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K2 - The Queen of the Mountains

/ Climbing

The Italians were the first to reach the summit of K2 in 1954. But prior to this fact, many attempts had been made to conquer the hardest, the most demanding eight-thousander, the mountain sometimes claiming the highest toll. Still, K2 is almost every climber’s dream come true!


K2 is not the highest one there is, since with its 8611 metres, it comes 237 metres short of Everest. However, according to many climbers it is the hardest one to win with. It has become the last climb for the largest number of alpinists, which is why it is often called the “Killer Mountain”. It is also one of the last two eight thousand metre peaks that no man has set foot upon in the winter season.

K2, fot: portalgorski.pl

This mountain is full of difficulties and on the way up there are only a few spots suitable for bivouac. 

“- K2 is not a mountain which you ascend. Starting from 5200 m, you there is only a climb. There are very few spots where you can set just a single tent. There is virtually no flat space as wide as 2 square metres available” – commented a Polish alpinist, Adam Bielecki after his successful attempt of reaching the K2 summit during the 2012 summer season.

Furthermore, hiring high-altitude porters for K2 expeditions is a challenging task in its own right. That is why Everest has become more popular, especially among commercial expeditions. Not only does K2 require experience but also persistence. The difficulties of the climb distinguish K2 from any other summit reaching over 8 thousand metres. Still, according to the alpinists who have made the attempt, such values as the Brotherhood of the Rope are the same as on any other eight-thousander – says Steve Swenson in the “Alpinist”.

K2, fot: portalgorski.pl

For several dozen years the alpinists tried to reach the K2 summit. Each expedition had its own strategy based on its own climbing expertise. But K2 remained unmerciful and inaccessible. Perhaps that is why the history of its conquest is so fascinating.

The summit with no name

For some time K2 had no name. The one we know has no specific meaning and its origin is purely coincidental.

In 1856 a group of English topographers led by captain Thomas G. Montgomery was conducting research on measuring the height of the Karakoram peaks. When completing a cartography chart, they have marked all the peaks with the letter “K” for Karakoram and then marked each summit with successive numbers with the lowest number assigned to the peak lying furthest to the east. Afterwards these symbols were replaced by local names and so today K1 is Masherbrum, K4 is Gasherbrum II. However in case of K2 none of the suggested names settled in. First it was called Chogori, which simply means “the great mountain”. Attempts were made then to change its name to English “Mount Waugh” and “Mount Montgomerie”, but to no avail. Eventually, the mountain is still called K2 and quite possibly it will be this way.

fot: portalgorski.pl

The first attempts

The first expedition which operated in the region of K2 was led by captain Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen in 1861. Its goal was to chart the area. The calculations made by Austen estimated the height of the mountain at 8611 metres.

Austen’s expedition gave directions on how to reach the base of the mountain. It was not until 1892 did the first alpinists come to the region. The first expedition which main goal was to reach the summit of K2 was led by an Englishman, Oscar Eckenstein.

Eckenstein organised an international expedition recruiting the Austrians Heinrich Pfannl and Victor Wessely, a Swiss - dr Jules Jacht-Guillarmod, an Englishman - Georgie Knowles and a journalist (and a future father of the occult movement) Aleister Crowley. The team reached the height of 6600 m.

The endeavour was prepared in state-of-the-art style but had no chance of success, since the team had planned to operate without porters or guides. Its members were not aware of the fact that reaching a summit of an eight-thousander required setting interim camps and rigging the route. It turned out their experience from the Alps was not enough for the Himalayas.

K2, fot: portalgorski.pl

Abruzzi Spur

The next expedition was organised in 1909 by a renowned alpinist Luigi Amadeo di Savoia, the prince of Abruzzi. He invited the pioneers of winter climbing, mountain guides and porters, a doctor, photographers and a topographer. During this expedition the “Abruzzi Spur” was discovered, which would later become a one of the best routes to the summit.

On May the 25th 1909 the expedition set a camp at the base of the summit at 5033 m. The members tried to identify the best route to the top. During one of the reckon trips they managed to discover that the forth – counting from the west – spur of the eastern-southern ridge looked promising. From then on, this formation was called the Abruzzi Spur. Eventually it was passed 45 years later and it is now one of the “normal” K2 routes. Abruzzi’s expedition of 1909 has even relocated the base camp forward, under the spur and made few attempts to reach the summit. Unfortunately none was successful. The greatest height reached was 6000 metres.

American attempts

The next people to reach K2 were the Americans that were supposed to be led by Fritz Wiessner, a German climber, who had moved to USA and had already reached the summit of Nanga Parbat. Wiessner had planned the American expedition to K2 and in 1938 got the approval. Unfortunately, due to other obligations, he could not participate in the endeavour. The management of the expedition was passed on to an American, Charles Houston. Two years earlier Houston and Bill Tilman had completed the first successful climb to the summit of Nanga Devi (7817 m). 

