Monday, August 4, 2008
By Guy McCarthy
Hermosa Beach native Nicholas Rice has survived one of the deadliest episodes ever on what many climbers consider the world's most dangerous mountain.
Eleven climbers are reported dead on K2 today, many killed over the weekend by avalanche or cut off from descent when ice cut fixed ropes high on the mountain. Others reportedly died trying to save the injured.
Today Rice is one of the few remaining in a lonely base camp in the remote Karakoram Range of northeast Pakistan, and he is gathering the belongings of his dead companions.
"I can tell it's wearing on him to have to pack up things of people who have died," said Rice's mother, Wendy Knowles, who has been in touch with her 23-year-old son via satellite phone.
"He's doing what has to be done," Knowles said in a phone interview after talking with Nick this morning. "But I can tell from his voice that it's pretty grim."
According to his online dispatches, Rice was high on the mountain over the weekend, when a combination of falls, avalanche and exposure killed members of his French-led expedition. His team leader, Hugues D'Aubarede, 61, is among the reported fatalities.
There were reportedly up to seven other expedition teams on K2 at the same time as the tragedy unfolded. Climbers from Pakistan, Nepal, South Korea, Serbia, Norway and Ireland are among those presumed dead.
Rice made it to Camp IV above 25,000 feet without supplemental oxygen, but he turned back and descended to base camp after one climber fell to his death and ice cut fixed lines on a steep section below the summit known as "the Bottleneck."
D'Aubarede and Rice met trekking earlier in Askole region of Pakistan, French climber and expedition coordinator Raphaele Vernay said in an e-mail early today from Lyon, France.
"Hugues liked Nick very much," Vernay said. "He was like his son."
Rice has been posting online updates of his team's progress and the tragedies. He has remained focused in his postings, but he also reveals the toll of a deadly weekend are weighing on him.
"(A)fter my first decent night's sleep in a week, I woke up and went down to have breakfast with the last team member remaining in my base camp, Peter," Rice said Sunday in a dispatch posted today.
"He is however, heading down today, and I will have to complete my stay in base camp alone, faced with the grim task of packing my climbing partners' and friends' belongings and informing their embassies and families of their grim fate," Rice said.
A climber he calls Wilco was still being helped down the mountain with severely frostbitten feet after five nights above 8,000 meters - 26,250 feet - a region known among high-altitude climbers as the "death zone" for its lack of oxygen and exposure to the elements.
Two others were also still descending - Cas, who made a miraculous downclimb of the Bottleneck where the fixed ropes were cut, and Marco, found unconscious with gloves off and harness half off.
"Base camp is quite somber thanks to the enormous loss of life in such a short amount of time," Rice said. "Today (Sunday) is the final day that I can rationally hold on to the thread of hope that Hugues is somehow still alive."
A final dispatch Rice posted today is titled "Summit Push - The Final Cost."
"After a quiet breakfast alone in base camp, Sultan helped me sort through Karim and Baig's belongings and pack them for the journey back to Skardu," Rice said.
"I headed up as Wilco was taken up in a (gurney) to the makeshift helipad that the Americans had constructed," Rice said. "We all watched as Eric was loaded in the helicopter so he could swing up close to Camp II on the Abruzzi route to check the progress of Marco on his descent.
"After that was finished, we waited as Wilco was loaded into the helicopter to be evacuated, and then again when Cas was loaded into the second helicopter to be taken down."
Rice composed a list of the dead and, apparently accepting the death of his team leader, he listed D'Aubarede among the confirmed fatalities.
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 much 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 recalled today that she had promised herself she would never encourage her son to attempt the Savage Mountain.
"We started climbing together when he was very young," Knowles said. "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."
As news of the high-altitude drama broke worldwide over the weekend, Rice continued maintaining satellite phone contact with his mother. He also continued filing dispatches about his progress.
Rice's dispatch dated Saturday is headlined, "Summit Push - Climbers Stranded on Summit."
His previous dispatch dated Friday is titled, "Summit Day - Tragedy Begins."
According to his reports, Rice made it above 25,000 feet on K2, to Camp IV. He decided against a summit attempt because of deteriorating conditions and his assessment of his strength and stamina at the time.
"I realized, since I was feeling quite strong, that I could summit K2 without oxygen, Rice wrote. "(H)owever if I wanted to keep my fingers and enjoy a normal adult life, I needed to turn around and not let my ambitions get the best of me."
The death of a climber who fell that day on a part of the mountain known as the "Bottleneck" convinced Rice to head down rather make a summit attempt, he wrote.
"I made the decision to head down, as I wasn't willing to climb on a
route that wasn't properly fixed (protected by reliable fixed ropes) and was by nature dangerous . . . and had already killed someone," Rice said.
"I watched as the line of climbers stopped and some went back to help," Rice said. "(I) was somewhat shocked when I saw the line of climbers continue up the route towards the summit."
During his descent Saturday, Rice stopped in Camp II to melt snow for water, rest and to make a satellite phone check. He received a disturbing message about the ordeals that continued above him on the mountain.
"(A) big chunk of ice had fallen off the serac above the bottleneck, and cut the fixed lines, stranding the climbers above the bottleneck," Rice said in the last dispatch available today on his web site.
"The mountain seems to have become quite dangerous from top to bottom and I couldn't wait to get off of it," Rice said. "Jelle and I arrived at the bottom of the route around 6 p.m. Joselito was at the base to meet us, and told us of the tragedy . . . He set the death toll at nine."
Rice said he held out hope for his expedition leader, D'Aubarede, even though there was no news of him.
Just before sunset Saturday, an injured climber was spotted near Camp III, and another climber in Camp IV was sent down to check. There was little else the people in base camp could do at that time, other than try to keep track of communications.
"We all went to bed not knowing the fate of the climber," Rice said. "Also, I said goodbye to Peter tonight, who was heading down tomorrow to Skardu. This was his fifth attempt on K2 and he was no stranger to the loss of teammates on this deadly mountain."
NOTE: 2007 K2 photo at top by Christian. NASA image of Karakoram Range, right, taken by unidentified shuttle astronaut with handheld camera September 2000.
More from NASA's description of the image:
The Tarim sedimentary basin borders the range on the north and the Lesser Himalayas on the south. Melt waters from vast glaciers, such as those south and east of K2, feed agriculture in the valleys (dark green) and contribute significantly to the regional fresh-water supply. The Karakoram Range lies along the southern edge of the Eurasian tectonic plate and is made up of ancient sedimentary rocks - more than 390 million years old, according to geologists studying the shuttle imagery. Those strata were folded and thrust-faulted, and granite masses were intruded, say the geologists, when the Indo-Pakistan plate collided with Eurasia, beginning more than 100 million years ago.