Only 7,000 feet lay between the two Americans and the peak of the Soviet Union's most treacherous mountain -- Pik Pobedy (Russian for victory) -- when gusts of 80 mph started to swirl ice and snow in their faces.
Their goal was not only the rocky mountaintop, which juts 24,406 feet above Soviet Central Asia, in the Tien Shan mountain range, but a more singular distinction: they would become the first non-Soviets to conquer Pik Podedy, and the first foreigners to earn the Order of the Snow Leopard, given to those who climb all four of the nation's peaks higher than 23,000 feet.
For two more days William Garner, 36, and Randy Starrett, 43, both Washington-area residents, persevered, and claimed victory at the mountaintop last week with a cameraman, a photographer and 10 Soviet climbers accompanying them. The climb took nine days.
"This is an event of some moment," Garner said today, sun-tanned, frostbitten and smiling, during an interview in Moscow's Sport Hotel. "It was one of the toughest climbs of my life."
Only 193 people are known to have climbed Pik Pobedy, including Garner, Starrett and the other members of the Soviet-American expedition who scaled the peak this week. Sixty Soviets have died attempting the climb in the last 30 years.
Pik Pobedy is the Soviet Union's second-highest mountain, and the world's northernmost peak over 24,000 feet, according to the climbers.
Its harsh climate and delicate position near the Sino-Soviet border makes it one of the most difficult to scale, said David Breashears, a cinematographer from Newton, Mass., who has climbed Mount Everest twice and joined Garner and Starrett on the Pik Pobedy trip.
Garner, an independent consultant and Soviet affairs analyst in Washington, organized the joint Soviet-U.S. venture after climbing the highest U.S.S.R. mountain, Pik Kommunizma (24,590) in the Pamirs, in 1982. Last year they returned to the Pamirs and climbed Korzhenevskaya (23,305) and Lenin (23,400).
At an awards ceremony at the Sport Hotel today, the Soviet Sports Committee hailed the Pobedy joint expedition as a commemmoration of the Allied victory in World War II.