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Richard Cowper joins one of the last great challenges in 8,000m peak mountaineering

DOUG SCOTT, Britain's most accomplished Himalayan mountaineer is defying fate to launch a second attempt on Nanga Parbat's Infinity ridge - the longest unclimbed route on an 8,000m peak.

Last year he narrowly escaped death in a bombardment of rocks on the Pakistan peak when four members of his team of seven were in retreat down the mountain because of a severe storm.

Scott, the first British climber to ascend Everest, had been making a reconnaissance of the planned descent route when Valeri Perchin, one of two Russian climbers in his group, was knocked 100m down the steep Rupal face after being hit in the chest by a rock.

When Scott got to him he was surprised and overjoyed to find that Perchin was still alive. Unable to walk, the Russian was half-carried, half-pulled by Scott and another team-mate down the mountain to Camp I at 4,900m over difficult terrain in appalling weather.

The next day, cameramen Sean Smith, himself hit in the chest and foot in the rockfall, half-climbed, half-hobbled down to base camp at 3,500m to raise the alarm. At base camp, Alan Hinkes - a member of the team and one of Britain's most experienced mountaineers - helped to create a makeshift stretcher. Hinkes, Ang Phurba and Nga Temba, two climbing sherpas, plus two French trekkers, two local porters and a cook then climbed back up in freezing rain and mist to carry Perchin down across steep scree and loose boulders to base camp.

Two days later the tenacious Russian had partially recovered. 'It is one of the most dangerous routes I've ever been on,' said Scott afterwards of the descent route. 'We are all recovering from the shock and horror ... we are so lucky to be alive.' Alan Hinkes and Sean Smith were so shattered by the experience that they decided to go home. This did not stop Scott, a few days later, from persuading the three remaining fit members of his party to make a last-ditch attempt on his long-dreamed-of Mazeno (or Infinity) ridge.

At a time when most Himalayan climbers are obsessed with attempting the steepest faces, the Mazeno ridge seems like a return to traditional mountaineering: all the great Alpine and Himalayan mountains were first conquered via ridges.

What makes the climb unique and highly dangerous is its unusual length and sustained height. Approximately 13km as the crow flies (no one really knows), the route is the world's longest unclimbed ridge. From the Mazeno col the route follows a knife-edge ridge ascending and descending at least seven mountains, most over 7,000m, to the Mazeno gap. Then comes the final gruelling ascent in the so-called death zone to the summit trapezoid of Nanga Parbat at 8,125m.

The ridge is awesome because of the distance climbers have to travel at a height where the body functions at less than 30% of normal capability. In addition, a climber is exposed to the full fury of Himalayan storms from all points of the compass, whereas faces often offer protection in bad weather.

However, it was in a period of perfect weather that Scott and his three companions climbed on to the Mazeno ridge for the first time from just below the Mazeno col and went on to scale the first three Mazeno peaks, all hitherto unclimbed. But their previous exertions had taken a great physical and mental toll, and when a storm nearly blew them off the ridge they decided to call it a day.

Mountaineers have tried to climb Nanga Parbat via several routes since Alfred Mummery, the famous British mountaineer, died making the first attempt on the mountain in 1895. But the difficuties of the Mazeno ridge have kept all but one team away, and that by chance. In 1979 a group of 22 top French climbers, led by Jean Pierre Fresafond, were planning a new route on the Rupal face of Nanga Parbat when an earthquake denied them the chance. At the last minute they shifted their effforts to the Mazeno ridge. The climb ended in disarray after only a minor Mazeno peak had been scaled.

Scott, however, remains hooked. Noted for his passionate commitment to a handful of big mountains, he has returned to Pakistan to lead a second assault on the ridge with an expedition of just three climbers. The other two are Wojciech Kurtyka, a Pole, one of the world's most outstanding high-altitude mountaineers, and myself.

Like Scott, Kurtyka has long dreamed of climbing the Mazeno ridge. It is not difficult to understand the lure of the mountain: bounded to the north and west by the river Indus, Nanga Parbat ('Naked mountain' in Sanskrit) stands in isolation as the dazzling culmination of the western half of the Himalaya. Looking to the summit from base camp in the Rupal valley, it rises almost sheer for close on 5,000m, the biggest face on any mountain in the world.

Many say it is also the most beautiful of the Himalayan giants. But it is famous for savage storms and avalanches. This century only 102 climbers have reached its summit but 55 have lost their lives trying. It is the world's most dangerous peak.

This does not deter Scott or Kurtyka. Both are committed to climbing hard in lightweight Alpine style with a few friends. If anyone can climb the Mazeno ridge without oxygen and without a chain of old-fashioned camps strung along the route, it is this pair.

(c) The Financial Times Limited  August 7 1993