The Dangerous SummerOn K2 last year, 27 climbers made it to the top--and 13 died. At the edge of Himalayan mountaineering, is there any room left to fail?
By Greg Child and Jon Krakauer
In the northernmost corner of Pakistan, in the heart of the Karakoram Range, is a 35-mile tongue of rubble-strewn ice called the Baltoro Glacier. Six of the 17 highest mountains on the planet loom above the Baltoro, and last June, at its head, were pitched 150 tents sheltering expeditions from ten nations. Most of the people in those tents, whose ranks included some of the world's most highly regarded and ambitious climbers, had their sights set on a single summit, K2.
At 28,250 feet, K2 is almost 800 feet lower than Mount Everest, but its sharper, more graceful architecture makes it a more striking mountain--and a much harder one to climb. Indeed, of the 14 mountains in the world over 8,000 meters, K2 has the highest failure rate. By 1985 only nine of the 26 expeditions that had attempted it had succeeded, putting a total of 39 people on the summit--at a cost of 12 lives. Last year the government of Pakistan granted an unprecedented number of climbing permits for K2, and by the end of the summer, an additional 27 climbers had made it to the top. But for every two who summited, one would die--13 deaths in all, more than doubling the number of fatalities in the preceding 84 years. The toll would raise some thorny questions about the recent course of Himalayan climbing, a course some people believe is growing increasingly reckless.
The present direction was set, it's generally agreed, in the summer of 1975, when Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler pioneered a new route up 26,470-foot Hidden Peak without bottled oxygen, a support team, fixed ropes, a chain of pre-established camps, or any of the other siege tactics that had traditionally been de rigueur in the Himalayas. In a single stroke, they significantly upped the ante in a game that never lacked for high stakes and tough odds to begin with. When Messner first announced he would climb an 8,000-meter Himalayan peak in the same manner that climbers tackled routes in the Tetons and the Alps, many of the world's foremost climbers called the attempt impossible and suicidal. But after he and Habeler succeeded, anyone with designs on staying at the top of the heap had no choice but to attack the highest mountains in the world by what Messner had pointedly termed "climbing by fair means."
The most coveted prize on K2 last summer was its unclimbed South Pillar, a "last great problem" that Messner had nicknamed the Magic Line. Soaring two miles to the summit, it demanded more steep, technical climbing at high altitude than anything previously done in the Himalayas.
There were four teams attempting the Magic Line last summer, including an American one under the leadership of a 35-year-old Oregonian named John Smolich. On June 21, Smolich and partner Alan Pennington were climbing an easy approach gully at the base of the route when, far above them, the sun loosened a truck-size rock from the ice, sending it careening down the mountainside. As soon as it struck the top of the gully, a 15-foot-deep fracture line shot across the low-angle slope, triggering a massive avalanche that engulfed both men in seconds. Climbers who witnessed the slide quickly located and dug out Pennington, but not in time to save his life. Smolich's body, buried under tons of avalanche debris, was never found.
The surviving members of the American team called off their climb and went home, but the other expeditions on the mountain regarded the tragedy as a freak accident, simply a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Indeed, on June 23, two Basques--Mari Abrego and Josema Casimaro--and four members of a French-Polish expedition--Maurice and Liliane Barrard, Wanda Rutkiewicz, and Michel Parmentier--reached the summit of K2 via the easiest route, the Abruzzi Spur. Rutkiewicz and Liliane Barrard thereby became the first women to stand on top of K2, and they did so without using bottled oxygen.
All six climbers, however, were forced by darkness to bivouac high on the precipitous flanks of the summit pyramid. They survived the night, but by morning the clear, cold skies that had prevailed the previous week had given way to a bad storm. During the ensuing descent, the Barrards--both very experienced Himalayan climbers with other 8,000-meter summits under their belts--dropped behind and never reappeared .
Parmentier guessed that they had fallen or been swept away by an avalanche, but he nonetheless stopped to wait for them in a high camp, while Rutkiewicz and the Basques, whose noses and fingertips had begun to turn black from frostbite, continued down.
