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Local climber & author chronicles two of the darkest days on K2

Freddie Wilkinson tells the 'Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2'

July 15, 2010
He writes about his teenage attraction to the mountain like this, "The general public is inevitably drawn to Mount Everest. It's the most famous, the most important, the tallest mountain on the planet. But my own imagination, the imagination of a 12-year-old, pimple-faced-boy, latched onto the mountain that is the most difficult, the most dangerous, and the cruelest.

"With every new expedition tome I read, the mountain seemed less like an inanimate object to be conquered, and more like a living, breathing thing. K2 was a violent creature, with steep, avalanche-prone faces, devastating rockfalls, and quick-striking storms. It seemed to strike with malevolent timing, like when Art Gilkey's stretcher was swept away in a fatal avalanche in the midst of a heroic rescue attempt in 1953, or when Renato Casaratto's life was swallowed into a crevasse in 1986, when he was only minutes away from safety."

In Wilkinson's words, "Climbers went to Everest...to conquer themselves. But on K2, climbers were very much at war with a greater power....K2 was a mountain of overwhelming beauty, a thing that irreversibly attracted climbers, and killed them with indiscriminate violence... When I absently turned on a TV in a hotel room one morning in August 2008, I felt the imaginary dragon of my youth suddenly return. It was happening again..."

With a lead-in like that, what reader wouldn't be compelled to read more? I certainly was. And apparently many others were of like mind.

During a recent book signing at North Conway's White Birch Books, an estimated 40-50 people came to meet the author and purchase an autographed copy of his book.

On Friday, July 9, I met with Wilkinson at the Front Side Grind in North Conway Village to discuss his life and his new publication.

Wilkinson grew up in Durham, Conn., but now resides in Madison in a 12-by-12 cabin with no running water. Notably, he does, however, have a super fast internet connection. He's engaged to be married to fellow climber, Janet Bergman, Executive Director of the Kismet Rock Foundation, which provides overnight climbing camps for economically disadvantaged children.

Like many others who eventually settle in the Valley, Wilkinson began coming north with his family as a youth for summer and winter vacation recreation. His passion for climbing began in his early teens. He learned many of his alpine climbing skills as a student of the IMCS, International Mountain Climbing School, in North Conway. Today, he works there part-time as a teacher and guide. In 2007, the American Alpine Club awarded him the Robert Hicks Bates Award for outstanding accomplishment by a young climber. His climbing resume includes numerous first ascents in Alaska, Patagonia and the Himalaya.

As a writer, he's a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, Climbing, Rock and Ice, Alpinist and the American Alpine Journal. "One Mountain Thousand Summits – The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2," is his first book.

The title of the book refers to a climber's perspective of a mountain.

"A mountain is obviously a geographical feature, but when one climber asks another about reaching the summit of a mountain, they aren't referring to the physical summit, they're asking about the experience," says Wilkinson. "So, there is only one mountain, but there can be a thousand perspectives, truths and experiences as to what happened during a climb."

"One Mountain Thousand Summits" is the story of what happened during the deadly days of Aug. 1 and 2, 2008, when 11 men lost their lives on K2. Wilkinson explains his motivation for writing the book in this way, "I wasn't anywhere near K2 when the accident happened, but because of all the instant communication technology, satellite phones, the internet, blogging, etc., this tragic event was being broadcast almost in real time. I remember watching it and following it on the internet and CNN. I got curious. As a climber, the explanation of what actually happened didn't seem to be very concise. The people reporting the story were obviously not climbers. As a little more time passed, it became apparent that there wasn't a Jon Krakauer-type figure on the mountain, a gifted writer as well as a climber, who had witnessed the events first-hand and would come forward and tell the story."

Wilkinson continues, "As my curiosity grew, I began blogging about it. From there, I wrote an article for Rock and Ice magazine. Two months after the accident happened, I was due to go to Nepal. Up until then, the K2 story was being told by a couple of western survivors. But I knew, from reading between the lines, that there were Sherpas from Nepal up there. I got hold of one of the Sherpa's email addresses and got in contact with him. Since I was going to be in Katmandu, we got together and we talked. I got to know a couple of the Sherpas very well and learned a lot more about the accident."

According to Wilkinson, "The media story was very pessimistic. It was told as an 'every man for himself' event. There were some quotes from some European climbers saying that 'everyone was leaving each other' and that people couldn't work together. There was some finger-pointing and the story was basically ugly. The New York Times ran editorials saying that the sport of climbing was no longer what it used to be. Their view was that 50 years ago climbers were virtuous and heroic and now they are just a bunch of selfish people. To me, that was kind of a lazy way to report the story.

"It kind of made me angry," says Wilkinson. "Without even knowing the real facts, people were jumping to conclusions. The Sherpas' stories were much more detailed. They had much more situational awareness. Because of their training, they were more conscious of who was doing what, where and when. They told me that there had been a rescue attempt. At the end of the tragedy, the group trying to perform the rescue was killed in a final avalanche. It would have been a much different story if that group had been successful. If they had lived, this would have been a story of a great rescue. The untold story is that this could have been a heroic event."

To get the whole story, readers will need to read "One Mountain Thousand Summits." The book is available at our local bookstore, White Birch Books, as well as the major book chains. You can learn more about the author and his writings, by visiting http://www.thenamelesscreature.com/k2book/.

If you'd like to meet Freddie Wilkinson, the International Mountain Equipment and Mountain Climbing school will be hosting a book signing by him on Saturday evening, July 17, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Martin Lord Osman
Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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