Area climber's no stranger to risk

Catching Up With ... Chris Warner

June 26, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Maryland mountaineer Chris Warner is already a seasoned adventurer. Next, he also might get to play one on TV.

The Annapolis resident, who in 2001 conquered Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, is taking aim this summer at No. 2, the much deadlier K2. He set off this past week for the Pakistan-China border, and is expected to return in August.

When he does, Warner hopes to play host for a new television series, Risk Takers/History Makers, that its producers aim to make part of the History Channel's lineup.

"We will be featuring some of the greatest explorers and explorations of all time, from John Wesley Powell's descent of the Grand Canyon, to Lawrence of Arabia, [Ernest] Shackleton, Henry Morton Stanley Jr.," Warner said of the show.

Warner, owner of Earth Treks climbing centers in Columbia and Timonium, auditioned in May to be host of the program, which is being produced by Beyond International. He plans to negotiate a contract with the network after he returns from the Karakoram mountain range.

When it comes to risks, Warner, 40, has taken his share. In more than 20 years as a climber, he has dodged avalanches, fought the effects of altitude-related hallucinations and suffered frostbite so severe it took months for him to regain feeling in fingers and toes.

`Everything went wrong'

In 2001, after reaching the summit of Everest, he was part of a rescue mission to save three climbers incapacitated just below the top. Three years ago, Warner turned back from his assault on K2 after watching a friend fall to his death from the side of the 28,250-foot peak.

"Everything possible went wrong," he said. "For me, there's huge unfinished business on K2."

The massive monolith of ice, granite and limestone, located about 1,000 miles west of Everest, is called "The Savage Mountain" because of its slopes that reach 90 degrees, vicious weather and avalanche dangers.

Ed Viesturs, who has ascended Everest five times and is the only American to climb all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (26,240 feet, or nearly five miles), said of his 1992 expedition: "I have climbed K2 once. It's a peak that once you've succeeded in climbing it, you walk away."

While more than 2,250 climbers have scaled Everest, fewer than 225 have stood atop K2. Since 1990, K2 has had five times the fatalities of Everest.

K2 is so tough that it has taken climbers 20 hours just to travel the last 2,200 vertical feet from high camp to the summit.

While the natural inclination might be to bulk up on gear and support troops, Warner and partner Tao Franken will climb K2 in do-it-yourself Alpine style.

"There's no Sherpas, no [bottled] oxygen, no fixed lines, no established camps," said Warner. "Above base camp we'll place just two other camps - a single tent, really - one at about 23,000 feet and the other as close to 8,000 meters as possible."

All of this activity will play out in weather that can turn from mild to violent in less than an hour, with 100 mph winds and driving snow that can shred tents and peel climbers from their perches.

"To get a three-day climbing window is a miracle. To get a five-day window is nearly impossible," said Warner, who has spent $3,000 to hire a meteorologist to map conditions and alert them to their best opportunities.

There will be as many as five other K2 expeditions climbing this season. Warner hopes they will be finishing up as he and Franken begin so that they'll have an unencumbered route to the top.

"I'm not into the crowds. I'm not interested in walking up to the summit. I want a pure experience. That's the challenge I want," he said.

The two climbers will tune up for K2 by attempting Broad Peak - at 26,400 feet, the world's 12th-highest peak - just across the Godwin-Austen glacier valley from K2. Then, after an anticipated mid-July summit, the team will turn its attention to the main attraction.

`Safety over style'

Warner says they will use the so-called "Cessen Route," considered the safest of the half-dozen established approaches. Only eight expeditions have used the route to the summit; Warner and Franken would be the first Americans to do so.

If they succeed, the climbers won't have much time to savor victory. Warner figures there will be time for a hug and a few photos before it's time to begin the perilous descent to high camp.

According to Xavier Eguskitza, a mountaineering historian, K2 is the deadliest mountain in the world for descending climbers, who are cold and mentally and physically drained. At least 22 men and women have died on the way down.

Warner insists he and Franken will choose "safety over style." If they don't make it to the top, he says, it won't be the end of the world.

Like Viesturs, who says he probably won't climb any more 8,000-meter peaks, Warner is already thinking about new challenges. He and his wife, Melinda, are expecting their first child in November, and Warner expects to be opening a third climbing center this fall in Rockville.

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