Mortenson and Darsney, doubting whether they were strong enough to climb to Fine so soon after an exhausting descent, called for volunteers from the five other expeditions at base camp. None came forward. For two hours they lay in their tents resting and rehydrating, then they packed their gear and went back out.
Descending from their seventy-six-hundred-meter Camp IV, Pratt and Mazur found themselves in the fight of their lives. "Etienne had climbed up to join us for a summit bid," Mazur says. "But when he got to us, he collapsed. As he tried to catch his breath, he told us he heard a rattling in his lungs."
Fine was suffering from pulmonary edema, an altitude-induced flooding of the lungs that can kill those it strikes if they aren't immediately evacuated to lower ground. "It was terrifying," Mazur says. "Pink froth was pouring out of Etienne's mouth. We tried to call for help, but we'd dropped our radio in the snow and it wouldn't work. So we started down."
Pratt and Mazur took turns clipping themselves to Fine, and rapelling with him down the West Ridge's steepest pitches. "It was like hanging from a rope strapped to a big sack of potatoes," Mazur says. "And we had to take our time so we wouldn't kill ourselves."
With his typical understatement, Mortenson doesn't say much about the twenty-four hours it took to haul himself up to reach Fine other than to comment that it was "fairly arduous."
"Dan and Jon were the real heroes," he says. "They gave up their summit bid to get Etienne down."
By the time Mortenson and Darsney met their teammates, on a rock face near Camp I, Fine was lapsing in and out of conciousness, suffering also from cerebral edema, the altitude-induced swelling of the brain. "He was unable to swallow and attempting to unlace his boots," Mortenson says.
Mortenson, who'd worked as an emergency room trauma nurse for the freedom the irregular hours gave him to pursue his climbing career, gave Fine injections of Decadron to ease the edema and the four already exhausted climbers began a forty-eight-hour odyssey of dragging and lowering him down craggy rock faces.
Sometimes Fine, ordinarily fluent in English, would wake enough to babble in French, Mortenson says. At the most technical pitches, with a lifelong climber's instinct for self-preservation, Fine would rouse himself to clip his protective devices onto the rope, before melting back into deadweight, Mortenson remembers.
Seventy-two hours after Mortenson and Darsney set out, the group had succeeded in lowering Fine to flat ground at their advance base camp. Darsney radioed the Canadian expedition below, who relayed his request to the Pakistani military for a high-altitude Lama helicopter rescue. At the time, it would have been one of the highest helicopter rescues ever attempted. But the military HQ replied that the weather was too bad and the wind too strong and ordered Fine evacuated to lower ground.
It was one thing to issue an order. It was quite another for four men in the deepest animal stages of exhaustion to attempt to execute it. For six hours, after strapping Fine into a sleeping bag, they communicated only in grunts and whimpers, dragging their friend down a dangerous technical route through the icefall of the Savoia Glacier.
"We were so exhausted and so beyond our limits that, at times, we could only crawl ourselves as we tried to get down," Darsney remembers.
Finally, the group approached K2 base camp, towing Fine in the bag behind them. "All the other expeditions strolled about a quarter mile up the glacier to greet us and give us a hero's welcome," Darsney says. "After the Pakistani army helicopter came and evacuated Etienne, the Canadian expedition members cooked up a huge meal and everyone had a party. But Greg and I didn't stop to eat, drink, or even piss, we just fell into our sleeping bags like we'd been shot."
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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