In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness. Other than snow leopard and ibex, so few living creatures have passed through this barren icescape that the presence of the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, was little more than a rumor to the outside world until the turn of the twentieth century.
Flowing down from K2 toward the populated upper reaches of the Indus Valley, between the four fluted granite spires of the Gasherbrums and the lethal-looking daggers of the Great Trango Towers, the sixty-two-kilometer-long Baltoro Glacier barely disturbs this still cathedral of rock and ice. And even the motion of this frozen river, which drifts at a rate of four inches a day, is almost undetectable.
On the afternoon of September 2, 1993, Greg Mortenson felt as if he were scarcely traveling any faster. Dressed in a much-patched set of mud-colored shalwarkamiz, like his Pakistani porters, he had the sensation that his heavy black leather mountaineering boots were independently steering him down the Baltoro at their own glacial speed, through an armada of icebergs arrayed like the sails of a thousand ice-bound ships.
At any moment, Mortenson expected to find Scott Darsney, a fellow member of his expedition, with whom he was hiking back toward civilization, sitting on a boulder, teasing him for walking so slowly. But the upper Baltoro is more maze than trail. Mortenson hadn’t yet realized that he was lost and alone. He’d strayed from the main body of the glacier to a side spur that led not westward, toward Askole, the village fifty miles farther on, where he hoped to find a jeep driver willing to transport him out of these mountains, but south, into an impenetrable maze of shattered icefall, and beyond that, the high-altitude killing zone where Pakistani and Indian soldiers lobbed artillery shells at one another through the thin air.
Ordinarily Mortenson would have paid more attention. He would have focused on life-and-death information like the fact that Mouzafer, the porter who had appeared like a blessing and volunteered to haul his heavy bag of climbing gear, was also carrying his tent and nearly all of his food and kept him in sight. And he would have paid more mind to the overawing physicality of his surroundings.
In 1909, the duke of Abruzzi, one of the greatest climbers of his day, and perhaps his era’s most discerning connoisseur of precipitous landscapes, led an Italian expedition up the Baltoro for an unsuccessful attempt at K2. He was stunned by the stark beauty of the encircling peaks. “Nothing could compare to this in terms of alpine beauty,” he recorded in his journal. “It was a world of glaciers and crags, an incredible view which could satisfy an artist just as well as a mountaineer.”
But as the sun sank behind the great granite serrations of Muztagh Tower to the west, and shadows raked up the valley’s eastern walls, toward the bladed monoliths of Gasherbrum, Mortenson hardly noticed. He was looking inward that afternoon, stunned and absorbed by something unfamiliar in his life to that point—failure.
Reaching into the pocket of his shalwar, he fingered the necklace of amber beads that his little sister Christa had often worn. As a three-year-old in Tanzania, where Mortenson’s Minnesota-born parents had been Lutheran missionaries and teachers, Christa had contracted acute meningitis and never fully recovered. Greg, twelve years her senior, had appointed himself her protector. Though Christa struggled to perform simple tasks—putting on her clothes each morning took upward of an hour—and suffered severe epileptic seizures, Greg pressured his mother, Jerene, to allow her some measure of independence. He helped Christa find work at manual labor, taught her the routes of the Twin Cities’ public buses, so she could move about freely, and, to their mother’s mortification, discussed the particulars of birth control when he learned she was dating.