May 13, 1995 Savage Mountain

There are no permanent human habitations above 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) and never will be. Even for the most experienced of mountaineers, progressive deterioration of physiological functions will outrun acclimatization. It is only a matter of time.

There are places in this world, our kind was never meant to go.

Some 70 percent of our world is covered by ocean with an average depth, of 3,682 meters, or 12,080 feet. For recreational divers, professional organizations such as NAUI and PADI recommend a depth limit of 40 meters. 130 feet.

Deeper dives are common but not without “technical” certification and the use of exotic gas mixtures, and equipment. “Saturation dives” are possible to 1,000 feet and more but there better be time, to decompress. Decompression from such depths requires about a day for every 100 feet of seawater plus a day, lest dissolved gases come “out of solution” and the blood literally, turns to foam.

To illustrate the principle shake a beer or a soda, and pop the top.

Group of divers decompressing underwater on a rope in open water

The saturation diver working at 650 feet would normally take a day to descend and rest, 19 days to work and eight days, to decompress.

Great depth introduces a host of physiological problems to the human frame. Likewise, great altitude. The 6,600-foot peak of Mount Hermon, the only ski resort in Israel, is enough to introduce altitude sickness. (Who knew Israel has a ski resort!)

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) affects 20% of individuals at 8,000-feet and 40% at 10,000. Age or physical fitness makes little difference. Chinese texts dating from 30BC refer to “Big Headache Mountains”, the Karakoram range extending from the Hindu Kush to the Himalayas. Early symptoms include nausea and headache, difficulty in breathing and peripheral edema – the accumulation of fluids in the hands, feet and face.

Two photos, same woman. Left: At normal altitude. Right: The same woman’s swollen face shows the peripheral edema that comes with trekking, at high altitude.(Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal; 4130 m) H/T Wikipedia

Just as days-long decompression is required to reacclimate from extreme depth, a gradual entry of days or even weeks is required for the human body to acclimate to very high altitudes of 18,000 to 20,000 feet. Extreme hypoxia sets in at such heights exacerbated, by exercise. There are no permanent human habitations above 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) and never will be. Even for the most experienced of mountaineers, progressive deterioration of physiological functions will outrun acclimatization. It is only a matter of time.

Acute hypoxemia, abnormally low concentrations of blood oxygen leads to vascular changes resulting in the accumulation of fluids in the lungs, and brain.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) results in shortness of breath, even at rest. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) affects the brain resulting in confusion, clumsiness and drowsiness leading to unconsciousness. Death will result in either case and the only antidote, is descent.

Jon Krakauer’s first-hand account of the 1996 blizzard that killed 8 climbers on Mt. Everest provides detailed, and terrifying, descriptions of HAPE and HACE. I highly recommend this book. Preferably to be read, at sea level.

In the world of mountaineering there are none to compare with the planet’s 14 “eight-thousanders”, those peaks exceeding 8,000 meters in height. At 8,848.86 meters above sea level, (29,031.7-feet) Mt. Everest is the tallest.

Mt. Everest

As of January 2021, there have been 10,184 successful summits of the highest mountain on the planet. Kami Rita Sherpa of Nepal has done so, 24 times. Others have summited multiple times, so we’re talking about 5,739 individuals. 305 have died in the attempt, about 1 in 20 if we go by individuals giving Everest the highest death toll of any mountain in the world.

Roughly 200 of them are still on Everest, and always will be. There is no way to bring them down from that place.

Yet even Everest pales almost to docility, compared with K2. At 8,610 meters (28,250 feet), K2 is the second highest summit, on the planet. The difference between the two is relatively small, roughly half the height, of the Empire State building. And yet the contours of this mountain and the wild, unpredictable changes in weather, make K2 by far and away the world’s deadliest mountain.

K2

While Everest kills 5 percent of those who would challenge the top of the world, K2 has been summited only 367 times. 91 individuals have died in the attempt, a terrifying ratio, of one-in-four. After a 1953 ascent of K2, American mountaineer George Bell told reporters, “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”

Alone among the 14 8,000-meter peaks K2 has never been climbed, from the east side.

K2 as seen from the east, photographed by a 1909 expedition

Alison Jane Hargreaves was a British mountain climber. The most accomplished female mountaineer in history, Hargreaves has summited the 6,812-metre (22,349 ft) Ama Dablam in Nepal and all the great north faces of the Alps, a first for a climber of either sex.

Alison Hargreaves holds Tom (6) and Kate(4), in 1995. She would die in August of that same year descending from the summit, of K2.

She planned to climb the three tallest mountains in the world in one season without aid of supplemental oxygen, or Sherpa support. Mount Everest, K2, and Kangchenjunga. Unaided.

Hargreaves accomplished the first part on May 13, 1995 when she reached the summit of Mt. Everest without the aid of Sherpas, or bottled oxygen.

That June, she joined an American team with a permit to climb the significantly more difficult and more dangerous peak of the Savage Mountain, itself. K2.

The 12th of August was a good day for the summit but, climbers were exhausted from the 11th when, finding camp 3 destroyed by an avalanche, the team was forced to either turn back, or push on for camp 4.

Several dropped out. By August 13 the remnants of the American team had joined with members of climbing teams from Spain and New Zealand including Peter Hillary, son of the Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary.

“Summit fever” is a mountaineering term for that all-consuming drive, to reach the top of a mountain. No matter what the cost. It is a supreme act of will to turn back from such an all devouring goal particularly in the grips, of mountain sickness.

Peter Hillary was a man of such will. Not liking the looks of the weather on K2 he turned back, some 12 hours from the summit.

Conditions were fine the afternoon Alison Hargreaves and five others reached the summit. They were Spaniards Javier Olivar, Javier Escartín and Lorenzo Ortíz, American Rob Slater and New Zealander Bruce Grant. Canadian Jeff Lakes had turned back, before the summit.

None had the faintest clue of the anti-cyclone, screaming in from the north.

The team was caught out in the open by brutal cold and winds, exceeding 100 miles per hour. They didn’t have a chance, they were literally blown from the side of the mountain. Jeff Lakes made it back to camp 2 where he died, of exhaustion. Pepe Garces and Lorenzo Ortas remained at camp 4 and managed to survive despite extreme frostbite, and exposure. They saw a bloody boot on the way down and an Anorak, the distinctive green color worn by Alison Hargreaves.

“Anticyclone, any large wind system that rotates about a centre of high atmospheric pressure clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern. Its flow is the reverse of that of a cyclone”. H/T Britannica

They could see a body in the distance and believed it was hers, but there was no way to approach. After six days without a tent the pair was barely alive, themselves. Graces and Ortas were airlifted out of camp 2. Whoever it was they saw remains on K2, to this day.

Tom Ballard was six when his mother died. He grew up to be a mountaineer as did his sister, Kate. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and for Ballard, mountaineering was an all-consuming passion. Following in his mother’s footsteps he too climbed the six north faces of the Alps in one season. This time, in Winter. His was the all-consuming desire to conquer including and perhaps especially, K2. The Savage Mountain that had killed his mother.

It wasn’t meant to be. On February 24, 2019, Tom Ballard and Italian mountaineer Daniele Nardi went missing on the slopes of Nanga Parbat, the westernmost anchor of the Himalayas and the 9th tallest mountain, in the world. Pakistani army helicopters and four rescuers scoured the mountain for days before spotting their bodies, at 5,900 meters.

On March 9, Italian Ambassador to Pakistan Stefano Pontecorvo tweeted: “‘With great sadness I inform that the search for @NardiDaniele and Tom Ballard is over…”

%d bloggers like this: