"Feel this," says Paul Pritchard.

He leans forward and touches a spot near the crown of his head with his left hand, which is the only hand that really works anymore. Beneath his shaggy blond hair, there's a long, narrow soft spot--a hole in his skull. That's where the rock hit him.

"It was about the size of a computer terminal," he says, "It fell from 80 feet above me."

That was on Friday the 13th of February 1998. Pritchard was on a rope, climbing up the Totem Pole, a 220-foot-high rock formation that sits in the sea, just off the coast of Tasmania. He never saw the rock. It hit him square on the head, knocked him off the cliff, damn near killed him. He lost half his blood before he was helicoptered to a hospital, where doctors spent six hours picking stone and bone out of his cranium.

Climbing was his passion, his obsession. He started in his teens in the abandoned quarries of his native Lancashire, England; then he moved to Wales, where he became famous, a daredevil willing to take on the toughest climbs on the treacherous red stone cliffs on the Irish Sea. He wrote a lyrical book about his adventures, "Deep Play," and after it won a prestigious British literary prize, he was invited to climb all over the world.

But that's all over now. He'll never climb again. The blow to his head paralyzed the right side of his body. For a month he couldn't talk. For eight months he couldn't walk. Now, at 32, he shuffles along like an old man, dragging his useless right leg behind him. Still, he says, he has no regrets.

"How can you regret 15 years of amazing experiences?" he says.

He's sitting in the lobby of the Arlington Hilton, his black wooden cane leaning against one leg. He's come to the American Alpine Club's convention, to give a speech and autograph his new book, "Totem Pole," which tells the story of his accident and the ordeal of rehabilitation. Now, he struggles to explain what drove him to risk his life climbing the world's most dangerous mountains.

"The reward is the freedom," he says. "Being in those mountains is absolutely wonderful. It's--" He stops. For a long moment, he's silent. "That's the thing--it's hard to describe."

He smiles and apologizes: The accident left him unable to find the right word when he needs it, he says. But he tries again. "I guess it's a search for that one perfect moment. I guess I've had it like five times in my life. Like up on the edge of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island [in the Canadian Arctic], sitting and watching the sunset from your harness and there's, like, 3,000 feet of air below you and it's all glowing red. That moment--it's just electric."

Pritchard climbs to his feet. He's spotted Conrad Anker, the American climber who became famous last May when he discovered the body of George Mallory, the legendary explorer who died attempting to climb Mount Everest in 1924. Pritchard holds out his left hand and Anker shakes it.

"You did well," Pritchard says. He's not talking about finding Mallory. He's talking about the speech Anker gave a half-hour ago--a moving eulogy for his friend Alex Lowe, who died at 40 in an avalanche in the mountains of Tibet last month.

"Thanks," Anker mumbles. He is slim and solemn. He nearly died in the avalanche that killed Lowe and he moves with the grim air of a man in mourning.

In his eulogy, he told his fellow climbers that he was finished, that he'd never climb the big mountains again: "There are more important things for me to do than climb another high peak," he said.

Death in the Balance

The Alpine Club convention was a joyous affair, it really was.

For three days, more than 300 climbers gathered from across the country to see old friends they'd met on mountains all over the world. The beer and wine flowed freely, lubricating larynxes for the telling of tales, tall and otherwise, and there was a great deal of loud laughter. But of course the specter of death hung over everything. How could it not?

Climbing is a perilous sport, far more lethal than football or boxing or even auto racing. It might be more dangerous than bullfighting. The Alpine Club's most popular publication is an annual compendium called "Accidents in North American Mountaineering." There's a paragraph on every major accident and the book usually runs about 80 pages. The magazine Climbing, which prints glorious photographs of people scaling impossible cliffs, feels compelled to add a disclaimer: "Most of the activities depicted herein carry a significant risk of personal injury or death. . . ."

The disclaimer is there for novices. Veterans don't need it. Almost everybody at this convention knows somebody who died climbing. Pritchard says he lost count at about 20 dead friends.

So why do they do it? What possible thrill could be worth the terrible dangers?

"It's not a thrill--thrill is too shallow," says Abby Watkins, 30, an Australian-born computer software editor and one of the best female climbers in the world. "It's a very present sport. You are brought into the moment. You are so aware of where you are, of the air around you. And it takes you to some stunning locations--mind-blowing views you couldn't see otherwise."

"In our everything-provided-for world, it's one of the few things where everything depends on you," says Geoffrey Tabin, 43, an ophthalmologist from Burlington, Vt., who has climbed many of the world's tallest peaks, including Everest. "You feel alive. You find out what you as a person can do. You're pushing yourself to the limits to see what you can do. And you're sharing a very, very intense experience with other people. My closest friends--and my bride--are climbing friends."

But maybe the person who explained it best was the man who wasn't there--Alex Lowe. After Anker delivered his eulogy, he showed a short video, a collection of shots of Lowe--who was once described by Outside magazine as the "best climber in the world"--at play in his beloved mountains.

