Brotherhood of the Rope

Dr. Charles Houston

Even seen from 113 miles away K2 towers over head and shoulders above all the surrounding mountains. It is a spectacular mountain rising above all the peaks, which Bob Bates and myself were asked in 1938 to find a route to the top. Bob Bates, my close friend, and I chose a team of good climbers who were motivated by the same challenges of exploration and adventure that moved us, not by fame and fortune. It was a glorious party.

We reached Kashmir and walked 350 miles to the mountain. First we crossed the pleasant uplands in the valley of Kashmir and then over a snow covered pass, the main caravan route at the time. Fortunately we get off a little late and the sun had melted some snow but the ponies got across all right. Soon we came across the spectacular channels that have been built for generations, to harness precious water from the mountains that fell, to grow their crops. Few days later a village on verge of entering gorge put up a polo game for us and for the neighbourhood. Polo is the game, which is said to have originated here thousands of years ago. Each time we came to a new village we pay off our porters and hire on new ones. There was always interesting discussion. When we reached Skardu we had our group pictures taken with all our Sherpas and porters. I had Sherpa Sirdar Pasang Kikuli who became my close friend and who in 1939 lost his life trying to rescue a climber who was abandoned on the higher slopes of K2. We crossed the Indus river at Skardu in a barge attributed to Alexander the Great. On the other side we walked amidst poplars and marigolds until we came to bridges, the famous rope bridges, which said to make Christians out of mountaineers. It is made of woven twigs, branches and roots and not of ropes. Falling in the water below would not be a happy way to go. At the other places it was easier to wade the river and that was also was very difficult to do due to stones, which banged against your legs. The world gets narrower and narrower now and we made slow progress. The porters take their time in this difficult going and one may notice they are not even wearing shoes therefore their walk was not so good. At the last greenery porters make a week’s supply of food, last time they will have a chance to make a prayer because now within the sight of the Baltoro glacier, our first view of the heady river of ice, which would lead us to the foot of our mountain. It has been covered with tremendous slopes of white ice, which has been pushed up from below by force of the glacier. They were like a fleet of shallots coming up from the valley. Now and then I am asked to take care of the porters. It is hard to refuse even though I cannot do much for them but they appreciate the attention and by and large we are very grateful to them. They gossip probably much about us but they have been very friendly and cooperative. Yes we have small disagreement now and then but it is minor.

We climb on the Baltoro glacier, pass Mitre Peak a 19000-foot mountain, which anywhere else would be spectacular. At base camp we pay off our porters and give the headman 45 stones and tell him to throw away one stone every day and come back to base camp when all the stones are gone and exactly that they did. We were looking directly up the south face of K2 directly above our camp. This was spectacular and quite obviously not a way for us to attempt. So we started looking at the other routes, we turned to the left to look at the northwest ridge, which turned out to be far beyond our capabilities. It was obviously not a way for us to attempt. We climbed up part way and decided that at the end. We returned to base camp and walked 20 miles to the northeast. There we reached the northeast ridge and climbed up to 19000 ft and decided that this is not for us either. So we go back to the foot of the south face about 5 miles above the base camp and this face would be called the Abruzzi Face, because this is where the Duke of Abruzzi many years ago had started to climb. It is not for us until the snow clears as it was too dangerous to go on to the ridge. However, we decided that this was our best chance to work our way up this spectacular face above what we called Camp 1.

We were pretty well bonded by now and we had all sorts of things in common. It was expected after 350 miles of walking together we were tough as nails and still pretty good friends. We now on were tied to a common rope for a fall in a crevasse would be pretty well disastrous. But a rope is the bond between us more than physical. We always climbed roped. This bond between people whose lives were in each other’s hands was important one. We climbed up gradually working a route out many times on deep snow, cutting steps or grouching steps and sometimes on rock. It is an intricate route but we are enriched everyday for the first week at least with spectacular views. Soon we come to cross a gully, which is constantly bombarded with stones and ice from above. We had to cross it in a hurry. We continued up where we reached another place where we laid down stones to make a campsite. It is a very steep band, which is what K2 is. It is very frighteningly steep so we had to be very careful where we built our camp and it is a very difficult to find a piece of ground to put the two tents we need. We established eight camps at the mountain, fixing each one of them with food and fuel. Finally we come across the biggest obstacle of them all, a big rock wall across which on a narrow crack a route was led by Bill House and Bob Bates. It came to be called the ‘House’s Chimney’. Then we cut steps across an ice slope, to climb up on a shoulder and sit down at the highest shoulder just below the summit cone at 26000 ft the weather began to thicken, wind is blowing and we ran out of matches. We have done what we came to do; we have found the route up to the summit cone. We were very happy and were ready to go home. Bates sits triumphantly even in face of the storm and as the storm thickens it was evident that we must start from home as soon as possible. In a few days it does clear and we go on down to base camp arriving there two days later, very excited, very happy. We had accomplished far more than what few people thought we would. We have found a route up the mountain and had enjoyed every minute of it. We called it a ‘success’. We succeeded because we had a strong bond together, we all worked together for common good and now it was time to walk 350 miles back to the vale of Kashmir. A local help salutes us and welcomes us. Bob Bates and I celebrate with Demarou Rum, which he had brought all the way from home. As we walked pass this beautiful scenery on our way back, we knew we would be coming back.

