At 8,611 meters high (28,251 feet high, K2 is 237 meters (778 feet) lower than Everest, but it is much steeper and requires a far greater degree of technical skill to climb under the best conditions. In addition the weather is worse on K2 and the window of opportunity to climb it is shorter. It has been said that K2 is the ultimate climber’s mountain, exemplifying what Dirk Grunert told the New York Times what was so life-changing about climbing: “On the mountain there is the focus, the total absorption of mountaineering...Then the return, the coming back is the best.”
K2 was first climbed in July 1954. It was the fourth 8000 meter peak to be climbed, after Annapurna in June 1950, Mt. Everest in May 1953 and Nanga Parbat in July 1953. Graham Bowley and Andrea Kannapell wrote in the New York Times: “K2 is known as the world’s hardest and most dangerous mountain for climbers, more challenging even than Everest. Farther north than Everest, it collects heavy snow and storms, and climbers have only a few days each year when they can try for the peak, usually in early August. “For a professional, seasoned mountaineer it’s more of the holy grail than Everest,” said the veteran American climber Ed Viesturs. “There is no easy way to climb K2.” [Source: Graham Bowley and Andrea Kannapell, New York Times, August 6, 2008]
Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic: “ K2 has a singular place in high-altitude mountaineering. Though 784 feet lower than Mount Everest, it has long been known as the mountaineer’s mountain. The sharp triangle of its silhouette and height above the surrounding terrain not only define the archetypal image of a mountain but, as a practical matter, also make K2 far more difficult and dangerous to climb. As of 2010 Everest had been summited 5,104 times. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, April 2012]
According to NASA’s Earth Observatory: K2’s modern nickname is “Savage Mountain” because of the extreme risks it poses to climbers—frequent avalanches and harsh weather. The Italian Duke of Abruzzi led an expedition up the southeast face in 1909 but gave up at about 6,250 meters (20,505 feet), believing it was not possible to climb K2. After many other failures, another Italian team eventually succeeded, following a route up southeastern ridge on the southwestern face in 1954. There had been 306 successful ascents of K2 as of March 2012, the third fewest of the 8K peaks. Eighty-one people had died trying to climb the mountain—a fatality rate of about 29 percent, the second highest of the eight-thousanders. [Source: earthobservatory.nasa.gov ]
K2 (in the Karakorum range between China and Pakistan) is the second highest mountain in the world after Mt. Everest. The jewel of the Karakoram Range, it is 8,661 meters (28,251 feet) high, which is just 237 meters (778 feet) less than Everest. The height of these peaks is determined by surveyors who takes measurements from different sides of the mountain and then average the heights together. K2 is sometime called Mount Godwin Austen after the British scientist who surveyed it in 1860.
K2, also known as Chhogori, is about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) northwest of Mt. Everest — between Baltistan in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan, and Dafdar Township in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County of Xinjiang, China. K2 is the highest point of the Karakoram mountain range and the highest point in both Pakistan and Xinjiang. The chain of triangulation locations to determine the height of K2, began 2,900 kilometers (1,700 miles) away in Madras. Coordinates: 35°52 53"N 76°30 48"E [Source: Wikipedia]
K2 is a broad glacier-shrouded peak that looks like an almost perfect white pyramid on a plateau. It is considered one of the most beautiful but also one of the most dangerous mountains in the world. Because of it steep slopes, violent summers storms, and high risk of avalanches many mountaineers consider K2 to be a much more difficult climbing challenge than Everest. K2 was called the Savage Mountain by George Bell, a climber on the 1953 American Expedition, because "It's a savage mountain that tries to kill you."
K2 Name and Measurments
The name K2 is derived from the notation used by the Great Trigonometrical Survey of British India. K stands for Karakoram. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory: K2’s unusual name originated with a 19th century surveying project led by George Everest—the Great Trigonometrical Survey—that mapped and measured many of the highest peaks. Surveyors simply catalogued the peaks by number, giving each the prefix K for Karakoram followed by the number peak it was. K2 was the second mountain they came across. What the surveyors called K1, another peak in the area, was later changed to Masherbrum, the name used by local people. In the case of K2, there was no widely used local name, so the alphanumeric name stuck. [Source: earthobservatory.nasa.gov ]
Thomas Montgomerie made the first survey of the Karakoram from Mount Haramukh, some 210 kilometers (130 miles) to the south in 1856. “2” for the second peak he noted on the horizon. He sketched the two most prominent peaks and labeled them K1 and K2. K2 was meant to only be a preliminary designation. Locally it is known as Chogori, variously translated as king of mountains or magnificent mountain. Patrick Meyer's play K2 is about a marooned climber on K2
In 1987 new calculations based on satellite measurements indicated that K2 rose to an elevation of 8,859 meters (29,064 feet) which would make it higher than Everest but the National Geographic Society has not accepted this figure. Similar calculations raise the height of Everest to nearly 30,000 feet. The Seattle-based astronomer that came up with the 8,859 meters measurement did so by measuring the altitude of a knoll near K2 using a 75-pound Doppler receiver (a device that measures distance through analysis of slight variations in the wavelength of radio waves) on the knoll and a satellite passing overhead and then using ordinary triangulation to determine the height of K2.
