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 scholarship.
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."
From Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. Copyright Greg Mortenson 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Viking Press.
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