Just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man – or of the cindered planet after the last.
K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, (8611 m), and one of the most difficult to climb. It was also one of the first 8000ers to be seen, explored and attempted. It was spotted as early as 1887 by a young British colonel, Francis Younghusband, after an incredible journey started a couple of years before from Manchuria across the Gobi Desert and a traverse of a 5486 m high pass (the Mustagh pass to the Baltoro glacier) climbing without ice axes and wearing only native footgear. The first expedition with the purpose of climbing the the mountain, however, was that of Martin Conway, a British art critic (and also a mountaineer, of course, with a passion for exploration) in 1892. Conway explored and mapped three glaciers surrounding K2 and climbed two minor peaks. Seventeen years later, the Duke of the Abruzzi used Conway’s maps to plan his expedition.
There was then another attempt in 1902, led by the British mountaineer, Oscar Eckenstein, who had participated in the Conway expedition but had left it due to incompatibility with the leader. Aleyster Crowley was also part of this expedition, who after his climbing days, became famous for satanic practices which gained him the reputation of the ‘wickedest man in the world.’ This expedition was also a failure : the members quarrelled about the ways of approach and separated, but it was exactly the track indicated by Crowley on the southeast spur of the mountain, chosen seven years later by Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of Abruzzi.
The Duke was a prince - grandson of the first King of Italy, an officer of the Italian Navy and a passionate mountaineer. He had climbed several peaks on the Alps since he was a young boy and had already led successful expeditions to high mountains such as Saint Elias in Alaska and Ruwenzori in Africa. The climbing team which aimed at conquering K2 included the Duke himself with three companions (one of whom was his faithful friend, Vittorio Sella, an extraordinary mountaineer and photographer) and four guides from the Alps. They climbed along the line suggested by Crowley in very bad weather conditions but at 6666 m they gave up. The expedition, however, was a success because the topographers who were part of the expedition completed the mapping of the upper Baltoro Glacier. Moreover the expedition attained an altitude record on the as-yet unclimbed Bride peak (7654 m) in the middle of the Golden Throne group, climbing up to 7399 m.
K2 from the Godwin-Austen glacier at sunrise (Vittorio Sella, 1909)
K2 from Camp 3, photo by Luigi Amedeo di Savoia (Duke of the Abruzzi, 1909)
More expeditions followed. In 1914, Filippo De Filippi, who had been a member of the Duke of the Abruzzi’s team, went back to K2 to carry out measurements. After a halt due to the World War I, in 1929 the Italian went back once more to the Baltoro for reconnaissance with a scientific expedition led by the Duke of Spoleto, who was a nephew of the Duke of the Abruzzi. One of the members of the expedition was the geographer and geologist, Ardito Desio, who subsequently led the winning expedition in 1954. Two years later, there was another Italian scientific expedition (led by Giotto Dainelli) to complete the surveys carried out by De Filippi.
The Duke of the Abruzzi on Baltoro glacier with his guides and porters (Vittorio Sella, 1909)
Only in 1938 was there a new attempt to reach the summit of the mountain. It was an American expedition guided by Charles ‘Charlie’ Snead Houston, who planned to climb following the line of the Duke of the Abruzzi along the southeast spur but stopped at about 7000 m, only 300 or 400 m higher than the point reached by the Duke.
In 1939, the K2 would have finally been conquered but for a last minute hiccup. This time it was an American expedition guided by Fritz Wiessner, a very strong and experienced American mountaineer. Sherpa Pasang Lama and he arrived at 8367 m, only 244 m from the summit at six in the afternoon. The weather was perfect and both were in a good form although they had moved upward steadily for nine hours through the most difficult rock pitches of the mountain. But going on to the top at that altitude and without oxygen meant another three or four hours (they did not know what kind of difficulties they would encounter) and that meant not being able to return to the higher camp - camp IX – that they had left before dark. Most probably they would have to bivouac somewhere on the mountain. Pasang refused to continue. It was not out of fear of the cold but of the spirits of the night that haunt the mountain. Wiessner tried hard to convince him to go on - he even pulled the rope to force him to go up, but Pasang tugged harder. They moved down, back to the camp. During the descent they managed to tangle the ropes and in the attempt to untangle them, Pasang lost the crampons he was carrying. They were tied to his side with the ropes… Nevertheless, Wiessner was confident of making it to the top the following day. But the next day they lost time waiting for supplies as there was no food in the tent. Wiessner even sunbathed, lying on his sleeping bag but nobody arrived and they descended to the lower camp where there was nobody! The men who were there, not having seen Wiessner and Pasang for days, thought that they had died, so they had wound up the camp and gone back. The rest of the expedition had a tragic history : one man died and the three Sherpas who had gone to rescue him, disappeared.
K2, Staircase and Godwin-Austen glacier (Vittorio Sella, 1909)
The Duke of Spoleto Aimone di Savoia above the Kyagar glacier (Umberto Balestreri, 1929)
K2 viewed from northeast (from an airplane) (Mario Fantin, 1954)
Vertigo Road in Karakoram on the way to Baltoro glacier (Umberto Balestreri, 1929)
Fritz Wiessner and Pasang Lama had reached the highest altitude on any mountain ever in the world (at that time) and only 244 m separated them from the summit. If they had gone up they would have been the first men to climb an 8000er without oxygen and in perfect alpine style - 11 years before the actual ascent of the first 8000er (Annapurna) and 15 years before the first ascent of K2.
