Climbers make their way up the steep slope of K2 in Pakistan earlier this summer. Steamboat Springs doctor Eric Meyer was one of 22 who left the mountain's upper-most camp early Aug. 1. He spent much of the next three days using his high-altitude medical expertise to assist climbers who had been trapped high on the mountain, some as long as two days.
Terrible toll takes 11 lives
A series of small mistakes leads to the deaths of 11 people Aug. 1 on K2
The two-part story of a local man's survival at 28,000 feet
Oct. 19: Outdoors lifestyle leads Eric Meyer to top of the world
Today: Decisions, good and bad, seal fates on the slopes of K2
A long line of climbers makes its way through the Bottleneck on Aug. 1 on the upper reaches of K2. A slow start and the ominous look of the icy overhang that haunts that section of the climb persuaded Steamboat Springs doctor Eric Meyer to turn back. Avalanches swept down through the section later that night, trapping many above the perilous choke point and leading to 11 deaths.
Everything is relative on the upper slopes of K2.
A good, deep breath, for instance, nets one-third the relief it would at sea level.
Steamboat Springs doctor Eric Meyer used a satellite phone in dark and cold hours of the night of Aug. 1 to let his friends and family know he was alive.
"I'm safe," he said, not wanting to waste words over the tenuous connection.
What he didn't say, speaking from a tent on the mountain at 26,000 feet, could have left his mother awake for a week.
"Safe" was one of those relative things. That much was confirmed two days later when rappelling down a 70-degree sheer ice slope, his rope broke and he fell free for 30 feet. A safety line - "I don't even remember clipping it in," Meyer said - stopped his fall and saved his life.
While Meyer offered some comfort to his family, others had no idea their loved ones were in danger. A line of 22 climbers left Camp 4 early that morning. As Meyer phoned home, most of them were still on the mountain. It would take days for the survivors to straggle in and weeks to figure out what exactly happened to the 11 who never made it.
An odds-on chance
Eric Meyer had been climbing mountains for most his life, but he'd never encountered anything like K2.
It takes a nine-day hike just to reach the remote K2 base camp and Meyer's eight-man team hired 120 porters to help carry three months of supplies.
"Picture guys carrying a dozen chickens in baskets or leading a half dozen goats as we hiked toward base camp," he said.
Along with him was an international collection of climbers, including Nepal's Chhring Dorje Sherpa. They arrived at the mountain late in June and spent the next month becoming acclimatized and stashing supplies along their intended route.
When the weather cleared and a shot at the summit became possible, Meyer joined Dorje, Michigan climber Chris Klinke and Sweden's Fredrik StrÃ¤ng as a part of the first wave up K2.
The foursome made its way through the prepared camps and on July 31, climbed the final 2,000 feet to Camp 4. The summit was another 3,000 feet higher, protected by ramparts of ice and legions of snow and rock avalanches. But, as the team lay down that night, its goal seemed near fulfillment.
"I thought we were looking at better than 50-50 odds," Meyer said, reflecting on the attitude at base camp. "After we got to Camp 4, I put the odds more like 70 or 80 percent."
The most beautiful day
Hurdles remained. Like the Bottleneck, a narrow rock gulley up a 70-degree slope that leads to an icy serac above Camp 4. The entire section exists beneath a nightmarish frozen overhang where ice boulders the size of tanks perch precariously over the path.
But as the sun began to splash over the massive peaks of the Karakoram Range, a stunningly beautiful day emerged.
"I stripped off my down suit and tied it around my waist," Klinke said. "I was just wearing a lightweight top, and I was still sweating."
Even the sun can be a problem at K2, however.
The American team, with the exception of Dorje, had purposely placed itself at the end of the line hoping to be able to better observe the mountain as it climbed. That decision proved wise.
The slow pace of the lead climbers, who struggled to fix ropes as they went, compounded the problem of a late start and a traffic jam in the Bottleneck ensued.
Those factors, along with the looming icy overhang, proved too much for Meyer and StrÃ¤ng
"We just had this sinking feeling," Meyer said. "Looking up at the ice, it was extremely broken up. It looked really risky compared to telephoto shots we'd seen from a month earlier.
"The mountain speaks to you if you listen. It can tell you if it's not meant to be. It wasn't for us."
Meyer and StrÃ¤ng turned around at about 7:30 a.m and returned to Camp 4. They had reached 8,100 meters but were still 10 hours from the summit.
Klinke followed suit nearly two hours later, chilled by the perspiration that began to appear on the sun-blasted blocks of ice.
Serbian Dren Mandic was the first causality. Climbing through the Bottleneck after three of four members of Meyer's party had turned back, he unclipped from a guide rope to adjust his oxygen system, slipped and fell.
Meyer and StrÃ¤ng, already back at Camp 4, heard the distress call over their radios and hiked out with several Pakistani porters and other climbers to help.
"He was dead when we got there. Massive trauma," Meyer said.
While the group attempted to haul the body back to Camp 4, one of the porters fell and, as he slid out of sight, became the peak's second victim.
"He seemed perfectly capable of assisting in getting the body down," said Meyer, a high-altitude medical specialist. "He was probably suffering from altitude sickness. : It's hard to explain his lack of coordination otherwise."
The rest of the climbers continued on and reached the summit of K2 perilously late in the afternoon. The mountain roared in response, taking a terrible toll.
Avalanches swept the upper slopes in the ensuing hours, tearing away ropes as climbers descended in the darkness.
Successive rock and snow slides knocked some off their feet and stranded others far from the comfort of a camp. Many spent the night exposed on the mountain. Dorje, the only member of the American team to summit, survived and managed to save another, tying to an altitude-sick Sherpa as he made his way down and around the Bottleneck.
Climbers fought their way back to the camp through the next two days. Meyer and his teammates helped where they could, offering medical services and attempting to coordinate communications.
There was only so much that could be done, however. The 11 deaths marked the most in one day on K2.
It wasn't a life-changing experience for Meyer. Try life affirming.
"I don't think it's done anything but strengthen my faith in God and my belief that life is fragile," he said, truly safe back in Steamboat Springs.
Meyer said there was no great mistake made this summer. His decision to turn back was based on views others ahead of him probably never had, and he couldn't fault their continuing on.
Rather, he pointed to a series of small mistakes such as impatience, a late start and unorganized supplies.
Turning back saved his life. Those that continued on helped K2 live up to its most gruesome nickname: The Killer Mountain.
"But a mountain is a mountain," Meyer said. "I don't agree with the personification of mountains. The mountain doesn't decide who lives and dies."