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?

Heidi Howkins: They are not experiences that you like to remember. Having said that, though, it's certainly been the part of climbing that has changed me. There was one avalanche where there were people buried, porters that were with us on the retreat from base camp. And one of the porters, who died afterwards, was smiling. And we were descending the side, it was still a very dangerous pass, and I had to stop and I was in tears. I was really upset. I said, "Why are you smiling?" And he stopped smiling and thought for a moment and said, "You know, death has no time or place. It finds you wherever you are." And I think his cultural background had led him to the belief that death is a juncture like birth.

Tom Foreman: You came very close to dying in an avalanche—tell me about that experience.

Heidi Howkins: I heard it. And my instinct was to dig my axes in and protect my head, not to look at it.

Tom Foreman: Were you on a pretty steep face?

Heidi Howkins: Yeah. At about 21,000 feet (6,400 meters). I was swept down to the bottom [of that part of the mountain] and completely buried and I lost consciousness. And I had an experience where everything in my visual field was a bright light and it felt almost like iron filings oriented towards a magnet, you know, just everything was drawn into that central point.

It was what we call a serac avalanche, which is a big ice cliff that sort of crumbles. And fortunately those tend to happen in waves and I think that's what happened to save me. I don't have any way of knowing, but I'm guessing that there was a second wave that came down and released the debris that was on my back that wasn't allowing me to breathe.

And, [then I was] re-entering my body, you know, seeing it in the snow and re-entering it, and going through the painful physiological process of expelling snow from my lungs.

Tom Foreman: You were coughing up blood?

Heidi Howkins: Yeah, sort of pink.

Tom Foreman: How do you explain to the people in your life what you do?

Heidi Howkins: Well, the people in my immediate family and my friends know who I am. It doesn't require explaining.

Tom Foreman: If your daughter said, "Don't go back to K2," would you listen?

Heidi Howkins: Yes, I would. It would be tough, and, of course, there's always the question of, you know, when do you stop being a mother—at age 2, at age 20?

Tom Foreman: What if she decided to be a climber like you?

Heidi Howkins: She is adventurous, but she's not necessarily a risk-taker, and, you know, in a way that makes my job as a mother very easy. [But] that would be very, very tough.

Inside Base Camp's Tom Foreman on Work, Guests

Presidents and prisoners; scientists and soldiers; the heroic and the hated—all have sat down with National Geographic Channel Senior Anchor Tom Foreman as he has traveled the globe for the past 25 years. Starting out in small town radio in Alabama, he progressed through local television to join ABC Network News when he was 30. For a decade he covered virtually every major news story for World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20 and Good Morning America.

Now, as host and managing editor of the Emmy Award-winning Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman, he brings his years of experience—and dozens of riveting guests—to the National Geographic Channel at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Sundays at 11:00 a.m.

As the show's name implies, Foreman asks the intimate, revealing questions that cut to core of the passions that drive his guests.

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