Kuk Sur, Southeastern Tibet 19,492 Feet Mother Nature was angry. There are some places, apparently, where she didn’t want man to tread. She baked deserts with scorching heat, draining them of all life and water. She churned the seas with towering waves and thundering ocean storms. But Mother Nature saved her best work for the sorry lot who considered themselves mountain climbers. For reasons she kept to herself, Mother Nature used everything in her extensive arsenal to keep men and women off her majestic peaks. She sucked the oxygen from the air until it could no longer support life, coated the steep slopes with thick ice, sometimes loosing tons of snow and ice down their flanks, 2 BRIAN ULLMANN and blasted everything with winds forceful enough to grind down solid rock. And then, her coup de grace—bone-chilling cold. No, humans were not built to endure temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. And Mother Nature knew it. Fortunately for them, mountain climbers are blessed with remarkably poor memories. If they could recall the curses of high-altitude climbing–paralyzing cold, wet, sleepless nights, bone-deep hunger—climbers would surely never again set booted foot upon another abominable slope. And yet here I am, Conner Michaels thought. Too cold to move and too proud to stop. Conner could see the summit, a snowcapped peak two thousand vertical feet above his head. Kuk Sur rose sharply from the frozen Tibetan plateau like a giant ice pyramid, its steep summit marking the easternmost peak of the immense Himalayas, the tallest mountain range on planet Earth. Kuk Sur was the most inaccessible of the lot, defended to the east by the world’s largest and deepest canyon, the Tsangpo Gorge. America’s Grand Canyon would barely climb halfway up the massive chasm. Though the summit was less than a day’s climb away, at that moment nothing seemed farther. Sucking wind at nineteen thousand feet, Conner had lost feeling in his extremities over an hour before. His fingers had long since frozen stiff inside his thick wool mittens, locked in place around a pair of ice axes. Icicles clung to his face, turning his once-brown eyebrows to a dirty white. Ice crystals speckled his three-week-old beard, the mountain version of salt and pepper. Under the grizzled exterior was a ruggedly handsome thirty-three-year-old, with eyes the color of caramel and legs as thick as the redwoods in his home state of California. But with frozen snot hanging a half inch below his nostrils, Conner looked like he’d been on the losing end of a raging fight with a blizzard. Which, of course, he had been. The twenty-two thousand-foot Kuk Sur was giving Conner a wintry beating. Still, the mountain summoned Conner and other mountaineers like a beacon. As the highest unclimbed peak in the grand Himalayan range, Kuk Sur represented the challenge of a lifetime. A chance to have your name immortalized alongside such legends as Mallory, Hillary, and Messner. A first ascent is something to which all climbers aspire—and in a rapidly shrinking world, the summit of Kuk Sur embodied one of the last true firsts. And so Conner found himself high upon Kuk Sur’s northwest ridge, chasing a glorious dream and gazing west through the crisp Himalayan air toward Namche Barwa. A ten thousand-foot gash in the earth separated the two towering peaks, carved by the mighty Tsangpo River. From high on Kuk Sur, the Tsangpo was little more than a windy brown trickle, but remembering the fury of the river up close quickened Conner’s pulse. Yes, it was vistas like this that erased the hardships from the minds of alpinists. Mountaineering had always been like this for Conner. It was the ultimate rush: red-hot adrenaline pumping through his veins. Others referred to the high as “feeding the rat,” but for Conner it was more than that. It was his way of life. After bitterly frigid days and even colder nights of heavy slogging up high mountain passes, the satisfaction of summiting was as pure an emotion as there could be. It was nature’s kind way of saying, “Okay, you made it. You deserve to feel something special.” It was almost enough to make him forget how miserable he felt. Conner glanced at his wrist computer, a Suunto X6-HR complete with altimeter, barometer, compass, and heart rate monitor, and saw the temperature had dipped to 30 below. With wind chill factored in, minus 40 easy. “That’s all you got?” Conner yelled at the elements through his balaclava. Of course, that was not all Mother Nature had. Not by a long shot. Read more. . .