He'd come shatteringly close, within six hundred meters of the
summit. But K2 had receded into the mists behind him and the necklace was still
in his pocket. How could this have happened? He wiped his eyes with his sleeve,
disoriented by unfamiliar tears, and attributed them to the altitude. He
certainly wasn't himself. After seventy-eight days of primal struggle at
altitude on K2, he felt like a faint, shriveled caricature of himself. He simply
didn't know if he had the reserves left to walk fifty more miles over dangerous
terrain to Askole.
The sharp, shotgun crack of a rockfall brought him back to his
surroundings. He watched a boulder the size of a three-story house accelerate,
bouncing and spinning down a slope of scree, then pulverize an iceberg on the
trail ahead of him.
Mortenson tried to shake himself into a state of alertness. He
looked out of himself, saw how high the shadows had climbed up the eastern
peaks, and tried to remember how long it had been since he'd seen a sign of
other humans. It had been hours since Scott Darsney had disappeared down the
trail ahead of him. An hour earlier, or maybe more, he'd heard the bells of an
army mule caravan carrying ammunition toward the Siachen Glacier, the
twenty-thousand-foot-high battlefield a dozen miles southeast where the
Pakistani military was frozen into its perpetual deadly standoff with the Indian
He scoured the trail for signs. Anywhere on the trail back to
Askole, there would be debris left behind by the military. But there were no
mule droppings. No cigarette butts. No food tins. No blades of the hay the mule
drivers carried to feed their animals. He realized it didn't look much like a
trail at all, simply a cleft in an unstable maze of boulders and ice, and he
wondered how he had wandered to this spot. He tried to summon the clarity to
concentrate. But the effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude had sapped
Mortenson of the ability to act and think decisively.
He spent an hour scrambling up a slope of scree, hoping for a
vantage point above the boulders and icebergs, a place where he might snare the
landmark he was looking for, the great rocky promontory of Urdukas, which thrust
out onto the Baltoro like a massive fist, and haul himself back toward the
trail. But at the top he was rewarded with little more than a greater degree of
exhaustion. He'd strayed eight miles up a deserted valley from the trail, and in
the failing light, even the contours of peaks that he knew well looked
unfamiliar from this new perspective.
Feeling a finger of panic probing beneath his altitude-induced
stupor, Mortenson sat to take stock. In his small sun-faded purple daypack he
had a lightweight wool Pakistani army blanket, an empty water bottle, and a
single protein bar. His high-altitude down sleeping bag, all his warm clothes,
his tent, his stove, food, even his flashlight and all his matches were in the
pack the porter carried.
He'd have to spend the night and search for the trail in
daylight. Though it had already dropped well below zero, he wouldn't die of
exposure, he thought. Besides, he was coherent enough to realize that stumbling,
at night, over a shifting glacier, where crevasses yawned hundreds of feet down
through wastes of blue ice into subterranean pools, was far more dangerous.
Picking his way down the mound of scree, Mortenson looked for a spot far enough
from the mountain walls that he wouldn't be crushed by rockfall as he slept and
solid enough that it wouldn't split and plunge him into the glacier's depths.
He found a flat slab of rock that seemed stable enough, scooped
icy snow into his water bottle with ungloved hands, and wrapped himself in his
blanket, willing himself not to focus on how alone and exposed he was. His
forearm was lashed with rope burns from the rescue, and he knew he should tear
off the clotted gauze bandages and drain pus from the wounds that refused to
heal at this altitude, but he couldn't quite locate the motivation. As he lay
shivering on uneven rock, Mortenson watched as the last light of the sun
smoldered blood red on the daggered summits to the east, then flared out,
leaving their afterimages burning in blue-black.
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