On Aug. 2, as he lay in his tent, Eric Meyer awoke to screaming and yelling after a mountain climber plummeted about 650 feet to his death while climbing K2, the world's second-highest and most-difficult mountain to climb.
"Fred Strang and I hiked up, and he was dead by the time we reached him," Meyer said in an interview last week.
The Serbian climber's death, however, was only the first of what would become a tragic day - 11 climbers killed in falls and avalanches. The next climber to die, a Pakistani, was trying to lower the Serbian climber's body when he fell.
Meyer, 44, is a graduate of Custer County High School who now lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he works as an anesthesiologist. His parents, Dan and Joyce Meyer, live in Billings.
Meyer is a pilot, skier and veteran mountain climber, having summited Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak. He got his start climbing with his Boy Scout troop in the Beartooth Mountains before moving on to Granite Peak, the state's highest mountain, and the Tetons in Wyoming.
This summer, he was a member of an eight-person team assembled to climb to the top of 28,251-foot K2, located in the Karakoram section of the Himalayan range. They reached base camp on June 24 after an eight-day hike. The team included Meyer, Fredrik Strang, Chhiring Dorje and Chris Klinke, who all made it as far as Camp IV (near 25,900 feet), the last camp before the mountain's summit. The group was on the mountain at the same time as several other teams, all of which were anxious to reach the mountain's top as soon as possible.
"It's just a stressful existence at 8,000 meters," Meyer said. "After the second night, you can feel your whole physiology deteriorating. You don't eat well. You don't sleep well. You can feel the clock ticking."
Meyer said the altitude and its thin oxygen also affects climbers' brains.
"It's important to realize that you are impaired, that your brain and body are not performing at top condition," he said. "Staying focused on being safe is so important up there."
The plan on Aug. 2 was to let the other teams, some of which were climbing with the aid of bottled oxygen, to set the fixed ropes on the route to the summit. Meyer, Strang and Klinke would follow later in the morning without oxygen to avoid the crush of climbers while Chhiring moved out earlier to help set the route.
"The crux of the whole trip is the Bottleneck," Meyer said. "It's very steep ice, 60 to 70 degrees, and overhanging ice of about 100 meters … box-car-size that are ready to calve off. So the whole idea is to minimize time in that area."
By the time Meyer, Strang and Klinke set out, at around 2 a.m., he said it was clear that problems were developing along the route.
"The condition of the séracs looked really hazardous," Meyer said of the overhanging ice. "The rest of the group was moving very slowly ahead of us. There were probably 20 people in the couloir at that point, incredibly closely spaced."
What's more, Meyer said they could hear up ahead that there were problems with the number of fixed ropes and ice screws necessary to fix the route. After deliberating, Meyer and Strang decided to turn back at about 9 a.m., while Klinke continued on.
"Physically, I was firing on all cylinders. I wanted it bad," Meyer said. "But in the back of my mind I was playing all of the bad stuff - we were behind schedule, the ice looked even worse than anticipated, everyone is stacked in like sardines. It's just a sinking feeling. It was not our summit day."
Meyer said turning back continued to gnaw at him and Strang all day.
"When we heard reports that people summited late in the day, even then we knew we'd made the right decision," he said.
Klinke eventually turned back after the group slowed to a standstill because of the shortage of equipment.
Meyer estimated that it is a 12- to 14-hour trip from Camp IV to the summit. Because the teams that pushed on were running so late into the day, they would have to descend the most treacherous part of the climb in darkness.
As four Norwegian climbers descended the couloir, two of which were man and wife, the husband was struck by an avalanche and killed. The avalanche took out some of the fixed ropes the climbers had used to ascend the mountain. That meant climbers not past that section of the route had to decide whether to descend in the dark without ropes, or try and bivouac and wait for daylight.
"Most of the people who made it down left that night," Meyer said, including his teammate Chhiring.
Chhiring descended the 800 feet of 60- to 70-degree ice with one ice tool while his friend clung to his backpack and simultaneously climbed down.
Two more avalanches swept the mountain before the night was over, killing more climbers. Several people spent the night bivouacked above the route, waiting for daylight to descend. Some likely died of exposure, while three others made it down - two the first day and another climber on the third day. All three suffered from frostbite.
"It's not clear how everyone died," Meyer said. "But the ice avalanches probably claimed most of the lives. A few definitely did fall."
Being the only doctor on the mountain, Meyer was busy treating climbers for frostbite and exposure following the tragic day. As if the events weren't bad enough, the rope that Meyer was rappelling on broke as he descended the mountain, dropping him about 10 feet as he somersaulted backward. Luckily, he was clipped into a safety line.
"That was the coup de grace," he said.
"It's an insanely dangerous mountain. It's so much harder and dangerous than Everest that it's hard to compare the two. It's just steep the whole way. There are sections of 100 feet of dead vertical climbing."
That said, Meyer said he wouldn't mind trying to climb the mountain again, possibly using a different route that avoids the Bottleneck. Still, the risks are high. He estimated that 20 percent of the climbers who have summited K2 died in the descent. Despite such statistics, the mountain still beckons to him.
"It's a very special mountain, kind of the crown jewel," he said.
Meyer returned to Billings to assure his parents that he was OK.
"I had to show up and convince my parents that I was actually still alive," Meyer said. "It's been amazing the show of support."
Contact Brett French at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.