K2 : THE AMERICAN ASCENT
Summit Pyramid of k2 from near ridge. Camp 4 was locked in notch beyond the prominent ice tower. (Photo: James Wickwire)
AT THE APEX of the Karakoram range stands K2, at 28,250 ft, the world's second highest peak. Although slightly subordinated to Everest in height, K2 is unsurpassed for its magnificent form, unrelenting steepness, continuous difficulty and awesome grandeur among the 8000 metre peaks. First attempted by an Oscar Eckenstein-led international expedition in 1902, there were four unsuccessful attempts before the Italians, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli, achieved success in 1954.1
Three of the failures- in 1938, 1939 and 19532
-were American expeditions. An American-German expedition in 19693
reached no higher on the Abruzzi ridge than 24,000 ft and then, as a result of border tensions, the mountain was closed to climbers for fifteen years.
In late 1973 word filtered throughout the climbing world that K2 was again available. A Polish expedition was given permission for 1974 but received notification too late to field a team. An American expedition, led by Jim Whittaker who became the first American to climb Everest in 1963, managed to obtain permission from the Pakistan government. This team, on which I served as deputy leader, numbered only eight climbers, far short of the strength required for our intended route: the unattempted northwest ridge above Savoir Pass. Porter strikes, unfavourable weather, sickness in the team and, finally, a series of fiercely dm let ill towers forced abandonment of the climb at the 22,000 ft level,
Disappointed, we returned home harbouring ambitions to return for another attempt. But we had to wait. The Poles had permission for 19764
, the Japanese the following year. We pinned our hopes on 1978, and again under the leadership of Whittaker, an application was submitted. All seemed lost when we received word that a British expedition under Chris Bonington had been allotted the peak.
The polish expedition,
led by Jnnusz Kurczab, nearly succeeded on the northeast ridge. An 18-man team of Poland's strongest climbers pushed a route up the long, twisting ridge overcoming heavy storms in the process. Two climer, Eugeniusz Chrobak and Wojciech Wroz, fought their way up the steep ice of the summit pyramid to 27,550 ft but were forced to retreat when darkness, storm and malfunctioning oxyzen sets stopped them. On the Abruzzi the next summer, the Japanese succeeded in placing seven climbers on the summit, including Ashraf Aman, a Pakistani. This expedition was massive in size, numbering some fifty climbers.
On New Year's Eve, 31 December 1976, we received an astonishing letter from the Pakistan Embassy that we had been given permission as a special case to attempt K2 in 1978. The help of Jim Whittaker's close friend, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, had proved instrumental in persuading the Pakistan government to reverse its previous decision. We, however, were second in line behind the British who chose the west ridge as their route. We opted for the northeast ridge.
With the intention of avoiding the problems of insufficient strength on the previous attempt, Whittaker enlarged the team. In addition to Dr Robert T. Schailer, Dianne Roberts, Whittaker's wife and the expedition's photographer, and me, all veterans of the 1975 team, he selected John Roskelley, Louis Reichardt, Rick Ridgeway, Dr Chris Chandler, William Sumner, Dr Albert Skip Edmonds, Craig Anderson, Terrance Bech and Cherie Bech. All of us had previous Himalayan experience. Leif Patterson, a member of the 1975 team, Dusan Jagersky and Alan Givler were to have come with us, but all three were killed in mountaineering accidents. Out of respect to them, their places on the climbing team were left open. Jagersky's widow, Diana, joined the expedition as a cook and base camp organizer, but later performed strongly on the mountain in helping to supply the upper camps.
On 13 June we departed for Rawalpindi. In contrast to 1975, when we experienced delays all the way into base camp, things couldn't have gone smoother this time. A major reason was our highly effective liaison officer, Subedar Major Saleem Mohammed Khan. Before we left Skardu, however, we were stunned to learn of the tragic death of Nick Estcourt in a massive snow avalanche on K2's western flank, thus forcing abandonment of the British expedition. One could easily perceive the objective dangers inherent in a mountain feature like the Khumbu Icefall on Everest, but how could such a terrible thing happen on K2 where there were no dangerous icefalls to negotiate?
In thirteen and one-half days of trekking, we reached the familiar site of all the previous Abruzzi ridge base camps at the southern foot of K2. We were able to persuade a substantial number of our Balti porters to make an additional carry towards the base of the northeast ridge, eight miles away and slightly over 2000 feet above the 16,300 ft base camp. Over several days, virtually all of our nine tons of food, equipment and other gear was deposited at an advanced base camp just beyond the Abruzzi ridge's terminus and at Camp 1 at the base of the ridge. The latter became our de facto base camp and the place we waited out the frequent storms that plagued us in late July and throughout August.
On 13-14 July, Reichardt, Ridgeway, Chandler and Edmonds prepared the route up the steep north flanks of the ridge to Camp 2 (20,200 ft). The route was exposed to rockfall which made carries between Camps 1 and 2 most unpleasant. Everyone seemed relieved when we were later able to transport most of the necessary loads to the higher camps.
Above Camp 2 on 17 July Whittaker and I continued to push the route toward the Keystone, a prominent feature of the ridge at 22,400 ft where a second ridge from Skyang Kangri abuts from the north. Reichardt joined us the second day and together we reached a protected site for Camp 3 beneath an over-hanging, but stable, ice-wall. Progress had been amazingly fast but ahead lay the most technical section of the route: a half-mile-long stretch of knife-edge ridge festooned with overhanging cornices and interspersed with several difficult towers. The Poles had taken ten days to overcome this obstacle. Before we could continue, the perfect weather ended and the first of several successive storms rolled in from the southwest. Descent to Camp 1 seemed imperative.
On 29 July, back up at Camp 2, Ridgeway, Roskelley, Sumner and I soon realized the error of not keeping at least two climbers in each camp during storms to break trail down afterward. We spent an utterly exhausting day in ploughing up through the deep snow to regain Camp 3. Pulling out the buried fixed ropes was as hard work as kicking steps through the new layer of snow. Sumner and I had planned to return to Camp 2, but arrived so late that we stayed the night with Ridgeway and Roskelley sans lee ping-bags. They had been selected to make the initial probe across the difficult ridge toward where Camp 4 would be located, while Sumner and I would make carries from Camp 2 and take the lead after two days.
Although they were aided somewhat by sections of Polish fixed rope, usable even after two years, Ridgeway and Roskelley performed brilliantly in surmounting most of the technical difficulties in their two-day stint. Sumner and I pushed the route a few hundred feet farther on the third day, but a whiteout prevented tr. from surmounting a final ice tower. On 2 August while Summer remained in camp, Roskelley, Ridgeway and I established Camp 4 on a narrow crest of snow. Above, the ridge broadened and we were optimistic about completing the climb in ten days or less.
We, however, had not on K2's unpredictable weather. For the next three weeks, but for one significant exception, the expedition floundered. Not only from a series of storms, but from a split in the harmony that marked the early stage of our effort. Storm and the effects of altitude wear patience thin. Whittaker's selection of Reichardt, Ridgeway, Roskelley and me as members of the first summit assault team prompted objections from the others. They did not quarrel so much with the choice as with its method; a lack of consultation with all team members. We found ourselves divided into an 'A Team' and a 'B Team'.
Despite these troubles, Ridgeway, Reichardt, Chandler and Roskelley, in one incredibly long day of route pioneering and load carrying, established Camp 5 at 25,300 ft on 17 August. But another storm forced retreat. Supplies were waning and it soon became apparent that, at most, we might have one or possibly two more chances for the summit.
On 6 August the entire team moved back up the mountain. Only Schaller, who had incurred a knee injury, stayed behind. He had been a key figure in restoring temporary harmony between the factions. In one day, Reichardt, Anderson, Whittaker, Roberts and I climbed the 4400 ft from Camp 1 to Camp 4 to rejoin Roskelley and Ridgeway who had waited out the latest storm there. A bitter wind from China made the ridge crossing perilous. Whittaker and Roberts arrived after dark, the latter suffering from the early stages of hypothermia. The others stopped at Camp 3 and this led to renewed accusations and acrimonious radio transmissions between the two camps.
Camp 5 was re-established on 28 August by the seven of us, but our hopes seemed on the verge of total collapse as another storm seemed headed in our direction. In marginal weather, Reichardt and I climbed 1000 ft to the base of the summit pyramid and cached oxygen, hardware, stove, fuel and ropes at the Polish Camp 6 site. We had reached 8000 metres, but the summit was still high above.
Back in Camp 4 to sit out the storm, we engaged in extended discussions about our position and summit strategy. Roskelley and Ridgeway were committed to a direct finish up the summit pyramid as tried by the Poles. The Bechs, who had joined us, Reichardt and I favoured a new traverse across to the upper Abruzzi finish. Not technically difficult, the traverse nonetheless went beneath an enormous ice-cliff, prone to avalanche.
Back and forth the debate went. Finally, it was decided. We would split into two separate attempts: Roskelley and Ridgeway on the more direct Polish finish and Reichardt and I, with the Bechs in support, to go for the new traverse and tie-in with the existing summit route.
Although the expedition had pursued traditional fixed-rope methods through the lower camps, a few hundred feet above Camp 4, given the shortage of supplies and little time left to reach the summit, we became transformed into a light-weight, alpine-style effort. The odds were against us, but if only the weather would hold, we might be able to achieve the goal that had eluded American expeditions for forty years.
We regained Camp 5 on 2 September. The Bechs lagged behind and after dark it was necessary to descend a few hundred feet to assist them into camp. Cherie, in particular, was hypothermic and for several hours we plied her with warm liquids. We spent a rest day due to marginal weather and Cherie's weakened condition, and on 3 September struck for the highest camps. A few yards out of Camp 5, Cherie stopped and could go no farther. She had pushed hard, but reaching her limits, was forced to return to camp.
Her husband, Terry, Reichardt and I spent hours attempting to complete the traverse through poor snow conditions but finally gave up. Ridgeway and Roskelley were not faring much better as we returned to Camp 5. Struggling through deep snow, it had taken them most of the day to reach their Camp 6. They also had considerable difficulty in locating our cache from the week before.
That night the four of us deliberated at Camp 5. Reichardt and I tentatively decided to join Roskelley and Ridgeway, but possibly more on a whim than anything else, in the morning Reichardt left ahead of us to try again to complete the traverse. Bech and I waited at the junction of the two routes and just prior to Reichardt's return to retrieve his pack, we too decided to attempt the traverse a second time. Reichardt had not made it all the way, but succeeded in getting close.
Reaching his farthest point of advance, I left my pack and forced a route through the deep snow. Finally, I reached a narrow passage between an ice-cliff blocking access to the rounded shoulder above. At the corner, I could see that steep ice for 200 ft was all that separated us from the gentle shoulder. By late afternoon, we found a recess along the lower side of a crevasse where, at only 25,800 ft, we reluctantly stopped to establish camp. T he Italian and Japanese highest camps had been placed several hundred feet higher.
Crammed into a two-person tent, we spent a night full of the greatest expectation. Sleep was impossible. We kept a stove going all night to consume as many warm drinks as possible. Dozing at one point, I tipped over a water-pot spilling the contents on my down parka and half bag. Useless chunks of ice, I decided to leave them, a decision that almost cost my life.
Before daylight, we readied to leave. We thanked Bech for his tremendous efforts in establishing the camp and began the final climb. Leaving camp, a water bottle slipped from my parka and clattered down the slope. Numbed by cold and altitude, I continued upward without replenishing my water supply.
Following Reichardt I had trouble establishing any rhythm. At 26,500 ft I decided to go on oxygen. To my dismay, I discovered my sole bottle was only two-thirds full. To conserve oxygen, I would have to stay at a rate of 11 litre per minute for most of the climb using a 2 litre flow for only the most strenuous moves. We climbed up a shallow groove toward the base of the prominent ice-cliff.
Reichardt too went on oxygen, but it wasn't until later that I realized a leak in his mask was providing him no benefit. We front-pointed up to the neck of the groove, the last few feet on treacherous loose snow over rock slabs. At the very base of the ice-cliff, I continued left on a long traverse to get around the corner of the cliff. Struggling through the deep snow, I began to wonder if we had time to reach the summit. It was afternoon and we still had 1200 ft to go. Above the corner I waited for Reichardt.
As he approached he stopped short about 75 ft below me, removed his pack, unroped and climbed up towards me. 'Has he given up?', I thought. To the contrary, Reichardt was prepared to climb on to the summit without anything, neither his rucksack with down parka and food, nor his oxygen apparatus that had malfunctioned. We agreed that if he became incoherent or otherwise incapacitated, he would go down. In such event, I made clear to him, I would continue up alone.
I bashed my way up through the snow for another 100 ft of hard-won elevation. Then Reichardt took over for another similar stretch of deep snow. Eventually we separated. He headed left towards a ridge crest while I continued straight up hoping for the snow conditions to improve. Our independent efforts to gain altitude seemed to take forever. Finally, Reichardt succeeded in reaching the ridge where the snow was better. I headed across to meet his tracks, worrying about the possibility of windslab avalanche on the way.
Late in the afternoon, as I followed Reichardt over a rounded dome of snow, the final rise to the summit loomed above. 'Not far now,' I thought. 'Simply keep up a steady pace for the remaining distance.'
Reichardt was ahead but gradually I closed the gap and caught him a few hundred feet below the summit. Without oxygen, he had performed amazingly well. Throughout the expedition, he and Roskelley had proved to be the strongest climbers. Taking the lead, for the next hour we moved together in slow motion toward the top. Thoughts of loved ones and friends helped break the endless monotony. Finally, the nearly level summit ridge was but a few feet away. With a final surge, I kicked steps to the top of the 45° slope. Expecting the highest point to be to my right, the summit ridge dropped away imperceptibly toward China. To my left, the actual summit was only 75 ft away.
Reichardt and I walked those last few steps together arriving at the highest point at 5.20 p.m. But for the vagaries of storm and circumstances, Fritz Wiessner, Charlie Houston, Bob Bates, Fete Schoening and others from the earlier expeditions might have been there ahead of us. We embraced and then took the obligatory photographs. Reichardt was impatient to leave as the -20° F. cold and absence of oxygen had chilled him greatly. In ten minutes he left with the clear understanding I would follow and rejoin him in Camp 6. But I lingered on the summit to change film, clear ice from my camera lens and to bury the microfilmed names of our many supporters back home. With a last look around at the magnificent panoply of Karakoram peaks basked in the surreal light of near sunset, I walked off the summit of my dreams.
Reichardt was far below, very close to his discarded pack.
Immediately I realized that descent to Camp 6 would be dangerous in the dark, I decided to bivouac and in the remaining light descended about 450 ft to the rounded snow dome, scraped out a platform and crawled inside a nylon bivouac sack as darkness came.
The night was endless and filled with danger. At one point I slid off the platform a few feet. Digging my feet in, I stopped. This episode was repeated a few more times before I crawled back up to the platform and anchored the bivouac sack to the slope with my ice-axe and hammer. My oxygen ran out early in the evening and the brief warmth of a butane stove was gone when it ran out of fuel and a defect prevented the insertion of a replacement cartridge. Without water or food, I waited for morning as the wind battered my tiny platform. It was bitterly cold, minus 40° F., and the sun's rays in the morning were a great solace after the ordeal of the night.
To begin to descend took an enormous act of will. For by this time I was hypoxic. Only thoughts of my wife and children in far-off Seattle propelled me into action.
A thousand feet down, I encountered Roskelley and Ridgeway on their way up. Assuring them I was all right, I descended to Camp 6 where I rejoined Reichardt. As we lay in the tent that day rehydrating and recovering from our own efforts, I learned of Reichardt's own narrow escape as he overshot the camp in the dark the night before. Our two companions' flashlights and shouts guided him to the safety of the tents. That day Roskelley and Ridgeway repeated our climb to the summit, using no oxygen on the way! Like Reichardt's climb the day before, a remarkable achievement.
When they returned late in the afternoon, we were all elated at the success that had eluded American climbers for so long. But that night, a near disaster occurred. In a flash, a butane stove ignited the other tent reducing it to tattered ruins. Ridgeway and Roskelley were forced to cram into our two-person tent for the remainder of a claustrophobic night.
In the morning we began the long return to our comrades. A night at Camp 5, then the long, difficult section between Camps 4 and 3. As another storm arrived from the southwest, the afternoon of 9 September we reached the Bechs at Camp 3. Dianne Roberts had gaily decorated one of the tents with messages of congratulations to us.
Ridgeway experienced respiratory difficulty on the way down, but it was I who developed the only serious illness: pneumonia, pleurisy, and pulmonary emboil suffered during the bivouac at 27,800 ft.
The next days were a blurred nightmare of strenuous glacier walking and nights of prolonged coughing. Schaller worked hard to bring me through this crisis. On 17 September, two Pakistan Ai n»v helicopters appeared at the snout of the Baltoro Glacier to evacuate me, Schaller, as attending physician, and Reichardt and Roskelley who suffered minor frostbite.
Setting down in Skardu it finally began to sink in that we had succeeded against overwhelming odds. The third ascent of K2 and first by the northeast ridge and upper east face had been achieved only by the slimmest of margins.