By Phil Powers
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 1992.
Without bottled oxygen Scott Fischer (36) led slowly up the infamous
Bottleneck Couloir, the crux pitch on K2's Abruzzi Ridge. At 28,000
feet above sea level each deep breath of air brought only about
fifteen percent of the oxygen available back home in Seattle,
barely enough to maintain body and brain function, much less climb
through deep snow and steep rock and ice. With their last steps
onto the summit Fischer and his partners Ed Viesturs and Charlie
Mace represented one third of the Americans to climb this beautiful
peak, the second highest on Earth.
Their journey to the summit had been riddled with setbacks and
difficulties which began when Viesturs and Fischer failed to raise
the money necessary to finance their own K2 expedition.
Owing to none other than pure persistence and force of will,
they raised enough money for both to join the large, Russian-organized
trip. Fischer made the trip even more lucrative by tacking a bit
of business on the front end. As owner and director of Mountain
Madness, a guide-service and trekking agency, he launched a very
successful visit by a group of trekked-supporters to Concordia,
the confluence of five major Karakoram glaciers, and K2 base camp.
By the time the large and heavily encumbered Russian contingent
arrived, Fischer and Viesturs had already established Camp I.
The team proceeded to lead the way in establishing all the rest
of the camps because, Fischer says, "They couldn't keep up
with us." Their speed and effectiveness on the Abruzzi Ridge
came not from cutting corners and taking risks, but from an efficiency
that comes from experience and readiness for the climb.
They played it safe and did not dally. "We were the only
team that roped up on the lower glacier or on the upper slopes.
We stayed roped together right to the summit." That tactic
paid off twice.
In the convoluted Godwin-Austin glacier, Fischer punched through
the ice and into a crevasse below where his shoulder dislocated.
On the other end of the rope, Viesturs was able to help stop the
fall and then aid Fischer in getting himself out of the crevasse.
The base camp doctor who reset the shoulder gave him a disheartening
prognosis: "For you, the climb is over."
Hearing news of the accident back home in Seattle, Fischer's
wife, Jean, and son, Andy, assumed the same and became anxious
for the return of an injured husband and father. But Fischer's
deep desire to climb K2 found him back on the hill within two
weeks. His wife, Jean, put her feelings mildly: "It was a
difficult summer for Andy and me."
Viesturs and Fischer, whose relationship before this expedition
was that of two mountain guides competing for the same Pacific
Northwest clientele, now began to hit their stride as a team.
They continued to climb in a style which they considered appropriate
for the terrain although other expeditions on the mountain were
employing riskier tactics. They remained roped together when others
did not, wore helmets on most of the route to protect against
rockfall, and always stayed near one another to offer aid if necessary.
At camp three (24,500 feet) on their first summit bid the team
received a radio call for help from above.
A French woman at camp four, the highest camp at 26,000 feet,
was snow-blind and exhausted and could not make it down. Fischer
and Viesturs immediately abandoned their summit bid in order to
perform the rescue.
Conditions were bad and the snow deep. As they made progress
upwards, they noted that the avalanche hazard was high. Again
the rope served its purpose. As Fischer led up a steepening in
the slope, Viesturs, ever wary, feared an avalanche and dug a
small hole. His plan was to dive into the hole and duck under
any snow slide that came his way.
"He saved my life," says Fischer. "I was suddenly
tumbling in the avalanche. I felt a sharp jerk at my waist as
Ed stopped my fall long enough for the snow to slide on by and
off the South Face. Then he must have been pulled out of his hole
and we slid some more but we finally were able to stop. I imagine
that if he had not dug that hole we'd have both died." The
climbers returned to their rescue effort and spent the next two
days laboring to help the French climber down over two vertical
miles of the Abruzzi Ridge.
Once back in base camp they found that their Russian partners
planned to leave. "There is no more possibility of climbing
K2," said the leader. Fischer, Mace and Viesturs decided
to give it one more go.
