A Brief History on K2

November 18, 2013 at 4:44 am

K2 (8611 METERS/ 28,251 FEET):
The mountain is so remote, lying more than 65 miles of rugged mountain terrain from the nearest village, that it had no name. Instead it was given a surveyor’s designation (K for Karakorum Mountains), and a number, based on an initial guess that it was the second highest peak in the range. Once within a region nominally controlled by British India, K2 stands near Afghanistan, on the border between Pakistan and China, in an area most closely related by history to Kashmir. To say the least, it is a very colorful corner of the world in which to embark on an adventure.

K2 was long considered un-climbable, but it still drew exploratory mountaineers. At the same time that the British were laying siege to Everest, large teams of Italian and small teams of American climbers were risking it all on K2. Attempts in 1902, 1909, 1929, 1938, 1939 and 1953 all failed. In 1954, the Italians persevered: two climbers finally reached the summit. Even now, years can go by without a successful ascent. In five of the last ten years, no one summited K2. In 2006 four people summited K2 (and four others died trying), while hundreds climbed Everest.

Americans, the first to die
The early failures were as colorful as later ascents. The 1902 expedition was exciting, with the leader being imprisoned and another climber threatening his teammates with a revolver at their highest camp. The 1909 expedition was lead by the Italian Duke of Abruzzi, traveling in style with his brass bed. This team was unable to climb more than a few hundred feet up the mountain. Twenty years later, the Duke’s nephew lead another K2 expedition, also failing to get much above base camp. The American attempt of 1938 reached the incredible height of 26,000 feet, only to be forced to retreat because no one remembered to carry the matches needed to light their stoves. The American attempt of 1939 ended with the mountain’s first tragedy. Millionaire Dudley Wolfe was trapped for days by a storm at 25,000 feet. A handful of Sherpas hoping to rescue him died trying to reach him. Wolfe’s remains, and much of his tent, were found at the base of the mountain in 2002, having been wiped from the upper slopes by an avalanche. The American expedition of 1953 again ended in tragedy. While lowering a dying Art Gilkey, wrapped in sleeping bags, down a steep slope in a raging blizzard, several members of the team slipped and tumbled down the face. Miraculously they were entwined in the rope holding Gilkey. Pete Schoenig arrested the fall of the 5 men by holding onto a single wooden ice axe. The exhausted and shaken team anchored Gilkey to the slope and sought a sheltered place to set up the camp. Returning minutes later, they discovered he had been wiped from the face of the mountain by an avalanche.

The Controversial First Ascent
The first successful ascent, in 1954, started with over 700 porters, a dozen climbers, and a handful of scientists. Despite one of the climbers dying after 40 days on the mountain, the expedition pushed on. A team of two made the final ascent, with their oxygen running out and the descent being made in darkness. The successful climb, hailed in Italy as an event of national pride and unity, following their crushing defeats in the world wars, was soon embroiled in controversy. The two summiters manipulated their companions into carrying extra supplies to the highest camp, then hid the tent and ignored their cries for help. While they climbed to the summit, their teammates passed the night trapped on the slopes, without tents, stoves or sleeping bags.

246 Summits, 55 Deaths
To date, 246 climbers have summited K2, by 10 different routes, only 5 of which have ever been repeated. At least 55 climbers have died attempting K2, some caught in avalanches low on the mountain, others dying from exposure while returning from the summit. The stories surrounding K2 are epic, some steeped in superstition. The first five women to summit either died on the mountain or on a subsequent expedition. At the Gilkey Memorial, tin plates, with the names of the deceased stamped into them, flutter in the wind. Every year, the slowly churning glacier pushes human remains to the surface. Daily avalanches tear down the faces near base camp. While Everest looks tall, cold and indifferent to everyone that stands at its base, K2 appears fearsome and even vengeful.

Women of K2
As dangerous and deadly as K2 has been to those who’ve attempted its summit, for women, that experience has been downright catastrophic. Between 1986 and the start of the climbing season in 2004, only five women had reached the summit of K2 and all of them were dead; three on their descent and the two that made it off alive died soon after on other 8000 meter peaks. For some, K2 seemed to carry a curse for its female pioneers.

Recently, new chapters have been written in K2′s climbing annals which have changed that dark history for women. Since 2004 five more women have reached the summit, and each survived her descent.