What it Takes
The ski mountaineer who conquered K2
On 19 July 2018, Polish ski mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel left base camp on K2 – the second highest and arguably most dangerous mountain in the world – for an expedition that would redefine modern mountaineering. All previous attempts by elite free skiers to summit and then ski down K2 had ended in disappointment, or death. With no supplemental oxygen, he began a gruelling four-day ascent on the 8,611m peak high above the Pakistan-China border. When he did so – an incredible feat in itself – he clipped on his skis and began the ‘impossible’ descent.
Bargiel credits his mountain rescuer brother, Grzesiek, for getting him into ski mountaineering when, as a child, he swapped a pair of table tennis bats for his first set of skis. “Grzesiek taught me the basic skills not only of skiing but of survival, too,” he tells MF. And now he insists that his K2 descent is just the first breath-taking step towards his ultimate goal of skiing down all seven summits of the Himalayas.
“If I’m not skiing I’m usually doing something to build my endurance, such as cycling or off-road running,” says Bargiel. “I like keeping things varied and versatile to build both muscle strength and resilience.”
Bargiel lives in the Tatra Mountains – Poland’s main winter ski area – and he regularly heads to the Alps to train.
“I do climbing for exercise too,” he says, “but the most physically demanding aspect of what I do is exercising in an oxygen-depleted atmosphere. To deal with that I train at different altitudes – to at least 3,000 metres – on a regular basis, so I can feel comfortable with lower oxygen availability. The higher you are,
the harder it gets, the more practical training you have, and the easier it is for you to get to the summit.”
And functional training in the great outdoors does more than train Bargiel’s body: “I look to ski in difficult, exposed areas where I can learn how to read the nature, to choose the best path, assess the risk of avalanches and how to avoid them – the more time I spend in such conditions, the better prepared I am for the real challenge.”
Having grown up on a farm with his ten siblings, Bargiel developed a love for natural, home-grown produce and insists that whenever possible that’s his go-to food for energy. “That’s not easy when you’re climbing mountains,” he says, “because there’s not much growing up there for physical or mental sustenance! I try to have as much ‘real’ food as possible – stews with meat and vegetables and so on – but we do have to use specially prepared expedition packs that can be easily heated.”
Being sponsored by supplement brand Red Bull also guarantees Bargiel a ready-made supply of energy boosters, but he admits the creature comforts are sorely missed when having to rely on functional food only. “Every member of an expedition dreams about home-cooked meals,” he says. “We talk about the meals we remember from our childhood. When I complete an expedition one of the first
things I like to do is visit my friend who has a traditional Polish restaurant, to treat myself to pork chops.”
Dreaming of food isn’t the only tool Bargiel uses to cope with the mental demands of facing life-or-death situations in the most hostile environments, citing the support of his family as spurring him on when the going gets tough: “I would not be able to do what I do if they [his family] had not made sacrifices for me. They inspire me.”
It’s a point highlighted by the skis he used to descend K2: signed with messages of good luck by each of his siblings.
Bargiel also stresses the need to respect nature and, crucially, to never underestimate its power. For almost 30 years elite skiers had been attempting a first complete ski descent of K2 – which had claimed the lives of a number of established ski mountaineers, including Michele Fait and Fredrik Eriksson.
With several of his brothers among his own support team, Bargiel is vitally aware of the need to put the safety of his expedition team first, and he says that their guidance is crucial to his decision making. “I abandoned my first attempt to ski down K2 in 2017 because it was too risky,” he says. “But I learned lessons from that climb that helped me when I returned a year later.
“The toughest mental aspect, aside from making the right decisions in such environments, is managing risk. You cannot get distracted. Mountain skiing is my passion, but I’m not dying for it.”