They say the third time is the charm, but K2, after Mount Everest the second highest mountain, is seldom charming. It's known as the Savage Mountain. Photographer Tommy Heinrich experienced its savagery on his first two climbs. During his first attempt, in 1999, a teammate was killed on the way to Camp I. On his second try, in 2010, another teammate died. After that disaster Tommy was invited by two of his 2010 fellow climbers, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and Ralf Dujmovits, to join them on their return to K2. He was honored but anxious. "I left Argentina, my home, feeling there was a very high chance that one of us wouldn't make it back, even myself." He had good reason to worry. During the ascent two avalanches buried the trail in front of him. A third, more dangerous one knocked him upside down, filling his nose and mouth with snow. "Only the fixed rope, taut as a cello string, kept him from being flushed off the mountain," writes Chip Brown in this issue. "He was able to dig himself out, but the slide had refilled the broken trail, and eventually he too turned back."
PHOTO: RALF DUJMOVITS
Tommy was conflicted about turning back. He'd come so far and knew he'd probably never get another chance. "I called Liam, my seven-year-old son," he says. "I knew talking to him would help me make a decision I did not want to make … Go down." Gerlinde and three others reached the summit. She became the first woman to climb every 8,000-meter peak in the world without porters or supplemental oxygen. Everyone descended safely, Tommy for the third time. With photographs in hand, he came home to Liam.