Bargiel was an athlete keeping a low profile when he summited K2 without oxygen and skied from peak to base without removing his skis in 2018– a seemingly impossible challenge which had never been completed before or since. The ascent of K2 alone is an extraordinary achievement with one in four people who attempt it never returns.
The story of this world first ski descent of the Himalayan mountain was made by Red Bull Media House. To watch the full, free-to-view documentary click the link here.
- Superhuman strengths
- What do you think makes you physically so well suited to climbing at high altitude without oxygen?
I had to work on that. I wasn’t born in very high mountains, but I’ve definitely put a lot of work in self-development. I’ve always had a predisposition to endurance sports, and since I kept progressing, I explored the mountains. I learnt to prepare for expeditions and to function without oxygen at high altitudes – I was also experimenting. In a way, all the previous expeditions allowed me to test my limits, so I could find out how far I can really push it. Moreover, they allowed me to get to know myself, so I could plan my steps and, above all, tactics of conquering the highest summits. I think that was the key. And considering physical conditioning, what comes in handy is lungs larger than average – only something like that can be a direct help at a high altitude.
- How did you prepare mentally to cope on K2?
It was a long process. I made up my mind to do it many years before. With time, I was pushing the boundaries of my own abilities and learning to move around in a difficult terrain on skis. The decision to ski down K2 was a milestone for me. After I had seen the summit a few years earlier, from the perspective of 8,000m above sea level, I realized that the descent was possible and I said that sooner or later someone would do it. But back then, I knew it wasn’t my time yet. At first, I was terrified. Only later was I mature enough to know that my skill level would allow me to attempt that in a safe way. I had to get to know the mountain first. The first expedition in 2017 was invaluable, because I learnt the hard way that skiing down K2 was possible and my route idea was, in fact, very realistic. That expedition had confirmed my conviction that it was possible, and that’s why I returned one year later. It was a process that required long-term commitment – from the first to the very last step – thinking about it, and consistently learning what I can allow myself for there.
- Who are the ‘superhumans’ that inspired you?
At different stages of my life, there were different people who inspired me, not necessarily related to the mountains. There were many people I followed and kept my fingers crossed for. One of them was Robert Kubica. The story of how he did everything to follow his passion and fought for his dreams was one of those that inspired me the most. There’s also a group of ever-inspiring people from the world of mountains. Locally we have Wojciech Kurtyka, who’s always been an outsider doing his own thing, regardless of what was trendy and guaranteed popularity. He did what he wanted and what inspired him. When it comes to skiing, a great inspiration for me was Davo Karničar, whom I met on K2. I few days before my departure, I found out that he wanted to try to do that himself. He’s the person who has shown that skiing in the highest mountains is possible. He was the first man to ski down from the summit of Mount Everest to the base. He proved it was possible, and that was very important for me.
- Are there any young ‘superhumans’ in the ski mountaineering world that you think have the capabilities for a similar challenge in future?
For sure! It’s a matter of commitment. There’s lots of young people with the right performance level and excellent skiing or climbing skills. I think that it’s just a matter of setting out a goal and pursuing it consistently – by embarking on expeditions. I believe that one representative of my generation who can still achieve a lot is Kílian Jornet Burgada, whom I competed against in the past. He’s someone who can do incredible things in high mountains.
- Training and nutrition
- Can you share your K2 training camp nutrition plan?
- If not, could you give a more general example of your nutrition regime going into a major challenge?
When it comes to nutrition, it’s a bit different than in case of extremely high endurance sports. We don’t have to be as lean and light as possible, like professional peloton cyclists. Unfortunately, high mountains burn a lot of calories, and so we lose at least a few kilograms after each expedition. Therefore, I don’t have to minimize my weight. The key here is nutrition that delivers the right amount of energy for recovery. Mountains are very specific, as they don’t provide laboratory-like conditions, like at the gym or on a treadmill for example, where you can plan your energy expenditure. Mountains are volatile, and it’s not just the temperature that changes. Sometimes, due to bad conditions, something that usually takes us two hours can take even four. It’s enough to balance your diet well and supplement it, when the energy expenditure increases. A healthy diet with possibly the highest vitamin and nutrient content is the key. Nutrition influences our everyday lives, workouts, development potential and, most importantly, post-training recovery. On a daily basis, I lean towards plant-based fats, but in high mountains our options are limited. We can’t be picky there, we have to consume products that are available, including animal-based fats. Eggs are the basis of our diet – we have them in abundance there. Scrambled eggs every day! There’s also lots of carbs, which works out well in case of long-term training. On the spot, carbs are available in a simple form – for example as pancakes, pasta or rice.
- What was your calorie intake over the course of the K2 challenge?
Not a lot. While climbing at high altitudes, your appetite decreases. As I said before, I’m not a big fan of processes things like gels or bars, so my food was simple. From the base to the camps I took pancakes and boiled eggs, among other things. That was the basis of my diet. Only at higher altitudes do I use lyophilized products, such as oats or Muesli. And for the summit push I take just a few bars or one energy gel. I have a poor appetite there, and nothing tastes like in lowlands. That’s why those things have to be as simple and neutral as possible. In those areas, it’s hard to provide as many calories as we actually burn. Usually, the balance is negative.
- What were the essential food items you carried to the summit?
