From sea to peak

David Roeske’s path to the summit of K2 without supplemental oxygen

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Courtesy Himali

The mountain known as K2 is also known as “Savage Mountain.” Its sheer, jagged slopes rise from Pakistan’s Karakoram Valley floor and culminate in the second-highest peak in the world: 28,251 feet above seal level. Ascending the mountain’s layers of ice, snow and rock requires a technical expertise and altitude acclimatization known only to a small sliver of people on Earth. In the years before 2014, most who tried didn’t make it to the summit, and one in 10 climbers died during their attempt.

Those were the conditions under which David Roeske started dreaming of summiting K2. He knew the dangers. He imagined a demanding, intimidating Himalayan adventure. And still, he wanted to go — he wanted to close a chapter of his life that’d opened on Christmas Eve, at the Longs Peak trailhead, in 2012.

Roeske, born and raised in Colorado, had moved to New York City in 2007. In December 2012 he’d returned to the mountains to visit his family, and he went hiking with his dad to Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. What started as a normal holiday hike ended with a serendipitous encounter. 

On the trail, Roeske and his dad met a climber who’d just bailed from a technical climb on Longs Peak. Their conversation led to the climber’s tales about many Himalayan adventures, and while hiking back down to the car, Roeske couldn’t shake the thought of those big, otherworldly mountains. Would he ever be capable of doing something like that? Later that night, back at his childhood home, he found two old postcards he’d collected as a teenager, one of Everest and the other of K2. It felt like a sign. 

Shortly after, Roeske came back to Colorado and hired a guide to take him up the Notch Couloir, a technical climb on Longs Peak. Even though Roeske didn’t have a climbing background, he was an avid runner with an impressive personal sub-2 hour-35-minute marathon. The guide, impressed with Roeske’s fitness and ability to summit a difficult route in the winter, told him the Notch Couloir was a lot harder (technically speaking) than Everest. That was the exact confidence boost Roeske needed to sign up for an Everest expedition, via the Tibetan side.

That spring, Roeske stood at the highest point on Earth. He’d reached the summit only 20 days after arriving at Base Camp (the average climber takes six to eight weeks to acclimate for a summit push), and Roeske only used supplemental oxygen for the last 500 meters. Considering he’d never been higher than Longs Peak, it indicated that his physiology, somehow, was primed for high altitudes. 

Though Roeske described his first Everest climb as a “wonderful experience,” he went home to NYC wanting more. The idea of trying Everest again without any supplemental oxygen lingered in the back of his mind. Only a small percentage of climbers ever reach the summit of an 8,000-meter peak without it, and for many mountaineers, it’s the ultimate accomplishment.

As the months went on, Roeske kept running marathons. He entered city skyscraper races, pounding up the Empire State Building’s stairs. He frequently visited Colorado to climb and he sumitted Mt. Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest peak.

Once Roeske decided to return to Everest, he hired Scott Johnston, a renowned alpinism coach originally from Boulder. Roeske trained with Johnston’s guidance to become as fit as possible. 

“Living in New York, it’s not like you can climb a 14er over the weekend,” Roeske says. “I would climb the stairs of my 40-story building with a heavy pack and take the elevator down. My record was 10,000 vertical feet.”

On May 23, 2016, Roeske stood on the summit of Everest for the second time. But that wasn’t all. That year he also tackled Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world at 26,906 feet, becoming the fourth person coming to climb Everest and another Himalayan 8,000-meter peak in the same season without supplemental oxygen. 

“After a successful season in the Himalayas in 2016, I was nothing but grateful,” Roeske says. “Having the confidence of two back-to-back summits, K2 seemed the natural progression, a more technical and beautiful mountain.”

He wanted to see how far he could go, motivated not by ego, but by curiosity. In the summer of 2018, Roeske left for the Pakistani Himalayas alongside his climbing partner, Frederick Sträng, with two big objectives: Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain in the world, and K2. While getting ready for their Broad Peak summit push (26,414 feet) at Camp 3, an unexpected call changed their plans. Instead of going for the summit, they went to rescue Rick Allen, a climber presumed dead after failing to return to camp. 

“A cook in base camp happened to be looking through a telescope and saw the missing climber, then other people flew a drone up and found him alone and off route,” Roeske recalls. He and Sträng immediately took off to help, finding Allen alive with only minor injuries.

But the rescue lasted about five hours and drained all the energy Roeske and Sträng needed for their summit push. They decided to climb down to base camp to recover and try the summit a few days later. Though they eventually summited Broad Peak, it delayed them a week.

The 2018 season on K2 was a good one. The development of commercial climbing, fixed gear on-route and strokes of good weather had improved the peak’s notoriously low success rates and reduced the objective danger on “Savage Mountain.” The number of successful summits swelled to a record-breaking 60, plus a Polish mountaineer skied down the peak for the first time. Roeske and Sträng arrived late to the party, however, and only made it to 7,000 meters before encountering all the summiteers heading down. They’d missed the good weather window and were forced to turn back home.

Back in NYC, Roeske already knew he wanted to try K2 again. His finance firm approved no more than 25 days off work, and Roeske decided that would be enough to reach the summit. Typically climbers take 60 days.

On July 25, 2019, without the use of supplemental oxygen, Roeske reached K2’s summit only 22 days after leaving NYC.

The road toward the summit was not drama-free. Roeske had joined the commercial expedition team Furtenbach Adventures, and after a summit attempt on July 18, Roeske realized he was not yet fully acclimatized and had to turn back. There was also particularly deep snow, susceptible to avalanches, hanging above a critical section known as “the Bottleneck,” which caused most of the commercial expeditions on the mountain to reconsider their climbs. While Roeske’s team packed up base camp and left, he stayed. He wouldn’t leave without giving it another try and managed to change climbing teams for his final, successful push to stand on the second-highest point in the world, breathing only the thin air available to him in that hostile, savage landscape.

“It was a ridiculously short period of time. I went from the summit straight to base camp and then took a helicopter out to catch a flight home,” Roeske says. “I also used a helicopter to avoid the one-week trek to base camp. This is embarrassing to me because I would rather not use that option, but it was the only way to make it happen with work.”

Among alpinism’s elite, the strongest and fastest take into account alpine style, consisting of climbing without supplemental oxygen, without fixed ropes and with no assistance from porters or sherpas. Roeske doesn’t have a problem with the fact that he has used porters and climbing sherpas as partners and took help from fixed ropes. “There are definitely better ways to climb, but for me, not being a professional climber it’s an unreasonable risk,” he says.

Even though Roeske belongs to an elite group of athletes who can both run marathons on asphalt and ascend into the icy-thin air at the top of the world, he doesn’t want to be known only for his fitness. He wants to be known as someone who wasn’t an athlete in college, who didn’t learn to climb until a few months before attempting to summit Everest, and who had a stroke of inspiration plus the freedom to put in the hard work to reach the summits of the world’s highest peaks. 

“I want people to think that if I did it, maybe they can do it too,” he says.