The American team consisted of: Bob Bates, Dick Burdsall, Bill House and Paul Petzoldt. They were accompanied by six Sherpas. The patronage of the expedition was taken by the American Alpine Club.

On the 12th of June 1938, a base camp on Godwin Austen glacier was set. In spite of scouting for a better one, it seemed the best route to the top had already been found by the Italians. Unfortunately the climbers made a few strange decisions and unsuccessful attempts which rendered reaching the summit impossible. Bates and Houston reached the height of 7900 m and managed to get above the Abruzzi Spur. After that expedition Houston stated that K2 was the largest and hardest summit he had ever attempted to climb.

In the following year Wiessner and famous Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama from the second American Expedition reached the height of 8370 m. “– In 1939, setting tents on K2 at the heights above eight thousand metres with no additional oxygen supply, was way harder than on any other Himalayan or Karakoram peak“ wrote Steve Swenson in the “Alpinist”.

The above proved to be true not only in case of tents. This expedition took the lives of four people, mainly due to bad decisions and bad teamwork. There was not enough understanding. Each remaining member of the 1939 expedition related the story differently. “None of the historians could comprehend the relations between Wiessner and his teammates. But each one of them was capable of picturing how a conflict could arise between a driven, strong, authoritative leader and partners who were not technically, physically and psychically fit enough to face the challenges of K2“ - wrote Swenson.

Bombarded by critics and media, Wiessner withdrew from his plan of making yet one more attack in 1941. However in his times, he was regarded as top-of-the-tier specialist, since he had almost reached the summit of K2, not to mention the lack of oxygen and minimal support from other climbers. Then the second world war broke out limiting any further attempts on K2.

K2, fot: portalgorski.pl

After the II world war

The Americans came back under the walls of K2 in 1953. But before that, a 39-year old Houston had been working as a commander in Exeter, New Hampshire and doing the best he could to get back under K2.

Eventually a friend of his, the ambassador Avra Warren managed to convince the Pakistani government to grant Houston a K2 permit. After the expedition of 1939 this alpinist claimed “the team in mountaineering expeditions to be the critical factor of success”. That is why he tried to gather the best people and managed to do so in 1953. The team consisted of: Pete Schoening, Dee Molenaar, Bob Craig, George Bell and Art Gilkey.

The base camp was set at the foot of K2 – on 19th of June. From this spot on 8 alpinists and 6 porters from the Hunza tribe (due to political reasons the Sherpas could not participate in the expedition) started transporting packages and setting the camps. On July the 31st at the height of almost 7700 metres the tents of camp VII were set and the perfect condition of all the team members gave high hopes for reaching the summit which was only 3 days’ climb away. Unfortunately a break in the weather forced them to turn away from the summit.

The conquerors

The next (Italian) expedition of 1954 that was led by prof. Ardito Desio was set for climbing and scientific reasons. It tried to accumulate the experience of all teams that preceded it in effort to reach the peak of K2. The leader, along with Riccardo Cassin, spent an autumn of 1953 under the face of K2. There they met the retreating Americans.

A year on from that day, an Italian team set out to fight against K2 encumbered with the biggest, as far as all the previous expeditions were concerned, impedimenta weighing over 16-tons. Desio claimed that to be successful he needed a large team of people and many oxygen tanks. As he he wrote: “The team will be organised as if it were the army. Tight routine will turn out to be critical for anyone wanting to reach the summit.”

Over five hundred porters brought the food and equipment to base camp which during the whole expedition was supposed to host 11 climbers, a camera operator, five scientists, a doctor, a contact officer and eight high-altitude porters.

Many years later, a participant of that expedition related on how “every morning Desio had written down that day’s goal”. In spite of all this, having set out for the summit, the team did make decisions on their own. Having faced many dangers, they the peak was finally reached by a duet of Campagnoni-Lacedelli. “It was around six o’ clock in the afternoon when they had installed the flag, made some pictures and a movie.” – related Swenson in the “Alpinist”.

Almost immediately after the first successful climb to the summit of K2 in 1954, Houston wrote a letter to New York Times. In it, he congratulated the Italians but also voiced his regrets: “In my opinion, something in alpinism died once it has become such a complex, professional activity. I truly hope that in spite of the fact that all the giants have now found their match, there will be climbers who will organise expeditions out of the love for the climbing itself and not for the feeling of being the first human beings at the peak (…)”.

A break

Another, this time a German-American expedition of 1960 made it to 7470 metres climbing K2 through the Abruzzi Spur. Soon after this, a rising tension at the Pakistani borders forced its government to cut down the number of expeditions on the premises of Karakoram. In 1963, the whole region was closed for climbers. In 1965 the Indies and Pakistan were involved in the second conflict in the Kashmir region, which is why none set foot on K2 until 1975.

Matylda Młocka

Sabina Kogut

Adam Zozula


Source: K2: The Mountaineer’s Mountain, Steve Swenson, Alpinist Magazine.






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