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C.H. Robinson's Stenderup Scales K2

At 6:40 a.m. on July 22, John Stenderup became the 21st American to step foot atop K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world behind Mount Everest, which he scaled last year.

Stenderup, manager of cold chain solutions for C.H. Robinson in its Robinson Fresh office in Monterey, CA, had been in training for the ambitious mountain climb for many months. He officially began the assault on June 20 with a flight from California to Islamabad, Pakistan. Eleven days later, his team arrived at Base Camp, which at an elevation of 16,500 feet is a significant climb in its own right. There, they continued acclimatizing to the conditions, which included climbing up and down over a series of days to get the body and the lungs used to the truly rarified atmosphere.oeije

The summit bid began on July 17 with a trek to Camp 1 (20,000 feet).  Camp 2 (22,000 feet) was reached the following day with Camp 3 (24,000) on July 20 and the move to Camp 4 (25,000) on July 21, putting the team in position to attempt the 28,251-foot summit later that night.  After climbing all night, “The Holy Grail of Mountaineering” was reached the next morning.  

For the 2018 summer season, there ended up being only a three-day window for a successful summit, which is dictated by weather conditions. Stenderup said this was the best year ever in terms of both the number of successful attempts and the ratio between successes and deaths.

“There were only two deaths on the mountain this year,” he said, adding that 60-70 percent of the 90 or so climbers that pulled permits succeeded.

The trip did have more scary moments than a quick retelling could do justice, he said. Compared to his climb of Mount Everest the year before, Stenderup said K2 was exponentially more difficult.  

“I was scared the entire time,” he said. “It was a controlled fear, but K2 is daunting and sobering. It was harder than I had imagined. The literature and pictures don’t do the mountain justice.”

He said the fear comes from the difficult conditions. Throughout the summiting effort during the final days as the climbers went from Camp 1 to Camp 4 and to the top, rocks and ice continually fell. “About every 30 minutes there was an ice chunk the size of a baseball to a piano coming from above us. Avalanche danger is constant.”

He said you are constantly climbing and in a stressful situation for days on end. Even when sleeping, the tents are pitched on steep cliffs, and performing regular daily tasks and normal bodily functions was an adventure — more thrilling than anyone wants it to be.

Stenderup said when climbing Mount Everest, “If you do everything right, there is a 99 percent chance you are going to succeed and come back alive. On K2, you can do everything right and still not come back.”

While months of training and years of climbing left Stendrup’s team of climbers confident of their abilities and completely prepared for the trek, he said it was also front of mind that the mission could very well fall short of its goal.  

“I had prepared myself all year to not summit,” he said. “My goal was to go to the mountain and give it my best effort, but I also knew I wanted to make it back alive. If conditions weren’t good enough, I was prepared to come back without summiting.”

He said that mindset made him a better climber and allowed him and his team to make good decisions. In fact, a one-day weather delay at Camp 2 with poor conditions in the forecast, led the group to a spirited debate about staying put or going back down to Camp 1 to mentally and physically regroup. “I voted to go back down, but after a good debate, the consensus was to sit and wait. It’s one time that I was truly happy that I was wrong.”

Weather conditions did improve allowing for the summit try and success. Because of what became a very short window, turning back would not have given the team the opportunity for another chance at the summit. Not until he actually reached the summit did Stenderup allow himself to believe it would happen.

Two weeks later, he was back in California and soon resumed his more down to earth job in the world of logistics. He told The Produce News in late August that climbing K2 was the dream of his mountain-climbing life. Besides the aforementioned nickname, K2 is also called the “Mountain of Mountains” and “The Savage Mountain.”

“For any climber it is the greatest demonstration of all your skill sets,” said Stenderup. You encounter deep, deep snow and very steep terrain.  When you reach the summit, it is a defining moment for any climber.”

To put the rarity of it in perspective, Stenderup noted that only a few more than 400 people have ever stood on the summit, which now includes about two-dozen Americans. “There have been 339 Americans in space and now there are only 24 or 25 Americans that have summited K2,” he said.

Though he invoked the caveat of never say never, Stenderup is pretty certain he will never scale K2 again. “It would take a miracle for me to go back up that mountain,” he said. “Only four people have ever climbed it twice. No one has done it three times.

“When you are on the mountain, there is no relief ever,” Stenderup continued. “One of the hardest parts of the climb is up to Camp 1.  During this trek, we watched a climber fall 5,000 feet to his death. That rocked me to my core,” he said, admitting that it led to a day of doubt, culminating with a satellite call to his mom, who gave him the encouragement to go on.

Climbing the world’s top mountains is an expensive proposition. Counting permits, equipment and all the costs involved in travel to and up the mountain and back, it is an endeavor that costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Stenderup is currently working with and thanking his produce industry partners who helped defray costs and gave him much moral support. He is returning the favor with speaking engagements, use of photos and any other ways that he can help. The list of supporters consists of Anthony Vineyards, Blue Diamond, CH Robinson/Robinson Fresh, Driscoll’s, Grimmway Farms, Mission Produce, Stenderup Ag Partners and Taylor Farms.

The cost is just one of the reasons that he is not currently thinking about the next mountain he plans to climb. “I don’t know. I’m sure I will keep climbing,” he said. “There are a lot of good mountains left to climb, especially some fun ones like Mt. Blanc and the Matterhorn or Chamonix in France. Those essentially take a day. Opportunities like Everest and K2 are very rare, which is why I had to do it. Right now I’d like a beach vacation. Somewhere in America where I don’t have to deal with permits and visas.”