In Depth: Heroism on K2 - KMSP-TV

In Depth: Heroism on K2

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Later this month, two adventurers will travel to Minneapolis to tell an astonishing story of heroism during a deadly climbing expedition on K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth.

The duo will be in Minnesota to attend a series of events supporting a local charity, Pathways for Children, that runs schools and orphanages in India and Africa -- and Trish van Pilsum traveled to Colorado to get a preview of the story they will share and a glimpse of the unreleased documentary about their fateful climb.

The men whose families have lived in the shadows of the icy spires for generations believe that five of the grandest summits are home to a goddess -- one of five sisters with the power to grant good luck or bad; the power to protect life or claim it. Whether the climbers who try to reach those peaks believe in that or not, one thing is certain: You make the journey at your own peril.

At least, that's what it seems when you consider the adventure of the two men who will soon be in the Twin Cities to talk about challenge, taking risks and setting goals. Yet, the real story is one of faith.

Chhiring Dorje Sherpa has guided climbers in the Himalayas of his native Nepal since he was 14 years old. His mother died in childbirth when he was 12, and in order to support his family, he turned to the mountains.

Every time he ventures out, he wears a charm to protect him against avalanches.

"All the time, I keep it with me," Sherpa said.

With his speed, strength and delightful personality, Sherpa was successful. He took climbers to the top of Mount Everest 10 times.

"People asking me, 'How many times you summit Everest?' and I say, 'nine, ten.' 'Oh, you summit K2?' I said, 'No,'" Sherpa remembered.

Although K2 is not as high as Everest, Sherpa had never been to the top of the mountain, which is more fierce and much less forgiving. He says the goddess of K2 is "like a judge."

In 2008, Sherpa joined Colorado Dr. Eric Meyer with an American climbing team attempting K2 -- but he wasn't a guide this time. Instead, he was a full-fledged member.

When they arrived, Sherpa noticed there were teams from all over the world, but he noticed some of the climbers did not respect the sanctity of the mountain. That left him with a sense of uncertainty.

"Chhiring comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and as part of that ... you ask permission before you set foot on the mountain," Meyer explained. "I have enormous respect for the depth of spirituality Chhiring has."

On that trip, the mountain raged. Avalanches stranded the climbers below the summit for months. As a result, the end of the climbing season was closing in on them like the mountain fog when suddenly, the weather cleared.

"When it came time to move up the mountain, he was 100 percent committed," Meyer recalled.

The climbers had a very short window -- just four days -- to get to the top.

"I pray every day," Sherpa said. "I pray every day to the five sisters."

The team thought working together, sharing things like rope, would be best. They assumed there would be strength in numbers, and lighter weight among members of the group would help them make the trip more efficiently.

They were wrong.

A documentary photographer checked in with a Norwegian climber at the highest camp before the group attempted to ascend a harrowing section called "The Bottleneck." Within a day, he would be dead.

The push through The Bottleneck may have been doomed from the start. There were simply too many people to get up to the summit, turn around and get back down before dark -- and there wasn't enough rope.

At that height, there is so little oxygen in the air that the body fails. The brain suffers too, especially with regard to decision making. From below, the American team at the back of the line could see the plan go awry.

"We were looking up at this incredible, overhanging serac -- basically a series of ice towers," Meyer remembered.

With huge pieces of ice looming above and threatening to come tumbling down, the Americans backed off and opted against trying for the summit.

"It was incredibly difficult," Meyer said of the decision.

All except for Sherpa, who went on.

"Only one window, only one chance," he explained.

As Meyer and the others in camp, they heard screams. One man fell to his death jostling in line on The Bottleneck, and another died trying to recover his body.

Sherpa and 17 others made it to the summit, but they had to begin a dangerous descent in the dark. That's when the mountain unleashed.

"We got a call from Chhiring at 10 p.m. saying there has been a huge collapse of ice," Meyer recalled.

The falling ice swept away climbers and tore out the fixed ropes. Sherpa had to go down the steepest part of the mountain by himself with nothing more than an ice axe, and he admits he was "very scared."

Only a vision -- a kind of dream -- of his wife crying for him, of his entire family before him gave him the courage to get up.

"I stand up, I walk, walk -- and I fell down," he remembered.

Sherpa caught himself with his axe and eventually came across a guide from another team, stranded without an axe. Another climber had already passed him by and left him there to die.

"I looked at his face. It was a very nice face, nice smile," Sherpa described.

Sherpa would not leave him behind.

"In my heart, I cannot leave him here," he explained.

Sherpa decided that the two would either make it back to their families together or die together. So, the two dodged repeated ice falls and made falls of their own.

"It was an incredible act of heroism and selflessness," Meyer said.

Below the summit, Meyer tended to survivors. Though he hoped they could all keep their fingers and toes, many did not.

In all, 11 of the 19 who attempted the summit died. Sherpa and the man he carried were among the survivors, but Sherpa said he will not press his luck with the goddess of K2 and has no plans to climb that mountain again.

Both Meyer and Sherpa will appear at events set for Sept. 28 and 29 to discuss their journey at a showing of the K2 documentary "Cry at the Top of the World." Information on screenings can be found below:

Saturday, Sept. 28
Location: Midwest Mountaineering
309 Cedar Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55454
Time: 4 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 29
Location: De La Salle High School
1 De La Salle Drive
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Time: 2 p.m.

Online resource:

- Pathways to Children: www.pathwaystochildren.org
- Watch the trailer for "Cry at the Top of the World" on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-pcxwK6Ur4

DISCLAIMER: The trailer does contain profanity.

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