In 1953, Bates and I decided that we want to go back to K2 and make a determined effort to the summit. The book that the expedition had written after the 1938 expedition has pictures, has maps and equipment list where the route is and we knew where we had to go. We had to choose our companions as carefully as we had in 1938. They all must work together for common good and common purpose work as a team, each one helping others, no superstars but all competent climbers with a dream of great adventure and a possible success. It is an exciting venture. We met Tony Streather, a serving officer with the British Army and Col. M. Ata Ullah, our liaison with the Pakistan Government. We fly into Rawalpindi after settling for few days, we fly past Nanga Parbat, which Germans were determined to climb to the summit. We land in Skardu halfway to the mountain and there we were greeted by a huge turnout. We thought they were all coming for their own sake but it turned out that they wanted us to intercede with the American Government on behalf of Kashmir. They shouted slogans in favour of Pakistan and America.

We crossed on the same Alexander’s barge to go across the Indus river. Alexander though never crossed the river here and the barge could be one of his contemporary. It is big, furious river and it took us two days to cross with all our baggage. On the other side we had quite a long walk on sandy desert at first and then we come to the lust vegetation of the Shigar valley and we walk past the same poplars that we saw in 1938. Then we came to a dusty desert where we took out the red and white umbrella, which was given to us by a friend in New York hoping that we would put it on the summit, partly as a spoof and partly to show that this was not a nationalist expedition. We helped our porters who were heavily loaded to cross the Braldu river and on the other side of that branch we put together a goad skin raft, 29 goats were skinned and their skin was blown up and tied together with willow wires and it made very light, easily transportable and very flexible and extraordinarily good method of crossing difficult rivers. It is as exciting as the water comes over the hatches, you get wet but it is still a good way to cross and far less frightening than crossing on rope bridges, made of twigs, branches and roots, high above the river, which would trap you should you fall into it.

Each day we assemble the porters, weigh out the loads, make sure each porter has a tag, knows exactly which load is his, weigh loads out to ensure that every one is equally treated and we assign porters to the baggage that they need to carry. Then we come to a great treat, a luxurious hot spring at Askole, which we had not seen in 1938. Here we luxuriate in this hot natural spring and here we have become very bonded. We break out the umbrellas once again. Our men, impromptu dance and concert for us, playing on their own instrument and singing as they dance. It was exotic and enchanting. After the dance we visit the ‘Girls Sowing Centre’, where the young ladies are weaving thread out of wool, to make ropes and clothes and just about everything they use here and it is all made out of their wool.

We again climb up the Baltoro glacier and facing this magnificent mountains some of which have been climbed since we were here fifteen years ago. We climb on to the big rock at Urdukass and look at the spectacular scenery all around us. We are so excited at being back at this great country and our hopes were very high for the future. As we passed through Concordia we had our first sight of K2 and it is clouded. It was not a good omen. We climbed some lower mountains that were clear and arrived at 16000 ft and came below the mountain and put up our base camp exactly at the same spot where we had established it in 1938, where the ill-fated 1939 expedition had also camped. We attended to few personal repairs at this place. There won’t be much water higher up the mountains and so bathing here would be the last luxury we would have for many weeks. We had come together as a very good team by now, we understand each other, we are working together, we have wonderful equipment and we have the K2 Parkas made for us by Eddie Bower which were very much better than what we had before, though the boots were not much better and we have many frostbites. We had a poignant picture, on left was Art Gilkey who would die on the mountain, and next to him is Pete Schoening who would save life of rest of us. Dee Molenaar was a distinguished mountain painter and he painted watercolours throughout our journey and at base camp. He had trouble keeping water from freezing at night, which was a bit of challenge.