That night, the 24th, the storm worsened. Awakening to a complete whiteout and vicious winds, Parmentier radioed base camp by walkie-talkie that he was descending; but with the fixed ropes and all traces of his companions' footprints buried by fresh snow, he soon became lost on the broad, featureless south shoulder of K2. He staggered around in the blizzard at 26,000 feet with no idea of where to go, muttering "grande vide, grande vide" (big emptiness), as climbers in base camp tried to guide him down over the radio by their recollections of the route.
"I could hear the desperation and fatigue in his voice as he went back and forth in the storm, looking for some clue," says Alan Burgess, a member of a British expedition attempting the northwest ridge. "Finally, Parmentier found a dome of ice with a urine stain on it, and we remembered it. By this insignificant landmark we could guide him down the rest of the route by voice. He was very lucky."
On July 5 four Italians, a Czech, two Swiss, and a Frenchman, Benolt Chamoux, reached the summit via the Abruzzi route. Chamoux's ascent, a single 24-hour push from base camp, was a mind-boggling athletic feat, especially considering that just two weeks before he had sprinted up the neighboring slopes of 26,400-foot Broad Peak in 17 hours.
The real action, though, was on K2's south face: a two-mile-high expanse of ice-plastered vertical rock, avalanche gullies, and hanging glaciers delineated on one side by the Abruzzi Spur and on the other by the Magic Line. On July 4 the Poles, Jerzy Kukuczka, 38, and Tadeusz Piotrowski, 46, started up the center of this unclimbed wall in light, impeccably pure style, hell-bent on pushing the limits of Himalayan climbing to a new plane.
Kukuczka was the heir apparent to Messner's unofficial world high-altitude climbing title. When he arrived at K2, he was hot on Messner's tail in the race to knock off all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks; he had already bagged ten of them, an especially impressive accomplishment considering the expense of mounting Himalayan expeditions and the absurdly low exchange rate of Polish zlotys. To fund their expeditions, Kukuczka and his Polish comrades had been routinely forced to smuggle vodka, rugs, running shoes, and other unlikely commodities that could be bartered for hard currency.
Just before sunset on July 8, after a lot of extreme technical climbing and four rough bivouacs (the last two of which were without tent, sleeping bags, food, or water), Kukuczka and Piotrowski struggled to the summit in a howling storm. They immediately began to descend the Abruzzi Spur. Two days later, totally strung out and still battling their way down through the blizzard unroped, Piotrowski--who, because of numb fingers, had been unable to properly secure his crampons that morning--stepped on a patch of steel-hard ice and lost a crampon. He stumbled, righted himself, then lost the other crampon. An attempt to self-arrest wrenched his ice ax out of his hands, and he was soon hurtling down the steepening slope, out of control. Kukuczka could do nothing but watch helplessly as his partner bounced off some rocks and disappeared into the clouds.
By now the summer's death toll was beginning to give pause to most of the climbers still on the mountain, but for many the lure of the summit proved stronger. Kukuczka himself departed immediately for Nepal to attempt his 12th 8,000-meter peak and gain ground on Messner in the race to knock off all 14. (The effort would prove to be in vain after Messner reached the summits of Makalu and Lhotse later in the fall, to claim the 14-summit title.)
Shortly after Kukuczka returned to base camp to tell his grim tale, the renowned Italian solo climber Renato Casarotto, 38, embarked on his third attempt that summer to climb the Magic Line. This would be, he had promised his wife, Goretta, "the last time." Although Casarotto had achieved acclaim through solo ascents of difficult new routes on Fitzroy, Mount McKinley, and other major peaks in South America and the Alps, he was, paradoxically, a very cautious, calculating climber. On July 16, a thousand feet below the summit and not liking the look of the weather, he prudently abandoned his attempt and descended the entire South Pillar to the glacier at its base.
As Casarotto made his way across the final stretch of glacier before base camp, climbers watching through binoculars from camp saw him pause in front of a narrow crevasse and prepare to hop across it. To their horror, the soft snow at the edge of I the crevasse gave way and he suddenly disappeared, plunging 120 feet into the bowels of the glacier. Alive but badly injured at the bottom of the ice-blue hole, he raised his wife on his walkie-talkie and she summoned a rescue party. They hauled him out after an all-night struggle, but back on the surface of the ice, Casarotto stood up, took a few steps, then lay down on his rucksack and died.