As of June 2018, only 367 people have completed the ascent of K2 and reached the summit and 86 had died trying. As of 1995 113 people reached the summit of K2, 38 died. As of 1980 only three expeditions to the top were successful: 1) The Italian one that reached the summit first in 1954; 2) a large Japanese group scaled it in 1977; and 3) by an American group (See Below) in 1978
Thousands of people have been to the top of Everest. Only a few dozen have summitted K2. The summit was reached for the first time by the Italian climbers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, on the 1954 Italian Karakoram expedition led by Ardito Desio. An Italian one reached the summit in 1954, only a year after Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tending Norgay reached the top of Everest.
The second successful ascent — the first Japanese expedition — summited on August 9, 1977, 23 years after the Italian expedition, Ichiro Yoshizawa led the group, with Ashraf Aman as the first native Pakistani climber. The Japanese expedition took the Abruzzi Spur, and used more than 1,500 porters.
Reinhold Messner titled his book about K2 — “The Mountain of Mountains”. In January 2021, K2 became the final eight-thousander to be summited in the winter, by a team of Nepalese climbers led by Nirmal Purja and Mingma Gyalje Sherpa.
K2 Climbing Obstacles
Although the summit of Everest is at a higher elevation, K2 is more difficult and dangerous to climb, primarily because of the terrible weather that often occurs there. Ascents have almost always been made in July and August, the warmest times of the year. K2's more northern location makes it more susceptible colder weather and storms. [Source: Wikipedia]
The American expedition lead by James Whitaker in 1978 transported nine tons of equipment using 350 porters. Earlier American expeditions had as many as 700. During the summertime on the Baltoro glacier one day can be clear and in the sixties. The next day a wild snowstorm can blow in. During K2 ‘s most vicious snow storms it is impossible to see even you outstretched hand. [Source: James W. Whittaker and James Wickwire, National Geographic, May 1979 ♣]
Some of the obstacles to be surmounted on K2 included 65̊ vertical slopes; waist high snow that threaten to avalanche under climbers; snowstorms that can last for two weeks; and razor thin ridges with a sheer drop into China on one side and an equally precipitous fall into Pakistan on the other side. ♣
Weather on K2
Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic: “ Hurricane-force winds regularly strafe their jagged contours armored in hard gray ice, and temperatures plummet to -80°F, lower than the average temperature on Mars. Ultimately, the wind will determine whether or not a summit is successful. On several days, the team has seen winds reach 50 miles an hour. This creates multiple threats, including dropping the wind chill far below zero — which can quickly cause frostbite — and can blow a climber completely off the mountain, even one who is tied to a rope. [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, February 25, 2018]
“In 1995, high winds plucked famous British climber Alison Hargreaves and five of her teammates, all roped together, right off K2, sending them all to their deaths. And that was in August. Winter brings even stronger winds as the jet stream shifts so that it runs almost directly over the mountain.
“The high winds also can send loose rocks hurtling down the mountain’s flanks. In separate incidents, two of Wielicki’s climbers were hit by falling rock. On February 2nd, Bielecki was struck in the face, suffering a broken nose and a gash requiring six stiches. Then Rafal Fronia was hit in the arm by a falling rock, fracturing the bones in his forearm. He was evacuated and is now back in Poland.
K2 Climbing Routes
K2 peak has now been climbed by almost all of its ridges but is the only eight-thousand meter peak that has never been climbed from its eastern face. Most climbing attempts of K2 have been launched from the Pakistan side of the mountain. Few have been launched from Chinese side; only a handful of trekkers have visited the Chinese side of K2. On the Pakistan side itt is a 160 kilometer (100 mile) trek just to get to the base of K2. Trekkers generally end and climbers generally begin their adventure at the Pakistan camp 10 kilometers from K2 at a 4541-meter (14,900-foot) -high spot on Godwin Austen Glacier.
According to Summit Post: The most popular, and generally considered one of the most dangerous routes, is the Abruzzi Spur. Most likely considered the most dangerous because it is the most climbed. Other less popular routes from the Pakistani side include the NE Ridge, South/Southeast Spur, SW Pillar or "Magic Line" (a route Reinhold Messner once called suicidal), South Face, and the Polish Route, a route known for avalanches.
