The Duke and the Abruzzi Spur

Mirella Tenderini

Luigi Amedeo di Savoia had been rejected by K2 but he could not give up. He was not satisfied. If they could not conquer a peak they should at least achieve an altitude record.

Usually articles about mountaineering events report either successes or dramatic failures, and expeditions that did not reach the top of a mountain and simply gave up in order to go home safely are often not interesting enough to be the subject of an article. However the story with no success and no tragedy that I am writing now has an important place in history of mountaineering. It is the chronicle of an expedition to the Karakoram in 1909 by Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi, with the aim of climbing to the top of the second highest mountain in the world, the K2.

K2 is the highest peak in the Karakoram at the northwestern end of the Himalayan chain along the border between Pakistan and China. Actually the local name of the mountain is Chogori, but it had been given the name K2 in 1856 by the officer of the Royal Engineers, Thomas George Montgomerie, in charge of measuring, mapping and naming the mountains in the territory of the British Raj. Montgomerie had discerned from a distance, two giant peaks which he called temporarily K1 and K2 (Karakoram 1 and 2). Actually K2, which from a distance seemed the lower of the two mountains, is higher than K1. But K1 continued to be called Masherbrum as the local people called it, whereas K2 was called K2 unto this day.

In the 1860s Lieutenant Colonel Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen explored the mountains of the Karakoram on behalf of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, and went up along the Biafo glacier towards the Ogre and Latok mountains and continued along the Punmah glacier to the Mustagh pass, from where he descended along the glacier and started towards the Baltoro, deciding to go on as far as possible. He arrived at the Urdukas where he climbed a minor peak to check the height of K2 and its position.

Godwin-Austen and Younghusband were the pioneers of exploration in the Karakoram area—what they achieved without knowledge or access to techniques and tools of mountain climbing is really amazing.

The first expedition organized with the purpose of climbing mountains in the Karakoram was by an Englishman William Martin Conway. Conway was an art history teacher but also a scholar of mathematics, physics and geography. He was passionate about mountaineering and on the Alps he had made friends with famous mountaineers such as Edward Whymper and Alfred Frederick Mummery. The Swiss guide Matthias Zurbriggen and the Englishman Oscar Eckenstein were also on the expedition. Oscar was an expert mountaineer and designer of tools for climbers, such as the short-handled ice axe and the ten-pointed crampon that revolutionized ice climbing. Unfortunately it was not a happy choice: the two men did not get along. Eckenstein was only interested in climbing, while Conway was not in a hurry and wanted to explore at ease all the territories he crossed. Even before arriving at Baltoro glacier he had headed to the northern side of the Rakaposhi chain to climb some minor peaks and do mappings.

The Duke of Abruzzi

The Duke of Abruzzi



At a certain moment he also divided the expedition into two groups and sent Eckenstein and Bruce with two Gurkha escorts to the base of Chomo Lungma while he and Zurbriggen took a detour through the Ispar pass to the junction of the Sim Kand and Biafo glaciers which Conway named Snow Lake. They proceeded down along the Biafo to the valley of the Braldu river and went on to Askole to meet again the other members of the expedition. They had made the longest sub-polar glacial crossing in the world!

For certain Eckenstein was not pleased to have been excluded from that crossing. Maybe they argued. Maybe Conway wanted to get rid of him. The fact is that Eckenstein was sent back to Europe and the expedition continued without him up the Baltoro to the glacial junction at the base of the four giant mountains of the Gasherbrum a vast area that Conway named it after the large Concordia Circus in the centre of Paris. The expedition ended with the ascent of a 6000 m peak; but the great success was the vast collection of surveys and maps adding to the knowledge of the territory required by the Royal Geographic Society.

In 1899 the Americans William Hunter Workman and Fanny Bullock Workman, two eccentric mountain fans who had travelled four continents by bicycle, crossed Ladakh and reached the Karakoram pass, The following year they returned to Skardu and Askole to continue to the Ispar pass with Zurbriggen who knew already the Biafo glacier, but they managed only to climb a couple of small peaks near Skoro la.