In recent years the significance of summiting on K2 has gained
widespread acclaim. Contrasted with the taller Mount Everest,
K2 has seen far fewer summiters. It was the site of the disastrous
summer of 1986 when thirteen climbers fell or died from exposure
on her flanks. The grim stories made media headlines. Mountain
magazine reported that it "...occupied more space in the
world press than any other mountaineering event since the first
ascent of Everest." It also resulted in the production of
several books, the most notable and scary of which is Jim Curran's
Triumph and Tragedy. Curran writes, "Whether it is the world's
largest or second highest mountain, no one questions that K2 is
the hardest and steepest, the challenge climbers take most pride
in having overcome and in 1986 it took its toll of our ambitions."
More recently, a feature length movie about two men who die on
the flanks of the mountain rounded out the understanding of K2
as a formidable and potentially dangerous peak.
Impressions like these cause the armchair mountaineer to question
the sanity of men like Fischer who devotes both his climbing and
professional energies to the high, notorious peaks of the Himalaya.
Knowing that the windows of good weather were brief, Fischer
and Viesturs made their way back up to camp three in one day.
The next day they were at camp four where they were joined by
Mace, perched for a summit bid. There they spent three days waiting
for a storm to clear.
A conventional wisdom that has come out of the long history of
attempt on the world's 8000-meter peaks is that it is unwise to
stay at a high camp for very long. The hypoxia eats away at one's
reserves and judgment making it ever more difficult to stay hydrated,
warm, or to react to any of the potential disasters that may befall
the mountaineer. All but two of the members of a Mexican/New Zealand
expedition chose to retreat as the storm ensued. One died in that
descent when his rappel anchor failed.
"We planned to leave at 1:30 a.m. on our third night at
high camp but Ed got restless and started the stove at midnight."
Fischer said. "Before I knew it he was dressed and out of
the tent and I thought, my partner's ready so I'd better get going!
We were on our way by 1:00 a.m. and summited at noon. The clouds
chased us up the entire way and I could tell that Ed was always
evaluating the weather and considering retreat. I didn't even
think about turning around. We marked our way with wands in the
snow so that we could find the way down if it whited out. Charlie
caught us and we all roped together right to the summit. We knew
we were pushing our luck and so we stayed on the summit for only
a few moments."
They climbed back to high camp in snowy weather. There they found
the two New Zealand climbers, ailing from the altitude after trying
to follow the Americans to the summit. The pair, who have guided
on Mount Everest and were using bottled oxygen to aid their ascent,
had been stricken with high altitude pulmonary edema. Fischer,
Viesturs, and Mace spent the next three days lowing the New Zealanders
down the Abruzzi in blizzard conditions.
News of Fischer's achievement quickly made its way back to the
States. Stacy Allison, the first American woman to climb Mount
Everest, called the Fischer home in hopes of gaining information
for her own upcoming attempt on K2. Five year old Andy answered
the phone: "My Dad just climbed K2. And he rescued three
people. If my Dad hadn't been there those people would have DIED!"
This is but one story among many that Fischer might recount.
He helped his long time partner Wes Kraus down off the Fang after
an accident had severed Krause's Achilles tendon. He performed
a difficult rescue from Everest's South Col with Wally Berg in
1990. After enduring two expeditions to Mount Everest, each thwarted
by horrendous weather and becoming the first American to climb
Lohtse, the world's fourth highest peak, we must ask, what is
it that keeps Scott from becoming one of those nasty Himalayan
statistics himself? How can he continue to go to what so many
have called the "death zone" (terrain above 8000 meters
or 26,000 feet) and not only return safely but also rescue others
who without his aid might have died on the upper reaches of the
Fischer's mountaineering background began at the young age of
14 when he took a NOLS Adventure Course. His father was an outdoor
enthusiast who called Scott in to watch a television program one
night at their home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The program,
Thirty Days to Survival, was about NOLS and that night they made
a deal. If Scott could raise half the money, his Dad would match
funds and send him to NOLS. Scott got himself a paper route.