“The Abruzzi Spur (South East Ridge) is the closest to a "normal" route on K2, but is still very difficult and dangerous. The route starts on loose scree for about 3000 feet to camp 1. Camp 1 at about 21,000 feet is exposed but relatively secure, with little or no history of avalanche danger. The climb to Camp 2 includes a 50-meter off-width crack called House’s Chimney which is currently a spider’s web of old ropes. Camp 2 is sheltered by a large rock, but can get extremely windy and cold.
“Camp 2 to Camp 3 is the most technical section of the climb, with approximately 400 meters of vertical and near-vertical climbing on mixed rock and ice in a region known as the Black Pyramid. House's Chimney,Black Pyramid and Bottleneck are the most noted aspects of this route. Camp 3 is at about 23,500 feet and is very susceptible to avalanches. The climb to camp 4 is a long snow slog typically accomplished without fixed lines. Best to travel fast as possible in this area as sections have been known to collapse along the shoulder. Camp 4 at about 25,000 is still more than 1/2 a day (most likely closer to a full day) from the summit.
Drudgery of Climbing K2
On an expedition lead by the famous Austrian woman climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and her husband r Ralf Dujmovits that approached K2 from the China side, “Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic: “For most of July and half of August the six members of the International 2011 K2 North Pillar Expedition had been shuttling up and down the seldom attempted North Ridge of the worlds second highest peak. Theirs was the only party on the remote Chinese side of K2. The mountaineers were climbing the ridge (as it is commonly referred to, even though “ridge” understates the steepness of the terrain) without bottled oxygen or high-altitude porters. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, April 2012]
“It had taken 42 days for the six climbers to establish several camps connected by thousands of feet of rope fixed across a route that included everything from vertical rock and ice to avalanche-raked slopes of chest-deep snow. They pushed themselves to break trail in heavy snow, haul gear, shovel out campsites, pitch tents, melt ice. Many times they relinquished their gains on the mountain, going down to sleep at the lower elevation of Advanced Base Camp, at 4,650 meters on the K2 North Glacier.
“The approach to K2 from the north side is challenging. After reaching the village of llik by SUV, the expedition spent five days trekking through the Aghil Pass and across the Shaksgam River before it reached Chinese Base Camp. It took dozens of camels and eight Kyrgyz drivers to haul 2.2 tons of gear across the bed of the Shaksgam River to Chinese Base Camp. The cost: US$17,000-plus eight pairs of sunglasses.” At one point “the swift current nearly swallows a two-hump Bactrian camel crossing the frigid stream that drains multiple glaciers in the Sarpo Laggo Valley of the Karakoram Range. The channel was the last but most difficult water barrier before arriving at Chinese Base Camp.”
“In her rucksack Gerlinde had spare batteries, extra mittens, toilet paper, a second pair of sunglasses, bandages, drops for snow blindness, cortisone, a syringe; for her main sponsor she also carried a flag with the name of an Austrian oil company. For herself, she had a tiny copper box containing a figure of the Buddha, which she planned to bury on the summit. Inside her suit she tucked the half liter of water she had managed to melt; in her pack it would freeze.”
Final Push on K2
Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic: “On August 16 they set out on what would be their first and only real chance for the summit. The snow that had been falling for much of the summer had started again. They reached Camp I, at the foot of the ridge, that day; avalanches roared and more than a foot of snow fell overnight. They waited there for a day, hoping the snow on the slopes above would come down before they continued their ascent....On August 18 at 5:10 a.m. they decided to push ahead to Camp II. Every extra ounce was a burden; to save weight, Gerlinde left her journal in the tent. Two avalanches had already swept over their route up a long gully. Around 6:30 a.m. Ralf stopped. So precarious were the snow conditions he could no longer ignore his gut feelings.” He turned back [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, April 2012]
“As Ralf had feared, the snow on the slope began to rip loose, three small slides in succession set off by Maxut, Vassiliy, and Gerlinde, who were out front breaking trail. The biggest hit Tommy, climbing almost 200 feet below; it knocked him upside down and stuffed his nose and mouth. Only the fixed rope, taut as a cello string, kept him from being flushed off the mountain. He was able to dig himself out, but the slide had refilled the broken trail, and eventually he too turned back.
“So now they were four: Gerlinde, Vassiliy, Maxut, and Dariusz. The job of breaking trail was Sisyphean — worse really, because they couldn’t pretend they hadn’t volunteered for the punishment. Sweep the snow aside, crack the crust with your knee, compact what’s underneath, step up, slip back. Repeat and repeat and repeat. After 1 1 hours they set up a bivouac at Shoulder Depot Camp, below Camp II, and spent a miserable night crammed into a two-person tent. The following day they negotiated the most difficult sections of the ridge and reached Camp II, at 6,600 meters, where they changed into down suits. On Saturday, August 20, they slogged on to Camp III, arriving in the afternoon, exhausted, chilled to the bone. They drank coffee with honey and warmed their hands and feet over their gas stoves. All night the hoarfrosted tent walls snapped and shuddered in the wind.
