Heidi Howkins
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"Part of the high altitude climbing experience is that you are necessarily pushing yourself to the absolute brink of your limits, well, the limits of survival really..."


"It's absolutely relentless...the aura of the mountain really wears on you..."


"Camp II...it's a graveyard of tents, a real high altitude junkyard..."


"Bin Laden had placed a £10,000 reward on any American killed in Pakistan..."


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Barrard's Body Found
Greg Child
Jim Wickwire
IMAX Everest
Ed Viesturs
How High is Everest?
Everest '98

Back From K2...Alive
The Mountain Zone Interviews Heidi Howkins

Howkins on Gasherbrum II
Howkins on Gasherbrum II
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© H. Howkins
Perhaps Heidi Howkins is more honest than others about her motivations to climb, or maybe it's just the fact that the Wellesley-educated climber is extremely articulate. Whatever the reason, the thirty-year-old climber makes no bones about what draws her to big mountains.

"The allure for me," she said, "is the unique physical and mental isolation that you feel on a high altitude peak. I actually enjoy that."

It's rare for a climber to be so forthcoming about the complex matrix of motivations that sends most people to big mountains. But Howkins, with only a few seasons of high-altitude climbing behind her, seems driven to do more, and to do it quickly.

"Howkins was very aware that every woman who has summitted the mountain either died on the descent or has since been killed while climbing an 8,000 meter peak. And she knew the history of the mountain well enough to know where the bodies were..."

Just back from an unsuccessful attempt on K2 in the Karakoram of Pakistan, Howkins spoke to The Mountain Zone about that climb and others. In 1996, Howkins climbed Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters) in one 48 hour push from base camp. A year later, she reached the base of the summit pyramid on Kangchenjunga (8,586 meters) — the highest point reached so far by any woman who survived the descent. And last summer, she was having a serious go at the second highest mountain on earth.

"Part of the experience on a big mountain is that you are necessarily pushing yourself to the limits of survival," she said. "And when you get to that level, you are essentially isolated. Even if there are other people on the mountain, or other people on your team that you're climbing with — many times the attrition rate means that you are actually alone, but even if other people are with you, and you get in trouble, there is nothing they can do for you. So any safety net your companions provide is essentially emotional or psychological, not real. Yes, I enjoy that extreme situation. I'm confident I can deal with that, and accurately assess my own physical condition."

photo of K2
K2, Pakistan
click to zoom
(photo: Art Wolfe)
Howkins' decision to make an attempt on K2, at 28,250 feet and generally acknowledged to be the most difficult and dangerous of the 14 8,000-meter peaks, was directly tied to her drive to enter that precarious zone.

"Part of the allure," she said, "was the reputation of K2. And now that I have been there, I can say that the mountain definitely is one with a distinct character and personality. It lives up to its name—it's absolutely relentless. Not just the gradient, but the whole aura of the mountain wears on you. It's a mountain that you walk away from with a certain sense of awe and humility. It can really psyche you out."

The weather on K2 last season was so bad that no one summitted the peak. In fact, no climbers got high enough into the notorious "death zone" on K2—the classic venue for the all-too-familiar fatal situation that occurs every few years on the storied peak—to be in a life-threatening situation.

In 1986, 12 climbers, including English high-altitude star Al Rouse, perished when they were trapped by bad weather at Camp IV and were unable to descend, or else died trying. And again in 1992, four climbers perished when they were hit by a storm high on the mountain, including the UK's Alison Hargreaves, who had flown directly to K2 after a successful climb of Mount Everest.

Howkins managed to reach the "shoulder" of K2 at 7,000 meters, and to do so in marginal weather, but conditions were so bad that climbing higher was never considered.

"Part of the allure was the reputation of K2. And now that I have been there, I can say that it lives up to its name, it's absolutely relentless..."
"In a way," she said, "the decision to turn back wasn't even difficult. There was no choice. The weather was so bad, so continually bad, there was no point where there was a decision to be made. The only real difficulty was whether we could descend the mountain. The winds were so high, the snow accumulation above Camp III was so deep, that it was the consensus of everyone that the mountain was not climbable."

"In fact, one of the reasons there were no casualties on K2 this year is that the weather was so bad that nobody got high enough to get into trouble. Traditionally on the Abruzzi route, climbers get into trouble above Camp III when the weather closes in and they are unable to descend. Climbers can't get down because it's impractical to fix ropes above that, so a bad storm can trap you up high."

Even so, there was no escaping the macabre history of the peak. Howkins was very aware that every woman who has summitted the mountain either died on the descent or has since been killed while climbing an 8,000 meter peak. And she knew the history of the mountain well enough to know where the bodies were.

"It's difficult not to think of the tragedies the peak is famous for," she said. "When you get to Camp II, you crest this slope but don't see the camp until you're right on top of it. It's a graveyard of wrecked tents. I've seen that before in the mountains, but the history of K2 is so rich that you can't help but think, 'Jeff Lakes died here.' We had already found one body (believed to be that of French climber Maurice Barrard) from the 1986 tragedy. So the history of the climbers who had died on the mountain was fresh to us. It's sobering. That was one reason we were so insistent a Turkish climber, who was in a very bad way, come into our tent so we could take care of him. We didn't want a repeat of history. It could have happened, even at Camp III."

Howkins on Kangchenjunga
Howkins on Kangchenjunga
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© Scott Darsney
Ironically, perhaps the greatest danger Howkins faced on the K2 attempt was merely safely getting out of Pakistan. While on the mountain, the political situation in that troubled region had turned deadly. American Ned Gillette was murdered in a nearby valley, and a U.S. cruise missile attack on Afghanistan had aroused Islamic militants.

"We learned two days into the trek that the political situation was worsening," Howkins said. "And by the time it was time to leave, our liason officer said that we should not identify ourselves as Americans because Bin Laden (the suspected terrorist leader) had put a £10,000 bounty on Americans.

"On the Karakoram highway bus ride, we received instructions from the Pakistani military to travel only at night and in disguise. So I left wearing a shaowar kameez and a dopatta, the traditional shawl and veil of Pakistani women. I was instructed to identify myself as Canadian."

Tragically, on their hike out, Howkins and her companions were crossing the 5,700-meter Gondagora La when, at the exact moment they were going through, the seracs collapsed. One team member was hit and injured and, tragically, a porter standing next to him was killed by the avalanche.

Now safely back in the United States, Howkins is decompressing before leaving this month (November) on a slideshow tour.

"The winds were so high, the snow accumulation above Camp III was so deep, that it was the consensus of everyone that the mountain was not climbable..."
"There's always a post-expedition decompression period for me," Howkins said, "but this time there's a mental adjustment as well. Physically I feel better than I ever have before after a high altitude climb. I often have hair falling out and other physical problems from the poor diet and lack of minerals in the glacier water. But this time I was working with a team of nutritionists who sent me off with lots of supplements. They must have worked because I actually feel great, physically."

Heidi Howkins is at work on two books, one about K2 and the other a collection of essays.

"I've been working on a book called Intuition is a Reflex, a collection of essays on climbing and related experiences. But the events of the K2 expedition are sort of crying out to be written, so I think I'll finish the K2 book before going back to the essays," she said.

Howkins already is planning another climb for the spring of 1999.

Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff

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