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The Fine Line Between Life and Death

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Climbers dying on high mountains sadly occur all too frequently and, as a result, are rarely reported. However, an avalanche that killed New Zealand father and son, Marty and Denali Schmidt, last month high on the steep slopes of the world's second highest mountain created headlines worldwide.

In part this was because it was K2. The notorious mountain, remotely located in the Karakorum Mountains on the Pakistan/Chinese border, holds such a deadly history that for every four people who have summited its steep slopes - a little over 300 in 60 years - one has died trying. For those who do reach the top, statistically K2 has the highest risk of dying on descent of any mountain on Earth.

In part this was because Schmidt senior was a well-known and much respected mountain guide who had led expeditions for over 30 years; summited Everest twice; and reached the top of five other 8,000m peaks without oxygen.

But above all it was the fact that the deaths were of a father and son that stirred the emotions and headlines. How could such a highly experienced mountaineer continue leading his own son up the mountain in such dangerous snow conditions that every other team on the mountain - 19 foreign climbers and six Nepalese Sherpas - aborted their summit attempt and turned around? That number included the Schmidt's own third team member, Australian Chris Warner, who fortuitously also decided to return to base camp with the remaining teams.

Along with Warner, I was one of the last people to speak to the Schmidt's on the morning of 26th July in their tent at camp two (6,700m) prior to our descent to base camp. When we spoke of the aborted summit bids Marty Schmidt was somewhat dismissive of the retreat. "Hell, this is an 8,000 metre peak, not a vacation," he bellowed. "If you get snow for two days, you're gonna be climbing through snow" he added, referring to the recent precipitation that had helped create waist deep snow precariously lying on blue ice slopes leading up to camp three. "So you're going up?" I asked. "You bet we are; we've got great weather for the next five days, we're gonna head up this morning, check it out and take it from there," he concluded.

The 'take it from there' comment insinuated that if conditions were good they would make an attempt for the summit on their own - a huge undertaking in the known challenges high up on the peak. If they were bad, they would return to base camp.

That night, having taken a lengthy nine hours to reach camp three (7300m), a tired Marty Schmidt briefly radioed Warner, then back at base camp, saying it had been a hard day, was very windy and they were cold. He said they would check conditions in the morning and call with their plans then - a somewhat indecisive message from the usually clear cut Schmidt.

The call never came. Nor did calls at their fixed daily times of 12 midday or 6pm, again highly unusual for the meticulous Schmidt senior, though there could be a number of reasons for the non-communication.

With no calls being received the next day either, two of our Sherpas spent the day climbing up to camp three in an attempt to clarify the Schmidt's whereabouts. Their discovery, in the fading light of day, confirmed our worst fears - camp three had been totally wiped out by what they described as a huge avalanche, with tents being buried and equipment scattered over a large area. Asleep in their tents on that first night, the Schmidt's would have had no chance of survival. It was not lost on anyone that, had all the teams been at camp three that night as planned, it would have been the greatest loss of life on a single mountain in Himalayan history.

So what possessed the Schmidt's to ignore everyone else's retreat and to continue climbing in the face of such apparent huge risks?

Prior to the expedition I hadn't met either of them, although I had heard a fair amount of Marty and we had exchanged emails prior to arriving in Pakistan. In the close confines of a base camp, however, one gets to know fellow climbers quite intimately in a short space of time.

Denali, named after North America's highest mountain, struck me as being a very mature, grounded and friendly 25 year old. It was his first time on K2 and only his second time on an 8,000m peak, following a successful team summit of nearby Broad Peak two weeks earlier.

For US-born Marty, 53, this was his third attempt on the mountain. "I've climbed a lot of the world's biggest mountains but K2 is the one I love and respect the most, I'm just called to it all the time" he was quoted before leaving for Pakistan. He came across as very assertive, independent minded and somewhat opinionated, but also welcoming, generous and communicable. Both were highly respected and liked in base camp.

We will never fully know their motives, but I believe it was that independent mindedness that was a major reason for Schmidt senior's decision. He was not going to take someone else's word for it and his comments on 'when it snows you find snow' were typical of his attitude.

It is my opinion also that they were trying to inject some positivity into the negative discussions prevalent after the retreat with a very action orientated reaction to those who had concluded that K2 was over for 2013.

And finally, if that failed to cajole the other teams into working together, it is likely that, as two of the strongest climbers on the mountain, they felt they were capable enough to launch a serious summit attempt on their own if necessary, something that would have been a superhuman feat had they achieved it. And yet their apparent brazen attitudes to the risks involved raise more questions than answers.

Part two to come...

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