Camp IV: the Last Camp Before the Summit of K2
Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic: “They had been promised better weather by a satellite-phone forecast Ralf passed along over the radio from Advanced Base Camp. The break finally arrived on Sunday, August 21, lifting everyone’s spirits and helping to carry the team to Camp IV. They were now at nearly 8,000 meters, in the so-called death zone, where the body is unable to acclimatize to the oxygen-depleted air, cognition becomes impaired, and the simplest tasks can take forever. They spent the afternoon sharpening their crampons and melting snow. Toward evening they stood outside their tents, pitched in a notch of rock above an appalling void that plunged nearly two miles to the glacier below. Two thousand feet above lay the glistening white mantle of the summit, untouched since 2008, when 11 climbers died in one of the deadliest mountaineering episodes in the history of K2. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, April 2012]
“There was a moment when we all started to get nervous, in a good way,” Gerlinde said later. “We touched each others hands and looked at each other in the eyes and said, ‘OK, tomorrow is our day.’” Around 7 a.m., Monday, August 22, Gerlinde, Vassiliy, Maxut, and Dariusz set out from Camp IV for a place that was as much the culmination of a common dream as a crowning point of Earth. It was a cloudless day, the weather like a gift. They were climbing up a steep chute of ice, the so-called Japanese Couloir, the predominant feature high on the mountains north face. But with only a third of the oxygen at sea level, snow up to their chests in places, and stinging blasts of spindrift that forced them to stop and avert their faces, they made painfully slow progress. By 1 p.m. they had gained less than 180 meters.
“Although they’d spent time above Camp IV in 2007, Vassiliy and Maxut were unfamiliar with the Japanese Couloir, and the way up was difficult to see. Gerlinde reached Ralf on the radio at Advanced Base Camp. Since turning back above Camp I, he had devoted himself to supporting the summit party, passing on weather forecasts, advice, and encouragement. Though miles away, he could see that the best place to cross the couloir was below the lip of a long, thin crevasse that ran the width of the slope, where the snow tended to be not as deep and the natural fracture in the slope would lessen the chance of the climbers triggering an avalanche. He helped guide them to the crevasse and watched as their figures, no bigger than commas on a page of paper, began edging across the couloir under a series of seracs — bulges of ice that protruded from the 45-degree slope like dormers from a roof. The seracs might protect them if avalanches swept down from above.
“Nearing the rocky left edge, they turned to ascend directly up the slope until they came to a final serac at around 8,300 meters. They’d been climbing for 12 hours; they were 300 meters below the summit. On the radio Ralf urged Gerlinde to return to Camp IV for the night now that they had broken the trail and knew the way. “You cannot sleep there, you cannot relax,” he said.
“They had known when they set out that morning that their only chance for the summit might require a bivouac. The possibility had prompted Gerlinde to add the extra weight of a three-pound, two-person tent to her rucksack, as well as a pot and stove, and the same tacit understanding had prompted Dariusz, Maxut, and Vassiliy to tuck extra stove-gas canisters and food into their rucksacks. Days later Maxut tried to explain their state of mind to Tommy. “This was the limit,” he said, tracing a line on the ground with his boot, “and this was how far we went beyond it.” He put his boot half a yard beyond the line. “We completely passed the limit. I risked everything, even my family, my wife, my son, my daughter, everything.” With the sun low in the west, they stopped in the lee of the last serac to prepare a site for the tiny tent. For an hour and 20 minutes they hacked at the ice, until they had a level platform four feet wide, five feet long. They anchored the tent with two ice screws and a pair of ice axes. By 8:15 they were all inside, sitting on their rucksacks, a stove hanging from the ceiling with a pot of melting snow. Gerlinde made some tomato soup. The temperature was minus 13 Fahrenheit. The plan was to rest until midnight, then resume the push for the prize, now so close.”
Reaching the Summit of K2
Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic: “ At one in the morning Vassiliy, Maxut, and Gerlinde strapped on their crampons and by the light of their headlamps started up the steep grade above the tent. Dariusz was still inside getting ready. Gerlinde swung her arms in big circles, but she couldn’t feel her fingers, and she was having trouble unclipping from the rope. Maxut’s feet felt like blocks of ice. They retreated to the tent to try to get warm and wait for sunrise. Gerlinde shivered uncontrollably. It was hard to believe that eight weeks earlier they had all been sweltering in 100-degree temperatures in the Shaksgam [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, April 2012]
“On this day the weather is windy but improving. The fixed ropes buried under new snow, Kaltenbrunner presses on up to Camp Hi between fellow climbers Vassiliy Pivtsov and Dariusz Zatuski. “Many times I felt as if I were being carried along,” she says. “It was mystical — I was getting power from somewhere. It has happened to me a few times before, but the feeling was never so strong as on K2.”
