,300 meters altitude, they hardly make any progress. A seemingly never-ending queue of people – climbers sitting completely apathetic in the snow with their oxygen bottles, propped up on their thighs and trying to reach the peak with their last reserves.
Only 300 meters below the peak, the terrain opens up and levels off. “Don’t stop,” Tamara keeps telling herself. She’s overcome by fatigue like she’s never felt it before. Her body wants to sit down, sleep – no matter where and how. Tamara knows that would cost her the peak. She leaves Klaus a bit behind; she has to pull herself together and keep moving.
At 3 p.m. on July 26th, Tamara reaches the peak. Klaus arrives shortly after. Tamara’s dream has been fulfilled. Suddenly, nothing else matters: it’s all about the moment. Tamara, and the mountain and its energy. Little prayer notes are flying around everywhere. Tamara looks into the distance, and then her tears come. After all the obstacles, the pain and suffering, she did it. She has returned to herself.
“That was all I needed.”
* * *
Most accidents happen on the way down. Tamara sets out for Camp IV. She wants to wait there for Klaus. The sun has already set. The cold permeates the many layers of clothes and her body. Time and again, there is an endless jam at the descent points.
Two hours later, Klaus reaches the camp. He’s shivering.
In the night, Klaus wakes up Tamara. He’s coughing, gasping for air. “I think I have a pulmonary edema.” “I need to get down.” But from Camp IV to Camp II, there is only one fixed rope. Now, in the dark, they would get lost, fall into a crevasse or freeze to death. Over the radio, Klaus calls a renowned doctor: Fortecortin can help him. A befriended climber finally gives him the pills.
Klaus’ breathing grows more heavy.
Tamara goes outside, gets oxygen bottles that several mountain climbers have deposited in the storage for an emergency. At around one or two at night another climber comes into their tent: he thinks he too has a pulmonary edema. Tamara lays him down next to Klaus and takes turns putting the oxygen mask on each of them. After one and a half hours, the climber wants to descend, by himself. Tamara and Klaus wait until eight o’clock the next morning.
Klaus is weak. Tamara tries to stuff as much as possible into her backpack. A porter from the Pakistani and another climber offer their help.
After one hour, they reach Camp III. Short break, then on to Camp II. Klaus is slowly starting to feel better. “Now try to stay focused and no mistakes while descending,” Tamara tells herself.
Tamara checks all of her climbing protection, every rope that she hangs into. At some point she looks down the flank: she can see people at Camp I. They are awaiting the summiteers.
Tamara and Klaus are the first ones who return from the summit ascent. The base camp manager and one of their cooks give them a hug. Klaus and Tamara get to eat canned fruit salad, cookies and Coke.
“I felt like a big heroine.”
“I live for exactly these moments,” Tamara says. “When I think back to these two months, I only see what was beautiful. Nothing and nobody can give me so much in so little time. I am willing to fight for a goal, suffer for it and maybe one day die for it.”
* * *
Text: Rabea Zühlke
Videos: European Outdoor Film Tour
Photos: Tamara Lunger Archive
Translation: Kate Weyerer
The E.O.F.T. – European Outdoor Film Tour – stands for the big adventures of the 21st century, for freedom, passion, stamina, adrenaline and inspiration. With Tamara Lunger – the face of the E.O.F.T. 15/16 – we have experienced the longing for the extreme.
This year, the most renowned film event of the European outdoor community goes into its 16th round and shows the most thrilling sports- and adventure films of the year. As of fall, the 2-hour long film program will be touring again in Europe. With over 300 events in 14 countries on the tour schedule.
All information for the EUROPEAN OUTDOOR FILM TOUR at www.eoft.eu