This is K2. 11 people died this month trying to climb it.
At 28,251 ft (8,611 meters), K2 is the second highest mountain on this planet, and is technically a much more difficult climb than Everest. I’ve never climbed anything higher than a few hundred feet. Even a passenger jet slashing through the darkness will not reach much higher. To me the appeal of climbing is manifest in photographs like that one. The stern and austere beauty of these peaks is the closest even the most adventurous people can get to something like Buzz Aldrin’s magnificent desolation.
In some respects K2 is more dangerous than a lunar launch. There were no deaths on any Apollo mission which attempted to reach the moon, though three lost their lives during the Apollo 1 tragedy. K2 has killed some 76 people, about a quarter of the people who have attempted the climb.
People take risks for the things they love. Physicists don’t often die for physics, though it has happened. I wouldn’t be willing to risk my life to shave 30 or 40 attoseconds off the sub-femtosecond laser pulse record, obviously. But if NASA bolted together an Ares I rocket tomorrow and asked me to go to the moon to help operate a science mission, would I go despite the unknown and probably significant chance of death?
This question was posed to me and my significant other by a friend who works at Stennis Space Center. Neither of us hesitated. I said yes, she said no. Another friend who’s interning at Chevron was there with his girlfriend, and the answers went the same way.
Well. Us guys had all been infected with the romance of space from a very young age. The girls were more pragmatic – perhaps like those well-meaning space scientists who would just as soon see the manned mission budget scrapped entirely and redirected to robotic missions.
To heck with that. Science is not just data collection, it’s understanding and mastery of the natural world. I want to see that become mastery of the natural worlds.