We were surrounded by beauty. We always travelled on rope, even on innocent looking glaciers because to fall in a small crevasse could be rather difficult and might spell disaster. So the rope had become second nature to us. It is more than a physical bond; rope has psychological impact because each climber knows that his or her life is in the hands of the companion just as theirs is in his. We always climbed on the rope and we conscious of the bond between us. The climb is not difficult at first but we have to be careful to put up hand rails for our porters who would come with us only as far as Camp 2 for they were not really trained for Alpine climbing. We show them little about climbing with the rope and we had to be careful about what we do with the rope ourselves. At Camp 2, Bob Bates has a badly abscessed tooth and with some trepidation I pull it and it comes out very easily and to great relief of both patient and doctor. Just above this we go on to the gully below Camp 3, which we cross with stones and ice particles coming down on us. We were now working our way up a series of towers and ridges, pretty much like the skyline in the paintings of Molenaar. We had to make tent platforms at most of the places. Camp 3 was at a different location than in 1938. Here we met our first storm. We were pinned down but nothing compared to what we saw ahead of it. The storms at this altitude progressively get worse because of high altitude thawing and strong winds on the upper parts of the mountain. Avalanches on Broad Peak across the valley poured down all the time and we could not start on our ridge until the snow had settled a bit. If snow would slide it would hit our camp, so we moved slowly. We knew that climbing would be more and more difficult, more laborious and we had to move carefully.

At the ‘House’s Chimney’ we erected a small pulley system so that we can send our loads up instead of having to carry it as we did in 1938. The ‘House’s Chimney’ is a difficult climb at any altitude and at 21,000-22,000 ft very difficult and I was concerned about it as coming down in dark and in storm would be difficult. In fact when the time came for us to come down at the end of this trip we did come down in dark, in storm and badly hurt. We made it safely because we were a team that had worked together.

Let me jump ahead now to few difficult days to the time when some or all of us would sit together at the base camp and try to remember on a tape recorder what happened to us all during these terrible days high up on the mountains.

‘This is base camp, August 16. A badly battered expedition is down here and we have gathered to talk over the events of the last three weeks, which is consisted almost entirely of a storm. I think the biggest thrill of the reconnaissance team was when we were up on the mountain and were very much impressed by smooth, hard stretch of ice, which was quite a formidable obstacle. After a while we did reach the shoulder of K2 and found a very good campsite, protected from avalanches and flat level spot to pitch our tents. It was free from avalanches alright, but it was a target of heavy winds, the winds swept across the shoulder in a way which we could not have anticipated. It was a formidable storm that blew across when we were at Camp 8. We may have been within the reach of the summit but it was still so far away. About this time we begin to feel that if we do not move in this bad weather, or in dubious weather on this mountain we would not move at all. Wind kept blowing, the next day we had a beautiful sunrise, it was so warm, clear and sunny’.

‘On that morning we had the best weather we had for quite a few days, sun was quite bright and we were full of cheer and we got up early and soon after we got packed ready to move, but soon the weather started back to its miserable best. We realised that if we hadn’t come up then, we would never get to the top or higher. Very soon we found that we were heading for a much difficult time under very bad conditions. Bob and Tony continued up however, despite the terrible weather and soon they reached the shoulder and they were warmly welcomed by all of us at Camp 8. ‘

‘We were at about 25,000 ft in warm conditions and near to the summit’, Tony said. It was now less than 3000 t to get to the summit. We knew that it would be very difficult, but we were confident that we can do it. We had found the way so far and given the weather, we thought we could make it. The storm blew like hell and it was furious. Each one of us said that tomorrow would be better and prayed but it never did, the wind kept on and on, but then what was worse that the tents flapped so much that we could not cook. It did not matter about food for we can eat dry food, but water was a problem and at that altitude drink is absolutely essential. We were rapidly becoming dehydrated and in all this the real blow came.

‘We first knew about it when at seven Art got up and started walking up towards Tony. At this speed walking in a storm, he had a breathing spell, toppled over snow gingerly. Charlie came out and examined him and found that he had a blood clot in his left leg. I was a little surprised over it and put him in his bag with a bandage on his leg and I came and told everybody that he would be unable to walk for sometime. This finished whatever hope we had for the summit, but the weather was not too bad that day, so we thought that we must try to get off the mountain that day as soon as possible. As we started we were caught in an extremely dangerous avalanche and decided that we had to go back. Pete and Craig decided to go down by another route. We never knew that there was a way down avoiding the avalanche slope, which we had not noticed on our way up. It was on a rocky ridge, which went down and ultimately reached Camp 7. The fact that there was any route from avalanches, which would get us down to Camp 7 was quite a relief in our mind and to that extent it was quite valuable. It was not valuable but life saving. In fact we were happy for the route found by Bob and if we had known it before we would have cut down the slope on which the avalanches came. On the 8th and 9th we just stayed there under more storm. Art was getting worse and it was at that time we realised that we had to get him down, and get him down now, if he had any chance to survive and for us also it mattered for we were so tired and dehydrated and so under nourished and that we do not go down, we might not survive. Once we made the decision that we must take Art down we were worried because of the weather. It was a hell of a day. It was blowing and snowing but this was the one chance of saving his life. It was a desperate thing to do, which we could possibly try. We were actually optimistic to go down the mountain, even a mountain of such height and even in such storm. Weather was awful and in making evacuation in such weather was more awful. We expressed to each other that we were worried because of the bad weather.

Art was wrapped up in a sleeping bag and a tent with a small pillow under his head, socks, boots, clothes and I think he was very warm and comfortable and we had rope around his waist under his arms. We brought him to the edge of the gully and held him there for long time when an avalanche came and hit Bob. Charlie held them quite strongly; otherwise all would have gone down. Tony who was little way down shouted to everybody. The wind was so strong that they could not hear even though they were a rope length away. The rope suddenly cut through a lump of snow and it started off quite a large avalanche. Tony shouted down to Bob but he could not hear, but fortunately he hanged on tightly just above Art. Tony could see them clearly disappearing as the snow went down through this very narrow gully over their heads and as the snow cleared he was very relieved and little surprised to see them both still there. They were holding at the edge of a cliff. George Bell who was in a belay position all along gave one of the soundest belays that one can possibly want to both Art and Bob.

After they got down this gully, Pete, Bob and myself belayed Art down, a stiff cliff and George belayed Tony who then went down with Art, lowered him down the cliff and they all got down the ice slope below the cliff.

It was just about here that the accident happened. There was a double white rope tied to Art and as Tony had gone down with him he had the last words with him. George was having a hard time having frostbitten toes and the extra time waiting at the top had done worse. We could see him climbing across, but his hands were tight and did not look real. He took a handhold and then began to slip. Suddenly George was falling and gathering speed on this high ice slope. He was still tied to Tony who was peeled-off like a fly and when down with George. Suddenly there was a jerk after a few feet and he stopped. That was their rope crossing the double white rope to which Art was tied. And that jerk meant that the entire party was now falling and they all fell another 50 feet. They could not do anything about it but there was suddenly another jerk on the rope between Tony and George and suddenly all were held by Pete who had a very very good belay position on Art and who was above us about 200 ft. It was remarkable that Pete was able to hold all five of us. It must be mentioned that if Pete had not held us he would have been pulled off and Art and all of us would be gone, except Bob who was unroped. I was unconscious and was helped to climb up 15 ft or so after being unroped and was to D Molenaar who was belaying me. Soon the whole group was climbing on to Camp 7 and working on a platform. By the time we pitched tents in our weak conditions, probably we were away 45 minutes to an hour away from Art. Bob Bates before he came down to Camp 7 had gone up to Art and secured him very strongly and Tony likewise had put another belay on Art so there were two very strong ice axe belays on Art. Bob had told little of what had happened to Art and said that we would come back as soon as possible once the injured from the fall had taken care off. After an hour three of us went to Art to see if we can move him and we came to the slope, which was about 150 ft from where we were. To our amazement the slope was bare. We don’t know what had happened but probably an avalanche had come down and swept down Art, ice axes and all the equipments down the mountain. Nobody heard it and nobody saw it and 150 ft from where we were, the slope was bare and Art was gone, just as if the hand of God had swept him away.

As we came back to Camp 7 and as we bivouacked it was a long horrible night with everybody delirious. Miraculously we were able to get a stove going and gave water to everybody, thank God it was a windless night, one of the best nights we had on the mountain. Next morning we got up, ate some food and started going down the mountain. I was much better so I roped with Pete and Bob tied on one rope. Tony, George and De were on the other. I had serious concussions in my head and an injury in my chest and it was a strong effort to go down though. We had strong belays; we had to be careful with our feet, as it was icy, snowy and very very cold. From Camp 6 began the most desperate descent of our trip and credit must go to George Bell, who despite his frostbite was a tower of strength. He led us beautifully down on the ice-covered rocks all the way to Camp 2 where for the first time we started feeling that we were safe. The weather never let up and the route appeared completely different than what we had on our way up. But we knew we had to go down. There were no reserves of fuel and food and we were getting weaker by the day and it was job that had to be done and it was done.

Actually we had lost most of our food and gas during the accident so we had to get down as soon as we could. We had never enough anything to drink and sometimes nothing to drink. At Camp 2 we were greeted by our Hunza porters who received us warmly with food and drink and put their arms around us and shouting. I cannot describe it except that it was the warmest and deepest experiences I ever had of human beings and the Hunzas came out in groups and we came out by our ropes. And the first rope was of course mine, they took our packs off on ice slopes of 40 degrees. We were all in tears and soon came the pots of hot rice, hot tea and Hunza biscuits. Tony explained to them in Urdu about Art and what had happened on the mountain and how we just barely got down. One of the Hunzas led a very touching prayer.

We knew that the adventure was over. It had been a Homeric struggle with s furious mountain.2


Recalling events on the American expeditions to k2 in 1938 and 1953, led by the author. The article is based on the commentary from the film of the same title with additions by the author.


  1. The article is based on the commentary from the film of same title, with additional material by the author.
  2. From Abode of Snow , by Kenneth Mason, p. 305. (E.P. Dutton, New York, 1955).


⇑ Top