The only expedition on K2 to make no effort to conform to Messnerian ethics was a mammoth, nationally sponsored team from South Korea. Indeed, the Koreans cared little how they got to the top, as long as they got someone there and back in one piece. To that end, they employed 450 porters to haul a small mountain of gear and supplies to base camp, and then methodically proceeded to string miles of fixed rope and a chain of well-stocked camps up the Abruzzi Spur.
Late in the day on August 3, in perfect weather, three Koreans reached the summit using bottled oxygen. After starting their descent, they were overtaken by two exhausted Poles and a Czech who, using conventional siege tactics but no oxygen, had just succeeded in making the first ascent of the coveted Magic Line. As both parties descended together into the night, the famous Polish alpinist Wojciech Wroz, his attention dulled by hypoxia and fatigue, inadvertently rappelled off the end of a fixed rope in the dark--the seventh casualty of the season. The next day, Muhammed Ali, a Pakistani porter ferrying loads near the base of the mountain, became victim number eight after he was hit by a falling rock.
Most of the Europeans and Americans on the Baltoro last summer had initially disparaged the ponderous, dated methods by which the Koreans made their way up the Abruzzi Spur. But as the season wore on and the mountain prevailed, several weren't above using the ladder of ropes and tents the Koreans had erected.
Seven men and women from Poland, Austria, and Britain succumbed to this temptation after their original expeditions packed it in, and decided to loosely join forces on the Abruzzi. As the Koreans got ready for their final assault, the ad hoc group made its way up the lower flanks of the mountain, and in fact all five men and two women had joined the Koreans at Camp IV at 26,250 feet--the highest camp--the day before the Koreans mounted their successful summit bid.
While the Koreans made their way to the top in flawless weather, the Austro-Anglo-Polish team remained in their tents, having decided to wait a day to make their own push for the summit. The reasons for this decision are not entirely clear, but whatever the case, by the time the European team finally started up the summit tower on the morning of the 4th, the weather was about to change. "There were great plumes of clouds blowing in from the south, and it became obvious that major bad weather was on the way," says Jim Curran, a British climber and filmmaker on the unsuccessful British northwest ridge expedition who was down at base camp at the time. "Everyone must have been aware that they were taking a great risk by pressing on" he adds, "but I think when the summit of K2 is within reach, you might be inclined to take a few more chances."
Thirty-four-year-old Alan Rouse, one of England's most accomplished climbers, and Dobroslawa Wolf, a 30-year-old Polish woman, were the first to start up the summit pyramid, but Wolf quickly tired and dropped back. Rouse continued, however, taking on the exhausting work of breaking trail for most of the day until, at 3:30 in the afternoon, just below the top, he was finally caught by Austrians Willi Bauer, 44, and Alfred Imitzer, 40. About 4 p.m., the three men reached the summit, and Rouse, the first Englishman to reach the top of K2, commemorated the event by hanging a Union Jack from two oxygen cylinders the Koreans had left. During the threesome's descent, 500 feet below the summit, they saw Wolf asleep in the snow, and after a heated discussion, Rouse persuaded her that she should turn around and go down with him.
Soon Rouse met two other members of the team on their way up, Austrian Kurt Diemberger and Englishwoman Julie Tullis. The 54-year-old Diemberger was a celebrity in Western Europe, a legendary Bergsteiger whose career spanned two generations. He had been a partner of the heroic Hermann Buhl, and had climbed five 8,000-meter peaks. Tullis, 47, was both a protegee and close friend of Diemberger's, and though she didn't have a great deal of Himalayan experience, she was very determined, very strong, and had been to the top of Broad Peak with Diemberger in 1984. Climbing K2 together was a dream that had consumed the two of them for years.
