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Summit beckons, but storm puts K2 effort on ice

The Baltimore Sun

A frozen corpse. Pits of despair. Avalanches. Dead ends.

The accommodations?

"Cold, greasy and, God, that kind of wet, slimy, gummy feeling you get after being trapped in a tent with two other guys for eight days," said mountaineer Chris Warner, laughing and perched a little more than a mile from the top of 28,251-foot K2, the world's second-tallest mountain.

Having struggled to get this high, the Annapolis resident and his climbing partners will have to retrace their steps back to base camp today, their summit bid postponed by an unexpected blizzard.

"There's a whiteout, it's zero degrees, and the wind is blowing at 30 mph. That doesn't sound like good weather to us," he said yesterday morning by satellite phone from Camp 2, at 22,500 feet, in Pakistan. "You can't go to the summit in this kind of weather and expect to get home. Those two goals are mutually exclusive this week."

After being foiled this month in two attempts to take a new route to the top, Warner's team settled on the Abruzzi Spur, the legendary knife-edge route from which the summit was first reached in 1954.

They had hoped, based on a forecast of good weather and buoyed by a strong climbing performance, to make another summit attempt this week. But a Korean expedition pinned down yesterday at Camp 3 - at 25,000 feet on the mountain's shoulder - radioed back that treacherous conditions blanketed the entire route.

Warner and his teammates feared triggering an avalanche if they forced their way up. And more storms are forecast for the weekend.

"We've had so much disappointment on this trip," Warner said. "Everyone gets two seconds to pout, then it's back to work. It's back to trench warfare. The earliest we can summit is in two weeks."

Waiting out the storm more than four miles in the sky, where the air is thin, is not an option.

"At this altitude, you're burning more calories than you're taking in. You're wasting away. We're three men in a tent the size of your dining room table, and it's at a slant. We've been a week without a shower, without a change of underwear, clothes and socks. It's like the worst scene from Blazing Saddles," he said. "There's no value in sticking around."

At 29,036 feet, Mount Everest is the world's tallest mountain, but K2 is known as the "Savage Mountain." In a given year, 300 people might summit Everest, but fewer than 260 people have reached the top of K2.

Ten years before Into Thin Air told the story of eight people killed in 1996 on Everest, 13 of the 27 people who attempted K2 were killed.

This marks the third K2 attempt for Warner, a veteran of three Everest expeditions. Bad weather and the horrific falling death of a fellow climber ended the first try in 2002. Three years later, bad weather thwarted his attempt.

Warner said the failed attempts also included other difficulties.

"On the first one, everybody had one concern, to get to the top. There was no sense of team. On No. 2, we were totally overwhelmed. We didn't have the resources to do a good job."

This time, Warner has sponsors, among them PNC Bank, Under Armour, a Baltimore-based athletic gear company, and Deer Park, a bottled-water company.

The climbing team is deep in experience: Pasquale "PV" Scaturro, a Colorado climber who guided the first blind man to the top of Mount Everest and made the first uninterrupted navigation of the entire Nile River; Don Bowie, a California wildlife management official with numerous Himalayan and Andean climbs on his resume; and Scottish climber Bruce Normand, who has a doctorate in theoretical physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and more than 10 times has made first ascents or pioneered routes on peaks in Pakistan, Tibet and Nepal.

"Confidence is our biggest asset. No one step is too hard for us," Warner said.

That might explain the team's ability to continue despite finding the remains of a long-dead climber June 2, the first full day in base camp, and surviving two falls into crevasses the next day.

Warner, then Normand tumbled into separate cracks in the ice as they hiked from base camp to advanced base camp.

"It was totally scary. I thought we were both goners," said Warner, who was roped to his partner.

Warner tumbled just five feet, and his weight halted Normand's free fall at 25 feet. Both climbers pulled themselves out.

Team members are looking forward to hot showers and cooked meals at base camp, but it won't be long before the itch to ascend begins.

The longer the group waits, the more expeditions will arrive to squeeze into the base camp region, nicknamed "the strip" for claustrophobic qualities. Fifteen expeditions have permits to climb this season.

The waiting also wears on team members as their homesickness grows.

"When you're out every day carrying a big pack, you don't think too much about being home. But I just talked to [wife] Melissa, and Wendy is starting to put together two words," he said of his 19-month-old daughter.

With the wind howling and snow pelting the tent, Warner, 42, acknowledges feeling the tug of home and age.

"I have to get this done now because I can't put myself through this another year," he said.

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