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In recent years, the articles that Max Berger has written for ‘bergundsteigen’ have polarised opinions. The mountain guide and Country Manager for Petzl Austria has garnered recognition over the decades both for his alpine pursuits – a project of his was nominated for a Piolet d’Or this year – as well as for his wide-ranging expertise and straight-talking attitude.
This year, for the first time, he guided clients on two eight-thousand-metre peaks, so we wanted to ask him how he got on in the Karakoram.
Max, what is your background in mountaineering?
I’m actually more of a climber and ice climber. I find snow stomping less appealing.
You’re just saying that now, because you’ve just come back from Pakistan. What were you up to there?
I was on Broad Peak and K2 and paraglided down from both of them – not from the summit though.
Tackling an 8,000-metre peak for the first time when you’re 50. Is there a touch of midlife crisis going on?
No, it’s just that I’m not as strong as I used to be for rock climbing… I was working as a mountain guide for a commercial outfit and led a group of clients on two 8,000-metre peaks.
Why didn’t you just undertake the climbs yourself?
I could have gone independently, but all the logistics involved are very time-consuming, and I didn’t want to take that on. I’ve wanted to climb K2 for the last 30 years and combining it with Broad Peak for the acclimatisation was ideal.
What expectations did you have?
Anyone setting out on an 8,000-metre peak is, of course, looking to get to the summit; as a mountain guide, it’s a mark of your success if your group makes it to the top. But I was also looking forward to expedition life and being in the mountains: The atmosphere, the people and most of all whether or not I’d be able to fly from up there.
What’s so special about paragliding from that kind of altitude?
Back at home in the Alps, I combine alpinism and flying, and so being able to transfer that to the Karakoram was very enticing. Jean-Marc Boivin paraglided from the summit of Everest in 1988. Another Frenchman has flown down from Broad Peak, but otherwise, it’s still pretty uncommon. It’s partly because it’s only in recent years that the materials have become lightweight and compact enough for it to be feasible. Before, nobody wanted to lug a giant paraglider up that high.
The wing I used, a Dudek ‘Run & Fly’, weighs around 1 kg and is 18 m2. For the harness, I used my climbing harness. A single-skin wing like that is of course different to a regular paraglider, but because it’s so light it’s perfect for flying back down, even back at home.
Firstly, was the trip a success?
I made it to the summit of Broad Peak and then flew down from camp 3, at about 7,100 metres. Then, on K2 we had to turn around at the bottleneck, and so I flew back to basecamp from the col at about 8,000 metres. Everything went really smoothly up until the K2 summit attempt.
How did you manage without supplementary oxygen at that altitude?
I was surprised at how well I coped physically. It was thanks to all the acclimatisation. For six weeks before setting off, I’d slept in a hypoxic tent that uses a compressor to adjust the oxygen levels and match them to those of the altitude you select. And I had also been training on a rowing machine in simulated atmospheric conditions using a mask. Measuring the blood oxygen saturation using a pulse oximeter, you gradually increase the altitude over the pre-trip period.
The hypoxic tent covers your head and upper body, and the compressor is pretty loud, so it takes a bit of getting used to. Spending six weeks, or the equivalent of 300 hours, sleeping in that is a bit of a sufferfest…
Could I use the same method if I wanted to climb Mont Blanc over a weekend and I lived in the Ruhr Valley?
Of course, it’s the same principle. There’s clearly a market for it, and it’s sure to expand. I think this kind of altitude training is better than training on the mountain itself, where there are objective dangers etc.
That may well be. All I know is that by the time I arrived at basecamp I was really fit and fully acclimatised. I could have jogged there! Just 14 days after leaving Austria I made it to the summit of Broad Peak, without any issues – no supplementary oxygen, no headache, no significant breathing problems. Done right, acclimatising in this way works brilliantly. Lukas is a visionary and ahead of his time. His way of doing things works, and to some extent it’s revolutionising high-altitude mountaineering. That’s why it’s controversial.
You’d already climbed a few 6,000- and 7,000-metre peaks. How had you coped with the altitude then?
On the whole, I cope quite well with altitude and I’ve never had any real problems with it. But I’ve never felt as good as I did on this expedition.
On the summit ridge of Broad Peak, you’re at around 8,000 metres for over one and a half kilometres, which is extremely tough, but for me it was fine. K2 was of course more technically demanding, and while most opted for the Abruzzi Spur, I joined up with one of the team members and his Sherpa to climb the Cesen route.
Where you ended up turning around.
Yes, we turned around at the bottleneck because there was simply too much snow and it was too avalanche prone.
A couple of days later, a team of 20 climbers made it to the summit of K2. Had you made the wrong decision?
Hindsight is always a good thing. At the time that we were there it was definitely too dangerous and everyone on that section of the mountain that day turned around. Making progress was out of the question, in no small part because the snow came up to our chests. Whether the conditions were better a couple of days later, I can’t say. A team of Sherpas – as you already confirmed – took a great risk and cut tracks to the summit. There must have been an element of luck. It could just as easily have ended disastrously…
Does it bother you though, that you didn’t make it to the summit?
