Climber Heidi Howkins on "Obsession" With Deadly K2

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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.

Read an interview with Tom Foreman>>

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