World War II started that year and the political arrangements made after the war stopped new expeditions. The western Karakorams no longer belonged to India but to Pakistan and permits to climb mountains were given with great parsimony to the applicants. No more than one expedition on each mountain! Nevertheless the French won the Annapurna in 1950, in 1953 the British climbed Everest and an Austro-German expedition Nanga Parbat (the Austrian mountaineer, Herman Buhl, was the first man to solo onto the top of an 8000er in alpine style and without oxygen - an unsurpassable record in the history of mountaineering).
In the same year (1953), another American expedition led by Charlie Houston obtained the permission for K2. The previous expedition (1938) had been a failure, made more unpleasant by disputes which did not end even after the members went back home. But they had reached a remarkable altitude, resolving some of the most difficult passages. So Houston was confident that this time they would succeed. He chose a more reliable team of self-sufficient and experienced mountaineers and up they went along the line he knew already. The weather was unkind to them, incessant storms lowered their progress, yet they succeeded in establishing a high camp, at 7700 m, from which a small team could push up to the top. But on the first day of good weather, when they started for the final assault, one of the mountaineers selected for the second summit team, Art Gilkey, collapsed unconscious on the snow after taking just a few steps from his tent. He was one of the strongest of the party. Houston (who was a doctor) examined him and realized that he had been striken by thrombophlebitis and needed immediate care. Without the slightest hesitation the whole team wound up camp and set out to descent. Added to the complication to evacuate an incapacitated man wrapped in his sleeping bag and the remains of the tent down a difficult wall, new storms made everything extremely difficult and dangerous. They were aware that they were transporting a man who’d have most probably died, but not one of the men ever thought for a minute to leave him and run for his own survival. At the end, tragically, Gilkey was swept away by an avalanche while his friends left him anchored to a slope at a distance of a few feet from an emergency camp they were trying to set up. There was no possibility of recovering his body. The survivors were wounded and exhausted and had a bad time reaching base camp. At short distance from base camp of K2 the Hunzas who had escorted the expedition built a three-metre high cairn in memory of the unfortunate mountaineer. Since then, all alpinists who stop at that camp on their way to K2, pay a visit to the Gilkey memorial, to remember Art Gilkey and all the other unfortunate alpinists who lost their life on K2.
The story of this expedition is the most touching of all the stories about K2 and maybe of all the stories of Himalayan climbing. In all the preceding expeditions and in many of the subsequent ones there have always been conflicts and resentments of some kind, some of them even lasting for a long time after the return of the expedition. The 1953 American expedition to K2 has become a legend among mountaineers : a wonderful story of friendship and unselfish gallantry which honours humankind.
Houston was determined to go back to the mountain for the third time, but in 1954 the permission to climb K2 was granted to an Italian expedition guided by Ardito Desio. The year before, Desio, with a permit which did not include climbing, had led a surveying expedition up the Baltoro range. He had also carried out an inspection of a glacier of Baltistan on account of the Pakistani Government, which was one of the reasons why he obtained the permit to climb K2 in 1954. The team included the best alpinists from all the different regions of the Alps, and all the steps of the ascent were perfectly organized.
Sadly, one of the members, Mario Puchoz died, presumably of pulmonary edema, at camp II. The effects of altitude were not known well enough at that time, and since Puchoz was considered the strongest man of the expedition, his death had a depressing effect on the spirit and disposition of his mates. However, they went on and succeeded thanks to their strict collaboration.
Compagnoni and Lacedelli after attaining the summit of K2 – first ascent (Mario Fantin, 1954)
Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni finally succeeded in ascending to the summit of K2 via the Abruzzi Spur on 31 July 1954. These men had the fundamental support of Walter Bonatti - one of the greatest mountaineers ever, who at that time was only 24 years old - and of the Hunza, Amir Mahdi. Up to the last camp everybody had climbed without oxygen, but it was programmed that the two men chosen for the top had to use it. Bonatti and Mahdi carried the oxygen bottles up to the last camp from which Compagnoni and Lacedelli would move for the final push the day after, but due to a disgraceful mishap they did not find the tent of their companions and were forced to bivouac at 8000 m with no tent and not even a sleeping bag. They survived, but Mahdi was severely frostbitten and all his toes had to be amputated.
After the first ascent, no other expedition reached the top of K2 for 23 years. In 1977, a huge Japanese expedition (with 1500 hired porters) succeeded in putting seven mountaineers - six Japanese and one Pakistani - on its summit.
The first ascent of the mountain without oxygen was accomplished by the American Louis Reichardt (who was also the first American to climb Everest), Rick Ridgeway and John Roskelly in 1978. They did not follow the traditional Abruzzi Spur but established a new route on the northeast ridge.
