Nearly a century earlier, Filippo De Filippi, doctor for and
chronicler of the duke of Abruzzi's expedition to the Karakoram, recorded the
desolation he felt among these mountains. Despite the fact that he was in the
company of two dozen Europeans and 260 local porters, that they carried folding
chairs and silver tea services and had European newspapers delivered to them
regularly by a fleet of runners, he felt crushed into insignificance by the
character of this landscape. "Profound silence would brood over the valley," he
wrote, "even weighing down our spirits with indefinable heaviness. There can be
no other place in the world where man feels himself so alone, so isolated, so
completely ignored by Nature, so incapable of entering into communion with her."
Perhaps it was his experience with solitude, being the lone
American child among hundreds of Africans, or the nights he spent bivouacked
three thousand feet up Yosemite's Half Dome in the middle of a multiday climb,
but Mortenson felt at ease. If you ask him why, he'll credit altitude-induced
dementia. But anyone who has spent time in Mortenson's presence, who's watched
him wear down a congressman or a reluctant philanthropist or an Afghan warlord
with his doggedness, until he pried loose overdue relief funds, or a donation,
or the permission he was seeking to pass into tribal territories, would
recognize this night as one more example of Mortenson's steely-mindedness.
The wind picked up and the night became bitterly crystalline. He
tried to discern the peaks he felt hovering malevolently around him, but he
couldn't make them out among the general blackness. After an hour under his
blanket he was able to thaw his frozen protein bar against his body and melt
enough silty icewater to wash it down, which set him shivering violently. Sleep,
in this cold, seemed out of the question. So Mortenson lay beneath the stars
salting the sky and decided to examine the nature of his failure.
The leaders of his expedition, Dan Mazur and Jonathan Pratt,
along with French climber Etienne Fine, were thoroughbreds. They were speedy and
graceful, bequeathed the genetic wherewithal to sprint up technical pitches at
high altitude. Mortenson was slow and bearishly strong. At six-foot-four and 210
pounds, Mortenson had attended Minnesota's Concordia College on a football
Though no one directed that it should be so, the slow,
cumbersome work of mountain climbing fell naturally to him and to Darsney. Eight
separate times Mortenson served as pack mule, hauling food, fuel, and oxygen
bottles to several stashes on the way to the Japanese Couloir, a tenuous aerie
the expedition carved out within six hundred meters of K2's summit, stocking the
expedition's high camps so the lead climbers might have the supplies in place
when they decided to dash to the top.
All of the other expeditions on the mountain that season had
chosen to challenge the peak in the traditional way, working up the path
pioneered nearly a century earlier, K2's Southeastern Abruzzi Ridge. Only they
had chosen the West Ridge, a circuitous, brutally difficult route, littered with
land mine after land mine of steep, technical pitches, which had been
successfully scaled only once, twelve years earlier, by Japanese climber Eiho
Otani and his Pakistani partner Nazir Sabir.
Mortenson relished the challenge and took pride in the rigorous
route they'd chosen. And each time he reached one of the perches they'd clawed
out high on the West Ridge, and unloaded fuel canisters and coils of rope, he
noticed he was feeling stronger. He might be slow, but reaching the summit
himself began to seem inevitable.
Then one evening after more than seventy days on the mountain,
Mortenson and Darsney were back at base camp, about to drop into well-earned
sleep after ninety-six hours of climbing during another resupply mission. But
while taking a last look at the peak through a telescope just after dark,
Mortenson and Darsney noticed a flickering light high up on K2's West Ridge.
They realized it must be members of their expedition, signaling with their
headlamps, and they guessed that their French teammate was in trouble. "Etienne
was an Alpiniste," Mortenson explains, underlining with an exaggerated French
pronunciation the respect and arrogance the term can convey among climbers.
"He'd travel fast and light with the absolute minimum amount of gear. And we had
to bail him out before when he went up too fast without acclimatizing."
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