A few bars and a few energy gels, which help to recover energy levels when they drop drastically. It’s always a good idea to have high-calorie products with you, as they provide an instant boost of energy, when most needed. It’s also important to have a proper meal before the departure – even at the height of 8,000m above sea level, where I spent the night. In such conditions, having a good meal is very difficult yet crucial, as you need a lot of energy before the summit push.
- Can you share an example of your fitness plan during training for K2 or a major expedition?
You need extra power, therefore the gym, among other things, is also pretty important. High altitude makes our muscles burn during physical effort. You also need great endurance in the context of conquering significant elevations – even 3,000m during one training session. To cover long distances there, you have to start thinking about it while still here. Preparation has a direct impact on safety, so you have to do it as well as possible. At K2, I didn’t climb against the clock, but when you have an energy surplus, you can allow yourself to do more. On the other hand, in crisis situations it allows you to survive at a high altitude much longer. I like to include road cycling, running and climbing into my preparations. On top of that, I need to polish my skiing skills, so I do my best to spend as much time as possible in difficult terrain and ski down steep back routes before an expedition.
- What are your ‘Top 5’ exercises that people can try at home to build the muscles / fitness required for ski mountaineering?
Legs are of great importance, therefore squats are just perfect. What also matters is the abdomen, so I recommend sit-ups, which can be performed in different configurations. Moreover, you need a strong back and good balance, so make sure to do all the stabilizing exercises, and there are lots of them – on fit balls or in any other way. Balance allows us to move around the mountains more economically. Another good exercise is pull-ups on a bar or doorframe. However, in ski mountaineering endurance is irreplaceable. If you want to work on it at home, but you don’t have a treadmill, cycling simulator or rowing machine, you can walk up the stairs a lot. Interval exercises are also a good idea. But nothing will replace long outdoor training sessions.
- What were some training techniques you used to prepare for the lack of oxygen and the altitude at the top of K2?
I used to experiment a lot. I went to Chamonix, ran up Mont Blanc, lived high up in the mountains, and all that constituted great preparation. I felt good at the height of 5,000m – I didn’t need to acclimatize. I also tried to sleep in tents with a limited amount of oxygen. But in case of this project, where time and speed didn’t matter that much, and I just had to reach the summit at a specific moment, considering the fickle weather and visibility, I decided to rely on my body memory. Sleeping at high altitudes can negatively influence the training quantity, but I was focused on the quality. I decided to prepare for this expedition physically, assuming that I would have enough time before the potential summit push to acclimatize. During every expedition, I spend a lot of time in extremely challenging conditions. In the view of sleeping in a tent for a month, I decided to rest before the expedition at the comfort of my own house, which in turn helped me prepare mentally.
- You’ve been building and adapting your own equipment from a young age – what were your priorities when you selected and prepared your equipment for K2?
The technological development helps us a lot, since the equipment is more and more comfortable. The first and most important thing for me are my boots. They need to be comfortable and good for both climbing and skiing. The ones I chose are not typical Himalayan ones, so I had to make them warmer. They are produced by a great former ski mountaineer, from Pierre Gignoux France. I created special overboots – a kind of socks with a zipper that you put over your boots. I also had to prepare the ski bindings in a way that allowed me to release the boots along with the foot warmers. I also used heated insoles, which prevent cooling down and frostbite. On top of that my ice axes are light and ropes are made of material called Dyneema, which makes them light yet durable. At first, it’s hard to trust the equipment that looks very delicate, but in fact it’s heavy duty. These are the details that improve the comfort of moving around in high mountains. It’s important to get precise data regarding the location and the selected route – especially when it becomes foggy. I use the Spot locator. I once found myself in a situation where I couldn’t find the summit for a long time. I called the base to ask whether they were able to direct me to the peak. The said I had been there 40 minutes earlier, yet I was looking for it the whole time. Especially in crisis situations, such things can be crucial. We also sew special skiing suits. They’re lighter and thus more comfortable. I don’t like it when they’re too warm, so these are cooler than classic Himalayan suits.
- What gains did you make from the equipment you adapted?
All adaptations increase the comfort of movement. It was crucial to allow me to climb and ski in the same boots, since it would be hard to change boots at the top of an eight-thousander. Not to mention that I would have to carry an extra pair. My equipment is better adjusted and lighter. I need take a lot of things with me. If I can save 100 g on each of them, and we multiply it by 20 or even 30, it becomes quite a load off my back.
- Learning from setbacks
- From your own experience of having to abandon your first K2 attempt, what advice would you give to amateur athletes who have had to abandon a challenge and want to try again?
We need to always remember not to do something at all costs. This is sport and passion. When a project is risky, we need to distance ourselves and stop assuming that we will make it very quick. It requires patience, waiting for the right moment to reach the goal. If we want to achieve something, we need to believe in it ourselves. That faith is the key to maintain motivation for self-development on a daily basis. I’ve always been someone who does everything his own way, and my ideas were considered weird – especially by people who had no idea what it was all about. But I always focused on what I wanted to achieve, trusting in my own experience, not listening to criticism regarding whether something was possible or not. It’s very important that you don’t give up and continue to work on yourself – every day should get you a bit closer to success.
To watch the full documentary, please see the link here – https://www.redbull.com/int-en/films/k2-the-impossible-descent