In the years that followed there were other attempts to reach K2 which terminated at the first difficulties, but in 1902 Oscar Eckenstein returned to the Karakoram to try K2 again with a Swiss doctor, an English student, two Austrian climbers, and a very peculiar man, Englishman Aleister Crowley, with whom he had climbed two volcanoes in Mexico. Crowley was a young man raised in a strictly religious environment—he had studied philosophy but devoted his whole life to occultism. He presented himself as The Great Beast 666 but was an excellent climber. In 1902 Eckenstein chose him as his second in command of the expedition. Unfortunately the two leaders were not compatible and they soon separated the expedition into two teams choosing two different itineraries. They both failed and came together again, but separated once more when Eckenstein decided to climb the northeast ridge, while Crowley chose to climb along the southeast slopes of the mountain to a terminal pyramid to reach a big spur which he thought could be the direct way to the top. The climb was very difficult and he gave up before reaching that spur, which is now called Abruzzi Spur.

There were no other attempts on K2 until 1909 when the Duke of the Abruzzi organized an expedition to K2 and chose to climb along the itinerary of Crowley.

Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of Abruzzi, was born in Madrid on January 29, 1873 son of a King of Spain and grandson of the first King of Italy. He was three and a half years old when his mother died. His father in the meantime had renounced the throne of Spain and moved to Italy and when Luigi Amedeo arrived at six years of age his father enlisted him as a deck hand in the Royal Navy where he served for his whole life until he reached the maximum position of Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Naval Army. In the summer, however, he spent his holidays in the Alps where he developed a strong passion for rock climbing. In the Alps he met the famous English mountaineer Frederick Mummery who was going to be the first man to attempt to climb an 8000 m mountain. This was Nanga Parbat in 1895, and unfortunately he died during his attempt. His death shook Luigi Amedeo—he promised himself that he would climb high mountains in his memory.

The Duke studied reports of the previous attempts to climb the mountain and chose to follow Eckenstein’s itinerary. He recruited four guides with whom he climbed on the Alps: Joseph Petigax who had been with him on his major expeditions and had Himalayan experiences, his son Laurent and two brothers, Alexis and Henri Brocherel. To support the guides he hired also three porters: Emile Brocherel, Albert Savoie and Ernest Bareux. The rest of the party consisted of the topographer Federico Negrotto, Filippo de Filippi who was a doctor and would be the chronicler of the expedition, and the famous photographer Vittorio Sella who had participated in the previous expeditions of the Duke, with his assistant Erminio Botta.

The expedition—men and baggage (132 pieces totalling 4752 kgs), embarked on a ship in Marseille for Bombay on 13th March, 1909 and continued for Rawalpindi and then for Srinagar in Kashmir with the five tons of gear and provisions transported by hand-drawn carts and horse-drawn tongas. Sometimes when they met a river they travelled a few kilometres on boats. At that time all the territory they crossed was Indian and on different occasions the expedition was welcomed by British authorities and Indian personalities they partook of festivities, arriving in Skardu only on 8th May. There the Duke and his men first saw the high mountain peaks to which they were headed.

The lower Baltoro glacier

The lower Baltoro glacier

They had covered 362 km in eleven days and the Duke called a halt for a few days. The village chiefs organized a polo game and offered a banquet. The expedition took advantage of that stop to rest and to recover energy. They resumed their journey after a few days towards Askole. The track was very steep and the temperature had dropped significantly. The party crossed the face of Biafo glacier and on 18th May they arrived at the foot of the gigantic Baltoro glacier. They climbed until they found a vast and flat space where they set up a base camp from where the Duke chose 10 strong porters to carry equipment and provisions to the intermediate and higher camps. From that base camp the Italians followed the route of the Eckenstein expedition along the glacial moraine of the Baltoro. On May 24 they set up camp I on the northern wall of the glacier. Then they turned north to set camp II at the junction of the Baltoro and Godwin Austen glaciers, where Sella took some of his wonderful photographs.

On 27th May, the Duke set up Camp III at the base of a southeast spur where they stopped to make a reconnaissance. From that point the K2 rose some 3700 m and since the eastern slopes were too difficult and the northeastern spur was steep and swept by avalanches, they decided to follow a rib of the rock that rose directly above camp III, leading to the shoulder of the mountain. That was exactly the route that Crowley had suggested on the Eckenstein expedition. The Duke decided to follow it.

K2 from Windy Gap, by Vittorio Sella, 1909, (Alpine Club Photo Library, London)

K2 from Windy Gap
K2 in the evening from Camp VIII on staircase

K2 in the evening from Camp VIII on staircase (from the East),
by HRH Duke of Abruzzi, 1909, (Alpine Club Photo Library, London)

On 29th the Duke with Joseph and Laurent Petigax, three Italian and a few Balti porters set off up the southeast spur. Unfortunately, the next section appeared difficult and dangerous due to falling rocks on the slopes ahead of them. However Joseph and Laurent Petigax and the Italian porters went ahead to install fixed ropes, but made little progress, also because they had been deceived by optical illusions that made them see easy slopes which actually were perpendicular.