They set out again around 7 a.m. as another immaculate morning dawned. It was now or never. ... They worked their way up the slope toward a 130-meter ramp of snow that angled up to the summit ridge. They were still suffering from the cold but by 11 a.m. could see they would soon be in the sun. At 3 p.m. they reached the base of the ramp. For the first 20 meters they were exhilarated to discover they sank only to their shins. But soon the snow was chest deep. Where they had switched leads to break trail every 50 steps, they now had to switch every 10, with Maxut and Vassiliy taking extra turns. Oh my God, Gerlinde thought, its not possible that we’ve come so far up and will have to turn back. Desperate for an easier way, they stopped climbing in single file at one point. From below.
It was 4:35 p.m. She could see the summit dome. “You can make it!” Ralf cried over the radio. “You can make it! But you are late! Take care!” She sipped from her water bottle. Her throat was cracked; it hurt to swallow. It was too cold to sweat, but they were all getting dehydrated just from panting for air. When Vassiliy caught up, he said she should go on to the summit, he would wait for Maxut. Like Gerlinde, he and Maxut stood on the brink of the only 8,000-meter summit they hadn’t climbed. He wanted to go to the top beside his partner but didn’t want people to think he couldn’t have gotten there as quickly as Gerlinde. “You have to say I waited for Maxut,” he told her. “Yes, of course,” she said.
“Ralf was astonished to see their track split into three lines as Gerlinde, Vassiliy, and Maxut searched for better footing. Ahead lay a band of snow-patched rocks tilted at 60 degrees. Steep as it was, it proved easier to negotiate. Climbing single file again, Gerlinde changed places with Vassiliy and sank only up to her knees. With a surge of energy and hope she clambered out of the ramp and onto the ridge, where the wind-packed snow was like a sidewalk.
And then she walked the final steps to the apex of K2. It was 6:18 p.m. She wanted to share the moment with Ralf, but when she opened the radio she couldn’t speak. There were mountains in every direction. Mountains she had climbed. Mountains that had stolen the lives of her friends and nearly claimed hers too. But never had she invested so much in a mountain as the one under her boots at last. Alone, with the world at her feet, she turned from one point of the compass to another. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life,” she said later. “I felt as if I were one with the universe. It was so strange on one hand to be extremely exhausted and on the other to be getting so much energy from the view.” Fifteen minutes later Maxut and Vassiliy arrived, shoulder to shoulder. Everyone embraced. Half an hour later Dariusz staggered up, his hands suffering from having taken his gloves off to change batteries on the video camera.
Descent from the Summit of K2
Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic: “It was 7 p.m. Their shadows reached far across the top of K2, as the pyramidal shadow of the mountain itself reached for miles to the east, and a beautiful golden light began to burnish the world. Dariusz filmed as Gerlinde tried to articulate what it meant to her to be there at that moment: “I’m so deeply filled to stand here now after so many tries, so many years.” She began to cry, then composed herself. “It was very, very hard, all the days now, and now its just amazing. I don’t find the right words.” She gestured to the sea of peaks in all directions. “You see all this — I think everybody can understand why we do this.” [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, April 2012]
“Ralf was up most of the night monitoring the descent. More than a third of all fatalities on K2 have happened on the way down. Around 8:30 p.m. he could see four tiny pinpricks of light moving down the ramp into the Japanese Couloir. As she descended in the dark, exhausted, Gerlinde found herself repeating a phrase that had been in her mind: Steh uns bei und beschutze uns. Stand with us and protect us.
“We spoke many times on the descent,” said Gerlinde. “We asked each other again and again, ‘Is everything OK?’ It was just a very serious, very exacting climb. If there would have been just the cold, it would have been hard enough. But there was the steepness, the altitude, the wind during the night and the morning, and the psychological effects — we didn’t have any rope left to fix the route, and the terrain was very steep and exposed. Everybody had to take a very long time and be very careful how they moved.”Two days later, when Gerlinde came down from Camp I, Ralf met her on the glacier. They held each other for a long time. At Camp I she had found the letter he had left for her in the hope that she would return — a four-foot-long missive written on toilet paper avowing his love and explaining his decision to turn back. “I don’t always want to be the person who holds you back.”