After his course NOLS founder Paul
Petzoldt called the young man into his office and offered
to send him right back out into the field as an unpaid assistant
on a Wilderness Course. Still only 14, Fischer began his career
as a mountain instructor. Back home, his interests switched from
playing quarterback to climbing in the Shawangunks of New York.
Upon graduation from high school, Fischer thought not of college
but of the mountains. He moved to Wyoming and began climbing in
earnest. We at NOLS might like to attribute some of Scott's success
to his association with the school: the mentorship of his early
teachers like Tom Warren, the opportunities offered by and the
inspiration of Paul Petzoldt, and his long career as a respected
instructor (he plans to work a course next summer!). That, however,
Fischer's early start in climbing has far more to do with his
own drive and determination than his influences. As he puts it,
"I was a tough little fucker." Now 36, Fischer has been
at it for a couple of decades.
At it with a passion. Fischer has a reputation for what climber's
call "pushing the edge." In earlier years his attitude
towards climbing might have best been termed reckless.
The first time he course lead a NOLS Mountaineering Course, Fischer
says, "We were climbing everything. One day, I told my co-workers
that I was going to take students up three peaks in a day. They
said, 'no way, you'll never have time.'" Fischer's confident
response was, "We'll be back by 5:00." Successful on
the peaks but nearing the 5:00 deadline, Fischer strode out fast
down the Dinwoody Glacier. Though the glacier is generally very
benign, the urgency to prove himself caused him to fall into a
crevasse where he dislocated his shoulder. The shoulder remained
dislocated for three days during the long hike out to the Doctor.
Fifteen years later that same shoulder, dislocated on a dare,
almost thwarted his efforts on K2.
His career as a NOLS instructor allowed him to include his love
for the mountains in professional life. Soon though, he came to
the realization that the highest peaks were the ones he loved
What better way to increase his time in the high peaks than to
start a business that took him there. In 1981, he and two friends
founded a company called Mountain Madness. The appropriately named
company has evolved to specialize in taking people to the world's
highest peaks. In 1991 Fischer and Mountain Madness led an expedition
to Nepal's Baruntse on which five of the nine participants reached
the summit. This year they'll be off to beautiful Ama Dablam.
The highest summits on each continent--known as the seven summits--are
offered by Mountain Madness as are corporate leadership training
Long experience as a climber and as a guide at high altitude
has certainly contributed to Fischer's success. But it is not
just experience that makes successful. Fischer has a special drive
and determination. His most fervent goal is to climb Mount Everest.
It almost seems as if, talking with him, that he can climb mountains
purely by force of will. His next trip to Everest, in the Spring
of 1994, is fraught with difficulties including a peak fee that
may be in excess of $50,000. I'm a member of that team and when
discouraged, all I need do is call Scott. "We'll get the
permit for ten grand," he says, "If we don't, we'll
pay the fifty and find the money somewhere... if that doesn't
work we'll go to Tibet and climb it from the North. I have a line
on a permit there. Listen, these are just details, we are going
to climb Everest in '94."
What does his wife Jean think about all these big mountain endeavors?
"I'd probably have a very different answer for you if Scott
was still on K2. But one thing that I hadn't anticipated is that
Scott's profession could allow him to be such a good father. When
he's home he has a lot of time for the kids. He's a very participate
father, closer to his children than any father I know. And I've
always known Scott would be a climber, it's what he does."
Scott spends as much time at home as he can these days. Time
for talking climbing with friends is reserved for late at night,
after the children are tucked in. Even then, in the midst of expedition
planning and dreaming of the mountains, Scott's real passion shows
through. He suddenly looks up from the route photos and exclaims,
"You haven't met my kids, have you? You've got to meet my
kids, they're amazing!"