Elevated

Portrait of K2. (Photo by Luigi Amadeu/Duke of the Abruzzi)

At 29,029 feet, it’s the highest peak in the world — and the 10th deadliest. But Everest is not the summit that looms largest in climbers’ imaginations. That distinction belongs to 28,021-foot K2, an almost-perfect pyramid of ice, snow and rock in the Karakoram Range on the border of Pakistan and China.

“In profile, K2 looks like a child’s drawing of an idealized mountain,” the journalist Matthew Power has written, “nightmarishly steep on all faces and plunging 10,000 feet to the surrounding glaciers.” For every three people that attempt to climb K2, one dies. As alpinist George Bell famously put it, “K2 is a savage mountain that wants to kill you.”

The savage mountain is the subject of the latest presentation from the dZi Foundation — the local nonprofit that works to better the lives of Sherpas and their families in eastern Nepal — at the Sherbino Theater on Friday. Phil Powers, who has summited both K2 and 26,362-foot Gasherbrum II (also in the Karakoram) without oxygen, will be the presenter.

Immediately following his ascent of Gasherbrum II, Powers made a relatively casual, second foray “without the logistical nightmares of the higher peaks,” as he said in a write-up for the American Alpine Journal, to the summit of Lukpilla Brakk, an elegant granite spire on Pakistan’s Biafo Glacier. Along with his climbing partners, Powers was the first to ascend both Lukpilla Brakk’s “golden western edge,” and the southwest face of so-called Ogre Stump, an 18,000-foot rock tower two miles from famous Baintha Brakk, known as The Ogre. 

Powers will be the fourth alpinist to hold forth at dZi’s Speakers Guest Series this season. The series has proved so popular that the nonprofit’s cofounder, Jim Nowak (a mountaineer himself), plans to continue it.

“It’s been great. The turnout’s been awesome,” Nowak said.

He attributed the crowds both to the region’s appetite for first-person adventure and survival stories, as lived (and photographed) on the world’s high peaks, and also to the fact that so many accomplished climbers happen to live around here.

“It’s hard to swing a cat over your head and not hit a good alpinist in Ridgway,” Nowak said. “Our valley is a home for aging alpinists; I call them the silverbacks of the climbing community. I’m blown away by how many local folks have shown an interest in sharing their stories.”

The series, originally slated to end in March, has been extended three months, and now will run through June (“The Sherbino has given us the space,” Nowak said).

What’s more, he’s already lining up speakers for next year.

“Sure, we’ve been talking about dZi, and the latest on what we’ve been doing,” Nowak said.

But in this series, personal landscapes count at least as much as the literal ones.

Former Colorado Senator Mark Udall “talked about his significant ascents in climbing, as well as politics,” Nowak pointed out, and Jim McCarthy — the series’ second speaker, who made the first ascent of Lotus Flower Tower in the Northwest Territories’ Cirque of the Unclimbables — “gave a friggin’ history lesson about climbing. And, sure, Kelly Cordes,” the series most recent speaker, “talked about Cerro Torre, but he also discussed the history of climbing in Patagonia. With Phil, we’re gonna hear a behind-the-curtain view on K2, and climbing in Pakistan.”

Nowak said alpinists “respect K2 a lot more than Everest — I guarantee you. It’s a very dangerous place to be,” and Ridgway’s Brad Johnson, who has climbed not only Everest, but also two other 8,000-meter peaks, agreed.

Johnson, who will be the series’ March presenter, has felt the pull of the pyramid: he summited four-sided, 27,766-foot Makalu, “one of the most beautiful mountains in the world,” last spring. “I’ve never met Phil Powers, but I’m looking forward to his talk on Friday,” Johnson said. “I think he summited K2 a couple of years before we were on it. As I remember, we’d hoped to make the fourth American ascent of the North Ridge” when, after almost eight weeks of “really hard work on the mountain,” the weather went bad and Johnson’s team split up, “all at the same time.”

“The upper part of K2 was very committing and scary,” Johnson said. “It was the biggest, most dangerous mountain I’d ever been on. It was very intimidating.”

Indeed, K2 is imposing from the first.

“The first time we actually set eyes on it” during the trek in, “we sat there in silence for a long time, just staring,” Johnson recalled. “Then finally somebody said, ‘Whose idea was this, anyway?’”

Phil Powers’ presentation on K2 and climbing in Pakistan is Friday at the Sherbino Theater at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 at sherbino.org or at the door. To learn more about the dZi Foundation, visit dzi.org.