Climb to top means jitters down below

Sun reporter

Few women have husbands who punch the clock in the "Death Zone."

But when Melinda Warner married Maryland's top mountaineer nearly three years ago, she knew a large portion of every year would be spent waiting for her spouse to return from on high.

This week is no different as Chris Warner gets closer to his goal of adding K2, the world's second-highest mountain, to a resume that includes Mount Everest and other massive peaks.

High winds and plummeting temperatures yesterday forced the climbers to retreat to base camp and await the next window of good weather.

On Wednesday, the Annapolis climber and his three teammates struggled for 11 hours through waist-deep snow and shredding winds to advance from Camp 2, at 22,500 feet, to Camp 3, at 24,442 feet. It marked the highest point Warner has attained in his three bids to summit the 28,251-foot peak in Pakistan.

Back home, Melinda Warner keeps her cell phone on her hip, waiting for news from base camp. Sitting at a small table outside an Annapolis coffee shop, she makes small talk as her hands move nervously in her lap. Once, her eyes get misty as she talks about the stress of waiting, and she apologizes.

"This is the hardest time right now," she says. "But I have every bit of confidence that if there's a question of safety, he'll sit tight."

Just 112 people - eight of them Americans - have reached the top of both Everest and K2, according to The Himalayan Database. Whereas 3,050 have reached the top of Everest from 1953 through the end of last year's climbing season, 253 have stood atop K2 since 1954.

She spoke to Warner on July 4, after he reached Camp 3 and while she was on her way to holiday festivities.

"Just as the parade started, he called, so it was awesome. It took them twice as long as they thought it would. He said the climb was hard work. For him to say that, it had to be because climbing for him is all in a day's work," she says.

Mountaineering is a perilous business that has killed many world-class climbers and guides, including Rob Hall, who died near the top of Mount Everest in 1996 after talking to his pregnant wife by satellite phone.

K2, known as the "Savage Mountain," killed 23 of the 253 climbers who were on the way down from successful summit bids.

But Melinda Warner says she never worried about marrying a man who dodges avalanches and sidesteps crevasses.

"No," she says without a second of hesitation. "I didn't even go there. It never entered my brain."

She didn't begin life high above sea level. A native of Iowa (high point, Hawkeye Point, 1,670 feet), Melinda Warner was a bartender in Kansas City, Mo., who moved to Annapolis in 1998 and took a job at McGarvey's Saloon.

Six years later, a lanky man, his mother and his sister came in for a burger and took a table in her section.

"I was immediately, 'Hmm, who's this?'" she recalls.

Chris Warner gave her his business card and two free passes to his Earth Treks Climbing Centers. She went home and looked him up on the Internet. The climber's accomplishments took her aback.

"I said, 'Good heavens,' and e-mailed him, 'Coffee?' He e-mailed back, 'Let's go on a hike,'" she says.

She eventually followed him to base camp at the foot of 27,940-foot Lhotse in Nepal, and then to the chapel at the University of Iowa, where they married in September 2004.

The following February, they climbed Argentina's Aconcagua, at 22,841 feet the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, and Ecuador's Cotopaxi, an active volcano that stands 19,388 feet high.

They have a daughter, Wendy, 19 months old.

On summit day, the climbers will ascend to the famed Bottleneck - a narrow passage with a pitch of 80 degrees and the site of many fatal accidents. They then will have to tackle the 55-degree Traverse pitches before reaching the final ridge to the top. For the final push, the team will fix 800 feet of rope to safeguard their descent.

From there, the team of Warner, Pasquale "PV" Scaturro, Don Bowie and Bruce Normand hope to tackle nearby Broad Peak, 26,401 feet high, which would delay their return date.

"I said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you were home for your birthday [on July 23]?' He laughed and said it was a good thing he married an optimistic woman."

Even though her husband has voiced doubts about making another K2 attempt should this one fail, Melinda Warner doesn't seem to share them.

"If he makes it, it would make my life easier," she acknowledges. "I know if he doesn't get it this time, he'll go back."

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