In the first of a new series of features, we’d like to share our favourite stories from the wide world of sport that embody the spirit of adventure. Whilst cycling, running, swimming and other traditional endurance sports will always be the closest to our hearts, we are constantly inspired by tales of commitment, determination and accomplishment across all sports. A love of the outdoors, physical activity and achievement unite us.
The first athlete in our Spirit of Adventure series is Polish ski mountaineer, mountain runner and climber Andrzej Bargiel who made the first ‘impossible’ solo descent of K2. The second highest mountain on the planet and arguably the most lethal.
A SPORTING CHILDHOOD
Born into a large family, Bargiel is one of 11 children – enough siblings for a football team! Sport occupied his thoughts from an early age, bunking off school to ride his bike or find adventure climbing trees or swimming. When he was just a boy he found early success as a competitive mountain biker, but when his bike fell apart his family didn’t have the money to replace it. Instead he traded in a pocket knife and some table tennis paddles for some adult sized skis and boots and was immediately hooked to the pistes. Whilst we’re all guilty of obsessing over new kit and protesting that the investment will make us faster, it’s inspiring to see what can be achieved through pure passion.
SUCCESS IN THE SNOW
Whilst adept at many endurance sports, Bargiel quickly excelled on the snow – finishing 8th in the European Ski Mountaineering Championships relay race at just 21. With a thirst for success and a drive to push his own boundaries, Bargiel was never going to be satisfied with top 10 finishes. Combined with a passion for discovery and a hunger to achieve the impossible, he set about becoming the best ski mountaineer in history. Just a year later he recorded the fastest ever ascent at the Elbrus Race – a skyrunning competition on Mount Elbrus in Russia. His time of 3 hours 23 minutes on the Extreme route stands today.
STARTING TO PEAK
In 2016 Bargiel won the Snow Leopard Award in record time, scaling all five peaks of 7,000m and above in the former Soviet Union in less than 30 days. Whilst difficult and dangerous, this feat has nothing on the challenge for which he is now famous — skiing the second highest mountain on earth. At 30 Bargiel began skiing the world’s tallest peaks, all over 8,000m. From Shishapangma to Manaslu and the 26,401-foot Broad Peak, from which he first saw K2 and was inspired to accomplish what several had died trying. It’s staggering to imagine standing on the glacier of Brand Peak, looking across at this deadly mountain and deciding to be the first to conquer it on skis.
A SAVAGE MOUNTAIN
Many have died attempting to ski the world’s second tallest mountain, set in the frozen vastness of the Karakoram range on the border of Pakistan and China. Standing 779ft lower than Everest at 28,251ft, K2 is steeper, colder, more remote and vastly more dangerous. For every four people who summit K2, one dies. American pioneering mountaineer George Bell said of the peak “it’s a savage mountain that wants to kill you”. With ice cliffs, hanging glaciers, unpredictable avalanches, hurricane force storms and lack of oxygen, the environment is deadly in it’s most benign state. For nearly 30 years the world’s best skiers have tried and failed to conquer K2. Some of the world’s best ski mountaineers have died there. “There’s a reason it’s not been done before” says two time World Extreme Skiing Champion Chris Davenport.
Making a success of such a feat doesn’t come without intense preparation and careful attention to detail. K2 is an unpredictable mountain, so it’s important to control as much as possible. Bargiel used a drone for reconnaissance and climbed half of his planned route. By studying how the snow reacted to temperature changes throughout the day, he gained a deep understanding of the timing and positioning required. He climbed for four days, all without oxygen, reaching the summit on 22 July 2018.
A DESCENT TO GREATNESS
The descent from the summit of K2 begins on impossibly steep, icy slopes of 50-55°. Bargiel’s intense planning had led him to believe that the route to success was in descending multiple routes rather than a single course. Plotting a line that pieced together four separate climbing routes, he descended in oxygen starved air, along dicey traverses until he was halted by fog for 2.5 hours. Eventually, after 7 hours and 11,800 vertical feet of skiing, Andrzej Bargiel skied onto the Godwin-Austen Glacier at the foot of K2 to become the first person to ever achieve the feat. A true accomplishment of endurance, bravery and mental fortitude.
"I felt great relief and joy. I proud that I hadn’t allowed myself to lose control over things. I had my moments of doubt earlier but there, at the bottom, I felt it all made sense and that all my presumptions turned out right.”
Andrzej Bargiel climbed into the stratosphere, without oxygen, and skied down alone. “This is on the same level of human achievement as Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan without a rope” — Dave Watson, mountaineer and skier the closest to ever complete the feat in 2009.
A true inspiration to us all.