Because of the late hour and the rapidly deteriorating weather, Rouse, Baur, and Imitzer all tried to persuade Diemberger and Tullis to forgo the summit and head down. They mulled this advice over, but, as Diemberger later told a British newspaper, "I was convinced it was better to try it finally after all these years. And Julie, too, said, 'Yes, I think we should go on.' There was a risk, but climbing is about justifiable risks." At 7 p.m., when Diemberger and Tullis got to the summit, that risk appeared to have been justified. They hugged each other, and Tullis gushed, "Kurt, our dream is finally fulfilled: K2 is now ours!" They stayed on top about ten minutes, snapped a few pictures, and then, in the evening's gathering gloom, turned to go down, joined by 50 feet of rope.
Almost immediately after leaving the summit, Tullis, who was above Diemberger, slipped. "For a fraction of a second," says Diemberger, "I thought I could hold us, but then we both started sliding down the steep slope, which led to a huge ice cliff. l thought, 'My God, this is it. This is the end.'" At the foot of the mountain during the ascent from base camp, they had come across the body of Liliane Barrard, where it had been deposited after her 10,000-foot fall from the upper slopes three weeks earlier, and the image of Barrard's broken form now flashed into Diemberger's mind. "The same thing," he thought, "is happening to us."
But somehow, miraculously, they managed to stop before shooting over the edge of the ice cliff. Then, fearing another fall in the dark, instead of continuing down they simply hacked out a shallow hollow in the snow and spent the remainder of the night there, above 27,000 feet, shivering together in the open. In the morning the storm was upon them in earnest. Tunis had developed frostbite on her nose and fingers, and she was having problems with her eyesight--possibly indicating cerebral edema--but they had survived the night. By noon, when they reached the tents of Camp IV and the company of their five fellow climbers, they thought the worst was behind them.
As the day progressed, the storm worsened, generating prodigious amounts of snow, winds in excess of 100 mph, and subzero temperatures. The tent Diemberger and Tullis were in collapsed under the brunt of the storm, so he crowded into Rouse's and Wolf's tent, and she moved in with Bauer, Imitzer, and Hannes Weiser, an Austrian who hadn't gone to the summit.
Sometime during the night of August 6, while the storm continued to build, the combined effects of the cold, the altitude, and the ordeal of Tullis's fall and forced bivouac caught up to her, and she died. In the morning, when Diemberger learned of her death, he was devastated. Later that day, furthermore, the six survivors used up the last of both their food and fuel, without which they couldn't melt snow for water.
Over the next three days, as their blood thickened and their strength drained away, Diemberger says they "reached the stage where it is hard to tell dreams from reality." Diemberger, drifting in and out of bizarre hallucinations, watched Rouse go downhill much faster than the rest of them and sink into a state of constant delirium, apparently paying the price for the energy and fluid he had expended breaking trail on the summit day. Rouse, recalls Diemberger, "could speak only of water. But there wasn't any, not even a drop. And the, snow we were trying to eat was so cold and dry it barely melted in our mouths."
On the morning of August 10, after five days of unabated storm, the temperature dropped to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind continued to blow as hard as ever, but the snow stopped falling and the sky cleared. Those who were still able to think clearly realized that if they didn't make their move right then, they weren't going to have enough strength left to make a move at all.
Diemberger, Wolf, Imitzer, Bauer, and Weiser immediately started down. They believed they didn't stand a chance of getting Rouse down in his semi-comatose condition, so they made him as comfortable as they could and left him in his tent. No one harbored any illusions that they would see him again. The five conscious survivors, in fact, were in such bad shape themselves that the descent quickly became a case of everyone for himself.
Within a few hundred feet of leaving camp, Weiser and Imitzer collapsed from the effort of struggling through the waist-deep snow. "We tried in vain to stir them," says Diemberger. "Only Alfred reacted at all, weakly. He murmured that he couldn't see anything." Weiser and Imitzer were left where they lay, and with Bauer breaking trail, the other three kept fighting their way down. A few hours later Wolf dropped behind and did not reappear--Diemberger believes she fell after inadvertently becoming unclipped from one of the fixed ropes--and the team was down to two.
