Disaster on K2
The two-part story of a local man's survival at 28,000 feet
Today: Outdoors lifestyle leads Eric Meyer to top of the world
Oct. 26: Decisions, good and bad, seal fates on the slopes of K2
Steamboat Springs The years melted away from Eric Meyer as he told his story, blond hair falling across his forehead as he recalled mountaineering in the Grand Tetons, and a bright smile lighting up tales of climbing Mount Rainier and reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
Then, his attitude shifted. His voice cooled and his eyes narrowed. Sitting in Steaming Bean Coffee in downtown Steamboat Springs, he stopped concentrating on the most brilliant steps of his climbing career and instead remembered the most treacherous.
Meyer, 44, traveled to Pakistan this summer for the mountain climbing experience of a lifetime. It started as an attempt to climb the world's second-tallest peak. It ended in catastrophe as 11 of his fellow climbers died on the slopes of K2, one of the most challenging and deadly mountains in the world.
"We thought the technical difficulties of heading down were acceptable," Meyer said, coldly describing the high-altitude, attempted retrieval of one fallen climber's corpse. "In attempting to do that, one of the Pakistani porters lost his footing and slid to his death."
"Probably wasn't a good idea.
"Probably wouldn't do it that way again."
Those were the first two deaths. There was no way Meyer, at that point, could have predicted the hell that was to come.
Lost in the clouds
It took weeks of climbing, months of traveling and a lifetime of dreaming for Eric Meyer, a Steamboat Springs doctor, to set foot on the upper reaches of K2.
The fire first was lit when he was a child in Miles City, Mont., when his parents, Joyce and Dan, encouraged his outdoor activities. Childhood hunting trips soon were complemented by an active career in the Boy Scouts, and that all gave way to what Meyer came to love the most: mountain climbing.
"I saved my money from summer jobs - paper routes and washing dishes - and when I was 14 years old, started going down to the Tetons," he said. "That's where the mountaineering was at in my region. I learned to climb down there."
Meyer began summiting Montana's mountains in high school. After leaving the region to attend college in Michigan, he was happy to return, packing off to the University of Washington for medical school.
He focused on high altitude medicine, and as he progressed, he got ever more serious with his climbing fixation. He guided on Mount Rainier, traveled to India to climb before his medical residency and, after moving to Steamboat Springs in 1995, set his sights on the highest and most dangerous peaks in the world.
You don't just jump on K2. First, Meyer conquered several other top peaks - and survived a handful of catastrophes.
He was near the top of a highly technical route on Bolivia's Huayna Potosi in 1999 when an avalanche knocked him over and broke his climbing partner's leg.
He had to turn back in the face of a fierce storm after nearing the summit of the 14th-tallest peak in the world, China's Shishapangma, in 2000. Seven climbers died in 2004 on Mount Everest, the year Meyer summited it via the Tibetan Northeast Ridge.
But nothing can truly prepare a climber for K2.
Ed Viesturs, America's most experienced mountaineer and a veteran of all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks, labeled K2 his most dangerous ascent.
The summit, at 8,611 meters or 28,251 feet, is swamped by ever-present bad weather. An afternoon storm nearly turned Viesturs' 1992 trip into his last. Still, the steep, icy, rock- and snow-avalanche-prone slopes can make the weather the last thing on a climber's mind.
There have been 299 successful trips up K2 and 77 fatalities. Everest, meanwhile, has been climbed nearly 4,000 times with just more than 200 deaths.
"The mountain is relentlessly steep, and it's unique in that it's like that the whole way," Meyer said. "People want to know, 'Are there bodies up there?' Well, you don't see any bodies up there.
"On Everest, on your summit day, you may see a dozen frozen bodies that are essentially freeze-dried. There are nooks and crannies, places to sit down and die up there. Not on K2. If you sit down, you don't remain in that spot for very long, it's so damn steep."
Eric Meyer woke up in that environment Aug. 1, high on the side of K2. He had spent the previous weeks preparing and the previous days climbing toward the summit, and Aug. 1 was supposed to be the day.
It was clear, an uncharacteristically perfect day on top of the world. There was no indication, in the day's first hours, of the carnage to come.
"I thought we had a 70 percent chance at the summit," he said.
Joyce Meyer has spent long nights worrying about her son Eric before. He went on a hunting trip with his father when he was 5 years old. Dan Meyer picked his son up right after kindergarten, and together they drove deep into the Montana mountains.
It was supposed to be a quick out-and-back affair, but darkness approached, and the outdoorsmen couldn't make it back.
"Finally, they drive in the driveway the next morning at 7 a.m. They hadn't dared drive in the darkness," Joyce said.
She said Aug. 1 was in no way similar. She got an unexpected call at 1 p.m.
"I'm safe. There's been an avalanche," Eric Meyer reported via satellite phone from the other side of the world.
Meyer was hunkered down in Camp IV, an outpost on K2 so desolate and unforgiving there is only a small area for tents, and even that respite has to be chiseled out of the ice and is on a slope.
Disaster had washed over the mountain above him. Some of the world's most treacherous climbing awaited below him.
"You'll be hearing things," he warned to his mother, foreseeing the headlines that would soon stretch across the world. "But I'm safe. I love you and I have to go now."