Search Site


Clouds from Both Sides

Monday, 6 November 2017

Clouds from Both Sides by Julie Tullis

Clouds from Both Sides is the autobiography of Julie Tullis, the first British woman to climb an 8,000-metre peak – Broad Peak – and the first to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. First published in 1986 before her death on K2, this story is a tribute to the memory of an inspirational woman determined to strive for her dreams, an extraordinary account of her adventures and an exhilarating testament to her courage.

Below we are sharing an excerpt from Chapter 12, where Julie and her climbing partner, the legendary Kurt Diemberger, are in the throes of a battle on their 'mountain of mountains'.

K2: The Mountain of Mountains

Christina Smiderle had been part of the porter group, but had stayed on unexpectedly when they left. Her boyfriend Marco Corte Colo was planning to ski down the extremely steep flank of K2 from 7,000 metres, just above Camp 2. As Christina was a doctor, and a very attractive one, it seemed a good idea that she should stay around to give him moral support. It was the last week of July and, after ten weeks of the expedition, she and I were alone in the two-tent camp at the foot of the mountain used mainly to store supplies for the mountain camps, and where Luca had his accident with the Gaz stove. It was the first time that she and I were together and had a chance to talk and find out more about each other. Christina was the only other woman in our very cut-off world.

Poor Marco had a very difficult time. He had to wait so long before Camp 2 was established – the gods had not been kind and the expedition had been driven down time and again by bad weather. Then he had to wait for the right snow conditions, essential for skiing on such a very steep mountain. Over the waiting weeks the mountaineers began to worry more and more about the dangers of his daring descent. I am afraid that Kurt and I did not help his psychological confidence. To protect ourselves, we had to ask him to sign a declaration that it was his own idea to ski down, that he and the expedition leader had asked us to film him; and we had not suggested he should do such a risky stunt for the sake of the film.

At last, on 24 July, he had gone to Camp 2 with his skis, and Kurt went to Camp 1 with the big Arriflex SR 16 movie camera. I was waiting below the mountain with the smaller Arriflex. We were ready to film the following morning.

The day passed slowly, but Christina and I found each other interesting company and were very much in sympathy with each other’s lives. She was not an experienced mountaineer, but had done a little climbing since she had known Marco. However she loved skiing and being in the mountains.

Deposito to Campo Due, Deposito to Campo Due’, we radioed, trying to rouse the sleepy climbers at our highest established camp at that point. The weather was fine for skiing and filming and we needed to know when Marco intended to start on his descent.

Fausto de Stefani answered. ‘We’re going higher today but Marco just wants to sleep a little longer,’ came the reply. ‘Call him again at 10 a.m.’

At the 10 a.m. radio call we were again told that Marco just wanted to sleep. At twelve noon, the same story, but also that he did not feel well enough to ski that day.

Christina became worried. ‘Julie, he is sick,’ she told me. But she could not persuade the mountaineers at Camp 2 of her worst fears – that he was suffering from altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness can strike anyone at any time, even experienced mountaineers who have tried to acclimatise carefully; and the time from its first symptoms to death can be very rapid. I spent the day worrying with Christina.

At 7.30 that evening there was panic on the mountain. Oxygen was rushed as speedily as possible up the long and difficult section from Camp 1 to Camp 2. Thank heavens the weather was good. By 10.30 it was dark and very cold, and Marco was fighting for breath … and his life. We kept the radio connection open so that we could follow the drama on the mountain. Christina was very brave. Finally, half an hour after midnight, the oxygen reached Camp 2 and by 2.30 Marco was breathing more easily again. But one bottle of oxygen would not last long and to prevent brain damage the mountaineers would have to abandon the push up the mountain and get him down to a safer height as soon as possible.

‘We must go up to Camp 1,’ Christina kept insisting. ‘I must be with Marco, to help him.’ There was desperation in her voice. But in the dark of the night that was impossible.

I was in no way prepared to go on to the mountain at this point. As I have already said, this was not an easy expedition logistically, and I had not carried up sufficient gear to make a serious assault on the mountain. In order to film Marco’s descent Kurt and I had concentrated on carrying up to the foot of the mountain just what we needed to survive and make the film. Even my 35mm SLR camera and personal diary tape recorder had been discarded at the Glacier Camp before Advanced Base in order to keep my loads within my carrying limits.

‘All right, we will go up first thing tomorrow morning,’ I promised, in an effort to console poor Christina. She took some sleeping tablets and tried to get some sleep.


Hell! The ropes were so heavy to pull out from under the fresh snow that had fallen since Kurt had gone up two days before.