Bauer and Diemberger made it to Camp III at 24,000 feet, only to find that it had been destroyed by an avalanche. They pressed on toward Camp II, at 21,000 feet, where, after dark, they arrived to find food, fuel, and shelter. Late the next night. Bauer--horribly frostbitten and barely alive--finally staggered into base camp looking like an apparition.
Unable to speak properly, he nonetheless managed to communicate that Diemberger, too, was still alive somewhere above, and Jim Curran and two Polish climbers immediately set out to look for him. They found him, in the middle of the night, moving at a crawl down the fixed ropes between Camp II and advanced base camp. They spent all of the next day getting him to base camp, from where, on August 16, he and Bauer were evacuated by helicopter to face months in hospitals and multiple amputations of their fingers and toes.
When garbled word of this final disaster reached Europe, it became headline news. Initially, particularly in England, the once-popular Diemberger was vilified by the media for leaving Rouse to die at Camp IV after Rouse, instead of beating a safe and hasty retreat from high camp on August 5, had waited to make sure that Diemberger and Tullis would return from their overnight ordeal on the summit pyramid.
Curran insists that such criticism is unjustified. Rouse and the others, he believes, stayed at Camp IV on August 5 not just to wait for Diemberger and Tullis, but because they "must have been incredibly tired from the day before, and the storm would have made it extremely difficult to find the route. Everyone was aware that Michel Parmentier had nearly gotten lost trying to find his way down there in similar conditions."
And when the descent was finally begun from Camp IV, says Curran, "there was absolutely no way that either Diemberger or Willi Bauer could have gotten Rouse off the mountain alive. They were both nearly dead themselves. It was an unimaginably desperate situation; I don't think it's possible to pass judgment about it from afar."
Still, it's difficult not to compare that turn of events with a strikingly similar predicament eight K2 climbers found themselves in 33 years earlier--at very nearly the same place on the mountain. The climbers, led by Dr. Charles Houston, were camped at 25,000 feet on the then unclimbed Abruzzi route, preparing to make a push for the summit, when a blizzard hit that pinned them down for nine days. Toward the end of the storm, a young climber named Art Gilkey came down with a deadly ailment called thrombophlebitis, a clotting of the veins brought on by altitude and dehydration.
Gilkey's seven companions, in no great shape themselves, though considerably better off than Diemberger and company, realized that he stood almost no chance of surviving, and that trying to save him would endanger them all. But, says Houston, "so strong had become the bonds between them that none thought of leaving him and saving themselves--it was not to be dreamed of, even though he would probably die of his illness." In the course of being hauled down the mountain, Gilkey was swept to his death by an avalanche.
It can be argued that the decision not to abandon Gilkey in 1953 was the height of heroism, or that it was foolishly emotional--that had an avalanche not taken Gilkey off his teammates' hands, their chivalrous gesture would have resulted in eight deaths instead of one. Viewed in that light, the decision by those who survived K2 in 1986 seems not cold-hearted or cowardly, but rather eminently sensible.
But if the actions of Diemberger and Bauer appear to be justified, larger, more troubling questions remain. It is natural in any sport to seek ever greater challenges; what is to be made of a sport in which doing this means taking ever greater risks?
For as long as people have been climbing in the Himalayas, a significant percentage of them have died there as well. But the carnage on K2 in 1986 was something else again. A recent and comprehensive analysis of the data shows that, from the beginning of Himalayan climbing through 1985, approximately one out of every 30 people who has attempted an 8,000-meter peak has not come back from it; on K2 last summer that figure was, unbelievably, almost one out of five.
It is hard not to attribute that grim statistic at least in part to Reinhold Messner's astounding string of mountaineering feats over the past decade and a half. Messner's brilliance has, perhaps, distorted the judgment of some of those who would compete with him, giving unwarranted confidence to climbers who lack the uncanny "mountain sense" that has kept Messner alive all these years. A handful may have what it takes to stay at the table in the high roller's game, but some men and women seem to have lost sight of the fact that the losers in such games tend to lose very big.
Jim Curran, who spent the entire summer on Baltoro, cautions that you can't really make generalizations about why so many people died in the Karakoram last summer. He points out that "people got killed climbing with fixed ropes and without fixed ropes; people got killed at the top of the mountain and the bottom; old people got killed and young people got killed."
