It was standing room only at the Boulder Patagonia store as a rapt audience listened to mountaineer Chris Warner share tales from above 8,000 meters. Warner is one of 16 Americans to summit K2, and his résumé includes 100 summits over 19,000 feet. But perhaps more than the summits, Warner is renowned for his safety record: In 20 years of alpinism—he's led nearly 200 expeditions—Warner has never lost a climbing partner. Still, he's no stranger to close calls. Tall and tan and fresh from an Ecuador expedition, Warner spoke of failure, success, and lessons learned.
A 1989 first ascent on India's Shivling made for an inauspicious launch to Warner's mountaineering career. He fell 450 feet, a 5.8 second freefall. "That's how I learned to do first ascents," he says. "Fight for your life and hope you make it." Later, after establishing three climbing gyms in the D.C. area, he took on Everest. Warner made the summit, but the busy scene didn't mesh with his climbing aesthetic. "Once you are anonymous, you don't have the same ethical response to the people you're climbing with," he says.
Warner's stories from K2 are anything but anonymous. The fatality rate on that technical peak is three times Everest's; odds that you will either need to save or be saved by another climber are much higher. On Warner's birthday in 2002, a man died falling thousands of vertical feet, landing near his party. Warner and another climber scrambled to wrap the mangled body in plastic bags and tents for transport to base camp. "If his climbing partners ever saw his body, they'd never forgive themselves for his death, even though there was nothing they could do," Warner says. "This mountain loves to torture us."
After several attempts, Warner stood on the summit of K2 in 2007 with the Shared Summits Expedition filmed for NBC. All the teams on the mountain pooled resources to push for the summit. Two men died in the attempt. On the descent, Warner and a partner stayed high with an ailing climber from another expedition, sending their injured third partner low to recover in a stocked tent. The injured climber arrived (with a broken leg) to find that another team had commandeered the tent and sleeping bags. They told Warner's partner to sleep in the vestibule.
That was Warner's most recent trip to the top of an 8,000-meter peak, though not for lack of trying. "The cool thing with climbing is there's an infinite number of things that you can do," Warner says. "But the best thing about mountaineering is you learn how to fail." —Olivia Dwyer