K2 has cast its spell on Warner



August 18, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

You find a body. A colleague suffers a horrific fatal fall before your eyes. It snows almost every day. You dodge avalanches and hang on for dear life.

And despite all that, you can't wait to plan another assault on K2, the world's second-tallest mountain.

That's what makes Chris Warner different from 99.99 percent of the rest of us who spent our summer whining about Bay Bridge traffic, the unending heat and the sorry state of baseball in Maryland.

"It's the most brutal conditions I've ever encountered," Warner says solemnly. Then he breaks into a grin. "Oh, man, I'm going back."

Either he's crazy or we are.

Warner, who climbed Mount Everest last year, returned from Pakistan earlier this month after an unsuccessful attempt to reach the 28,250-foot summit.

K2 stands in the shadow of Everest when it comes to fame, but not when it comes to ferociousness. Expert mountaineers rate K2, which kills one in four of climbers, almost twice as dangerous as Everest. In fact, it is at its deadliest after climbers reach the summit and begin their descent.

"You just feel it all the time," says Warner, who lives in Baltimore County. "If you don't, you're delusional.

Reminders come in the form of about 45 tin plates attached to the Gilkey Memorial at Base Camp - each with the name of a climber who died on K2's slopes. The memorial is named for Art Gilkey, a member of the 1953 American expedition who was swept to his death as his teammates tried to rescue him.

"They're all climbers whose names you know, and they're all better than you are," Warner says.

This year, K2 doled out plenty of punishment.

Inclement weather kept most of the mountaineers pinned below 19,690 feet.

Japanese climbers slogged from Camp 3 at 23,500 feet to Camp 4 at 25,000 feet "in waist-deep snow, which is insane because of the avalanche danger," Warner says.

A summit bid by the Chinese expedition stalled at 27,560 feet and climbers came close to walking off the side of the mountain in a blinding snowstorm.

"They couldn't find their tent coming down," Warner recalls. "There was crying and pleading on the radios. Their leader begged them to stay where they were. When the wind died down to where they could see, they found that they were just [half a football field] from their tent."

Warner found the remains of an unidentified climber on July 22, while hiking across the Godwin Austen Glacier at the base of the mountain.

When he saw the foot, he yelled to his teammates, "Don't look to your right."

But Warner stopped and looked. "I said, `I need to deal with this. I need to help some family close a chapter.' "

So he searched for some kind of identification, not easy after a falling body has been abused by ice and rocks. The dead climber was wearing a Patagonia jacket zipped up to the neck. Underneath was a buttoned-up Eddie Bauer chamois shirt.

By the clothing style, Warner guesses he died in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but that's all they were able to determine before they buried the remains and headed back to Advance Base Camp.

But that was just a prelude to what Warner calls "one of the worst days of my life."

He wrote in an email to friends on July 23:

"As I was standing at ABC, one of our group started screaming. A body was falling down the face, bouncing, spinning, tumbling. Pieces of gear spread downward. Was it two bodies? Was it Pasang Dawa, a Sherpa on our team, who was high above us? Was it one of the four high altitude porters that were climbing from Camp 1 to Camp 2? Everyone was screaming. [Expedition leader] Henry Todd on the ropes high above us, dodged one object and then seemed to be hit by the second. He was knocked off his feet. Did it kill him?

"It wasn't a pretty fall. Large, red spots marked every point of contact. His [the unknown climber's] body finally stopped, pushed into the snow, about 500 feet above those of us at ABC."

Warner and expedition member Rod Richardson hurried to the fallen climber's side. Capt. Muhammud Iqbal, the Pakistani Army liaison officer for the Chinese-Pakistan Friendship Expedition, was dead, the second fatality of the K2 season.

When Warner arrived back at Base Camp, he decided not to fight the mountain anymore. He and his teammates packed their bags and started home.

"It's a phenomenal mountaineering challenge," he says. "I know I have all the skills to climb it."

But first, Warner is embarking on a different kind of adventure - opening a second climbing gym to go with Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia.

The new gym on Greenspring Road in Timonium is "my $1.1 million clubhouse and a playground for REI employees," he says of his soon-to-be neighbors at the outdoors store.

Right now, workers are tearing the roof off the building so that the 20-foot-tall walls can grow to 54 feet. Inside the 16,000-square-foot gym will be two teaching areas, a 2,000-square-foot retail area and a coffee shop.

Warner, who hauls good coffee around on all his expeditions, insisted on the latter.

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