Curran does say, however, that "if anything was common to most of the deaths, it was that a lot of people were very ambitious and had a lot to gain by climbing K2--and a lot to lose as well. Casarotto, the Austrians, Al Rouse, the Barrards were all--the word that comes to mind is overambitious. If you're going to try alpine style ascents of 8,000-meter peaks you've got to leave yourself room to fail."
Too many people on K2 last summer, it would appear, did not.
Greg Child is an experienced Himalayan mountaineer and climbing writer living in Seattle. Jon Krakauer is a frequent contributor to Outside.
Meanwhile, on Gasherbrum IV . . .
By Greg Child
While much of the trouble was brewing on K2, I was on a mountain called Gasherbrum IV, ten miles away.
The peak tops out at an even 26,000 feet--75 meters shy of the magic 8,000-meter mark--and thus lacks some of the cachet of its slightly loftier neighbors. But it is an impressive mountain nonetheless--a frighteningly steep pyramid of brown granite, pale marble, and shining ice that has earned a reputation as one of the most elusive and "technical" summits in the Himalayas. First climbed in 1958 via its northeast ridge by legendary Italian climbers Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri, the ascent moved Bonatti to declare that when K2 ends, the difficulties on Gasherbrum IV begins. In the 28 years since Bonatti's ascent, at least seven expeditions had taken a shot at Gasherbrum IV, and none had succeeded.
Accompanied by six friends from Australia and the States, I had hoped to make the second ascent by way of the north west ridge. I had first seen this elegant line in 1983, from high on the gentler flanks of adjacent Broad Peak, which I was climbing with a British physician named Peter Thexton. Thirty minutes from the summit of Broad Peak, Peter began to show symptoms of pulmonary edema--that mysterious, unpredictable malady of high altitude that fills the lungs with fluid, and in its worst manifestations literally drowns its victim. Peter was hit hard. Despite a desperate all-night struggle to drag him to lower elevation, he stopped breathing just before dawn. Looking across at the northwest ridge of Gasherbrum IV on our way to Broad Peak, Peter and I had spoken excitedly about what a coup it would be to make a first ascent of the Gasherbrum route. When my friend died, I vowed through my tears never to return to the Himalayas. But over time my resolve was eroded by thoughts of Gasherbrum IV's incomparable beauty, and the idea of climbing the peak became an obsession that Peter's death only served to reinforce.
For the first 30 days, after I returned to the region, severe blizzards hammered the Karakoram, and our efforts to force the route were repeatedly sabotaged by subzero temperatures and winds so strong that sometimes we were unable to stand. Every day was filled with the agony of frozen fingers and rasping, oxygen-starved lungs.
On June 17 the barometer at base camp rose sharply, the wind blew in from China, and the skies cleared. Four days later, in the bitter chill of dawn, Geoff Radford, Andy Tuthill, Tom Hargis, Tim Macartney-Snape, and I were perched at an airy campsite at 24,140 feet, beyond our highest fixed ropes, preparing to make an all-out push for the summit.
A few hundred feet above camp, Andy stepped onto a slab of wind-packed snow the size of a football field, and a sharp, booming crack immediately followed, freezing us all in our tracks. A shiver coursed down my back as I braced myself for the avalanche that would sweep us 8,000 feet to a Chinese glacier; the slope settled but did not release. A few miles up the glacier, a similar fracture shot across a snowfield on K2 at approximately the same time, triggering the avalanche that took the lives of John Smolich and Alan Pennington.
By 10 a.m. we had reached the crux of the climb: a steep, 600-foot band of glassy marble that guarded the summit ridge. Geoff, who was operating with a broken crampon, took a look and decided to head back down. The rest of us pressed on, but given the vertical rock, we decided to lighten our loads by ditching our tents and sleeping bags.
