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November 8, 2009

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Highs and lows on deadly K2

K2 is no Mount Everest. It's some 700 feet shorter - and a lot more deadly. Located in the Karakoram Range of northern Pakistan, K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world, clocks in at 28,251 feet. Unlike at Everest, you will not, at least not yet, find commercial climbing operations hoisting paying clients topside.

K2 remains what you might call a "mountaineers' mountain." To wit: last year at least 290 people topped out on Everest, while only 18 climbers summited K2 - and 11 died trying.

Given K2's fearful reputation, it makes sense that a close study of the most dramatic attempts on the peak, which the veteran climber Ed Viesturs offers in "K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain," reveals a good deal about the rarefied world of high-altitude mountaineering. Viesturs, who wrote the book with David Roberts, claims that the mountain has a lot to teach us about "risk, ambition, loyalty to one's teammates, self sacrifice and the price of glory."

He should know. Viesturs' credentials include being the first American to climb the world's 14 8,000-meter peaks (thus joining an elite fraternity of 16 other members). But it was a seminal experience on K2 that affected - and haunts - him most.

Eight weeks into his own 1992 expedition on K2, having already survived a massive avalanche by executing a split-second "self-arrest" while he and Scott Fischer (who later died on Everest) were hurling toward an 8,000-foot fall, Viesturs and his partners finally achieved their summit. But a shot at success had meant making the decision to climb into a rapidly forming storm. Viesturs' gut hollered, "this is the worst decision in the world," but he kept going.

Vicious weather enveloped the mountain, and a hair-raising descent ensued. But a narrow escape makes the glory more glorious, right? Not for Viesturs. Never again, he vowed. He knew he'd just gotten lucky. This experience forged the fundamental ideas about climbing, and life, that frame his book.

Viesturs' conservative manifesto boils down to this: Listen to your gut and take care of your comrades; getting to the summit is optional, but getting down is mandatory.

On K2, for every four climbers who reach the summit, one dies. Why take on such odds? As in many climbing books, the why is insufficiently addressed for those of us content with lesser mountains or even armchairs. Still, even without that answer, "K2" is gripping. Viesturs may sound a note of Boy Scout righteousness now and then, but maybe he's earned it. After all, he's lived to tell.


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