Monday, September 9, 2013

Of Wind and Ice and Ryan Waters

Walking away is not easy. To do so is to accept that harshest of human preoccupations: failure. Above 8,000 meters, however, failure must compete for your attention.

Oxygen deprivation, frostbite, avalanches. The quiet but ever-present threat of death from exposure. It is respect for these competing forces – along with the superlative competency that keeps mountaineers alive – that has Ryan Waters rooted in place.

It’s mid-August 2006 and Waters, an experienced high-altitude climber, guide and Wheeler graduate, is at Camp 3 on K2. At 8,611 meters, K2 is the world’s second tallest mountain and arguably the most difficult to climb. Waters and his team have long trained for this moment and now find themselves one day away from a push to the summit. But nothing is going right.

After an assault of Broad Peak, another of Pakistan’s 8,000-plus-meter peaks, the team is exhausted. During the climb of Broad Peak, they reached the summit ridge before deciding they could go no further. In one of the most poignant moments of his career, Waters decided to push on.


Hours later he stood on top of one of the world’s great peaks, a young man in complete control of his element.

Such exuberance, however, must be tempered. Those who know say mountaineers either grow bold or grow old, but not both. That fortunes can change is something Waters knows all too well. In 2005, after two previous successful summits of Everest, he was forced off the world’s tallest mountain by a severe respiratory infection. To spend five days walking away from a trip that had dominated months of his life was more than a stinging slap.

And therein lies the crux of high-altitude climbing: tempering the audacity to push ahead with the wisdom to walk away when defeat comes calling. Because sooner or later it will.

As such, K2 perfectly sums up the dizzying, oxygen-depleted world of high-altitude climbing. Despite its highly-technical and challenging final stages, it remains unknown to the world at-large. As attention and accolades are heaped on its slightly taller but less challenging cousin, Everest, K2 waits for the unsuspecting, the unprepared. K2 has the patience of Job and a voice from hell itself can be heard in the winds whistling off its peak. Underestimate me, it croons, at your own peril.

The decision to turn back or push on is never easy and, after a tortuous night, Waters and his team decide to continue. Ignoring their screaming muscles and seared lungs, they make a run at Camp 4. But extreme conditions rarely send subtle signs and shortly after they get underway a falling rock tumbles toward them, smashing into Waters’s knee.

Still, it’s never an easy decision. “There always a piece of you that says ‘what if’,” Waters says. “But you gotta be able to walk away.” And so, under the mountain’s indifferent glare, the team descends. They are beaten but not broken. K2 will always be there.

Waters will move on to other mountains, other feats. He and a friend will complete the first unassisted ski traverse of Antarctica. But the allure of the unconquered is strong and in 2008 members of the failed expedition, minus Waters, will make a second challenge of K2. Once again things will go horribly wrong and, after spending two nights above 8,000 meters – the fabled death zone – some of them will die. Acknowledging the tragedy has cast a shadow over the mountain, he adds, “but it’s certainly a risk I have accepted.”

Risk, reward, failure, death. These are the constants of high-altitude mountaineering. They are truths to be accepted and, for the bold, they are rewarded with gifts that time or loss cannot tarnish. But those rewards, in mountaineering as in life, can be collected only by those with the wisdom, on occasion, to walk away.

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