OSU students, Corvallis climber to tackle K2 this June


CORVALLIS - A lot of college seniors have to scale a mountain of term papers, projects and final exams to reach the summit of their studies - graduation.

Zaven Ghazarian, on the other hand, has to get by graduation to get to his mountain.

The day after the Oregon State University forestry major picks up his diploma at the university's June 14 commencement ceremony, he'll leave for the wilds of Pakistan in an attempt to scale K2, the second tallest mountain in the world.

"It is," he said, "a graduation present to myself."

Ghazarian will be joined by his wife, Heidi Howkins, a noted mountaineer from Corvallis, and Chris Binggeli, an OSU forestry student from Switzerland.

If they are successful, Howkins would become the first American woman ever to climb to the summit of K2, which at 28,250 feet, is considered perhaps the most difficult technical climb in the world. It has been called "The Savage Mountain" and "The Killer Mountain." In 20 years, Ghazarian says, there have been only 11 successful American ascents of K2. About 140 climbers have reached the summit. Nearly seven times that many people have reached the peak of Mt. Everest, the world's tallest peak.

Just getting to K2 will be an adventure.

Thirty hours of flying, a day-and-a-half bus ride from Islamabad to Skardu, five hours of off-road Jeep riding, and an eight-hour trek will bring the climbers to Askole, at 10,000 feet, the last village before the ascent. From there, 5-7 days of steady trekking will take them to the base camp at 16,500 feet.

It will take some 60 to 100 porters to bring the gear to base camp, Ghazarian said. Supporting climbing expeditions has become a cottage industry beneath the shadow of K2 and other peaks of the Himalayas - the tallest mountains in the world.

Such an undertaking is not without a cost, emotionally or financial. "When all is said and done, the climb will probably cost us about $10,000 a person," said Ghazarian.

From base camp, the real challenge begins. Each day, the climbers will venture a little higher and a little farther, learning the route and leaving markers behind. And at some point, when they have become acclimated to the elevation, but haven't yet had their energy stores depleted, they will make an all-out push for the summit - weather, equipment and nerves permitting.

Ghazarian says they do not underestimate the hazards of high altitude climbing.

"Oxygen deprivation can make the simplest tasks an ordeal," he said. "Figuring out which boot goes on which foot can become a challenge. The higher you go, the more your body begins to eat itself up. You cannot eat enough to keep you from losing weight. You don't really feel like eating, but you have to eat constantly and you have to force yourself to drink a lot of water. For days, you are sleeping on ice and snow, and you can't really sleep well because your body needs more oxygen than is available.

"We hope to keep a journal as we climb," Ghazarian added, "but we expect there will come a point when we no longer will be able to write."

Of the four climbers, Howkins has the most high altitude experience. She has reached the summit of Gasherbrum II (26,470 feet), and the base of the 27,500-foot summit pyramid of Kanchenjunga (28,208), the third highest peak in the world.

Ghazarian, who has climbed several peaks in the 14,000-foot range, says he isn't fazed by the challenge of climbing twice that high.

"When you train for a marathon," he said, "you rarely run 26 miles first. I've gone on 100-mile bicycle rides having only trained on 20- or 30-mile routes. When race day comes, you find out that you have it in you."

Still, Ghazarian acknowledges that climbing K2 is something special - and not quite in the same ballpark as training for a marathon. The three climbers have done exhaustive research, secured all of their licenses and permits, and worked out the complex logistics for the trip. Now they are in the process of raising funds and, of course, trying to get into shape.

During their planning, they have been inspired by the mountain climbing legacy of OSU students, Ghazarian said. In 1963, Willi Unsoeld, an Oregon State graduate, became one of the first Americans to scale Everest and, in fact, planted an OSC (OSU was then Oregon State College) flag at the summit. And in 1988, former OSU student Stacy Allison became the first American woman to reach the top of Everest.

This June, they'll have their chance to carry on that tradition.

"I think we always need challenges in life," Ghazarian said. "A person can grow immensely as an individual by meeting and overcoming the challenges that life presents.

"And this," he added, "will be one heck of a challenge."