Siege Tactics to Climb K2
In an article on climbing K2 in the winter, Mark Jenkins wrote in National Geographic: “ Polish mountainerr Krzysztof “Wielicki’s favored approach to winter expeditions is to use “siege” tactics, assiduously erecting a series of three or four tiny camps at various points on the mountain to give the climbers just enough shelter to warm themselves, rest, and eat before moving up. All the camps are connected by ropes anchored to cracks in the rock and ice. These “fixed lines” allow the climbers and porters to move more easily between them. [Source: Mark Jenkins, National Geographic, February 25, 2018]
“But high-altitude mountain climbing isn’t just about going up. The climbers must adjust to the whisper thin air (especially Wielicki’s team which is not using bottled oxygen), so they go up the ropes to Camp 1, spend a few nights, then come back down to base camp and recuperate for a few days. On the next foray, they go higher to Camp 2, spend a few nights, then descend back to base camp. This up-and-down process continues over a month, allowing their bodies to adjust.
“After the team finally establishes Camp 4, they wait for the next good weather window and the climbers who feel strongest will attempt to make the summit. After switching routes, the team and their high-altitude porters (local Pakistanis who assist teams in the Karakoram like Nepal’s Sherpas do on Everest) had to remove all the ropes, tents, ice screws, and other equipment from the Cesen Spur and establish the new route up the Abruzzi Ridge.
“The mountain is dry and the rock fall is bad up to Camp 1,” Wielicki told me, noting that the lack of snow to hold rocks in place made the danger worse. In the background I could hear the wind whipping the walls of his nylon tent. Fist size rocks were randomly whizzing down the wall. “It just became too dangerous to continue,” Wielicki explained. In response, the team switched the route they’d planned to take up the mountain. They abandoned the Cesen Spur, a shorter, steeper line, in favor of the Abruzzi Ridge, a longer route but better protected from rock fall.
First Summitters of K2: Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni of Italy
K2 first climbed ban Italian team who lost two members. In 1954, Italian climbers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni became the first men to reach the summit of K2. The expedition was led by explorer and geologist Ardito Desio. Desio lived to the age of 104, dying in 2001. He organized the 12-man expedition to K2 and was also the first Italian to reach the South Pole, which did in 1962.
Achille Compagnoni died in 2009 at the age of 94.Elisabetta Povoled wrote in the New York Times: “Compagnoni and his fellow climber Lino Lacedelli were part of an Italian team that conquered the mountain on July 31, 1954. It “was one of the last acts of heroic mountaineering,” Reinhold Messner, a renowned Italian mountain climber, told the news agency ANSA. “Compagnoni,” Mr. Messner added, “was a physically strong climber, with a lot of heart and big lungs.” [Source: Elisabetta Povoled, New York Times, May 14, 2009]
The Italians’ moment of glory came when competition to conquer the Himalayas was fierce, said Agostino Da Polenza of the Everest-K2-CNR Committee, a mountain research group in Italy. Less than a year earlier, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had become the first to reach the summit of Everest. The K2 ascent became a source of national pride; the climbers were decorated by both the Italian and the Pakistani governments. “The Italians managed to do it first,” Mr. Da Polenza said, “and as the country was just coming out of the war, this conquest became a symbol of rebirth and hope.”
Mr. Campagnoni was born on September 26, 1914, in Santa Caterina Valfurva, a mountainous area of Lombardy. “As a young boy he dreamed of being a guide, of exploring the mountains,” his wife said. “His passion was stoked because he lived in these places.” He served in the Alpine corps of the Italian military and won several cross-country ski championships. After World War II, he moved to Cervinia, where he built a home and worked as a ski instructor and an alpine guide before being called by Mr. Desio to climb K2. He also wrote two books on his K2 experience, published in 1958 and 2004.
Later in life, Mr. Compagnoni ran a hotel in Cervinia. “He had a small museum in the house of which he was extremely proud,” Ms. Compagnoni Mossini said. “He kept his K2 memorabilia jealously.” He continued to climb, but nothing, she said, ever compared “to the best ascent he ever did.”
Nasty Details of the First K2 Climb
Elisabetta Povoled wrote in the New York Times: “The climb was also recounted last year by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver in “Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes.” The authors wrote how the expedition had been shadowed by resentments and even litigation. [Source: Elisabetta Povoled, New York Times, May 14, 2009]
“On the night before the final ascent, the authors said, a third climber, Walter Bonatti, the youngest in the expedition, accompanied by a porter, carried two oxygen sets up to the expedition’s high camp. But Mr. Bonatti later said that he could not find Mr. Compagnoni and Mr. Lacedelli’s tent, and he accused the men of purposely pitching the tent higher than the agreed-upon site in order to stop Mr. Bonatti from muscling in on their summit attempt. Mr. Bonatti and the porter, named Mahdi, were forced to spend a terrifying night outside in the cold before descending early the next morning, leaving Mr. Compagnoni and Mr. Lacedelli to retrieve the oxygen sets and ascend alone to the summit, according to the book.
“Later, back in Italy, Mr. Compagnoni accused Mr. Bonatti of siphoning off oxygen from the sets in order to undermine the climb, but the accusations were thrown out in court. “Nobody comes out of this looking good,” Mr. Isserman said.