The first woman who climbed K2 was the Polish mountaineer, Wanda Rutkiewicz, followed on the same day, just half an hour later, by the French mountaineer, Liliane Barrard. They were both part of a French expedition led by Maurice Barrard in 1986. That year was one of the most tragic for that mountain. Thirteen people died - most of them during the descent. K2 is a very beautiful but very difficult mountain.
No one has succeeded until today in attaining the summit of K2 during winter. There have been several attempts in the course of the years - all without success. The latest attempt, last winter (2014-15), was by the Italians Simone Moro and Tamara Lunger. Tamara had climbed K2 without oxygen in summer just a few months before (2014). Bad weather kept them trapped in the tent for weeks and they gave up. They will try again next winter, and so will a Spanish team that had also made an attempt last year, together with the Italian Daniele Nardi.
Due to the worldwide crisis and the earthquake which devastated Nepal, the number of expeditions to the Himalaya and the Karakoram was lower than usual in the summer of 2015. Bad weather made matters worse and no one climbed the summit of K2.
K2 has a reputation of being a killer mountain; statistics attribute to it the highest percentage of lethal accidents on all the 8000ers. It is called the Savage Mountain.
In the summer of 1986, there was an exceptional number of people on the mountain. Permits had been given to 10 expeditions of different nationalities plus four separate groups which aggregated to four official expeditions. This concentration of mountaineers, bad weather and rotten luck, caused 13 deaths. Most of the 13 were strong and well known alpinists such as the British Alan Rouse and Julie Tullis, the Italian Renato Casarotto while he was climbing solo a new route called Magic Line, the Polish Tadeusz Piotrowski and Wojciech Wroz, and the French Maurice and Liliane Barrard.
Most of them had reached the summit and died during the descent along the Abruzzi spur not because of accidents but because of the difficult route where the descent takes time and the climbers have to go down along the ropes one at a time. It is no place for a crowd and the bad weather kept most of them stuck, unable to move, with no food, no water, no tents.
The era of commercial expeditions began in 1980 when Nepali authorities opened Everest to anyone could pay a big fee. In 1996 there were all together 11 expeditions on the Nepali side of the mountain of which six were commercial expeditions. And on the Tibetan side there were also several other expeditions. The tragedy that followed due to unexpected bad weather is well known because of the bestseller, Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, which has recently been transposed into a movie. Despite the eight deaths, commercial expeditions have been continuing and every summer we look at photos of long lines of more than a hundred people, stuck behind each other along the fixed ropes which lead to the summit of Everest.
The front of Baltoro glacier (Mario Fantin, 1954)
On the Godwin-Austen glacier in front of Chogolisa, Bride peak and Mitre peak (Mario Fantin, 1954)
The mountaineering community thought that K2, being so much more difficult to tackle than Everest, would never be assaulted by commercial expeditions. In fact, expeditions involved in the tragedy of 1986, all comprised strong and accomplished alpinists, almost all of whom had climbed other 8000ers successfully.
But mountaineering has become very popular, even at a high altitudes, and the 8000ers are the most coveted goals of all well prepared climbers. Certainly to climb K2 requires more ability than climbing Everest, so the numbers are smaller, but in 2002 there was a concentration of international expeditions to it, of skilled and less skilled alpinists, plus a few experienced solo climbers. A group of expeditions decided to pool in their efforts to assemble camps and set up the fixed line to climb the mountain. But it did not work. The teams who decided to work together were an American one, a French, a Norwegian, a South Korean, and a Dutch one. The members were from different countries. Each expedition had its own hired guides and porters, some Pakistani high altitude porters and some Sherpas coming from Nepal. They had different habits, spoke different languages, had problems of communication, and the result was a disaster. Each single climber went up and came back down on his or her own. The first accident caused a chain of accidents. The weather was not wonderful, but this time it was not weather’s fault : the avalanches were provoked by people who fell down and delays in descending were caused by broken or uprooted ropes. Eleven persons died and three survivors were so badly frostbitten, the rest of their life was ruined.
Savage Mountain? Apart from the above mentioned disasters, there are very few years without a deadly accident. But accidents happen in other sports, too (if we want to consider alpinism a sport) and even in everyday life. Of course, the numbers are different, and K2 is one of the most difficult 8000ers – if not THE most difficult - so there is a logic in the higher number of deaths. Which, however, will never divert passionate alpinists from attempting to climb it.. Because even if it is the most difficult, even if it is savage, deadly and cursed, it is also beautiful - so beautiful! - and passionate climbers will always be attracted by it and will go and climb it just because it is there.
A brief look at the climbing history of K2 by the highly acclaimed Italian historian, Mirella Tenderini.
K2 (Mario Fantin, 1954)
Mirella Tenderini is an Italian mountaineering journalist and author. She has translated several books from English, French and Spanish into Italian, and has written biographies of mountaineers and explorers such as the Duke of the Abruzzi, Gary Hemming and Ernest Shackleton. She writes articles for Italian mountaineering magazines, and occasionally also for the British Alpine Journal, the American Alpine Journal and other foreign papers. She lives among the Alps.
Photos with this article are published courtesy of Centro Documentazione Museo Nazionale della Montagna CAI-Torino.