Hanging off the face of a cliff, an ice axe the only thing between him and death, a Sherpa climber named Chhiring Dorje swung to the left. A massive ice boulder ripped off above, hurtling toward him.
It was the size of a refrigerator.
The underbelly caught, and the mass flipped, cartwheeling down. It tore past, skimming Chhiring’s shoulder, then vanished.
Brooof. It slammed into something below, shattering.
The mountain shook with the impact. Powder shot up in a column.
It was near midnight on August 1, 2008. Chhiring had only a hazy idea of where he was: on or near the Bottleneck of K2, the deadliest stretch of the most dangerous mountain. At roughly the cruising altitude of a Boeing 737, the Bottleneck loomed out of the darkness, and above it, a lip of ice curled like a crashing wave. In the starlight, the channel glowed blue as wisps of fog slithered off it and into the abyss.
Oxygen depletion had turned Chhiring’s mind to mush. Hunger and exhaustion had broken his body. When he opened his mouth, his tongue froze; when he gasped for breath, the moistureless air scoured his throat. The wind lashed at his eyes.
Chhiring felt robotic, cold, too tired to think of what he’d sacrificed to get to K2. The Sherpa mountaineer, who had summited Everest ten times, had been consumed by K2 for decades. A far more difficult and dangerous peak than Everest, K2’s summit is the most prestigious prize in high-altitude mountaineering. Chhiring had gone despite his wife’s threat to leave him. Despite the climb costing more money than his father had made in forty years. Despite his Buddhist lama warning him that K2’s goddess would never tolerate the climb.
Chhiring had made it to the summit of K2 that evening without using bottled oxygen, vaulting him into an elite group of the most successful mountaineers, but the descent wasn’t turning out as he had planned. He had dreamed of the achievement, the heroic reception, even fame. None of that mattered now. Chhiring had a wife, two daughters, a thriving business, and a dozen relatives who depended on him. All he wanted was to get home. Alive.
Normally, descent would be safer. Climbers usually go down during the early afternoon when it’s warmer and daylight shows the way. They rappel, leapfrogging off the ice while attached to a line to control their speed. In avalanche-prone areas around the Bottleneck, climbers descend as quickly as possible. This cuts exposure time, minimizing the chance of getting buried. Getting down fast was what Chhiring had planned on, depended on.
Now it was black and moonless. The fixed lines had vanished, severed by falling ice. Turning back wasn’t an option. Without a rope to catch him, he had only his axe to arrest a fall. And more than one life was in play: another climber was hanging from his harness.
The man suspended below him was Pasang Lama. Three hours earlier, Pasang had given up his ice axe to help more vulnerable climbers. He had thought he could survive without it. Like Chhiring, Pasang had planned to rappel down the mountain using the fixed lines.
When the ropes through the Bottleneck disappeared, Pasang had figured it was his time to die. Stranded, he was unable to climb up or down without help. Why would anyone try to save him? Any climber who attached himself to Pasang would surely fall, too. Using an ice axe to check the weight of one mountaineer skidding down the Bottleneck is nearly impossible. Stopping two bodies presents twice the difficulty, twice the risk. A rescue would be suicidal, Pasang thought. Mountaineers are supposed to be self-sufficient. Any pragmatic person would leave him to die.
As expected, one Sherpa already had. Pasang assumed Chhiring would do the same. Chhiring and Pasang were on separate teams. Chhiring had no obligation to help. But now Pasang hung three yards below him, attached to Chhiring’s harness by a tether.
After dodging the block of ice, the two men bowed their heads and silently negotiated with the mountain goddess. When she responded, the sound was electronic, the amplified pluck of a rubber band run through distortion pedals. Zoing. The sounds continued, echoing louder, longer, faster, lower-pitched, from the upper left or lower right. The climbers knew what it meant. The ice around them was calving. With each zoing, fractures zigzagged across the glacier, ready to release blocks of ice.
Most of them were the size of baseballs. If the men sensed one coming, they could shuffle to the side and contort themselves away. Failing that, they could sustain a hit. But eventually a mass the size of a bus would break off. Not much to do when that happens, except pray. Chhiring and Pasang had to get down before the falling ice crushed them.
Chuck. Chhiring hacked his axe into the ice. Shink. He kicked, stabbing into the ice with crampons, spikes strapped beneath his boots. He descended like this for a few feet—chuck, shink, shink, chuck, shink, shink—and jammed himself against the slope so that the man attached to him could move to the same rhythm.
Pasang punched the hard ice with his fist, trying to compact it into a hold he could grip. Shallow and slick, the hold couldn’t bear his weight. As Pasang extended his leg downward, he leaned on the safety tether that tied him to Chhiring. Shink. Pasang kicked in his c crampons, relieving the pressure on the tether.
The weight on the rope threatened to pry Chhiring off the mountain’s face, but he managed to cling on as they maneuvered around the bulges, dips, lumps, and cracks. Sometimes they went side by side, holding hands, coordinating their movements. At other times Pasang went first, while Chhiring braced in a holding position with the ice axe and controlled the safety tether between them.
Rocks and chunks of ice spun at them, dinging their helmets, but they thought they would survive. The night was windless—minus four degrees Fahrenheit—almost warm for K2. Chhiring and Pasang were nearly halfway down when it happened.
It was probably a falling chunk of ice that knocked Pasang off balance. Whatever it was—he never knew for sure—Pasang was batted off, swinging like a piñata..
The force of Pasang’s body on the rope peeled Chhiring from the slope. The men tore down.
Chhiring gripped the ice axe with both hands and slammed it into the mountain.
The blade wouldn’t catch. It cut surgically through the snow.
Sliding faster, Chhiring heaved his chest against the adze of his axe, digging into the slope.
No good. It raked through. Chhiring fell faster, another seven yards, another ten.
Pasang punched the slope with his fists and tried to take hold as his fingers skated along the ice. The men dropped farther into the darkness.