American Expeditions on K2 in 1975
The first American attempt to summit K2 was in 1953. It, like three other expedition, ended in failure and took the lives of five climbers. The American expedition in 1975 was held up for several days when the porters went on strike. Mostly the climbers ate freeze dried chicken, beans, beef and fruit, which are nourishing and lightweight. The most cumbersome thing to carry were the 14 pound oxygen tanks. The oxygen unit of one of the climbers didn't work when he was near the summit. [Source: James W. Whittaker and James Wickwire, National Geographic, May 1979]
Finally in 1978. Americans Lou Reichardt and Jim Wickwire made it the top. Wickwire was forced to spend the night in a bivouac sack just below the summit and during the effort he said he went temporally insane. Four American climbers reached the summit on the 1978 expedition. When Jim Wickwire reached the top he deposited a microfilm with a list of 4000 names of people who supported the expedition. Members of the 14 person climbing team included a zoologists, a musician, two physicians, an art student, a filmmaker and a physicist
Wickwire ended up staying too long on the summit and was able to only descend 150 meters below the 8,611 meter (28,250 foot) summit before he was forced to spend the night in a sleeping bag and a bivouac cover. It was the highest elevation anyone had slept before. His only other choice was walk along a knife edge ridge in the dark. He had nothing to eat that day and only one sip of water since. The stove, which he used to melt water, had broken down on him in the morning.
Wickwire made it through the night but when he awoke the next morning in -40̊F temperatures with winds blowing at 50 mile per hour he noticed his bag had slid close to a 10,000 foot drop off and slide some more every time he moved. To anchor the bag he jabbed his ice ax through his sleeping bag into the ice.
When Wickwire got out his bag and stumbled to his feet he felt confused and disoriented. One part of him he said realized he had to get down the mountain; another part of him just wanted to plop down on the mountain and sit there. Later he described his confusion as temporary insanity. He focused on his wife and kids and realized what he had to do to get down. When he reached the camp the chest pain he thought was a cracked rib was actually a combination of pleurisy, pneumonia and blood clots in his lungs. He also had two badly frostbitten toes. The skillful administration of fluids and antibiotics by one of the expedition’s physicians his life.
The night after two others reached the summit their stove blew up in their tents torching both their sleeping bags and the tent. The two were forced to stay with two others in a tiny tent designed for two people.
K2 Expedition in 1953: “Finest Moment of American Mountaineering”
In August 1953, Maurice Isserman wrote in the New York Times: “ Dr. Charles S. Houston, America’s premier Himalayan mountaineer, led a team of seven Americans and one British climber attempting a first ascent on K2. They made steady progress up the mountain, and by August 1 all eight climbers had reached a campsite at 25,300 feet. From there, given good weather, they expected to reach the 28,251 foot summit in two days. [Source: Maurice Isserman, New York Times, August 9, 2008. Isserman is a professor of history at Hamilton College and the co-author of “Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering From the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes.” ]
“Instead, they were pinned down by a blizzard in their high camp for the next week. And one member of the team, Art Gilkey, who was on his first Himalayan venture, was struck down by a case of thrombophlebitis, a clotting in the veins, in his left leg. It left him unable to walk and in danger of death if a blood clot were to reach his lungs. Houston and the others knew that there was little chance that they could carry an incapacitated man 9,000 feet down treacherous slopes to the safety of base camp. But they did not for a minute consider leaving their teammate behind.
“On August 10, they started down the mountain. Gilkey was sedated with morphine, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and alternately towed and lowered by his comrades. The climbers descended in roped pairs and, when they could, held their partners on “belay” — that is, one climber would keep a tight, protective hold on the rope as the other made his way down the slope. Encumbered as they were, and with the storm raging, it took them six hours to descend a few hundred feet from their camp.
“At around 3 p.m., the eight men were arrayed across the slope to the west of one of their previous campsites, Camp VII, their destination for the day. Gilkey in his sleeping bag was belayed from above by Pete Schoening, a climber from Seattle. The other climbers, roped in pairs, stood nearby.
“Suddenly, one of them lost his footing, and as he fell he pulled his partner off his feet. They became entangled in the ropes of the other climbers, until practically the whole party was slipping downwards toward a precipice. Schoening remained on his feet, but his rope was entangled with the others. If he had fallen, it would have been the end for them all as they would have tumbled thousands of feet to their deaths on the Godwin-Austen Glacier below. If there had been no surviving witnesses, the 1953 American K2 expedition could have entered mountaineering lore as one of those enduring puzzles to be endlessly debated in the climbing journals, like the disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine on Everest in 1924.
