Why K2?

Chris Warner has already been on top of Everest, but he calls K2 `iconic' as he makes a third try for the peak

Mountaineering

May 31, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Reporter

While most Marylanders kick back this summer and relax at the beach or the swimming pool, Chris Warner will be grappling with a mountain that chews up and spits out most adventurers.

Twice, K2 has flicked away Warner's advances with a powerful display of biting cold, brutal winds and treacherous avalanches that earned the world's second-highest peak the nickname "The Savage Mountain."

For a third time, the Maryland mountaineer is taking up temporary residence at its base, hoping to tag the top of Pakistan's 28,251-foot peak somewhere around July 4, using a route no one has conquered.

But things have changed since the Annapolis resident's previous attempts, in 2002 and 2005. He has added a third Earth Treks climbing center to his business portfolio and a wife and daughter to his life.

Still, Warner, believed to be the first Marylander to summit 29,035-foot Mount Everest, can't imagine not giving K2 another go.

"It's just hard-wired into my system at this point where all the things that have given me satisfaction in mountaineering, none of them has disappeared," he said one recent afternoon at his Columbia gym. "It's four guys out in the middle of nowhere on a route three teams have looked at and one team has been on. Every single foot we go will essentially be new terrain."

But the facts are these: In any given year, 300 people might summit Mount Everest, but only 246 people have ever reached the top of K2. Ten years before Into Thin Air told the 1996 story of eight people killed on Everest, 13 of the 27 people who attempted K2 were killed.

Mountaineering legend Ed Viesturs, who ascended Everest five times and has climbed all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (26,240 feet) without bottled oxygen, 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."

Warner's first attempt in 2002 ended after he watched an avalanche tear one of his climbing friends from his perch and drop him 500 feet away. Recovering the body and then carrying it miles to civilization left Warner shaken and empty. The veteran climber, who has been part of more than 120 international expeditions, packed up and came home.

Three years later, heavy snow and gale-force winds battered Warner and climbing partner Rick "Tao" Franken into submission.

In those two climbing seasons, no one reached the top.

This year, he hopes to change the odds by starting earlier than any of the other 14 teams to take advantage of relatively calm conditions before the monsoons arrive in mid-July, bringing heavy snow and violent winds.

"The weather systems the last several years have been favoring June, so we hope to maximize our opportunities in June," he said.

But being first means having to establish the route to Base Camp, a seven-day, 65-mile trek that began yesterday, using about 150 porters to haul 4,000 pounds of food and gear, including a gallon of salsa, 7,000 feet of rope and 19 pounds of coffee.

Two men - Joel Shalowitz of Baltimore and Chris Strensland of Colorado - will remain at Base Camp to edit film and manage the Web site while Warner and three climbers go four miles "around the corner" to set up Advanced Base Camp below the east face, which was tested by British climbers in the late 1990s but not solved.

"From there, we'll be trying to make an educated decision, `Can this route be climbed?'" Warner said.

If the East Buttress route can't be negotiated, they'll try the East Rib, which has never been climbed, or continue over to the Northeast Ridge, the route taken by the first successful American team in 1978.

"All those routes are absolutely beautiful. The Northeast Ridge is a stunning knife-edge. We're bringing enough gear so we'll have all the options open," he said. "If it happens the way we want it to happen, it's great because it's full-on exploratory mountaineering. There hasn't been a new route done on K2 since 1991."

Capturing it all will be cameraman and teammate Pasquale "PV" Scaturro, a Colorado adventurer who guided blind climber Erik Weinhenmayer to the top of Mount Everest in 2001. In 2004, Scaturro completed the first 3,250-mile descent from the headwaters of the Nile River to the Mediterranean Sea for an IMAX documentary.

Don Bowie is a self-described Silicon Valley dot-com refugee turned Bishop, Calif., climbing bum who works for that state's Fish and Game Department trapping and darting mountain lions as part of a bighorn sheep survival program.

Rounding out the team is Bruce Normand, a Scottish climber with a Ph.D. from MIT in theoretical physics who lives in Zurich.

From Advanced Base Camp, the four climbers hope to establish Camp 1 at 21,500 feet, Camp 2 at 23,000 feet, Camp 3 on the mountain's shoulder at 25,000 feet and a final Camp 4 at 26,400 feet.

Reaching the summit means the hard part is still ahead. Half of the deaths on K2 have come on the descent.

"For a mountaineer, it's really the iconic peak," Warner said, trying to explain his third bid. "Everest used to be that for everybody, but that's changed dramatically in the last 10 years since [the book] Into Thin Air. K2 preserves that. It's really a risky mountain. You really need to have the right team and the right plan. You need to be totally willing to turn around."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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