Climber Heidi Howkins on "Obsession" With Deadly K2

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
May 14, 2003

Heidi Howkins is a mother in her mid-30s. Her smile comes easy. Her eyes flash with intensity. And she plays in the devil's backyard. How else can one describe her obsession with climbing one of the world's most deadly mountains?

K2, towering over most of the Himalaya at 28,250 feet (8,610 meters), is not quite as tall as Mount Everest, but it is widely considered far more dangerous. The mountain stabs into the sky above Pakistan; a jagged monolith of granite, limestone and ice. Hundreds of the planet's best climbers have come here over the years to pit themselves against K2. More than 50 have been killed in the attempt.

Only five women have made the summit and all died either on the way down or in subsequent climbing accidents. In her two attempts on K2, Howkins has seen fellow climbers swept away in avalanches; the bodies of other souls frozen in the mountain's eternal winter; and yet the lure of K2 keeps calling.

Each journey begins with an exhausting trek to the mountain's base…

Heidi Howkins: Seven, eight days of hiking through terrain that is rock and ice, debris. There are no villages—there's nothing hospitable about the region.

Tom Foreman: So you can't bring everything, because it's too far to go.

Heidi Howkins: Right. You're bringing in just the bare essentials for survival—what you need, what you think you need, to get up the peak, and what you think you need for two to three months to survive. The conditions are also much more extreme on K2. I mean, it's only a half dozen rope lengths shorter than Everest, but it's much steeper. The angle on average is about 47 degrees. The quote-unquote "normal route" on Everest is 27 degrees, so it's a full 20 degrees steeper. You've got to be comfortable in the vertical world.

Tom Foreman: For every four people who make it to the top of K2, one person dies.

Heidi Howkins: The reason for that is primarily the weather. K2 is so much higher than all the peaks around it that it sticks up kind of like a rock in a stream. And so any time the jet stream—that kind of atmospheric river—lowers down over the top of K2, you get these amazing storms that can develop in the matter of an hour.

Tom Foreman: You've been there when this has happened. What's that like?

Heidi Howkins: It's surreal. You're in a completely different zone. Not only are you potentially experiencing hallucinations from the lack of oxygen, but you're also feeling the tenuousness of each breath. You're monitoring every part of your body and every part of your surrounding, and trying to stay warm, stay whole, stay alive. You're very, very aware just of how fragile life is.

Tom Foreman: You have witnessed people dying on the mountain?

Continued on Next Page >>


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