Bother is the wrong word, and I’m old enough (and wise enough) now that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. But of course, when you’ve had the summit in your sights, you do ask yourself what might have been if… But that’s just the way it goes.
Having said that, before we turned back, three avalanches had been set off and two people were hurt. That’s not funny when you still have to descend from 8,000 metres. But they were lucky their injuries were just on their hands and elbows. If it had been their feet or legs, they’d probably still be up there now.
Do 8,000 metres mountains pose a greater risk than here in the Alps?
Well, on 8,000ers people simply take greater risks. Things are done that you would never do in the Alps. For example, who would spend four hours making tracks under a serac here? Nobody does that. Just like nobody would think of heading up a 50° slope with two metres of fresh snow on it. It’s unthinkable. But when you’re there, it’s what’s done.
Do they just blank it out, or is it a conscious decision?
There are some up there who know what they’re doing, and they are fully aware of the risks they are taking. But most of the paying clients have very little idea what’s going on around them. They just follow the tracks in front of them.
Speaking of paying clients, expedition mountaineering in commercial groups with mountain guides, Sherpas etc. has gone out of fashion for “real” alpinists and an 8,000-metre peak only truly counts if it’s done in alpine style and without oxygen. How many small independent teams like that did you witness on Broad Peak and K2 this year?
On Broad Peak I don’t think there were any and on K2, maybe two or three. But it doesn’t have anything to do with alpine style, because once fixed lines are laid and camps established, you can’t really call it alpine style anymore. Nobody can tell me that they don’t use the fixed lines and that they break their own trail. They use the infrastructure set up by the big operators.
The number of climbing permits issued for K2 this year was well over one hundred. What’s it like at K2 Basecamp?
Well, it’s pretty busy. There are around 400 people at basecamp – a total of five or six commercial outfits, each with 20 or more clients and as many again in Sherpas and porters.
You were there as a mountain guide for a commercial outfit like that. What exactly was your job description?
Being a mountain guide out there is not in the same vein as it is in the Alps. You’re an expedition leader, an on-location organiser, who checks that all the clients have all the right equipment, that there’s enough oxygen, that the Sherpas have enough gas to cook with, that teams don’t go out if the weather forecast is bad. They choose the best routes, and as in our case, they also decide when to turn back.
On the mountain, every client has their own personal Sherpa who acts as their own mountain guide. I think it’s the same with most of the other operators. They’re not just a porter or someone who brews their tea. They manage the whole situation and call the shots; like what time to set off, when to turn around, when to use emergency oxygen, or in the worst case, they administer first aid to the client etc. etc.
So, without Sherpas, nothing would work. My job is just overseeing it all.
On Broad Peak, only one of the four climbers in my team made it to the summit. One of them just wanted to acclimatise and two of them didn’t feel fit enough for it and turned around on the mountain. In general, the clients move independently on the mountain and not as a team. They are just paired with their Sherpas. The Sherpas use oxygen on the summit day because for them it’s a job and by then they’ve just come back from climbing Everest.
I get the impression there isn’t much cooperation between the commercial outfits. How was it between the teams there?
That always depends on the people involved. I got on with everyone there, and we worked well together, fixed lines together and helped each other out. It all went really well.
Do you also coordinate tactics and timings to avoid queues etc.?
Of course. We agree on who will push for the summit when etc. It just gets tricky when there’s only a small weather window and then everyone wants to seize the chance of course. But that wasn’t an issue for us this time, and we staggered our departures just as we’d arranged – especially on K2, as there isn’t room for lots of people.
We didn’t experience any competitiveness or conflict, but I know that’s not always the case. If the climbers and operators aren’t willing or able to work together, then they sometimes clash. But it’s the same in the Alps and in all areas of life, I suppose.
Did you notice any differences between the Western and Asian operators?
In general, all of them were well organised. The main difference is that the Asian operators have more clients with them. As opposed to four or six, they had 20 clients or more. There are also differences in the way clients are vetted – and that goes for all the operators. Some, for example, will only take clients on K2 who have already climbed Everest, or who can evidence they’ve climbed certain peaks. Others accept anyone and you can really tell, already at basecamp.
What are the requirements for a mountain guide in the greater ranges?
It’s most important to have leadership skills, or better put assertiveness, otherwise you’re finished. Starting with the porters – who might refuse to go any further, or might ask for double the wages if they aren’t given clear leadership – through to the kitchen staff, who have to do their job well, and the Sherpas who you can’t just let do whatever they want. We had an excellent team of Sherpas and kitchen crew; everything ran like clockwork.
And finally, the hardest part of all, is managing your team of paying clients. These are mostly people who have a lot of money, they’re very successful in their careers and are used to being the one that calls the shots. When they’re out there, they have to understand that they’re not in charge but that we are there to help them achieve their objective.
