team of 11 experienced, gritty hikers began the assault of Broad Peak in Pakistan last summer, including Blount County businessman John Quillen.
The glacier, also known as K3, juts 26,000 feet into the clouds. Those who know her also know she’s the 12th deadliest mountain on earth.
That point was driven home on this trek. Of the 11 who embarked on this ultimate test of body and mind, only eight of them returned.
Quillen, 47, was one of the lucky ones. This native of East Tennessee, who’s hiked every trail in the Great Smoky Mountains and conquered Denali in Alaska as well as other daunting peaks, said three members of his Broad Peak hiking team died on that icy mountain. The trio was able to do what few have done — reach the summit of K3 — but lost their way on the descent. Their bodies haven’t been found.
Those losses of lives, the serious injury to Quillen’s hiking partner Brian Moran and the danger just getting inside Pakistan to begin the unforgettable journey, are all chronicled in Quillen’s book, “Tempting the Throne Room: Surviving Pakistan’s Deadliest Climbing Season 2013.”
Quillen penned the personal account soon after arriving back home to Knoxville. The book contains 50 photographs taken along the way.
He is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor in private practice here in Maryville and does work with the Maryville City Schools, primarily at Maryville Academy. He’s been there since 2001.
There were seven deaths alone on Broad Peak last year. It’s part of the Karakoram mountain range that spans the borders between Pakistan, India and China. The highest peak here is K2, with elevation of 28,251 feet. It’s the second highest peak in the world, behind Everest.
Quillen was born in Morristown and first got interested in outdoor adventures as a backpacker in the Smokies. He was in his 20s. That, he said, just naturally progressed into rock climbing and ice climbing.
In addition to Denali, this dedicated thrill-seeker has climbed Muztagh Ata in China, Mount Whitney in California, and also mountains in Russia, Peru and Ecuador. He tries to plan such an expedition annually.
Broad Peak, he said, was a monumental risk for many reasons. “Broad Peak is off the chart,” Quillen said. “This is 26,000 feet. Nothing compares to Broad Peak.”
Just getting there was an adventure itself. He and climbing partner Moran, along with the others on the team, had to first take a ride on the Karakoram Highway, or the world’s deadliest road. The narrow passageway that runs between Pakistan and China has been the subject of media attention. It’s a road with no guard rails, impatient drivers and a lane too narrow on which to make passes. Wrecked vans and buses litter the canyon walls.
Once that harrowing ordeal was complete, Quillen and his team then hiked 100 miles across the desert to the base of Broad Peak. There were several 100-degree days. That would be offset by 10-degree days up on the glacier.
Most Americans would not consider Pakistan to be a safe place to travel, but Quillen said he reassured family and friends that climbers aren’t targets of terrorists. He found out differently, when on June 23, 11 hikers were murdered just 85 miles from Quillen and his fellow climbers. Taliban terrorists had posed as local police. One American was among the dead.
He said the best way to cope at the time was to put it out of his head and tackle the task at hand.
Quillen and his team had reached base camp on June 27, an elevation of 15,000 feet. Broad Peak camp 2 was situated at 20,300 feet.
The climbers were making progress when a major disaster struck. Quillen and Moran were descending from camp 2 at 20,000 feet when Moran slipped and fell 100 feet. Quillen was a distance away when it happened. “I looked down and Brian was lying face down in the snow,” his partner said. “I thought he was dead. He probably felt like he was dead.”
Moran had shattered his leg in several places. Quillen made his way down to him and began preparing to take him back down to camp. He made a splint for his injured leg.
After reaching base camp, a call was made to a rescue group. The Pakistan military would be coming to take Moran and Quillen off the mountain. It was a bit more complicated than that. The helicopter would need near-perfect conditions to reach them.
Perfect conditions came six days later. In the meantime, Moran put on a brave face while trying to be patient. Quillen said it snowed every night during those days waiting for help.
Of course, Moran tried to convince Quillen to stay and tackle that beast of a mountain, but Quillen wouldn’t hear of it. There was no way Moran could navigate home being solo. They left, feeling the full effects of a trip Quillen said was ill-fated from the get-go.
“They thought for a while Brian was going to lose his leg because we were so long at that altitude,” Quillen said. “It affected blood flow to his leg.”
Quillen doesn’t regret coming off the mountain and said the chances of him making the summit weren’t all that good to begin with. “It’s so tough,” he said. “So few people summit.”
As for the three Iranians, they continued on after Moran and Quillen were evacuated. Quillen said all of them were in their 20s. One was engaged to be married.
They made the summit and planted the Iranian flag there. When it came time to make the descent, there was no established route because no one had summitted in such a long time. The three started back down, got lost and perished together. Quillen said their bodies may never be recovered.
“They were the finest young men you will ever meet,” he said of the three — Aidin Bozorgi, Pouya Keyvan and Mojtaba Jarahi. He described them as polite, jovial and great ambassadors for their country. “If they had lived, I’m sure we would have climbed together again.”
The why of it
Subjecting your body to the punishment of low temperatures, high altitudes, brisk winds, avalanches and the other whims of Mother Nature isn’t fathomable to most. Add being a foreigner in a dangerous land and the risks are great. But Quillen said he’s hooked. He’s a risk taker, thrill seeker and bound to repeat.
“It is hard to explain to some people why you do it,” he said. “You get 10 minutes of joy and the rest is pure agony. It’s a measure of your ability to tolerate discomfort.”
Climbers typically burn 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. “There are many rest days when we sit in base camp and all we do is eat and hydrate,” Quillen said.
He said his best diet plan contains couscous, tuna and oatmeal. Crackers are also a good snack, he said. As for water, they drink until they are ready to float away. Hydration ensures thinning of the blood which prevents altitude sickness and pulmonary edema.
Besides the three Iranians who died last year, Quillen said there was also a German woman who died on Broad Peak, crossing a bridge.
A famous climber and his son, Marty and Denali Schmidt, were the victims of an avalanche on K2. They had been on Broad Peak at the same time as Quillen and switched over to tackle the other tougher, demanding mountain. They apparently died in an avalanche as they slept. Six acquaintances of Quillen never returned.
Quillen knows he’s made friends for life among this climbing community. He met Moran at Denali in 2007 and has hiked with him ever since. This past week, Quillen was hiking in Colorado with another set of friends he’s met at different challenges.
What’s next? Quillen has his sights set on Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. It’s one of the Seven Summits. Moran has already done it.
“There are a lot of mountains,” Quillen said.