"True adventure requires an uncertain outcome," Lowe says in one clip. In another, shot in the Himalayas, he hangs on a rope over a breathtaking stretch of snow-topped peaks. Back and forth he swings, making Tarzan noises and grinning like a little kid. "Oh," he yells, "I love it!"

It would make a great commercial for climbing. Except for one thing: Alex Lowe is dead.

Lingering Chill

They weren't really climbing when it happened.

Lowe and Anker and their buddy Dave Bridges were up around 19,400 feet on Oct. 5, traversing a flat stretch on a side of a mountain in Tibet, when they saw it coming at them--a huge avalanche of ice and snow roaring down from about 6,000 feet above them.

"We had about 15 to 30 seconds to run," Anker says. "We ran in different directions. The direction I ran in ended up being--well, I escaped."

Not completely. He was hit by the avalanche and dragged 60 feet, breaking two ribs, cutting his head, tearing a shoulder muscle. He was lucky. Lowe and Bridges were buried alive.

"I was laying down," Anker says. "If I was standing up, I'd probably be dead."

He's gazing down as he speaks, fiddling nervously with a bracelet. He hates talking about this. A few minutes ago, in his room in the Hilton, he abruptly stood up and pulled on a jacket and a sock hat. "I'm chilly here," he said, although the room is quite warm and he is a man who has climbed mountains in Antarctica.

His face is gaunt. His red hair, which he used to wear long and flowing, is now cut close to the skull. He does not smile. He barely raises his voice. He is gentle and unfailingly polite but it's obvious he'd rather be someplace else.

It has been an intense year for Conrad Anker. In May, he discovered Mallory's body on Everest, which made him famous and led to a contract to write "The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest." But even that wasn't fun. The day he found Mallory's body, he found two other corpses up there--the twisted, broken bodies of two modern-day climbers. A few days later, he helped rescue a Ukrainian climber caught in a storm on Everest, but one of the Ukrainian's friends was never found.

And then there was the avalanche, and suddenly Alex was dead and now, at 36, after 20 years of intense, passionate climbing, Anker says he just can't do it anymore.

"It's time to move on," he says. "I've done a lot of amazing things, but it's far too dangerous."

Oh, he'll still fool around, he says, he'll do some rock climbing near home in Colorado, but he won't risk his life on the 20,000-foot peaks anymore. Never again. He's getting married next spring and he's finished with peak-bagging.

"I've got to do something else with my life," he says.

He isn't sure what that is yet. He wants to help people but he isn't sure exactly whom or how.

"Maybe helping the Tibetans with their cause--or people with Down syndrome," he says. "There are a million ways to help people. It just hasn't come to me yet."

Life Is Beautiful

When Jim Whittaker hears that Anker has decided to quit climbing, he smiles. "He's assuming he's not going to beat the odds," Whittaker says. "I've always assumed I'd be lucky."

And he has been lucky. The fact that he's made it to age 70 proves that. Back in 1963, he was the first American to climb Everest. He's climbed lots of other high peaks, too, including K2, and somehow he's always managed to come back alive. In 1973 he started a sporting goods company called REI and the timing was perfect. He caught the outdoors boom and made a ton of money. Retired now, he spends most of his time on his latest project--sailing around the world. It's taking longer than he thought because he keeps stopping--three months in Tahiti, another three in Fiji.

"The journey is the reward," he says. He's a thin, ruddy-faced man who looks at least 10 years younger than his age.

He's sitting at a table at the Alpine Club convention, autographing copies of his autobiography, "A Life on the Edge," and talking about the joys of climbing mountains.

"It's not the danger," he says. "That's focused on too much. It's getting out into nature. You climb up and look out at the view. It's a real kick, a real lift. You listen to the silence and your thoughts get collected."

A teenage boy walks up and sets a book down on the table. Whittaker asks his name. The kid says Greg. Whittaker opens the book and writes "To Greg, Good Climbing! Go for it!"

Greg moves on and and Whittaker keeps talking. "You want to taste life," he says. "God, life is beautiful! As long as you're on the right side of the grass, you've got to do things! If you push boundaries, life is sweeter. If you take a little bit of risk, the flowers look more beautiful, the people look different and things seem more real."

He tells a story about Everest--not about reaching the snow-covered summit, but about coming back down.

"Down at about 16,000 feet, you see the first blade of grass, the first flower, and you say, 'Oh, my God!' " He leans down over the table, miming the act of cupping a flower in his hand and sniffing it.

"You see that and you start to cry," he says. He's beaming now, his face aglow. "It's so nice to be alive! It's so damn nice to be alive! It's a miracle! It's magic!"

CAPTION: "Far too dangerous": Conrad Anker sits on a relief map of Mount Everest; he's changed his mind about climbing the big ones.

CAPTION: At the American Alpine Club convention in Arlington, Paul Pritchard relates the story of the climbing accident that left him partially paralyzed.

CAPTION: Conrad Anker, left, the climber who discovered George Mallory's body; and cartographer Brad Washburn, who has calculated a new height for Everest.