It’s a bit of a cliché isn’t it? The wealthy business tycoon who wants the trophy of an 8,000-metre peak.
Well, that’s just the way it goes. Alpinists who save up for years in order to climb the mountain of their dreams – they’re pretty few and far between.
What criteria would I need to fulfil as a client, if I wanted to join an expedition like yours?
The main thing you’ve got to be is fit and – how should I put it – strong willed enough to make it to the summit and endure the suffering.
So, fun doesn’t come into it?
Truth be told, fun comes way down the list. In the end, it’s really about the achievement.
Are there times when you do really enjoy it?
Sure, it’s pretty cool when you’re up in front on the Cesen route on K2 and heading for the summit. You’re tired from breaking trail and pushing hard but you have this inner determination to get to the top.
And that’s what’s different from a ‘non-alpinist’ who just wants to be able to say they made it to the summit.
But a good expedition leader is judged by their ability to get clients to the top and not on how happy they are whilst doing it.
On Broad Peak, we had one client who made it, and on K2 we had to turn back unfortunately.
I should explain, I was a last-minute substitute on Broad Peak, because the mountain guide they had enlisted became sick and had to be flown out. My role was really to make things run smoothly on K2.
Was this a one-off thing for you or will we soon be seeing you again on an 8,000 m peak?
In the right circumstances I can see myself doing it again. At least I know what to expect now.
There are stories circulating of clients who don’t know how to put on their crampons by the time they get to basecamp, or how to clip into the fixed line with a jumar. Surely that’s overblown!
It’s not quite as bad as that, but some people’s mountain knowledge is, how should I say, very limited.
But those people don’t stand a chance of making it to the summit, right?
They’ve got just the same chance as anyone else. It’s surprising what is possible with enough determination, Sherpas, tracks cut, and lines fixed.
But they would use supplementary oxygen, wouldn’t they?
Most of them, yes. But it’s not unfeasible for a person who is super fit but has little mountaineering experience to make it to the summit of a high mountain – even an 8,000er – without any Os.
The problem is that it’s a very fine line between success and tragedy. Especially when someone doesn’t really know what they’re doing. You just have to look back at the disaster that took place on K2 in 2008, when several climbers couldn’t make it back down after they’d reached the summit because a serac had collapsed, ripping out the fixed lines. This and other factors resulted in 11 people losing their lives over the two days.
Something similar could have happened this year too. Another small avalanche, the fixed lines being ripped out, and people might have been stuck above it…
Do the clients realise that?
No, they’re blissfully unaware. Most of them have no idea what risks and dangers exist in the mountains – and not just the high ones either. The majority of clients simply put one foot after the other, following the trail, without thinking.
Are you philosophical about the fact or do you feel the need, as a ‘mature’ mountaineer and mountain guide, to change things?
No, there’s nothing to change. It’s just the age we live in. These 8,000-metre expeditions are commercial businesses and basically, everyone has the right to go up a mountain. There’s nothing to be changed about it. You just have to decide for yourself whether or not you want to be part of it. If not, then forget about climbing an 8,000-metre peak.
Some of the old guard in particular claim that this has nothing to do with mountaineering anymore.
I fully agree. 8,000ers aren’t about mountaineering in the classical sense. Sure, you can pick out a new route, or repeat difficult routes, but as soon as you attempt one of the classical routes, you’re dealing with the whole infrastructure that’s in place. As an individual alpinist there’s nothing there for you.
But it’s no different to what we ‘mountain guides’ have created in the Alps. We take people up Mont Blanc, the Großglockner or the Matterhorn, who wouldn’t be able to make it up there on their own. We’ve fixed lines and hammered in steel pegs, and lately you have to show you have a reservation at a hut to get your permit. Should the Swiss side become too expensive, you go to the Italian side of the Matterhorn. So, on the 8,000ers there is nothing outlandish, unusual or morally reprehensible going on. It’s exactly how we do things in the Alps.
To be included in the elite ranks of 8,000-metre climbers is surely a highlight of your alpine career.
Not at all. I’ve done many other things that are more significant to me. Ok, the two paraglide flights were excellent, they were really up there among the best things I’ve done.
But in terms of mountaineering, an 8,000-metre peak isn’t really much to brag about. Of course, that’s easy for me to say now. But what’s still astonishing is the media response from an 8,000-metre ascent. It’s unbelievable. Nobody’s interested in all the other things I’ve done that were substantially harder and more challenging.
Like last year, when Hansjörg Auer, Much Mayr, Guido Unterwurzacher and I made the first ascent of an unnamed, unclimbed 6,050-metre peak in the Indian Himalaya via an incredible route, and were even nominated for a Piolet d’Or.
In terms of the experience, that mountain is much more noteworthy than Broad Peak – not another soul there, no porters, no support. Just virgin ground and climbing with like-minded friends. It’s a totally different style of mountaineering.
Nonetheless, the high mountains do somehow have a magical draw.
Questions by Peter Plattner
First image: Juan Carlos San Sotero
Images: Berger collection