The section to Camp 1 was steep and at the beginning very dangerous, with big broken séracs hanging directly over the route, threatening to fall at any moment. We had made an early start to get past this section before the sun reached the precarious blocks of house-sized ice and began to melt them making them even more unstable. We also hoped to reach Camp 1 before the cruel heat of the midday sun was upon us on the long, shadeless haul up the fixed ropes to make us even more fatigued with dehydration.

Our progress was slow as I had to keep a careful eye on Christina. Not only was she inexperienced in big mountains, but with the mental stress she had suffered recently, she would be below par both mentally and physically. Also I had to carry up all my sound equipment, plus some spare cine films, together with my sleeping bag, small tent, down jacket and spare food as we would be unexpected guests at the camp which nestled in a crevasse at 19,000 feet (5,800 metres). When we arrived there was not even room for another tent, so Kurt and I dug a snow hole to sleep in.

‘Oxygen! Oxygen! Send up oxygen, urgently!’ The frantic call came from high above us as the mountaineers struggled to carry Marco down to Camp 1. They had tied his legs together and, trussed like a chicken, controlling him with the ropes, they slid him along the fixed ropes. It was an exhausting task.

Several interminable hours later Kurt and I filmed their arrival with their semi-delirious patient. More drugs, oxygen and the drop in altitude were essential to ensure a complete recovery. At this point, Christina was highly concerned as it was not certain whether he had suffered any brain damage as a result of his illness.

The following morning thankfully there was a marked improvement in his condition and the mountaineers and a more relaxed Christina helped him on down to Base Camp and safety.

Meanwhile, Kurt and I examined our situation. When you take a conscious decision to make a summit bid, you begin to prepare yourself mentally. We wanted to take advantage of having the sync-sound Arriflex camera on the mountain to film at Camp 2, at 6,800 metres and above, but was our limited personal equipment sufficient to cope with such high altitude? I only had my second, eight-year-old, well-used single sleeping bag; the warm inner bag was still at Base Camp. Neither of us had spare inners for our double boots. We risked frostbite if the snow got into them and wet the felt and leather inner boots. To add to my problems I only had ordinary snow gaiters and not the thicker insulated overboots normally used at high altitudes; in fact the only spare clothing I had with me was one pair of socks! We also knew that we would again have to carry heavy rucksacks, not only with the film gear, but also our tent, sleeping bags, cooker, billies, food, etc., enough to make us completely self-sufficient at the next camp in case it was already full of climbers. In the end, we felt that we could risk going on up with our limited equipment, but that we should leave the final decision to the weather.


‘Sorry, I’ll have to stop again ... ’ I was hanging on the fixed rope almost a thousand feet above Camp 1. The rope stretched out in a long traverse across the steep face.

‘Why did it have to happen today?’ I had been woken up the next morning by my stomach, grumbling and churning, and then … every mountaineer’s dread, diarrhoea!

We had been the last to leave the camp and head up the 60° snow slopes at the start of the long and very tiring section on the mountain. During the past couple of weeks we had been watching through the binoculars from the glacier as tiny dots moved slowly up and across the mighty face – like flies on a giant white pyramid. Why did they move so slowly, stop so often, and, in several cases, return to Camp 1 before they were even halfway? From some 5,000 feet below and around three miles away it didn’t look so bad. But we already knew the reason. Just once before we had actually been on the mountain to film and had ourselves turned back enervated before reaching Camp 2.

This time I not only had the hard work of climbing with a full pack but the additional problem of freeing myself of clothing whilst hanging on the fixed ropes, and later the debilitation brought about by the diarrhoea. Hour after long hour we toiled slowly upwards. Three more times I had to manage difficult manoeuvres with my double trousers. Kurt hung on the rope next to me holding my gloves and ice axe; this was no time for embarrassed modesty. Worse, we had run out of toilet paper and although using snow is effective, it is not very pleasant and can lead to uncomfortable chapping and piles.

We moved on up in fits and starts. Suddenly from high above me there was a whirrrrrr. I looked up, startled, to see what was causing the unusual noise. A rock the shape of a flying saucer had become detached from an overhang directly above and was zipping down the almost vertical snow slope, heading straight for us. I shouted to Kurt below me and he buried his face in the snow. The rock shot past me making a noise like an out-of-control noisy sewing machine and I held my breath, my body rigid with fear, as it kept its line directly for Kurt some eighty feet below. I could see a patch of his neck exposed below his crash helmet and knew that if the discus-shaped block hit him there, he would surely be decapitated. Without a pause the missile reached the level of his left shoulder and, although it was almost touching him, looked as if it would travel on just to the side of his body. But at that point it must have hit a rock lying under the snow, for it suddenly shot up into the air like a bouncing ball, cleared his shoulders complete with rucksack, and landed on his right-hand side to continue on down, down, down. For a moment I could not speak or move. Visions of what might have happened had it hit him flashed before my eyes and, as with many near disasters, I felt myself trembling, the reaction of over-tensed muscles and fear.

