A successful summit and return on K2 — the most savage mountain on this planet of ours – seemed elusive, out of reach and something that just might not happen for the Irish. For decades, K2, standing at a mighty 8,611 metres, has pushed climbers and mountaineers to their limits, mentally, physically and emotionally. With just over 300 successful summits and more than 77 fatalities, the stats speak for themselves. For every four people that reach the summit, one dies. Yet still they come, still they risk it all to climb and try in vain to conquer and tame K2.
Two Irish (one from the Republic, one from the North) showed up on the Pakistani-Chinese border in July to add their names to the history books. Within hours of each other both successfully did — first, Noel Hanna and then Jason Black. We caught up with Jason Black (47) for a raw, honest and all around epic account of his life and his time on K2.
Can you track your pathway into adventure and endurance sports?
At 17 years old I reached a crossroads in my life where turning left and turning right was an option. My mother died of cancer and her death really destabilized me as a young boy. I had already come through a bad process of bullying. I basically was at the mercy of a really violent thug for five years. I walked out of school with basically no education and no qualifications. Like any good family, especially any Irish family, the mother is always the rock in the home and losing her was incredibly tough. It sent me spiralling down this deep, dark road.
Sport was the one thing that caught me, that didn’t judge me and it allowed me to be me. The great outdoors was my salvation; it was my survival kit. It just took away the anger, frustration and annoyance of being bullied and losing my mom. I couldn’t see out before that. I was quite depressed and it was a time when we didn’t even know what depression was. It was a very dark part of my life, even to the point that I didn’t want to be in this world anymore. I suppose looking back on it today I owe my life to sport.
This was your second time attempting K2?
Yes, an avalanche ended the first one back in 2015. We got to Camp Three after 20 days of continuous climbs. The team was all back down at Camp One and all was going well when the mountain became very unstable and then an avalanche struck. Camp Three was completely wiped out. I lost all my critical equipment; stove, tents and food. That meant the end of the attempt for me. I felt extremely cheated. Mother Nature played her role and I vowed I would go back.
But K2 has a financial burden attached to it, as well as an emotional and physical one. It took some time for me to dial back in again, to have a good look at myself and ask the really honest question of, ‘do I really want to return, knowing what could happen?’ But I felt like I had a stone in my shoe for three or four years that kept niggling at me. I knew I had to go back. I knew my destiny was with K2.
And back you went, but it was not easy. Two of your teammates fell to their deaths. What happened?
I had been climbing with Serge Dessureault, a French Canadian climber back in 2015. You build a relationship with people on a mountain, you all come from a background where there’s a reason you’re taking on a mountain like K2. To witness someone fall to his or her death, it’s tragic and it’s very hurtful.
Serge was between Camp Two and Camp Three when his rope snapped. It was the same rope that we all had been using. A lot of things run through your mind, like that could have been me. He fell 1000m, right past my right shoulder. It completely unnerves you; you’re double-checking your equipment and yourself. And you realize going into the likes of K2, the statistics are stacked against you, with a one in four recoveries on the mountain.
Then on the final two days, we were climbing up the bottleneck and the serac that sits above you is twice the size of any cathedral. I was below it for eight hours and then on up to the traverse, which is a 500m traverse. It’s just one foot wide and to your left hand side is a 1000m drop. One minute we’re climbing away and next thing we witness the Japanese climber, Kojiro Watanabe, fall to his death. He just got his footing wrong and dropped right in front of our eyes. It’s so hard to witness but you’ve just got to really believe in yourself and try to keep going.
At sea level, if I feel like giving up, I can put my hand up and a car will pull up or I can stop running, turn around and go home. Up there, there is no putting your hand up. If you decide to back down at high altitude, you’re in trouble. Yet I never considered quitting, that was not an option for me. It never really is an option for me.
“One minute we’re climbing away and next thing we witness the Japanese climber Kojiro Watanabe fall to his death. He just got his footing wrong and dropped right in front of our eyes.”
You have a wife and four children, how do you feel leaving them each time you head out on these extreme adventures?
Not only do you yourself go on the expedition but also your whole fraternity, community and friendship circle goes on an expedition. And that is challenging and it’s selfish. In order for me to follow my dreams in life, I’m playing with my life and there’s a strong chance that I’m not coming home.
For me, it’s like cutting an umbilical cord every time I leave my wife and kids. I’m just blessed to have a wife that has an understanding of what I do. Without a doubt, Sharon is 50% of the success of what I do. Ultimately, I’ve got to leave with a clear conscious and be focused and determined on the challenge ahead and not feel guilty.
You are the third Irish person to summit K2. Northern Irish Mountaineer Noel Hanna claimed the second spot just hours ahead of you but tell us about the first.
In 2008 the first and only Irish summiteer, before Noel and myself, lost his life on the descent of K2 when he was trying to save another team. Ger McDonnell was his name. A Korean team had gotten into bother and when other members of Ger’s team chose to pass, he didn’t. He chose to stop and help them. An avalanche hit. Eleven people died on K2 that day. They never recovered Ger’s body. I went to see his family before I left on this expedition and I took a plaque and Ger’s jumar to K2 to commemorate him.
“To be on a 500m vertical ascent on black sheet ice where your crampons, ice axes and your jumar are your only point of contact with the land. Knowing that at any moment that could be the end. If you can’t commit whole-heartedly to this mountain, you’re going to fall, you’re going to die.”
You have climbed Everest before, in the eyes of the masses that is the toughest climb in the world. Is K2 a different beast altogether?
In 2013 I climbed the North Face of Everest. I wanted the purest climb. I’m not someone who signs up to be babysat on a mountain. It was brutal but K2, by a long shot, takes the number one spot. I now know why there is only a little over 300 mountaineers in the world that have gotten there, because beyond the Black Pyramid and House’s Chimney, it is a whole different world. It’s not the big long slog of an 8,000m mountain; the technical aspect of climbing K2 is phenomenal. The bottleneck for me was so treacherous, so technical and required every piece of mountaineering skill that was in my body to get up it.
To be right on the wire on the traverse and then onto another 500m vertical ascent on black sheet ice where your crampons, ice axes and your jumar are your only point of contact with the land. Knowing that at any moment that could be the end. If you can’t commit wholeheartedly to this mountain, you’re going to fall, you’re going to die.
But when I stood on that summit, the feeling of pride was incredible. As an Irishman with the tricolour in my hands, all those years of training and all those years of commitment had come to its fruition. Here I was, standing on one of the greatest summits in the world. It was so powerful, so emotional and so humbling. It was a different experience to possibly all the other mountains that I’ve stood upon. I’ve been from the gutter to the summit of K2. It’s the summit of my life.
Listen to the entire interview of Jason Black’s K2 expedition:
Like this? Check out these other articles: