Renan Ozturk had been climbing for 18 straight hours — clawing up steep snow and ice on India’s 21,000-foot Mount Meru — when he finally lost it. A near complete neurological collapse: His face was numb, his speech garbled, most of his motor coordination impaired. Ozturk’s teammates — renowned alpinists Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin — were terrified by his state.
It was only their first day climbing and already they faced likely defeat and the need to make a dangerous and immediate retreat. The Shark’s Fin had been an object of intense craving among elite alpinists for decades, and more than two dozen expeditions — including one by this team — had ended in failure and grave injury. The Shark’s Fin had yet to be climbed.
Ozturk was himself a world-class climber, a North Face team member, a fine artist, and mountain documentarian. At 31, he was the youngest and least experienced of the three. So he brought up the rear for Anker, 48, and Chin, 37, also salaried North Face climbers, who had 60 expeditions and four Everest summits between them.
“In some ways, Renan had the hardest job,” Chin says, “because he had to carry a 65-pound pack on serious ice climbing.” By the end of that first day, Ozturk had already started disintegrating — fingers bleeding in his gloves, calf muscles cramping, toes badly bruised from kicking crampons into the mountain. His shoulders burned from swinging his ice axes hour after hour. Scared and delirious, his self-doubt spiraling out of control, Ozturk buried his face in his arm to hide his tears.
Ozturk had been here before, in 2008, and it had been the most harrowing experience of his career. Anker, Chin, and Ozturk were stuck on Meru for nearly three weeks with only a week’s worth of food, enduring multiple avalanches and a 100-year storm that killed five men on the ground below. They ended up retreating just hours from the summit.
But it was the calamities Ozturk and Chin had suffered since, on mountains far from this coveted Himalayan peak, that tortured Ozturk now. Chin had almost died in a massive Tetons avalanche, and Ozturk had skied off a cliff in Wyoming, breaking his neck, slashing a vertebral artery, and largely scalping himself. To fix the artery, surgeons had implanted a mechanical stent, blocking half the blood supply to Ozturk’s brain, creating a potentially fatal handicap in high altitudes that Anker claims not to have been informed about.
But now, as Ozturk felt his mind faltering, he worried that he’d made a grave mistake. He had an agonizing tooth infection; every icy breath stabbed a dagger through his skull. “Your vision literally starts to get blurry,” Ozturk says of climbing that hard and at that altitude. “You’re so tired that it’s hard to open your eyes, and when you do, it’s almost like hallucinating. At the same time, you have all these things racing through your head: ‘I need to drink, I need food, got to set up the ledge — oh, my God, we got to haul, I can’t let them know how I feel, act normal, fuck, act normal, fuck, the rope’s tangled, Conrad looks disappointed. I can’t let them know.’ I was falling apart inside.”
Once they found somewhere to attach their portaledge, a tent that hangs free on a vertical wall, Ozturk succumbed: “I crumpled into the snow with my head in my arms and literally wept out of sheer pain and exhaustion like I’d never felt before,” Ozturk recalls. “Just knowing that if I couldn’t do it, I’d let those guys down.”
Conrad Anker wasn’t a man you let down lightly. While he could be easygoing on the ground, he became intensely focused on climbs, with no patience for weakness or bravado. Anker was among the most accomplished climbers in the world, captain of the North Face athlete team and the man who’d found George Mallory’s body on Everest, in 1999. It was well-known that Shark’s Fin was his greatest ambition. “Conrad’s career was pretty much built on Everest,” says Ozturk. “But Everest means nothing to him compared to that climb.”
Chin was both a bridge and a buffer between his teammates. A surfer, photographer, and ski-town playboy, Chin ranks among the strongest climbers and ski-mountaineers alive, one of only four people ever to have skied off the summit of Everest. Once he managed to climb inside the portaledge with Anker and Ozturk, Chin rolled a cigarette (“You can’t really eat,” Chin says, “so you just smoke cigarettes”) and offered it to Ozturk. But when Ozturk tried to speak, he uttered garbled nonsense.
“What’s that, Renan?” Chin asked.
Ozturk’s eyes met Chin’s now, and he opened his mouth: mostly gibberish, with a vague message about how his fingers were tingling, going numb.
“Renan, man. What the fuck?” said Chin.
Now Anker noticed. The younger climber’s symptoms reminded him of his father’s stroke a few years earlier.
“I took it very seriously,” Anker says. “Jimmy was kind of casual about it, but when Renan went to sleep, I sat up and watched him for another four hours, monitoring him. Nervous energy wouldn’t let me sleep, and when there’s a head injury you have to keep an eye on people.” Anker was worried that his climber was suffering from high-altitude cerebral edema, a severe form of altitude sickness that can cause disorientation, hallucination, psychotic behavior, coma, and eventually, death. The only treatment is immediate, rapid descent. The very thought, after his previous attempts on the mountain, and after Ozturk’s assurances that he would be strong enough, seems to have been more than Anker could bear: “That probably would’ve been it for the expedition, right there.”