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K2: 7 AMERICANS, INCLUDING 2 PARK CITY MEN, SET OUT TO CLIMB 28,250-FOOT MOUNTAIN IN PAKISTAN

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K2: 7 AMERICANS, INCLUDING 2 PARK CITY MEN, SET OUT TO CLIMB 28,250-FOOT MOUNTAIN IN PAKISTAN. THEIR GOAL: TO RETURN WITH FINGERS AND TOES INTACT - NO SMALL FEAT. Ten fingers, 10 toes. 20 in all. Count 'em.

Six friends. Good friends. And still good friends. Count 'em.The numbers add up.

Three months ago, when Matt Culberson left for Pakistan and the ragged slopes of K2, he wasn't sure his numbers would balance. He openly wished they would.

His main goal was not to summit. Not to break any records or be first. Not to beat the mountain or any of the other teams on it.

He said his two wishes were to return home with all his fingers and toes in place and to be able to clasp hands with his six companions at the end of the trip and feel bad about parting.

And if he touched the summit, be thankful. And if not, be happy to have climbed.

* * *

The seven Americans left for Pakistan in late May . . . Matt Culberson of Park City, age 37, a climbing guide and schoolteacher; Jay Shotwell of Park City, age 29, a general contractor and climbing guide; John Culberson of Grand Junction, Colo., age 33, a climbing guide and nursing student; Larry Hall of Lake Bluff, Ill., age 40, an attorney; Lyle Dean of Boulder, Colo., age 37, a mountain guide and equipment representative; Ron Johnson of Bozeman, Mont., age 39, an avalanche forecaster and Teton climbing ranger; and Alan McPherson, team doctor.

They arrived in Pakistan in early June.

After the customary formalities, the seven boarded a bus from Skardu, Pakistan, for a 29-hour ride, followed by another eight in trucks to Askole.

There they met up with a Pakistan army officer and two cooks, required companions for the 60 days on the mountain, and 187 Balti porters. The Balties were temporary help. After a few days in base camp, they returned home.

It usually doesn't go this way. Porters and high-altitude mountain guides usually stay and help climbers. Culberson's team wanted to do it their way - alone.

But theirs was not the only climbing team on the mountain. In all, there were six on the Pakistan side of K2, the second highest mountain in the world at 28,250 feet. Only Mount Everest is taller at 29,028 feet. K2, though, is the more difficult mountain to climb. And the most dangerous. Pakistan allows only six teams to try each year.

Culberson's team differed in another way, too. From its base camp on the "Strip," his expedition turned left toward the much longer, much more difficult Northwest Face. The other climbers turned right toward the easier, more traveled Abruzzi Ridge.

* * *

A 20-minute walk from Culberson's camp was the camp of another American-led team. One member, a good friend of his, was the Scottish climber Alison Hargreaves, the only woman to summit Everest without the use of oxygen and considered one of the best woman climbers in the world. She was there not by invitation but at a price. She'd bought her way onto the team.

"She'd heard about their climb, called and asked how much. They told her and I guess they agreed. We were on the same schedule so we trekked in together. They were a different sort. Different attitudes and philosophies about climbing. Alison was the most experienced. Actually, the Americans had very little big-mountain climbing experience," Culberson said.

"On the way in I overheard a couple of them talking about how many fingers and toes they were willing to give up to summit K2. One said he'd lose a couple of fingers and most of his toes, because the mountain was worth it. You have no business being on the mountain with an attitude like that," he said in a very matter-of-fact tone.

It didn't matter, though. Culberson said Hargreaves, from the very beginning, had fully intended to climb alone.

"There were fixed ropes on the ridge, and all she had to do was jump on one and climb at her leisure, or pleasure, whichever. She was climbing with the American leader at the time. They were the only two left. All the others had gone home," he recalled.

"This wasn't a friendly team. There was a lot of fighting and tension. Their doctor left after 10 days. The leader accused him of stealing. Really, it was a pretty sad group.

"But it's not unusual that this happens on a climb like this. A lot of teams only meet each other six months before they climb. These are very stressful conditions. It's stressful just living day to day, much less going into a hazardous area with people you don't know.

"That's where it was different with us. I've known four of the six people on our team for 15 years or more. We were friends."

On Aug. 17, Hargreaves, Rob Slater of Colorado, and three other men from another team, were caught in an avalanche and killed. They were left where the avalanche carried them.

"No one will ever know what happened. Whether they broke the avalanche free or something set it off above them, we'll never know what happened."

Another friend of Culberson's, Jeff Lakes, a doctor from Canada, died at about the same time of high altitude sickness. He was buried at 21,660 feet on the mountain.

"I'm waiting to see what happened (with Lakes). He'd been on K2 before. From what I know, he was with Peter Hillary, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, when they decided the avalanche danger was too high and went down to Camp 2. They got a call that there was a problem, so they started back up. Jeff got sick, so he headed back down. He went to sleep that night and never got up," Culberson recalled.

* * *

At the onset of this trip, it was the intention of the team to summit if at all possible. Certainly they tried.