The next day the two guides decided to try again. Reaching a couloir where they had placed ropes the day before, they saw a band of rock leading in the direction of the summit. That would be the route to follow...but the wall was steep and exposed and would be too difficult for the porters to climb. They were still too far from the summit to manage without tents and provisions…reluctantly Joseph Petigax decided to give up.

Back at camp IV he reported their findings to the Duke who called off the attempt. They had reached an altitude of about 6700 m.

Disappointed, the Duke and his companions went back to Camp III and a day later they began to return.

After that, the southeast ridge of K2 would be known as the Abruzzi Spur.

Their attempt had failed, but the expedition was not over. On his initial reconnaissance the Duke had seen a broad ice saddle on the west side of K2, and he thought that maybe it would have been possible to reach the northwest spur of the mountain from there. They still had time and provisions so the Duke decided to try a new route on that side. It was not easy: they had to pass through a glacier full of crevasses and with avalanche danger, but when they reached a height of 6666 m they found themselves under a corniced ridge that blocked the passage. They could not help but give up.

Unfortunately they had had no luck with the weather. Till that moment they had never had three days in a row of good weather...the Duke decided to retire.

He gave his name Savoy—to field V, the last one they had climbed, and they went down to make an attempt on another mountain.

They set up camp at the foot of the northeast spur of K2, and from there the Duke decided to attempt the nearest mountain: 7544 m Staircase peak—Skyang Kangri in the local language.

On 17th June, the Duke with Joseph and Laurent Petigax, Alexis and Emile Brocherel and Albert Savoie started the ascent of an ice rib leading to Staircase peak. Unfortunately Alexis Brocherel, who had had an accident a few days earlier by falling into a crevasse, found he was unable to continue and was forced to retire, accompanied by two guides. The others went on up but the weather got worse, it started snowing and for the third time on the expedition the Duke declared himself defeated. They arranged a camp VIII at 6601 m and the next day they retreated.

Luigi Amedeo di Savoia had been rejected by K2 but he could not give up. He was not satisfied. If they could not conquer a peak they should at least achieve an altitude record.

The Duke chose Bride peak (local name Chogolisa) 7654 m, which was located in the middle of the Golden Throne group, at south of the Baltoro glacier. Conway had attempted it in 1892 but had not gone too high.

On 1st July the Duke set up a base camp at 5071 m; it was the XI of the expedition. On the 4th he started up with Vittorio Sella and four guides. They crossed difficult stretches through seracs, caverns and bottomless crevasses, and set camp 12 at 5474 m. The day after, only Sella managed to arrive at 5821 m and set up camp 13 but had to remain there two days because of an incessant storm.

In the following days the Duke and his companions went up again in turns and despite the bad weather managed to set up three more camps. On 18th July Luigi Amedeo di Savoia with Joseph Petigax and Henry and Emile Brocherel reached 7498 m. It was an altitude record for that mountain and the Duke, certain that in those weather conditions they would not have possibly been able to reach the summit, decided to stop there.

As announced at the beginning of this article, this is a story of constant defeats, but apart from the record of height on Chogolisa, which served to sweeten the Duke’s disappointment, from a scientific point of view the expedition was a success. The amount of data, measurements and descriptions were of great help for the following expeditions. Among the most valued documents are the photographs by Vittorio Sella who had brought heavy and bulky equipment upto incredible heights. Even some photos taken by the Duke at high-altitude are part of that heritage. Aside from the beauty of the images they are an important point of reference for geographical companies, cartographers, geologists and mountaineers. But the most precious and admirable document is the film shot by Vittorio Sella only 15 years after the first film of the first inventors of cinema, the Lumière brothers. It is a film that documents the expedition’s journey from landing in India to the high mountains—it is also a fascinating documentation of life and customs in the India of those years.

This is a story of the Duke of the Abruzzi and his ‘unsuccessful’ efforts on K2. Although he could not find success in ascents, this expedition became one of the most iconic ones in history of climbing, not the least because of Vittorio De Sella’s photographs and film.

Photos courtesy of:

The Alpine Club, UK

About the Author

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.

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