Thursday, August 7, 2008

'death zone'

Photo provided by Nicholas Rice

By Guy McCarthy

"The photo of the Bottleneck was taken just after the Serbian fell," Nicholas Rice, 23, of Hermosa Beach, said in an e-mail early Wednesday from K2 base camp.

The so-called Savage Mountain, the world's second-highest and widely considered its most dangerous, stands at 28,251 feet elevation in the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan.

The Bottleneck photo shows a line of climbers ascending the couloir at 11:06 a.m. Friday Aug. 1, according to electronic data attached to the file. Click on it for detail.

The Bottleneck is at roughly 27,000 feet - above 8,000 meters - and about 1,300 feet below K2's summit. The photo shows part of the setting where 11 climbers died last week high on K2 in one of the deadliest episodes in mountaineering history.

I received the image on Aug. 5, forwarded from Rice by his friend Simon Weaver, 30, of Sherman Oaks.

The Serbian climber Rice referred to in his Aug. 6 e-mail is Dren Mandic, who according to worldwide media reports was the first to die on K2 in the recent tragedies, as he tried to ascend the Bottleneck.

A Pakistani high-altitude porter and experienced Karakoram climber named Jehan Baig tried to recover Mandic's body but he also reportedly fell to his death. Rice later said he helped pack Baig's belongings for transport back to Skardu.

The climbers in the Aug. 1 photo - as many as 10 are visible - continued to the summit, according to multiple acounts. Many of them made it to the top. But few survived.

The Bottleneck is considered a last major obstacle on several routes to K2's highly coveted summit. Only a few hundred have reached the top in more than a century of exploration and attempts. An estimated 27 percent of those who stand on K2's summit get killed on the way down.

The deaths of Mandic and Baig on Aug. 1 were the first in a fatal sequence of events that would leave a total of 11 climbers confirmed dead and frozen high on K2 in the next 24 to 36 hours.

Witnessing that first fatality is part of why Rice is alive today to tell his story.

As reported again today by the Los Angeles Times, Rice's delayed start, after he spilled melted snow on his socks, coupled with freezing hands that he couldn't warm up, convinced him that K2's summit could wait.

Shortly after the Bottleneck photo was taken, Rice abandoned his summit bid and descended to base camp.


The Bottleneck couloir on K2 stands at roughly 27,000 feet elevation - above 8,000 meters - in the so-called "death zone."

High-altitude climbers describe the extreme heights in fatalistic terms in part because there is barely enough oxygen to sustain human life. Conditions that can set in rapidly include pulmonary edema and cerebral edema.

The few places on earth that reach above 8,000 meters are also exposed to jet-stream, hurricane-force winds, extreme cold, other radical and rapid weather changes, and they occupy dangerous terrain found only on the summits of the world's 14 highest mountains.

Climbers ascending ridge near Camp III on K2, dated July 4 2008. Photo provided by Nicholas Rice.

Rice's K2 dispatches are here.


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