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Fatal journeys and savage peaks

Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily/Jeff RhoadesJennifer Jordan and crew hike to the base of K2, on the border of China and Pakistan, to film "Women of K2," which Jordan will screen tonight in a free presentation offered by the Vail Symposium and Verbatim Books.
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VAIL – Not many Americans know much about the ominous ascents of K2, much less about the women who have summitted. After Jordan spent a large chunk of her journalism career researching the five women who have reached the summit of the 28,261-foot peak on the border of Pakistan and China, she doesn’t feel very inclined to become a mountaineer herself. “The seven years of research of the dead women who tried have done just the opposite for me,” said Jordan from her cell phone, en route to Vail where she will conduct a free presentation tonight in Lionshead. “To a degree, I understand that delicious attraction to danger and the extreme – I’ve done the ultra distance trail races and I’ve done the Ironman. But with my races, I could always stop. I’m terrified when I’m on the edge of death. All I experience is blind terror.”And surely each of the five women who met their deaths climbing K2 or other peaks experienced at least a glimpse of blind terror.

Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz was the first woman to summit K2 in 1986, but died six years later during her climb on Kangchenjunga. French climber Lilliane Barrard and British climber Julie Tullis also summitted K2 in ’86, but died on their descents. French climber Chantal Mauduit survived her climb on K2 in 1992, but died six years later on another 24,000-plus feet peak. In 1995, British climber Alison Hargreaves summitted K2 but died on the descent. Until Jordan began her research, nobody had told the stories of these women. In 2003, she wrote and produced the National Geographic documentary, “Women of K2,” and at the beginning of this year, the story became available with the release of her book, “Savage Summit.”Since completing her book, one woman has summitted K2 (in the summer of 2004), and survived. Jordan said the most common reaction among female mountaineers who have seen her film or read her book is gratitude. Before the release of the story, Jordan wondered if it would receive backlash from the male climbing community purporting that women had no business on peaks like K2. One in four climbers who have attempted a summit (there have been just more than 200 who’ve done it successfully), have died. And Jordan’s response from male climbers has been silence. This wasn’t the case, however, when she moved to the base of K2 To conduct her research.”When I first went to K2, I was told through sneering teeth that, as a nonclimber, I had no business writing a book about climbing. But you know, Truman Capote didn’t have to murder a family to write ‘In Cold Bold.’ It’s called research.”

It was a lot of research for Jordan, who has written several books and worked as an anchor and talk show host for National Public Radio in Boston. But Jordan’s pursuit of the story of the women of K2 spawned from a genuine sense of justice.”I was a reporter in Boston, and always looking for great stories,” she said. “When Everest of ’96 happened (the year that 12 climbers died in summit attempts, eight in one storm), I interviewed as many people as I could, and that’s how this story surfaced.”Unmarked heroes



While interviewing one mountaineer in Aspen, the person Jordan was speaking too noticed an obituary for Hargreaves (K2 summit female No. 5)”She was reading the obituary and said, ‘Huh. That means all of the women of K2 are dead,'” Jordan said. “I was like, ‘What do you mean? How can they be dead? How can we not know about them?’ When I dug and researched, I found that nobody had written their story. The women mountaineers are always overlooked. They are just footnotes in mountaineering history.” “The most overall audience reaction has been shock that the stories of these five women were unknown to them,” Jordan said. The non-climbers’ reaction has been jaw-dropping shock. They ask, ‘Why do they do this? What drove them to this?'”And what Jordan found in her research is that the women, like many of their male counterparts, are driven by more than just a sense of adventure.”They weren’t all adrenaline junkies,” Jordan said. “That’s a part of why they got into mountaineering, but they were also really good at it. This was their passion. For most of them, it was their bread and butter. It was where they had their friends, their community and their loves.”As for the dangers of K2 itself, Jordan witnessed them first-hand having spent weeks at the peak’s base doing her research. While it’s not the tallest peak in the world, she said, it’s arguably the most daunting.

“Everest has kind of gone from being a climbers’ mountain to a commercial mountain,” Jordan said. “K2, because it’s so remote, is just the opposite. It takes a week to 10 days of hard, grueling walking just to see the base of the mountain. It’s built like a pyramid. And from the minute you start the ascent, it’s a 45-degree, unrelenting slope. It’s roped in, cramp-ons, ice ax – full-on climbing. It’s 900 miles north and west of Everest, so you don’t have the monsoons that Everest has in the month of May, but storms are much colder and they come all the time, without warning. If you have a bad-weather situation on K2, it’s 12,000 feet of rope to get down. K2 is a much more serious endeavor.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or sfarnell@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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