Tuesday, August 5, 2008

k2 redux

Camp II photo provided by Nicholas Rice

By Guy McCarthy

In the wake of 11 climber deaths that underscored K2's reputation as the world's most dangerous mountain, 23-year-old Nicholas Rice of Hermosa Beach today described base camp as "a cage that everyone wants to escape."

But Rice's brush with death high on the unforgiving peak - and the loss of so many comrades since Friday - have not deterred him from planning a return to the remote Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan for another attempt on the so-called Savage Mountain.

"I will for sure come back," Rice said in a satellite phone interview today with National Public Radio, summing up a sentiment of generations of climbers who have escaped death where others perished. "There's something about this mountain that draws us all to it."

There were reportedly up to seven other expedition teams on K2 as tragedy began unfolding Friday high on K2. Climbers from Pakistan, Nepal, South Korea, Serbia, Norway and Ireland are among those presumed dead.

In a dispatch posted online earlier today, Rice paid tribute to his expedition leader, Hugues D'Aubarede of France.

After a rainy night on the lower reaches of the mountain, Rice visited the Gilkey Memorial outside base camp, a collection of aging climbing gear and mementos from previous tragedies on K2. Art Gilkey died in a 1953 American expedition in which the team abandoned its attempt to be first ever to summit K2 to try to save Gilkey, stricken by illness at high altitude.

Despite their efforts Gilkey was killed in an avalanche. But the 1953 American team earned worldwide respect for the courage and compassion they demonstrated in trying to save their teammate.

"(I) headed down to Gilkey Memorial to put up the plates we had made to memorialize Hugues, Karim, Gerard and Baig," Rice said in his post. "It was ironic, as the last time I had gone was with a happy healthy Hugues. I am, however, happy that he in the end achieved his goal.

"This was his third year in a row on K2, and finally he had made the summit and lived his dream," Rice said. "It is a shame that triumph and tragedy seem to come hand in hand on K2."

D'Aubarede and Rice had met trekking earlier in the Askole region of Pakistan, French climber and expedition coordinator Raphaele Vernay said in an e-mail Monday from Lyon, France.

"Hugues liked Nick very much," Vernay said. "He was like his son."

Rice said earlier today he was keeping his fingers crossed for two Italians still awaiting rescue higher up the mountain at advance base camp, but the weather wasn't looking good. In the main base camp at the foot of K2, the pain of so many deaths in such a short time cast a pall over those who remained.

"Base camp now seems like a cage that everyone wants to escape," Rice said. "The Koreans are hiring a few helicopters to take them out rather than walking. The Americans, Dutch, Serbian and Norwegians are all waiting for porters to arrive so they can head down. Very few people are considering staying and trying again."

The mountain seemed to mirror the somber mood, Rice said.

"Every evening, we hear cascades of rocks falling down the slopes around us," Rice said. "Huge pieces of ice are crashing down in the icefall, and avalanches roar down the slopes of all the peaks around us daily. . . . rivers flow down where once consolidated snow was . . . It almost seems as though the mountain is weeping for the recently deceased."

In his interview with NPR today, Rice recounted how spilling water on his socks delayed his departure from Camp IV early Friday, a mishap that may have saved his life. The delay, combined with freezing hands and word of poorly-placed fixed ropes on a dangerous section known as the Bottleneck, made him decide to return to base camp without reaching the summit.

Rice also said the weekend's death toll will not discourage him from returning to K2 for another attempt at the summit.

"It's always been a dream of mine to be up there," Rice told NPR via satellite phone. "And it's quite painful to have gotten so close to the summit and . . . turn around.

"Maybe not next year, maybe not the year after that. But I can say in my lifetime I will for sure come back here," Rice said.

"There's something about risking your life . . . for something you love, and testing your body to its maximum that you can't do in a completely safe environment.

"Without risk, we aren't living."

K2's summit stands at 28,251 feet elevation, making it second-highest in the world to Mount Everest. But K2's exposure to jet-stream weather systems, the rapidly changing snow, ice and rock conditions, and its steep upper reaches are considered a more difficult and potentially deadly challenge than Everest.

Only a few hundred have made it to K2's summit since the first successful ascent in 1954 by an Italian expedition. Dozens have died trying over the years, and the death rate for those who do reach the summit is still 27 percent, about three times more than Mount Everest.

As difficult as the ascent is, descent is considered even more dangerous. Many of the 11 reported killed over the weekend had made it to the top of K2 only to perish trying to come down.

Rice's mother said Monday she had promised herself she would never encourage her son to attempt the Savage Mountain.

"We started climbing together when he was very young," Wendy Knowles said in a phone interview. "We went up Shasta when he was 16, and he took off from there. Then he did Denali" - Mount McKinley in Alaska - "and that was his ticket to the Himalayas.

"I used to tell him I'd never help him climb that mountain," she said of K2. "But I supported him in going to Broad Peak. That's how he got me. . . . I'm just very grateful he's okay."


Rice also spoke to KNX1070 NewsRadio of Los Angeles today. Interview here.

For description of the Bottleneck from someone who made it to the top of K2 and survived the descent, listen to this NPR interview with Karakoram veteran Ed Viesturs. He summited without oxygen in 1992.

No comments: