Scaling K2 has its ups and downs

December 16, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

Last summer, Annapolis resident Chris Warner stood atop the world's nastiest rock pile. But even he couldn't tell me how today's NBC show about the expedition is going to end.

When we talked Tuesday, the show about conquering K2, aka the "Savage Mountain," was still in final editing, with Warner on his way to New York to do some last-minute voiceovers. Chopping down more than 30 hours of high-definition video into 38 minutes of action - that's what's left after commercials and studio chatter - was an uphill battle.

"It's an amazing process," Warner says of the production. But he easily could have been describing the expedition.

The 16 climbers from eight nations who stood with him on the world's second-highest mountain were capable of incredible displays of courage and selfishness, Warner says.

They were able to band together for the greatest single day of climbing in K2's history, but also, on the way down, of shamelessly stepping over an injured climber, stealing his sleeping bag and ignoring the fact that one of their number was missing.

"If it ends at the summit, it's a joyous story," Warner says. "But as soon as the summit was attained, it was every man for himself, and you see it time and again."

What makes the K2 show different from, say, the Everest-climbing series on the Discovery Channel has a lot to do with the differences between the mountains.

On a good year, the summit of Everest is reached by as many as 500 climbers. The Discovery show depicts a group of amateurs being led to the top by professional guides. But fewer than 300 people have reached the top of K2, and 67 have died trying.

"This is actual climbing," Warner, 43, says of the NBC show. "It's definitely about getting your [butt] kicked. It's definitely not a reality show.

"With K2, there's this sense of wilderness. You're 65 miles from the nearest village, and there's a mountain that's trying to kill you."

For Warner, a veteran of Mount Everest and part of a team of three U.S. climbers, reaching the top of the 28,253-foot mountain July 20 meant achieving a five-year dream. Attempts in 2002 and 2005 were buried in one of the blizzards that slam the region.

But the triumph came at a price for Warner and partners Bruce Normand and Don Bowie.

Without bottled oxygen, it took them more than 15 hours to get from Camp 4, at 26,250 feet, to the summit. Working with strong teams from Russia and South Korea, and dodging rocks and avalanches, they broke through chest-deep snow to set thousands of feet of climbing ropes. Less experienced climbers followed in their footsteps.

Three hours into the struggle, a Sherpa with the Korean team slipped to his death as the horrified climbers watched, unable to reach him in time. After pausing to pay their respects, the leaders pushed on.

Just after 7:30 a.m. East Coast time, Warner and Normand reached the top. Bowie joined them minutes later.

The video is stunning. The climbers are jubilant.

But as any mountaineer will say, it's the trip down, when the climber is exhausted and vulnerable, that kills.

Much of the drama of the descent was not captured on camera. Warner said taping took a back seat to saving lives.

Warner and Normand rescued a lone Czech climber who had collapsed above Camp 4 and cried weakly for help.

The same kind of helping hand was not extended by others to Bowie when he tore three ligaments in his leg in a fall above Camp 3. A Sherpa stepped over him and kept going, forcing Bowie to drag himself to safety. When the injured man reached his tent, he found another climber in it.

"`Yes, this was your sleeping bag,'" Warner says Bowie was told. "`Tomorrow, this will be your sleeping bag. Today, it is my sleeping bag.'"

The Americans rescued their teammate, who was airlifted from base camp.

Rescue never came for Italian Stefano Svafka because his team never told other climbers he was missing until a powerful storm made it impossible to send out a search party.

"There are questions about the timeline. Zero effort was given for six hours when the potential was there to get the strongest climbers to look for him," says Warner, who visited the dead climber's parents in Italy last month. "Instead of looking for Stefano, they were packing up. It's devastating to know that if it had been you, they would have left you."

Nine weeks, three routes, five attempts - that's K2 by the numbers, Warner-style, one he hopes to share with this show.

"Our sport needs a different image than what the Discovery Channel is showing," Warner says. "If this show doesn't do it, I don't know what will."

"Shared Summits," on Jeep World of Adventure Sports will air at 1 p.m. today on channels 11 and 4.

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