After nine tiring hours we were on the tiny snowshelf that had been cut out of the mountainside to make a space for the three small tents which formed Camp 2. I took off my crampons slowly and with great effort. Mercifully there was an unoccupied tent so that we did not have to dig out an extra space for ours, and I collapsed inside in my sleeping bag and soon dozed off.

I awoke with a start. My stomach felt as if a dozen mini-gnomes had been holding a party in it and were now trying to punch their way out. I groped around in the dark tent for my boots and put them on, taking care to do up the laces. To trip over them while negotiating the tiny foot-wide ledge which ran along in front of the tents and formed the path to the ‘loo’ could result in a straight fall of 6,000 feet to the foot of the mountain. But at that moment speed too was essential.

It was a dark cold night and the snow on the narrow path had refrozen after being melted by the hot daytime sun. It was lethally slippery. Kurt followed me out and grabbed my arm and steadied me as I was still a little drunk with sleep. I reached the tiny platform on which you could squat with your bottom hanging out over the long airy drop, and was relieved to see that some thoughtful person had left a snow-shovel, just its handle protruding from the snow, in the perfect position to hold on to.

My already cold fingers fumbled with the under-crotch zips which I had prudently had fitted to my trousers. I was wearing two pairs; Italian fibre-pile long johns underneath French Gortex and Thinsulate overtrousers, but the problem was that the zips opened in two different directions – the French from front to back, and the Italian from back to front and, with cold, already numb fingers and a sleep-befuddled brain, this took some working out. Anyone who has ever had a fly-zip stuck when they have been in a desperate hurry to relieve themselves will sympathise with my predicament!

Ploosh … in the still, dark night it sounded like an explosion to me, and then I realised the worst had happened. The ‘thin shits’, as Kurt so charmingly called them, had splattered everywhere, down my legs, right into my boots, covering my socks, between the two pairs of trousers. So there I was, at 11.30 on a dark, very cold night, 6,800 metres up the world’s second highest mountain with only one spare pair of socks and not a drop of water to help me clean up. At that height there is only snow and the temperature that night was –25°C.

Kurt came rushing over. ‘Julie,’ he said very sternly, not realising my situation, ‘put on these gloves at once! You are very lucky if you have not already got frostbite from holding that cold shovel with bare hands.’

I couldn’t explain just then. I needed a few quiet moments to think, but I obediently pulled on the gloves, grateful for his thoughtful concern. It was obvious that I would have to sit there for a while yet.

At last it felt safe to stand up … but what to do? I couldn’t go back into the sleeping bag in that state – the smell alone was disgusting. It was not just that I really did not know what to do next, but that I did know that, sensibly, I would have to go back down all the hundreds of arduous feet up which we had laboured so hard that day without even helping Kurt to shoot one metre of film. I had failed.

Self-pity welled up and tears began to roll down my cheeks. I didn’t even care if they froze. I heard Kurt coming back over to me and my sobs grew louder – a typical woman’s reaction when in need of sympathy! How could I explain to him? I thought of Bonington and his similar situation once, when he shat down the arm of his one-piece suit.

I stuttered out my problem, in English, through chattering teeth, and his calm, reassuring response already made me feel better. He took my hand and led me to the safer small area between two of the tents and hooked me on to a karabiner attached to an ice screw. Pierre Angelo and Fausto looked out of their tent as I stumbled by.

From our tent Kurt brought out the thin foam mat which we used as insulation between our sleeping bags and the ice below. ‘Take off your trousers and clean yourself up just a little with snow. Then I have found these ... ’ He handed me two tiny tinfoil wrapped tissues, the kind given away with in-flight meals. I did my best, grateful to have something constructive to do. The feel of the mat beneath my bare feet made my mind slip back to the dojo at home. This mat was a thinner version of the shock-absorbing mats we use for practising aikido and its feel gave me comfort and strength.

Wearing Kurt’s overtrousers, back in the snug warmth of my sleeping bag with him snoring gently beside me, things no longer seemed so bad ...


Clouds from Both Sides by Julie Tullis

Back to Top
. . .