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Ned Gillette Murdered
Barrard's Body Found
How High is Everest?
Back From K2...Alive
The Mountain Zone Interviews Heidi Howkins
"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.
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."
"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.
"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."
"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.
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