Culberson said that among the teams on the "Strip," his was known as the "Phantoms Expedition." Of the 60 days on the mountain, "I spent only about 10 days in base camp. It was about the same for the others. With the other teams, of the 60 days, they spent 30 to 35 days in camp. In fact, at one point with the other American team, the cook kicked them out of camp. Their cook! He told them they weren't climbing enough."

The route Culberson's team picked was the hardest, most difficult on the mountain, and probably one of the longest in the world. Only two people, two Frenchmen, in 1991 summited by the Northwest Face.

Culberson said it was, in fact, much longer and more difficult than he expected.

The Abruzzi Ridge was near base camp. Culberson's expedition chose to hike nine miles across a glacier to the Northwest Ridge, then climb diagonally across the mountain to the North Ridge, which is way into China, a place they were not supposed to be.

During the climb, he and two members of his team made it up to the 23,000-foot elevation. Then the unexpected happened. Bad weather. A storm moved in and trapped the three for eight days. Two of those days Culberson remembers well; the other six he doesn't - not at all.

"It's scary, but I can't tell you what I did the last six days. I don't know. I know I lost some brain cells. My short-term memory is bad," he offered.

He does know he was alone. The two other climbers were in a tent 50 meters below him. He also remembers that it wasn't the wind or the cold that got to him but the racket . . . "and I forgot my ear plugs." The wind was so bad that he had to sit with his back to one side of the tent and hold his feet on the wall of the other side to keep it from blowing over.

By the second day he'd read the two books he'd brought and was fighting to say awake during the day . . . "The nights get to be very long." Getting out of the tent during the storm was unthinkable. Once he did, and the wind, which blew steadily at 50 miles per hour and gusted to much more, knocked him down: "I was flat on my back and landed upside down looking at China," he recalled with a little laugh.

Eating, too, became a problem. Holding the tents up made it impossible to cook.

"Every couple of days, when the storm let up a little," he said, "we'd fire up one of the stoves. It was difficult, though. I lost 20 pounds on the trip, 10 of it up there, I think."

The worst part wasn't losing the weight. Above 17,000 feet, he said, the body begins to cannibalize muscle. Near the end of the eight days, the muscle holding his ribs together was weakened. He developed a cough, which resulted in his breaking some ribs.

"It's really not that uncommon," he said of the broken ribs. "I got a high-altitude cough, and there was nothing to hold my ribs in place. It ended my climbing, though. I was just worn out, and this was the final expression."

He remembers, too, that after five days the storm let up a little and the three decided to try a descent. Earlier, they'd heard over a short-wave radio that this was the worst monsoon in history and that below them was flooding, death and destruction. It had come a month earlier than forecasted and was expected to last another 10 days.

On the way down they came to what was called the "Snow Dome." It was about 200 meters long and had a 55-degree slope. By all the rules of avalanche forecasting, it should have broken loose long before then.

"We fixed our ropes and tossed them down. They disappeared into a 4-foot wind slab that had built up. It was scary. It was the most scared I've been, I think. We went back up, set up camp again and waited," he said.

On the eighth day, the storm broke and the three began their descent - by another route.

Eventually, three of the team did get to within 1,500 feet of the top, but better judgment prevailed and they turned back. Avalanche danger was very high, and another storm was moving in.

Even through the climbing was difficult and long, it was the weather, more than anything, that stopped a summit. Had they started climbing 10 days sooner, Culberson said, nothing would have stopped them.

"We were doing well (until the storm). All of us were healthy. My health was really good until I got trapped," he said.

The climbing at this point was more difficult than he expected but good. Had the climb been in the Swiss Alps, he said, "it would have been an extremely popular, moderately difficult climb. Here is was hard, hard climbing."

The porters, too, left a strong impression on Culberson.

"They were extremely poor and uneducated, but they were the most caring, the most loving people I've met.

"And I'll tell you this, the Balti porters are truly some of the last hard men on Earth. They're tough, tough men. At night, on the glacier, they'd pull out this little piece of burlap and sleep in these giant flesh piles. Going across the glacier we had ice picks and ice cleats. Some had cleats, some used one while someone else used the other one, and others simply wrapped burlap around their shoes and walked across the ice with a 25-kilo pack tied to them. If they fell, the pack wouldn't have come off. They were something else," he said.

* * *

Was it all worth it?

While in England on the return home, Culberson read in a London newspaper about Hargreaves' family. He recalled, too, the loss of his wife, Julie, in a climbing accident in Canada in 1994.

"Sometime I look back and it seems silly. I'm not just talking about Alison, but with all climbers. It seems selfish and silly. But then, people get killed all the time. I think it's important that you pursue things that give your life importance," he said.

Will he go back?

"I knew when I left this was my last, probably my last 8,000-meter climb. It's too much work for too little climbing. I like to climb," he said. "I would like to do some 6,000- to 7,000-meter climbs. No more big mountains, though."

Now, however, is too soon to think about new climbs. He's enjoying memories of the climb and his good friends. He can count 'em, many times over, on his 20 fingers and toes.