“But at that moment of impending doom, Schoening saved them all. In his effort to belay Gilkey down a rock cliff, Schoening had jammed his ice ax into the snow behind a small boulder, wrapping the rope once around the ax and then around his waist. When he saw the others fall, he instantly put all his weight onto the ax. The nylon rope stretched and tightened on him — but it held, and Schoening held.
“Several of the climbers, including Dr. Houston, were injured. They could go no farther that day. They would have to work their way over to Camp VII and set up the two tents they were carrying to get shelter for the night if they were to survive, and they could not do it with Gilkey in tow. For the moment, they left him anchored to the slope with ropes and ice axs, about 150 feet west of the campsite. Another climber, Bob Craig, explained to Gilkey, who was sedated but conscious, that they were leaving him for a short time but would return. “Yes, I’ll be fine,” Gilkey told Mr. Craig, “I’m O.K.” They got their tents up. In the distance, they heard through the howling wind what sounded like a shout from Gilkey. Then there was silence. In a few minutes, three of the climbers returned to check on their injured teammate. To their horror, they saw that the gulley was now empty. Gilkey was 27 years old when he disappeared; he had completed his doctoral thesis in geology at Columbia University on the day he departed for K2. In the years that followed, the others would wonder whether he had been swept away by an avalanche, or caused his own death, somehow releasing the ropes that held him in place in an act of selfsacrifice that allowed the rest of them to live.
“It took the survivors five more days to fight their way off the mountain. Finally on August 15, they reached base camp. They built a 10-foot high cairn as a memorial for Gilkey on a rocky point near the confluence of the Savoia and Godwin-Austen Glaciers. It stands there to this day. The K2 expedition became legend among mountaineers, its members honored for the gallantry of their conduct under extreme conditions. As Nicholas Clinch, a rising American climber, would write a few years later, the “finest moment in the history of American mountaineering was the Homeric retreat of Dr. Houston’s party of K2 in 1953.” Houston himself summed up the highest ideals of expeditionary culture when he wrote of his K2 comrades: “We entered the mountains as strangers, but we left as brothers.” Today in contrast, as was evident last week on K2, climbers enter the mountains as strangers and tend to leave the same way.
Nepali Climbers First to Summit K2 in the Winter
In January 20121, Nepalese climber Nirmal Purja became the first person to reach the summit of K2 in the winter season, when winds on the mountain can blow at more than 200 kilometers per hour (125 miles per hour) and temperatures can drop to - 60 degrees C (-76 degrees F). [Source: Associated Press, January 23, 2021]
Associated Press reported: “Nepalese climbers praised Pakistan’s military and civil authorities for facilitating their challenging expedition. The leader of the 10-member Nepalese team, Nirmal Pujra, said he and his fellow mountaineers made “the impossible a possible.” He spoke in a video message after his meeting with Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. “K2 is the only mountain in the world that had remained unclimbed in the winter," said Pujra. “Me and my team together managed to make the impossible a possible."
“Pakistani authorities provided security to the Nepalese mountaineers when they arrived in the country weeks ago. A security team remained present at their base camp until the mountaineers returned after scaling K2. Since the maiden attempt back in 1988, just a handful of winter expeditions have been attempted on the storied peak.
Famous Mountain Climber Confesses He Lied About Reaching the K2
In August, 2010, the famous Austrian alpinist Christian Stangl, who had claimed the only K2 ascent in this pre-monsoon season, admitted he did reach the summit after his claim had been contested by a part of the mountaineering community. He said the delirium caused by climbing at such high altitudes made him think he had reached the summit when in fact he hadn’t. [Source: Stefanello di Vinicio, planetmounta.com, August 9.2010]
Stefanello di Vinicio wrote in planetmounta.com. Stangl told “ORF, the Austrian state television, he never summited K2. On the contrary, he simulated the ascent in a "state of coma caused by stress and the fear of failure." The Austrian alpinist and skyrunner had originally claimed to have reached the summit of K2 on 10 August, and first details talked about a 70 hour rush to the summit and back, carried out solo. A great ascent, so it seemed, which made headline news on almost all specialised websites, also because the "supposed" summit had been the only K2 top this season.
“This was followed by the first voices of concern and contestation, as well as Stangl's defence. At a certain point though, according to explorersweb, Stangl stated that he had reached the summit but that he no longer wanted to endure the media and mountaineering community massacre, and that he was no longer willing to reply to further questions. All of this happened just a few days ago.
“One might consider for a moment his justification, his sort of high altitude trance which made him "dream", imagine the summit so "deliriously" so as to convince himself that it was true and had really happened. We don't want to analyse this further, of course. Even if Reinhold Messner stated on the ORF TV that he believes in this state of "hallucination". What is certain though is that alpinism — above all (but not exclusively) Himalayan mountaineering — is experiencing a deep crisis. It is as if alpinism were stumbling through the clouds, unable to identify a clear aim apart from those "delirious" summits, like that of Stangl.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022