At 25,000 feet, muscling up the 5.9 moves on iced-up rock in our clumsy, crampon-shod double boots left us gasping. The higher we got, the slower we went, and it wasn't until four in the afternoon that we finally stood on the summit ridge. As we stared across the ridge that separated us from the summit proper--only slightly higher but 1,500 horizontal feet away--we realized there was no way to reach the top and descend to the tents before dark. A decision was at hand. "I'm prepared to bivouac out," declared Tim. Two years before, he had repeatedly bivouacked above 26,000 feet during the first ascent of the Great Couloir on the North Face of Everest. He was well aware of the dangers. "I'm confident," he said emphatically, "that I can survive the night without frostbite."
In spite of Tim's optimism, the idea of voluntarily bivouacking at nearly 8,000 meters--without stove, food, water, or shelter--scared the hell out of me. The risk was extreme--it seemed an invitation to frostbite or edema--but descending to the safety of the gear we'd stashed would mean no summit, and the thought of coming so close only to fail was too painful to contemplate. The sky was clear for 360 degrees, the wind had dropped, and it was June 22, the shortest night of the year. Tim's confidence spread to me, then to Tom. But Andy, with a clarity that was especially rare that summer in the Karakoram, focused in on the enormity of the gamble.
"I'm going down" he finally said. "It isn't worth it to me." Andy took one of the two ropes to rappel with and left, leaving the three of us to hack out a tiny snow hole with our ice axes. In the distance, wave after wave of shark-tooth peaks stood against an indigo sky, and the full moon shone an eerie pink in the upper atmosphere. I felt like a shipwrecked astronaut on some strange and hostile planet as we scratched out our pitiful shelter. As dusk and the sharp cold that accompanied it closed in, I wondered hard if my ambition had gotten the better of my judgment, and if so, what price I'd pay for it.
It was a long, wretched night, filled with the chatter of teeth and the private moanings of minds on the edge. Tom, who'd been quite ill with a lung infection, coughed up thick phlegm. He retreated inside himself and took on the countenance of a zombie. My parched throat begged for water, but of course there was none, and would be none for many hours to come.
When the sun hit our bivouac, despite the objections of stiff, hurting bodies and heads murky from altitude and dehydration, we managed to rouse ourselves and make for the summit. The weather was holding clear, but it was still horribly cold and the wind returned in force. From somewhere we mustered enough will to keep setting one foot in front of the other, and four hours after leaving our bivouac we stood on a lonely point of snow-covered limestone, above which there was only sky. A frayed, sun-bleached piece of rope fluttered in the wind, attached to a piton Bonatti had placed there in 1958. We gazed around us and shook hands, almost too exhausted to comprehend that we had made the second ascent of Gasherbrum IV. Then we started down.
Just below the summit we had to traverse some iced-over slabs, below which the west face fell away in a sheer, two-mile drop. I was belaying Tim across these slabs when, in the course of trying to remove a piton, he slipped and shot over the lip of the face.
Before the fall we had been at the same height, joined by 50 feet of rope, with no pitons between us and nothing anchoring my belay but an ice ax jammed into a patch of snow. Incredibly, this single flimsy anchor held. Tim--bruised and frightened but otherwise all right--climbed carefully up to me and we continued our descent. Late that evening we reached our tents at 24,000 feet, and two days later we were safely back in base camp, basking in the glory of our deed, somehow smug in the knowledge that our gamble had paid off.
I don't know how to convey to non-climbers exactly what is so worthwhile about playing this kind of alpine brinksmanship. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that it is. But I also understand that, in justifying those hazards, it's easy to rationalize that your own training, vigilance, and superior skills will ensure that death in the mountains will visit only other climbers--and that this rationalization is dangerously far from the truth.
I know that a subtle change in temperature can dangerously soften the frozen crust over a hidden crevasse that supported a dozen crossings the day before; that an ice cliff can remain stable for years, only to cut loose with a barrage of truck-size ice blocks during the few minutes when a climbing party is beneath it; that pulmonary edema can, out of the blue, strike down the strongest, best-acclimated climber on an expedition. In any halfway objective analysis, it's impossible not to conclude that the difference between triumph and disaster in the Himalayas can hinge all too often on nothing more than chance. On Gasherbrum IV in 1986, luck was with us.