Wednesday, August 6, 2008

base camp

K2 from base camp, image dated June 25 2008. Click for detail.
Photo provided by Nicholas Rice.

By Guy McCarthy

Many climbers who survived one of the deadliest episodes ever on K2 departed base camp swiftly - some by hired helicopter - after 11 of their comrades died high on the so-called Savage Mountain.

But a 23-year-old mountaineer from Hermosa Beach remains five days after the tragedies began, in a desolate tent community that reeks at times of smoldering garbage.

"It smells of burning trash in base camp right now," Nicholas Rice said today by e-mail from below K2.

Rice is now reluctant leader of a drastically depleted expedition, minding his dead companions' gear for porters to carry to Skardu later this week. In a series of e-mail exchanges, Rice shared some details about his current situation.

"I wouldn't say that I am in charge, as there is no one to be in charge of except our cook and kitchen boy," Rice said. "All the members of the expedition are either home or dead."

Rice's expedition leader, Hugues D'Aubarede, is one of the 11 reported killed high on K2 since Friday. There were up to seven other teams on K2 as tragedy began unfolding in an area known as the Bottleneck. Climbers from Nepal, South Korea, Serbia, Norway and Ireland are among those presumed dead.

"I will only now be considered leader of the expedition by the (Pakistan) Ministry of Tourism by default, and will have to go to the debriefing and deal with the other bureaucratic details in Islamabad," Rice said.

Rice is missing his teammates, but he is not entirely alone. He gets along well with Abbas, the cook, and Fazal, the cook's helper. All three lost close friends in the tragedies that began Friday.

"It has been just the three of us for a few days now," Rice said.

Abbas and Fazal are from Hunza in northern Pakistan, the same region that was home to the two high altitude porters who died high on K2 since Friday, Rice said. Though they worked on opposite ends of the mountain, the four Pakistanis were friends, Rice said.

The Pakistani climbers who died have been identified as Mehrban Karim and Jehan Baig.

Aside from his remaining comrades in base camp, Rice has support in the Los Angeles area. His friend Simon Weaver, 30, of Sherman Oaks, is trying to coordinate communications with Rice in Pakistan. Weaver has been trying to get Rice's return flight from Islamabad to LAX pushed back from Aug. 8 to sometime mid-month.

"He seems to be doing okay," Weaver said in a phone conversation. "He's by himself a bit more right now, of course. He's waiting for the porters, maybe there by the eighth (Friday Aug. 8)."

Rice is young compared to many of his colleagues who perished. But he is saddled with the morbid tasks at hand in part because he exercised judgment high on the mountain when others twice his age gambled and paid with their lives.

Meantime, he's patient, waiting for porters to carry his colleagues' gear down the glacier to Skardu. All he wants for, he says, is some decent coffee. Whether he gets it or not, he's becoming accustomed to less and less company.

"Base camp is emptying out at the moment," Rice said. "Only a few are planning on staying. Most are impatiently waiting on porters. Some (climbers) paid $14,000 to get a MI-17 Helicopter to come get them from Base Camp. . . . "


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