Friday, August 8, 2008

high-altitude graveyard

Photo by Renatto Sottsass

By Guy McCarthy

In case you're still wondering what happened to 11 high-altitude climbers who died on K2 in Pakistan last week, here's a bit more perspective - including some from a person who made it to the top of the so-called Savage Mountain in 1993.

Phil Powers, now 47 and executive director of the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colo., got down alive that day.

But he lost a climbing companion in the Bottleneck couloir - where so many others recently perished - so the tragedies a week ago brought 15-year-old memories back to life.

The photo above shows an approach to the Bottleneck couloir high on K2. It was taken during a 2004 expedition to mark the 50th anniversary of the first recorded ascent of the Savage Mountain. The successful Italian team in 1954 included Lino Lacedelli, Achille Compagnoni and Walter Bonatti.

Compagnoni and Lacedelli made the summit and Bonatti did not, under controversial circumstances. But Bonatti, the youngest member of that team, went on to prove himself the greatest climber of his generation, according to alpine historians.

One Italian died of pneumonia in Camp II, about 19,000 feet elevation, on that 1954 expedition. Two Americans and three Sherpas had already died on previous K2 expeditions, in 1939 and 1953, according to K2 historian Jim Curran.

Not to belabor the point, but K2's been educating and killing climbers since they first started trying their luck near the high end of the Baltoro Glacier, deep in the Karakoram Range. Since the first Italian ascent in 1954, an estimated 300 people have climbed to the summit of K2, but scores of them died trying to get down off it.

Many climbers who died a week ago sucessfully summited, only to perish on their way down what is widely considered the world's most difficult and dangerous 8,000-meter mountain.

Powers is one the few climbers to stand on top of K2 - and one of the even smaller number who live to talk about it.

"The Bottleneck is not the crux of the climb, as some have suggested," Powers said today in a phone interview. "The lower slopes are much more difficult and technical."

But anything can happen in the Bottleneck, Powers said, because of its physical features.

"It's an hour-glass couloir, meaning it opens wide at the bottom and it opens again at the top," Powers said. "The narrow, exposed part doesn't seem that long, perhaps a hundred meters," roughly the length of an American football field.

The steep walls of hardened, overhanging ice and snow can be intimidating, Powers said.

"The serac is easily 200 feet above when you're in the Bottleneck," Powers said.

Earlier this week, Powers spoke with the Rocky Mountain News about his K2 experiences and his recollections of the Bottleneck. He also produced a slideshow presentation that PBS Online NewsHour posted today.

Powers' slideshow includes one of his own images of the Bottleneck and its overhanging walls of ice and snow.

"The Bottleneck is the steepest portion of the summit, but actually it's not nearly as difficult as much of the terrain lower down," Powers told the Rocky Mountain News. "Depending on conditions, I liken it to a really steep ski run.

"Directly above it is the Balcony Serac, which is made of ice," Powers said. "If it tabs off or breaks, it's quite threatening to the Bottleneck."

"We weren't using oxygen or high-altitude porters, and we were not roped together, because we felt very comfortable on this terrain," Powers said.

"Coming down, at the Bottleneck, I remember my foot going through quite easily to the rock below -- it kind of threw my balance off," Powers said. "If you actually fall in that situation, you use the technique of self-arrest to stop yourself with your ice ax. I didn't fall, so I didn't have to self-arrest."

Powers said he went on ahead, and he was within eyesight of the Bottleneck at Camp 4, just shy of 8,000 meters. He had made an agreement with his climbing partners that at least one needed to get to high camp before dark so someone could shine a light or use voice recognition for the others if darkness fell.

"Dan Culver was behind me with his friend, Jim Haberl," Powers told the Rocky Mountain News. "I remember looking out and seeing them at the Bottleneck and thinking -- 'Oh, this is good, they're quite close.' So I poked my head back in the tent to melt snow for water.

"Then I heard Jim yell 'help.' Dan was gone.

"Jim used the words, 'He cartwheeled by.' Did he fall because he was hit by a piece of ice from that serac? Did he trip or slip, or fall into unconsciousness because of the altitude? We'll never know."

These painful memories remain instructive teaching tools, and Powers summed them up for PBS Online NewsHour.

"Despite the fact that slopes up there (in the Bottleneck area) are reasonable, things do happen," Powers told NewsHour. "Ice can fall and hit you, high altitude illness can take one over.

"So it remains a dangerous mountain, no matter how experienced or prepared one is."

The 11 who died last week either lost their footing and fell, got swept off the mountain by avalanche, or found themselves cut off from descent when the Balcony serac fall cut fixed lines in the Bottleneck.

Faced with night temperatures of 40-below and colder, scant oxygen and depleting physical reserves, few of those left alive survived.

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 heights they covet 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 stand above 8,000 meters are exposed to jet-stream, hurricane-force winds, extreme cold, other radical and rapid weather changes, and they are found only on the upper reaches of the world's 14 highest mountains.



postacademic said...

Thanks, Guy, for your balanced and informed commentary. This is some of the best writing about K2 and this tragedy that I've read - and I've been scouring the internet looking for perspective.

John said...

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